Prof. Dr. Leo D. Lefebure, Georgetown University, USA
FAITH, REASON, AND SCIENCE IN THE MODERN WORLD:
THE CONTRIBUTIONS OF KARL RAHNER AND SAID NURSI
Bediuzzaman Said Nursi and Karl Rahner both lived through periods of radical political upheaval and profound intellectual transformation; both witnessed the rapid alteration of society and culture by the energies of modern science and technology; both recognized how deeply ambiguous the new powers brought by science and technology could be; both realized the intellectual questions posed to religious faith by modern science and secular philosophy. In different ways both men reinterpreted their respective traditions in response to this new situation. Trusting that God is the ultimate source of all truth and knowledge, both Nursi and Rahner sought to demonstrate the harmony of faith, reason, and science. This essay will examine the contexts and concerns of Nursi and Rahner and explore their understanding of religious faith in relation to reason and modern science. In response to the challenge of atheism and positivism, both theologians explained human reason as open to the experience of God, and both saw contemporary humanity as facing a profound and momentous decision concerning the relation of reason and science to faith in God. While there are many important differences between Nursi and Rahner that would require attention in a full discussion, this essay will focus primarily on the perspectives where they converge.
Contexts and Concerns
Said Nursi was born in 1877 in the village of Nurs in what would later be the eastern part of Turkey, and he grew up in a devout Muslim family in the final decades of the Ottoman Empire. As a young man, he was aware that the Ottoman Empire’s traditional Islamic heritage was increasingly being challenged by the forces of European secularism, and he lamented the frequent bifurcation between Islamic schools and modern scientific education. Some Muslims reacted defensively to modern thought, separating it from Islamic studies. Rejecting this option, Nursi proposed a vision of a new university that would combine Islamic scholarship with modern science. Later, after the end of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I, Nursi struggled against the secular positivism that sought to establish an intellectual and cultural hegemony in the newly established Republic of Turkey.
Karl Rahner was born in 1904 in Freiburg im Breisgau in the southwestern corner of Germany, an area that had traditionally been strongly Catholic. Like Nursi, Rahner came from a very devout, religious family; also like Nursi, Rahner saw his nation defeated in the First World War and witnessed the establishment of a new republic in the years that followed. In this climate Rahner entered the Society of Jesus and was ordained a Catholic priest. As a student, Rahner became aware of the strong forces of positivism, atheism, and materialism that were opposing traditional Christianity. Like Nursi, Rahner recognized the persuasive power of modern secularism and positivism, which frequently appealed to the achievements of science as a weapon against religious belief.
Both Nursi and Rahner were acutely aware that scientific discoveries had profoundly transformed all aspects of contemporary life and culture and posed serious challenges to religious traditions. Even though the leading pioneers of early modern science, including Nicolas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and Isaac Newton, were believing Christians who saw no conflict between faith, science, and reason, nonetheless, some religious leaders felt threatened by the prospects of a transformed cosmology. The condemnation of Galileo’s astronomical theories by Catholic authorities in 1633 was taken by many as an indication of symbol of a fundamental conflict between the teachings of the Christian Bible and the findings of modern science.
More problematic than the scientific discoveries themselves were the philosophical interpretations that interpreted modern science as essentially opposed to traditional religious faith. In the eighteenth century Paul-Henri Thiry Baron d’Holbach proposed a militantly atheistic materialism grounded in confidence in the explanatory power of modern science. Responding to this situation, Immanuel Kant famously sought to set limits to the scope of human knowledge to make room for faith. Kant rejected traditional proofs for the existence of God, but he found a place for faith in God as a postulate of practical reason arising from moral experience. By the nineteenth century, religion and science were often understood to be incompatible and at war. One of the most influential philosophical interpretations of modern science was the positivism proposed by Auguste Comte, who argued that modern scientific understanding had permanently displaced earlier religious and metaphysical worldviews. Comte dismissed religion and metaphysics as primitive conceptualities that were appropriate only for less developed periods of human history; he celebrated the final victory of modern reason in a triumphalistic vision of scientific knowledge. For Comte’s positivism, knowledge is based only on what we can measure and verify through scientific exploration. For him, the reign of scientific reason marks the definitive stage of human culture and society. More recently, various forms of scientism have sought to displace religious faith by proclaiming scientific theories alone as trustworthy.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Comte’s positivistic claims were extremely influential both in the German context of Karl Rahner and in the Ottoman and Turkish contexts of Said Nursi. Both Rahner and Nursi knew that many persons from historically Christian or Muslim backgrounds were being influenced by Comte’s proposals to the extent that they abandoned their religious beliefs altogether. Both Rahner and Nursi were also aware that some Christian and Muslim thinkers responded to modern science with forms of fideism. Fideists affirmed that religious faith is indeed contrary to science and reason; rejecting any reconciliation, they embraced faith over scientific reason, sometimes glorying in the contradiction. For fideists, one must make a choice between modern science and religious faith, with no possibility of harmony or reconciliation being allowed. This means that religious faith must be carefully insulated from the dangers of modern philosophical and scientific reason.
