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The curse of “rational functionalism”

The curse of “rational functionalism”

Writing for the Alban Institute, N. Graham Standish offers a diagnosis for what he believes is ailing the mainline Protestant churches. He calls it “rational functionalism”, by which he means “the idea that we can uncover the mysteries of life and the universe mainly through rational thought and disciplined investigation.”

He adds: “It is the tendency of denominations, their congregations, and their leaders to subscribe to a view of faith and church rooted in a restrictive, logic-bound theology that ignores the possibility of spiritual experiences and miraculous events.”

While I believe that the Episcopal Church undervalues its spiritual heritage, and values action at the expense of contemplation, I am also under the impression that “rational thought and disciplined investigation” are precisely the tools that God has given us to discern the divine will. So I have mixed feelings about this article.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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Michael Russell

Richard Hooker thought that such “rational functionalism” led inevitably to spirituality because the mysteries kept presenting themselves. And indeed Reason’s quest has led to more wonderful and glorious mysteries about God’s Creation than we ever could have imagined.

God gave us Reason and Nature to teach us more and more about how we might best apply what he calls the supernatural path of faith, hope and charity to the world we encounter. It is not either or, but both and.

Bill Carroll

I think the problem is when we overemphasize rational as technical, analytical, and discursive at the expense of rational as involving intuition, participation, and communion. Both are necessary, surely, and should be brought into harmony.


Very well-said, Benedict.

I favor a Both/And faith. Rational in dialogue w/ Experiential. Grounded in empirical cognition, but never making the faith-claim “…and that’s all there is” (which one sees in Capital ‘E’ Empiricism).

JC Fisher

Benedict Varnum

I love to mischievously define science as “That pervasive and unprovable faith commitment that the future is going to behave like the past . . . because in the past it has.”

I think this topic may be one of the great hand-wringing inducers out there today. We all sit on various spectrums about these topics. If someone told me that they have daily personal conversations with Jesus, who puts them in touch with relatives in heaven so they can send messages and guidance back to those on earth, I’m inclined not to believe them.

On the other hand, when a parishioner tells me they had a strong sense of the presence of a parent in the days (or years) after that person died, I’m more inclined to take that on its own terms (without, say, trying to snoop into the moment to see if some familiar object might have caused old neurons to fire). Or if someone says that they pray daily and believe that God is present listening when they pray, I believe that without even questioning whether it might not be true.

I suspect that any given church is over-inclined to think that all churches more open to logic-less happenings is “too pentecostal” or “too evangelical.” On the other side, I suspect they’d say that any church more focused on the logical than they are has “abandoned any confessional faith” and “thrown orthodoxy to the wind.”

I’ve known plenty of Episcopalians who have a soft spot for that old (if somewhat ecumenically-belligerent) slogan “Don’t check your brain at the door.” I have yet to meet any who want to add “DO check your faith, please.”

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