Knowledge and Ignorance

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KNOWLEDGE AND IGNORANCE . A cognitive element is essential to most religions and probably to all, but exactly what constitutes religious knowledge is problematic. Strong belief, for example, may be subjectively indistinguishable from knowledge. In a 1984 BBC interview, Billy Graham asserted that he knows there is to be a second coming of Christ. At a lecture, the Hindu scholar Swami Bon declared that "transmigration is not a dogma, it is a fact." This article will examine the various and conflicting conceptions of religious knowledge that have emerged in the major traditions through history.

Primal Peoples

"It appears," Dominique Zahan has written, "that every religion, however primitive, contains a cognitive element" ("Religions de l'Afrique noire," Histoire des religions 3, 1976, p. 609). In primal religions, according to Åke Hultkranz, religious knowledge rests on a fundamental division of experience: "A basic dichotomy between two levels of existence, one orderly or 'natural'the world of daily experiencethe other extraordinary or 'supernatural'the world of beliefconditions man's religious cognition" (Hultkranz, 1983, pp. 231, 239). The world of belief is in turn divided into that of the sorcerer and that of the magician. "They are opposed to one another on the plane of knowledge and wisdom, as a tortuous, obscure knowledge full of contradictions and uncertainties, over against a clear knowledge, imbued with evidence and conforming to the logic of a thought at the service of the community" (ibid., p. 632).

More simply, though, the world of belief may be identified with the invisible. As the Kiowa Indian N. Scott Momaday has said, "We see the world as it appears to us, in one dimension of reality. But we also see it with the eye of the mind" (ibid., p. 248). A slightly different note is struck by an Eskimo woman: "You always want the supernatural things to make sense, but we do not bother about that. We are content not to understand" (ibid., p. 247).


In India a cognitive element is conspicuous in the whole tradition that sprang or claimed to spring from the Veda. The gveda already comprised some speculative hymns, and the Brāhmaas were essentially an interpretation of ritual by means of myth. Finally, in the Upaniads, ritual itself gives way to speculation: Salvation is achieved through recognizing one's identity with the essence of the universe, the brahman.

In classical Brahmanism, philosophy is a mere rationalization of the Vedic revelation (Biardeau, 1964). Contrary to what happened in both Christianity and Islam owing to the clash of two different traditions, in Brahmanism no distinction was made between philosophy and theology. But in Hinduism there was always "a deep-seated tension between the ascetic ideal as personified in the holiness of the śramaa and the ideal or ritual propriety for the ordinary believer" (Bendix, 1960, p. 192). One of three or four approaches to this tension was jñānayoga ("the way of knowledge"), which held that even a good action, because it is connected with ignorance (avidyā ), can only produce the fruit of all attachment to things and beings, namely, reincarnation. In the Nyāya ("logic") school, there is finally only one mode of knowledge, that of perception, but in certain circumstances contact with the external senses is not required: Contact between ātman ("soul") and manas ("inner sense") is sufficient. Natural and revealed knowledge are on the same plane: "The gods, the men and the animals make use of the [revealed] means of right knowledge, and there is no other" (Nyāyabhāya 1.1.17).

Concepts of nondualism and brahman have long had precise meanings in India. Both refer to a mystical doctrine of salvation through knowledge: As the Veda is endowed with the ontological fecundity of the brahman, so the latter is, in turn, the spring of all knowledge. In the Sākhya school the most fatal attitude is nescience, or nondiscrimination between purua (spectator spirit) and prakti (creative energy): This failure to discriminate is avidyā ("ignorance"), which keeps one in the bonds of the cycle of transmigration. But if language speaks only of things in themselves, it cannot express becoming, or change, Bhatrhari objects, and he finds a way out of this difficulty not by suppressing permanence, as did the Buddhists, but by allowing thought to transcend perception without relinquishing being. He eventually does away with the authority of perception and relies only on interior revelation, which is essentially religious and nonrational. Bhatrhari does not mention avidyā or māyā ("illusion"), which will be the pivots of Vedantic thought. Vedāntismthe further development of Brahmanismcannot be understood without reference to Buddhism.


The teachings of the Buddha presupposed a high level of schooling among his disciples: There were systematic, dispassionate discussions in which appeal was made to the intellect, in contrast to the popular similes, ironical retorts, and emotional preaching of Jesus or the visionary messages of Muammad (Bendix, 1960, p. 192). Buddhism is based on an illumination (bodhi ) experienced by Śākyamuni. Its object was expressed in the form of a chain of causes and effects (Skt., pratītya-samutpāda; Pali, paicca-samuppāda ). The list given in the Mahānidāna Sutta comprises only nine links, ending in (or starting from) viññāa ("consciousness"), without ignorance being mentioned. Not so in the Mahāvagga, which counts twelve terms, starting from avijjā ("ignorance"), in the chain of psychic formations, a notion parallel to that in Brahmanism where, unlike the Buddhist understanding, pure being shrouds itself, out of ignorance, in psychic formations. Essentially the Buddhist message is this: Living is suffering, suffering stems from desire, and desire from avidyā. In order to be delivered one should vanquish ignorance and obtain wisdom, mystical lucidity (Pali, praññā; Sanskrit, prajñā ), also called āryaprajñā ("noble knowledge"), which produces extinction, nirvāa. But, contrary to what is taught in Brahmanism, this knowledge implies the negation of all permanence, of all substance, of ātman as well as of brahman, the two terms whose equation was the foundation of the Brahmanic doctrine. This is the view of Hīnayāna Buddhism.

Mahāyāna Buddhism refines this negative position. The perfection of wisdom, prajñāpāramitā, does not give omniscience by providing a foundation of knowledge: The very lack of such a foundation constitutes omniscience, which is the revelation of emptiness. Still, there are two degrees of this revelation. According to the Vijñānavādins, pure thought is an absolute to which all things are reduced, while the Mādhyamikas go one step further: For them the doctrine of emptiness is itself emptiness (Bugault, 1968, p. 48). The effort toward knowledge results in nonknowledge, nescience.

According to Asanga, prajñā is only obtained subsequent to dhyāna ("appeased, introverted concentration"; in Chinese chan, in Japanese zen ) and is a sort of noēsis without noēta (ibid., p. 41). Prajñā and dhyāna are like the two sides of a coin. Dhyāna concentrates; prajñā liberates. Supreme knowledge, bodhi, is only the realization that there is nothing to comprehend. This kind of knowledge would seem to be tantamount to sheer ignorance, but it is not, for then "the deaf, the blind and the simpletons would be saints" (Majjhima Nikāya 3.498). It must be remembered that Buddhism arose amid ascetics who practiced control of the senses, of breath, even of blood circulationand of thought. In Chinese Buddhism, the direct approach of Huineng (seventh to eighth century) to sudden awakening rejected all distinctions between enlightenment and ignorance.


The ruin of Brahmanic ontology under the assault of Hinayana Buddhism had resulted in Hinayana positivism, which led to the Mahāyāna doctrine of absolute emptiness. This in turn brought about in Brahmanism Vedantism, a return to ontology on the basis of avidyā ("nescience"), as formulated by its first major exponent, Śakara, in the eleventh century. The idea of the ego is produced by nescience; so are, in their literal sense, the Vedic texts. Nescience is the cause of all error, of suffering and of evil. Brahman is the only true object of knowledge, to which the soul goes back by exercising nescience. Substituting the word nirvāa for the word brahman would result in a perfect formula of Buddhist orthodoxy. But Rāmānuja (twelfth century), the second important exponent of Vedantism, went one step further. He admits, not unlike Śakara, that subject, object, and the act of knowledge are only arbitrary distinctions created by avidyā, that the chain of acts is only a trick of nescience, and that salvation consists in the cessation of nescience through knowledge of brahman, which is accessible in the Veda. But this is transcendent knowledge, an intuitive revelation only made possible in a mystical union with brahman, which is also conceived as the universal lord. "He who possessing knowledge untiringly strives and is devoted to me only, to him I am infinitely dear and he is dear to me" (Bhagavadgītā, 7.17).

