Book Review – Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith

Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith.
Francis Beckwith. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. 225 pages. Paper.

For those who teach, those who work in the front offices of Christian higher education, and those who would assist congregations in the culture shifts, Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith by Francis Beckwith is now required reading. While we need to avoid strident alarmism about perils to religious liberty, we plainly have entered a cultural era where religion no longer gets a free pass. Says Beckwith:

Not only does it not look as if the hostilities that are endemic to the culture wars will soon abate, it is probably also safe to say that they will continue to increase. One reason for this is that one side sees itself and its advocates as the guardians of rationality while it views its adversaries as embracing non-rational delusions that deserve no greater constitutional protections or civil respect than other fanciful beliefs and private self-regarding hobbies (p. 9). 

The church (including particularly those in Christian higher education) now needs to refashion ways to present the credibility of religious reasoning, ethics, and practice. This book can help us do that. The writing is careful and sometime a bit technical but, with a little patience, it is quite readable and well worth the effort.

Beckwith, Professor of Church-State Studies at Baylor University, sets out an informed and documented case which refutes the assumption that the secular world is the province of reason and, therefore, religion is not rational. His concern is that professionals in the courts and in higher education may continue to embrace this misunderstanding in increasing numbers, and that their misapprehension about the very nature of rationality is a genuine threat to religious liberty. To make this case, he uses the work of John Rawls.

Though not without his critics, Rawls (who was not a lawyer but a moral philosopher) is the standard reference and starting place for discussing law and justice in a liberal democracy. For this reason, Taking Rites Seriously takes Rawls seriously on a central theme—“reasonable comprehensive doctrines”—while secular rationalists in government and universities who otherwise rely on Rawls do not. Reasonable comprehensive doctrines are those underlying convictions about life, choices, and behavior which people draw from religious, philosophical, and moral sources to inform and shape their participation in society. According to Rawls, such doctrines, in order to be reasonable, have these three features:

One is that a reasonable doctrine is an exercise in theoretical reason: it covers the major religious, philosophical, and moral aspects of human life in a more or less consistent manner. It organizes and characterizes recognized values so that they are compatible with one another and express an intelligible view of the world. Each doctrine will do this in ways that distinguish it from other doctrines, for example, by giving certain values a particular primacy and weight. In singling out which values to count as especially significant and how to balance them when they conflict, a reasonable comprehensive doctrine is also an exercise in practical reason. Both theoretical and practical reason (including, as appropriate, the rationale) are used together in its formulation. Finally, a third feature is that while a reasonable comprehensive view is not necessarily fixed and unchanging, it normally belongs to, or draws upon, a tradition of thought and doctrine. Although stable over time, and not subject to sudden and unexplained changes, it tends to evolve slowly in light of what, from its point of view, it sees as good and sufficient reasons (Rawls, Political Liberalism, p. 59).

Rather than excluding religious thought from the public square, Rawls plainly and essentially includes religious traditions. A key task of Christian education and especially Christian higher education, then, is to sustain the place and role of theological traditions in the civil realm, not allowing them to be marginalized.

After establishing the public space for rational argument by means of a religious tradition of reasonable comprehensive doctrines, Beckwith calmly and fairly analyzes such issues as prenatal and postnatal identity, science and religion, and same-sex marriage. To do this, he employs Aristotle’s four causes within the theological tradition of Thomism to demonstrate that empirical realism is not the sole possession of secular versions of rationality. Beckwith’s point is that all accounts of the world, including current versions of science or contemporary liberal democracy, rely on their own sets of perspectives (Rawls’ reasonable comprehensive doctrines) about reality, and that theological traditions do the same, as do various other philosophical traditions and moral traditions. Nobody gets to play a trump card or dismiss others from the table by stacking the rationality deck with their version of common sense or their philosophy of science.

Nevertheless, courts of law and courts of public opinion today tend (though not always) to view actions that include religious tradition and motivation as suspect. We have seen this in cases involving religious expression in public schools (Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971) and, more recently, in the gender and marriage disputes: if religion is part of one’s dissent, then the motive must be one of animosity (where animus is regarded as an illegitimate motive), and the dissent is unjustifiable.

Chapter Three offers a subtle and useful discussion of why religious motivation is a legitimate inclusion in rational justification. Beckwith explains that motive is integrally linked to one’s intended purposes, and that purposes are expressions of belief. An intellectual or legal position that, a priori, disallows any religious motive in policy or conduct is a position that constrains the expression of belief. And a rational (or at least Rawlsian) assessment of any position’s arguments that disallow motive (religious, philosophical, or ethical) exposes a serious problem with that position: it excludes the very beliefs inherently required in any reasonable comprehensive doctrine. (He doesn’t use it, but the appropriate expression here is, “Oops.”)  Beckwith further observes that such disallowance also runs contrary to the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and—interestingly—to the No Religious Test clause in Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.

Across his six content chapters, Beckwith offers several features that can be useful for our instruction or guidance. On pp. 35–36, he provides a discussion of rationality norms and a nine-point inventory of rationality characteristics that can assist students with distinguishing a faith that is commensurable with rationality from mere fideism.

Beckwith includes several thought experiments that help us reconsider disputed issues such as personhood: a coma patient regains consciousness after nine months, essential faculties intact, but with no previously stored memories of any kind (p. 116). Can we regard the newly conscious patient—very much like a prenatal or para-natal child—as a person?

In his chapter on Intelligent Design (ID), he uses Aristotle’s four kinds of causation (material, formal, efficient, and final) to reconsider certain ID arguments for God’s existence. Beckwith notes that ID arguments tend to rely on the material and efficient causes that belong to the narrow belief set of secular rationality as accessed through the sciences but neglect their implied (though presumed) formal and final causes. On closer examination, design arguments don’t need the assistance of science and its appropriately changing positions on material and efficient causes (p. 32, pp. 148–159). Beckwith notes that the courts and the academic community dismiss—as we should expect and agree—religious arguments and discourse when that discourse seeks justification through its own particular inference on research and theory which is not in concert with the current scientific consensus. His point is that because the current science paradigm will eventually change anyway, religious discourse must instead be the voice for formal and final causation addressed by the reasonable comprehensive doctrines of religion, philosophy, and ethics.

Taking Rites Seriously is not a simple read, but the time invested will assist us with understanding why many of our cultural clashes are, for the time being, intractable. “In court cases that concern more explicitly religious activities…judges [and secular academics] seem to make no effort to see the deeper, and perhaps legitimate, philosophical issues that give rise to these activities in the first place” (p. 213). The church has some work to do in prompting and assisting the courts and the academy with that effort.

Russ Moulds
Professor of Psychology
Concordia University, Nebraska
Editor, Issues in Christian Education


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