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.