Nursi and Rahner rejected atheism, materialism, and the positivism of Comte; but neither Nursi nor Rahner accepted fideism as an accurate assessment of the true relationship between faith, reason, and science. Both Nursi and Rahner believed that the alleged conflict between religious faith and modern science was based on a misunderstanding. Both were concerned to address the questions of modern atheism, and to interpret the scriptures of their respective religious traditions in response to questions concerning human knowledge, the experience of God, and the transformations brought about by science and technology. Both Nursi and Rahner sought to show how scientific discoveries, properly understood, did not pose a threat to religious faith but could enhance the lives of believers; in this endeavor both stressed the understanding of the human person in relation to God. Both theologians affirmed the possibility and viability of a reasonable faith, a faith in harmony with science but that could not be either verified or disproved by scientific methods of experimentation, a faith that could nurture a creative exploration of the world, trusting that divine revelation and science are both grounded in knowledge of the one God. For each theologian, the key to responding to modern science was a proper understanding of the relation between faith and reason.
The Relationship between Faith and Reason
As a student, Rahner learned and accepted the teaching on the relationship between faith and reason that had been expressed by the First Vatican Council, which met in 1869-70. In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith, issued on 24 April 1870, the Council Fathers condemned rationalism and naturalism based on “the rule of simple reason or nature” as leading to “pantheism, materialism and atheism.” The First Vatican Council taught that in principle humans can know God “from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason.” It further taught that God freely decided to offer an additional, supernatural revelation so that God could be known more easily and because “God directed human beings to a supernatural end, that is a sharing in the good things of God that utterly surpasses the understanding of the human mind.”
Vatican I affirmed that there is no conflict possible between faith and reason, since both proceed from the one God: “Even though faith is above reason, there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason.” Faith accepts revealed truth that surpasses the reach of human knowledge; even though human reason can never comprehend God, reason can assist humans to understand in a limited but fruitful way the meaning of divine revelation. God as infinite surpasses human comprehension: “For the divine mysteries, by their very nature, so far surpass the created understanding that, even when a revelation has been given and accepted by faith, they remain covered by the veil of that same faith and wrapped, as it were, in a certain obscurity, as long as in this mortal life we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, and not by sight (2 Cor 5:6-7).” Rahner’s entire reflection on faith, reason, and science proceeds within the parameters set forth by Vatican I and develops this teaching in creative ways.
The teachings of Vatican I that shaped Rahner’s theology resemble the fundamental assumptions of Said Nursi in important ways. Like Vatican I, Nursi also believed that humans can in principle know God as creator from the goodness and beauty of creation. Nursi argued: “For since the origins, roots, and sources of things result in their existences with perfect order and extreme art, they show that they are ordered in accordance with a notebook of the principles of Divine knowledge.” Nursi affirmed, “Everything becomes a mirror yielding knowledge of God. As Sa`di Shirazi said: “to the conscious gaze each leaf is a book telling of Divine knowledge. In everything a window opens up onto knowledge of God.” For Nursi, the entire universe is a book that reveals the power and wisdom of God to those who know how to read it. The image of the universe as a book that reveals the power and wisdom of God resonates deeply with the Catholic tradition. Augustine had imagined all the things of creation proclaiming the message: “We did not make ourselves, but he who abides for ever made us.”
