What Reason Alone Cannot Comprehend

Politicians, lawyers, professors, doctors, engineers, and most other people at one time or another are confronted with teachings or practices that are said to have their origins and justification in revelation, in the Commandments, in the divine will. They might even themselves hold these sources to be worthy of belief. Can any sense be made of revelation, of the notion that at least some of the things we need to know originate in a divine source? This query must still be asked even when it is also true that there are a good many false prophets about, a good many things said to be revealed for which no evidence exists.

When we read Aristotle or any good philosopher, we are conscious that they are trying to explain what everything is, how things fit together and why. Philosophy asks about the whole. Man is a part within this whole that the philosopher seeks to explain. He belongs to it as much as anything else in the universe, yet he seems to be ordered to something more than just belonging. Indeed, man is the only being within this whole who asks: “What is it all about?”

Philosophy flows from this question. The word itself means “the love of wisdom.” The philosophic soul wants to know where anything stands in relation to everything else. Why do so many different things exist and not just one thing? Why does a philosopher want to know these things? It seems that he wants to know them just for what they are, just for the sake of knowing them. Something about reality seems incomplete if it is not known. As such, nothing can be excluded from our desire to known what we can about it.

Man seems to be the one being in the universe that must knowingly explain the uniqueness of what he already is. What he is came about through no choice of his own. He exists to become conscious of what he is, to articulate what he is. But he only becomes conscious of what he is by first encountering and knowing what is other than himself. Rocks and cattle do not have to know these things. And men do not “need” to know them either. Still, men are incomplete if they do not, on their own, so to speak, investigate what there is to be known about their own existence in the world.

In this sense, man seems to be free, if he wishes, to know what is not himself. Yet he is also able not to bother himself too much about the what’s and why’s of what is not himself. For man, when he encounters being, what is, he finds that it bears about it the connotation of gift or invitation rather than of necessity. Moreover, each individual man does not actually need to know every other particular thing to be what he is. In this sense, it seems all right that an individual man as we know him is not God. He can be and be good without being a god.

We see that reason and revelation are often contrasted with one another. Reason is sometimes reduced to a “feeling” or a “desire.” In much the same way, Revelation is often written off as myth or fantasy. Man learns what he does know gradually. God is said to be an all-knowing being. Presumably if a man knew all things, he would already be a god. If man knows something of God, it means that he is not himself God. A God would know everything of what He is. It is possible in the same universe to have God and beings that are not God but still know something of Him. It is also theoretically possible to have only God and nothing else if what is not God need not exist. In this sense, man could know something of God that God wanted him to know for his own good.

The somewhat peculiar question remains to be asked: “Once man knows everything he can about himself and his place in the universe is there still a place or reason for him to be informed about himself with a knowledge that he could not discover by using his own knowing powers?” It is to this latter question that revelation directs our attention. What kind of a case can be made for including revelation in any effort to understand the whole of reality including ourselves? The initial presupposition must be that nothing pertinent can be left out. We cannot say that philosophy wants to know everything and, at the same time, exclude some knowledge that can be known.

The first step would be to show how revelation is not a feeling or a product of human imagination. Revelation does not contradict reason. If something said to be irrational is found in revelational accounts, that revelation must be rejected. On the other hand, if something is found in revelation that, on examining it, proves to make reason more reasonable, makes it aware of a truth that it did not arrive at by itself, then it would seem that revelation and reason have origins in the same source.

Revelation is not something we can expect, something due to us in virtue of what we are. The universe might be just as it is with no claims to a further knowledge found in it. But what we have in fact is a world in which, in addition to reason, we have divine claims or events addressed to this same reason. Revelation has an intelligibility to it, whether we “believe” it or not. It bears the character of mind addressing mind. How so?

If we take the central notions found in Christianity, namely the Trinity and the Incarnation, we see that Christians themselves hold that these events and their explanations cannot be “proved” by reason. To maintain that one can “prove” that God is triune in person is a heretical position. Yet, Christians hold precisely this understanding of the Godhead as something to be believed. This holding would at first sight make them to be irrationalists. The doctrine of the Trinity, however, is intelligible. We know what it means. It is a statement of otherness and order within the one God. This otherness is personal—the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, neither is the Holy Spirit.

What is the significance of this knowledge contained within revelation to the philosopher? The philosopher does not see how God is triune. He can understand what the Christians hold on this topic. But the philosopher on his own terms is puzzled by a question he cannot answer in his own discipline. Aristotle put it well. God, the First Mover, thought thinking itself, seems to lack something, namely, friendship, that is a perfection in the creature, man. But once he has heard of the Christian teaching on the Trinity, on the otherness in God, the philosopher can see that the doctrine of the Trinity puts revelation in line with reason. Revelation does seem to correct reason by making it more reasonable in its own order.