Rāmānuja also restored to the individual soul its reality and substantiality. Whereas in the Upaniads and the teachings of Śakara the divinity was conceived as sheer consciousness, in medieval Hinduism, whether Vaiava or Śaiva, it becomes a force in action, a sovereign energy. And knowledge must be fulfilled in bhakti, that is, unrelenting love of God. Rāmānuja refutes the notion of avidyā Śakara had inherited from the Buddhists. To assume that the brahman necessarily develops into illusory nescience and plurality is to admit that the brahman itself is illusory, that ultimate reality is error and lie. This is, he says, to fall into the error of Mādhyamika Buddhism, which is contradicted by the teachings of the Upaniads, the Bhagavadgītā, and the Viu Purāa (Grousset, 1931, p. 391).


Chinese thought, on the whole, aims at culture, not at pure knowledge. In Daoism, humankind falls by acquiring knowledge. Whereas for the Confucians humans learn to use and to improve on nature, for the Daoists this is a profanation of nature: "Banish wisdom, discard knowledge, and the people will be benefited a hundredfold, for it was only when the great Dao declined, when intelligence and knowledge appeared, that the great Artifice began. In the days of old those who practiced Dao with success did not, by means of it, enlighten the people, but on the contrary sought to make them ignorant. The more knowledge people have, the harder they are to rule. Those who seek to rule by giving knowledge are like bandits preying on the land. Those who rule without giving knowledge bring a stock of good fortune to the land" (Dao de jing ). Daoism is the declared enemy of civilization. Civilization based on knowledge is to be replaced by another kind of knowledge, the intuitive knowledge of Dao, through which humanity becomes the Dao.

The Greeks

The notion of Logos in Heraclitus implies that the universe can be known. He was the first philosopher to pose the epistemological problem. Still, for him "questions of cognition are inseparable from questions of action and intention, of life and death. The blindness he denounces is that of men who do not know what they are doing" (Kahn, 1979, p. 100).

The Pythagoreans were divided into acousmatics and mathematicians, the former following the tradition of fides ex auditu, the latter following reason and veritas ex intellectu, thus already exemplifying, as Léon Brunschwicg noted, the contrast between theosophy and philosophy. With the emergence of philosophy a conflict was bound to arise between reason and religion, between logos and muthos. It tended to be resolved, for instance by Theagenes of Rhegium (fourth century bce), through the allegorical interpretation of myths.

In the sixth century bce Xenophanes ridiculed the anthropomorphism of the myths and emphasized God's spirituality and omniscience. A century later Socrates (according to Xenophon) rejected the study of the world machine, wrought and ruled by the gods, and instead recommended studying human affairs. He equated virtue with knowledge and vice with ignorance (Xenophon, Memorabilia 3.9, 4. a; Plato, Protagoras, Meno, etc.).

According to Plato, faith, mystical enthusiasm, is but a stage in the pathway to knowledge; the knowledge of God is the soul's marriage with her ideal. Above the Logos, or Reason, is the Nous, or Intellect, the faculty of perceiving the divine, the instrument of contemplation. But the supreme idea, the Good, was raised by Plato beyond both being and knowledge, as the principle of their unity.

Aristotle replaced Plato's anamnēsis by abstraction. Humankind is like a mortal god, for it possesses a divine reality, the intellect, capable of knowing God. God, the Unmoved Mover, is noēsis noēseōs. This still reflects the primacy of the intellect and implies superiority of contemplation over any other way of life.

The Cynics reacted against the almost unlimited confidence in education as a means to form and transform man that had prevailed in Athens since the time of the Sophists. Virtue, said Antisthenes, lies in action and has no need of many discourses or of science. But the saying attributed to him by Diogenes Laertius (6.103) that "if one were wise, one would not learn to read, lest one should be corrupted by other people," is probably an exaggeration of his position.

For the Stoics the human intellect is not only akin to God, it is part of the divine substance itself. They appealed to Heraclitus, but their Logos was not, like his, simply a principle of explanation. It probably owed much to the notion of the commanding word, davar, which in Hebrew expressed the divine will.

In the Platonic tradition, according to Philo Judaeus, the human intellect is the source of, on the one hand, perception, memory, and reaction to impulses; on the other hand, as apospasma theion ("divine fragment"), it makes possible suprarational intuition.

The Hebrews

To the Hebrews, knowing was less a logical, discursive process than a direct psychological experience, less the expression of objective truths than a personal engagement. (The Hebrew for "to know," yadaʿ, signifies sexual intercourse.) Knowledge of the law was the basis of the moral life. In the Book of Genesis, however, a negative appraisal of knowledge was reflected in the story of the Fall: Evil and death entered the world through humanity's "knowledge of good and evil." The myth resembles the Daoist one in which the loss of happiness results from the acquisition of knowledge.

In Israel, however, this conception remained isolated and, perhaps, misunderstood, over against the more widespread feeling that knowledge is from God, who "teaches man knowledge" (Ps. 94:10) and, in the Qumran texts, is even called "God of knowledge," and "source of knowledge." Such a notion also prevails in Jewish apocalyptic literature (Gruenwald, 1973, p. 63). Finally, skepticism is not absent from the Bible; Ecclesiastes expresses skepticism but compensates for it by adherence to authority.

Early Christianity

The role of knowledge in the Christian faith has varied considerably. Its importance was already recognized by Paul the apostle, who considered it the supreme virtue: " after I heard of your faith and love [I prayed] that God may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him" (Eph. 1:1518; cf. Col. 2:2), which agrees with the educational ideal of a Jewish doctor of the law and with the mystical aspiration of apocalyptic; however, the ultimate object of knowledge, the love of Christ, "passeth knowledge" (Eph. 3:19), and Paul conformed to the specific Christian ideal when, addressing the Corinthians, he put charity above everything: "and though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, and have no love, I am nothing" (1 Cor. 13:2); "knowledge puffeth up, love edifieth" (1 Cor. 8:1).

Only John attempts a synthesis of love and knowledge: "for love is of God, and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God" (1 Jn. 4:7). And in the prologue of the Fourth Gospel he identifies Jesus himself with the Logos. Contact with paganism, however, had already brought about in Paul a completely different reaction: "But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness" (1 Cor. 1:23). A conflict between natural wisdom and revealed truth thus developed in Christianity and later, parallel to it, in Islam. On the other hand, Justin Martyr, the first Christian apologist, headed a long series of authors for whom the Christian revelation was the culmination of a more ample one that would include the thought of the pagan philosophers, also Christian in its own way because it came from the Word (Logos), and Christ was the Word incarnate.


In the second century, when Plutarch, with his Platonic use of myth, bore witness to philosophy's overture toward mysticism and to the challenge of the primacy of the Logos, people were seeking to attain through revelation a kind of knowledge allowing union with God. There ensued a heated dialogue between faith (pistis ) and intellectual knowledge (gnōsis ), the latter already suspect to Paul (1 Tim. 6:20: pseudonumos gnōsis ). Thus arose two conceptions of the knowledge accessible to the Christian: The one (gnōsis ) is to replace faith; the other submits to faith in order to fathom its mystery. Gnosticism "traces back the origin of the world to an act of ignorance, the removal of which through knowledge is the aim of the Gnostic doctrine of redemption" (Rudolph, 1983, p. 71). The element earth has been produced by horror, water by fear, air by pain; within those three elements there is fire, a vehicle of death and destruction, as within the three passions is hidden ignorance (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.5.4).

Jewish apocalyptic contributed to gnosticism by its new idea of knowledge as a religious ideal (Gruenwald, 1973, p. 104), but the gnostics, according to Celsus, called the god of the Jews the "accursed god" because he created the visible world and withheld knowledge from humans (Rudolph, 1983, p. 73). According to various gnostic texts the "tree of knowledge" imparts to Adam his appropriate godlike status over against the lower creator god, who prohibited the enjoyment of this tree out of envy. The serpent functions at the behest of the highest god for Adam's instruction, and thus has a positive task (ibid., p. 94). According to Irenaeus, however, mundane knowledge is to be rejected (Against Heresies 2.32.2). And according to Hippolytus, God will extend the great ignorance to all the world, so that each creature will remain in its natural condition and no one will desire anything against nature.

Direct information about gnosticism is available thanks to the discovery in Upper Egypt of the Nag Hammadi Coptic manuscripts. Gnōsis is a hidden, esoteric knowledge. One of the tractates bears the significant title The Interpretation of Knowledge. The Gospel of Truth states that "ignorance of the Father brought about anguish and terror. And the anguish grew solid like a fog so that no one was able to see. For this reason error became powerful; it fashioned its own matter" (Robinson, 1977, p. 38). In the Gospel of Thomas: "The Pharisees and the scribes have taken the keys of knowledge and hidden them. They themselves have not entered" (ibid., p. 122). In the Authoritative Teaching: "Even the Pagans give charity, and they know that God exists but they have not heard the word" (ibid., p. 282). The God of this world is evil and ignorant, according to The Second Treatise of the Great Seth. In contrast, the Logos "received the vision of all things, those which preexist and those which are now and those which will be" (ibid., p. 77). Further: "The invisible Spirit is a psychic and intellectual power, a knowledgeable one and a foreknower" (ibid., p. 383). The function or faculty by means of which gnōsis is brought about is personified: It is Epinoia, a transformation of Pronoia, or Providence (Apocryphon of John ). The world, on the contrary, was created through the union of Ialdabaoth, the demiurge, with Aponoia, the negative counterpart of Ennoia and a symbol of his intellectual blindness.

Knowledge liberates: "The mind of those who have known him shall not perish" (ibid., p. 52); The "thought of Norea" is the knowledge necessary for salvation. The Testimony of Truth contrasts knowledge with empty hopes for martyrdom and a fleshly resurrection. The tractate Marsanes speaks of the rewards of knowledge. But knowledge is not sufficient: According to the Apocryphon of John, Christ is sent down to save humanity by reminding people of their heavenly origin. Only those who possess this knowledge and have lived ascetic lives can return to the realm of light. In fact, says the Testimony of Truth, "No one knows the God of truth except the man who will forsake all of the things of the world."

In sum, "Gnosis is not a 'theology of salvation by nature,' as the heresiologists caricature it; it is rather thoroughly conscious of the provisional situation of the redeemed up to the realization of redemption after death." (Rudolph, 1983, p. 117). Similarly, in Mandaean religion (Manda d-Hiia, literally "knowledge of life"), a gnostic sect that survives to the present day in Iraq, knowledge alone does not redeem: The cultic rites, primarily baptism and the "masses for the dead," are necessary for salvation.

But God, according to the gnostics, is the incomprehensible, inconceivable one, who is superior to every thought, "who is over the world," "the one who is ineffable," "the unknowable" (Robinson, 1977, pp. 209, 213, 411).

Greek Fathers

In the third century Clement of Alexandria, "with his conscious use of the concept gnōsis for the Christian knowledge of truth, attempts to overcome the breach between faith and knowledge in the Church and not to remain stuck in a mere denial of the claims of the 'false' gnosis" (Rudolph, 1983, p. 16). "Should one say," he writes in Stromateis 2.4, "that knowledge is founded on demonstration by a process of reasoning, let him hear that the first principles are incapable of demonstration. Hence, it is thought that the first cause of the universe can be apprehended by faith alone." But Clement's God is as unknowable as that of Plato or Philo Judaeus, who placed him above being. This is also the position of Plotinus, a contemporary of Clement.

In the fourth century at Antioch John Chrysostom wrote on God's incomprehensibility. According to Gregory of Nazianzus God's existence can be inferred from the order of the world, but we cannot know what he is. The motto of Theodoret of Cyrrhus (fourth to fifth century) was "first believe, then understand."

The Desert Fathers, in their simplicity, sometimes resented the intrusion of more sophisticated views from Alexandria or, later, from Cappodocia. In contrast to the newly converted intellectuals who were bringing to Christianity the aristocratic tradition of the pagan teachers, monachism reaffirmed, as the Franciscans were to do in the thirteenth century, the primacy of the unsophisticated, one of the essential teachings of the Gospels. Libido sciendi and excessive pretension to wisdom were regarded as temptations of the devil just as were sensuality or ambition. (Brunschwicg, [1927] 1953, p. 107).

In the sixth century a gnostic tendency expressed already in the Gospel of Philip was developed by Dionysius the Areopagite, who applied to God all the names the scriptures give him (affirmative theology), but only in order to afterward deny them (negative or apophatic theology). God is beyond affirmation or negation; he is a superbeing (superlative theology). The world is a theophany, the only means of knowing its author. Universal illumination is an immense circulation of love. Knowledge is above every affirmation or negation. This is the mystical ignorance, the supreme degree of knowledge. The other kinds of knowledge are defective, this one is superabundant.

To Maximos the Confessor (seventh century), man in his progress toward God through knowledge only ascends back, in a movement opposite to his fall, toward the eternal idea of himself that, as his cause, has never ceased to exist in God.

Latin Fathers

Among the Latin church fathers in the second and third centuries Tertullian (like Tatian among the Greeks) radically opposed philosophy. He wrote that the desire for knowledge leads to faith. This is perhaps rather simple, but not quite the same as the motto often attributed to him: "Credo quia absurdem."

The Platonic tradition survived and in the fourth and fifth centuries produced the philosophy of Augustine of Hippo, who after hoping to proceed through Manichaeism from reason to faith, always maintained the necessity of the preparatory role of reason but held that reason had also another role to play, subsequent to faith. Thus: "Intellige ut credas, crede ut intelligas." All one's knowledge stems from one's sensations, which, however, do not teach one the truths. This is done by something in one that is purely intelligible, necessary, motionless, eternal: a divine illumination. To know oneself (as Socrates recommended) is to recognize an image of God, therefore to know God.


Muammad's message presents itself as knowledge, so much so that the times preceding his coming are called the Jāhilīyah ("state of ignorance"). The same idea is found in Acts of the Apostles 17:30: "And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent." Islam initiated the times of illumination and right knowledge. But when the Muslims encountered the Greek philosophical heritage through Syriac texts, the problem of the relationship between philosophy and the Qurʾanic tradition was bound to arise. Some Muslims quoted the Prophet in support of their contention that speculation was one of the duties of the believers; others, on the contrary, maintained that faith should be obedience, not knowledge.