Nursi further agreed with Vatican I that modern philosophy had often gone astray; and he shared Vatican I’s sharp condemnation of pantheism, naturalism, and atheism. Nursi also concurred with the Catholic teaching that in addition to creation God has given humans a further supernatural divine revelation that surpasses what is accessible to human reason alone. Thus, notwithstanding the differences between the Christian and Islamic traditions, to a significant degree Rahner and Nursi shared a common set of underlying assumptions about the knowledge of God, the limitations of human philosophy in practice, and divine revelation.
Human Reason as Dynamic and Open to God
To a large degree, European philosophy during the lifetimes of Nursi and Rahner was heavily influenced by Immanuel Kant’s understanding of human reason. Kant insisted on grounding all human knowledge in the objects of sense perception: “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.” From this starting point, Kant rejected the traditional claims of metaphysics to know the reality of God, but he did not accept the atheistic claims of the Baron d’Holbach. Instead, Kant proposed a metaphysical agnosticism, denying the cogency of arguments either for or against the existence of God. As we have seen, he famously set limits to reason: “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith.”
In this climate and in the wake of Vatican I, Pope Leo XIII had urged Catholic philosophers and theologians to look to the model of Thomas Aquinas to understand the proper relation between faith and reason, though Pope Leo acknowledged the importance and wisdom of the alternative approach of Bonaventure as well. The study of Thomas Aquinas decisively shaped Rahner’s early education, and Bonaventure was influential on the development of his mature thought. Many Catholic thinkers in this period responded defensively to Kant by simply reasserting the Thomistic proofs for the existence of God. Nonetheless, some Catholic thinkers in this period, such as Pierre Rousselot and Joseph Maréchal, creatively reinterpreted Thomas Aquinas in relation to Kant and other currents of modern philosophy. They argued that to be aware of a limit is already in some way to be beyond it, thus allowing for what Maréchal called “Le point de depart de la metaphysique.” The creativity of this approach inspired the young Karl Rahner to continue this project and to explore human reason as a dynamic activity reaching beyond the limits of this world into God. While he was young, Nursi studied both Islamic and modern European philosophy, but later in his life he turned away from philosophical studies to rely on the Qu’ran alone. While Nursi in his mature work did not engage in as explicit a philosophical dialogue with the claims of Kant, nonetheless he was familiar with Kantian philosophy; like Rahner, Nursi also saw the human intellect as dynamically in touch with God and able to know God in and through the experience of the world. Both Rahner and Nursi proposed interpretations of human reason that went beyond the limits set by Immanuel Kant or Auguste Comte.
Rahner, following Rousselot and Maréchal, stressed the dynamic movement of human reason: knowing is a performance, an activity that reaches for the real, extending beyond sense experience toward the Absolute. Rahner, agreeing with Aquinas and with Kant that all human knowledge begins in sense experience, interpreted the human person as “spirit in the world”; he argued that in our everyday knowledge we constantly make judgments about reality, affirmations which imply a transcendental horizon of Absolute Reality. In making judgments, the human intellect abstracts concepts against the background of the transcendental horizon. In light of this approach, Rahner maintained that all human knowing implicitly puts us in a relationship to God, whether we are consciously thinking about God or not. While Nursi in his mature work did not develop an explicit metaphysics of knowledge as Rahner, he saw all human knowing as grounded in the experience of God and as challenging humans to recognize God.
Rahner argued against Kant and also against positivism that knowledge is not restricted to the limits of sense experience. He stressed that humans are not simply objects like things outside us in nature, and he proposed an anthropocentric method of approaching knowledge that he hoped would avoid the dangers of positivistic philosophy. For Rahner, we always and everywhere experience an implicit reaching out for the infinite in every act of knowing and deciding. When focusing on a concrete object, we tacitly experience a Vorgriff, a preconceptual movement of the human spirit that extends beyond the finite object of knowledge to the infinite horizon, which is Absolute Reality, or God. When we make everyday affirmations about what is real, we are implicitly co-affirming the absolute reality of God. Rahner termed this implicit experience “transcendental” because it is the condition of possibility of all knowing. It is not one concept among others but is the source of all conceptual knowledge. The Vorgriff is not one distinct experience alongside of other experiences; it is the condition of possibility of all knowing. The human person is created to be infinitely open to God, and Rahner’s only definition of the human subject is “the infinite openness of the finite for God.” For Rahner, we are “always already on the way to God” whether or not we know this or will this. We always have an implicit relationship to God; in all our everyday decisions we are deciding not only about finite realities but about our transcendental relationship to the ultimate, to God. While not using the philosophical vocabulary of Rahner, Nursi also saw humans as always in relationship to God and as making a fundamental decision either to accept God as their ultimate source or to rely on other powers. Nursi described the human “I” as having two faces, one accepting what is good and the other looking toward evil. Nursi agreed with Rahner in seeing an unlimited openness in the human person, commenting that God “placed no innate limit on man’s powers and senses, no natural restriction, and left them free. . . . For since man is a mirror to the infinite manifestations of the Creator of the Universe’s Names, his powers have been given an infinite capacity.”
