The Church of Reason || Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance || by Robert M. Pirsig

The author, his son Chris and fellow traveler Sylvia. Photo by John.

John and Sylvia eat their breakfast hot cakes and drink their coffee, still caught up in the mood of last night, but I’m finding it hard to get food down. Today we should arrive at the school, the place where an enormous coalescence of things occurred, and I’m already feeling tense.

I remember reading once about an archeological excavation in the Near East, learning about the archeologist’s feelings when he opened the forgotten tombs for the first time in thousands of years. Now I feel like some archeologist myself.

The sagebrush down the canyon now toward Livingston is like sagebrush you see all the way from here into Mexico.

This morning sunlight is the same as yesterday’s except warmer and softer now that we’re at a lower altitude again.

There is nothing unusual. It’s just this archeological feeling that the calmness of the surroundings conceals things. A haunted place.

I really don’t want to go there. I’d just as soon turn around and go back.

Just tension, I guess.

It fits one of the fragments of this memory, in which many mornings the tension was so intense he would throw up everything before he got to his first classroom. He loathed appearing before classrooms of students and talking. It was a complete violation of his whole lone, isolated way of life, and what he experienced was intense stage fright, except that it never showed on him as stage fright, but rather as a terrific intensity about everything he did. Students had told his wife it was just like electricity in the air. The moment he entered the classroom all eyes turned on him and followed him as he walked to the front of the room. All conversation died to a hush and remained at a hush even though it was several minutes, often, before the class started. Throughout the hour the eyes never strayed from him.

He became much talked about, a controversial figure. The majority of students avoided his sections like the Black Death. They had heard too many stories.

The school was what could euphemistically be called a “teaching college.”

At a teaching college you teach and you teach and you teach with no time for research, no time for contemplation, no time for participation in outside affairs. Just teach and teach and teach until your mind grows dull and your creativity vanishes and you become an automaton saying the same dull things over and over to endless waves of innocent students who cannot understand why you are so dull, lose respect and fan this disrespect out into the community. The reason you teach and you teach and you teach is that this is a very clever way of running a college on the cheap while giving a false appearance of genuine education.

Yet despite this he called the school by a name that didn’t make much sense, in fact sounded a little ludicrous in view of its actual nature. But the name had great meaning to him, and he stuck to it and he felt, before he left, that he had rammed it into a few minds sufficiently hard to make it stick. He called it a “Church of Reason,” and much of the puzzlement people had about him could have ended if they’d understood what he meant by this.

The state of Montana at this time was undergoing an outbreak of ultra-right-wing politics like that which occurred in Dallas, Texas, just prior to President Kennedy’s assassination. A nationally known professor from the University of Montana at Missoula was prohibited from speaking on campus on the grounds that it would “stir up trouble.”

Professors were told that all public statements must be cleared through the college public-relations office before they could be made.

Academic standards were demolished. The legislature had previously prohibited the school from refusing entry to any student over twenty-one whether he had a high-school diploma or not. Now the legislature had passed a law fining the college eight thousand dollars for every student who failed, virtually an order to pass every student.

The newly elected governor was trying to fire the college president for both personal and political reasons. The college president was not only a personal enemy, he was a Democrat, and the governor was no ordinary Republican. His campaign manager doubled as state coordinator for the John Birch Society. This was the same governor who supplied the list of fifty subversives we heard about a few days ago.

Now, as part of this vendetta, funds to the college were being cut. The college president had passed on an unusually large part of the cut to the English department, of which Phædrus was a member, and whose members had been quite vocal on issues of academic freedom.

Phædrus had given up, was exchanging letters with the Northwest Regional Accrediting Association to see if they could help prevent these violations of accreditation requirements. In addition to this private correspondence he had publicly called for an investigation of the entire school situation.

At this point some students in one of his classes had asked Phædrus, bitterly, if his efforts to stop accreditation meant he was trying to prevent them from getting an education.

Phædrus said no.

Then one student, apparently a partisan of the governor, said angrily that the legislature would prevent the school from losing its accreditation.

Phædrus asked how.

The student said they would post police to prevent it.

Phædrus pondered this for a while, then realized the enormity of the student’s misconception of what accreditation was all about.

