The Reason Behind Religion

Peter Gordon reviews Carlos Fraenkel’s Philosophical Religions, a tour of medieval and early modern thinkers’ attempt to square rational inquiry with divine revelation:

Al-FarabiThe guiding thought of Fraenkel’s study is that what may strike us as an unforgivably elitist distinction, between philosophers and non-philosophers, actually went along with a universalistic acknowledgment that diverse religious traditions share a common core. For it is precisely the social distinction between philosophers and non-philosophers that permitted philosophers to claim that, despite variations in literal content, religion bears an invariant allegorical truth—the insight that God and Reason are one. Plato, for example, believed that the laws of Crete and the laws of Sparta were essentially the same: variations in appearances could be explained by the philosopher as due to the influence of historical and cultural context. It was therefore possible for Plato, in Fraenkel’s assessment, to endorse both contextual pluralism (about variations in religious representations and practices) and universalism (about the inner meaning of religion itself).

The tenth-century Islamic philosopher Al-Fārābī—known in Muslim circles as the “second teacher,” following only Aristotle in his importance—appears in Fraenkel’s account as one of the greatest medieval exemplars of philosophical religion. Adopting the now-standard distinction between literal and allegorical senses of Scripture, Al-Fārābī applied that distinction even to the idea of God as a “king,” which he interpreted as a means of explaining God’s “ontological rank.” Following Plato, Al-Fārābī also endorsed a certain kind of contextual religious pluralism that allowed for the possibility of more than one virtuous religion. “But what is best known often varies among nations,” he explained. “Hence these things are expressed for each nation in parables other than those used for another nation. Therefore it is possible that virtuous nations and virtuous cities exist whose religions differ, although they all have as their goal one and the same happiness.”

(Image of Al-Farabi via Wikimedia Commons)