Reason & Revelation (and Something Else)

See this article by Hadley Arkes celebrating the life of Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. wherein he notes:

But the deepest question for Fr. Schall, and political philosophy, is that question of reason versus revelation. And that is the question that he and I use to ponder in walks through Georgetown. My late professor Leo Strauss thought there was a benign standoff here, for reason could not deny revelation, nor revelation refute reason. But as Fr. Schall noted, both revelation and reason emanated from the same source, and they were accessible only to the same kind of creature.

Yes that’s the operative question for those who follow closely the teachings of Leo Strauss (and his followers). “Reason” is the secular, “revelation,” the sacred. The twin foundings of Western Civilization. Reason, Athens; Revelation, Jerusalem. For those who might consider yourselves proudly secular pagan, it’s your Western Civilization too, tracing back to Athens.

Though I do worry whether in our attempts to conceptualize we may be creating a false dichotomy. For those who are religious, if one is, say, a Roman Catholic, one has not just “reason” (from Aristotle-Aquinas) and “revelation” (the 73 books of the canon), but also tradition and the Magisterium. Likewise, Wesleyans have a Quadrilateral.

Recently I reflected on the insufficiency of reason and revelation, not because I, like what Strauss feared (and indeed perhaps what he esoterically believed) endorse a post-modern notion that objective notions of truth potentially ascertained by the two are in fact unobtainable. Rather, that the two, by themselves or together are in fact incomplete.

I think of my meticulous examinations of the writings of America’s Founder (and tremendous thinker) James Wilson. And the arguments I have had over what his words really meant and stood for. When I wrote

Scottish Common Sense philosophers, many of them theistic and Christian of diverse, questionable orthodoxy spoke of internal conscience as a necessary truth testing monitoring mechanism (beyond what the Bible says in verses and chapters and what the external canons of reason and logic can prove and test for)

I was thinking of Wilson and some of the thinkers who influenced him.  The context of my disputes has been how did Wilson view “revelation” (on the one hand) v. “reason” (on the other). But when one examines some of the “proof quotes” without looking further for context, one might miss that Wilson isn’t dealing with two concepts, simply.

Quotations like this:

Reason and conscience can do much; but still they stand in need of support and assistance. They are useful and excellent monitors; but, at some times, their admonitions are not sufficiently clear; at other times, they are not sufficiently powerful; at all times, their influence is not sufficiently extensive.

And this:

These considerations show, that the scriptures support, confirm, and corroborate, but do not supercede the operations of reason and the moral sense.

The larger, more contentious teaching I get from Wilson (and the thinkers he followed) is that “revelation” was designed to complement the discoveries of “reason” AND “the senses” (or “conscience”). That is “reason and the moral sense” trump “revelation.”

(Indeed, that the 2nd above quoted passage, and not what he wrote prior, summarizes Wilson’s thoughts demonstrates such was what he was ultimately getting at.)

The lesser included, less contentious claim is that 1. revelation, 2. reason and 3. something else (“the moral sense,” “conscience”) are all incomplete without one another but necessary to work together to find the clearest understanding of truth.

So it’s not a matter of “reason” v. “revelation.” But a third thing beyond them both. Like revelation, reason is something that can be taught and tested for externally. The conscience or moral sense is something internal.

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39 thoughts on “Reason & Revelation (and Something Else)

    • Very much my thought. Revelation, inspiration, these are deeply internal. I have no idea looking at you whether you’ve achieved enlightenment. Even if you tell me that you have, I pretty much have to take your word for it; unless you’re doing miracles like the Jesus of the Gospels or you’re enveloped in fire like the Apostles in the book of Acts, I’ve got no way of knowing.

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      • Even if you tell me that you have, I pretty much have to take your word for it; unless you’re doing miracles like the Jesus of the Gospels or you’re enveloped in fire like the Apostles in the book of Acts, I’ve got no way of knowing.

