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Philosophy Then

First Believe, Then Understand

Peter Adamson reviews the relation of reason & revelation.

Since the seventeenth century or so, European thought has been increasingly shaped by the idea that science and religion are opposed. Enlightenment philosophers and their heirs have mostly striven to align their discipline with science and distance it from religion. Once the handmaid of theology, now philosophy is often the handmaid of neuroscience or particle physics. So pervasive now is the notion that religious belief is independent from, or even diametrically opposed to, scientific inquiry, that it can be hard for us to appreciate older ways of seeing the relationship between reason and revelation. But let’s try.

One major way of thinking about it was laid down by St Augustine (354-430): ‘Believe in order to understand’ (crede ut intelligas). We mere humans should depend on revealed truths in our thinking to ensure that we do not go astray in spiritual matters; but that dependence certainly did not rule out rational argumentation. Indeed the Augustinian slogan was quoted by Anselm just before he presented the most famous rational demonstration in all medieval philosophy, his ontological argument for the existence of God. As jarring as this attitude might be to us given our post-Enlightenment attitudes, it is not that hard to understand. After all, it’s one thing to believe that God exists or that Christ died for our sins, another to understand exactly what these doctrines mean, and yet something else to understand all they may imply. Reason may still have much to contribute, even once faith has had its say.

This point was made in more rigorous terms by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). He would have been astonished by the modern notion that religious belief is fundamentally irrational. To the contrary: truth, including religious truth, comes from God, and God is perfectly rational. Exploiting what seems to English speakers to be an ambiguity of the Latin word scientia (knowledge), he said that the theology of sacred science (scientia) derives from the higher understanding (scientia) of God. So for Aquinas no human science is more ‘scientific’ than theology, even though, or rather precisely because, it rests upon divine revelation.

Actually, Aquinas thought that unaided human reason can establish certain fundamental truths of Christianity, notably that there does exist one perfectly good, infinitely powerful God. But other doctrines of the faith cannot be proven with merely human powers. Rational proof was impossible in such cases as the incarnation, transubstantiation and the Trinity. You can’t prove that God became a man, that bread becomes flesh, or that one God is three Persons, the way you can prove a theorem of mathematics or physics. Yet reason has its part to play in understanding these doctrines too. We can at least establish that they involve no impossibilities, thus refuting some criticisms from members of the other Abrahamic religions. And we can come to a deeper understanding of the doctrines, for instance by applying Aristotle’s analysis of relational properties to the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. So on Aquinas’s telling, far from being irrational theology is the richest and most powerful application of reason, just because it draws on the additional resources of revelation.

Aquinas’s particular way of describing the relationship between religion and reason was culturally specific – a negotiated settlement between Augustinian theology and Aristotelian philosophy. But in its broad outlines his solution can also be found in other times and places. Take for example Śaṅkara, a leading exponent of the Indian school of Vedānta, who lived in the eighth century AD. Śaṅkara likewise represented a tradition of philosophical engagement with scripture, in his case with the ancient Vedas and the Hindu literature they inspired, especially the Upaniṣads but also such texts as the Bhagavad Gītā. His distinctive contribution was to put forward a ‘non-dual’ (advaita) or monist theory, according to which brahman, the divine origin of all things, is in fact the only real thing. Brahman is also identical with the individual self.

My goal here is not to explain Śaṅkara’s teaching (thank goodness), but to point out that his method had something in common with that of Aquinas. Śaṅkara explicitly denied that the single source of everything, brahman, can be known directly through human resources. Any knowledge we ourselves derive depends on sense-perception and other instruments of cognition, and these can never grasp brahman, for brahman is without any distinguishing characteristics: it’s a kind of unchanging transcendent consciousness without defined properties. Therefore we know of brahman only through the scriptures. But once we do know it, we can use rational argumentation to understand more fully how brahman relates to the world as it’s experienced – whose reality Śaṅkara puts in doubt. Employing analogies from everyday life alongside constant citations from the Upaniṣads, Śaṅkara suggests that the reality of any effect resides in the principle from which it arose, like the pot that came from and consists in nothing but clay. Just so, our world of experience has its origin in brahman and has no reality distinct from that origin. Śaṅkara also uses rational argument to defeat rivals, both within the Vedic tradition and outside it. He appeals to other Hindu readers with a combination of exegesis and proof, defending his non-dual theory as being plausible in both interpretive and philosophical terms. And he offers a withering criticism of Buddhist philosophy, which is opposed to Vedānta since the Buddhists reject the reality of the self. Finally, he considers potential objections to the non-dual theory, and meets them with counter-refutation.

For Śaṅkara as for Anselm and Aquinas, a proper understanding of things is unattainable without the proper use of reason. But a proper use of reason is unattainable without religious commitment. It is the Vedas, or the Bible, that give us the truth, and the ‘scientist’s’ job is to understand that truth.

© Prof. Peter Adamson 2019

Peter Adamson is the author of A History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Vols 1, 2 & 3, available from OUP. They’re based on his popular History of Philosophy podcast.

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