There are at least three reasons why this question arises, even though the answer -“no”- immediately springs to mind, and they cannot be dismissed without considering all their consequences.

The first reason comes to mind when we are surprised and delighted, on reading the theological texts of St. Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, Roger Bacon or Saint Bonaventure, by the extraordinary intelligence of these doctors (angelic, subtle, admirable and seraphic, as they were respectively nicknamed). One is surprised – not, from a modernist point of view, because such intelligence, preferably mathematical, should have been applied exclusively to technique1 – but because we gain access to a previously unsuspected (by us “unsuspected”, for Origen and S. Augustine are theological geniuses at least equal to the medieval doctors) intelligence (understanding) of the Christian mysteries. Then comes this rapture – in an almost etymological sense.

The second reason comes from meditating on Christian dogmatics. As Jean Borella has reminded us (Problèmes de gnose, L’Harmattan, 2007, chap. VII), Christian dogmatics are the most transparent possible expression or formulation of the Christian mysteries, and they lie between revelation and theology -a unique case among religious traditions, which “classically” have a revelation (written or not) that formulates, and theologies that interpret. Far from constituting an interpretation -which is indeed the role of theologies, none of which, even that of Saint Thomas Aquinas, has ever been canonized2- dogmatics is on the side of formulation alone (Problèmes de gnose, ibid.). It seems to us that the Christian mystery is of unequalled intelligence. This is why some of the greatest minds in the world have devoted their lives to it and, above all, why nothing less than this dogmatics was needed to fix -in the face of any “anecdotally” interpretative drift- and transmit, for two thousand years, this understanding of the Christian mystery3.

The third, anthropological reason refers to man’s “nature”, and in particular to the essential dimension of his “intelligence”. From then on, man cannot fail to be intelligent; he is made to be intelligent; he is “gnostic” by nature. The question then arises as to the function of this human intelligence and, in particular, its possible role in the face of revelation. What can man claim to know? How do belief and knowledge come together?

It seems to us that the right approach is to begin by defining intelligence. Then we can see how it applies to the world (the cosmological) and to what passes beyond the world (the metaphysical). It will then certainly be easier to understand doctrines such as “the pneumatization of the intellect” (cf. the teaching of S. Paul) and, paradoxically, to envisage true “gnosis” as that of “intelligences that know how to close their eyes”4. Undoubtedly, this will have shed some light on the title question of this essay, enabling us to work out an answer.


1. The pragmatic definition of intelligence as measurable in psychology must be discarded immediately. Indeed, in response to the question “What is intelligence?”, the inventors of the famous test are said to have replied: “But that’s precisely what our test measures!”5. By “intelligence”, then, we do not mean agility of mind or aptitude for mental calculation.

2. We must also abandon the Kantian definition of intelligence as “understanding”, an intermediary between sense and reason, a definition that is ultimately easy to refute. At first glance, this is a simple inversion of the vocabulary between “reason” and “intelligence”, but it needs to be re-established. The origin of this unfortunate inversion undoubtedly lies in Descartes’ relative confusion of the two terms6 – only “relative”, since the metaphysician retains reason’s power of intuitive knowledge (intellectus intuitivus)7, without which no metaphysics would be possible (cf. La charité profanée). But, having made reason (Vernunft) the superior faculty of thought, Kant will now see in the understanding (Verstand, intellectus) only the inferior cognitive activity: that which clothes the sensible given, i.e. the matter of sensation and the form of space and time, in a conceptual form8. But this inversion is in fact a negation, the negation of the intellectus (intuitive intellect): “intellectual intuition, in fact, is not ours, and […] we cannot even envisage the possibility of it”, he writes9. If Kant denies intellectual intuition, it’s simply because he imagines it, on the model of sensible intuition, as having an object in front of it. However, “beyond knowledge by observation, there is room for knowledge by participation”10. To know a thing, according to Kant, is certainly to construct a concept in sensible intuition, but above all, it is to be “intellectually seized by a sense, an intelligible, which we ‘recognize’ more than we know it”11. Following Jean Borella, the Kantian contradiction lies in the very project of the critique of pure reason, a critique that reason is supposed to carry out by itself, whereas the limit set by Kant himself: “What limits must be different from what it serves to limit”12 renders such a project obsolete. Unlike Kant, for whom not only does the understanding limit itself13 but reason limits itself by limiting its theoretical use through its practical use14, reason cannot limit reason. On the contrary, if we can become aware of the limits of reason, it is because there is in us an intellectual power superior to reason, and that knowledge enjoys its inner limitlessness: the intellect or knowledge (it’s all one) is more than what it knows, and than the knowing subject15.

3. And so we come to this definition of intelligence, distinguished from reason because it “comes from outside” (or “through the door”), as Aristotle once said16. Of course, given man’s psycho-corporal state, it’s true that “nihil est in intellectu quod non fuerit in sensu” (nothing is in the intellect that wasn’t first in the senses), but only insofar as we add the Leibnizian correction: “nisi ipse intellectus” (if not the intellect itself)17!