        If I were to walk on water or raise the dead it would indicate that I possessed unusual capacities of some type, whether they were authentically what they seemed to be or merely demonstratied an ability to create persuasive illusions. Either way, it would have nothing necessarily to do with whatever I have to say on ethical or soteriological questions. A statement on this question that one often encounters – including within mainstream theological discussion – is that “the common people” expect prophecy to be accompanied and “proven” by amazing events.The Gospels themselves warn against the fallacy involved, which is also underlined in the temptations of Christ.

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    • Actually what I simply meant was, it’s an external source in the way you look the words up and read the pages of the book.

      Wilson is saying the mere words on the page (assuming they are true, and I completely understand why someone might not believe they are) are insufficient to get to the whole truth.

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    • BTW, Francis. One of the HUGH disputes I’ve had over the years with the people at American Creation and following Dr. Frazer’s observation that the “theistic rationalists” (or what others call the “Christian-Deists”) actually did “test” for revelation’s truth by subjecting it to “reason” and threw out that which flunked rationality.

      Others counter, no, many of them who aren’t Thomas Jefferson didn’t throw out anything (Jefferson obviously did) but simply attempted a “reasoned” understanding of scripture.

      So with evolution. If science (based on reason) teaches it, then the Bible properly understood must be made compatible with it (without necessarily throwing anything out).

      Or if 1+1+1 = 3, not 1, then the Trinity is false. Some argue that since the Bible teaches the Trinity, then reason is cutting from the Bible. Others say no, the Bible properly understood is compatible with unitarianism without the need for throwing anything out.

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  1. Hi Jon: a couple questions.

    How are you using the concept “revelation” here? It seems to be referring to the bible, but it’s not clear to me.

    You could define it as when something pops in your head and you take it to be a sign from an external entity, like a god.

    Or are we just saying that things like the bible are assumed to be the word of a god, and so we are discovering truth not through experience per se, but instead saying: “X is true b/c it appears in the bible, which I know to be the word of god.”

    Do you think it matters which sense in which we’re using “revelation”? On either case it seems to me that you’d have to answer the question “how do I know this thought/text came from god” before you took it as a source of truth.

    Also: when you say “moral sense,” you are not referring to the perception senses (sight, hearing etc.), right? But just some internal mechanism that causes you to say “X is right/wrong”?

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    • For the first question “revelation” means God or some kind of divine agent speaking directly to man in a written word. I’ll have to read up to nail Strauss down on the particulars. He was a non-religious Jew. When he used “revelation” I don’t think he had particular barriers that would exclude others to the benefit one “group.” So for instance Roman Catholics, Protestants and Jews all have different “canons” of what revelation is. I think Strauss’ definition would include all of them as potential places where truth could be ascertained.

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      • Would the Qur’an be included in that list? If not, why not? If yes, how we reconcile it with the Bible, when the Qur’an specifically says that Jesus is just one prophet among several, and not One with God himself?

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        • It might be on the list. As I understand the Qur’an, it’s like the Book of Mormon in that it was later than both the OT and NTs, incorporates the two of them as authentically revealed, but radically changes the prior interpretations thereof with the final and subsequent revelations (like orthodox Christians believe the “Old” Testament is to be interpreted in light of the “New”).

          I’m no expert on the Qur’an; but I think it holds that though the OT and NT are inspired, they are not, as recorded by Jews and Christians, without error and they throw out certain books and the teachings of certain prophets. (I don’t think they believe St. Paul was inspired?)

          BTW: I don’t think the Qur’an teaches Jesus “just” a prophet, but rather 2nd to Muhammad. They believe Jesus didn’t die and was resurrected but was whisked into Heaven before he died and after crucified. And will in fact, return during the end of days.

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          • So now it is possible to have two revelations that reveal contradictory things: Jesus is God incarnate, no, Jesus is the 2nd to last prophet.

            So how can I know the True revelation? Maybe the true revelation is actually The Kojiki, and we should revere The creators Izanagi and Izanami.?

            I don’t see any way out but to believe that revelations (plural) are either good faith efforts to describe ethical truths, or are but partial glimpse of a God so far beyond our mere understanding, that we see very little of God and more a reflection of what we ourselves put there.

