At its heart, my book, The Mustard Seed, is a philosophical debate expressed through the medium of action – a vivid and emotionally-gripping contest between three unique life philosophies – first: the emotional, self-sacrificing religion of Mark, second: the instinctive, narcissistic nihilism of Troy, and finally: the rational, self-interested, and humble faith of Heather Manning (later termed “spiritual rationalism”).
I think people have a good sense of what Mark and Troy represent – either because they know people who fit neatly inside those representations, or perhaps because they recognize those qualities inside themselves (to varying degrees). But Heather’s life philosophy is quite rare, and as far as I know, never been publicly defended. The best way to describe “spiritual rationalism” is to read The Mustard Seed (especially, Chapter 9), but for those who wish to read the Cliffs Notes version, here it is. “Spiritual rationalism” in 10 easy steps…
1) Spiritualism rationalism begins with the premise that Reality exists, and it exists independent of our personal thoughts or feelings. In other words, there is a “there” out there, which we can perceive with our 5 senses, and not an illusion that we can choose to ignore or manipulate based on our own whims.
At first, this doesn’t seem like a very controversial idea, but in fact, the 2 main thought systems of the modern era (traditional religion and postmodern nihilism) reject that idea. According to traditional religion, God is a very active puppetmaster in human affairs and He suspends the very laws of nature to accommodate requests ranging from the major (winning a war) to the minor (winning a college football game). After all, God’s powers are spelled out in Revelation, and Revelation is the final word.
On the other end of the spectrum, according to postmodernism, Reality is an illusion, our minds are feeble, our senses are futile, and we can never truly be sure of anything. This is the conventional wisdom across most university campuses, and is the view of most “educated people” today.
However, I strongly resist these opinions – and I feel no need to explain it further than a single analogy: Imagine that you and I are in a room with a table. We see the table with our eyes. We touch it with our fingers. We smell it with our nose. If we wish, we can even taste it. Now, if I suddenly ran towards that table, I will trip and fall down– even if I prayed for the table to disappear. If you ran toward the table, the same thing would happen to you. The consequences are always the same. There is a “Reality” out there whether we like it or not.
2) If Reality exists, then reason – and only reason – is the faculty to discover, interpret, and master it. Reason is the highest domain of the mind – focused purely on facts, unswayed by emotion, and in every moment, seeking a constant expansion of one’s knowledge. Reason is a complex and highly demanding tool – primarily because it forces us to be independent in thought, and responsible for our own judgments.
Again, at first glance, the value of reason doesn’t seem very controversial. However, the value of reason is regularly dismissed by both traditional religion and postmodernism. In the case of traditional religion, the key to mastering the world (specifically, God’s world, as revealed through Revelation [not the same thing as “Reality”] is through emotion – the emotional commitment to God, which is something you can “feel” deep inside you once your commitment is strong enough.
However, as Brian points out later in the book, this “feeling” is hard to acquire unless you’ve been raised with it (thanks to your parents). Even then, it can be very unreliable. For the rest of us, feelings change all the time. One minute, you’re on top of the world; the next minute you’re bleeding in a gutter. One minute, you’re at peace with all creation; the next minute you’re mourning the death of a close friend. The roller coaster of emotions can become overwhelming. Given enough time, they can persuade most people to adopt a safe and dreary agnosticism. Even worse, when the valleys of life are at their steepest and longest, those feelings can harden into atheism.
As for the postmodernists, they are equally antagonistic toward reason. After all, what use is reason when Reality itself is an illusion? Instead of reason, they rely on emotion – in this case, the basest instincts produced by man’s body. As Troy explains, “We – as human beings – are not made in the image of God. In fact, there is no God. Every religion is a fraud, and every code of morality is a deception. We are simply animals, and like all animals, our mission in life is simple: eat, shit, fuck, and procreate…We should follow the path of Nietzsche – silencing the voice of our minds, and pursuing pleasure for its own sake.”
Like so many others before him, Troy glorifies nihilism by draping it in the cloak of the rebel, and then makes it respectable by calling it the most “reliable” life philosophy. But the instincts of nihilism – just like feelings of Revelation – are inherently unreliable. Furthermore, they can be harnessed and improved through the focused power of the mind.
