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The rationality of faith

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 16 January 2008


I have always been a snob when it comes to football. It seems to me that the tribalism exhibited by supporters was childish, a fragile attempt at identity and belonging.

I can appreciate how local identity can be transferred to a sporting team, most particularly in the case of Geelong which is more of a discreet community than countless suburbs that merge into each other. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss sport as unrelated to the larger questions of life. Behind the celebrity status, the besotted fans and the marketing there lies a system of rationality.

Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book Whose Justice? Which Rationality? tells us that rationality is always associated with a tradition in which common presuppositions are held. Indeed, he tells us that there can be no rational discussion unless those common presuppositions are present.

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There is no such thing as a rationality that stands on its own, independent of a tradition in which that rationality operates, in other words, rationality is not one thing, there are instead rationalities. The playing of football is sustained by a tradition that has a shared presupposition; it is good to win. This is the presupposition around which all of the different parts of the club orientate themselves.

My hunch is that the reason some people like football so much is that, apart from the silly reasons mentioned above, it represents a coherent rationality. There are reasons behind everything the club does and they are oriented to the one goal, to win. We love seeing this played out. We love discussing the merits of players and coaches and clubs, it is the very stuff of life. The fact that it is artificial and useless does not detract from the fact that practical reason is demonstrated at a high level.

Sport is not the only thing in our society that demonstrates such practice. Medicine is another example of a discipline being unified by a shared presupposition, that health is better than disease.

The practice of scientific research is another such discipline in which the participants learn the virtue of detachment from experimental results to the extent that negative results are taken as seriously as positive. The presupposition that scientists share is that nature may be understood if careful and disciplined investigation is carried out.

There are, of course many traditions of rationality maintained by university and technical education as well as those learned on the building site or on the farm. The fatal mistake made by those who initiated the so called “Age of Reason” was that they did not understand that reason can only exist in a tradition that shares common premises and is directed towards certain goals.

Instead, Descartes, and Locke after, him insisted that all such traditions were untrustworthy and must be discarded to be replaced by the isolated thinking self. They held that radical scepticism cleared the way for reason to take hold and produce certainty where before no certainty was possible. But in turning their back on traditions of reason they left it without presuppositions and without content. On inspection, the only clear and certain ideas that could be attained by the isolated self were mathematical.

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The effect of the autocratic epistemology advocated by Descartes and Locke was to destroy the shared presuppositions of communities and thus to remove the possibility for rational discussion.

The resulting void is called liberalism in which every man is his own orthodoxy. This move amounts to the fragmentation of human society in which justice is reduced to individual human rights; faith is reduced to spirituality;, action in life is reduced to lifestyle; and the operation of reason is reduced to serving material acquisition.

The reason that we continue to build multimillion dollar sporting complexes and we have not had a cathedral start in hundreds of years is that sport is seen as a working tradition of rationality and the Church is not.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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