When I was in doctoral work, I enjoyed taking courses from professors who smoked because they took longer breaks (our seminars met once per week, with a break about halfway through the session). This was the time when we got to know our classmates, which greatly enhanced class discussions.
One particular evening, a classmate sidled up to me and looked around as if to indicate that he had a secret to confide in me. “Gene,” he whispered, “I have heard that you are a Christian. Is that true?” I looked around, matching his opening gesture and leaning to whisper back, “Yes, I’m a Christian.” His eyes grew large and he said, “But honestly, you don’t seem mentally ill? I’m just shocked that you even admit that you are a Christian. I mean, you seem like a pretty bright guy.”
He was genuine in his inquiry, not hostile at all. His reaction was that of one who had learned that the moon was not, in fact, made of cheese. This was my third graduate degree and I was amply sure that his thoughts were the product of too much Freud (religion being a psychosis) fertilized with Marx (religion being an opiate) and not of a particular animus toward me whatsoever. In fact, I’d had a similar conversation with a professor about that same time.
I couldn’t help but think about that incident this week as I read two bits of news. First, in the Ninth Circuit’s ruling on California’s Proposition 8, the majority opinion ruled that the initiative failed the “rational basis standard,” meaning it was based on irrational thought, rooted, apparently, in religious irrationality in particular. Second, in a transcript of an exchange at Vanderbilt, the chief academic officer of the institution scolded students who wished to allow their religious faith to influence their decision-making:
Now let me give you another example, and this would affect all of you. I’m Catholic. What if my faith beliefs guided all of the decisions I make from day to day?[At this point, the crowd applauds the idea that people should live according to their faith.]
No they shouldn’t! No they shouldn’t! No they shouldn’t! No they shouldn’t! [Disagreement from crowd.] Well, I know you do, but I’m telling you that as a Catholic I am very comfortable using my best judgment as a person to make decisions. As a Catholic, if I held that life begins at conception, I’d have a very big problem with our hospital. Right? Would I not? . . . I would, but I don’t. . . . We don’t want to have personal religious views intrude on good decisionmaking on this campus. They can guide your personal conduct, but I’m not going to let my faith life intrude. We don’t want to have personal religious views intrude on good decision-making on this campus. They can guide your personal conduct, but I’m not going to let my faith life intrude.
The spirit of those views toward faith is the same spirit of my classmate, that faith and rationality are mutually exclusive terms. The gravity of the articulations of the view, however, is stunningly different. A classmate may look askance at me, but a federal appellate panel and an institution’s senior officer for intellectual pursuits have real teeth that can gobble up the rights of persons of faith (and not just Christians, I might add; such animus crosses all lines of belief). For those of us who are devotees of both history and literature, we recognize, with a shudder, this line of thinking starts with the ad hominem retort, “Oh yeah? Well, you’re crazy!” and ends by populating gulags (mental illness being a primary grounds for imprisonment by dictators) with candidates for sanity retraining (i.e., one’s conformity with the dictator’s views).
Persons of faith know that the only path to true reason is that of faith, for the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, and without that canon standard, we are left to our own devices to account for right and wrong. In the end, we choose whatever matches our covert desires to become tyrannical mini-gods. Without the external standard of revealed faith and knowledge, we are left to create yardsticks that are based on the various lengths of our own individual feet and such a lack of objective measurements leads to a world that is filled with chaotic and conflicting architecture.
This is why, as an educator, I assert the marvels of the Christian Intellectual Tradition, for I stand with the rationality of those multitudes who have gone before me, the great cloud of scholar-witnesses who have sounded the world with the tools of rational faith and found it to be perfectly reasonable. This is why it is no accident that abolition, Western science, modern medicine, and so many other marvelous developments arose with particular thunder in Christendom.
Persons of faith are not perfect. We all are, after all, human and I can provide a cornucopia of examples of individuals who are, as my country friends would term it, “nuttier than squirrel spit.” But those are individuals, not the Tradition as a whole. As many an observer has noted about many a tradition, we are unwise to generalize about the nature of groups from the behaviors of a few individuals. Such a pixelated view always distorts. No, we are not perfect, but we also are not irrational, and the chronological snobbery and ignorance necessary to make such a claim is utterly breathtaking.