As related in the Jewish philosopher Maimonides' Guide for the Perplexed, "when the Muammadans began to translate the writings of the Greek philosophers from the Syriac into the Arabic, they likewise translated the criticisms of those philosophers by such Christians as John Philoponus, the commentator of Aristotle" (Gilson, 1937, p. 39). Al-Kindī (ninth century) seems to have found in Philoponus the germ of his notion of a harmony between Greek philosophy and Muslim faith. He suffered under the repression of all philosophical activity ordered by the Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil.

According to Abū Bakr al-Rāzī, a tenth-century physician, only philosophy, especially that of the Greek sages, could lead to happiness. For him, there was no possible reconciliation between philosophy and religion.

"Where the revealed truth is, by hypothesis, absolute truth," writes Étienne Gilson, "the only way to save philosophy is to show that its teaching is substantially the same as that of revealed religion" (1937, p. 37). This was the purpose of al-Ashaʿrī (Baghdad, tenth century), who inaugurated Muslim scholasticism (kalām ) in the Sunnī tradition, but whose doctrine "is a remarkable instance of what happens to philosophy when it is handled by theologians, according to theological methods, for a theological end" (ibid., p. 39). His contemporary al-Fārābī was a typical representative of the main current in Muslim philosophy: Everything is known through a cosmic agent, the Active Intellect, whose final aim is to enable everyone to know God. Al-Fārābī's tendency culminated in the teachings of the Iranian Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna). Abūāmid al-Ghazālī (Iran, eleventh century) turned Aristotle's own weapons against the Aristotelianism of al-Fārābī and Ibn Sīnā in order to establish religionaccessible only through mystical knowledgeon the ruins of philosophy.

Faith could, in principle, be based either on authority (taqlīd) or on knowledge (ʿilm) or on the intuition of the mystic (aʿyān). Islamic mysticism seems to have originated in some form of gnosticism, and in the tenth century Neoplatonism was adapted. Twelver Shiism distinguishes, in its epistemology, two parallel series. On the side of external vision are eye, sight, perception, and sun; on the side of internal vision, heart, intelligence (ʿaql), knowledge (ʿilm ), and active intelligence (ʿaql faʿʿāl). This, so far, is the philosophical approach. The prophetic approach considers as its source the Holy Spirit, Gabriel, the angel of revelation, who is distinct from the Active Intellect. But the two modes of perception ultimately converge. This is due, according to the Twelver Shīʿī theoretician Mullā adrā Shirāzī (seventeenth century), to the existence and activity, halfway between pure sense perception and pure intellection, of a third faculty of knowledge: creative imagination. (Aside from his Aristotelian theory of passive imagination, Ibn Sīnā held another, "Oriental" one, of active imagination, which was to be developed in Suhrawardī's "philosophy of light").

But to return to al-Ghazālī's destruction of philosophy: "There was bound," writes Gilson, "to appear a philosopher who, on the contrary, endeavored to found philosophy on the ruins of religion" (ibid., p. 35). Such was the Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroës, twelfth century). He distinguished between knowledge accessible to the lower classes and interpretations reserved for the philosophical elite. Philosophy was supreme in attaining absolute science and truth; next came theology, the domain of dialectical interpretation and verisimilitude; at the lowest level, religion and faith were adequate for those who needed them. His adversaries accused him of professing the doctrine of double truth. This, according to Gilson, is inaccurate and unfair. Ibn Rushd maintained only that reason's conclusions are necessary and that he adhered to faith's opposite teaching. His Latin followers supported his view that philosophy, when given the liberty to follow its own methods, reaches necessary conclusions that are contradictory to the teachings of religion.

The Schoolmen

Scholasticism was largely an answer to the challenge of Ibn Rushd (Averroës); it might also be seen, however, as little more than an obstinate endeavor to solve one problem, the problem of universals. The answer was far from unanimous.

Peter Abelard (eleventh to twelfth centuries) always insisted on the continuity between ancient wisdom, based on the natural usage of reason, and Christian wisdom, which, far from destroying the previous, fulfills it. But he soon reached the conclusion that he had no universal ideas. God alone has. Scientific and philosophical skepticism is compensated for by a theological appeal to the grace of God. Anselm of Canterbury (eleventh century) had written, "For I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, that unless I believed, I should not understand." Hence his motto: "Fides quaerens intellectum."

Hugh of Saint-Victor (twelfth century) wrote that from the beginning God wished to be neither entirely manifest to human consciousness nor entirely hidden. "If He were entirely hidden, faith would indeed not be added unto knowledge, and lack of faith would be excused on the ground of ignorance. It was necessary that He should conceal Himself, lest He be entirely manifest, so that there might be something which through being known would nourish the heart of man, and again something which through being hidden would stimulate it" (De sacramentis 1.3.2). Further: "Faith is a form of mental certitude about absent realities that is greater than opinion and less than knowledge" (ibid., 1.10.2).

The position of the Franciscan Bonaventure (thirteenth century), like that of Abelard, was destructive of natural knowledge. This was a difficulty another Franciscan, John Duns Scotus, endeavored to deal with, but his own doctrine was "the death warrant of early Franciscan epistemology" (Gilson, 1937, p. 59).

The Dominican Albertus Magnus and his disciple Thomas Aquinas (who was almost exactly contemporaneous with Bonaventure) vindicated Aristotle's "abstraction" as a way of knowing God against the "divine illumination" of Augustine, Anselm, and Bonaventure, as well as against the Active Intellect of Ibn Rushd. But in an irenic mood Thomas observed that because God is the ultimate cause, his illumination is implied in abstraction also. Faith differs from knowledge in being determined in part by the choice of the believer, and from opinion in being held without misgiving:

Faith implies intellectual assent to that which is believed, but there are two ways in which the intellect gives its assent. In the first way, it is moved by the object iself as are conclusions which are known scientifically. In the second way, the intellect gives its assent not because it is convinced by the object itself, but by voluntarily preferring the one alternative to the other. (Summa theologiae

Commenting on James 2:19 ("Even the demons believeand shudder"), Thomas further writes:

The demons are, in a way, compelled to believe by the evidence of signs and so their will deserves no praise for their belief as they are compelled to believe by their natural intellectual acumen. (ibid.,

Moreover, while philosophy only teaches about God what is known per creaturas (Paul, Rom. 1:19), theology also teaches, thanks to revelation, "quod notum est sibi soli" ("what only He himself knows"; ibid., 1.6). Thomas's position has been characterized as intellectualist, fideistic, and voluntarist by John Hick (1966), who attempts to refute it.

William of Ockham (fourteenth century), yet another Franciscan, discusses various philosophical problems as if any theological dogma, held by faith alone, could become the source of philosophical and purely rational conclusions. Intuitive knowledge is self-evident. Not so abstractive knowledge. William denies the existence of ideas representing the genera and the species, and this even in God (thus outstripping Abelard). The universal mystery is but a concrete expression of the supreme mystery of God, a position that anticipates Hume's skepticism.

According to Gregory Palamas (fourteenth century), who lived in Constantinople and was thus outside Latin Scholasticism, knowledge acquired through profane education is not only different from but contrary to veritable, spiritual knowledge (Triads in Defense of the Holy Hesychasts 1.1.10).