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            • Some “Christians” — or people who might consider themselves “Christians” but believe in Scripture — don’t believe it teaches Jesus is God Incarnate, but something subordinate.

              Likewise, there is dispute among “believers” as to which texts are actually inspired.

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                • “argue not” concerning the subject.

                  Well, I don’t know about that. It seems the prescription should really be “argue not if you want to retain your beliefs about the divinity of Jesus” (or whatever) since if reason is involved it’s not really a fair fight.

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                      • As Hume showed systematically, and as has been understood or intimated from the origins of prophecy (Jerusalem) and Western philosophy (Athens), reason must always proceed from reasons external or prior to reasoning. For Hume philosophy (or reason) can never produce a proof as to the reality of whatever we choose to call real, or of cause and effect and the existence of an object beyond thought of the object, at all. In the same way, as Strauss was fully aware, philosophy cannot by itself – “unaided” – ever disprove the God concept, or fully negate, for example, the possibility that the all-powerful and volitional God of monotheism produced the philosopher or scientist and all evidence or supposed evidence against the existence of the all-powerful and volitional God of monotheism.

                        On this level, the problem amounts to one of those Sunday school questions, just for people who don’t go to Sunday school. A fuller comprehension of it will tend to require greater intellectual humility and application, or openness to unfamiliar modes of thought, than typical for those who presume that there must be a simple and universal answer expressible in under 100 words, on a comment thread, also just so happening to coincide precisely with the one they have already formulated.

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                        • I think I have a different understanding of Hume than you do. He’s not saying that pure reasoning cannot disprove God, he’s saying that the idea of pure reasoning (ie., deriving truths about the world a priori), is a mistake. It’s false. Not necessarily false, just descriptively so. So when you talk about possibilities (which are epistemic in nature!) you aren’t talking about anything Hume critiques. What he critiques is deriving conclusions about the world from mere possibilities (or so-called “necessities).

                          I still don’t know what you mean by “unaided” in this context. I take it your original reference to Hume was in part inspired by his claim that reason is a slave to the passions, and the “aid” reason requires derives from emotions. But that’s not what he’s saying, and certainly not what he’s critiquing, seems to me. His claim is that the motive force for moral action derives from an emotion (or desire, whatever) and not from accepting (or interacting causally with) an abstract principle only perceived via pure reasoning. In that sense, his account of moral action is that it’s psychologically based (which, I think, is descriptively accurate!) but not that individuals are precluded from applying reason (practical reason!) to what they (subjectively) or others (more objectively) view as moral.

                          I mean, the easy interpretation of Hume here is that reason necessarily follows narrow self-interested, self-serving passions . But that’d be wrong. Reason(ing) is bigger than that!

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                          • I don’t know whether you understand Hume so much differently than I do, but you may understand the implications differently than I do, and differently, in my opinion, than Hume does. The God and revelation questions as Strauss addresses them – which I did not directly attach to Hume’s parallel investigation – are also or are authentically ontological questions, not purely epistemological ones, as they occur on the level at which there can be no “purely epistemological” questions, since we are considering whether or not and if so how “being prior to knowledge” may be conceived. It is, of course, on the one hand absurdity, and on the other absolute necessity.

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    • BTW, Strauss exoterically taught reason and revelation couldn’t refute one another and again exoterically would concede that reason doesn’t prove revelation true.

      But esoterically Strauss was known to say things like “no true philosopher believes in God.” The ones who appear to were, like him esoteric atheists.

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      • Jon Rowe: But esoterically Strauss was known to say things like “no true philosopher believes in God.” The ones who appear to were, like him esoteric atheists.

        A search for “no true philosopher believes in God” brings up only two examples in the first few pages, both from none other than Mr. Rowe, one at Ordinary Times, the other a 2007 blog post in which he identifies the quote as being from the roman a clef Ravelstein, whose central character is based in Strauss.