This dual aspect of the mind may seem subtle, but reason -the norm of discursive thought, doubly subject to the object it looks at and the logic that frames it- cannot be equated with intellectual intuition. If reason unrolls reasoning, it is indeed intelligence that understands it, and no one can force anyone – not even oneself – to understand what remains incomprehensible18. The process of acquiring knowledge (and of establishing its validity) is certainly not intuitive: to discover what it does not know, the mind proceeds discursively, by investigation, reasoning, deduction, but the proper act of knowledge “can only be direct reception of the intelligible given”19. The cognitive act as such is that “by which a known object unites itself directly with a knowing subject, in a kind of reciprocal transparency that is the very experience of the intelligible” (Lumières de la théologie mystique, p. 124). Just as the light that infuses a crystal is not produced by the crystal, the intellect, in act and in its supra-human essence, is uncreated and uncreable20. This is reflected in the doctrine of the intellect as the sense of being.

Intelligence and Reality

Intelligence and Physical Reality

To say that the role of intelligence is to be a “sense of the real” is to note that the primary intellectual act is essentially intuition of the real as such, awareness that there is reality, or, put another way: being has meaning for intelligence21. Our “consciousness of intelligibility”, our “semantic experience”, is this realization that the idea of being has its semantic resonance in our intelligence, even though this cannot be explained by any genesis. This metaphysical disposition is therefore innate and immediate; and it is precisely the immediacy of this ontological experience that makes it directly inaccessible to us, just as we cannot see the light that makes us see, except indirectly22.

For all that, it is not the very being of the known object that is received in the intellect, but its intelligible modality, stripped of the object’s own individual existence; “the act of knowledge is thus achieved only at the price of a kind of derealization”. However, this “knowledge is real, it is even the function of the real par excellence”: “there is only being for knowledge”. This is what makes the intellect’s situation paradoxical: it is both outside the real and linked to the real. It is therefore this illumination “coming from elsewhere”, it is therefore of another nature, of another degree of reality than that which it illuminates. Jean Borella would say that “the cognitive content of the intellect exceeds the degree of reality of its manifestation: in other words, [that] it is transcendent to it” 23. And it has to be, since everything that is manifested is never entirely there, since its invisible root, cause and source always remain unmanifested.

Intelligence and Supernatural Reality.

What is true of “visible” or physical reality (nature), because of the “transcendent organ” of intelligence, is a fortiori true of supernatural realities, of which intelligence is a part. Thus Frithjof Schuon could say that “the intellect is naturally supernatural or supernaturally natural”, and this “naturally supernatural dimension of the intellect […], Saint Thomas [will have] undoubtedly taught”24, in spite of neo-Thomism, which, anxious not to fall under Kantian criticism, posited “in principle a radical distinction between the order of natural knowledge and that of supernatural knowledge” (Le sens du surnaturel, p. 83).

For it is in this radical separation that the paradigm of “modernist” thinking lies25, which precisely can no longer think the supernatural. The present-day origin of this paradigm can be seen in the Galilean error26, and its most accomplished formulation, in its philosophical implementation by Kant.

To be convinced of this, we need only go back to Plato’s unchanging teaching, for whom the conception of the universe “derives as a sensible illustration from that which, in itself, is invisible and transcendent”. It is “in its very substance” that the world “is endowed with an ‘iconic’ function” (The Crisis of Religious Symbolism, French ed. p. 54); it is, says Plato, “of necessity the image of something” (Timaeus, 29b; The Crisis…, p. 40), so that any cosmology can only be “a plausible myth (ton eïkota muthon)” (Timaeus, 29d; ibid.). If, for Plato, “our science of nature remains hypothetical, it is not because of the weakness of our intelligence; it is because of the lack of reality of the object to be known. Consequently, the only form of knowledge that is adequate to a deficient being is symbolic knowledge, because it first posits its object for what it is, a symbol, but a real symbol, i.e., an image that participates ontologically in its model”27.

The Pneumatization of the Intellect

We have seen that the paradox of the intellect consists in the fact that it “cannot receive within itself the knowledge of all things except because it is none of the things it knows” and that, similarly, the paradox of knowledge is that “it is an anticipated fusion of subject and object, but [that] it anticipates it only because it does not realize it”28.

To achieve such a fusion, a genuine “pneumatization of the intellect” is necessary, otherwise the intellect is never more than the cognitive aspect of the mind and, even if it is therefore essentially identical to it, ordinary experience is never more than that of the intellect alone. On the other hand, such a “pneumatization of the intellect” will reveal the connaturality or essential identity of intellectus and spiritus, as shown by Meister Eckhart, for example (La charité profanée, p.131).

It’s all in the ternary constitution of man, clearly affirmed by Saint Paul: “[…] may your whole spirit (pneuma) and soul (psuchè) and body (sôma) be preserved immaculate for the parousia of Our Lord Jesus” (1 Th 5:23). In addition, we read the distinction between the psychic body and the spiritual (or pneumatic, or celestial) body, contrasting the first and last Adam: “The body is sown as a psychic body, and rises as a pneumatic body. […] The first man, Adam, was made a living soul (psuchè), the last Adam was made a life-giving spirit (pneuma). What is first is not the pneumatic, but the psychic, and then the pneumatic. The first Adam is earthly, drawn from the earth; the second man comes from Heaven” (1 Cor. 15:44-47).

