11 March, 2010

Reason and the Limits of Her Whoredom

The troubling thing about great one-liners is that they take on a life of their own. Joe the Plumber quickly became an imaginary friend of John McCain's who had taken up in a shoebox under the latter's bed (so Saturday Night Live). "Reason, that whore," [WA 51.126.7] one of Luther's most famous quips, has also taken on a life of its own, haunting, as an imaginary friend, the recesses of the Lutheran mind, an invective turned as invective against "fideistic" Lutheranism. Sola fide, however, does not mean checking the hat of Reason in the narthex and it never did. To the contrary, it means, quite reasonably and on the basis of the clear words of Scripture, that salvation is appropriated to the individual through faith, not works. Reason becomes a whore only when, following her natural inclinations, she prostitutes herself out to the Law and reasons on the basis of the Law and the putative goodness of her master, the Old Adam, that she can and must do something to settle accounts before God's judgment. There she plays, and is, the harlot, dispossessing the soul of her spouse, Christ.

But as we have had occasion to point out elsewhere, Lutheran confessional theology reserves, with Scripture, a wide playing field for reason--for reason where she is Mistress, not madame. The following elegiac epigram was composed by Philipp Melanchthon on Book 7 of Plato's Republic which, as the epigram is entitled, is a "commendation of Dialectic."

Sermonis certas tradit Dialectica leges,

Quaque via poßis prendere vera, docet.

Ac velut in coenum incautus si forte viator

Labitur, atque udo polluit ora firmo:

Surgit, & immundis sordes detergit ocellis,

Abluit & turpi squalida membra luto:

Sic hebetes oculos acuit Dialectica mentis,

Lynceus ut videas lumina vera puer.

[Philippus Melanchthon, Epigrammatum libri sex, ed. Petrus Vincentius (Wittenberg: haeredes Johannis Cratonis, 1579), Liber Quartus, N2 43 recto et verso.]

Discourse’s sure regulations within Dialectic discovered

Teach you the road on which you pow’r upon truth may lay claim.

Just as the footman, unheeding, perchance may stumble in puddles,

Visage and face with the damp earth and its filth befoul:

He then arises and scrubs from his eyes, unclean, their foulness,

Washing that unsightly sludge, cleansing his aspect of filth:

So, just so, Dialectic can sharpen the mind’s blunt vision

That, like Lynceus, you, too, with acuity, see!

[Trans. J.S. Bruss © 2010.]

Sometimes things aren't what they seem, and sometimes nice girls dress in provocative clothing (is it pressing too far to mention Dostoyevsky's Sofia Semyonovna Marmeladova?). The God who communicates to humans through His Word, who inscripturates Himself in human language, does that because He has given the capacity to reason. Just let reason be--and remain--modest, Mistress of her realm, not madame in a street where she has no business.


Steve Gehrke said...

I really liked this post (including the Joe the Plumber skit). To stay with your analogy though, when is the skirt too short? That's always my problem, with my reason (and my daughter). The extremes are easy to identify, but determining the appropriate balance is where the difficulty lies.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how much control we can hope to attain over this whore. Perhaps when reason appears to be most submissive and proper she is actually at her most dangerous, quietly poisoning her master.

I am not going to pretend that I am unbiased, I believe Luther had a better understanding of how unpredicatable and wily reason is (and other idolatries) than Melanchthon. Luther tells reason to go to hell from whence she came when she pops her head into the unbelievability of God's work with man. And I think he is right. There is no reforming of this old hag--she needs to be killed and resurrected.

As far as I know, Luther does not use the ubiquitous master/servant distinction concerning reason. At the same time reason is practically divine or utterly diabolical depending on whether it was in accord with God's Word and institution. By God's grace she may be sanctified, but not until the general resurrection of the dead should she be trusted.

Jon Bruss said...

Dear Anonymous, it's a matter of the will, as it is in Paul and in Augustine, and Luther. Reason's whoredom is an unfortunate consequence of her having bumped into Mr. Will[iams], who, since the Fall into Sin, has been the Pimp in the 'hood. Just as he roams the neighborhood in his Cadillac to maintain control over all his girls, so does madamoiselle reason fall under his control. She can't help it. The "urge" to succumb to the Law never arises from her, it arises, under force, from her Pimp, the Will (aka Mr. Will[iams]). So I think I concur with both Philipp and the Good Doctor when I suggest that Reason does quite well in her own realm, but terribly when she's driven by the Will at the corner of North and 14th.


Anonymous said...

You are right. Language expressing experience, the essence of reason, is a very good thing.

I suppose my question about control stems from the judgments that are made about reason. This judgement business may be what you are understanding as the will (and quite possibly with a better understanding than me). Here are the questions. What is/are her realm(s) and what are her capabilities? Starting with the latter, her capabilities, reason seems to be condemned to a perpetual misunderstanding with herself. Pascal says there is no dogma that is immune to skepticism, but skepticism brought to its end is irrational. Reason chastizes the Poet and the dogmatist, those who take delight in assertions. That's her job, and she seems to like working overtime. At the end of the day she doesn't seem to be left with much.

As far as realms are concerned, Luther understood that there is more than one dimension to this world, something that seems to be long-gone (and perhaps was never really that popular). In the realm of this world reason does somewhat well (but Luther regularly emphasizes its deficiency), but regardless it is the best thing we have. However, when it came to the realm of the gospel Luther was an utter, unrepentant fideist. He was willing to be put on the same level as the infant in this realm--there are no preconditions to the giving of gifts. Here retarded people are on the same level as the most eloquent and educated. Here God is not a respecter of persons.

That sinful people are constantly confusing the two kingdoms, making idols of their mental quickness, good legs, or thoroughbred horses, is the root of reason's misunderstanding with herself. If there is anyone who thinks that he can insulate himself from idolatry by making a distinction between ruling and being ruled has not experienced the power of sin. Does not the alcoholic always say that he can stop whenever he wants? Such is the power of experience (and experience turned into language) and in comparison with the power of those things not seen it looks ridiculously feeble.

It seems that often people want to make Luther into some kind of a moderate when it comes to reason, but from my reading of him he is extreme. This, no doubt, is from his understanding of man and his fallen nature as you point out.

For what it's worth...

Finally, I didn't have an account so I didn't sign in, and I didn't sign my post. This is Mike Holmen, your old student. Jana says hi, by the way. Thanks for the great posts. You remember my promise about being a janitor, right? Please greet your wife for us.

Happy Easter!