So, yes, we are by nature in relation to the infinite because our reason can partially come to know the infinite. Reason tells us that the ultimate good of man's mind is God. In the Summa Contra Gentiles (Book 3, chapter 23), St Thomas Aquinas said, "the end of the intellect is the end of all human actions. 'But the end and good of the intellect are the true;' consequently, the first truth is the ultimate end. So, the ultimate end of the whole man, and of all his operations and desires, is to know the first truth, which is God."
Christ is introduced by St John as Logos incarnate. There could not be a clearer message that revelation involves our reason. But the Creator does more than reason could expect; He enters his creation to save it from the otherwise fatal harm that man has brought to himself. Logos is also Agape, the overflowing, unconditional love of God for man. It is the gift of reason that prepares us for the more astonishing revelation of the Logos who loves us intimately and individually. Plato did not know that there is a greater gift than philosophy from God, but without our reason could we have come to know its overwhelming significance? What if Heraclitus, having speculated on the Logos, encountered Logos walking through the door? This is the experience of a Hellenized Christianity.
Islam and reason
What of Islam in this respect? It too was Hellenized, partially through contacts with the Hellenized Christianity it conquered and more directly through the remaining centers of Hellenic thinking in Alexandria and elsewhere. The first fully developed theological school, the Mu'tazilites, embraced the idea of God as reason, of a rational order in creation, and of man's ability to come to know it. Islamic culture flourished especially in the first half of the ninth century AD under these influences.
The problem arose in the last half of the century, when an opposing theological school, the Ash'arites, gained the patronage of the caliph in order to suppress the Mu'tazilite doctrines. The Ash'arites thought that God is unconstrained by reason and is more properly understood as pure will and power. In other words, unlike Heraclitus who took the universe to be the product of thought, they took it to be the product of pure will.
The problem with this is that it removes reason from the equation because pure will has no reasons for what it does. You cannot really think about it. Reason is removed from God's essence; the world is no longer imbued with a rational order (which it could only have received from a rational God); and man can only wonder at God's will, which man is without the means to understand. Man is no longer by nature in relation to the infinite. In fact, the very notion of "nature" disappears. Man reverts to his pre-philosophical form, immersed in a mythological, magical world. His only relation to the infinite comes in the form of dictation from God to which he must submit without his reason.
Perhaps the best way to express the profound difference in these contending views are the following words from Albert Einstein: "the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible." We know from Heraclitus, St. John, and the Mu'tazilites that the universe is comprehensible because of Logos. A comparable statement by the Ash'arites, whose thinking prevails to this day in Sunni Islam, would be, "the most comprehensible thing about the universe is that it is incomprehensible." It is incomprehensible because its Creator is no longer Logos.
The option for rationality
In conversation with a student in Rome, Benedict XVI made a statement that neatly summarizes the core of what is at stake for both Islam and Christianity with this issue of reason and our relation to the infinite. I will omit only one word from it, indicated by empty brackets. He said that:
"There are only two options. Either one recognizes the priority of reason, of creative Reason that is at the beginning of all things and is the principle of all things-the priority of reason is also the priority of freedom-or one holds the priority of the irrational, inasmuch as everything that functions on our earth and in our lives would be only accidental, marginal, an irrational result-reason would be a product of irrationality. One cannot ultimately 'prove' either project, but the great option of [ ] is the option for rationality and for the priority of reason. This seems to me to be an excellent option, which shows us that behind everything is a great Intelligence to which we can entrust ourselves."
Of course, the missing word in the bracket is "Christianity." The question is whether the word "Islam" could be inserted in its stead and still have the statement read correctly. Does Islam still have the option open for the priority of reason? It most certainly attempted to exercise that option under the Mu'tazilites at a time generally acknowledged as being the apogee of Arab Islamic culture. One could have substituted the word "Islam" at that time, and the statement above would otherwise have stood unaltered.
(Column continues below)
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Many of the Muslims with whom I work understand this crisis in their culture and are struggling to restore the capacity for critical reasoning to Islam. One of my fellow panelists at Rimini grasps it with great acuity. With the Islamist surge throughout the Middle East taking hold, they have a very difficult and dangerous job ahead of them. The least that Christians can do for them is themselves not to abandon the priority of reason, which is what by nature puts us all in relation to the infinite.