Once we understand the implications of this connection of reason and revelation, it becomes clear that what it contained in revelation can incite reason to broaden its own understanding of reality. In other words, from the point of view of the philosopher, revelation makes reason more itself—more reasonable. It does this by considering how a revelational teaching expands something not fully understood by reason itself.

Reason united with revelation enlarges our freedom because it enlarges our knowledge of our own personal destiny. Plato’s “myth” at the end of The Republic taught us that our lives are not unimportant. They are held accountable for what was freely chosen. In this sense, we are both freer and more responsible when we know how the teachings of reason and revelation respond to each other in an intelligible whole.

What are we to conclude from this consideration of reason and revelation? Reason and revelation are not radical in opposition to each other. They are complimentary. If revelation cannot contradict reason, it means both that reason itself is valid and that it is open to receive from beyond its confines a solution that, in examining it, makes reason more itself. It also means that revelation cannot be written off as a myth or dream. When philosophy reacts against reason itself by elevating passions or will over reason, it undermines that broad scope of friendship that relates men and gods together. The alternative to reason is an isolation that allows us to create our own world independent of the world that is. To do this is, in short, irrational.

Reader Discussion

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on December 24, 2018 at 11:28:28 am

I think many people fail to understand the distinction and importance of natural law and revealed law. Natural law being based in reason. It defines the laws of our univerise including the nature of man. It is from natural law that we derive our natural rights. But natural law is not revealed law. Revealed law relies on belief and faith, not reason. For believers, God created the natural law. But natural law doesn’t depend on the existance of a God. Even an athiest can agree with natural law, which makes it transcend all religious and other distinctions among humanity.

Revealed law has its own importance even in the world of science. Every scientific experiment must begin with a hypthosis. How does one determine what hypthosis to test? By definition this must occur before testing. It must come from some kind of a priori knowledge about how you believe the world to be, without evidence to support that belief.

Then properly understood, both reason and belief are critically important to any kind of functioning system of developing knowledge. But this doesn’t only apply to the world around us, but also to knowledge about human behavior and ideal society. This is where natural law comes in. If a society wishes happiness then it needs to follow certain natural laws. Those natural laws start with property rights. Rights of the individual over their own body (which includes the right to liberty, ie the right to do those acts which do not harm others), and the right to aquire and dispose of other real and personal property. And finally the rights of self-defense when your other rights are threatened and the right of punishment of those who have violated your rights (the last of which we delegate to government in civil society). These are the fundemental natural laws that all societies must follow to achieve happiness.

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Devin Watkins
on December 26, 2018 at 17:54:53 pm

From a theological perspective, which I believe the author was primarily evoking, approached the topic from the Thomistic school.
The Catholic Encyclopedia states,” According to St.Thomas, the natural law is “nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law” (I-Ii,91.2).

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Jack Hill
on December 26, 2018 at 18:23:42 pm

The profundity and the pure reason of Schall’s article is impressive in a post Kantian world. The neatness and clarity of your argument systematically makes sense of the knower and the known - the self and the other.
The epistemological question or dilemma does create a schism between a utopia and the world we live.
Is humanity evolving and creating a world (Artificial Intelligence) that maybe able to know everything yet still not know itself?
Teilhard de Chardin said it best,”You are not a human being in search of a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience.”
Rational or irrational?

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Jack Hill
on December 28, 2018 at 17:54:10 pm

“God created the natural law. But natural law doesn’t depend on the existance of a God.”
If God did not exist, Natural Law would not exist. God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, The Author of Love, of Life, and of Marriage, Is The Creator of Natural Law.

At the end of The Day, God, The Most Holy and Undivided Blessed Trinity. May not reveal to us how the Universe is what it is, but that does not change the fact that if God did not exist, we would not exist.

“You will be My people, and I will be your God.” - The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

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on December 29, 2018 at 11:37:37 am

This part was really interesting to me, and helps answer a question I've had for a long time about Aquinas' Commentary on the Ethics:
"Aristotle put it well. God, the First Mover, thought thinking itself, seems to lack something, namely, friendship, that is a perfection in the creature, man. But once he has heard of the Christian teaching on the Trinity, on the otherness in God, the philosopher can see that the doctrine of the Trinity puts revelation in line with reason."

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CJ Wolfe
on December 29, 2018 at 11:42:56 am

An essay I had read by Marko Fuchs in this collection is what raised the question in my mind. His essay on friendship and charity in it had judges "Aquinas’s attempt to appropriate Aristotle’s notion of philia as simply unsuccessful and leaves it at that."

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CJ Wolfe

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