According to Rahner, God is constantly experienced as the transcendental horizon in this implicit reaching out of the human spirit, but God is not one individual existent alongside of others, for then God would be one more finite reality among others. Just as we never get the physical horizon within our grasp, so we never grasp completely the reality of God; God remains incomprehensible holy mystery. Rahner argued that all religious language is based on the pre-grasp of being prior to the explicit conceptual knowledge of the sciences. According to Rahner, this primordial, transcendental experience underlies all authentic religious language, as well as scientific knowledge of the universe. Nursi also stressed the infinite incomprehensibility of God: “Thus, since God Almighty’s attributes like knowledge and power, and Names like All-Wise and All-compassionate are all-encompassing, limitless, and without like, they may not be determined, and what they are may not be known or perceived.”
Where Rahner proposed an anthropocentric approach to philosophical theology, Nursi claimed that the human “I” is the key to knowledge of the universe and of God. Nursi, reflecting on the Quranic teaching of God offering Trust to humans, commented: “Just as the ‘I’ is the key to the Divine Names, which are hidden treasures, so is it the key to the locked talisman of creation; it is a problem-solving riddle, a wondrous talisman. When its nature is known, both the ‘I’ itself, that strange riddle, that amazing talisman, is disclosed, and it discloses the talisman of the universe and the treasures of the Necessary World.” Rahner stressed the unlimited and enigmatic character of the human spirit; Nursi held that God “has given him [man] an enigmatic ‘I’ with which he may discover the hidden treasures of the Creator of the universe. But the ‘I’ is also an extremely complicated riddle and a talisman that is difficult to solve. When its true nature and the purpose of its creation are known, as it is itself solved, so will be the universe.”
In light of the Qur’an (2:31), Said Nursi saw humans as created like Adam with a God-given knowledge of the names of creation. Nursi saw this as a divinely given basis for exploring the universe in science and technology: “thus, with this verse, the All-Wise Qur’an strikes the hand of encouragement on man’s back, urging him to the highest peaks, the furthest limits, the final degrees, which he is far behind at the present degree of his progress.” For Nursi, the human person is a microcosm of creation. Where Rahner reflected on the implicit experience of God in the human ability to abstract concepts from sense experience, Nursi interpreted the human ability to name all of creation as a sign of God’s special gift to humans. For both thinkers, this human potentiality carries with it an immense responsibility.
A Fundamental Choice
As we have seen, according to Rahner, in every act of human knowledge there is an objective, categorical knowledge through universal concepts and also a non-objective, implicit, yet conscious pre-grasping of infinite Being. Rahner argued that this awareness poses a fundamental choice: in our everyday experience, Rahner argued, we are always implicitly making a deep-seated decision for or against God. This is a choice between asserting complete autonomy or surrendering to the encompassing divine horizon. We can cling to the small, brightly lit island of our own knowledge and mastery and control, which is what we call hell; or we can surrender to the ocean of infinite divine mystery that surrounds us, which is the experience of heaven. Rahner eloquently described this underlying choice regarding knowledge:
In the ultimate depths of his being man knows nothing more surely than that his knowledge, that is, what is called knowledge in everyday parlance, is only a small island in a vast sea that has not been traveled. It is a floating island, and it might be more familiar to us than the sea, but ultimately it is borne by the sea and only because it is can we be borne by it. Hence the existentiell question for the knower is this: Which does he love more, the small island of his so-called knowledge or the sea of infinite mystery? Is the little light with which illuminates this island—we call it science and scholarship—to be an eternal light which will shine forever for him? That would surely be hell.
