In Knowledge and the Sacred Nasr analyzes humanity’s pursuit of knowledge and proposes that in every culture throughout human history humanity’s quest for knowledge has been a sacred activity as men and women seek to discover the Divine. Drawing from many traditions including philosophy, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Zoroastrianism, Nasr explores humanity’s quest for knowledge and quest for the Divine and how these quests relate to one another throughout history.
KEY WORDS: Islam, Iran, Sacred, Secular, Tradition, Knowledge, Science, History, Oriental, Philosophy
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In Knowledge and the Sacred Nasr explores the human quest for knowledge and proposes that throughout human history men and women have searched for knowledge which through time and in various cultures has been a sacred activity to discover the Divine. In chapter 1Knowledge and Desacralization Nasr explores human knowledge and how modern women and men have lost the sense of awe, wonder and the sacred. “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.” He argues that every human has the ability to know the sacred because “consciousness is itself proof of the primacy of the Spirit or Divine Consciousness of which human consciousness is a reflection and echo. Nasr traces the historical process of the desacralization of knowledge and language and how the separation of the sacred and the profane has influenced modern humanity.
In chapter 2What is Tradition? Nasr explains the impact of the desacralization of knowledge had on human knowledge. “Truth had to be stated anew and reformulated in the name of tradition precisely because of the nearly total eclipse and loss of that reality which has constituted the matrix of life of normal humanity over the ages.” He states, “Tradition, like religion, is at once truth and presence. It concerns the subject which knows and the object which is known. It comes from the Source from which everything originates and to which everything returns.”
In chapter 3The Rediscovery of the Sacred: The Revival of Tradition Nasr explores the recent return to humanity’s understanding the sacred by returning to tradition. “The overall harmony and equilibrium of the cosmos required a movement within the heart and soul of at least a number of contemporary men to rediscover the sacred at the very moment when the process of secularization seemed to be reaching its logical conclusion in removing the presence of the sacred altogether from all aspects of human life and thought.”
Chapter 4Scientia Sacra describes the sacred knowledge that humanity from various faith communities has rediscovered by returning to their traditional teachings. “Scientia sacra is not the fruit of human intelligence speculating upon or reasoning about the content of an inspiration or a spiritual experience which itself is not of an intellectual character. Rather,
what is received through inspiration is itself of an intellectual nature; it is sacred knowledge.” Nasr explores human knowledge gained by the texts from various religions, and explores how human cognition is influenced by philosophy and science.
In chapter 5Man, Pontifical and Promethean Nasr investigates the concept of men and women being pontiffs or bridges between heaven and earth against the concept of men and women being Promethean creatures who rebel against heaven and earth. By looking at historical developments in several faith traditions, Nasr traces the development of humanity’s self awareness from being a pontifical creature to rebelling against humanity’s role as a bridge between the sacred and the profane. Nasr argues that men and women need to regain their sense of pontifical calling because “man is fully man only when he realizes who he is and in doing so fulfills not only his own destiny and reaches his entelechy but also illuminates the world about him.”
In chapter 6The Cosmos as Theophany Nasr explores the natural world (and the fields of natural sciences) and its significant role in human knowledge of the Divine in many cultures. The cosmos and cosmic laws throughout history have had corresponded to humanity’s quest for the Divine, until recent attempts to divorce natural science from metaphysics and religious understanding. Nasr urges men and women to view the cosmos as a theophany to understand their role as pontiffs serving to bridge heaven and earth as we see the manifestation of God’s presence around us.
Chapter 7 Eternity and the Temporal Order seeks to understand humanity within the vertical and horizontal axes of existence by drawing upon the concepts of eternity and time found in many faith traditions.
In chapter 8Traditional Art as the Fountain of Knowledge and Grace Nasr explores various forms of art (including liturgical acts, created pieces for contemplation and education, verbal art of music and poetry, buildings and places of worship, and written texts) of both traditional and sacred character. He states that “traditional art is inseparable from sacred knowledge because it is based upon a science of the cosmic which is of a sacred and inward character and in turn is the vehicle for the transmission of a knowledge which is of a sacred nature.” Sacred art “has a sacramental function and is, like religion itself, at once truth and presence…” Nasr understands that art transmits knowledge and grace because men and women serve as artistic creators that create art through the revelation of divine inspiration.
Chapter 9Principal Knowledge and the Multiplicity of Sacred Forms explores how the various religions of the world relate to each other through the concept of “sacred forms.” Historically religions have conflicted with each other rather than compliment one another. Nasr seeks to articulate how the common and unique elements of various faith traditions can be understood to relate to each other in complimentary ways. “Each revelation is in fact the manifestation of an archetype which represents some aspect of the Divine Nature.” He explains, “although one religion may emphasize love, another knowledge, one mercy and the other self-sacrifice, all the major elements of religion must in one way or another manifest themselves
in an integral tradition.” Understanding how various religions each contain truth and seek knowledge of the Divine while at the same time acknowledging the differences among faiths allows people of various religious communities to firmly advocate their own doctrinal truths while respecting the teachings and traditions of others.
In the final chapter,Knowledge of the Sacred as Deliverance , Nasr discusses how knowledge of the sacred leads to freedom and deliverance from bondage and limitation. By overcoming ignorance and understanding our role within history and within the cosmos men and women gain knowledge of the sacred. “The goal of sacred knowledge is deliverance and union, its instrument the whole being of man and its meaning the fulfillment of the end for which man and in fact the cosmos were created.” Nasr explains, “Through this sacred knowledge man becomes aware of the purpose for which he was created and gains that illimitable spiritual freedom and liberation which alone is worthy of man if only he were to realize who he is.”
Heather McDivitt, University of Edinburgh