That night, for the next day’s lecture, he wrote out his defense of what he was doing. This was the Church of Reason lecture, which, in contrast to his usual sketchy lecture notes, was very long and very carefully elaborated.

It began with reference to a newspaper article about a country church building with an electric beer sign hanging right over the front entrance. The building had been sold and was being used as a bar. One can guess that some classroom laughter started at this point. The college was well known for drunken partying and the image vaguely fit. The article said a number of people had complained to the church officials about it. It had been a Catholic church, and the priest who had been delegated to respond to the criticism had sounded quite irritated about the whole thing. To him it had revealed an incredible ignorance of what a church really was. Did they think that bricks and boards and glass constituted a church? Or the shape of the roof? Here, posing as piety was an example of the very materialism the church opposed. The building in question was not holy ground. It had been desanctified. That was the end of it. The beer sign resided over a bar, not a church, and those who couldn’t tell the difference were simply revealing something about themselves.

Phædrus said the same confusion existed about the University and that was why loss of accreditation was hard to understand. The real University is not a material object. It is not a group of buildings that can be defended by police. He explained that when a college lost its accreditation, nobody came and shut down the school. There were no legal penalties, no fines, no jail sentences. Classes did not stop. Everything went on just as before. Students got the same education they would if the school didn’t lose its accreditation. All that would happen, Phædrus said, would simply be an official recognition of a condition that already existed. It would be similar to excommunication. What would happen is that the real University, which no legislature can dictate to and which can never be identified by any location of bricks or boards or glass, would simply declare that this place was no longer “holy ground.”

The real University would vanish from it, and all that would be left was the bricks and the books and the material manifestation.

It must have been a strange concept to all of the students, and I can imagine him waiting for a long time for it to sink in, and perhaps then waiting for the question, What do you think the real University is? His notes, in response to this question, state the following: The real University, he said, has no specific location. It owns no property, pays no salaries and receives no material dues. The real University is a state of mind. It is that great heritage of rational thought that has been brought down to us through the centuries and which does not exist at any specific location. It’s a state of mind which is regenerated throughout the centuries by a body of people who traditionally carry the title of professor, but even that title is not part of the real University. The real University is nothing less than the continuing body of reason itself.

In addition to this state of mind, “reason,” there’s a legal entity which is unfortunately called by the same name but which is quite another thing. This is a nonprofit corporation, a branch of the state with a specific address. It owns property, is capable of paying salaries, of receiving money and of responding to legislative pressures in the process.

But this second university, the legal corporation, cannot teach, does not generate new knowledge or evaluate ideas. It is not the real University at all. It is just a church building, the setting, the location at which conditions have been made favorable for the real church to exist.

Confusion continually occurs in people who fail to see this difference, he said, and think that control of the church buildings implies control of the church. They see professors as employees of the second university who should abandon reason when told to and take orders with no backtalk, the same way employees do in other corporations.

They see the second university, but fail to see the first.

I remember reading this for the first time and remarking about the analytic craftsmanship displayed. He avoided splitting the University into fields or departments and dealing with the results of that analysis. He also avoided the traditional split into students, faculty and administration.

When you split it either of those ways you get a lot of dull stuff that doesn’t really tell you much you can’t get out of the official school bulletin. But Phædrus split it between “the church” and “the location,” and once this cleavage is made the same rather dull and imponderable institution seen in the bulletin suddenly is seen with a degree of clarity that wasn’t previously available. On the basis of this cleavage he provided explanations for a number of puzzling but normal aspects of University life.

After these explanations he returned to the analogy of the religious church. The citizens who build such a church and pay for it probably have in mind that they’re doing this for the community. A good sermon can put the parishioners in a right frame of mind for the coming week. Sunday school will help the children grow up right. The minister who delivers the sermon and directs the Sunday school understands these goals and normally goes along with them, but he also knows that his primary goals are not to serve the community. His primary goal is always to serve God. Normally there’s no conflict but occasionally one creeps in when trustees oppose the minister’s sermons and threaten reduction of funds. That happens.

A true minister, in such situations, must act as though he’d never heard the threats. His primary goal isn’t to serve the members of the community, but always God.

