Religion and its Rationality

Seven Stages of Immersed Religious Logic

Letter S ometimes, doubt prevents one getting into even the first stages of a religious tradition. A religion seems to have its own logic but not one that plugs into the rest of culture except on the wider culture's own terms. This prevents access to deep insights, and those rich insights may even be denied without ever getting near them. Of course there may be objective truth claims and these may forever provide their own barrier. They may do this through lack of access, or that if access is gained they still seem incredible as understanding deepens. Faith may still function as a path to be followed whether or not beliefs relate to wider truth beyond. Story rather than history, myth rather than science may still deliver calming, behavioural and moral results. If insight is gained, the truth claim may become realised from within. At an access level faith with doubt includes certain statements that can be followed on an "as if" basis. The internal rationality of faith goes through certain stages of deepening involving more and more of the individual. The stages here are suggestions of means of access and immersion into religious depth, with examples drawn from faith. Comparison is made with a book chapter by Adrian Thatcher (1993) but the use of a derived seven stages of immersed religious logic here goes far wider and the examples more broadly drawn.

  1. Receptivity
  2. Leap of (Initial) Faith
  3. Logic and Causality
  4. Visions,Hopes and Dreams
  5. Deep Understanding
  6. Contemplative
  7. Holism



Receptivity assists the first step of access to a faith. This means cutting out the prejudices and preformed opinions ahead of encountering the cultural construct of faith. It means being open to the possibility. It does not mean allowing a lot of religious mumbo jumbo to run over the individual. A parallel is with art. Many people dismiss modern and contemporary art. Instead, to be receptive, they might sit themselves in front of some. Some of this art will remain vacuous and pointless: bad ideas carried out not by the artists but those they commission to do the craftwork of their limited ideas. Other art works, however, may have an impact. Colours and patterns may impress in ways not expected. This may come about not just from sitting and seeing but also reading about the artist. In the same ways religious faith may impress. (Compare with Thatcher, 'Conation', 180-181)
There may need to be some receptivity to the Christian story in its possibility. There may need to be some sense of suck it to see the Buddhist orthopraxy. One should read the Quran. Cat Stevens did and became Yusuf Islam: his secular songs indicated receptivity. Perhaps Baha'u'llah is the latest manifestation of God, and one might be open minded to see if this makes any sense by its self presentation. It may be that some ideas make sense from different perspectives and that one can join the dots in a unique way. All the time one keeps and develops critical faculties (accepting or keeping open the basic doctrines of a faith). (Compare with Thatcher, 'Conation', 180-181)

Leap of (Initial) Faith

Secular rational argument itself has a priori conditions. All cognition involves an act of faith, a leaping in. There is the irreducible starting point before a launch into even a circular argument. The same can be more obviously done to get into a religious argument. Belief is suspended at the launch point before rationality kicks in. Of course, it may be that the argument within fails, and one drops out again. The failure may be from limited internal logic, or a check (even on its terms) with the outside world. Or perhaps the outside world's logic is overwhelming in power compared with the logic within. Nevertheless, in order to get in, there is a momentary suspension of disbelief. Furthermore, in order to make this small leap, there is a (perhaps temporary) level of personal commitment made. That commitment should not be binding. With it made for the launch, the logic of the faith position can be followed through with rigour. (Compare with Thatcher, 'Faith', 179-180.)
So a good example here might be to investigate resurrection, or the absolute character of the Quran, but this might be prevented by certain a priori assumptions such as dead people do not rise or groups of people cannot reconstruct infallible texts even if it was infallible in the first place when one person recited and remembered. Also the normal standards of neutral evidence may not seem to be available from an outsider's point of view. So instead one gets into the community's frame of mind to investigate its witness. Of course a result of this may well be that the kinds of claims made do not hold up. On the other hand, a finding can be that certain aspects make sense, even become likely, and that these aspects lead to outcomes on believers that relate to the substance of the claims. (Compare with Thatcher, 'Faith', 179-180.)
A possible conclusion is to accept parts of a package and not others, or lay the stress in some areas and not others. Some parts are not leapt into, and someparts are dropped. Unitarians and Quakers have done this most obviously, but all faith groups do, otherwise they would never change, and would quickly become sectarian.

