Revelation and Reason
The great Middle Eastern religions—Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have all been at various times involved in deep discussions over the relationship between divine revelation and human reason. Because these religious traditions all consider a finite corpus of written text—their holy scriptures—to be divinely inspired (or even to be God’s actual words), some adherents are inclined to accept as perfect and infallible their scriptures’ many specific instructions on how to live. These literalist interpreters enjoy the feeling of certainty that comes from knowing what, in their view, God wants them to do, and from living in strict accordance with divine wishes. They point out that human reason is often fallible and so can never be used to justify going against a specific injunction found in scripture. The most rigorous of literalists see the scriptural prescriptions as the formula for a perfectly God-guided society, usually considered to have existed at some time in the past, which they sometimes strive to recreate. Groups, like the Taleban in Islam, the Jewish Hasidim, or the Christian Amish, reject many modern practices as “innovations” not warranted by scriptural reference.
Other adherents of these religions, however, reject such literalism and place significant emphasis on the use of human reason. They point out that human reason is indispensable even to understand the scriptures (as, indeed, many of the “literalists” would admit). They point out that scripture itself contains contradictions that cannot be resolved without recourse to reason, and that new situations not addressed by scripture require people to extrapolate new regulations from the existing texts by using a process of reasoned exegesis. It is also clear that adhering too closely to scripture can be a formula for the kind of rigidity that increasingly puts the religious community out of touch with present realities and confronts it with the danger of becoming irrelevant.
Most members of these faiths recognize the need for guidance from both the injunctions of scripture and the dictates of human reason, but the relationship between them is largely a question of individual choice. Hence, one finds a broad range of attitudes among the faithful, from deeply conservative (to some, repressive) observance of the minutiae of scriptural commands to very relaxed (to some, cavalier) understandings of the general intentions of the scriptures.
Averroes Foundation for Faith and Reason in Islam. Link to resource (accessed April 27, 2010).
“Divine Revelation, The.” Islam-Info.ch. Ed. A. M. Omar. Link to resource (accessed April 27, 2010).
The Vatican: The Holy See. “Part 1: The Profession of Faith-Chapter 2: God Comes to Meet Man-Article 3: Sacred Scripture.” Catechism of the Catholic Church. Link to resource (accessed April 27, 2010).
Fred M. Donner
Professor of Near Eastern History, University of Chicago
1. Human reason is fallible; therefore, interpreting religious scripture involves a great deal of risk. Given this fact, what must one do to 1) avoid misinterpretation of scripture and 2) to guard against reductionism within a particular faith?
2. Donner correctly states that among those that reject literalism and choose reason to interpret religious scripture, many may view literalism as too rigid which could cause a religious community to become “out of touch with present realities” and possibly “irrelevant” in a modern society. How would a literalist respond to the dangers of being “out of touch” or “irrelevant?”