religion / rationality – themes

May 27, 2005

…the statement, “I believe in
God” has no objective meaning, as such, but like any other statement
only means something in context, when proclaimed by a particular
community. Consequently there is no one unchanging idea contained in
the word “God”; instead, the word contains a whole spectrum of
meanings, some of which are contradictory or even mutually exclusive…
When one conception of God has ceased to have meaning or relevance, it
has been quietly discarded and replaced by a new theology. [APD: not
always so quietly!] A fundamentalist would deny this, since
fundamentalism is antihistorical: it believes that Abraham, Moses, and
the later prophets all experienced their God in exactly the same way as
people do today… Atheism has often been a transitional state: thus
Jews, Christians and Muslims were all called “atheists” by their pagan
contemporaries because they had adopted a revolutionary notion of
divinity and transcendence.

from Karen Armstrong, A History of God

[Brahman is] What cannot be spoken in words, but that whereby words are
spoken… What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the
mind can think… comes to the thought of those who know It beyond
thought, not to those who imagine it can be attained by thought. It is
unknown to the learned and known to the simple.

The Upanisads

The Cappadocians… were all deeply
spiritual men. They thoroughly enjoyed speculation and philosophy but
were convinced that religious experience alone could provide the key to
the problem of God. Trained in Greek philosophy, they were all aware of
a crucial distinction between the factual content of truth and its more
elusive aspects. The early Greek rationalists had called attention to
this: Plato had contrasted philosophy (which was expressed in terms of
reason and was thus capable of proof) with the equally important
teaching handed down by means of mythology, which eluded scientific
demonstration… Basil expressed the same insight when he distinguished
dogma and kerygmaKerygma was the public teaching of the church, based on the scriptures. Dogma,
however, represented the deeper meaning of biblical truth, which could
only be apprehended through religious experience and expressed in
symbolic form…

The idea of a “secret” doctrine was
not to shut people out… [Basil, the Cappadocian] was simply calling
attention to the fact that not all religious truth was capable of being
expressed and defined clearly and logically. Some religious insights
had an inner resonance that could only be apprehended by each
individual in his own time during what Plato had called
contemplation… Besides their literal meaning, therefore, the
scriptures also had a spiritual significance which it was not always
possible to articulate.  The Buddha had also noted that certain
questions were “improper” or inappropriate, since they referred to
realities that lay beyond the reach of words.

Karen Armstrong, A History of God

During the ninth century, the
Arabs came into contact with Greek science and philosophy… A team of
translators, most of whom were Nestorian Christians, made Greek texts
available in Arabic and did a brilliant job.  Arab Muslims now
studied astronomy, alchemy, medicine and mathematics with such success
that, during the ninth and tenth centuries, more scientific discoveries
had been achieved in the Abbasid empire than in any previous period of
history.  A new type of Muslim emerged, dedicated to the ideal
that he called
This is usually translated “philosophy,” but has a broader, richer
meaning… the Faylasufs wanted to live rationally in accordance with
the laws that they believed governed the cosmos, which could be
discerned at every level of reality… Their venture was important:
since their scientific and philosophic studies were dominated by Greek
thought, it was imperative to find a link between their faith and this
more rationalistic, objective outlook.  It can be most unhealthy
to relegate God to a separate intellectual category and to see faith in
isolation from other human concerns…

The Faylasufs wanted to get beyond
history, which was a mere illusion, to glimpse the changeless, ideal
world of the divine.  Despite the emphasis on rationality,
Falsafah demanded a faith of its own.  It took great courage to
believe that the cosmos, where chaos and pain seemed more in evidence
than a purposeful order, was really ruled by the principle of reason.

Karen Armstrong, A History of God

We should not be ashamed to
acknowledge truth and to assimilate it from whatever source it comes to
us, even if it is brought to us by former generations and foreign
peoples.  For him who seeks the truth there is nothing of higher
value than truth itself; it never cheapens or debases him who reaches
for it but ennobles and honors him.

Yaqub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi

Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakaria
ar-Razi… was perhaps the first freethinker to find the concept of God
incompatible with the scientific outlook.  He was a brilliant
physician and a kindly, generous man, who worked for years as the head
of hospital in his native Rayy in Iran.  Most Faylasufs did not
take their rationalism to such an extreme.  In a debate with a
more conventional Muslim, he argued that no true Faylasuf could rely on
an established tradition, but had to think things through for himself,
since reason alone could lead us to truth.  Reliance on revealed
doctrines was useless because the religions could not agree.  How
could anybody tell which one was correct?  But his opponent – who,
rather confusingly, was also called ar-Razi – made an important
point.  What about the common people? he asked.  Most of them
were quite incapable of philosophic thought: were they therefore lost,
doomed to error and confusion?  One of the reasons that Falsafah
remained a minority sect in Islam was its elitism.  It necessarily
appealed only to those with a certain IQ and was thus against the
egalitarian spirit that was beginning to characterize Muslim society.

Karen Armstrong, A History of God


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