Parsifal on Ice

by Mary Taylor (reply to David Driscol's Once more with feeling)

from Signs of the Times, No. 31 - Oct 2008

Reason is an essential human faculty. It is not opposed to sensory and emotional faculties, but works with them. It needs to be prioritised in certain situations, such as discussion and debate.

David mentions two people with ambivalent attitudes to MCU. A priest cites MCU's support for rationalism as an obstacle to the appreciation of mystery, while a participant at last year's conference suggests people were prevented from exploring their feelings. I will argue both are mistaken about MCU's role.

MCU is a forum for discussion and debate. It is not a religion. Nor is it a religious denomination, a theological college, a philosophical movement, a self-help group, a spiritual therapy clinic or a social club. I could mention plenty of other things MCU is not, but you get the gist.

Let us look first at the priest's reported reference to MCU's 'upholding of rationalism'. MCU's website mentions searching, doubt, and openness to change, but specifies no philosophical persuasion, nor does MCU require one as a criterion of membership. What happens in discussion and debate? Discussion produces a variety of ideas; debate begins, and usually ends, with opposing viewpoints. It is of course to be expected that rational argument will prevail in a debating forum. But rational argument is not rationalism.

Rationalism has different meanings for different people, but MCU does not insist on any of them. Rationalism emphasises reason as a source of knowledge, but does not, except in extreme form, deny other sources of knowledge. Broadly, what rationalists claim is that some knowledge is derived through reason. In other words, there is more to knowledge than input from sense, emotion and authority. Some rationalists specify that all our beliefs ought to be grounded in, and capable of being stated in terms of, facts, principles, hypotheses and logical inferences. This approach can, though it need not, be interpreted as denying knowledge from non-rational sources.

The specific criticism refers to appreciation of mystery, and I agree that extreme rationalism may obstruct this. I say 'may', because the case is not clear. Someone might hold that appreciation of mystery has nothing to do with knowledge, and that there is therefore no conflict between rationalism and mystery. Another might view mystery as a potential source of knowledge, and a particular mystery as a hypothesis, ultimately expressible in rational terms when fully understood, but inexpressible for the foreseeable future. Extreme rationalists are just people whose philosophical viewpoint is at one end of a spectrum. They are happy to debate with people at the other end, as well as all those in the middle. Someone who prioritised mystery would be a valuable member, and a valuable contributor in this area of debate. And debate is what MCU is for. It is unlikely many members are extreme rationalists, for the same reason that few are extreme pacifists: both philosophical positions are practically untenable. But even if they were, they would be open to debate about their rationalism. As stated on the website: 'Genuine faith is committed to the search for truth, wherever it comes from'. I would ask this priest whether he is willing to seek truth wherever it comes from, even if that means talking to rationalists; but, to be fair, I do not think he is prejudiced against rationalists. I think he has simply misunderstood MCU's role. I hope he decides to become a member.

David's other example raises different issues, though the criticism is again unclear. I too thought there was an undercurrent of suppressed emotion at last year's conference. I thought I detected a certain amount of anger, not least among the pacifists. More expression of it would have invigorated the discussions, and perhaps more could have been done, by chairpersons and group leaders, to encourage controversy. I am not sure this is what the participant meant; but this type of emotional input would, arguably, be in keeping with MCU's status as a forum for discussion and debate. If on the other hand, this criticism relates to pastoral issues, I think it misses the point. The annual conference is the highlight of MCU's debating year, and the main opportunity to engage in, and with, critical scholarship. Although many clergy are members, their role in MCU is as individuals with ideas to contribute, not as priests or pastors.

David's own view is not entirely clear, and I am uneasy about his 'minds' and 'hearts' distinction. My impression is that he would prefer reason and emotion to be more intertwined. My own view is that reason, emotion and sensory input are all intertwined. Emotions are many and varied, and are barely separable from the senses. The aesthetic sense is often called an emotion, as is the religious sense, from which it is not clearly distinguishable. Although these faculties are mingled, we can usually choose which to emphasise. When solving a mathematical problem, we do not choose a number because we happen to feel good about that number today. We use our reasoning powers. Nor do we sit in the opera house calculating the ratio between stage performers and members of the orchestra, because here our aesthetic sense is uppermost. We are skilled in orienting ourselves appropriately for each situation. But the aesthetic sense (sometimes considered an emotion) is rarely far from the practice of mathematics, and can be powerfully present, as in Arthur Koestler's well-known account of his experience in a Spanish prison. Our appreciation of opera, predominantly sensory, also involves emotional, spatial and temporal cognition and critical judgement. Human faculties are capable of combining in mutually enriching formulations to enhance our experience.

Nor does reasoning deprive us of our mystery-perceiving ability. We can, potentially, use our reason, our ordinary senses and our 'third eye' alternately or simultaneously, without one cancelling the other out. Far from impeding it, reason is essential to the appreciation of religious mystery. Without the use of reason, we would be unable to recognise paradox. Reason's absence would trivialise major Christian concepts such as Trinity and Incarnation. On the other hand, use of reasoning powers alone would undermine and destroy our reception of these religious mysteries. To appreciate them we need a more skilful orientation technique than is required even for the opera. We need to hold and contemplate our reasoned disbelief, while, as it were, nailing it to the faith which is based on scripture and tradition. Christianity itself interweaves rationality with sensory/emotional input from narrative, image and ritual, imbues it with a moral message, and blends all in a harmonious but dynamic whole, choreographed majestically by tradition. A veritable Parsifal on ice.

We do not switch off our reasoning faculties when we enter an art gallery, though we may choose to suspend them for parts of the exhibition, and indeed some works may be designed to shock them into submission. The overall experience of such a work, however, is enhanced by awareness of this effect, thus the rational mind is necessary to the full appreciation of an artwork. Creating a work of art requires both sides of the brain, and so does appreciating one. Focusing more narrowly on worship, the religious/aesthetic sense comes into play when we experience awe during a church service; the same sense operates when we feel bored or annoyed during a service. Writing the liturgy is an artistic activity, and a good liturgy transmits religious mystery to all those present, provided they are receptive to it. I doubt whether the act of writing a liturgy could take place in the absence of reason, and its reception would be incomplete without the cognitive faculties which are an essential part of our humanity. Our reception of religious ceremonies, buildings, liturgies and doctrines requires a fine balancing act between reason and emotional/sensory input. But discussion and debate about religion is conducted with the reasoning faculties in the foreground. Debating religion is not the same thing as practising it.

Mary Taylor is a freelance writer on religious affairs. She lives in Belfast, N Ireland.