To this opposition corresponds the rule of spiritual alchemy: “by the grace of the incarnate Word, to separate the pure gold of the spirit from its mortal alloy with the animic substance”: “The Word of God (Logos) is effective and sharper than a two-edged sword penetrating to the separation of soul and spirit” (Heb 4:12). This means that “the pneuma is actualized in us only through metanoia, inner conversion, which is purification of the psuchè and death to the ego.” This conversion is only the human dimension of the transforming action of divine grace, which is why “the Pauline pneuma is sometimes the Holy Spirit and sometimes the spiritual man, without it always being possible to discern whether it is one or the other”. This is because the spirit of man, originally “inspired” (Gn 2:17), remains “inhabited by the Spirit of God who renews him (Ep 4:23) [and] who joins himself to him (Rm 8:16), to ”unite him to the Lord and make him one pneuma” (1 Co 6:17)”. (La charité profanée, pp.157-160).

What now of the relationship between spirit (pneuma) and intellect (noûs), especially as “Saint Paul sometimes uses pneuma as a synonym for noûs29? Once we’ve accepted the variations in vocabulary, and in line with our anthropology, we can say that :

  • “the spirit designates divine life in the creature, according to its most interior dimension, whose actualization rigorously depends on the grace of Christ”;
  • “intellect designates a “naturally supernatural” faculty of knowledge, which knows (or can know) spiritual truth, but which, being by definition “passive” (this is the price of its objectivity) is also powerless to move the will of the whole being.”

A capacity for pure knowledge (not abolished, but only obscured by original sin), “the intellect enables the human being, in his present state, to intelligibly enter into contact with realities that are ontologically beyond him, in other words, to have a clear awareness of them: it is through the intellect, naturally supernatural, that supernatural realities have meaning for a natural being, otherwise they remain as if they were not”. The result is a dual relationship between noûs and pneuma:

  • on the one hand, there must be an intellectualization of the spiritual, to effectively grasp the mysteries of the Spirit;
  • on the other hand, the intellect must be pneumatized, “to give life and reality to what is merely speculative, and therefore powerless, knowledge”.

The intellectualization of the pneuma is not only aimed at the fruits of grasping the mysteries, according to St. Paul’s teaching that if “it is my spirit that prays, […] my intellect derives no fruit from it” (1 Cor. 14:14-15), but also serves the instruction of others: “I would rather speak five words with my intellect, to instruct others also, than ten thousand words in tongues” (1 Co 14:18-19)30. However, “if the intellect is the true hermeneutic of the spiritual, it remains powerless on its own to bring the human being into the life of the spirit”.

It is then “the pneumatization of the intellect that will transform the speculative intellect into the operative intellect”:

  • “Transform yourselves in the renewal of your intellect, so that you may be able to discern the will of God” (Rom. XII, 1-2)31.
  • “[…] to strip yourselves of the old man, corrupted by deceitful lusts, so that you may be renewed by the pneuma of your intellect, and put on the new Man, the one created according to God (kata Theon)” (Ep IV, 19-24).
  • “Who has ever known the Intellect of the Lord”, asked Isaiah32? And Saint Paul answers: “The pneumatic man judges all things and is himself judged by no one. For who has ever known the Intellect of the Lord to be able to instruct him? Well, we have the Intellect of Christ” (1 Cor. II. 16).

“The end of the pneumatization of the intellect is accession to the Inner Man, to the immortal Person”, for “the intellect, in its true nature, is identified with the Inner Man”, according to Saint Paul:

“In following the Inner Man, I delight in the law of God; […] So then, I am subject through the intellect to the law of God” (Rom. VII, 22-25)33.

Thus you will receive strength to understand, with all the saints, the Breadth, the Length, the Height and the Depth; you will know the Love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge (Ep 4:16-19).34

Gnosis, Infinite Ignorance

“You shall know the Love of Christ which surpasses all knowledge”, says Saint Paul35. Such knowledge, which surpasses all knowledge, is called gnosis (or mystical theology – see section V). Gnosis is therefore sacred knowledge, according to its object, which is the divine Essence, and according to its mode, which is participation in God’s knowledge of Himself. Such participation, which is more a matter of being than of knowing, is an actualization that is necessarily the work of the Holy Spirit.

This actualization is the internal foundation of holy theology, just as Revelation is its external foundation. On this double foundation, speculative theology is the mental objectification of mystical theology, the imperfect expression of perfect contemplation.

And it is this imperfection of speculative theology that calls for its own overcoming, that invites reason to submit to spiritual intelligence, and that allows access, through grace, to gnosis. And this gnosis is the Kingdom of God, according to the correspondence between “the key to gnosis” (Lk 11:52) and “the key to the Kingdom of God” (Mt 23:13), which underpins the identity of gnosis and the Kingdom of God in the Scriptures.

As such, true gnosis is not a science but a nescience, for in this supreme gnosis, it is God who knows Himself, as soon as the intelligence is perfectly stripped of itself. Only unknowledge can lead to over-knowledge: “If anyone thinks he knows anything, he does not yet know it in the way he ought to know it” (1 Cor. 8:1-2). And the power that alone can bring about this necessary renunciation is the charitable power that makes “Charity the door to gnosis”36.

