Commencement Speakers and the Death of Rationality

© 2014 Robert Osburn 

The 20 year-old film Reality Bites opens with a scene where the character played by Minnesota-born Winona Ryder is offering the conclusion to her college valedictory speech: “And the answer to it all is….”

Her eyes grow wide.  Deafening silence.  Her professors sit glumly while the audience is tense and uncertain. And then, as if all the tension in the Universe were suddenly being released, she declares: “I don’t know!”  And the crowd cheers, not just because the long ceremony is finally over, but also because postmodernism, which is what the film is all about, has nailed tight the coffin.  In a world where matter is all there is, reason and rationality are dead.

And because rationality is dead, we don’t hire commencement speakers to exhibit the glories of what students should have learned in classrooms.  Many don’t know how to use reason to engage in deep discussion and the pursuit of knowledge; no, we hire commencement speakers to ratify our deepest prejudices or glorify our wildest dreams.   And so when students protest certain commencement speakers they are simply betraying what we should have long ago known: Having long ago thrown God out with the stale pizza and the beer cans that litter fraternity lawns, reason has consumed reason in the name of pure matter.  Reason has been buried.

This theme---the death of rationality at the hands of the rationalist Enlightenment---was one of the burdens of Francis Schaeffer’s work in the 60s and 70s, especially in his books Escape from Reason (1967) and The God Who Is There (1968).  Schaeffer was trying to tell us that when matter is all there is---an assumption that we generate by use of human reason---we have simply cut off the limb upon which we stand.  Put another way, how do rocks generate great thoughts?  Schaeffer insisted that if we are going to adopt a worldview that absolutely removes God, then we’re going to have to follow the logic.  And that logic is very compelling: Pure matter does not generate thoughts, ideas, inventions, conversations; pure matter merely is an unfeeling, uncompelling, lifeless, thoughtless rock incapable of reason.

Much of Nietzsche’s 19th century work was all about facing honestly the absolute void that exists when God is declared dead.  When God is dead, reason dies because there is no entity that embodies it, and all we are left with is the relentless quest for power (Superman).  Postmodernism, and its obsession with power, not ideas, is an updated version of what Nietzsche was writing about

But, let’s be honest: Most of us have been trying to escape the cold, relentless logic of Nietzsche. Neo-pragmatists, for example, shrug off a column like this and call it “retrogressive,” a throwback to earlier forms of philosophical foundationalism.  Truth, in the words of the late Richard Rorty, is “what your friends let you get away with.”  This cynicism towards ideas undercuts efforts to make the argument I am making, but, more so, it has severely damaged the older notion that our universities are “marketplaces of ideas.”   Rarely is that phrase heard anymore, and thus the annual Spring ritual, growing ever-more deafening and insistent, of organized groups forcing college commencement speakers to cancel their plans to speak.  As Stephen Carter opined in a recent column, those who oppose or shout down commencement speakers are confident that they “have absolutely nothing to learn from people whose opinions (they) dislike.”

The problem, at its root, is that with the reign of philosophical materialism in the academy, rationality has been and is being slowly and systematically destroyed.  It has utterly no place in pure matter, and all that can replace it is raw power.

The late philosopher Dallas Willard, in an address that I heard him give in 2005 at the University of Chicago, said very simply, but profoundly that reason must be redeemed.  And the only way to redeem reason is to deeply and seriously engage the reality that there is a God who has revealed Himself as the Word. If we take Him seriously, then reasonable, language-filled assertions capable of being discussed, debated, and clarified by reason-filled people made in the image of a Triune God is possible.

Until reason is redeemed, woe is the lot of commencement speakers who really believe that they must discuss ideas in their speeches.  They will either be shut down or shouted down.