The Death of Reasonableness

Has COVID-19 doomed fully Christian thinking?

Lately I find myself stuck between two opposite ends of thought:

1) The “expert” class is a morally compromised gang of elitist autocrats, and we are better off looking to populist sentiment for wisdom.

2) The “death of expertise” is an urgent epistemological crisis that we must fix by actively deferring to the expert class, taking their errors in stride as an unavoidable cost of public trust.

Being a lifelong evangelical in Southern Baptist churches is what pushes me away from polar end #1, and the COVID era in particular has pushed me away from polar end #2. I still think elitism is real and dangerous, and I still think the decline of thick American institutions does more harm than good. But neither one of these neat, tidy narratives satisfies me.

What I find myself gravitating more toward is some deep convictions about reasonableness. The Bible assumes that Christians are reasonable people (Phil. 4:5), which is fascinating to me because I run into seemingly more and more Christians who seem to think a lack of reasonableness is a sign of authentic Christian conviction. Scripture pairs together confidence in revealed truth with an approachable, measured intellectual posture. When the writers of Scripture use violent language, they do so for a purpose and never endlessly (even in the OT prophets judgment always gives way to mercy), and what’s more, it’s impossible to read the Bible carefully and come away thinking that an impulsive, angry, can’t-be-reasoned-with spirit is conducive to faithfulness (James 1:20, Proverbs 15:8).

I think one thing that prevents some of us from cultivating more Christian reasonableness is a kind of perpetual apologetics mode. We hear “reasonable” and our liberalism detector goes off because our theological and rhetorical instincts are overly caffeinated by culture war. Another reason is that reasonableness is not at all marketable. If you want to grow a platform, get noticed, and make a name for yourself, by far the most efficient path forward is the path of outrage and immersive ideology. One more thing: I think most of us need reasonable people to model Christian reasonableness to us, which means we need to be where those people are (e.g., the local church) and be willing to emulate them even when they don’t replicate all our views. I think both of those supply lines are struggling right now.

It’s been about 16 months of pandemic for most of this country. I see two kinds of response to this era. The first is the ideological response, which is represented in polar opposing tribes by COVID=hoax, anti-vaccine and anti-masks on one side, and “stay at home, stupid,” no-risk-is-acceptable, love-your-neighbor-or-else absolutism on the other. Both of those responses make up a solid 80-90% of what I see. I find neither one of them reasonable.

My hunch is that reasonableness means, among many other things, simply the ability to receive and incorporate information that doesn’t fit your preferred analysis. A reasonable posture is not the same as “open mind,” since open-mindedness is often just shibboleth for owning whomever your tribe perceives to be in charge. A reasonable posture is not the lack of worldview and it’s not a lack of argument. Instead, it’s the ability to believe in something while also realizing that there are real reasons to not believe it, and that there are intelligent, non-threatening people who are more convinced by the reasons not to believe than to believe. It’s also the capacity to believe things that can be nuanced without being obliterated, and being able to hold onto beliefs even when accounting for things that don’t fit the narrative.

Reasonableness means acknowledging that COVID-19 is not a hoax, that dead bodies and grieving families are not Nancy Pelosi’s grand invention. Reasonableness also admits that the devastating fallout from COVID is not a tale of “right wing ideas have consequences:” Anthony Fauci disparaged masks, the WHO said it wasn’t a pandemic, and by the time “trust the science” was the mantra thousands of people were already dead and dying. Putting two realities together doesn’t give you a compelling ideological story. It makes you sound like “bothsidesism.” But it’s truth.

Reasonableness looks at the vaccines and sees a genuinely marvelous scientific creation that even elites are injecting into their children and parents. But reasonableness also acknowledges that adverse effects are real and that the vaccine —> end of pandemic timeline is not nearly as neat as we once thought. They’re neither poison nor panacea. You should almost certainly get one, but should almost certainly not think it will be the end of every concern for you.

Look, I’m not the last word on reasonableness. I could be wrong here. But for my money, it just seems like we’re losing a critical trait of thinking for our Christianity and our public square. Give me a 5 minute break from talk about the death of expertise or the death of discernment, and let’s pour one out for good old fashioned reasonableness.