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A Tale Of Two Traditions

     Last weekend I attended two rather interesting, and telling, events.  One was a talk by a Jesuit priest at the Catholic parish where I grew up and the other was a fund raiser for a local Islamic high school.  Although it was not obviously apparent, both events hold much deeper connections than just happening to be a part of my weekend schedule.

      These connections date back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in the figures of two outstanding scholars.  The first is the great Islamic scholar Averroes.  Born in Cordoba, Spain in 1126 AD Averroes went on to become one of the greatest thinkers of his day.  Highly skilled in law, philosophy, theology, astronomy, medicine, mathematics, music, and many other sciences.  Averroes is truly one of the great thinkers of all time. 

     Ironically, however, his greatest contribution has perhaps been to Christianity rather than to Islam.  This is because Averroes was "The Commentator" on "The Philosopher" himself Aristotle.  And these very terms "The Commentator" and "The Philosopher" were coined by none other than the great Catholic scholar Saint Thomas Aquinas.  For much of what Aquinas learned about Aristotle in the thirteenth century was due to the commentaries Averroes wrote on him in the twelfth.

      A common theme between these two great thinkers is the relationship between faith and reason.  Averroes held that both philosophy and religion were ways to truth.  A radical idea in the Islam of his day.  And although Christianity did have an existing tradition of faith and reason Aquinas was forced to defend it against many attacks—ultimately perfecting the idea of the theological syllogism. 

      A syllogism is a form of argumentation invented by Aristotle.  It is composed of several statements, known as premises, which are related to one another logically. For example:

 Major premise: All men are mortal

Minor premise: Socrates is a man

Conclusion: Socrates is mortal.

 In a normal syllogism the premises can be proven through observation and reason (as indeed is the case here).  However, in a theological syllogism this is sometimes not the case.  What Aquinas pointed out, in the famous controversy on the topic at the University of Paris, is that although the premises of a theological syllogism sometimes can't be proven by observation and reason they can in fact find their proofs in sacred scripture and tradition.  Therefore, the new logic of Aristotle can be applied to theology in the form of a theological syllogism! 

     Thus a balance in the roles of philosophy and theology was struck in Christianity.  And it is a balance which has remained with us until our own day.  This is attested to in the encyclical of Pope John Paul II from 1998 entitled "Fides et Ratio" (Faith and Reason). For in it he states:

     Faith and Reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know Himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.

 The beautiful imagery of a bird rising to the contemplation of the truth used by Pope John Paul II here is a clear message that it is only through a balance of faith and reason that a religion can thrive.  For what can a bird with only one wing do besides spiral toward its own demise?

      Why is reason so important to faith?  Quite simply because faith alone unbalanced by any other force can become turned in on itself and quite dangerous to both those inside and outside of it.  This I have seen many times in my own life in various versions of both Christianity and Islam.  Be it Jonestown or 9/11 we have several recent examples of faith unchecked by reason becoming destructive. 

     Thus the struggle to ascend to truth remains for us all.  And the brilliance of this high school and the movement behind it is that they have tapped into one of the great figures in the history of this struggle.  An Islamic figure who is also one of the pillars of European society because of his insistence that faith should be guided by reason!

      At my Catholic gathering this past weekend unfortunate comments were made.  "Professors" were derided for teaching relativism and attacking faith.  As a professor of philosophy myself I found such comments curious because in just about every philosophy textbook I have seen it is indeed the refutation of relativism that is one of the first orders of business.  And in my own courses it is indeed the first order of business (before we even open the textbook).

      In contrast, at the Islamic high school event speakers were lauded for their academic credentials and indeed a non-Islamic professor was the keynote speaker.  And after all was said and done I had to admit that as an educator I felt somewhat derided at a Catholic event and rather appreciated at a, primarily, Islamic event.

     And this is not the first time I have encountered a rather anti-academic environment in Christian circles of late.  Add to this the recent new English translation of the Catholic Mass from a clear modern English to an archaic English with Latin grammar and one cannot help but see a trend developing.  

      It is indeed ironic that just as the Catholic faith seems to be forgetting its great tradition of reason some brave visionaries in the Islamic faith are working to rediscover their own.  And this is even more ironic in light of the fact that in many ways Averroes was the seed of thought for Aquinas in his great defense of the theological syllogism.

      It was indeed then an interesting weekend.  A weekend in which I found out that my own tradition has something to learn from another.  A weekend in which I came to know about a new movement to combine faith and reason.  A weekend in which I encountered many hospitable and good people at both events for whom I am all grateful.

     Although this high school certainly seems to be a primarily Islamic institution at the moment there is certainly a hope, because of their respect for both faith and reason, that it might one day become an American institution.  And perhaps just another example of how immigrants from other lands often serve as the leaven that causes America to once again rise.[1]


[1] This essay appears in the Chaos To Order Publishing books Faith, Reason, and the New Mass Translation and The Art of Teaching.


DECLARATION ON THE RELATION OF THE CHURCH TO NON-CHRISTIAN RELIGIONS NOSTRA AETATE PROCLAIMED BY HIS HOLINESS POPE PAUL VI ON OCTOBER 28, 1965  
"The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting."