My grandparents, the dawnbreakers

My grandparents, Charles and Bertie Schwartz, published their book Faith Through Reason in 1947, which had a small amount of influence among Jewish and Christian intellectual circles in the United States, especially the Northeast.  The book carried the weight that it did primarily for two reasons, namely, the personal prominence of my grandparents among the professional and religious scenes in New York City, and its extremely cogent, clear, and forthright style.

Hearing about the book my whole life was one of the factors that led to my own strong interest in the question of faith and reason.  Moreover, my grandparents’ views went on to deeply influence the views of their children and grandchildren, and will probably (and hopefully) continue to inform future generations.  Pesach discussions have often turned to the text, during which the subtlety of the title — faith through reason — is emphasized.

What did my grandparents mean precisely?  In the foreword they write, “faith need not be arrived at blindly” and “the test of reason may be applied to both, that religious beliefs may be adopted and that faith may be reached through the intellect”.  The prima facie meaning of this passage would be as my family and undoubtedly my grandparents themselves took it to mean: faith can be established by reason.

However, as I currently see it, to make faith reasonable is to make it something other than faith.  Reason, or at least the cognitive logical variety that my grandparents talked about, is useful to prepare one’s intellectual terrain for the dawning of faith, and more, to resolve doctrinal problems within a particular faith tradition.  However, faith itself is ultimately either a different order of reason, or indeed, concerns something trans-reasonable.

But I’ll return to this issue in a moment, because it eventually has ramifications not only for the philosophy of religion, but of science, as well.  Now, re-reading my grandparents’ book with the hindsights of age and several years of academic training, the following passage from their book leaps out at me:

As we survey the world and come to understand more fully the workings of nature, we appreciate how little man has learned about it.  We have only to view the discoveries, inventions and developments in the fields of medicine, physics and chemistry, during the past one hundred years, to realize how much more progress there can and undoubtedly will be made in the generations to come.  When we consider these enormous advances, accomplished in the short span of a century, it becomes apparent that life on this earth, in this sense of our knowledge, has just barely begun.

The foregoing applies equally as well to our knowledge of God and His ways.  Man is merely on the threshold of learning and understanding the part God plays in human affairs.  As generation follows generation, and as our spiritual, moral and intellectual capacities develop and broaden, so will our understanding grow, of this Unseen Power — permeating the universe within and without — this force we call God.

Several things catch my eye.  For one are the overtures to Baruch Spinoza and Mordechai Kaplan, the former well known, of course, among Jewish intellectuals, and the latter with whom my grandparents were personally acquainted.  For another is the allusion to the ever-advancing nature of human capacities, which calls to mind what may be one of my favorite writings of the Baha’i faith, namely, this remark by the chronicler Nabil from his text, The Dawnbreakers, made in reference to the advent of the steam engine and its immeasurable impact upon human history:

The peoples of the West, among whom the first evidences of this great Industrial Revolution have appeared, are, alas, as yet wholly unaware of the Source whence this mighty stream, this great motive power, proceeds — a force that has revolutionized every aspect of their material life. Their own history testifies to the fact that in the year which witnessed the dawn of this glorious Revelation, there suddenly appeared evidences of an industrial and economic revolution that the people themselves declare to have been unprecedented in the history of mankind. In their concern for the details of the working and adjustments of this newly conceived machinery, they have gradually lost sight of the Source and object of this tremendous power which the Almighty has committed to their charge. They seem to have sorely misused this power and misunderstood its function. Designed to confer upon the people of the West the blessings of peace and of happiness, it has been utilized by them to promote the interests of destruction and war.

My friend Ryan and I were meditating upon this topic over tea and beer a few evenings ago.  He, an Analytical philosopher by temperament, and I, conversely a Continental, have been fascinated by the notion that there can be an apex to reason, a point beyond which logic, cognition, intellection, whatever you want to call it, cannot venture.  Several philosophers have written about this idea before, especially al-Ghazzali, Averroes, and Kierkegaard, but far as we know no one has really confronted it within the context of hyper-modernity’s sweeping technological advances, which have sprung forth from Mankind’s renewed faith in reason’s boundlessness.

I have tended to approach the mystery from two perspectives: on the one hand, the mystical, namely that there is simply something ineffable about existence which we can intuitively apprehend but which cannot be articulated logically, at least not without resort to hyperbole or contradiction; and on the other hand, the transhumanist, namely that humanity is still evolving and what was has been perennial won’t always be.  The two perspectives are in contradiction — the mystical says that there has always been something the proper response to which is silence, to which the transhumanist replies, “Yes, but only for now.”

Ryan has approached the mystery from a very different perspective: the historical process of science itself, namely the community of inquirers as it expands, consolidates and revises its knowledge, and refines its methods, all over the course of generations.  He suggests that perhaps the apex of reason gets pushed forward every generation and every era, entering deeper into the pre- or non-cognitive dimensions of existence.  If this is true, though, it would also mean that the ineffable itself is something infinite, if for no other reason than by the very definition of what it means to discover, measure, and cognize.

My grandparents, a lawyer and an activist, might have agreed with Ryan on the first point, but might have worried about the second.  I also suspect they might have thought of me as making the situation unnecessarily complex.  However, Nabil’s remark highlights an unconscious element underlying all our different approaches: the source of reason itself.  For if reason is empowered by God or is compelled by the lure of the uncognizable, whichever way you want to describe it, then its action is an inversion and not an advance. In other words, and in no way pejoratively, science is literally the act of navel-gazing, matter reflecting upon matter.

This is part of what Averroes may have been pointing out in his Decisive Treatise.  He noted that whether a seeker chooses the path of philosophy (science) or theology (religion), they ultimately return to the bedrock tenets of faith, which themselves point downward to divine reality.  I interpret this as an assertion, by one of the Medieval era’s supreme rationalists, of the Sufi mystical doctrine dhikr, which, like its Hebrew cognate zakhor, literally means “remembrance”.  Consider that dhikr is often Platonically described as the uplifting of human consciousness toward the sun of truth.  Is scientific discovery, then, nothing more than remembering?  — not piercing the darkness with light, but itself that which is illuminated upon?

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3 thoughts on “My grandparents, the dawnbreakers

  1. Hey man,

    Nice work. You explained my position in our discussion perfectly. To add a thought: I don’t think that my second point, the so called ‘ineffable as infinite’ necessarily follows from the first, the so called ‘non-static nature of the apex of human reason historically understood,’ but it could. It is not necessarily the case that the limit of human reason will go up (i.e. some world-disaster could, in theory, render the apex permanently or semi-permanently lower than, say, right now). Interestingly, it does indeed seem to follow according to the worldview expressed in the quote from your grandparents book, namely, (the modern standard scientific worldview) that nature is rich in content and it is inevitable that humanity will (infinitely?) progress toward a greater understanding of that content. Anyway, its cool how your grandparents were philosophers. I’ll enjoy reading more of your blogs in the future,

    cheers,
    R

  2. ” Is scientific discovery, then, nothing more than remembering? — not piercing the darkness with light, but itself that which is illuminated upon?”

    I have never believed that science was the pursuit of finding what wasn’t there before. It is and always has been an attempt to understand the mystery of what already exists. It shares that with religion.

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