By Hassaan Usmani
Today, whenever anyone of us starts to ponder over the purpose of our existence with the most sincere inclination toward the search for truth, at one point or the other, we stumble upon this debate about “Reason” vs. “Revelation”. In this debate, “Reason” stands on one side and claims to be the most neutral and rational way to approach truth or ‘the ultimate purpose of our existence’. “Reason” makes a promise with us that our intellect or ‘thinking’ is absolutely free and can wander thinking about anything in an attempt to understand the world. We sort of conquer what we understand. Moreover, just like our intellect, we also do not have to observe any restrictions or limits on our actions. The world seems a more sensible and safe place when everyone has “Reason” to guide them through life.
On the other hand of the debate stands “Revelation” which claims to already have an answer to the question at hand. It provides us with a specific purpose of life and then instructs us on how to act upon it. It claims to be from an entity which transcends and is far beyond the human condition. As a consequence, it also transcends human capacity of understanding. Therefore, the question of whether what “Revelation” teaches us is rational or not, is essentially irrelevant for the followers of “Revelation”. For the followers of “Reason”, rationality is of utmost importance in the search for truth. And this is the point from which this debate continues.
Nevertheless, this is a very popular yet childish understanding of the issue. A more sophisticated analysis of the debate informs us about some complexities on either side of the debate. Firstly, whenever someone claims to know something to be from the “Revelation”, one is always talking about an understanding or an interpretation of revelation. Revelation needs to be interpreted in order for it to be adopted by human beings. One cannot follow revelation until and unless it is interpreted using the faculty of human reason or understanding. In this sense, revelation is dependent upon reason as without reason, it cannot be properly understood.
However, reason is a tool which can yield logically coherent conclusions, given certain assumptions (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). We hold some assumptions or “beliefs” before we apply reason. And these assumptions are beyond the scope of reason. They do not emerge out of reason. Sure, we can utilize reason to analyze how reasonable each of our assumptions is, but whenever we embark on such a journey, we will have to make some other assumption consciously or unconsciously, in light of which we analyze our former assumption. This cycle can go on forever.
Interestingly, the ideal image of “Reason” that we hold in our minds ignores this complexity. We know that reason requires some “assumptions” prior to its application: these “assumptions” are beyond reason. They just have to be accepted somehow in order for reason to work. So one might ask that then what is the problem with simply accepting the beliefs propounded by revelation? Why does reason have to be independent of revelation in order to be neutral? And why is it imagined as “biased” when it is known to operate with assumptions or beliefs that emerge out of revelation?
Reason and revelation are two different domains. Revelation needs reason in order to be interpreted. Reason, needs some assumptions to work with, and although it is capable of recognizing its assumptions, it is incapable of producing them. Reason, ultimately needs some source of assumptions: what difference does it make if that source is revealed?
If reason and revelation are so intertwined and inter-dependent on each other then why are these two commonly understood as two totally unconnected and self-sufficient compartments at war with each other? Where does this popular understanding emerge from? Why is a person publicly addressing the importance of revelation perceived as someone not truly dedicated to reason? Or why is a person advocating faith in reason perceived as someone deviating from scripture?
Perhaps the origin of such a view of reason lies in history. For example, The Donation of Constantine was a historical document which supposedly the Roman emperor Constantine had written somewhere around the fourth century. The document granted the pope control over some lands in the territory of Rome. Lorenzo Valla, a philologist in the fifteenth century AD, pointed out that the document contained anachronisms which meant that this document must have been a forgery. This document had long served as a pillar to the papacy’s claim to the right to act as a temporal power! (Brown)
Similarly, another philologist, Desiderius Erasmus, a successor of Valla discovered that a verse in the Latin Bible used as a definitive proof of Trinity was a later addition totally absent in the ancient Greek text of the New Testament (Brown). These are two examples of instances when people have critically read texts with some materialist assumptions and that in turn led to a remarkable eye-opening discovery. There are even more examples to illustrate this. Perhaps it was these events that constructed a popular dumbed down view of reason as being something that opposes, or is at war with, revelation.
Nevertheless, a perceived war between reason and revelation only makes sense once we actually believe that “Reason can only operate on materialist assumptions and not on anything revealed”. We would have to consciously or unconsciously accept that a materialist understanding of the world is innate to us and is absolutely neutral. This, in itself, is a very contestable claim. A materialist worldview has nothing to do with reason. It is a belief which precedes any application of reason whatsoever. And it can only be justified on further materialist assumptions. It is grounded nowhere. It is, at the most, no different from a religious worldview grounded in scripture.
Therefore, what we understand as a conflict between “Reason” and “Revelation” is essentially a conflict between materialist assumptions about the world and revealed assumptions about the world. Or to be precise, it is a conflict between people who believe in revelation and the ones who do not believe in it and look for other ways to explain the world and our ultimate purpose of being in it. Reason has nothing to do with this conflict as it can be employed equally legitimately by both sides in the conflict.
This is a conflict between two beliefs or assumptions about the ultimate purpose of our lives. As far as reason is concerned, either side is no different from the other. And if one asks that which of the two sides holds true beliefs? This is a question which cannot be fully answered through reason. How can it be answered then? This is something which requires further discussion and hopefully we can begin discussing and attempt to answer it only and only once we nuance our understanding of the existing debate and appreciate the true nature of the conflict.
1. Williams, Garrath. “Kant’s Account of Reason.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 1 Nov. 2017, plato.stanford.edu/entries/kant-reason/#LimRea.
2. Hadith, Jonathan Brown, pg. 199- 204