religion / rationality – more themes

May 28, 2005

I have poked into every dark recess, I have made an assault on every problem, I have plunged into every abyss. I have scrutinized the creed of every sect, I have tried to lay bare the inmost doctrines of every community. All this I have done that I might distinguish between true and false, between sound tradition and heretical innovation.

Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali

Al-Ghazzali was as aware as any modern skeptic that certainty was a psychological condition that was not necessarily objectively true. Faylasufs said that they acquired certain knowledge by rational argument; mystics insisted that they had found it through the Sufi disciplines… But the reality that we call “God” cannot be tested empirically, so how could we be sure that our beliefs are not mere delusions?…

…Without abandoning his reason… al-Ghazzali discovered that the mystical disciplines yielded a direct but intuitive sense of something that could be called “God.” The British scholar John Bowker shows that the Arabic word for existence (wujud) derives from the root wajada: “he found.” Literally, therefore, wujud means “that which is findable”: it was more concrete than the Greek metaphysical terms and yet gave Muslims more leeway. An Arabic-speaking philosopher who attempted to prove that God existed did not have to produce God as another object among many. He simply had to prove that he could be found. The only absolute proof of God’s wujud would appear – or not – when the believer came face to face with the divine reality after death, but the reports of such people as the prophets and mystics who claimed to have experienced it in this life should be considered carefully…

Some people possess a power that is higher than reason… which al-Ghazzali calls “the prophetic spirit.” People who lack this faculty should not deny that it exists simply because they have no experience of it. That would be as absurd as if somebody who was tone-deaf claimed that music was an illusion, simply because he himself could not appreciate it… This sounds elitist, but mystics in other traditions have claimed that the intuitive, receptive qualities demanded by a discipline like Zen or Buddhist meditation are a special gift, comparable to the gift of writing poetry.

Karen Armstrong, A History of God

I say that there is a limit to human reason and as long as the soul resides within the body, it cannot grasp what is above nature, for nothing that is immersed in nature can see above it… Know that there is a level of knowledge which is higher than all philosophy, namely prophecy… Reason and proof cannot aspire to the level of insight at which prophecy exists – how then can they ever prove or disprove it?… Our faith is based on the principle that the words of Moses are prophecy and therefore beyond the domain of speculation, validation, argument or proof. Reason is inherently unable to pass judgment in the area from which prophecy originates. It would be like trying to put all the water in the world into a little cup.

Maimonides, a letter to Rabbi Hisdai

What is this world… but a complex, subject to cycles of change, all of which show a continual tendency to destruction: a rapid succession of beings that appear one by one, flourish and disappear; a merely transitory symmetry and a momentary appearance of order.

Denis Diderot, A Letter to the Blind for the Use of Those Who See

If the ignorance of nature gave birth to the Gods, the knowledge of nature is calculated to destroy them.

Paul Heinrich, baron of Holbach

Like al-Ghazzali centuries earlier, [Kant] argued that the traditional arguments for the existence of God were useless because our minds could only understand things that exist in space or time and are not competent to consider realities that lie beyond this category. But he allowed that humanity had a natural tendency to transgress these limits and seek a principle of unity that would give us a vision of reality as a coherent whole. This was the idea of God… it represented the ideal limit that enabled us to achieve a comprehensive idea of the world.

Karen Armstrong, A History of God

Theism is so confused and the sentences in which ‘God’ appears so incoherent and so incapable of verifiability or falsifiability that to speak of belief or unbelief, faith or unfaith, is logically impossible.

A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic

The concept of a “Personal God” interfering with natural events, or being “an independent cause of natural events,” makes God a natural object beside others, an object among others, a being among beings, maybe the highest, but nevertheless a being. This indeed is not only the destruction of the physical system but even more the destruction of any meaningful idea of God.

Paul Tillich, Theology and Culture


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