My brother decided to take on the Pope’s recent speech by arguing–if it can be called that–that Christianity suffers (or almost suffers?) from the irrationality of Islam. Unfortunately, the ironies my brother points out seem grounded misunderstandings of the nature of Christianity. To quote Mark Olson, Jim’s interpretations seem “silly.” I certainly don’t agree with every claim of Mark’s, but his criticisms have kindly saved me the trouble.

The irony of my brother’s post, though, is this claim: “If Keith Plummer is right, and “theological convictions have undeniable practical outworkings,” then let us be glad that, at least at present, the Greeks are winning.” It is ironic because Paleiologos was presumably steeped in the particularly Platonic Christianity (broadly speaking, of course) of Orthodoxy, a tradition that particularly emphasizes the transcendence of God. While Platonism is immensely rational, it also contains mystical and mysterious elements.

It is my hunch that our theologizing should start with the doctrine of transcendence, and never leave it behind. God is wholly other, and His thoughts are not our thoughts. Transcendant thoughts, though, are not irrational thoughts.

I leave you, of course, with a fitting quote from Chesterton. He is responding to those in his day who would reject transcendence in favor of immanence:

If we want reform, we must adhere to orthodoxy: especially in this matter (so much disputed in the counsels of Mr. R. J. Campbell), the matter of insisting on the immanent or the transcendent deity. By insisting specially on the immanence of God we get introspection, self-isolation, quietism, social indifference — Tibet. By insisting specially on the transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure, righteous indignation — Christendom. Insisting that God is inside man, man is always inside himself. By insisting that God transcends man, man has transcended himself.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Short response posed as a question: if transcendent thoughts are “utterly other,” how is it possible to judge them “not irrational?”


  2. Jim,
    I’m at work, so I won’t answer in depth (or be able to look up and quote any writings), but I think this not a new question. The desert monastics wrote extensively on this matter I think. They were considering those thoughts and impulses which arise and how to discern the origin of those thoughts, that is whether inspired by Spirit or the demonic.

    The Hellenistically influenced early writers also make a distinction between reason/rational mind and the intellect, which includes more than just our reason. They make clear that we must reach toward God with our intellect and not with just our reason.

    I’d add that modern science or at least theoretical Physics and Mathematics is also a driven by intellect and not reason in much this way. Much of these fields today are drawn to an idea of Beauty in their field, which is not amenable to reason (which I would take as deductive or inductive processes). Gauge theories for example are beautiful. But I’d have to say that appreciation is more an artistic than rational judgement.


  3. Jim:

    Great question.


    Is Chesterton saying God is not immanent? I read the quote a few times and wasn’t sure.


  4. An answer to this question from an admitably dubitable source, Ken Wilbuer:

    There are two kinds of “not rational” thoughts: 1. A “pre-rational” thought, and 2. “A post-rational thought.”

    The dessert fathers’ attempts can be seen as attempts to distinguish between divine-madness, and, well, mad-madness.

    There is a difference between the stammering poetry of Dante’s last canto of Paradise and the stammering of a two-year old.


  5. A second suggestion: Perhaps the intellect is made to do more than ratiocination, a function many seem content to assume is its only function. Perhaps, what is different, but not wholly other: it is also made to see. Looking at the transcendent, while it may afford the intellect no easy way of explaining what it sees, may nourish the intellect as much as argumentation.

    In this way “trascendent” belief systems like Christianity and many others are defended against the, “Na-na you’re not making arguments any more” criqitue, but, of course, there is much to be done to distinguish high intellection and pre-intellectual garbage.


  6. […] Work and sickness have kept me away from blogging, and the discussion has consequently moved beyond me, but I thought I would offer a few reflections.  In his concise reply to my post, my brother asked this provocative question: “if transcendent thoughts are “utterly other,” how is it possible to judge them “not irrational?””   The question is beautifully framed, and difficult to answer.  Mark and Keith’s replies are, I think, spot on.  But, as Chesterton understood, there are thoughts that stop thought, and I think my brother has hit on one.  If the transcendant thoughts are not rational, then it seems any rational basis for judging anything is lost.  If the fundamental reality of the world is will, rather than reason, then all reason can be reduced to the irrational will that undergirds all. The end result is that the stopping point for any question will not be a rational stopping point, but rather an irrational power.  Because there is no Answer that will make sense of the universe, there can be no answers that will make sense of our experience. The ability to question well–to ask and hope for answers–depends upon a logos at the center of the universe.  The fact that we do question indicates that we are looking for answers that make sense–that rationally explain the reality.  The question itself, as with all questions, seems to point to the rational structure of the universe. That much is certainly tendentious and controversial (if even clear).  But why stop?  I’ll take the rejection of the question a step further.  The question of whether we are able to judge transcedant thoughts is, I think, a far less important question than whether we will accept the revelation and imminence of the transcendent.  My brother is right:  we must judge, but in doing so we judge ourselves.  As Jesus puts it, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned (judged), but whoever does not believe in him is condemned already, because he has not believed.”  (John 3:18).  Jesus, of course, comes into the world not to judge, but to save.  He says as much in John 12:47.  But we are consequently judged by his words:  “The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day” (John 12:49).  We are judged by virtue of our acceptance or rejection of the Incarnate Lord, nothing more. […]


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