Sociologist’s book questions rationalism’s reign over faith


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In his 1908 book Orthodoxy, the English writer G. K. Chesterton observed, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.”

Dr. Dennis Hiebert, professor of sociology at Providence University College, favours the poet’s approach in his new book, Rationality, Humility, and Spirituality in Christian Life, published this spring by Cascade Books.

In an interview last Thursday at his Steinbach home, Hiebert called the 220-page book “the definitive statement of my life.”

Jordan Ross Dr. Dennis Hiebert, professor of sociology at Providence University College, displays a copy of his new book, Rationality, Humility, and Spirituality in Christian Life, in his Steinbach home.

That’s because it tackles what he said is the biggest question of his life: “Can we understand how culture has shaped our faith?”

In the classroom, Hiebert said he’s tried to help students uncover a more authentic faith by understanding the cultural forces that press upon it.

Hiebert arrived at Providence 45 years ago to become its athletic director before leaving to pursue graduate studies then returning to establish its sociology program.

The new book is Hiebert’s second. Sweet Surrender: How Cultural Mandates Shape Christian Marriage, was published in 2013.

Readers of this newspaper also know Hiebert as a frequent letter-writer and the driving force behind Providence’s annual public lecture series.

The new book took shape over the past four summers, when Hiebert’s teaching and administrative duties at Providence subside, affording him time to write.

He described his new book as an interdisciplinary study comprised of three essays, each of which began as an academic journal article.

“I didn’t set out to write the book,” Hiebert said, but found his essays on rationality and humility built toward another discussion.

“When I realized the connection between the two, and I thought that they led naturally to a third topic, which is spirituality.”

The first third of the book is a critique of rationalism’s grip on Christian faith and thought.

Hiebert said rationality has its place, but he rejects the idea that “that all truth, or all Christian practice, is determined by it.”

As a sociologist, Hiebert has often explored ‘rationalization,’ or the subjective justifications humans construct for their behaviour.

In the book, he wades beyond that into a study of philosophical rationalism, a way of thinking that appoints reason the arbiter of knowledge.

Hiebert said it’s problematic to “give rationality the ultimate authority in how we think or what we believe.”

Evangelicals in particular, he said, have bought into rationalism “whole hog…as a way to try and win approval from the rest of the world.”

Influence has been gained, but an appreciation for the ‘non-rational’—those aspects of faith that fall outside of rationality—has been lost, he argues.

“I’m not advocating for irrationality,” Hiebert explained.

But he is questioning the priority it’s been granted, sometimes uncritically.

“Rationality is a good servant, but it’s a bad master.”

In the second essay, on humility, Hiebert tries to stake out space for what he called “more affective Christianity, more narrative Christianity, more praxis Christianity.”

For Hiebert, humility is the virtue that frees Christians from the artificial limits they place on their faith.

Hiebert drew on academic fields that examine human flourishing in order to sidestep social science’s fixation on the abnormal or dysfunctional.

He came away with a renewed appreciation for intellectual humility, which he defined as

“owning our limitations.”

“Yes, rationality is good, but it is limited. You cannot master all of reality with rationality,” Hiebert said.

The third and final essay in the book sketches out what spirituality can look like when it embraces broader ways of knowing.

“The transformed self in a relationship of desire for the wholly, holy Other. That’s what spirituality is,” Hiebert said.

He also surveys academic attempts to understand 2,000 years of Christian spirituality, including the seismic 20th century shift away from institutionalized religion.

Avoiding grand, definitive statements about God keeps us humble, Hiebert said.

“God is more than all of our concepts and our claims.”

Hiebert, who attends Grace Mennonite Church, listed Eastern Orthodoxy and the emergent church as branches of Christianity that embrace intellectual humility.

He ends the book with a discussion of mysticism, which he defines as “an intellectual humility about the character of the divine, an openness to the divine being beyond our rationality about it.”

He acknowledged the term will be a red flag for some readers, but as an educator he believes it’s good to be stretched.

While the book employs an academic lens, Hiebert said one of his manuscript readers detected “a strong pastoral undertone” in the book. He hopes clergy will find applicable insights in it.

Rationality, Humility, and Spirituality in Christian Life is available from major online retailers and through the publisher’s website.

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