The headline above has been posed as a question. However, at the Rimini Meeting in Italy, from which I have just returned, it was put forth in a statement as the main theme of a week-long event (August 19-25) that seemed to examine every aspect of life within the broader context of its divine purpose.
The Rimini meeting attracted scores of thousands of people, including not only Christians, but also Buddhists, Muslims, and those of other faiths. In fact, I was the minority Christian on the panel on which I appeared, titled “Islam Today: Between Education and Reason.” My interlocutors were two Egyptian Muslims.
“By nature, man is relation to the infinite” comes from the first chapter of Fr. Luigi Giussani’s The Religious Sense. Fr. Giussani was the founder of Communion and Liberation, a largely lay Catholic group with a significant presence in Italy and elsewhere. This statement, and how it is understood, has enormous ramifications for both Christianity and Islam.
What struck me about this theme is the fact that man cannot be in relation to something he does not know. To say that he is by nature in relation to the infinite must mean that he has within himself some means of coming to know it. If he can do this by nature, this means that he can do it quite independent from revelation.
This is a statement of enormous significance. Man, with his finite mind, can somehow apprehend, at least in part, the infinite. How can he do this, and in what terms can it be articulated?
The Greek answer
The first suggested answers to these profound questions came well before either Christianity or Islam from Greece in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. In the ancient, pre-philosophical world, man was immersed in mythological portrayals of the world, the gods, and himself. These mythopoeic accounts made no distinction between man and nature or between convention and nature. A dog wagged its tail because that was the way of a dog. Egyptians painted their funeral caskets in bright colors because that was the way of the Egyptians. There was no way to differentiate between the two because the word “nature” was not available in the pre-philosophical world.
According to Henri Frankfort’s book Before Philosophy, it was Heraclitus (535-475 BC) who first grasped that the universe is an intelligible whole and that therefore man is able to comprehend its order. If this is true—and only if it is true—man’s inquiry into the nature of reality becomes possible. The very idea of “nature” becomes possible. How could this be? Heraclitus said that the universe is intelligible because it is ruled by and is the product of “thought” or wisdom.
As far as we know, Heraclitus and Parmenides (early 5th c. BC) were the first to use the word Logos to name this wisdom. Logos, of course, means “reason” or “word” in Greek. It is Logos which makes the world intelligible to the endeavor of philosophy, i.e. reason. In the Timaeus, Plato writes, “…now the sight of day and night, and the months and the revolutions of the years, have created number, and have given us a conception of time; and the power of inquiring about the nature of the universe; and from this source, we have derived philosophy, than which no greater good ever was or will be given by the gods to mortal man.” Through reason, said Socrates, man can know “what is.”
For the first time, reason becomes the arbiter. Reason becomes normative. It is through reason—not from the gods of the city—that man can discern what is just from what is unjust, what is good from what is evil, what is myth from what is reality. Behaving reasonably or doing what accords with reason becomes the standard of moral behavior. We see one of the highest expressions of this understanding in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.
Christianity and reason
Christianity was the first religion to be completely Hellenized—in the sense of recognizing the moral authority of reason and assimilating philosophy. This is what Benedict XVI means when he speaks of reason as the “gift of the Greeks.” Against this background, one can come closer to realizing the electrifying effect of the opening of the Gospel of St John. The Gospel is, of course, in Greek and uses the English translation of “word” for Logos. But it can be rendered just as well by “reason.” For our purposes here, let us leave the Greek word Logos in the quotation: “In the beginning was the Logos: and the Logos was with God: and the Logos was God…all things were made by him [as Logos]…” Logos, then, is not an it—an intelligible principle or a cosmic force—but a Who.
St John confirmed through revelation Heraclitus’ intuition that it is Logos that makes the universe comprehensible, because all things were made through Logos. If God is reason and all things are made by and through him, then the universe He has made must be intelligible. We can know what is because it was made by Logos. We can have thoughts about things that are the product of thought.