Where Rahner saw a fundamental danger arising from knowledge if humans cling to it, Nursi also saw human reason as open to God and as facing a basic choice: “But if, forgetting the wisdom of its creation and abandoning the duty of its nature, the ‘I’ views itself solely in the light of its nominal and apparent meaning, if it believes that it owns itself, then it betrays the Trust, and it comes under the category of and he fails who corrupts us (Qur’an 9:10).” Nursi cautions: “Thus, while in this treacherous position, the ‘I’ is in absolute ignorance. Even if it knows thousands of branches of science, with compounded ignorance it is most ignorant.” For both thinkers, to affirm human autonomy as self-sufficient is a rejection of the sovereignty of God. To cling to reason as if it were all-competent is a deep-seated illusion. Both Nursi and Rahner believed that in the modern period, claims of human autonomy have led to destructive uses of science for the purpose of domination and control. Scientific knowledge mastery of the natural world unleashed unprecedented powers of destruction, as evidenced in the two World Wars of the twentieth century.
Both thinkers found an alternative in the offer of divine revelation. Based on his analysis of human reason, Rahner saw the human person as open to receive a supernatural revelation from God. The dynamic movement of the human spirit allows humans to hear a possible word of revelation from God. Rahner believed that supernatural revelation is always and everywhere being offered to humans and that it is explicitly expressed in religious traditions, especially in God’s actions in the history of ancient Israel and in the person of Jesus Christ. For Rahner, reason reaches its proper destination when it places itself in the service of divine revelation, transcending itself in love. Ultimately, for Rahner, “love is seen to be the light of knowledge. A knowledge of the finite that is not willing to understand itself in its ultimate essence as reaching its own fulfillment only in love, turns into darkness. . . . For the finite may be grasped only when it is understood as produced by divine freedom.” It is only when reason transcends itself in loving submission to God that it reaches its intended destination.
For Rahner, human reason reaches out for the ultimate and must decide to surpass itself or it will fail:
It is the mystery [which is God] that forces knowledge either to be more than itself or to despair. . . . But in so far as the reason is more than reason, when it is understood as a potentiality only to be actuated in love, then it must indeed be the faculty which welcomes the greater sight unseen, the faculty of simple rapture, of submissive dedication, of loving ecstasy. . . . It is the goal where reason arrives when it attains its perfection by becoming love.
In a similar way, Nursi, following the Islamic tradition, held that God has sent prophets to all peoples and thus divine revelation has been offered to all humans. Humans thus have a choice between asserting their own autonomy or accepting the message of the divinely sent prophets. According to Nursi, the line of prophethood and religion extends throughout all of human history; he praised the union of prophecy with philosophy in the highest possible terms: “Whenever those two lines have been in agreement and united, that is to say if the line of philosophy, having joined the line of religion, has been obedient and of service to it, the world of humanity has experienced a brilliant happiness and social life. Whereas, when they have become separated, goodness and light have been drawn to the side of the line of prophethood and religion, and evil and misguidance to the side of the line of philosophy.” Nursi starkly warns that if the human ego separates itself from God and believes it owns itself, it is “in absolute ignorance” even if it knows all the branches of human science.
Both Nursi and Rahner saw modern science as posing in an acute form the age-old challenge that humanity faces between autonomy and revelation. For Rahner, to cling to science as the ultimate form of knowing, as do positivists, would be a form of despair, based on the confusion of scientific knowledge with the infinite mystery. Science presents the human person with the question “whether he [man] thinks that the little light with which he illuminates this little island—we call it science—should be the eternal light which shines on him forever (which would be hell). . . . But the mystery is the sole peace of him who trusts himself to it, loves it humbly, and surrenders himself to it fearlessly in knowledge and love. The mystery is eternal light and eternal peace.” Similarly, for Nursi, the pursuits of modern science can be a way of developing the knowledge of the names that was given to Adam, or science can be a new form of self-assertion and idolatry. For both Nursi and Rahner, if science is employed as a weapon of power and domination, an instrument of conquest, then it is not fully rational because it is based on an underlying rejection of its origin and goal, which is God. If, however, reason surrenders itself in service of the infinite mystery that surrounds it, then it becomes a form of love and can greatly enhance human life and give glory to God.