Logic and Causality

There are many parallels between the narratives of religion and human stories. We should be careful about applying historical or scientific cause and effect types of logic to religious narratives even if presented in the language of history. Humans do not rigorously follow cause and effect. We often do things and then find the reasons. Furthermore, our autobiographical narratives - making sense of our lives - come afterwards and are not equivalent to motivations at the time. Religious narratives are sometimes like this. They make a sense afterwards but for theological or faith tradition reasons. There are raw materials to work with, including bits of history in parts, but they are weaved together in how they make sense to believers. Much gets invented, parts are conflated together, and the raw material is forged into a new if perhaps related original meaning. Ways of tackling this involve looking at the storytelling logic of the final narrative, and looking at the storytelling logic of original parts (themselves set in narrative culture). It is within the stories we can see causes and effects, particularly on the relationship between a community and its witness. In terms of theistic faith, there might be speculative reference to Godly reasons, or to given doctrines with causal claims. (Compare with Thatcher, 'Actions, Reasons and Causes', 177-179.)
A key area here is origin of the world stories. They are given in cause and effect terms and historical language. Yet to understand a narrative approach is taken: what is an origin story trying to say? Another example of this is construction of a communal tradition. Looking at Paul, the Gospel accounts and Acts, questions might be around the likely historical nuggets (a project of the Jesus Seminar at the Westar institute). Better still, for the full flavour, questions ask what the finished form is trying to say (the postliberal position that takes the texts as they are). The latter position can still tease out historical happenings, but is more interested in author motivations (and author has a human and even divine or supreme logical element). Another example is where some people are interested in the historical Buddha and try to separate the most reliable texts from later additions. Better still is taking the whole (of a particular tradition) and doing it because it has been successfully developed in community. Ultimately, however, this latter position is about the believing community continuing and relationship with the individual within.
Packages do change, however, with shifts in the community and what they regard as important, and through emphases by smaller groups and individuals. There is much selectivity and joining. Today, for some, narratives from different faiths and the secular are becoming interweaved. These may be due to greater awareness and particpation in varied traditions or because of different soteriological stances.

Visions, Hopes and Dreams

A great deal in religion seems implausible, but one way to tackle this is not just a leap of faith but a leap of the imagination. This is not beyond logic but it an immersion into the riches of the tale. What if something is taken as happening: how wonderful and awe inspiring it is (would be). Great art builds on an imaginative realisation of possibilities. Excitement is involved. There seems to be no limits. One gets into the religious stories just as one might get into the anticipatory tensions between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam D'Arcy in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. In terms of religion, the imagination also gets into prayer life, the imagination of relationship with the God. These imaginative excitements suggest something of what really matters and the better life, and are grounds for hope that we can achieve the more profound. (Compare with Thatcher, 'Envisionment', 181-182).
An example here is immersion and enjoyment of the great Hindu epic stories. We can follow the tales of Krishna advising Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita or the rescue of Rama by Hanuman the monkey god in the Ramayana. This is a fantastic world and people of the faith join in the celebratory days or make their home based shrines to their favourite God. The Gods become very real. Ganesh really can remove obstacles. Other examples include the many pilgrimages of faiths, whether it is the claims of activities of Abraham and Adam around the localities of the Hajj or the rising after death of Christ. Just as Muhammad travelled through the heavens (the mysterious Night Journey or Ascension of Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem through the seven heavens to the presence of God), so in a sense do we. Passionate prayer and devotion to icons and statues involve the emotions. Insights are to a world beyond and what matters, and that within the mundane life is something all the richer. Life is something to which we say Yes. (Compare with Thatcher, 'Envisionment', 181-182)