        As we’ve discussed before, or rather as I have previously indicated in comments that the blogger has apparently ignored, making a statement “like” the one quoted, from a work of fiction but as though from Strauss, is not the same thing as making the statement in so many words, and even the statement in so many words may take on different meanings in different contexts. There is also a significant difference between an “esoteric” statement and a statement simply uttered in private or in casual speech among intimates. The esoteric understanding is a significantly informed understanding, and the opposite of loose or casual understanding. An informed understanding of a statement “like” “no true philosopher believes in God” would likely be understanding informed by Strauss’s numerous statements, published and otherwise, on this question. For Strauss, “belief” itself, in God or in the absence of God, or in anything else, if understood to mean a precept not open to question, so in the parallel position of “revelation” opposed to”reason,” is alien to “philosophy,” which proceeds from an all-encompassing commitment to questioning.

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        • The central character in Ravelstein was actually based on Allan Bloom. Yes it’s true Bloom’s character, following “Davar” (Strauss) asserts such a thing.

          However, I received confirmation of an incident (not involving Allan Bloom) where those words were witnessed coming out of Strauss’ mouth.

          I’m not sure if I get your point:

          “There is also a significant difference between an ‘esoteric’ statement and a statement simply uttered in private or in casual speech among intimates.”

          What if the “statement simply uttered in private or in casual speech among intimates” was meant to BE THE ESOTERIC TRUTH Strauss was trying to “pass on”?

          The incident I was told of had Strauss slamming his hands down on the table when asked whether he thought a freethinking enlightenment philosopher believed in God.

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          • Thank you for the correction. I knew of course that “Ravelstein” couldn’t seriously be based on Strauss, and have read descriptions of the book that were clear on the matter, but haven’t read the book, and am not sure I’ll get around to it.

            A or “THE” “esoteric truth” is, in my view, unlikely to be a truth as a naive understanding imagines truth to be available to a philosophical understanding, as a great YES or NO on a BIG QUESTION. As Hegel puts it, “a so-called basic proposition or principle of philosophy, if true, is also false, just because it is only a principle.” It is more a feature of exoteric discourse to presume the existence or possible existence of decisions on all-important binaries that are either available to all or perhaps might be if only the masterminds would come down from their towers and divulge what they’ve been hiding once and for all. An eternal truth of that type would be a great eternal banality, and we could likewise presume that any message “between the lines” would be something equally comfortably inert, and that in the dark night of the soul the learned philosopher is just as simply stupid as the rest of us, meaning we can all to return to the truly serious business of making money.

            As for Strauss slamming his hands down, in that depiction he is referring to a “freethinking enlightenment philosopher,” and showing exasperation at someone else’s thought about yet another someone else’s thinking. Strauss is not, apparently, being asked to distinguish between the God of the philosophers or God according to the philosophers or the God that some like to call the God of classical theism, and God under whatever name in whatever particular religious discourse. Perhaps you prefer to accept on hearsay that Strauss was given to moments of indiscreetly unphilosophical expostulation. There are worse and more interesting sins, and I don’t see how his having at one time or another commited that one illuminates his thought very helpfully.

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        • BTW: The quotation “no true philosopher can believe in God” that you might put into a search engine may well be from Bellow remembering Bloom’s words. (And Strauss was “Davarr,” Hebrew for “Word,” so assumedly, it’s Bloom following Strauss.)

          Though the actual quotation I may have been thinking of is “philosophers are paid not to believe in God.”

          For that, Stanley Rosen has the quote here.

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          • To me, “philosophers are paid not to believe in God” amounts to an ironical variation on the theme: Such statements, this one more obviously than the other, are more about the nature or history of philosophy than about God concepts or concepts of existence.

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          • “no true philosopher can believe in God” is a sneering statement if given earnestly and a fine, fine example of No True Scotsmanning if given as a joke (and it’s a pretty good one, if oblique). I reckon it’s given earnestly, though.

            “Philosophers are paid not to believe in God”, by comparison, is pretty astute.

            Though I wish I knew who was paying.

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  2. Is revealed truth just what the Bible says, i.e. the mere words as symbols on a page, or is it that the meaning of the words is revealed?

