In 1976, Nicholas Wolterstorff published a very short book entitled, “Reason Within The Bounds of Religion” (clearly playing off the title of Kant’s famous “Religion Within The Bounds of Religion”). When I came across this book in 2011, it was largely by accident; I had stumbled across a dusty copy in the basement of a school library. But I knew the name Wolterstorff – I had recently read a few other works by this eminent Christian philosopher – so I thought I’d give it a read.
As far as I know, the book never enjoyed a wide readership or received much attention. (Perhaps because it was written in the very early years of Wolterstorff’s career?) But I remember thinking after that first read that this book ought to be read by most anyone – at least anyone who concerns himself with reflecting on his world – and that it ought to receive a great deal of attention.
The thesis of the book does not immediately present itself as having such a universal importance. In “Reason Within The Bounds of Religion”, Wolterstorff attempts to sketch the outlines of what he perceives to be the proper relationship between Christian commitment and the work of the Christian scholar. He seeks an answer to the question, How does membership in a religious community interact with ones membership in a scholarly community? On the face of things, then, the book appears to be of importance only to those who belong both to a religious community and a scholarly community (a small minority of the total population). But what unfolds in this work turns out to have very important implications for all of us — even those who are neither religious nor a scholar.
What unfolds is an insightful look at the inescapability of deep commitments, and of the proper place for these deep commitments in our asking and answering important questions about the world. Of late it has been often said that we all come to the intellectual table with our own presuppositions, that we all view the world through a particular lens, that we all inhabit a particular tradition, that there is no “neutral” intellectual position, etc. etc. This is all true, and it ought to be said. But the trouble is that this is often all that is said; we are very rarely told how these presuppositions and lenses work, and what the implications are for the way we ought to ask and answer important questions about the world. And this is just what Wolterstorff succeeds in telling us in “Reason Within The Bounds of Religion”. (At the very least, he gets us pointed in the right direction. As I said, this is a very short book…)
Perhaps I overstate the value of this book because of how important it was to me in the particular place and time it found me. Perhaps. But I’m convinced enough of its value to recommend it to just about everyone. For that reason, I will be devoting the next few posts to covering this book. Covering a few chapters at a time, I hope to distill the main points of “Reason Within The Bounds of Religion”, giving special attention to those bits that seem especially significant for the apologetic discussions that frequent this site.