What role does rationality play in the embrace of religion? Here in the South reason and logic mostly play second fiddle.
The Southern religious psyche is often defined by emotion and experience; conversion is heart rather than head, received rather than chosen. Being “reborn” or “saved” serve as shorthand for an experience that, if not earthshaking and emotional, at least mysteriously quickens the heart.
When emotion becomes the accepted gateway for following Christ one might ask whether an intellectual or logically considered route to faith can have validity.
This question arose for me after having read two conversion accounts separated by almost 1,000 years in which each convert received faith after a carefully considered, rational search for God and meaning.
While researching last week’s column I discovered that Prince Vladimir of the ancient kingdom of Rus (part of which is now Russia) became a devout follower of Christ in 988 A.D. after interviewing representatives of the major known religions, weighing the merits of each and then seeking baptism in the Orthodox expression of Christianity. One can almost see him with yellow pad in hand, checking the pluses and minuses of each. Prince Vladimir is considered a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church.
This week I re-read the conversion story of Roman general Constantine who, seeking every advantage prior to the crucial Battle of Milvian Bridge (312 A.D), contemplated which deity might put him over the top in battle.
Constantine’s conversion is known because of the Christian historian Eusebius (260? – 340 A.D.?). The most well-known part of that story is Constantine’s vision prior to the battle: he saw a dazzling cross in the heavens emblazoned with the Latin words “Conquer by this.” Claiming Christ as Lord and putting the cross on his armaments, he prevailed in battle, became Emperor of Rome and declared Christianity the official state religion.
Less well known is Constantine’s intellectual search prior to the vision. Considering all the religions available to him, he concluded that previous leaders and generals had relied on multiple gods and spurious myths and “met with an unhappy end, while not one of their gods had stood by to warn them of the impending wrath of heaven …” Constantine “judged it to be folly to join the idol worship of those who were no gods …” This calm consideration of the merits and demerits of each divinity led him to the vision of the cross.
One might conclude that Constantine and Vladimir were calculating leaders determined to consolidate power by every means, even embracing religion, and this may be so, but one cannot know the sincerity of their choice. They could just as equally have made a sincere attempt to know God through the intellect. Even though faith is ultimately mysterious and beyond human rationality, God has given reason in order that we might find our way, a viable option to this day. While many may receive faith through a surprising emotional experience, others will come to faith via a thoughtful, sincere intellectual search, a foundation as important as the emotive, heartfelt side.
Creede Hinshaw is a retired minister in Macon.