The primary goal of the Church of Reason, Phædrus said, is always Socrates’ old goal of truth, in its ever-changing forms, as it’s revealed by the process of rationality. Everything else is subordinate to that. Normally this goal is in no conflict with the location goal of improving the citizenry, but on occasion some conflict arises, as in the case of Socrates himself. It arises when trustees and legislators who’ve contributed large amounts of time and money to the location take points of view in opposition to the professors’ lectures or public statements. They can then lean on the administration by threatening to cut off funds if the professors don’t say what they want to hear. That happens too.

True churchmen in such situations must act as though they had never heard these threats. Their primary goal never is to serve the community ahead of everything else. Their primary goal is to serve, through reason, the goal of truth.

That was what he meant by the Church of Reason. There was no question but that it was a concept that was deeply felt by him. He was regarded as something of a troublemaker but was never censured for it in any proportion to the amount of trouble he made. What saved him from the wrath of everyone around him was partly an unwillingness to give any support to the enemies of the college, but also partly a begrudging understanding that all of his troublemaking was ultimately motivated by a mandate they were never free from themselves: the mandate to speak the rational truth.

The lecture notes explain almost all of why he acted the way he did, but leave one thing unexplained…his fanatic intensity. One can believe in the truth and in the process of reason to discover it and in resistance to state legislatures, but why burn one’s self out, day after day, over it? The psychological explanations that have been made to me seem inadequate. Stage fright can’t sustain that kind of effort month after month. Neither does another explanation sound right, that he was trying to redeem himself for his earlier failure. There is no evidence anywhere that he ever thought of his expulsion from the university as a failure, just an enigma. The explanation I’ve come to arises from the discrepancy between his lack of faith in scientific reason in the laboratory and his fanatic faith expressed in the Church of Reason lecture. I was thinking about the discrepancy one day and it suddenly came to me that it wasn’t a discrepancy at all. His lack of faith in reason was why he was so fanatically dedicated to it.

You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.

The militancy of the Jesuits he somewhat resembled is a case in point. Historically their zeal stems not from the strength of the Catholic Church but from its weakness in the face of the Reformation. It was Phædrus’ lack of faith in reason that made him such a fanatic teacher. That makes more sense. And it makes a lot of sense out of the things that followed.

That’s probably why he felt such a deep kinship with so many failing students in the back rows of his classrooms. The contemptuous looks on their faces reflected the same feelings he had toward the whole rational, intellectual process. The only difference was that they were contemptuous because they didn’t understand it. He was contemptuous because he did. Because they didn’t understand it they had no solution but to fail and for the rest of their lives remember the experience with bitterness. He on the other hand felt fanatically obliged to do something about it. That was why his Church of Reason lecture was so carefully prepared. He was telling them you have to have faith in reason because there isn’t anything else. But it was a faith he didn’t have himself.

It must always be remembered that this was the nineteen-fifties, not the nineteen-seventies. There were rumblings from the beatniks and early hippies at this time about “the system” and the square intellectualism that supported it, but hardly anyone guessed how deeply the whole edifice would be brought into doubt. So here was Phædrus, fanatically defending an institution, the Church of Reason, that no one, no one certainly in Bozeman, Montana, had any cause to doubt. A pre-Reformation Loyola. A militant reassuring everyone the sun would rise tomorrow, when no one was worried. They just wondered about him.

But now, with the most tumultuous decade of the century between him and ourselves, a decade in which reason has been assailed and assaulted beyond the wildest beliefs of the fifties, I think that in this Chautauqua based on his discoveries we can understand a little better what he was talking about — a solution for it all — if only that were true — so much of it’s lost there’s no way of knowing.

Maybe that’s why I feel like an archeologist. And have such a tension about it. I have only these fragments of memory, and pieces of things people tell me, and I keep wondering as we get closer if some tombs are better left shut.

Chris, sitting behind me, suddenly comes to mind, and I wonder how much he knows, how much he remembers.

We reach an intersection where the road from the park joins the main east-west highway, stop and turn on to it.

From here we go over a low pass and into Bozeman itself. The road goes up now, heading west, and suddenly I’m looking forward to what’s ahead.


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