The Way of Reason

Dear Reader,

In preparation for the upcoming Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival, I am reading through the chapter entitled “The Way of Reason” from Charlotte’s sixth book. This is the counterpart to the previous chapter, the Way of the Will (see this earlier post). These two things are tools which Charlotte believed we all have with which to order our lives.

But while reason is a wonderful tool, a great deal of this chapter is spent warning us that reason cannot be trusted. I would say that our sense of reason, like all the rest of our human natures, is fallen and corrupted by sin. Charlotte goes into great detail to tell us, men will use their reason to argue for opposite positions and they will also use it to justify their own very evil acts.

I have asked at times if and when and how we should teach our children “critical thinking.” Here Charlotte gives us at least a partial answer. Yes, we must take pains to make sure that our children understand this point– that reason can and will lead us astray. The way we do this is by showing them the weaknesses in others’ arguments. I have found a couple of things helpful in this regard. The first is Charlotte fourth volume, Ourselves, in which she explores and explains the kingdom of Mansoul which exists inside each of us. She again discusses reason in this volume as well as all the other faculties which pull upon us. I highly recommend reading this volume for yourself as well as going through it with your children once they are at least ten years old (older is fine too).

The second thing that has helped us see the downside of reason is simply to study history. With some initial awareness that one may use one’s reason falsely to justify bad ends, specific examples from the pages of history just seem to jump out at one.

Of course, our end goal would be to have our children look critically at their own lives and thoughts and to be able to honestly ask themselves “Is this really the right thing or do I only think it is because I want it to be?” But we begin by looking at other’s arguments first in the hopes that some day they will be able to apply, the same processes to their own thoughts.

But I do not think that we need a course on critical thinking to teach children all this. I think we only need to introduce the idea, perhaps through some story in which even children can see a character’s flawed, self-justifying reason, and then to occasionally revisit it when it arises naturally in the course of either our reading or our lives. Once one begins to think about such things, I think it becomes easier and easier to see the flaws in other’s arguments and to realize when a character (real or fictional) has allowed their reason to lead them astray.

Alongside this instruction in reason and its short-comings, I think we must also be careful to teach our children that there is absolute truth. It would be very easy to begin to see how each side in a debate uses reason to justify its own arguments and to begin to think that there really is no right or wrong. If we each only defend what we are already predisposed to think, can either of us really be right? Without any immovable standard, we quickly become relativistic thinking that since all arguments can be justified by human reason then no position can really be the one true or right one. That is why it is very important for us as Christians to have something solid to come back to and to measure ourselves and our arguments by. This thing is of course the Word of God.

My own first exposure to this idea was when as a grad student I was in Bible studies with Harvard Law students. Those guys could argue. But they were also young, newer Christians. So they were often wrong, but it was still really hard to out-argue them. That was when I first learned that they guy who seems to win the argument is nor always right. That is comforting for someone like me who is very bad at thinking on their feet (that is why I blog; here I have time to compose my thoughts; if you talked to me in person I probably wouldn’t get a coherent one out). But we must also be wary of going to the other extreme and saying, “Well, I don’t care what logic says, I feel this way is right.” Our feelings also are fallen and one could not even begin to count the number of ways people go astray while following their feelings. So it all comes back to this: whether we think we are being guided by our reason or our feelings, we must hold it all up to the Word of God and see if it can stand in that holy light.


6 responses to this post.

  1. I love your point about presenting absolute truth. Mathematics is one of few arenas in which one can apply logic with infallibility. Mathematics is a form of absolute truth. God created a world with natural and moral laws and mathematics is one kind of law. So, if the natural world has an absolute truth, does the moral world have an absolute truth, too? If so, what is its source?

    In the end, in terms of my faith, I cannot prove to a single person what I believe. My faith is strengthened, not by reason, but by the little things that I see God doing in my life. Not just blessing me, but just those little things that remind me He is here, beside me through the best and worst of times. I have found that focusing on what our Father is doing and seeking to go there is far more effective than trying to out-argue people smarter than I am.


    • Well said, Tammy. And I think people are rarely convinced by logical arguments anyway. Though we are told to have ready responses to those who ask us, Jesus said they will know us by our love for one another.


  2. Posted by carol on June 4, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    Powerful! I agree 100%!



  3. i read and appreciated your post, and just want you to know that i was here! 😉 thanks for thinking, posting and sharing… 🙂


  4. […] feelings like the rest of our human natures are fallen and capable of being easily led astray (see this post on reason being led astray too). We always need to judge ourselves and our experiences by the Word […]


  5. […] It is the second presupposition, that people act rationally, that is the big stumbling block for me. I just don’t think they do a lot of the time. On the one hand, we are far too easily swayed by our emotions which are themselves a complicated muddle. On the other, even when we do use our reason, it is a fallen faculty (along with the rest of our human natures) and as apt to lead us astray as to lead us rightly. The truth is people use their reason to justify whatever they want to do anyway and those decisions are not usually, if ever, based on logical evidence (see two earlier posts: CM on Reason and The Way od Reason). […]


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