Circular Reasoning

Michael Metzger

Draw two circles. Make one very large – covering almost an entire page. Make the second circle very small. Write “reality” in the larger circle. Write “religion” in the smaller circle. Welcome to the 21st century. If you don’t think these circles square with reality, here are a handful of books worth reading this summer.

The first is Rodney Stark’s Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome. Stark traces how Jesus created a network of disciples who originated on the periphery of the social world of that age yet moved to the provincial center of Jerusalem. Then, within a generation, they moved to the center of the ancient world, Rome. They created new institutions that articulated and embodied an alternative view of reality. The church was in the only circle that existed, reality.

The second book is The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand. It’s the story of the lives of Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, John Dewey, Charles S. Peirce, and other influential figures who belonged to an informal discussion group that corresponded for years. They also met in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1872. The Metaphysical Club created a world with two circles – reality and religion – rooted in an absolute distinction between facts and values. Fact was the province of science and value was the province of what they called (always a little deprecatingly) metaphysics, or religion.

The Metaphysical Club said metaphysical speculations – ideas about the origin, end and meaning of life – came naturally to human beings “but should never be confused with science.”1 The second circle of religion was not necessarily smaller – just different. “If faith satisfied an emotional need, there was nothing more to be said about it, except that no one had the right to impose his or her religion on anyone else.”2 By networking overlapping networks of institutions, this club influenced generations of judges, teachers, journalists, philosophers, psychologists, social scientists, law professors, and even poets.

The third book tells the story of how the “religion” circle shrunk. Dallas Willard’s Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge points out that for “most of Western history, the basic claims of the Christian tradition have in fact been regarded by its proponents as knowledge of reality.”3 Willard’s book follows a two-rail track. It tells why faith communities no longer teach the gospel as knowledge of what is right and real and it tells why faith communities are no longer taken seriously in the wider world when it comes to the “real” issues of capitalism, healthcare, science, architecture, literature, education, and popular culture. For example, “if it were seriously imagined that the teaching of Christianity or other religions constituted a vital and irreplaceable knowledge of reality, there would be no more talk of separation of church and state than there is of the separation of chemistry or economics and state,” Willard writes.

The fourth book tells how, over thirty years, one movement moved to the center of the “reality” circle. In 1966, Time published an essay titled “The Homosexual in America.” While acknowledging “homosexuals are present in every walk of life” it concluded homosexuality “is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. As such it deserves fairness, compassion, understanding and, when possible, treatment. But it deserves no encouragement, no glamorization, no rationalization, no fake status as minority martyrdom, no sophistry about simple differences in taste – and, above all, no pretense that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.” That was 1966.

After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90’s is the story of how, after the Stonewall riots of June 1969, the homosexual movement reframed the way Americans imagined homosexuality – all “without reference to facts, logic or proof.” They believed a “person’s beliefs can be altered whether he is conscious of the attack or not” through film and theater and education.4 Although the homosexual movement is probably three percent of the American population today, their influence has become enormous; far disproportionate to their size. They’re in the center of the “reality” circle, as evidenced by the gains in visibility, legitimacy, and legal rights made during the years of the Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton presidencies, along with the Obama presidency. It’s a story of reframing reality that faith communities ought to read.

The last book is The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. It’s over 1100 pages, so I don’t recommend it for those trying to raise children or enjoy any kind of social life. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, Robert Caro’s massive tome tells the story of the man who reshaped New York City from the 1920s to the 1960s. Robert Moses directed tens of thousands of workers who rammed bulkheads of steel into muck and dredged 15,000 additional acres of land for the city. They built seven immense bridges, including the Triborough, the Verrazano, and the Henry Hudson. They laid 416 miles of freeways. They constructed 148,000 apartments for 555,000 tenants. Under Moses’ direction, 84,000 workers reshaped every city park, adding 288 tennis courts and 673 baseball diamonds. Moses built state parks, created mile wide beaches, and spearheaded the New York World’s Fair in 1965. He literally reshaped the city.

There’s a big buzz these days in faith communities for passion. Christians are urged to try harder, writes Willard. But “passion comes from reality,” Willard notes – not from belief and commitment. No matter how much they try, when believers and churches are stuck in the smaller circle, “Boredom, burnout, and dropout are at hand.”5 If you don’t believe today’s “circular reasoning” squares with reality, perhaps these books will suggest ways for faith communities to re-enter the one circle: reality.

1 Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York, NY: Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2001), p. 207.
2 Menand, Metaphysical, p. 212.
3 Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009) p. 8.
4 Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen, After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90’s (New York, NY: Plume, 1990), p. 152-153.
5 Willard, Knowing, p. 204.


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  1. Makes sense to me – how often are thoughts relegated to the “religion box”. I think reality as we perceive it is the small circle; one within God’s immeasurable sphere.

  2. Brent:

    Stark’s Rise of Christianity overlaps a great deal. In that book, he points out the early church was composed of the urban elites (more than the oppressed) who then changed the present-day reality of Roman life. The faith was concerned with reality, not so much religion.

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