N.T. Wright: Reason is important BUT . . .

I’m a rational person, BUT . . .

The Christian scholar N.T. Wright is very smart, yet he suggests in the video below that reason, standing alone, is inadequate to arriving at truth. He wants us to consider arriving at truth by reason plus the following:

  • scripture
  • tradition
  • experience

To my mind, this is smuggling in a great deal of baggage onto reason. If the claims that you make with regard to experience, tradition, or scripture cannot withstand the scrutiny of critical thinking (reason) I don’t see how these three things are of any assistance to arriving at truth. How, afterall, do you really support a claim—except by arbitrariness, blue smoke, and mirrors—without ultimately settling upon good reasons, logic, and evidence? I know that sounds humdrum, but, alas, that’s all critical thinking is. Nothing fancy.

Anyway, here’s what Wright has to say. What do you think? Is Wright being, well, reasonable?:

I’m sorry, but I can’t let this go. Why is reason “a shrunken set of tools”? And why is the insistence upon reason as the arbiter of truth made out to be an ideology: “rationalism”? What I’m hearing from Wright is rhetorical defamation absent good reasons to limit, well, reason.

And I notice at the end of the clip Wright insists that, when it comes to science, he’s happy not to go back to pre-Enlightenment days. He prefers to let reason—and nothing else—rule in the dentist’s chair, and he’s thankful for it. But what about the intellectual’s chair? Why, with regard to questions of metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and politics, does reason suddenly become inadequate to Wright’s ultimate purposes?

Doesn’t that tell you something?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to N.T. Wright: Reason is important BUT . . .

  1. andrewclunn says:

    I can see the use of tradition as providing the default position prior to contradicting evidence. I can even see experience functioning as the sort of “poor man’s evidence” barring rigorous scientific inquiry into a subject. It is however a mistake to regard scripture as being separate from tradition. Doing so stifles the evolution of tradition and stagnates culture, making it that much harder to progress, as you are then playing catch-up to others who have already been raised with a tradition that looks at scripture critically rather than with blind acceptance. This notion merely sets up a false stumbling block where an individual must spend a great amount of time overcoming a false premise, forcing a later reinvention of self.

    I’ll give him tradition and experience though, but not as compliments to reason (as he appears to be suggesting) but instead as stand in only when reasoned evidence based analysis is not possible.

  2. santitafarella says:


    I think that what you’ve said is fair. There is, of course, hive wisdom oftentimes in the way things settle out and get done “traditionally.” And hive wisdom may well prove much, much better than the average individual’s half-assed figurings out.

    But still, as you say, reason and evidences are the princes, wherever they can be applied.


  3. I think you are right insofar as reason is the pathway to knowledge about the workings of the world. I would only suggest that tradition, experience, and scripture are useful also–not for making literal truth claims about physical reality, but as tools for mythmaking and the human poetic imagination. However, I don’t think that is where N.T. Wright is going, since as far as I know he takes literally some of the mythical aspects of the Bible (I think that he thinks that Jesus was literally resuscitated from the dead, for example). This is where Wright goes off course. Scripture, tradition, and experience are useless for what Wright is trying to use them for, but they are not useless per se. Wright, unfortunately, is presenting a vision of religion that simply turns thinking people away from religious faith, because recognize how intellectually bankrupt Wright’s conception of faith really is.

  4. Heuristics says:

    The enlightenment often gets typecast into promoting reason but I like the well known enlightenment philosopher Hume’s quote on the matter:
    “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them”

    Reason then bends to our will, to our faith. I was rather surprised to find when studying cognition science that rationality in humans do not get a very high score, the study of the subject appears to be to figure out and map the different faults that humans do when they reason (biases, inexact solution methods etc). But I still retain some hope that objective criteria (logical rules) that have been very well studied for many years at the very least can give us an answer to what follows from what. I do hope that deep in most humans we have what tends to get called “goodness” that can act as a guide to pick the right paths and reason might be employed to keep it well and good but when one starts to think that perhaps that goodness is a goodness I don’t agree with, then things start to get a bit problematic (I find relativism weird).

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