Knowledge and the Sacred [02]

~Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Today modern man has lost the sense of wonder, which results from his loss of the sense of the sacred, to such a degree that he is hardly aware how miraculous is the mystery of intelligence, of human subjectivity as well as the power of objectivity and the possibility of knowing objectively. Man is oblivious to the mystery that he can turn inwardly upon the infinite world within himself and also objectivize the world outside, to possess inner, subjective knowledge as well as knowledge of a totally objective order. Man is endowed with this precious gift of intelligence which allows him to know the Ultimate Reality as the Transcendent the Beyond and the objective world as a distinct reality on its own level, and the Ultimate Reality as the Immanent, as the Supreme Self underlying all the veils of subjectivity and the many “selves” or layers of consciousness within him. Knowledge can attain the Sacred both beyond the subject which knows and at the heart of this very subject, for finally that Ultimate Reality which is the Sacred as such is both the knower and the known, inner consciousness and outer reality, the pure immanent Subject and the Transcendent Object, the Infinite Self and Absolute Being which does not exclude Beyond Being. Despite the layers of the dross of forgetfulness that have covered the “eye of the heart” or the seat of intelligence, as a result of man's long journey in time, which is none other than the history of forgetfulness with occasional reversals of the downward flow through divine intervention in the cosmic and historical process, human intelligence continues to be endowed with this miraculous gift of knowledge of the inward and the outward, and human consciousness continues to be blessed with the possibility of contemplating the Reality which is completely other and yet none other than the very heart of the self, the Self of oneself.

Consciousness is itself proof of the primacy of the Spirit or Divine Consciousness of which human consciousness is a reflection and echo. The very natural propensity of the human intelligence to regard the Spirit as having primacy over the material and of consciousness as being on a higher level of reality than even the largest material object in the universe is itself proof of the primacy of the substance of knowledge over that which it knows, for the raison d'être of intelligence is to know reality objectively, totally, and adequately5 according to the famous principle of adequation of the medieval Scholastics. Human consciousness or subjectivity which makes knowledge possible is itself proof that the Spirit is the Substance compared to which all material manifestation, even what appears as the most substantial, is but an accident. It is in the nature and destiny of man to know and ultimately to know the Absolute and the Infinite through an intelligence which is total and objective and which is inseparable from the Sacred that is at once its origin and end.

Man is, of course, from a certain point of view the rational being defined by the philosophers, but the rational faculty which is at once an extension and reflection of the Intellect can become a ludferian force and instrument if divorced from the Intellect and revelation which alone bestow upon knowledge its numinous quality and sacred content. Therefore, rather man defining him only as a “rational animal,” one can define man in a more principial manner as a being endowed with a total intelligence centered upon the Absolute and created to know the Absolute. To be human is to know and also to transcend oneself. To know means therefore ultimately to know the Supreme Substance which is at once the source of all that comprises the objective world and the Supreme Self which shines at the center of human consciousness and which is related to intelligence as the sun is related to its rays. Despite the partial loss and eclipse of this properly speaking intellectual faculty and its replacement by reason, the roots of knowledge remain sunk in the ground of the Sacred and sacred knowledge continues to be at the heart of the concern of man for the sacred. It is not possible in fact to rediscover the sacred without discovering once again the sacred quality of principial knowledge. Moreover, this process can be facilitated by tracing the trajectory which knowledge followed in its fall from being the fruit of the Tree of Life to becoming limited to the realm of profane knowledge, which in its expansion and even totalitarianism only hastens man's fall from the state of wholeness and the abode of grace, resulting finally in the desacralization of all of human life to an ever greater degree. To reinstate man to his position of humanity cannot occur without the rediscovery of the basic function of intelligence as the means of access to that which is central and essential, to the Reality from which issues all religion and all wisdom but also the nonsapiential modes of perfection such as the way of good works and love.

The reduction of the Intellect to reason and the limitation of intelligence to cunning and cleverness in the modern world not only caused sacred knowledge to become inaccessible and to some even meaningless, but it also destroyed that natural theology which in the Christian context represented at least a reflection of knowledge of a sacred order, of the wisdom or sapientia which was the central means of spiritual perfection and deliverance. Natural theology which was originally sapientia as understood by Plato in the Republic and Laws, and which was later relegated by Saint Augustine and other Christian authorities to an inferior but nevertheless valuable form of knowledge of things divine, was completely banished from the citadel of both science and faith as the process of the sacralization of knowledge and the reduction of reason to a purely human and “this-worldly” instrument of perception reached its terminal point with the last phases of development of modern Western philosophy. To reinstate the supernaturally natural function of intelligence, to wed reason (ratio) to the Intellect (intellectus) once again, and to rediscover the possibility of attaining to sacred knowledge include therefore also a return to the appreciation of the importance of natural theology on its own level, which is of a lower order than what could be called scientia sacra, but which has nevertheless been of much importance in the traditional intellectual landscape of the Western world.

The eclipse of natural theology has also been accompanied by the casting into oblivion of the essentially sacred character of both logical and mathematical laws which are aspects of Being itself and, one might say, the “ontology of the human microcosm”. What is the origin of this logical and mathematical certitude in the human mind and why do these laws correspond to aspects of objective reality? The origin is none other than the Divine Intellect whose reflection on the human plane constitutes the certitude, coherence, and order of logical and mathematical laws and which is, at the same time, the source of that objective order and harmony which the human mind is able to study through these laws. Logical laws, in contrast to subjective limitations and individual idiosyncracies associated with the luciferian tendencies of rationalism, are rooted in the Divine and possess an oncological reality. They, as well as principial knowledge traditionally associated with wisdom, are essentially of a sacred character whatever certain antirational theologians, anxious to prevent rationalism from overrunning the citadel of faith, may claim. As a result of the loss of the sapiential perspective in modern times and the desacralization of knowledge, however, not only has natural theology been cast aside as irrelevant but logic and mathematics have been so divorced from concern with the sacred that they have come to be used as the primary tools for the secularization and profanation of the very act and process of knowing. Many a theologian has taken a defensive position before the achievements of the mathematical sciences, unaware that in the certitude which the propagators of such sciences claim lies a reflection of that Intellect which is the grand path to the Sacred and which itself is of a sacred nature, the Intellect without whose reflection there would be no logical and mathematical laws and all operations of the mind would be reduced to sheer arbitrariness.