According to Christ’s vow, it’s a question of becoming one as the Father and the Son are One, and Love is the unification that precedes Unity; because love is the substance of gnosis, and gnosis the essence of love. The gnostic dimension of Charity enables the radical selflessness of pure love, and gnosis is centered on Truth, the only Truth that delivers. “Gnosis is the vertical axis, unchanging and invisible, which the dance of love envelops like a flame.

Prayer is therefore the only activity that befits the dignity of the intellect, and is the act by which the intellect realizes its deformed nature. Prayer is therefore gnosis; “it is the intellect that prays in knowledge and knows in prayer”37; knowledge is the prayer of the intellect. Prayer and gnosis are thus the two rungs of Jacob’s ladder, meeting in the infinity of God.

If there are stages on this spiritual ladder, they are those of stripping away: desires of the body, passions of the soul, thoughts of the spirit. Thus, the virtues of the body (somatic) can lead by grace to the virtues of the soul (psychic), the virtues of the soul to the spiritual virtues (pneumatic) and the spiritual virtues to essential gnosis.

Love and Gnosis are the origin and the end of the journey. Having reached Christ, the eternal Gnosis of the Father, through charity, we participate in His Outpouring of Love, which is the Holy Spirit. The intellect, unified by charity, “is elevated to infinite dignity, a dignity it possesses by virtue of its very intellectual nature”. And “the naked intellect is that which is consummated in the vision of itself and has merited communion in the contemplation of the Holy Trinity”38.

Only “the nakedness of the intellect, or infinite ignorance (Saint Evagrius), or the ‘cloud of unknowing’ (Dionysius the Areopagite) represents the non-modal mode in which the creature can become immanent to divine transcendence”. And “this non-modal mode is the highest degree of charity”. And “as long as the intellect is not God, its light is not the true Light”. It must realize its own non-divine substance, i.e. its ontological ignorance. “The Blessed Virgin knew this secret, she who was the pure darkness where the Light of the World took flesh” (La charité profanée, pp.387-408).

Gnosis or Mystical Theology

It is in the Dionysian tradition, to which S. Thomas Aquinas often refers to (he quotes the Areopagite 1760 times in the Summa Theologica, according to Timothy Wade), that we discover a theology that is much more initiatory than speculative, according to four modes or paths that can lead, through grace, to the knowledge of God.

Starting with the Scriptures – which is the rule – we see that they speak of God through images: the Rock, the Light, or notions: Good, Being, Life. The former will correspond to a symbolic theology, the latter to a cataphatic (affirmative) theology. From then on, divine transcendence will demand that all statements about God be denied: this will be apophatic (negative) theology. Finally, beyond all negation (the saying of what God is not), apophatic theology ends in the non-modal mode of mystical theology, the “place” of that which is without place. These four paths or modes thus appear as “the four degrees of a single ascent of knowledge” (Lumières de la théologie mystique, p. 94), of which we shall see that Love is the elevator.

1. Symbolic theology consists in making explicit the theological nature of symbols. Essentially cosmological (by nature), symbols taken from Scripture are offered to the intelligence so that it can “read in these forms a teaching that escapes all form”39, so that it can grasp “in the figure of these realities, the realities without figure” (Lumières…, p.95): the Rock, the Light, etc., which symbolize (or presentify) God. If the symbol links the visible to the invisible, it is because it is a “dissimilar resemblance”40, and this antinomy is intrinsic to the nature of the symbolic link: the resemblance that statically links the visible to the invisible is the analogical nature of the symbol; and the dissimilarity that makes us renounce the image and, dynamically, ascend towards the model, is its anagogical virtue (the act of anagogy being, literally, “the ascent upwards”).

2. With affirmative theology, we enter the realm of conceptual intelligibility, of discursive reason and therefore of language, which is necessary for understanding notions or ideas about God. As these are initially used in Scripture and then transmitted by Tradition, this notional theology is fully legitimized and, from then on, it is even the theologian’s duty (Lumières…, p. 102) to comment on and explain all these notions derived from Scripture: Life, Cause, Principle, etc. In addition, his discourse will have to include all the notions of God’s existence.

What’s more, his discourse will have to work from the top down, so that successive assertions are initially founded as close to God as possible. This descending order is an imitation of the proodos, the procession of divine immanence according to the degrees of Creation: One or Good, Being, Life, Intelligence… This descent, which on the one hand anchors affirmative theology as close to God as possible, on the other hand, as it moves further and further away, means that it tends to be “less and less true, and in a way exhausts its own possibility” (p. 98).

3. Negative theology consists in “denying all symbols and notions applied to That which is beyond all figures and names” (p. 99). Moreover, far beyond a simple negation that would nullify what has been affirmed previously, negative theology emerges as the anagogy of affirmative theology: the negated concept ceases to simply indicate a mental object to become “the sign of an operation to be performed by the theological intelligence”; conceptual language has been transformed into a metaphysical operator!

Indeed, just as the symbol, by its anagogic virtue, enables the image not to be taken for Reality, so the word (or the notion it designates, or the concept through which the notion is thought) acquires its true utility when the mind becomes aware of the concept’s inadequacy to its Object, when the anagogic intelligence ceases to regard it as a mental thing but realizes the transcendent reality it designates.

