Is Man by Nature in Relation to the Infinite?

stThomas

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.

Robert R. Reilly

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Robert R. Reilly is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind (ISI Books). He is writing a book on the natural law argument against homosexual marriage for Ignatius Press.

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  • ChrisPineo

    Like this.

  • Tom

    Thank you Mr. Reilly, this is interesting. A few questions/quibbles
    from some one that is it a not Muslim or Christian scholar.

    From the Catholic perspective:

    1. If we, as Catholics, are going to
    claim the importance of reason, please lets stop using double speak. You say
    “Logos is also Agape”. No, it seems to
    me that Reason is not Love. Those are totally different concepts. I don’t think
    a patient would like his doctor to say: “it could be your brain or your liver,
    its all the same”. One characteristic of post Vatican 2 Catholicism is the
    undisciplined use of language, because it may sound “hip” or what ever. This is
    particularly a problem in “New Ecclesiastic” movements. Double speak is used to
    confuse and manipulate people.

    2. “New Ecclesiastic” movements have
    a rather poor track record of rigorous use of reason, it seems to me, because
    that was not why they were created in the first place. They are more alike to
    Catholic Madrasa. For example, the quote “By nature, man is relation to the
    infinite” smacks of double speak. Man is not “relation”. The statement is not
    even grammatically correct, it seems to me. Often members of “New Ecclesiastic”
    movements use double speak, “vows” and lay “spiritual direction”, as part of
    prescribed methodologies to keep discipline and group cohesion. This thought
    control enforcement is not conducive to rigorous independent reasoned thinking.
    This is compounded by the fact that these groups are rich (by extracting money
    from “elite” members), have little canon law prescribed oversight, thus are
    semi independent entities often primarily in service to themselves. For
    example, CL is primarily a powerful business guild in the Lombard region of Italy (with recent accusations of
    cronyism and political scandal). BTW, as a matter of disclosure/academic
    honesty, are you a member of CL?

    From the Muslim perspective:

    1. Where does the Aristotelian
    Muslim scholar Averroes (1126 -1198), who arguably helped re- Hellenized
    Christianity, as he influenced Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), fit in this narrative?

    2. The fact that there are fanatical
    elements now days, in the Sunni world for example, is complex, as some of the
    radicalization is recent. At least two (nominally) Catholics may have plaid an
    inadvertent role in this. Alexandre de Marenches, the French chief of
    intelligence under Pompidou, is apparently the first to use Jihadist to fight
    communism. He also provided decisive help in the 1979 siege of Mecca, by sending French Paratrooper (who
    were first converted to Islam before storming). The concordat that followed
    between Muftis and Saudi Royalty ensured further radicalization of Wahhabism,
    in part to placate the population, to keep the undisrupted flow of oil. The
    other Catholic was Zbigniew Brzezinski, who borrowed de Marenches idea with
    Jihadists in Central
    Asia.

    3. If one follows the very rapidly
    unfolding events of the Arab Spring, one can see that there are many currents.
    Some radical, some less so, often lines are blurred. Al-Jazeera English, is now
    populated with the most fringe Anglo liberal academic element, not sure why.
    Yet they recently sided with the Russian Orthodox Church regarding to the Pussy
    Riot affair (to me, a positive sign).

    4. So the lines are not that “black
    and white”. As Catholics, we have a lot of catching up to do, to claim rigorous
    use of reason. Either traditional orders (Dominicans, Jesuits, etc..) return to
    basics, by forgoing 60’s relativism, sloppy use of words/ideas; or new orders
    need to be formed. I don’t see a future in this regards with “New ecclesiastic
    movements”, unless they change completely their mythologies. Regardless, I
    agree that engaging Muslims on an ecumenical level is critical, especially in
    issues related to respect of life, abortion, family values, etc, while ensuring the safety of ME Christians
    it seem to me (recent reports from Syria are discouraging)..

    Hope this makes sense?

    Regards.

  • Tom

    mythologies—>methodologies, sorry!

  • Tom

    There is also something else to consider.

    Double is peak is to be avoided at all cost, because it goes
    against God given ability to think clearly. It’s in the Bible. It’s ok to say
    that “x is like z, under such and such circumstances, for these reasons”. Christ
    does that in his parables . But this hippy 60’s way of saying that “a IS b” should
    be done away with, once and for all. To use the reverse of Orwell’s example, war
    is not love, love is not war. CL, OD etc..
    are products of their time. Double speak was rife. Stupid slogans like “Viva la
    Muerte” probably influenced people like Escriva, and the founder guru dude of
    CL. It’s time to let go of this. Coming back to the issue or reason, there are arguments
    to be cautious. This is why it is essential to use exact language (sorry, I
    know, mine is not that great)

    1)
    As Catholics there is one case of what may
    appear as double speak , that is permitted. Only one. It is when we say Christ IS in the Host. That
    is the only exception. For non Catholics is this not “reasonable”. It is an
    irrational statement by definition, but central to our belief. So perhaps Muslims
    have a point in this regard. Not all from God is “reasoned” at a human level. Reason has its critical place, but some aspects
    in the belief in God are beyond human reason. So, in that sense, perhaps our Muslim neighbors are telling us something.

    2)
    Perhaps Muslim anti idolatry campaign goes too
    far, but maybe there is something to be learned. Maybe we should also examine
    what are our core beliefs. Or are we not also prone to idolatry? Do we put too
    much emphasis on our modern day Gurus like Fr Maciel? Or is it correct to exploited the tragic death of
    a teenager from cancer, by beatifying her to promotes ones’ New Movement, like
    the Focolare did, using a sabotaged sainthood process (no promoter of faith)?