    Given that the Bible wasn’t written in English, the translators must’ve known the meaning and have transferred that meaning (for the most part) into the English words.

    It seems to me that what is revealed has to be the meaning of the words. But the correct meaning cannot be verified by any objective source. This much should be obvious.

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        • The piece is a smear. If you think Strauss was out to lunch, fine. It’s dangerous to dismiss his ideas — for good or ill or something in between, they have had a tremendous influence.

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          • Yeah, I tend to think of Strauss as one of the paths through which a Western post-atheism wanders.

            What makes it somewhat fascinating is that it’s a strange way of creating some form of stasis. You will always be cultivating a post-Enlightenment religious faith, from which many offspring will defect and go through atheism before ending up at Straussianism and back to post-Enlightenment faith again.

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            • Whether a given “Straussianism” has very much to do with the thought of Leo Strauss will be another question.

              A or the leading European Strauss scholar, Heinrich Meier, has written a very useful book with a very imposing title, Leo Strauss and the Theologico-Political Problem, that captures the paradoxes of philosophy as vocation: In confrontation with action grounded in sacred and constitutional precepts, precepts not to be questioned, what appear to be sacred and constitutional precepts of philosophy as vocation are also exposed.

              Before, however, we convict the philosopher in the Straussian depiction on charges of hypocrisy, we perhaps should at least be willing to hear the philosopher’s defense. We might accuse the philosopher of supreme hypocrisy, but the philosopher might then ask whether truly “supreme” hypocrisy has a different character than everyday hypocrisy, and might qualify as worthy ideal rather than as error or sin – in other words whether a religious or quasi-religious devotion to all-encompassing questioning would be the specific exception that “proves the rule,” or alone establishes the rule in the first place. It could never, after all, presume to question itself on this basis without already having committed itself to questioning. There is no inquiry that does not proceed according to an inescapable presumption of the worthiness of inquiry – which not merely incidentally also implies a presumption of the existence of worthiness: Philosophy is sometimes mistaken for nihilism, but cannot be practiced as nihilism.

              Peirce, anticipating Habermas and Americanizing Hegel, generates a comprehensive worldview from this perspective. At one point he calls it “agapasticism,” the rule of love, which he finds consistent with central Christian teachings, while Strauss and some Straussians speak of the “philosopher’s eros.”

              I’ll cut the discussion short and just suggest that the study of this “theologico-political” problem has wide applicability. It constantly re-surfaces in our everyday political discussions (for instance in the discussion still proceeding regarding Commissioner Bratton’s statements), or in any discussion (all discussion?) at the moment that the “political theologian” insists on a necessary movement to the just result against whatever niceties of the philosopher’s just process or open-ended inquiry into the truth.

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          • Jon Rowe: The piece is a smear.

            Less a smear than trivial smudge, I’d reckon: A several-paragraph blog post from 2013 offering tendentious, citation-free but ideology-heavy testimony against a 100-page essay written 50 or so years ago. I find the comments, or some of the comments, more interesting than the post, but generally Crooked Timber is one of the last places I would look for a serious engagement with Strauss’s thought – a bit like looking for a good bbq ribs recipe at peta.org.

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  3. I dunno. Back when I started thinking about all this stuff I was very much on the rationalism side of things and thought the empiricists were fighting a rear-guard action. But the more a read, and re-read, and thought about Hume, the more I realized that my desire for something like a pure reason, one whereby I might be able to determine important facts – and theories! (Oh man, who doesn’t love a theory???!!!) – about the world simply by thinking about them, was based on an emotional desire or intellectual expectation which was totally internal to my own psychology. (Which isn’t to say, and in fact is at the end of the day quite the opposite of saying, that I was alonein the desire or expectation.)

    Now I think spirituality, if there is such a thing (and I do!) is, in it’s essence, something which doesn’t extend beyond my skin. Rationalism is pretty much hooey (useful bits here and there), empiricism reigns o’er me, and revelation derives from externalizing the internal desire for salvation (without having to do any hard work).

    Something like that anyway.

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