After the breakdown of medieval philosophy, there seemed to be two ways of saving the Christian faith: either to resort, with Petrarch, Erasmus, and others, to the gospel, the fathers of the church, and the pagan moralists, which might lead to the skepticism of Montaigne (who, nevertheless, practiced Catholicism, to the extent of making a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Loretta), or to resort to mysticism. A mystical tide swept over Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Johannes (Meister) Eckhart's God is not simply beyond the reach of human knowledge, but in a truly Neoplatonic manner escapes all knowledge, including his very own: Even if it be true that God eternally expresses himself in an act of self-knowledge, his infinite essence is unfathomable even to himself, for he could not know himself without turning this infinite essence into a definite object of knowledge. "It is only when man reaches that silent wilderness where there is neither Father, nor Son, nor Holy Ghost, that his mystical flight comes to an end, for there lies the source of all that is: beyond God, in the fullness of Godhead" (Gavalda, 1973, p. 111).

Copernicus had put an end to geocentrism, but an accommodation between a newer cosmology and an older theology was nevertheless to prevail for a long time to come: Kepler and others saw the Holy Trinity reflected in the solar system, with the sun as God the Father.


In reaction to accomodating tendencies within monachism and Scholasticism, Luther loathed philosophy and ancient culture: Reason was "the devil's highest whore"; hence his polemic against Erasmus. Calvin thought that humanity cannot know God in itself, but only as the Lord revealing himself to humans. A Calvinist (as noted by Max Weber), because of his particular view of the relationship between the creator and the creature and of his own "election," would live and work in a certain way: "Puritanism's ethic of trade, which applied to believers and nonbelievers alike, was related to both religious doctrine and pastoral practice. Intense religious education, together with the threat of social ostracism, provided powerful incentives and sanctions" (Reinhard Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait, Garden City, N. Y., 1960, p. 91).

To combat Protestantism, the Roman Catholic church took an obscurantist stance, forbidding the reading of the Bible in translation, while it also attempted to reinforce its doctrines by the institution of catechism. Ignorance could be considered culpable, and a person could, "like a diseased limb [be] cut off and separated by his ignorance and sin" (Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, chap. 40). But ignorance could also be an excuse if it be, in terms of Catholic theology, "invincible," that is, if the agent is wholly unaware of his obligations or of the implications of a specific act (see G. H. Joyce, "Invincible Ignorance," in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 7, Edinburgh, 1914).

For Pascal, there is an order of the spirit above that of the flesh; but above the order of the spirit there is that of love: "Le coeur a des raisons que la raison ne connaït pas" ("The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know"). And: "It was not then right that [Christ] should appear in a manner manifestly divine, and completely capable of convincing all men [through reason] and thus [He was] willing to appear openly to those who seek Him with all their heart" (Pensées 430).


Descartes's doctrine was "a direct answer to Montaigne's scepticism" and "a recklessly conducted experiment to see what becomes of human knowledge when moulded into conformity with the pattern of mathematical evidence: He had the merit of realizing that two sciencesgeometry and algebrahitherto considered as distinct were but one: Why not go at once to the limit and say that all sciences are one? Such was Descartes's final illumination" (Gilson, 1937, pp. 127, 133). After confessing in the Discourse on Method that one could not talk of things sacred without assistance from heaven, he showed in the Meditations "the way to attain knowledge of God with more ease and certainty than that of things of this world" (ibid., p. 137).

Leibniz, Spinoza, and Malebranche were Cartesians: From God proceeded the unknown force that linked mind to matter and matter to mind. According to Spinoza, the mysticism of literal faith belongs to a kind of inferior knowledge that dissolves in the light of intelligence. Above imagination there is reason, but above reason, intellectual intuition, which leads to the unique and absolute truth, God.

Malebranche, although holding that everything in God is known, still believed in the existence of a concrete and actually subsisting world of matter. Not so Berkeley. Finally, Hume said that if one has no adequate idea of "power" or "efficacy," no notion of causality that one can apply to matter, where could be obtained one that would be applied to God?

For Jakob Boehme, knowledge was a way of salvation. Under the influence of Boehme and Paracelsus, Christian esotericism tried more and more to unite faith and knowledge. But in eighteenth-century Europe, particularly in France, Germany, and England, the pursuit of happiness tended to prevail over concern for salvation; besides, unhappiness was regarded as due to a lack of knowledge or to erroneous judgment, and it was consequently believed that the progress of reason would bring happiness. For Leibniz, evil results from ignorance. Locke entitled a book The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695).

None of the German Aufklärer was inclined toward atheism; each tried to fit God into a rational scheme of things. For Samuel Reimarus, whose work was published by G. E. Lessing, religion did not proceed from a letter, Bible, or Qurʾān, dictated by some God; God was the presence, in one's soul, of universal, eternal reason.

It was thought that one should stop bothering about what cannot be known and that morality could be free of any transcendent element and based on nothing more than the self-knowledge of conscience. If all that seemed superstitious in the beliefs of the Roman church and reformed religion were purged, only the unknown supreme being would remain. Pierre Bayle paved the way for Holbach, Voltaire, Shaftesbury, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and, eventually, Kant.

While the Encyclopedists were trying to apply the methods of the sciences to the improvement of the practical arts and of social institutions, Rousseau's opposition exploded like a bomb: His philosophy was to dominate the period before the French Revolution and the years that followed its failure. God had created man not only innocent but ignorant, wishing thereby to "preserve him from knowledge just as a mother would wrench a dangerous weapon from the hands of her child" (Discours sur les sciences et les arts, quoted in Zaehner, 1970, p. 330). "Reason too often deceives us," says the Vicaire Savoyard, but "conscience never deceives" (Émile, quoted in Brunschwicg, 1927, p. 271). Conscience is the soul's divine instinct. Such was the religion of instinct, already advocated by Swiss pietists. Bolingbroke had written that one cannot know what God is, only that there is a Godwhich was, more or less, Hume's position.


What was Hume, after all, asks Gilson (1937, p. 223), but a sad Montaigne? Hume's voice was soon to be heard by Immanuel Kant. So long as one's mind applies itself to the mere mental presentation of possible objects, it does not form concepts of things, but mere ideas; these do not constitute scientific knowledge, but that illusory speculation that people call metaphysics. If reason does not lead to God, if, given Hume's skepticism, reason is destructive of the very principles of philosophical knowledge and morality, Rousseau's passionate appeal to feeling and to moral conscience, against the natural blindness of reason, is to Kant the revelation of a wholly independent and self-contained order of morality. But to posit God as required by the fact of morality is not the same as to know that God exists.

Maine de Biran, when young, surmised that the origin of belief lay in the sense of smell, but in his old age he wrote that Augustine, when meditating on his relation to God, found or proved that there might be a subtler, more refined organization above the coarse one of human sense (Brunschwicg, 1927, p. 618).

Hegel was in very much the same situation as Nicholas of Cusa in the fifteenth century. There had to be contradiction everywhere in the universe for the contradictions of philosophy to give a true picture of reality: This was another form of learned ignorance. But finally Hegelianism, by confining reason to the sphere of pure science, enslaved philosophy to the blind tyranny of the will (Gilson, 1937, p. 252).


At a primary level of each social group there is, according to Comte, a definite state of intellectual knowledge; at a secondary level, determined by the first, is a specific form of government; finally, a third element flows from the first two: a specific form of civilization. "We have only to reverse this doctrine to get Marxism," remarks Gilson (1937, p. 257). In his synthesis of positivism with the Hegelian tradition, Marx made possible a sociology of knowledge (actually founded by Karl Mannheim), a science that tries to ex-plain ideas (including religion) as the outcome of social conditions.

By driving metaphysics out of its final position, Comte had ensured the uniformity of human knowledge. But science had failed to provide mankind with a systematic view of the world. By making love the ultimate foundation of positivism Comte was repeating in his own way Kant's famous step of decreeing the primacy of practical reason. Condemnation of metaphysics in the name of science invariably culminates in the capitulation of science to some irrational element (Gilson, 1937, p. 298).