    3)
    I am not a historian, but the track record of Western
    “reasoned” thinkinghas amazing achievements, but also disasters. Re-Hellenzation
    of European thought in the Middle ages gave
    us Aquinas, Copernicus, the Enlightenment,
    democracy. It also gave us the reformation and counter reformation (maybe
    necessary, but very painful). But is eventually. It also gave us the19-10th
    century relativism, “all is due to immediate historical context” BS, “might is
    right” garbage, that lead to massive catastrophes (Nazism, Communism, the abortion
    dogmas, etc..). Twentieth Century Gurus that founded New Ecclesiastic
    moments, like their hippy/”revolutionary” Jesuits counterparts, all were products of that time. So whos’ “reason”
    will one use? I would suggest that anything that did not survive the test of
    time (minimum 150 years) should be viewed with great caution. It is possible
    that the Muslim world will go through a Vatican 2 like process. Perhaps
    Catholics can inform them of possible pitfalls

    Perhaps before criticizing Muslims, we should look in the mirror.
    I am not saying I have all the answers, but what are our core beliefs? What makes
    us who we are? What makes us different? What makes us similar? We need people like
    people St Thomas , with the courage, discipline, hard work and honesty to answer
    these questions again. Yet, there will always
    be hard core differences in our specific understanding of God. The question is ,
    how are we going to co-exist?

    Sorry for my bad grammar/spelling..

  • Tom

    There is also
    something else to consider (minus some typos).

    Double speak is
    to be avoided at all cost, because it goes against God given ability to think
    clearly. It’s in the Bible. It’s ok to say that “x is like z, under such and
    such circumstances, for these reasons”. Christ does that in his parables . But
    this hippy 60’s way of saying that “a IS b” should be done away with, once and
    for all. To use the reverse of Orwell’s example, war is not love, love is not
    war. CL, OD etc..are products of their time. Double speak was rife. Stupid
    slogans like “Viva la Muerte” probably influenced people like Escriva, and the
    founder guru of CL. It’s time to let go of this. Coming back to the issue or
    reason, there are arguments to be cautious. This is why it is essential to use
    exact language (sorry, I know, mine is not that great).

    1) As Catholics there is one instant of apparent
    double speak that is permitted. Only one, imo. It is when we say Christ IS in
    the Host. That is the only exception. For non Catholics is this not
    “reasonable”. It is an irrational statement by definition, but central to our
    belief. So perhaps Muslims have a point in this regard. Not all from God is
    “reasoned” at a human level. Reason has its critical place, but some aspects in
    the belief in God are beyond human reason. So, in that sense, perhaps our
    Muslim neighbors are telling us something.

    2) Perhaps Muslim anti idolatry campaign goes
    too far, but maybe there is something to be learned. Maybe we should also examine
    what are our core beliefs. Or are we
    not also prone to idolatry? Do we put too much emphasis on our modern day Gurus
    like Fr Maciel? Or is it correct to exploited the tragic death of a teenager
    from cancer, by beatifying her to promotes ones’ New Movement, like the
    Focolare did, using a sabotaged sainthood process (no promoter of faith)?

    3) I am not a historian, but the track record of
    Western “reasoned” thinking has amazing achievements, but also disasters.
    Re-Hellenization of European thought in the Middle ages gave us Aquinas,
    Copernicus, the Enlightenment, democracy. It also gave us the reformation and the
    counter reformation (maybe necessary, but very painful). But is eventually also
    gave us 19-20th century relativism, “all is due to immediate historical
    context”, “might is right”, that lead to massive catastrophes (Nazism,
    Communism, the abortion dogmas, etc..). Twentieth Century Gurus that founded
    New Ecclesiastic moments, like their hippy/”revolutionary” Jesuits counterparts,
    all were products of that time. So whose “reason” will one use? I would suggest
    that anything that did not survive the test of time (minimum 150 years) should
    be viewed with great caution. It is possible that the Muslim world will go
    through a Vatican 2 like process. Perhaps Catholics can inform them of possible
    pitfalls.

    There will always be hard core differences in
    our specific understanding of God. The question is, how are we going to
    co-exist?

    Sorry for my bad
    grammar/spelling..

  • http://www.facebook.com/jesse.mckeown.33 Jesse McKeown

    Dear Tom,
    When Mr. Reilly, following the Church, says “Logos is Agape”, we must understand that he and She are saying, in short-hand (or poetics, if you will) that Who Is Logos is Who Is Agape; both are Who Is. They are not the names, here, for human reason nor for human charity, still less their fallen condition; they are names for the Trinity, which inspired scripture has chosen in order that we may come to know something of God by the imago Dei we all bear. Furthermore, I should have thought it comforting to realize that there is something fundamentally reasonable about charity, just as there is something charitable about right reason.

    “Doublespeak”, then, is a hasty accusation, uncharitable and unreasonable. May I urge you to consider with care the rest of your worries? They may not be so pressing as you think.

  • Tom

    Dear Jesse

    If one is going to
    write a piece trashing others for not using their God given brain to discern
    reason from the irrational, than yes, it matter. Words matter.

    “Reason” is not “love”, just like 3 is not 4.

    You imply that “Reason is Love” is Church teaching. Can you
    please provide a reference?

    “Love is reason” is the title of a Disco song.

    Love Is Reason

    My breath was coming fast

    And as i make a start

    You turn to go

    oh, oh

    I’ll do what you want me to

    I’ll cry at the thought of the loss of a

    heart

    Love is reason

    Love is reason

    Love is reason

    Love is reason enough

    My morals are changing fast

    I told you it wouldn’t last

    You turn and go

    oh, oh

    I’ll be what you want me to be

    I’d die at the thought of the loss of

    your heart

    Love is reason

    Love is reason

    Love is reason

    Love is reason enough

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1o2XYIECFI

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