Anglican Reason

If you’ve read the blurb associated with Bartlett’s A Passionate Balance: The Anglican Tradition, you might have noticed something that I’ve so far neglected to mention, something that is entirely out of character for me to neglect:

Highlighting their complexity, fallibility, humility but also passion Bartlett suggests that Anglican spirituality and theology are not only resilient enough to survive the present malaise but have the potential to be a most effective ‘post-modern’ expression of the Christian faith (emphasis mine).


Richard Hooker by Wenceslaus Hollar.

Part of the reason I haven’t yet mentioned it is that explicit discussions of postmodernism are rarer in the book than the blurb suggests. The most detailed and extended discussion, however, comes at the beginning of “‘God-Given Reason’,” the book’s fifth chapter, concerning the Anglican cord’s third strand. Here Bartlett gives a history of reason in the Western tradition, from Elizabethan theologian Richard Hooker’s Thomist Christianity (“Reason is received as a gift from God within a God-shaped universe”) through Locke’s Enlightenment thinking (in which “what was believable was what was reasonable”) and modernist reason’s specialized disciplines, up to the postmodern moment:

But now, in the postmodern West, where society is emerging from the modernist world view, belief in the objectivity of the human mind has been severely criticised and confidence in science has been battered. We can add to this the swamping of human minds by a tidal wave of information and complexity, and also a recovery of the sense of people as whole beings, shaped by body and emotion and psyche as well as ‘pure’ thought. (146-148)

In a bit of characteristic understatement, Bartlett concludes, “In this context, the meaning and status of Reason is much more slippery” (148).

A person could be forgiven for suspecting that Bartlett’s appeals to postmodernism are his tactic to dodge reasoned arguments against Christianity. Let me break this down. Bartlett cites Nigel Voak’s writing: “Hooker thought there was a sharp distinction between what could be known by non-Christians or Christians. Voak describes these different categories as ‘mere natural reason’ and ‘divinely enhanced reason’” (149). He goes on to observe, “This feels deeply uncomfortable to us, partly because it smacks of Christian superiority and partly because it does not appear to be self-evidently true that Christians know more and more clearly than non-Christians” (ibid). Bartlett gives three approaches to addressing this problem. The first is that distinctions between Christian and non-Christian minds are problematic because all people are subject to sin and fallibility. The third is that Christians and non-Christians “just do see and understand the world very differently” (151); by this he seems to mean that Christian reasoning might be unconvincing to non-Christians because Christians start in a different place. The second approach, though, is what seems to me most like a cheat:

We might, secondly, want to transpose this into a discussion about the insight that comes from inhabiting a way of life: that there are clear insights which comes when a person lives within a particular pattern, which are not available in the same way to those who do not. We will revisit this when we discuss prayer and study. (150)

It seems like a cop-out much in the way that prayer experiments do: it evokes the circularity Bartlett wanted to avoid with Hooker’s “you have to be Christian in order to reason well about Christianity” argument. It makes dialogue impossible: a person must already be a committed Christian in order to assess Christianity! Moreover, it seems to ignore the committed orthopractical (“right-practicing”) Christians who eventually reason their way out of the faith.

However, I want to note a few things here. Bartlett isn’t the only one to reject the Enlightenment notion of reason as universally accessible; the excerpt above reminds me a lot of the social justice concept of lived experience. Here is one arbitrarily-chosen definition:

The term lived experience is used to describe the first-hand accounts and impressions of living as a member of a minority or oppressed group. When women talk about what it’s like to be female in a predominantly male geek community, they are describing their lived experiences. (“Lived Experience,” Geek Feminism Wiki)

In both cases, there is a kind of knowledge, understood to be legitimate, that only a person with a certain set of experiences can or is likely to hold. In Bartlett’s example, however, the particular experience is cultivated rather than, as in the social justice example, given according to circumstances of birth. Both examples are distinct from certain radically Enlightenment-style views of knowledge which expect people to hold beliefs or attitudes for reasons accessible to everyone through logic and/or replicable empirical work. As it happens, although I look askance at the apologist’s habit of blaming the Enlightenment for all modern ills, I do agree that knowledge, and even reason, rely much more on experience, embodiment, and social embeddedness than Enlightenment rationalism acknowledges, mostly because academic psychology is confirming that nominally postmodernist view.1 At any rate, for Bartlett, there can be and is a “distinctive Christian reason.”


Source: Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida at

There is a corollary to this: if reason is never disembodied and is therefore always contextual, such that Anglicans will have distinctively Anglican reason, then Anglican reason must be also be distinctive to different regions and conditions. In acknowledging this, Anglicanism is committed to the vernacular:

Whilst there are common disciplines of argument, as we noted right at the beginning of this chapter, what is reasonable in one culture may not count as reasonable in another. Hence, the long-standing Anglican commitment to taking local culture seriously. Anglicans believe in living with Christ in the vernacular. (159)

One of Bartlett’s anecdotes, a variation on a popular theme,2 will serve as an example of this. Bartlett invited a Tanzanian Anglican priest to speak in a theological college and this priest decided to tease the English students by describing the policy of the Anglican Church of Tanzania regarding polygamous converts: a convert with multiple wives does not need to divorce any of them, but he cannot hold offices in the church and he will be disciplined if he takes another wife. This shocked the students—both progressive and conservative—until the priest explained what happened to divorced wives in rural Tanzanian culture. (Bartlett, alas, doesn’t share what does happen to divorced wives, robbing the anecdote of some of its effect.)

In this summary I’ve omitted some interesting discussion about, for instance, Thomas Traherne, whose ecstatic writing on wheat fields and flies is exactly my sort of aesthetic, or about the possible historical origins of an Anglican commitment to vernacular. This post is certainly no replacement for the chapter. One of the things I omitted, in particular, is a concern that Bartlett leaves unresolved: there is a tension between the diversity produced by the vernacular and the unification required to maintain a common identity. This seems to be much the same tension between Enlightenment reason, which is identically accessible to everyone, and postmodern reason, which is embodied, situational, contextual. I do not know how to resolve this tension, but it is going to come up in a later post.

While Bartlett’s idea of the vernacular and the contextual does go some of the way to reconciling me to his idea of Anglican orthodoxy, I’m still not convinced that “distinctive [Anglican] reason” isn’t a bit of a cheat. Ultimately, I’m more comfortable thinking of reason remaining universal and the data it works on being contextual and experiential, but I recognize that this is something I need to think more (and, perhaps, live more) about.

1. It may be the case that such a view is more accurately extra-modern than postmodern, in that it derives from traditions which never passed through Western modernism in the first place and therefore are not structured in reaction against it, as postmodernism is.

2. Off the top of my head I remember it from Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and Madeleine L’Engle’s A House Like a Lotus.

Previous post about A Passionate Balance
Index for the Widespread Hunger series

5 thoughts on “Anglican Reason

  1. Pingback: A Widespread Hunger: Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series Index | Accidental Shelf-Browsing

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  3. Pingback: How Many Streams of Anglicanism? | Accidental Shelf-Browsing

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