Eighteenth-century rationalism believed it could eliminate the religious tradition simply by determining its human conditions through historical and psychological observation. The nineteenth century, on the contrary, established a psychology and a sociology of religion that, far from eliminating their object, posited its objective reality through the very principles of their method. This reality is attained by intuition (Léon Brunschwicg, Les étapes de la philosophie mathématique, Paris, 1912, p. 432).

The Protestant Perspective

The problem of religious knowledge has been dealt with extensively from the Protestant point of view by Douglas Clyde Macintosh (1940). He distinguishes not only between realism and idealism but between dualism and monism: "The object consciously experienced and the object existing independently of experience are, according to dualism, two wholly different existences, and, according to monism, existentially one, at least in part and sufficiently for some knowledge of the independently existing reality to be humanly possible" (Macintosh, 1940, p. vii). After excluding from the sphere of knowledge mysticism, ecstasy, the love-dialogue with God, and whatever is redolent of monasticism as "extreme monistic realism," Macintosh proceeds to an examination of "monistic idealism in religion."


Under the rubric "Religious Psychologism" Macintosh deals with the views of Hegel and others. Hegel's definition of religion is "the Divine Spirit's knowledge of itself through the mediation of a finite spirit." For Feuerbach religion is man's earliest, indirect form of self-knowledge. For Édouard Le Roy dogmas are concerned primarily with conduct rather than with pure reflective knowledge. Barukh Spinoza wrote in his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus that faith does not demand that dogmas shall be true, but that they shall be pioussuch as will stir up the heart to obey. For Durkheim, science refuses to grant religion its right to dogmatize upon the nature of things. For Freud, insofar as religion conflicts with science or would offer a substitute for scientific investigation of the cause and cure of human ills, it is open to criticism. Macintosh would strongly maintain that any tenable religious worldview must do full justice to science, including whatever scientific knowledge there may be in the field of religion, but such a worldview has the right to supplement scientific knowledge through a reasonable formulation of religious faith based upon the tested value of spiritual life.

Under "Philosophical Antecedents of Humanism" Macintosh deals with John Dewey, whose functionalism implies a behaviorist theory of thinking and knowing, which crowds out of the definition of knowing all elements of mental contemplation and rules out as "nonempirical" not only the idea of a transcendent God but even that of a persisting metaphysical ego as the individual subject of experience.

Under "Theological Antecedents of Humanism" Macintosh cites the work of George Burman Foster, whose early thought inclined to a dualistic theory of religious knowledge according to which the independently real but theoretically unknowable religious object was made the subject matter of judgments of religious faith and feeling, an attitude obviously inspired by Kant's. But Foster came to feel that he must give up the dualistic supernaturalism of all doctrines of a purely transcendent God.

Under "Humanism, Ecclesiastical and Other" Macintosh cites, among others, William Brown, who wrote that the world's savior, God, is knowledge, that the Gods of all the supernaturalistic interpretations of religion are so many creations of the dominant master class, and that "my God, Nature, is a triune divinitymatter, form, and motionan impersonal, unconscious, non-moral being." Brown was expelled from the Episcopal church for espousing these ideas.

Under "Logical Idealism" Macintosh ranks Georg Simmel, Wilhelm Windelband, George Santayana, Benedetto Croce, and Giovanni Gentile. While the religious man, wrote Simmel, must be assured that God is, even if he may be in doubt as to what God is, the typical modern man knows very well what God is, but is unable to say that God is. Similarly, to Dean Inge the important question is not whether God exists but what is meant when speaking of Godthe value of values, the supreme value. One could add Léon Brunschwicg, for whom God is the formal ideal of knowledge (as well as the intentional value of actions). Such a philosophy of religion is common to Platonism and Christianity.

In Croce's fusion of logical with psychological idealism, to the extent that religion as cognition intuits what is beautiful or thinks what is true, it is nothing beyond aesthetics or logic: To the extent that it intuits as beautiful what is not, or thinks to be true what is not true, it is not valid, theoretically considered. Gentile's attitude, even more than Croce's, is absolute idealism without the Absolute.

Under "Critical Monistic Realism" Macintosh endorses a form of religious knowledge that includes adequate and adequately critical (i.e., logical) certitude of the validity of ideals and values considered as divine (i.e., as worthy of universal human devotion). He cites as predecessors Friedrich von Hügel, Henri Bergson, and a few others. Von Hügel was convinced that people have real experience and knowledge of objects and that in religion in its higher reaches there is real contact with superhuman reality. For Bergson, the true metaphysical method is an immediate intuition or vision of reality, and in religious mysticism there is such a thing. According to Macintosh, "Bergson carried the needed reaction against intellectualism and rationalism to an equally objectionable irrationalism and anti-conceptualism." (Macintosh, 1940, p. 181).

"Empirical Theology" is the title under which Macintosh presents his own program. Whereas scholastics, he writes, defined theology as the science of God, a deductive science proceeding from assured premises, some theologians have occasionally claimed to proceed by the inductive method. Macintosh meets such objections as that of Georg Wobbermin, who as a confirmed Kantian dualist cannot but feel that all such terms as "empirical theology" involve a contradiction in terms. Macintosh finally formulates thirteen laws of empirical theology. But he never gives an example of what he means by "a truly reasonable belief."


According to dualism, the divine reality is never experienced immediately, never perceived directly. How then can there by any knowledge? There is reason to question the conclusiveness of the so-called proofs of God's existence, the ontological, cosmological, anthropological, theological arguments. These proofs will be replaced by argument from moral values (as in Kant) or religious values.

But this has in fact led to agnosticism (a term coined in 1870 by Thomas Huxley), notably with Charles Darwin, who wrote that "the whole subject is beyond the scope of man's intellect," and with Herbert Spencer, the prophet of agnostic religion. For the agnostic, only the inductive method and the positive results of the empirical sciences can serve as an adequate check upon the too easy dogmatizing of theology and the speculative vagaries of metaphysics.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, "the father of modern theology," oscillated between pantheism and dualistic epistemological agnosticism. Theology, he thought, can only be a description of subjective states of mind. Albrecht Ritschl was, along with Schleiermacher, the most influential Protestant theologian of the late nineteenth century; he reacted vigorously against intellectualism in favor of the autonomy of religious consciousness. He found Schleiermacher guilty of the old error of making the doctrine of God a natural, as distinct from a revealed, theology, but in both cases, "religious knowledge" is distinguished from science, philosophy, and theoretical knowledge generally. "But," Macintosh asks (1940, p. 247), "how can be justified the use of the term religious knowledge as applied to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?" It should be recognized that the intuition in question is not perceptual but imaginal, that so-called religious knowledge is not knowledge in the scientific sense of empirically verified judgments and so on.

Adolf von Harnack agreed with Ritschl that Christianity is essentially ethico-religious and experiential rather than metaphysically speculative and intellectualistic. Ritschlians have much to say about revelation, but the concept is left vague from the epistemological point of view.

Wilhelm Herrmann was quite as suspicious of the influence of mysticism as of the encroachments of metaphysics. For Julius Kaftan, Kant is the philosopher of Protestantism, as Aristotle is the philosopher of Catholicism. The object of religious knowledge is not religion, but God; theology can never be a science of the objects of faith, however, only a science of faith itself. Religious knowledge, as opposed to knowledge in the theoretical sense, presupposes an authentic revelation of God.