Thus, the theological intelligence perceives “the model as transcendent to its reflection in thought” (p. 111), and we call this anagogical tension41 the awareness of this “tension that reigns between the intellective essence of the notion and the mental mode of its existence, between the transcendent content of what is thought and the act (the concept) that thinks it” (p. 111). Put another way, negative theology can make it possible to “realize the unity of seeing (symbol) and conceiving (notion), of the symbol, vision without intellection, and of the concept, intellection without vision, in intellective vision” (p. 99). This intellective vision, which is a “gnosis by nescience” having renounced all conceptual knowledge, is then a matter for mystical theology.

4. Mystical theology therefore differs from negative theology only as the end of the road from the road itself. When the latter has denied all symbols and concepts, mystical theology can appear. When intelligence no longer sees the concept as a mental thing, because it has denied it, because it has closed its eyes, then it can realize the informal and anonymous Reality. Then it makes “the decisive and paradoxical experience of its own limits, and [can] suddenly experience itself as a pure capacity for contemplative adoration” (pp. 10-11). For such a realization, of course, is a matter of both knowledge and love. But what kind of love and what kind of knowledge are we talking about?

Fundamentally, “anagogical power is the work of Love, and expresses the operation of the Holy Spirit at the heart of the intellect” (p. 110): “Love is but the very movement of theologia, the dynamic power that makes it […] go beyond names and forms. And this erotic power, which is in the created intelligence, is none other than its participation in the divine Erôs itself, in the Spirit of Love who is God in his Trinitarian ecstasy” (p. 108). The Knowledge in question is also by participation. Saying “God” and denying it as a concept, what remains is intellectual intuition – which “is the very life of the mind” – the grasping of the intellect by a sense, in the exact measure that the intellect becomes one with this intelligible. Metaphysical objectivity, in which the knowing, the known and knowledge are unified, is intrinsic and qualitative, whereas “physical objectivity is extrinsic and relative: it is only the reflection of the previous one, which founds it ontologically” (p. 106). We have then gone beyond any noetic operation (an order of knowledge that implies, even in the case of intellectual intuition, a certain speculativeness (p. 112), for an ontonesis in which being and knowing are indissociably unified.

If anagogical power is the work of the Spirit in the intellect, this operation is possible because it finds “in the intellect itself, a supra-conceptual capacity that is awakened and actualized by the apophatic task: grace presupposes the nature it perfects” (p. 110). The deepest nature of intelligence is thus pure intuition: not as an intellective act, but as a supernatural nature, a virtual identity between itself and the sense that has grasped it. By transcending the noetic, “it obeys not only the attraction of divine Love, but also its own internal necessity”.

Negative and mystical theologies thus prove to be “a ‘Passover’ of the intellect” (p. 108), a spiritual path involving death and resurrection: “death to affirmative concepts […] that become signs of their own overcoming; resurrection, because the intellect that has consented […] to its own erasure, to its own crucifixion, is established in a supereminent state of ‘gnosis by nescience'” (pp. 108-109). These two moments – extinctive and unitive – are revealed precisely by Christ’s death and resurrection. The stripping away of all intellectual operations, the renunciation of all determined objects, in order to recognize the only divine Object, is the death of an intelligence crucified with Christ, and which, like him, having renounced all intelligible form of the divine, can only cry out: “Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani! […] Baptized in Christ’s death, the paschal intellect rises with Him” (pp. 115-116). For in Christianity, “there can be no other path to gnosis than Jesus Christ Himself, incarnation of the Logos, that is, of the Knowledge that God takes of Himself. […] And this is why, from Origen to Master Eckhart, and among the greatest mystics, knowledge of God, true gnosis, is identified with divine filiation: to know God is to become ‘Son'” (p. 43).

Do we have to be Intelligent to be Saved?

It seems to us that the answers are sufficiently clear for us to be able to formulate a response to this title question.

1. If intelligence consisted only in its recent reductive definition of agility of mind (or “mental ability”, as Schuon would say), it would be all too obvious that the intellectual inequality of men, by virtue of their birth, is incompatible with divine justice and that, as such, it is certainly not necessary to be intelligent in order to be saved.42, just like S. Thomas Aquinas, and that the procession of saints seems to cover the whole human variety, from this point of view.

2. This is why, if there is a sacred “intellectuality”, it is first and foremost because the intelligence with which man is endowed is his “sense of the real”, his sense of the supernatural43. Above all, it is because this power to know comes to him only from the liberality of a God who is “Father of lights” (Jc 1:17), and that this “metaphysical” is precisely the Logos, the divine Word itself: “True light which enlightens every man coming into this world” (Jn 1:9) (Lumières…, p. 61).

“Man is, by essence, a primarily intellectual being, a being primarily of knowledge, even of the humblest sensible knowledge; however high and strong desire may speak within him, it speaks to someone who listens to it and recognizes it, and for whom it makes sense or who repudiates it. Man is never a desiring machine. But neither is he a believing machine, a ‘religious automaton’ who would receive in his pure exteriority a revelation and salvation radically heterogeneous to his nature”44.