Deep Understanding

An argument against the person who picks and chooses is that they end up not really understanding significant aspects of any faith. Although one has doubts, the deeper one goes into a faith the more its connections realise themselves. The person who has followed the stories and engaged in religious activity will find the cooler, logical intellectual exercise assisted. Religion is like a thesaurus where the meaning of one part is supported and enriched by other parts, but across the whole symbolic range and not just words. (Compare with Thatcher, 'Insight', 182-183).
An example would be where the supernatural Jewishness of Jesus is realised more deeply over and above some moral even humanistic teacher. The dramas of the Gospels have been read, followed and absorbed, and certain patterns reveal themselves, as do the depths of the meanings the Gospel writers were trying to convey in their stories. Another example is arriving at the Buddhist philosophical realisation that samsara, the wheel of suffering, and nirvana, the end of suffering, are as one. If one desires nirvana, and it is an object of ending suffering, it is samsara itself, and if samsara is fully understood and accepted, it is as nirvana. This might be one explanation, but is it really understood? It can only be understood, surely, by the one who has studied deeper and deeper what the masters have written, accompanied by own thought and meditation. Shia study the Quran, Muhammad, and the Imams down the the hidden twelfth. In devotion they come into a deeper understanding of ever unfolding meanings. There are the rabbis of Judaism, whose forebears produced the Halachah and Aggadah, adding to the insights of the Tanakh, who still debate and debate and where the meanings are teased out more and more. Jews understand something more of suffering and the escape from bondage by re-enacting through the Seder meal and following the Passover observances. Experience lives again within deep understanding, and there is a sense in which after a great deal of learning effort this knowledge comes to us rather than we generate it.
Agains this some have lived their faith in another culture and in close proximity to another religion or more. They find the depth of their own is enhanced by comparison with others that they learn ever more about. This comparative method is a valid form of deep understanding.


This method of receiving knowledge leads directly to contemplative understanding. The effort of deep learning spills over into a quieter, absorption into layers of consciousness that build with contemplation. This is a gnosis, a deep happiness with what is gained. Most knowledge is the effort of the knower, and focusses around the limited realm of words (although other symbol systems work too, like art and music). This detailed knowledge suddenly realises its ignorance: it stands at the cusp of unknowing. This means that mystery comes in to play, and an acute awareness of what must be unknown allows a quieter appreciation of place and space. This is not about what may become known, but what is in the realm of the always hidden, and yet this realisation is also knowledge itself. Mystery offers its insight, and there is little to nothing that can be said further. Revelation has its important place here. It may simply come one day; even with preparation it seems to choose the quiet moment. Clearly this contemplative understanding exists in the area of prayer and meditation and also dance. (Compare with Thatcher, 'Contemplation', 183-184)
As regards its application to religious rationality, an example is where the Buddha or Buddhist masters had nothing to say on matters. This may have been because the discussion was futile, but can be because this was only to be understood when a certain level was achieved. Similar understanding is achieved in prayer when attached to something like Stations of the Cross. A person in this faith almost enters into the suffering and profundity of the final journey. It is also the religious ecstasy of the whirling dervish in Sufi Islam or the Chassidic Jew engaged in ecstatic dance. Round and round the experience of the divine comes in. It is also where the Quaker sits in silence, hearing those into whom the spirit has moved, and lets be. And yet Paul can walk to Damascus and Muhammad can sit in his cave and realise a great deal can and must be said. Revelation demands. Mystery has broken through, and yet the revelation respects the mystery in its choice of words and practices. Revelation can even be about the nothing.


Once the mystery is understood as mystery, and revelation makes its huge impact, coming in the silence and the depth of prayer and meditation, there is a kind of realisation of all. This is a total spirituality, a holism. Well beyond any secular rationality, one "sees" so that everything combines together. It is very difficult to communicate this to anyone who has not experienced it. They can get the surface words and practices, but they have to follow the way. The best approach to such speech may be silence, or to suggest the simplest task has the deepest meaning. People here develop a joy that is assured. The rationality is deep to the point where the person does not just understand paradox but is within it and completely at equilibrium. This is where, in terms of a scientific equivalent, the very smallest and its strange rules of the subatomic meets the very largest and its warping of space time regularities. Yet to be equivalent the scientist would have to live within the mathematical beauty. Has any scientist ever discovered this point, if it is there, and has any ever lived it? (Compare with Thatcher, 'Contemplation', 184-185)
This is where the Buddhist achieves enlightenment, and knows this. It is where the Buddha was transformed. It is the risen Christ and the transformed body. It is Muhammad able to recite and in visions. It is Krishna who opens his mouth and reveals the whole universe. The ordinary person glimpses wholeness at moments when the faith held is realised during the walk in the country and light comes through the clouds. The most profound uses the most simple, and the most simple is the most profound. There is a singularity of knowing, at a point where there is no further point because it is every point.


Adrian Thatcher's chapter is focussed upon the resurrection issue (getting into its logic) but the categories imply further potential (thus rearranged and re-examined here).

Thatcher, A. (1993), 'Resurrection and Rationality' in Avis, P. (ed.) (1993), The Resurrection of Jesus Christ, London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 171-186.


Adrian Worsfold