The Limits of Reason

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

There is a quote in this month’s Touchstones Journal that captured some of what has been on my mind lately and maybe yours as well. Ben Goldacre, a British physician, academic, and science writer who wrote the books Bad Science and Bad Pharma more than a decade ago, said, “You cannot reason people out of a position that they did not reason themselves into.”

I found that helpful to consider. 

Throwing facts at a person who was not influenced by facts or reason when coming to the position they’ve taken isn’t going to get them to change their mind. Doing that is only going to frustrate the situation.

We keep trying to use reason to get people to come to a logical conclusion based on facts. 

Reason has always been and likely always will be very important to who we are as UUs. Yet I believe what has been called “emotional intelligence” is just as important. It has to do with slowing down the rush to present facts long enough to recognize and address where and person is and why. And that takes emotional intelligence. 

When I was a director of Religious Education years ago in the same UU congregation where I would become the Associate Minister, there was a man who became very upset with me one Sunday morning.

I had, for several Sundays previously, been with the third and fourth grade Sunday School class who were making a church building out of a large cardboard box. The design of their building was up to them. No rules about it, just that they use the box. After they had it the way they wanted it, they then spent the next few Sundays decorating their church building inside and out. I let them know they could use whatever they wanted; whatever they thought or felt a church building should look like.

You have to know that this particular congregation was housed in a very post-modern structure. There were lots of bare concrete block walls, very large panes of glass, soaring wooden ceilings, and concrete floors. There was only one “religious” symbol in the entire sanctuary other than the chalice, and that was a very tall, abstract tapestry made of many different threads and colors. That piece hung on the wall behind the pulpit in between two very tall, very large glass panes. This was in north Florida, and if you were seated in the pews, you could see—on either side of that large, long tapestry—the tops of the trees in the wetland marsh, the sky, and often large birds, floating on the air currents. It was beautiful and inspiring. 

So, the Sunday came when the Time for All Ages was to be the children in the third and fourth grade class bringing their church building into the sanctuary to show it off.

They had decorated it both inside and out with angels, so many angels.

One of the many ardent humanists in the congregation confronted me after the service, demanding to know why I had allowed these children to use a religious symbol that we (he) didn’t believe in.

Of course, reason has always been and remains a cornerstone of UUism. We know that without reason, religion can become fanatical, fundamentalist, hypocritical, and intolerant. Think about school prayer, marriage defined as between a man and a woman, limits to a woman’s right to control her own body, religious intolerance, human rights abuses, anti-vaxxer positions, and on and on.

But reason alone isn’t enough to meet the other where they are. I said to that man that developmental science teaches that children at a certain age are moving through what researchers have termed as the “mythic” stage. They see things older children may not need to see anymore. These kids saw angels. It made sense to me. I saw birds. They saw angels.

Why was this such a big deal to this gentleman? I didn’t stop to find out. I tried to convince him that the science of child development shows that most young children grow out of the “mythic” stage. He saw me as teaching a dangerous world view. We pretty much avoided each other after that.

I freely admit I had not learned to shut off my rush to say my truth long enough to hear his truth.

There’s a story shared by Noah benShea about a character named Jacob the Baker. The story is called “The Reason for Religion Is Not Reason.”  

Jacob was known for scribbling his thoughts on bits of paper as he waited for the bread to rise. One day he decided to slip sayings into the loaves he was baking. After that, people started to come to him for wisdom and instruction.

One day a young woman became troubled by something Jacob had said. She asked him for clarification. “Jacob, did you say that what is holy has no beginning or end?”

Yes, said Jacob.

“That’s not possible,” said the woman.”

“It is possible because only the possible can be measured,” replied Jacob.

The young woman struggled to understand. She said, “Jacob, you aren’t making sense.”

To this, Jacob nodded his agreement. Then he placed his hands in front of the woman, covering her eyes, and said, “You see, reason explains the darkness, but it is not a light.”

From Noah benShea, Jacob the Baker, Ballantine (1990).

Reason provides explanations. Yet reason does not illuminate the spiritual path. Jacob is not the first or the last to understand that religion’s purpose isn’t reason, it is illumination. Wisdom is not the same as knowledge.

It is true that some who claim to be religious have had no use for reason at all, going so far as to say that reason is an enemy of faith, and a threat to spirituality and belief in the holy. 

My colleague the Rev. Sandra Fees says in one of her sermons, “…even some contemporary Unitarian Universalists have become … critical of rationality and reason. It has been blamed for a too-strong emphasis on individuality, criticized for squelching passion, joy, and reverence, and considered hostile to belief in God. It is not uncommon to hear contemporary Unitarian Universalists say that we spend too much time in our heads and not enough time on matters of the heart.”

It is not just some UUs; it is becoming more and more clear that we are as a society moving well past “The Age of Reason.” Yet, reason and rationality still explain the darkness. Reason—rationality—helps us to live better and it creates more justice. It is only when taken to an extreme that rationality flattens our experience and denies the ability, and the obligation we have, to use our emotional intelligence as well as reason. Taken to an extreme, rationality flattens out our experience and denies the richness of our emotions.

We can see the impact of extreme irrationality, of excess emotionality in the world as in mass murders, school shootings, abusive relationships. Irrationality in the name of religion also leads and has led to massive killings, wide-scale destruction, and genocide. In contemporary times as much as in earlier times, reason serves as an antidote for the irrationality, superstition, and fanaticism in this world. Unitarian historian Earl Morris Wilbur said, “We use reason in religion to help prevent fanaticism and to cast out superstition.”  

Perhaps the sight of angels inside a UU cardboard church seemed heretical.  

Reason is and has been a protection against fanaticism. Teaching children to think, to question, to explore, to experiment, to assess is so important and can lead to the exercise of freedom in matters of the spirit. We UUs embrace the search and welcome the hard questions… about God, human nature, the beginnings of life, and what may happen to us after we die. Sandra Fees says, “The use of reason elevates life and reminds us what’s in our best interest. It calls on us to be our better selves and to see a higher purpose. It pushes us to ask what works best, to evaluate “truth,” and to explore new ideas and new thoughts in freer and less censored way.”

And reason does create more justice as it supports the common good, creates equity, and helps to ensure human rights… challenging lies and oppressions.

Yet reason alone, in the sense of obvious facts, does not create relationships. In order to understand each other and allow for the kind of change that heals, emotional intelligence is required.

We must meet the other where they are. Tell me about the angels you see? Why does your church building need to have those?

Tell me why seeing angels inside the church is so wrong for you, why it is so dangerous for a child to see angels? Where is the hurt in your story? 

Learning emotional intelligence means that others will view you as empathetic, not fearful of being vulnerable and sharing your feelings, able to get along with people in many different situations. You can and do ask open-ended questions.

I heard a rural physician on the news the other day. His opinion was that mandates, legal and institutional requirements, were not going to change anyone’s mind about getting vaccinated. Only relationships such as with a known and trusted provider, like one’s medical professional, or with one’s religious professional or peers, would help change minds. He said you have to meet someone where they are, not drag them with facts to where you want them to be.  

I wish I could have a do-over for the many times I have been reactive, defensive, full of fear, rather than putting my emotions aside long enough to hear where the other person was. 

May we be reasonable and emotionally intelligent in building the beloved community.

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