The Lord replies, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.”
Then Abraham answers, saying, “Indeed now, I who am but dust and ashes have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord: Suppose there were five less than the fifty righteous; would You destroy all of the city for lack of five?”
God responds, “If I find there forty-five, I will not destroy it.” And the two go on like this for some while, with Abraham’s becoming ever more obsequious and obeisant in his haggling the Lord down to the barest minimum of righteous souls that will save the cities from their fiery fate, and the Lord’s becoming – now, I have never been able to decide – it is more exasperated or more amused by His friend’s wheedling ways? In any event, once Abraham gets God to spare the cities should ten righteous men be found, the dialogue ends. Quite an extraordinary conversation it was, though, in showing the audacity of Abraham in his desperation to save lives, and God’s willingness to engage his concerns without rebuke.
Compare this exchange, though, with a quite different one farther back in Genesis. Imagine with me the scene right after Adam and Eve have fallen to temptation. It is the cool of the day, and God is walking in the Garden. Our illustrious forebears are lurking in the bushes, overwhelmed by shame.
The Lord calls to Adam, “Where are you?”
Adam mutters, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.”
God replies, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?”
Adam manages to throw God and his wife under the bus at the same time. “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”
God then turns to Eve. “What is this you have done?”
Eve complains, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Our ancestors totally blew it – they did not take responsibility for their sin; but, I am sure that if it had been I as well as they in that Garden long ago, He’d have found me right next to them in the bushes, plastered in fig leaves, maligning them both.
To me, these two stories from Genesis are a perfect encapsulation of how reason and rationality play out in difficult situations. In writing about these two often confused terms in his masterwork, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist uses the right and left hemispheres’ varying abilities to illuminate the differences between them. Setting aside his association of reason with the right hemisphere and rationality with the left, what interests me in particular is how humans use both reason and rationality in relationships, both with each other and with God. McGilchrist identifies reason as “flexible, resisting fixed formulation, shaped by experience, and involving the whole living being,” and rationality as “more rigid, rarified, mechanical, [and] governed by explicit laws” So, while the reason of the right hemisphere is used interpersonally to bring clarity, work toward truth, and grows out of experience, the rationality of the left hemisphere tends to obfuscate truth by abstracting situations from relationship, thereby setting up a system of twisting facts to justify motives. Both of these abilities lie within us, but only one edifies us in connection with others.
In the Genesis 18 recounting, Abraham reasons with God. He knows that the Lord is loving and long-suffering and not given to rash acts of destruction. He uses his intimate knowledge of the Lord’s character to exhort mercy. Of course, the Lord did not need Abraham to coax Him into mercy. It is His nature. The fact that He lets Abraham reason with Him, though, shows us something very special and peculiar about the true Deity. As Roger Scruton writes in The Soul of the World about the unique nature of the Judeo-Christian God, “The relation between God and His people [is] founded on a covenant – in other words, a binding agreement in which God commands obedience only by putting Himself under obligation toward those whom He commands.” It is from this contextual stance that Abraham knows he can reason with God. The Lord has placed Himself under submission to His own laws to be the God who reasons with His creation.
In the Genesis 3 story, Adam and Eve resort immediately to rationalization. That is the “Yes, but . . .” deflection. They do not lie, exactly, but they cannot bring themselves to ‘fess up, either. Knowing that they broke God’s explicit law, they cannot conceive of any way to put things right with their Creator, so they hide first and then shift blame. The relationship between God and man was in trouble not because we were reasoned out of Eden by the craftiness of the serpent, but rather because humankind lost sight of its own experiences of the goodness of God and so could not reason against the wiles of Satan. All that Adam and Eve were left with was the compulsion to rationalize; and we are still creatures of rationalization today.
But, “Come, let us reason together,” proclaims the Lord. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” In Isaiah, God was speaking to the faithful remnant a message not only of hope, but of assurance. To reason with God is to start from the point of knowing Him, believing in His promises, remembering His wonderful works. He calls us now as He called His frightened children so long ago not to stand at a distance, fearing His wrath; rather He is, as noted in Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, “pleased to encourage [us] to draw near to Him, and come and reason with Him: not at the bar of His justice; there is no reasoning with Him there . . . but at the bar of mercy, at the throne of grace.” It is there that our rationalizations, our self-justifications, must fall away like the rags they are. There, we sinners may reason with Him in boldness “from the virtue and efficacy of His blood and sacrifice.” There, “God reasons with sensible souls from His own covenant promises and proclamations to forgive sins.” For the Judge of all the earth does right, indeed.