Wobbermin agreed with Ritschl in excluding from theology all the mixed articles in which the faith-knowledge of God was combined with and modified by the now discredited "natural" knowledge of God. "But," Macintosh concludes (ibid., p. 278), "no consideration of the value of a belief can establish it as knowledge in the absence of any possibility of 'first-hand experience.'"

Under "Critical Rationalism" Macintosh lists the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule, which gave promise of liberating modern theology from its perpetual oscillation between helpless agnosticism and the sheer dogmatism of exclusive supernaturalism. The comparative historical study of religions shows that the uniqueness of Christianity consists not in the manner of its proof, as resting upon a supernatural revelation, but in its content: An inclusive supernaturalism would acknowledge revelation and miracle in all religions. (How is religious knowledge possible? A "fourth critique," after Kant, should investigate the a priori conditions of religious experience.)

Rudolf Otto assumed that besides Glaube, which apprehends the rationally necessary idea of an ultimate reality, there is also Ahnung, a non-rational foundation for religion in human nature, the instinctive sense of a mysterious reality (das Heilige ), transcendent and wholly other.

Under "Religious Pragmatism" Macintosh ranks, of course, William James, but also his less well-known precursor A. J. Earl Balfour, who wrote that one assents to a creed merely because of a subjective need for it, and who predicted the advent of a critical science of religion whereby what valid religious knowledge there may be will be given the universal form of an empirical science.

Under "Reactionary Irrationalism" Macintosh analyzes Søren Kierkegaard, Miguel de Unamuno, and the theologians of crisis. This tendency began as a response to the monistic idealism of Hegel. Kierkegaard rebelled against Hegel's equation of actuality and the rational Idea. For Kierkegaard, Christian faith is always contrary to reason: "The absurd is the proper object of faith, and the only thing that lets itself be believed."

Similarly, for Unamuno, reason and faith are enemies, and reason is the enemy of life. His despair of finding any theoretical defense of the Roman Catholic system of dogma led him to underestimate the arguments vindicating a Christlike God and the immortality of the soul.

Karl Barth

The theology of crisis in Germany was a consequence of World War I. But Karl Barth was also heir to Kant, Schleiermacher, Troeltsch, Herrmann, Otto, Kierkegaard, and Feuerbach. He condemned modern liberalism for its emphasis upon divine immanence, for "except in His Word, God is never for us in the world." As Kierkegaard insisted, following Ecclesiastes, "God is in Heaven, and thou upon Earth." The image of God, Barth argued, has been wholly destroyed in man by sin. The Bible is to be read in the old way, namely, not to find what people thought about God, but to find what God says to people. "This is," writes Macintosh, "pretty much the old externally authoritarian, irrationalistic theology of the Evangelical Calvinism of two or three hundred years ago."

Barth, hearkening back to Luther as well as to Calvin, emphasizes the distinction between faith, which he embraces, and religion, which he almost identifies with Roman Catholicism and abhors. In an essay on Barth's theology, Brand Blanshard offers this critique ("Critical Reflections on Karl Barth," in Faith and the Philosophers, ed. John Hick, Ithaca, N.Y., 1957):

Faith, according to Barth, is itself the highest knowledge; but this knowledge differs completely from anything else which man calls knowledge, not only in its content, but in its modes of origin and form as well. (p. 159) That revelation is to be considered a kind of knowledge is detected by his entitling one of his books Knowledge of God. But he holds, with Ayer and Carnap, that the attempt by rational thought to go beyond nature to the supernatural is inevitably defeated, though of course he draws a different conclusion from the defeat. He concludes that since we cannot reach a knowledge of God through radical means, we must do so through non-natural means; the positivists conclude from the same premises that the attempt itself is meaningless. (p. 170) In the face of all the projectionists who, like Freud and Feuerbach, would make religious "knowledge" an imaginative fulfilling of need, of all the pragmatists who, like Dewey, would make it merely a means to human betterment, of all the rationalists who, like Hegel, would make it philosophy half grown-up, of all the psychologists who, with Schleiermacher and Ritschl, would make it essentially a matter of feeling, Barth proclaimed a full-fledged return to the theology of the Reformation, in which God is set over against the world as "wholly other," known indeed to faith, but unknowable, unapproachable and unimaginable by any natural faculties. (p. 160)

Bultmann and Jaspers

Aside from Barth's (or Luther's) distinction between religion and faith, Rudolf Bultmann discerns within faith a core of message (kerygma ) that is to be extracted from the letter of the Bible through "Entmythologisierung." The Bible failed to eliminate philosophy, which tends to make the kerygma a reality subject to reason's grasp. Knowledge of God does not refer to his essence, but to his will. God is neither in nature nor in history and cannot be attained there. The biblical authors are not completely innocent of the sin of natural humankind; they sometimes understood God's word through a naive kind of rationalism, mythological rationalism, which is as sinful as scientific rationalism. Serious, cultivated believers reject that popular mythology. They can accept science and technology because they affirm that science and faith belong to two wholly different orders. But although they discard magic, spiritism, and all forms of pagan miracles, they nevertheless accept Christian mythology, except in its most objectionable instances. Contrary to Barth's contention, faith should not utilize any philosophy. All philosophies are human projections of God, of man, and of the world and are as such incompatible with faith. It was the mistake of the philosophia perennis to limit itself to the domain of knowledge and objectivity. The destruction of metaphysics that was attempted by Heidegger helped Bultmann to reject all Selbstsicherung.

Karl Jaspers's philosophy appears to be "the last word of irrationalism," the last stage in the great movement of reaction against Aufklärung. Remembering Kant's motto: "I must suppress knowledge in order to make room for faith," Jaspers finally yields to the prestige of the ineffable. However, he expresses his philosophical irritation about the theologians' claim that the Christian faith is something absolute. Christians should give up the idea that Jesus was the one incarnation of transcendence; they should accept the fact that dogmas are symbols, ciphers, lacking all objective value, and they should renounce their claim to the monopoly of truth.

Jaspers's position is extreme, and exceptional in Germany. The general difference in philosophy between Germany and France is clearly formulated by Raymond Aron:

German philosophers, especially in the last century, often belonged to a milieu of civil servants, chiefly clerical. Even when turned miscreants, they retain a sense of religion as a supreme form of spiritual aspiration; tending to a non-dogmatic religiosity, they distinguish between science, objectively true, and religion, humanly valuable although not liable to demonstration or refutation. This godless religiosity implies acknowledging the role of feeling, irreducible to that of reason. In France, the direct rivalry of religion and philosophy prompts both of them to thorough and contradictory claims. Profane philosophy (at least in its most characteristic exponents) is anti-Christian, even anti-religious. It is rationalistic and scientistic. (Aron, 1983, p. 135)

The Roman Catholic Perspective

The Roman Catholic point of view, in its most conservative aspect, was put forward by Étienne Gilson in many admirable books, especially in Réalisme thomiste et critique de la connaissance (1939). Religion justifies philosophy, which in turn illuminates religion through intelligence. Gilson writes on Bergson in La philosophie et la théologie (Paris, 1960):

Bergson had a clear idea of two types of knowledge, that of intelligence, of which the purest expression is science, and that of intuition, akin to instinct, which becomes explicitly conscious in metaphysics. If questioned about faith, he could not for one instant imagine that it was, properly speaking, knowledge. The word "faith" suggested to him primarily the notion of obedience. To accept a number of doctrinal positions as true although accessible neither to intelligence nor to intuition, out of sheer submission to an external authority, was all this philosopher would resign himself to. (p. 177)

