The story of Galileo says it all. The Church, with its interpretation of the Bible, its beliefs and its dogmas, dictated its truths: the geocentric thesis was not open to debate, the earth was at the centre, and everything revolved around it. Galileo’s research and descriptions of what he had observed, with reference to the Copernican theory, established that the earth, like the other planets in the system, revolved around the sun and was not the centre of the universe. His discoveries were challenged, rejected and condemned; he was judged and finally had to recant in 1633. The truths of religion contradicted the truths of science, and faith contradicted reason: power was at the time in the hands of the Church, and the claims of reason and science had to bow before its authority. This opposition and condemnation are part of one of the
West’s most important historical experiences. It was a sort of trauma that had a lasting influence on debates about human beings, knowledge, autonomy, freedom, power and, obviously, social and political organization. Whilst other civilizations, from India to China, and other spiritualities and religions, from Hinduism to Buddhism and from Judaism to Islam, have never experienced such a traumatic conflict-tension (or at least not in the same terms or in the same traumatic form), it is quite impossible to understand the West and Christianity (the influence of the West’s Christian roots) without understand the terms of the equation of Galileo’s trial. The Roman Catholic Church dictated a truth that was refuted by objective and scientific observation of the world. So who was to have the last word? For centuries, the clerical institution had held the power of both political and scientific authority: it dictated the order of truth. Thanks to the discovery of Greek rationalism, the Renaissance, humanism and the birth of the scientific mind, the basis of clerical authority was being slowly undermined: the West was witnessing the emancipation and autonomization of reason, and therefore the birth of the new epistemological authority of the sciences. The fear that faith would lose its meaning and pre-eminence lasted for centuries, and affected even those who seemed best placed to challenge rationalism. More than one hundred years later, Pascal warned, with Descartes in mind: ‘Write against those who probe science too deeply’. He warned against the reason and sciences that imperilled religious authority by challenging the truths of faith and institutional authority. Galileo had lost, and won.
As we have said, other spiritualities, religions or civilizations did not experience this crisis or this epic confrontation. There are several reasons for this: the very nature of the spiritual and religious teachings, the absence of a dominant hierarchical authority, and the nature of the bodies of knowledge that had been acquired or promoted the civilizational zones in question. Sometimes, several different factors came into play at the same time, but the fact remains that the Western, and Catholic, experience, of a conflict between faith (belief) and reason, between spiritual givens and scientific facts is much more the exception than the rule in the history of civilizations and of man. And yet these questions are still of interest and are central to all of us, everywhere. Are there two orders of truth? And if so, how are we to distinguish between the truths of faith and those of reason, and how are we to circumscribe the authority of religion and that of science? Does metaphysics have anything to teach us about physics? Do we have to distinguish between, and contrast and/or reconcile faith and reason? The texts of spiritual traditions from the BhagavadGita to the Upanishads do, as we have said, concern themselves with the science of meaning and with self-liberation in the light of the Vedas and hymns that reveal an absolute understanding of origins. Throughout all the developments that led up to Hinduism, and even more so Buddhism, we find a constant de facto principle: spiritual teachings concern themselves with the scientific and objective observation of facts and elements to only a very marginal extent. Implicitly, and in the end quite explicitly, there are two different orders of knowledge. Meaning, essence, enlightenment and freedom come within the remit of spiritual teachings, whereas scientific observation reveals the order and the ‘how’ of things and describes itself as a means and never as an end.
By acknowledging their essential difference, those traditions assert their imperative complementarity. Much later, we find that this is still the case for the Jewish theologian, philosopher and physician Maïmonides, who, in the twelfth century, established distinctions and promoted correspondences between the realms of physics and medicine, and between those of theology and metaphysics. His Guide for the Perplexed is an attempt to make the science of faith and of (religious) law as rigorous as the science of physics. And conversely, he attempts to work backwards “scientifically” from the rationality that is projected on to the world, to the necessary proof of the existence of the Creator of order and causalities. Faith and reason are clearly distinct faculties, as are religion and philosophy on the one hand and science on the other, but convergences are possible and, ultimately, necessary: we must never forget meaning when we observe the facts scientifically, and we must use the facts to ask rational questions about the meaning of faith. We find in Maimonides the questions that run through the work of al-Ghazâlî, who had such an influence on him: the distinction between the two realms is a fact. Faith (which means trust and conviction) and reason (which means observation and analysis) should therefore not be contrasted when it comes to authoritative knowledge, but should complement one another as terms of reference for action. This is the primary focus of al-Ghazâlî’s aptly named The Balance of Action (Mizân al‘Amal). Even before philosophical questions are asked about the nature of the relationship between faith and reason, we find in the Islamic legal tradition, we find a methodological difference between the spheres of creed (‘aqida) and ritual practices (‘ibadât) on the one hand, and social affairs (mu ‘âmalat) on the other. A distinction is made, within the very reading of Revelation, between what is revealed, which is clear and immutable, and injunctions of general orientation, which must be interpreted and contextualized in rational terms. From Abû Hanîfa (699–675) to Ja’far as-Sâdiq (702–765) and Ibn Hanbal (780–855), from the Sunnis to the Shias, and right down to contemporary scholars, there are indeed two realms within the practice of law. The realm of faith cannot do without the critical exercise of reason if it is to remain true to its own teaching: the union of the two is imperative, and harmony between the two is essential.
We find precisely the same problematic at the heart of the question of political authority. The separation of Church and State is a political expression of the resolution – by divorce – of the philosophic-religious crisis that Galileo experienced at the scientific level. A distinction is made between practices and powers in both spheres (the scientific and the political). Whilst the Church and faith determine and recognize authority from the top (God, Revelation, the clergy), it is imperative to recognize another authority that emerges from below, from the scientific observation and analysis of the real, from critical debate and from the plural negotiations required by science, philosophy and politics. The principle of distinction is basic, and the divorce is both multidimensional and global. When asked about the separation of Church and State and the distinction between religion and politics, some Muslim scholars and intellectuals reply that, as in Judaism, there is no Church in Islam, and that it is therefore impossible to separate the State from an entity that does not exist. They miss – or avoid – the point. The important point is whether or not there is a distinction between the realm of faith and that of rationality, between dogma and science, between the revealed truth and the rational truth that is negotiated. Islam, like the spiritualities that came before it, like Hinduism and Buddhism and, in even more explicit terms, Judaism, establishes (through the work of its scholars and classical philosophers) an implicit distinction between these realms and an explicit categorization of the methodologies that establish the distinction between spheres and authorities. And besides, both the oldest spiritual and religious traditions and the most modern philosophies and ideologies have always tried to avoid two extreme solutions: confusing the realm of faith (and sometimes that of philosophy and belief) with that of scientific reasons to such an extent as to stifle and muzzle reason in the name of a meaning or system that is determined a priori, and divorcing the two realms to such an extent that the autonomy of analytic and technical reason, and its scientific and/or political logic, had nothing to say about questions about meaning, ethics and finalities. We have encountered the quest for meaning, and then the quest for the universal. We now encounter the quest for harmony.