So, yes, we are by nature in relation to the infinite because our reason can partially come to know the infinite. Reason tells us that the ultimate good of man’s mind is God. In the Summa Contra Gentiles (Book 3, chapter 23), St Thomas Aquinas said, “the end of the intellect is the end of all human actions. “But the end and good of the intellect are the true;” consequently, the first truth is the ultimate end. So, the ultimate end of the whole man, and of all his operations and desires, is to know the first truth, which is God.”
Christ is introduced by St John as Logos incarnate. There could not be a clearer message that revelation involves our reason. But the Creator does more than reason could expect; He enters his creation to save it from the otherwise fatal harm that man has brought to himself. Logos is also Agape, the overflowing, unconditional love of God for man. It is the gift of reason that prepares us for the more astonishing revelation of the Logos who loves us intimately and individually. Plato did not know that there is a greater gift than philosophy from God, but without our reason could we have come to know its overwhelming significance? What if Heraclitus, having speculated on the Logos, encountered Logos walking through the door? This is the experience of a Hellenized Christianity.
Islam and reason
What of Islam in this respect? It too was Hellenized, partially through contacts with the Hellenized Christianity it conquered and more directly through the remaining centers of Hellenic thinking in Alexandria and elsewhere. The first fully developed theological school, the Mu’tazilites, embraced the idea of God as reason, of a rational order in creation, and of man’s ability to come to know it. Islamic culture flourished especially in the first half of the ninth century AD under these influences.
The problem arose in the last half of the century, when an opposing theological school, the Ash’arites, gained the patronage of the caliph in order to suppress the Mu’tazilite doctrines. The Ash’arites thought that God is unconstrained by reason and is more properly understood as pure will and power. In other words, unlike Heraclitus who took the universe to be the product of thought, they took it to be the product of pure will.
The problem with this is that it removes reason from the equation because pure will has no reasons for what it does. You cannot really think about it. Reason is removed from God’s essence; the world is no longer imbued with a rational order (which it could only have received from a rational God); and man can only wonder at God’s will, which man is without the means to understand. Man is no longer by nature in relation to the infinite. In fact, the very notion of “nature” disappears. Man reverts to his pre-philosophical form, immersed in a mythological, magical world. His only relation to the infinite comes in the form of dictation from God to which he must submit without his reason.
Perhaps the best way to express the profound difference in these contending views are the following words from Albert Einstein: “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” We know from Heraclitus, St. John, and the Mu’tazilites that the universe is comprehensible because of Logos. A comparable statement by the Ash’arites, whose thinking prevails to this day in Sunni Islam, would be, “the most comprehensible thing about the universe is that it is incomprehensible.” It is incomprehensible because its Creator is no longer Logos.
The option for rationality
In conversation with a student in Rome, Benedict XVI made a statement that neatly summarizes the core of what is at stake for both Islam and Christianity with this issue of reason and our relation to the infinite. I will omit only one word from it, indicated by empty brackets. He said that:
There are only two options. Either one recognizes the priority of reason, of creative Reason that is at the beginning of all things and is the principle of all things—the priority of reason is also the priority of freedom—or one holds the priority of the irrational, inasmuch as everything that functions on our earth and in our lives would be only accidental, marginal, an irrational result-reason would be a product of irrationality. One cannot ultimately “prove” either project, but the great option of [ ] is the option for rationality and for the priority of reason. This seems to me to be an excellent option, which shows us that behind everything is a great Intelligence to which we can entrust ourselves.
Of course, the missing word in the bracket is “Christianity.” The question is whether the word “Islam” could be inserted in its stead and still have the statement read correctly. Does Islam still have the option open for the priority of reason? It most certainly attempted to exercise that option under the Mu’tazilites at a time generally acknowledged as being the apogee of Arab Islamic culture. One could have substituted the word “Islam” at that time, and the statement above would otherwise have stood unaltered.
Many of the Muslims with whom I work understand this crisis in their culture and are struggling to restore the capacity for critical reasoning to Islam. One of my fellow panelists at Rimini grasps it with great acuity. With the Islamist surge throughout the Middle East taking hold, they have a very difficult and dangerous job ahead of them. The least that Christians can do for them is themselves not to abandon the priority of reason, which is what by nature puts us all in relation to the infinite.
This essay first appeared August 30, 2012 on Mercatornet.com and is reprinted here under a Creative Commons license.