Gilson sums up his own attitude as follows:

There is on the one hand scientific progress, on the other hand Christian faith, incarnated in the Church and defined by tradition. To speak summarily but not inexactly, there arises from the contact between the two a third kind of knowledge, distinct from both but akin to both, whose data are provided by science but whose main object is to achieve as complete a comprehension as possible of the Christian revelation received by faith. (p. 233)

But Roman Catholics are far from unanimous. They never were. They disagreed in the Middle Ages, as has been seen, as to whether one knows truth in the light of one's own intelligence, or in a divine light added to that of the intellect. The present time has witnessed the painful controversies surrounding Maurice Blondel's obstinate attempt at deducing the supernatural from the natural and Teilhard de Chardin's fusionor confusionof cosmology with Christology, of evolution with revelation. Both incurred anathema. Ever since the Counter-Reformation the church has been trying to combat Protestantism, or to catch up with it, not only (as seen above) by instituting catechism, but also by encouraging biblical studies. It has also tried to counter Kant's influence by reviving Thomism; by condemning, in the ninteenth century, all forms of fideism; and by condemning modernism in the early twentieth century, only to yield to liberal tendencies at the Second Vatican Council.

Roman Catholicism, in its existentialist variety, is represented by Henry Duméry, who also owes much to Blondeland to Spinoza and Plotinus. He distinguishes, in his Philosophie de la religion (Paris, 1957), different noetic levels; he speaks of "a specified intelligible plane, halfway between God and empirical consciousness"perhaps what he calls "le troisième genre de connaissance"and treats faith as "un object spécifique, irréductible à tout autre." He speaks of "mentalité projective," "intentionalité vécue," "visée de transcendance." Although recognizing that the philosophy of religion should apply to all known religions, he bases his own attempt exclusively on Christianity. One example may be quoted from his Phénoménologie de la religion (Paris, 1958): "It would be erroneous to objectify the typical existence of the Virgin Mary onto a profanenay, profaningplane of registry office" (p. 57). Duméry, a Roman Catholic priest, has been granted permission to relinquish priesthood.

In the Anglican church the situation is different, as suggested by the appointment as bishop of Durham in 1984 of David Jenkins, who had declared that teachings concerning the virgin birth and the resurrection might be more symbolic than literal, and that a person could be a good Christian even while doubting the divinity of Christ.


In England, modern epistemology is represented by, among others, Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer. In Mysticism and Logic (London, 1918) Russell defines the mystical impulse in philosophers such as Heraclitus, Plato, Spinoza, and Hegel as the "belief in the possibility of a way of knowledge which may be called revelation or insight or intuition, as contrasted with sense, reason and analysis, which are regarded as blind guides leading to the morass of illusion" (p. 16). But he calmly remarks that what is knowledge is science, and what is not science is not knowledge. In The Problem of Knowledge (1956) Ayer simply ignores religion altogether, as does Rudolf Carnap in his work. Both Ayer and Carnap belong to the logical positivist movement, based on the analysis of language, which started in Vienna with Ludwig Wittgenstein, who later migrated to England and was in close contact with Russell. But Wittgenstein's attitude toward religion was far less simple than that of those he influenced. Admittedly, he thought that religious creeds, in contradistinction to scientific concepts, are not more or less probable hypotheses: Never have propositions pertaining to religion expressed positive possibilities. Their whole significance stems from their place in human existence; science and religion are entirely separate; between them there can be no conflict or relation whatsoever. But he writes in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (6.54): "He who understands me finally recognizes my propositions as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them," a position uncannily reminiscent of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Finally, Wittgenstein writes: "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" (ibid., 7.0). However, Notebooks 19141916 affirms that "to believe in God means understanding the question of life, means seeing that life makes sense" (11 June 1916), which amounts to what has been called Wittgensteinian fideism.

A brave attempt at overcoming positivism was made by Michael Polanyi, another scientist and philosopher, who migrated from central Europe (in his case, Hungary) to England. In his great book Personal Knowledge (London, 1958), he refutes the Laplacean ideal of objective knowledge and calls for a return to Augustine in order to restore the balance of cognitive human powers and to recognize belief once more as the source of all knowledge. He tries to define a form of knowledge neither purely objective nor purely subjective, namely, personal knowledge: "Into every act of knowing there enters a tacit and passionate contribution of the person knowing what is being known, and this coefficient is no mere imperfection but a necessary component of all knowledge" (p. 312). Unfortunately, in the vast field of religion he only takes into account Christianity. Even more narrowly, he subscribes to the following statement by Paul Tillich: "Knowledge of revelation, although it is mediated primarily through historical events, does not imply factual assertion, and it is therefore not exposed to critical analysis by historical research. Its truth is to be judged by criteria which lie within the dimension of revelatory knowledge" (Systematic Theology, London, 1953, vol. 1, p. 144). The phrase "revelatory knowledge" begs the whole question of the nature of religious knowledge.

Yet another scientist and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, who migrated to the United States from England, dealt with the problem of religious knowledge, especially in his book Religion in the Making (1928) and again in his great Process and Reality (1929), in which one reads: "Religion is the translation of general ideas into particular thoughts, emotions, and purposes; it is directed to the end of stretching individual interest beyond its delf-defeating particularity. Philosophy finds religion, and modifies it" (Process and Reality, New York, 1978, p. 15). On Christianity, his position is summed up as follows:

The notion of God as the "unmoved mover" is derived from Aristotle, at least as far as Western thought is concerned. The notion of God as "eminently real" is a favourite doctrine of Christian theology. The combination of the two into the doctrine of an aboriginal, eminently real, transcendent creator, at whose fiat the world came into being, and whose imposed will it obeys, is the fallacy which has infused tragedy into the histories of Christianity and of Mahometanism. (ibid., p. 342)

Whitehead's own ideas, albeit somewhat obscure, have produced process theology.

Research has recently been started to try to locate, in the brain, a specific area of the mythical function (Eugene G. d'Aquili and Charles D. Laughlin, Jr., "The Neurobiology of Myth and Ritual," in The Spectrum of Ritual, ed. Eugene d'Aquili et al., 1979); and the symbolic approach has brought forth a new discipline: theolinguistics (J. P. Van Noppen, Theolinguistics, Brussels, 1981).

In the fervent, adventurous notebooks of a modern gnostic, Simone Weil, published posthumously under the title La connaissance surnaturelle (Paris, 1950), one reads: "Intelligence remains absolutely faithful to itself in recognizing the existence, in the soul, of a faculty superior to itself and leading thought above itself. This faculty is supernatural love" (p. 80). And: "Since evil is the root of mystery, suffering is the root of knowledge" (p. 43).

Two recent writers, Terence Penelhum and John Hick, have developed the idea of faith as a form of knowledge. "There is," writes the latter, "in cognition of every kind an unresolved mystery" (Hick, 1966, p. 118). "But," writes Basil Mitchell, "there is an important sense of 'know' in which even the 'great religious figures' cannot be said to know that there is a God (let alone the Christian doctrines) so long as it remains a genuine possibility that some non-theistic interpretation of their experience might turn out to be true" (Mitchell, 1973, p. 112). However, as Nicholas Lash writes: "The possibility of theological discourse constituting a mode of rational knowledge could only be excluded if religious faith could be shown to be in no sense experimental knowledge of its object" (Lash, in Peacocke, 1981, p. 304).

See Also

Epistemology; Esotericism; Faith; Neuroscience and Religion, article on Neuroepistemology; Philosophy, article on Philosophy and Religion; Truth.


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Revised Bibliography