Therefore, what is reliable for mankind? Intelligence. Judgment. And above all: Reason.
3) According to reason, “rational self-interest” is the best ethical system for human beings; the best way to go live our lives on a moment-to-moment basis with all of the choices and decisions that come with it.
Why is “rational self-interest” the best system? Because Reality is a condition of separation. Every human being is separate from one another. No human mind can truly connect with another mind, at least in any meaningful sense of the word. And yet, strangely, the universe seems to work quite well this way – with each individual acting, well, as an individual. Think about it: The person who knows the most about you is you. The person who knows the most about your physical and emotional needs is you. The person who is most trustworthy to handle those needs, and to take care of those needs, is you. In a very real sense, the world works best when people put themselves first and foremost – and follow the path of rational self-interest.
This is obviously radically different from both religion and postmodernism. According to nearly all traditional religions, we should always put other people ahead of ourselves. We must sacrifice for others. This is not a natural concept for most people. By definition, sacrificing for others requires a sacrifice of our own minds – a surrender of our judgment and responsibility – for uncertain rewards. Inevitably, there are times when it is rational to deny the demands of others – especially when their values conflict with our own.
And besides, what would a “life of sacrifice” truly look life? Does it mean that we should constantly ask people what we can do for them, and then do it (like some “eager pleaser”)? Needless to say, no religion has provided a coherent answer to that question, so there is a unspoken understanding between the leaders and the led that we can live for ourselves (although we must feel guilty about it), and then do penance for our guilt at appropriate times and places (usually with money).
The ethics of postmodernism is equally detrimental, although less socially acceptable. Basically, for the postmodern nihilist, the idea of self-interest is quite appealing, but it must be “emotional self-interest” of one who follows their instincts. Of course, “emotional self-interest” eventually becomes an easy excuse for reckless narcissism – specifically, drug abuse, recreational sex, and shameless disregard for the needs of others. In time, the greatest victim of that behavior is the nihilist himself.
Bottom line: A life of “rational self-interest” is the healthiest, and dare I say, the only healthy form of existence.
4) So what is in our self-interest? I would argue that a self-interested life is a virtuous life, and there are three virtues which are critical: honesty, responsibility, and justice.
Honesty is the commitment to understand and act upon reality in all cases.
Responsibility is the appreciation that, in reality, each of us chooses our own actions, and therefore, we are ultimately accountable for the consequences of those actions.
Justice is the recognition that every person has the capacity to live honestly and responsibly. Every person is equal in that regard. Thus, all of humanity should be treated as fundamentally equal. This is the ‘golden rule’ in action (“do unto others as others would do unto you”).
These three values – honesty, responsibility, and justice – provide us with a sense of ownership over our lives, and the confidence to surmount any of life’s challenges.
When we choose to practice those values at all times, in all circumstances, we possess the final, all-encompassing virtue, which is loyalty to virtue itself. That is known as integrity.
We should strive for integrity because it benefits us, and not out of some abstract moral principle. Unfortunately, society continues to insist that morality consists of shedding the ego, and working exclusively for the benefit of others. It’s sad that people are forced to choose between self-interest and morality, because that is a false choice they should never have to make. Throughout history, the most important rules of ethics have been the least practiced because they were never wedded to the logic of self-interest.
5) The principle of reason can be applied to another area: faith.
In the last few decades, there has been a quiet revolution in the scientific community – especially in the areas of physics and biology – whereby a growing body of evidence leads to an inevitable and surprising conclusion: it is “rational” to believe in God, and even better, a personal God who has a loving interest in our lives.
Despite the hopes of millions of atheists who hoped that science would eventually destroy God, today there is more “reason” to believe in God than at any time in history. The collection of modern science is immense – especially in physics where a growing consensus is emerging that the universe was “fine-tuned” to support the creation of life. And if life was designed, then there must be a Designer.
New discoveries in biology are also helping the cause – specifically, as we unlock the mysteries of DNA, which is essentially a digital code (and code is always the result of a mental progress).
