Virtue Precedes Reason

Clouded Vision

I am reminded of a woman who scrubbed and scrubbed, frustrated with a smudge that wouldn’t wash off, not realizing that the dirt was on her glasses rather than on the window. She worked for hours in vain, when a simple rinse of her glasses would have cleared up the entire situation.

So it is with modern philosophy. Many carefully reasoned arguments are like so much scrubbing. Scholars spill pints of ink to justify a mountain they clearly see on the horizon, when in truth it’s just a bit of sand on their spectacles.

It takes humility for an intellectual to lay down his pen, and faith to believe that God heals the blind. Of course, the moment God washes the man’s glasses, he opens his eyes to find that faith has moved mountains.

As long as a man’s glasses are stained with dirt, he cannot see the world clearly. And as long as a man’s soul is darkened with unrepented sin, his view of the world will be similarly darkened. Reason cannot wash a soul any more than it can cleanse spectacles. It takes water to do that.

This is why we need clean eyes. The dirt in my eye doesn’t just make it difficult to see the speck in my brother’s eye. It also makes me unfit to correct flaws in my brother’s argument.

Virtue Precedes Reason

Faith is the foundation of reason, and virtue precedes coherent thinking. People hope for reason to lead them to God, when in reality it works quite the other way around.

Reason is valuable and useful, a gift from God. It is good for a man to use reason. But reason only helps us if we use it reasonably. We put ourselves in danger if we use it at the wrong time, or in the wrong way.

This is why I am skeptical about people who place great faith in “natural law” and “public truth” as reasonable foundations for rational inquiry about God and ultimate Truth.

I am astounded that John Locke said, “In arriving at truth the individual is self-sufficient in himself there is no need for any special kind of grace and one can rely on the abilities given to him in creation by a benevolent deity.”

I am even more astounded when I meet Christians who agree with him. There are those who see no necessary connection between a life of virtue and the ability to form a coherent argument. A person outside the Church cannot see clearly enough to identify the correct first principles for a reasonable argument. And even if a person is inside the Church, his spiritual eyes (and thus his reasoning abilities) are darkened by any remaining sin which he is not yet repenting of.

The horizon may be flat as can be, but sand on the viewer’s glasses will give the appearance of rocky crags. The window may be clear as ever, but dirt on the woman’s glasses will darken her view of it. There may be great things to be seen in the workings of nature, and a man’s mind may have a great potential to use reason, but as long as that mind is darkened by sin, a man can never see nature clearly, and he can never reason adequately.

Walking Trees

At this point, the careful observer might be tempted to give up hope. After all, even after walking with God for years, what man on this earth is completely free from sin? If the presence of sin always clouds reason, and all men have sin, then shall we give up on reason altogether? Is rational inquiry altogether hopeless?

In the Gospels we read of a particular blind man, healed by Jesus. At first, the man is able to see nothing. All is darkness. Then Jesus spits on his eyes, and lays his hands on him. The man partially regains his sight, saying, “I see men like trees, walking.” Then Jesus lays his hands on the man a second time, and the man’s sight is fully restored.

I believe Christ heals man’s reasoning in a similar way. At first, a man’s vision is completely darkened. He sees nothing. He doesn’t come to Christ because he sees Him. Rather, Christ touches him first, and that is the reason why he can see. But his vision is still blurry. His reasoning abilities are still fuzzy. He is now able to see men, but he is still not able to give them an eye exam.

Many of us are still at this point, waiting for Jesus to touch us a second time.

Thus we begin to reason rightly, but we do so clumsily. We still see men as if they were trees. Unfortunately, at this point, many people place too much faith in their own reasoning abilities, thinking they have acquired evidence that men do, in fact, have roots and leaves.

This is why we should use reason very tentatively, and with great humility. Indeed, as Jesus continues to touch us, and as we continue to repent of our sins, the picture will grow clearer and clearer, until we can truly see other people as they are, and see the world as it is.

Eventually, we will be able to see that trees are trees, and that people are people, and we will clearly know the difference.

But we do not reach that point through a long chain of reasoning. We reach that point through knowledge of God, virtuous living, and continuous repentance. Then, and only then, will we be able to reason clearly and truly.

Thus, a man who loves reason is necessarily a man who walks with God, and practices virtue. A man who loves reason must be in the Church, and actively follow the Church’s teachings. Without faith and virtue, there can be no true reason, for faith and virtue necessarily come first.

Public Truth vs. Public Blindness

As mentioned earlier, there are many intellectuals who claim the existence of “public truth”, which is equally available for all. There are supposedly areas of knowledge which are clearly visible to all men, and can serve as a common ground for rational inquiry.

Though it has been demonstrated that this view is largely misguided, there is at least one sense in which the concept of “Public Truth” is actually valid and useful. There is one key piece of information which is truly available to all, and it serves as a helpful starting point. If we are honest with ourselves, we all know that we are blind.

The blind man called out for Christ’s help, not because he was able to see Jesus, but precisely because he wasn’t able to see Him. He didn’t call on Jesus because he had seen everything Jesus had done. He called on Jesus because he hadn’t seen anything at all. He acknowledged his blindness, and in humility he asked God for help.

Using “Public Truth” and “Natural Law”, it is not possible for an unillumined man to use pure reason to arrive at accurate knowledge of God and the Christian Faith. He may stumble over true statements here and there, but his reasoning process as a whole will always be riddled with error.

Even a Christian man is severely limited in his ability to reason, if he holds onto sin and refuses to repent of it. He may see “men like trees, walking,” but his vision won’t get any clearer until he begins living a life of repentance, actively practicing a life of virtue. A man preoccupied with sinful pleasures cannot use reason correctly.

These men cannot rightly use “Public Truth” or “Natural Law” to pursue rational inquiry.

But either man can humble himself and acknowledge his blindness, asking God for healing.

And this is why many men never learn to reason correctly. They do not learn, because they are not willing to humble themselves. They refuse to believe that they have blindness which makes them incapable of coherent thought. They stubbornly claim that their eyes are fine, and they protest that nothing is wrong with their sight.

In the ninth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may be made blind.”

Then some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these words, and said to Him, “Are we blind also?”

Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains.

 

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About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
This entry was posted in Christian Education, Defending the Faith, Humility, John 9, Mark 8:22-26, Pride, Repentance, Scripture Interpretation, Spiritual Living. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Virtue Precedes Reason

  1. That is beautiful. And convicting. Oh God have mercy on me and heal my blindness and ignorance!

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