Posted by: Alex | July 23, 2011

Reason and Mysticism in Blue Like Jazz

Continuing in our discussion of Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz.  Next up is the dichotomy Miller makes between “reason” on the one hand and “experience” or “mysticism” on the other.  Miller firmly rejects the notion that Christian Spirituality is rational.  For him, his faith is grounded in his experience, often in mystical experience.

So take for instance this section, which speaks of the “experience” of truth apart from reason:

My belief in Jesus did not seem rational or scientific, and yet there was nothing I could do to separate myself from this belief. I think Laura was looking for something rational, because she believed that all things that were true were rational. But that isn’t the case. Love, for example, is a true emotion, but it is not rational. What I mean is, people actually feel it. I have been in love, plenty of people have been in love, yet love cannot be proved scientifically. Neither can beauty… There are plenty of things that are true that don’t make any sense.

What is interesting is that Miller seems to have an almost Reformed view of how belief comes about.  This is brought out even more in this section, which sounds a lot like CS Lewis’ description of his own conversion:

I believe in God, and as I said before it feels so much more like something is causing me to believe than that I am stirring up belief. In fact, I would even say that when I started in faith I didn’t want to believe; my intellect wanted to disbelieve, but my soul, that deeper instinct, could no more stop believing in God than Tony could, on a dime, stop being in love with his wife. There are things you choose to believe, and beliefs that choose you. This was one of the ones that chose me.

Later, after recalling a discussion with a friend about the instinctive migration of penguins, there is a moment where Miller sounds a lot like Alvin Plantinga (though I have no idea if Miller has read Plantinga).  Miller writes:

Somehow, penguin radar leads them perfectly well. Maybe it isn’t so foolish that I follow the radar that is inside of me.

The most significant piece of Miller’s argument here is that we can come to knowledge through experience apart from reason.  That something deep inside of us can point us toward truth without our having good explanations for any of it:

In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton says chess players go crazy, not poets. I think he is right. You’d go crazy trying to explain penguins. It’s best just to watch them and be entertained. I don’t think you can explain how Christian faith works either. It is a mystery. And I love this about Christian spirituality. It cannot be explained, and yet it is beautiful and true. It is something you feel, and it comes from the soul.

Miller goes on to write that in the end reason seems to get us little milage when it comes to faith.  It is other things which drive our beliefs:

Sooner or later you just figure out there are some guys who don’t believe in God and they can prove He doesn’t exist, and some other guys who do believe in God and they can prove He does exist, and the argument stopped being about God a long time ago and now it’s about who is smarter, and honestly I don’t care. I don’t believe I will ever walk away from God for intellectual reasons. Who knows anything anyway? If I walk away from Him, and please pray that I never do, I will walk away for social reasons, identity reasons, deep emotional reasons, the same reasons that any of us do anything.

Miller here is making a pretty big claim from a philosophical standpoint:  we as people all make decisions for reasons other than “reason” or “science” or “logic.”  We all feel the push and pull of social and psychological factors, and these play a more important role in our making decisions than “rationality.”

What do you think?  Is Miller right to say we can “experience” truth apart from “reason”?  Which are more important in our decisions- social/emotional factors or logical/scientific ones?  Which should be more important?



  1. I think you might be philosophizing Miller’s work a bit more than is warranted.


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