The increased ability of doctors and hospitals to resuscitate people who were clinically dead for 20 or 30 minutes or longer is also a marvelous development. The survivors usually describe a sudden sense of peace, moving through a ‘tunnel,’ being greeted by relatives who had passed away, and encountering a ‘Being of Light’ that emanates a powerful, unearthly love. Since there isn’t any physiological theory that can explain these “near-death experiences,” it seems reasonable to say that science has inadvertently stumbled on evidence for the soul.
The Mustard Seed covers some of the highlights of these scientific breakthroughs, but there are whole books – such as God: The Evidence and The Devil's Delusion - which go into much greater detail.
The bottom line: it is rational to believe in God and a greater purpose to life.
6) When a rational person achieves faith, they perceive a feeling of completeness, and the desire to share that completeness with others. By completing that desire, they are flooded with an unexpected feeling of “power” - the power to expand oneself – not in a physical sense, of course, but in a spiritual sense. In a very real way, you are leaving the physical limits of your body to recreate a part of yourself inside another person’s soul. That sense, that power, that desire is known as “love.”
Love is the language of God – inspiring us to craft the highest vision of ourselves, and to shape the world in that image. But love is not a sacrifice. Love is not a negation of “spiritual rationalism” – but rather an extension of that philosophy to its highest, and greatest purpose. True love is an expression of rational values, projected not inward, but outward into the world. This concept of love preserves the wholeness of the individual. After all, there is no ‘I love you’ without “I.” “I” comes first. Furthermore, love, like any rational value, must be evaluated based on its costs and benefits. In other words, love should be earned; it is not an entitlement for ungrateful people who may perceive it as weakness.
7) Reason is the only safe home for faith in the twenty-first century. The days of blind faith are over. It’s simply too vulnerable to the rapid increase in human knowledge, and the existential doubt that knowledge inevitably produces. But if faith is conjoined to reason, it has nothing to fear from a person’s intellectual advancement. This partnership is the only way to preserve an honest faith in a rapidly-changing world. Reason and faith are allies, and they’re most powerful when used in tandem, although I will say that reason must come first, now and always.
8) However, every now and then, we are confronted by acts of God – like the death of a young friend – where reason alone can provide no explanation. No amount of raw intelligence can decipher its meaning. During these troubling times, reason itself must be transcended and substituted with faith. Needless to say, this doesn’t mean that reason is pointless. Not at all. Reason must always come before faith, and even God Himself must be evaluated by the facts as we understand them. But ultimately, at the end of the process, we must put our faith in God – because we know, through reason, that God is worthy of that faith.
9) If we stay focused on those facts, our feelings of sadness and doubt will gradually melt away, and a new feeling will spring forth and reenergize us: a feeling of gratefulness.
We should be grateful to God because He has given us the gift of Life – the Life we have now, and the Life we have to come. We love life. Every day, when we wake up and get out of bed, we affirm the value of life. Every breath we take is our personal vote of confidence in God’s plan. After all, very few of us choose to end our lives. And why should we? We are all artists, and the world is our canvass. There are endless possibilities for acts of self-creation. We are what we choose to be. We love life. We protect it, we fight for it, and when it ends, (or at least seems to end) we mourn it. We should also be grateful for it.
We should be grateful because it’s an appropriate response to reality. God has been good to us – and we should honor that goodness.
10) If I had to summarize the message of “spiritual rationalism” into a single word, it would be “think.” I mean, really think. Think about everything! Especially about yourself! I know some people are afraid to think about their own lives. As human beings, we fear what we don’t understand, and all too often, what we understand least is ourselves. But the reality is, when we understand ourselves, we empower ourselves, and the feeling of self-empowerment is the greatest of all feelings.
The root of happiness is the conviction (supported by experience) that you are competent and morally entitled to succeed on this Earth. And you are.
**UPDATE, OCT. 20, 2009**
During the past few weeks, the Christian blogger "Novaseeker" has hosted a major discussion about "Spiritual Rationalism." Overall, I thought the debate between Novaseeker, myself, and his many commenters was stimulating and enjoyable. I've cut and pasted some of the highlights here.