Come Home To Reason

Edward C. Sullivan served in the New York State Assembly from 1977 to 2002.
Monday, July 8th, 2013

For the last nine years, New York Civic has published articles about New York City and State government and politics. From time to time, we send our readers articles that others have written which we believe have particular meaning and value for New Yorkers.

Today, we submit to you, “Come Home to Reason,” written by Edward C. Sullivan, an intellectual who served 22 years in the New York state legislature, chairing the Assembly Committee on Higher Education until he retired voluntarily in 2009.

We think Mr. Sullivan’s article is a valuable contribution to the public dialogue. We hope that you think about what he is saying.

As long as our legislature includes people like Ed Sullivan, hope will remain.

When life’s troubles begin to multiply, and it gets harder to move forward, or to move at all, it is a natural instinct for people to head for home, to get back to things that are familiar and comforting, to re-establish connections with the old time religion and with the family, to simplify tasks.

This impulse occurs in societies all over the world. It results in clans tightening up as people weather life’s storms together. People work themselves into believing, once survival is secured, that the clan is favored by God, that something in the blood, in the genes, makes them more capable under duress, and that, when you get right down to it, this clan is superior to other clans, more capable of leadership, born to lead.

A feeling of clan superiority can be very comforting to societies where everyone is more or less of the same genes, with the same skin color, the same hair, etc.

But what do we do here in the United States of America, where we come from different gene pools, where everyone is not of the same ancestry? What holds us together when times are tough? What makes us equal to or better than other societies over the long haul? If it’s not our common blood, what is it?

Reason, I suggest.

Reason has been the faith of our fathers ever since our country was founded near the end of the 18th century. We were born during the Age of Enlightenment, which flourished in the 17th and 18th centuries. From a governmental point of view, The Age Of Enlightenment, sometimes called the Age of Reason, culminated in the drawing up of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution of the United States, in 1781.

The dictates of religion were put aside for the structures of rational thought. “A decent respect for the opinions of mankind requires that [we] should set forth the causes” for the Revolution, said Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. The reasons for the revolt were paramount in his mind. In the Constitution, the machinery of government was laid out in a detailed blueprint, but a provision for amendment was attached, wisely inviting continued re-examination and revision of the document.

Compare these instruments with the Bible or the Koran, where no such participation is invited or is tolerated. Those texts were written by God Himself, or at least dictated by him to his prophets. No revision is asked for. Obedience is needed. By contrast, our founding documents were written by fallible men. Revision was and is solicited. Reason is needed.

As 19th century writing slid over to romanticism, in Europe and in America, reason still held a strong grip on the political life of the United States. We still relied on the Supreme Court to give us reasoned judgments on important issues of the day. Those judgments may have been hideously tendentious at times, but even glaring errors were clothed in the structures of reason. “Because your government says so,” was rarely used as an argument.

These days, disputes seem to escape solution. They continue on their wearying way because reason seems to have been abandoned in favor of emotional appeals to partisan combat, or worse, to a vague kind of bi-partisanship. Decisions are too frequently avoided altogether in favor of tightening the circle and bleating – as with sheep.

Even people who hold themselves out as being reasonable would rather come to some agreement that doesn’t require rational argument, than bruise their brains in polemic combat. Methodologies that avoid cross-examination of assertions are preferred. The results are not attractive.

In the many “debates” among candidates for President in Republican primaries in 2012, there was rarely a line by line disagreement over specific policies. Even the idiotic question -- “Would you accept a ten to one ratio of spending cuts to tax increases?” – all eight candidates vote NO. They didn’t feel capable of defending a one dollar tax increase, even if they got ten dollars of spending cuts in return -- so calcified were their argumentative mechanisms, necessary for reaching rational conclusions.

The herd doesn’t like disagreement, doesn’t need reason.

When I was a teenager, many family dinners in our house ended with my father and I arguing about something or other as we sipped our after dinner coffee. My poor mother became exasperated as the argument grew hotter. “Sometimes I think that you like to argue,” she would say to me. “Yes, Mom, I do.” I would confess, to her dismay.

I still do.

I find the process of refining our thoughts fascinating, and it all starts with doubting received wisdom, in my case just recalled, the wisdom of my father. It begins with doubt, but it continues with reason. If an idea cannot stand up to the examination of reasonable people, it cannot be worth much, I figure.

I hope you will challenge these very thoughts, dear reader. I love to argue.



Revealed religion

Mr. Sullivan's overall analysis of our society's abandonment of reasoned disagreement and debate is -- sadly -- quite correct. The question "How do we deal with X situation?" has been replaced by the question "How do we get our own way?" The search for truth has been replaced by the search for triumph.

I advise Mr. Sullivan, however, that his description of religious belief as based upon the Bible and the Koran is a simplistic caricature. Most believers, except those on the most conservative right, believe that revelation is not closed; or in other words, that the God of history continues to act, and can be perceived, in the current history of our lives. Believers' task is to use the tools of justice, compassion, and reason, to discern what God is doing and what new actions we are called to do in response.

Reasoned and faithful debates concerning what understandings and actions are best occur constantly in the leadership bodies of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and other faith communities. Today's decision may be modified or reversed tomorrow, in response to changed circumstances or broader understanding.

To be a follower means to move forward, not to stand rooted in the past.

come home to reason

Sorry, I can't argue with that.

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