Welcoming revelation – supernatural revelation – into the believer’s intelligence requires a natural capacity for intelligibility. “If this self-understanding is not an idealistic reduction of the revealed to the a priori conditions of knowledge of the human subject, it is because these intelligible forms are naturally ordered to metaphysical and supernatural realities” (ibid.).

This is the “gnostic moment” of the act of faith: this intellective receptivity to revelation is taught and communicated through language; it is therefore an act of knowledge that is, moreover, necessarily speculative. For all that, it is not simply an exercise of natural reason, but “the actualization of those theomorphic possibilities implicit in the creation of man ‘in the image of God’, […] an intrinsically sacred intellectuality [… made] of these logoi spermatikoi, of these Forms of the divine Word inseminated in all intelligence (this light of the Word “which enlightens every man coming into this world”), and thus a kind of inner and congenital ‘revelation’, by immanence in the soul of these intellective icons that are the metaphysical Ideas” (ibid.).

3. The fact remains that gnosis, or mystical theology, is a salving knowledge only if man renounces his own -speculative- knowledge, to let God know himself ; and Christ himself, incarnation of the Logos, i.e. of the Knowledge that God takes of Himself, is the eminent Christian way of gnosis, in a gnostic religion45, in essence46.

If to enter into “superknowledge”, the Pauline “epignosis“, one must “have renounced all knowledge, even the very knowledge of the Ideas” (Penser l’analogie, p. 189), this means that “the metaphysical intelligence must commit itself concretely to faith in the revealed God: without revelation, there is no divine Object”; “and without a divine Object […], no deliverance is possible, since any pilgrimage towards a light then absent is forbidden. The intellect must perform a kind of sacrificium intellectus, it must bury itself in faith as in the death of Christ the Logos, but only to be reborn with him” (Lumières…, n. 25, p. 189).

If, then, Christ was able to say: “Your faith has saved you”47, it is indeed that sola fides sufficit (faith alone is sufficient), that of the blind man healed, that of the good thief or that of the “coalman”, as much as that of S. Thomas Aquinas48. Once the intelligence has fulfilled its function, which is to make the message of faith intelligible in the grace of the Spirit, so that the human being can adhere to it49 freely, it seems to us that there is no longer any difference between this entry into mystical theology – or into Docte Ignorance (Nicolas de Cues): this passage where the intelligence closes its eyes (S. Denys l’Aréopagite) to what, in any case, is “above the eyes” (Malebranche50) -and a direct “burial in faith” (which renounces – even if through “intellectual” incapacity – first “affirming” and then “denying”): a direct acceptance of one’s creaturely “ontological ignorance”.

This is certainly why, alongside the noble path of sacred intellectuality, there may be others. (Pamphile, in his Voies de sagesse chrétienne, méditation sur l’Ascension, L’Harmattan, 2006, has identified several generic paths, which he presents in complementary pairs: the paths of travel and hermitage, the paths of suffering and joy, the conjugal and monastic paths…)), such as the ternary : the way of the wise man, the way of the hero and the way of the saint (ways of “intelligence”, “action” and “love”), not without showing that each, necessarily, of course eminently contains the other two51. And, if we had to mention the point common to all the paths, we would say that it necessarily lies in the encounter between metanoïa, man’s free conversion, and God’s grace.


