Rationality, Humility, and Spirituality In Christian Life | Dennis Hiebert

Rationality, Humility, and Spirituality In Christian Life

The following is an excerpt from Rationality, Humility, and Spirituality In Christian Life by Dennis Hiebert. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.

The following interdisciplinary analysis of contemporary Christian life is drawn primarily from the academic discipline of sociology, but secondarily also from psychology, philosophy, history, culture studies, religious studies, and biblical studies. It seeks to identify and elucidate certain selected aspects of contemporary Christian life that are problematic, and therefore constitute some of the challenges confronting it. The first aspect is the extreme and at times excessive rationality built into the cognitive and organizational structure of contemporary Christianity. The second is the need for Christians to embody an authentic attitude of humility, and in particular the intellectual humility that overbearing rationality makes less likely. The third is how Christians actually experience and live their faith, as more of an externally determined and regulated religiosity, or an internally differentiated and open spirituality. In light of the critique of rationality in Christian life, and the call for intellectual humility in Christians, what might vibrant Christian spirituality be and do at this point in history? Ultimately, the following analysis is a call to Christians to think critically about the structure, attitude, and experience of their personal and collective faith in connected and coherent ways that they may not have previously. Each of the structure of rationality, the attitude of humility, and the experience of spirituality will be elucidated in separate essays as follows.

Essay One: Rationality
The autonomous rationality of modernity has infected Christianity in ways that have profoundly shaped its current character and health. Interdisciplinary analysis reveals the shifting location and function of rationality in Christian faith, and explicates two social practices of rationality that, in their extreme, prove problematic. Both the practice of rationalization as illuminated by sociology as well as the practice of rationalism as illuminated by philosophy are shown to reduce Christian faith by diminishing and even denying its non-rational elements. It will be argued that just as Christianity is metaphysical and God is supernatural, so too Christian faith is meta-rational or super-rational. In matters of Christian faith, rationality makes a good servant but a bad master. Therefore, way must be made for more affective, narrative, and incarnational forms of Christian faith that is not anti-rational, but anti-rationalist.

Essay Two: Humility
Along with the polarization of public life in Western societies, recent work in ethics and epistemology as well as the rise of positive psychology have brought attention to issues of intellectual humility, a virtue most challenged and tested by religious convictions. Philosophical perspectives give rigorous definition to humility in general and intellectual humility in particular, as well as the opposing vice of intellectual arrogance. Social scientific perspectives reveal how intellectual humility correlates with other personal virtues, how it intersects with concepts of the self and identity, and how it functions in both micro relational dynamics and macro cultural dynamics. Religious studies explores the effects of intellectual humility at the intrapersonal, interpersonal, and cultural levels of religion. In response, the biblical call to humility will be reviewed, and the grounds for Christian intellectual humility considered. Christian practice of intellectual humility has been mixed, but is best evidenced by faith as open-minded trust rather than as correct belief.

Essay Three: Spirituality
The rapid rise in the number of persons who identify as religious “nones,” “somes,” “dones,” or simply “spiritual but not religious” is one manifestation of “the massive subjective turn of modern culture.” However, due to the elusive character of spirituality, the social sciences have struggled to define it as it is claimed and practiced both inside and outside religious traditions. Empirical research nevertheless shows a pronounced turn away from religiosity toward spirituality. Social scientific theories of cultural change provided by religious outsiders help explain that turn at the macro level, while contrasting Christian evaluations provided by religious insiders offer perspectives of what it signifies about Christian faith. The history of Christian spirituality can be traced through the texts, practices, and lifestyles promoted by the branches of Christianity, and the various views of spirituality within them. Though Christian spirituality is typically at its core a “personal relationship with God,” what that means remains uneven and open, especially in Christian mysticism.

I write as both a Christian and a sociologist, someone who practices both personal Christian faith and professional social scientific scholarship. Like many others in their own unique configuration, I am both a person of Christian faith and an observer of Christian faith.

Therefore, I bring to the analysis that follows what social scientists now differentiate as both emic and etic approaches to my subject matter. An emic approach is that of the “subjective,” local, religious insider, whereas an etic approach is that of the “objective,” universal, social scientific outsider. An emic approach depicts how reality is viewed and explained by “natives” within the social group being studied, whereas an etic approach depicts how outside observers define, categorize, understand, and explain the same group using different, scholarly, “non-native” terminology and explanations. An emic approach is first order, whereas an etic approach is second order. They may disagree occasionally about “what is really going on” in Christian life, but both accounts must be taken seriously, as awkward and even uncomfortable as that may be for some. And they will inevitably overlap and perhaps blur at times in the following pages, but I am convinced that both are necessary to understand and practice Christian life better.

So, to echo Bruce Cockburn, after well beyond forty years in the wilderness, I’ve got to take up my load and cover some ground before everything comes undone.

Forty years in the wilderness getting to know the beasts
Projected and reflected on the greatest and the least
Forty years of days and nights—angels hovering near
Kept me moving forward though the way was far from clear
And they said
Take up your load
Run south to the road
Turn to the setting sun
Sun going down
Got to cover some ground
Before everything comes undone

Bruce Cockburn, “Forty Years in the Wilderness,” Bone on Bone, 2017

Praise for Rationality, Humility, and Spirituality In Christian Life

“It is for those of us whose capacity for religious faith has been corroded by seemingly irrefutable materialist epistemologies that this superb little book has been written. The author offers an incisive analysis of and antidote to this peculiarly Western religious malaise in three extended essays, each elegantly written, persuasively argued, and profoundly relevant.”
Jonathan Bonk, Research Professor in Mission, Boston University

“Dennis Hiebert offers a thought-provoking analysis of post-Christendom that invites Christians to consider new ways of experiencing and expressing their faith personally and collectively.”
Michael Wilkinson, Professor of Sociology, Trinity Western University, Canada

About the Author

Dennis Hiebert

Dennis Hiebert, PhD, is Professor of Sociology and Department Head of Arts and Sciences at Providence University College in Canada. Author of numerous academic articles on the intersection of sociology and Christianity, he is also editor of the Journal of Sociology and Christianity, and past president of the Christian Sociological Association. His mission is to separate the purely Christian from the merely cultural as much as possible, while granting that it is never entirely possible. Dennis and his wife live in southern Manitoba and have two adult sons.


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