  1. The metaphysicians Plato, Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, Guénon… are mathematicians. It’s true that, apart from Plato from a certain point of view, they are not theologians, even though some of them have dealt with precise theological questions (grace, transubstantiation…). It is significant, with regard to the application of intelligence exclusively to science, that “of the mass of manuscripts left by Newton [the great scientist who synthesized physics and astronomy with the theory of universal gravitation], half concern theology, a quarter alchemy (121 treatises) and a quarter physics”; Jean Borella, La crise du symbolisme religieux (reissue coll. Théôria, L’Harmattan, 2009), p. 60, note 145.[]
  2. even though Leo XIII’s encyclical Æterni Patris (August 4, 1879) finally established “the doctrine of the common Doctor as the norm of the philosophical and theological sciences”; Jean Borella, Le sens du surnaturel, Ad Solem, Genève, 1996, p.83.[]
  3. Presented in the form of the “maximal paradox”, our book, Introduction à une métaphysique des mystères chrétien, en regard des traditions bouddhique, hindoue, islamique, judaïque et taoïste (L’Harmattan, 2005, 302 pages, imprimatur of the diocese of Paris), has attempted to show this, especially in relation to the mysteries of the Trinity and Christ ; cf. Part 1: “The Christian Trinity”, Chapter 1. Paradox resolution – conceptual and doctrinal approaches and Part 3: “The Christian Christ”, Chapter 11. A universal paradoxical synthesis – conceptual and doctrinal approaches.[]
  4. Formula of S. Denys the Areopagite, Mystical Theology, 997 A & B.[]
  5. This pragmatic response by Binet and Simon means that, for them, there is no intelligence per se, and intelligence is not “something” that can be defined. The only way to look at it is in practical terms: intelligence means overcoming tasks, solving problems.[]
  6. The equivalence of ratio and intellectus is found in the Second Meditation on First Philosophy; Jean Borella, La charité profanée, Éd. du Cèdre, Paris, 1979, pp. 126-127, republished by Éditions Dominique Martin Morin, then by L’Harmattan under the title Amour et Vérité; in Anglo-American: Love and Truth (Angelico Press).[]
  7. For example: “I cannot doubt anything that natural light shows me to be true […] And I have no other faculty, or power, within me to distinguish truth from falsehood, that can teach me that what this light shows me to be true, is not true, and on which I can rely as much as on it”, Méditations, AT IX-1, p.. 30.[]
  8. “All our knowledge begins with the senses, passes from there to the understanding and ends with reason. […] We have defined the understanding as the power of rules; here we distinguish reason from the understanding by calling it the power of principles”; Critique of Pure Reason (tr. Fr. Alexandre J.-L. Delamarre and François Marty in Œuvres philosophiques, édition Ferdinand Alquié), tome I, Paris, Gallimard (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade), 1980, pp. 1016-1017. “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind. […] Understanding cannot intuit anything, nor can the senses think anything. From their union alone can knowledge be born”; Critique of Pure Reason, French trans. Tremesaygues and Pacaud, P.U.F., p. 77.[]
  9. Critique of Pure Reason, French trans. Tremesaygues and Pacaud, P.U.F., p. 226.[]
  10. Jean Borella, Lumières de la théologie mystique, coll. Delphica, l’Age d’Homme, Lausanne, 2002, p. 106.[]
  11. Ibidem.[]
  12. Critique of Pure Reason, French trans. Barni, G.F., “8e section des antinomies”, in fine, p. 428; La crise du symbolisme religieux, op.cit., p. 321.[]
  13. “the understanding immediately sets itself limits that prevent it from knowing things by means of categories”; Critique of Pure Reason, trans. T. et P., P.U.F., p. 229.[]
  14. “Here at last is explained the enigma of criticism, which is to know how it is possible, in speculative reason, to deny objective reality to the suprasensible use of categories, and yet to recognize this reality in them in relation to the objects of practical reason”; Critique of Practical Reason, in French: Pléiade, II, p. 612.[]
  15. The Crisis of Religious Symbolism, French ed., pp. 322-323. Tous kantiens” (“All Kantians”), in the words of Émile Poulat, is the title of an article by Jean Madiran (Présent, April 3, 2009), marking the fact that being born a Kantian – or modernist – was not always the quasi-fatalism “that the twentieth century has bequeathed to the twenty-first”. Thus, before Émile Poulat, Jean Borella and others, it was rejected by Maurras and Péguy, refuted by Gilson, criticized by Maritain, etc., all members of “the category of ‘normally constituted’ humans”. Let’s not forget Claudel’s public rejoicing “that Aristotle had rid him of Kantianism” (interview from the ’50s, broadcast on France Culture on July 25, 2005), or, long before all these authors, and shortly after Kant’s death (1804), Tchaadaev (1794-1856), “after reading the Critique of Pure Reason, called it Apologet adamitischer Vernunft, doctrine of fallen and perverted reason” (Paul Evdokimov, Le Christ dans la pensée russe, Paris, cerf, 1970, p. 40 ). Very recently, speaking to scientists, Claude Tresmontant spoke of paleo- and neo-positivisms, “a sinister refrain […] which in fact derives from Kantianism” (“Les métaphysiques principales“, O.E.I.L., 1989, p. 4.[]
  16. On the Generation of Animals, II 3, 736 a, 27-b 12.[]
  17. New Essays on Human Understanding, Book II, chap. 1, § 2; Jean Borella, Le mystère du signe, Éditions Maisonneuve & Larose, Paris, 1989, p. 240, reprinted as Histoire et théorie du symbole, coll. Delphica, l’Âge d’Homme, Lausanne, 2004.[]
  18. Simone Weil showed this well when she concluded: “Intelligence, in its act of intellection, is perfectly free, and no authority, no will, not even our own, has power over it: we cannot force ourselves to understand what we do not understand”; quoted by Jean Borella, La crise du symbolisme religieux, p.. 291.[]
  19. “The mind is a mirror, but it is the intelligence that sees”, says Jean Borella, La charité profanée, p. 84.[]
  20. Meister Eckhart, Quæstiones Parisienses. Questio Gonsalvi. Rationes Equardi, 6 ; Magistri Eckhardi Opera latina, Auspiciis Instituti Sanctae Sabinae, ad codicum fidem edita, edidit Antonius Dondaine o.p., Lipsiæ in ædibus Felicis Meiner, 1936, p.17. J. Ancelet-Hustache summarized the essence of this question in Volume I of his translation of the Sermons (German), Seuil, 1974, pp. 27-30; Jean Borella, La crise du symbolisme religieux, p. 322.[]
  21. The crisis of religious symbolism, French version: p. 288. Emphasis added.[]
  22. Jean Borella, Penser l’analogie, Ad Solem, Genève, 2000, p. 111.[]
  23. La charité profanée, pp. 123-125.[]
  24. “In Saint Thomas, the whole divine mystery is already present in the very nature of the intellect”, Lettres de Monsieur Étienne Gilson au père de Lubac, Cerf, 1986, letter of June 21, 1965, p. 76; Le sens du surnaturel, pp. 83-84 and n. 2 p. 84.[]
  25. This “heresy”, which Pope St. Pius X very accurately called Modernism, occurs when awareness of a reality, which is already “the substance of things hoped for” (Heb 11:1), fades away under the modern Western suggestion that there is no “other” reality, no supernatural reality; cf. Saint Pius X, Encyclical Pascendi (1907); The Meaning of the Supernatural, pp. 59-72.[]
  26. With Galileo’s mechanistic physics, in fact, the world is a pure, indefinite spatio-temporal container, without form, without property and without physical relationship to any of the phenomena that occur in it. The paradigmatic revolution in physics at the beginning of the 20th century (general relativity, quantum physics) has not yet completely erased this outdated Galilean vision.[]
  27. It is this “symbolic realism” (i.e., “it is the idea of symbol that enables us to think the idea of reality”; Jean Borella, Symbolisme et Réalité, pp. 29-32), which means that “Platonism is not idealism” to any degree; La crise du symbolisme religieux, p. 31, n. 47. Emphasis added.[]
  28. This doctrine is expounded in La charité profanée, pp. 131, 160-163, 387, 398, 401-408.[]
  29. Père Prat, Théologie de saint Paul, t. II, p. 62, n. 4; La charité profanée, p. 161.[]
  30. “Words in tongues” refers to charismatic phenomena that manifested themselves in the emission of unintelligible words; La charité profanée, p. 162.[]
  31. “Transform” renders the “meta-morphoser” of the Greek text.[]
  32. This question from Isaiah (XL, 13) is quoted by St. Paul in Rom XI, 33; La charité profanée, p. 163, n. 3.[]
  33. Here we understand that “by separating the intellectual from the spiritual, neo-Thomism condemned theological work to be nourished exclusively by reasoning”, cutting it off from its “mystical roots”; Le sens du surnaturel, p. 84.[]
  34. Cf. La charité profanée, pp.160-165.[]
  35. Here we follow Jean Borella in La charité profanée, pp. 387-408.[]
  36. Saint Evagrius the Pontic, Letter to Anatolios, P.G., t. XL, col. 1221 C; La charité profanée, p. 396.[]
  37. Saint Evagrius the Pontic, Centuries, IV, 43; La charité profanée, p. 398.[]
  38. Cf. Père Hausherr, Les leçons d’un contemplatif; La charité profanée, p. 396, n. 1.[]
  39. René Roques, Introduction à la Hiérarchie céleste, S.C. 58, p. XXI; Jean Borella, op.cit., p. 95.[]
  40. René Roques, L’univers dionysien, op.cit., p. 201, note 2; Jean Borella, op.cit, p. 103.[]
  41. Ibid., pp. 101, 107, 111. See also Jean Borella, La crise du symbolisme religieux, pp. 123, 332-338.[]
  42. This does not mean that Thérèse Martin was not highly intelligent, even in the secular sense of the term: poet, painter, interest in physical science, astronomy, etc.; and she died at the age of 24![]
  43. This is why metaphysics is an “intrinsically sacred science that transcends all its formulations and all the human receptacles that receive it”; cf. Jean Borella, “Gnose et gnosticisme chez René Guénon”, published in the collective work Dossier H : René Guénon, L’Age d’Homme, Lausanne, 1984[]
  44. Jean Borella, “La gnose au vrai nom”, III, 6 & 7, revue Krisis n° 3, September 1989.[]
  45. This term, which has recently become a pejorative (no doubt for fear of ontologism or of the various gnostic deviations which have only this recent labelling in common), nevertheless has an irrefragable scriptural dignity. It is to Jean Borella’s credit that he has rehabilitated the irreplaceable use of this Christian gnôsis. See in particular La charité profanée, op.cit. and Problèmes de gnose, L’Harmattan, 2007.[]
  46. This is precisely what Benedict XVI recently recalled (audience of April 18, 2007), with regard to the work of Clement of Alexandria: “Clement outlines a path of initiation to Revelation, the true gnosis, which is the knowledge of Jesus Christ, to which every Christian is called. […] Sparked by Christ himself, true gnosis is a communion of love with Him, which brings the Christian life to its ultimate degree, that of contemplation” (ZENIT, ZF07041810, 2007-04-18).[]
  47. For example, in Lk 7:50; 8:48; 17:19; 19:42; Mk 5:34; 10:52. Chapters III and IV of the Epistle to the Galatians are entitled: “Doctrine of salvation by faith”.[]
  48. “I would willingly say that the deepest intelligence consists precisely in understanding that we need to be saved” (Jean Borella, Private communication, 17-IV-2007.[]
  49. This adherence implies the will of man, complementary to his intelligence. Jean Borella has clearly shown how this combination works in his La charité profanée. This leads us to discover that the reciprocal exclusion of knowledge, reserved for the scholar, and belief, reserved for the believer, is an illusion, since they cannot operate without each other. cf. our article: “To believe, to know, to cognize (in the work of Jean Borella)”, originally published on the L’Harmattan website, and now in Metafysikos.[]
  50. De la recherche de la vérité, II, II, 3.[]
  51. “On the path of a progressive configuration to the divine nature, made possible because man was created in the image of God, Clement of Alexandria emphasizes that the effort of the intellect can never be separated from the good works that free man from passions and make love grow within him”, Benedict XVI, ibidem.[]