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The Intellectual Olive Tree

By: Dr. Mark Delp | Dean of Faculty, Zaytuna College

At our first commencement, Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah compared Zaytuna College to an olive tree: “The zaytuna tree can grow in the shade, it can grow in the sand, it can grow in extreme climates, and it can grow in moderate climates. It has qualities that you don’t find in other trees. My hope is that Zaytuna College is a place where all people can be shaded by its intellectual tree, which is not limited to the East or the West. The zaytuna tree bears a fruit, but from that fruit, which is also eaten, comes an oil that, even more wondrously, is a source of light. And we use the Zaytuna, the olive branch, as a universal sign of peace.”

Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah with President of Zaytuna College, Hamza Yusuf. Image by: Sajid Nasir

This image has remained with me as the definitive symbol of Zaytuna College. The English word symbol comes from the Greek symbolon, one of the meanings of which is agreement or covenant. There is harmony in a firm covenant that holds the promise of mutual co-operation even in the harshest of times; and at Zaytuna, the scholarly co-operation between East and West is built into the foundations of its curriculum, the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, each of which skills the student must master in both Classical Western and Islamic traditions.

Beginning our co-operative venture there, we then study classical texts in which the central ideas of Islam and ancient Europe begin to emerge, both on their own and in conversation with each other. Eventually, though, the integrity of the covenant, as well as the peace promised by the olive tree, are challenged. As a Catholic philosopher, I have seen while teaching here at Zaytuna College many wondrous harmonies between Muslim and Christian philosophy and theology even at the deepest levels of their respective doctrines, only to be dismayed upon discovering that a conflict between core parts of our teachings will seem to threaten the whole of our covenant: ideas have become not only different, they have become seemingly incommensurable. Nevertheless, it is precisely in the recognition of the incommensurable elements in our two traditions that I have found the firmest evidence of the covenant of the intellectual olive tree, which is, after all, not the symbol of a doctrine or a theological position, but the sign and seal of a bond of kinship, itself rooted in our common history of rational inquiry. Indeed, illustrious members of our traditions had already been communicating with each other in the 12th and 13th centuries through the universal language of the trivium, especially logic. How often we forget that incommensurability between theological ideas can only be recognized as such by minds that have achieved the capacity to articulate them with the kind of logical rigor achievable only after years of study in the areas of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Accordingly, at least in the order of time, the sober reality of the incommensurability of faiths presupposes their firm agreement on first principles of human reasoning, the chief of which — the principle of non-contradiction — has for thousands of years been the cornerstone not only for the sound practice, but of the sheer possibility, of human reasoning. Thus, out of the covenant of reason emerges the light by which we can give clear and succinct expression to our deepest articles of faith, and, correlatively, bring the ideas of other religious traditions into a relation of difference that is at once satisfying — there is no clarity without difference — and alarming — the difference that emerges can verge on the irreconcilable.

One may counter, however, that, even if one were to admit that an initial, rational cooperation is needed in order that the radical disparity between core beliefs of religions be made clear, one must concede that, once made clear, the initial rational covenant must be abrogated, much as the scaffolding used to erect a building is taken away once the latter is complete. Revealed articles of faith may be dependent on the natural skills of human reason to become clear to the human mind, but their transcendent origin renders reason useless in the mind’s further attempts to understand them. Accordingly, when the revelations of two religions are mutually repugnant, no amount of skill in reasoning can harmonize them. It is crucial to realize, however, that the virtue of the intellectual olive tree, being a tree of peace, does not require harmonization of incommensurable beliefs; indeed, its very nature is to shelter them, to provide a bit of shade from the harsh sun of unbelief, thereby letting them be not only what they are, but to be what they might be together.

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Accordingly, we have three agencies involved in the tree’s beneficence: From the underlying rational arts of the trivium, the incommensurability of core beliefs is made clear to the seeking mind; and this is a revelation of reason made by a rational covenant. Once revealed by reason, however, the mutually incommensurable beliefs stand independent of reason, each being recognized by its own adherent as coming from God, and not man. Thus, from out of the covenant of reason emerges the very antithesis to that covenant. Finally, whereas reason has revealed the incommensurability and, therefore, the possibility of antipathy, the intellectual olive tree, whose peace transcends reason as much as the revealed beliefs do, does away with the enmity even while preserving the incommensurability. What power can do this? There is one we might entertain, namely, the divine power that both creates things ex nihilo and maintains them each in their own essential being. This power bestows difference upon beings to make them what they were meant to be; and in harmonizing them in the web of creaturely interdependence, it never annihilates but always preserves even the most radical incommensurability found between certain beings, for which their incommensurability is inseparable from their essential identity.

What rational measure can render commensurate the smallness of a subatomic particle with the greatness of the largest star? What rational account can explain the immediacy and intractability of the violence between certain creatures, including human beings? At the level of providence, the truth of things is inseparable from what they are; and the fact that some things are incommensurable is inseparable from the truth of their being, creation itself being a covenant of the truth of being. Indeed, even the incommensurability that holds between God and creation is inseparable from the truth of beings, namely, that they are facta — that they have been made. What, then, is the peace of the intellectual olive tree? It is a trace of the peace of God’s creative power, and a witness to the fact that He did not create everything to be commensurable with every other thing, but that He did create things to be irreducible to each other. In logic and metaphysics, we find that it is only in the light — and the mystery — of difference that we know what things really are, from whence we recognize the supreme importance among the predicables of the specific difference.

But what of the contradiction involved in some differences, in those, for example, that seem to compel some beings to seek to annihilate other beings, or in those that seem to compel some ideas to annihilate other ideas? At least in regard to the latter, it is that compulsion to annihilate the other that is alleviated by the intellectual tree: the incommensurability remains, while the enmity is transformed into love. Now, to do away with the incommensurability of core religious beliefs is to do away with their being, each becoming harmonized with the other at the expense of becoming something it is not. It has been said that, before the fall of man, the lion lay together with the lamb, and that they will do so again once creation has been transformed at the end of time. Must we wait till the end of time for the core beliefs of different religions to live together in peace, not at the cost of their becoming other than what they are, but precisely by being what they are together? Granted, we cannot prevent the lion from killing the lamb; we cannot even keep one man from killing another; but in the spiritual realm of our sacred beliefs, we can desire to cohabitate in peace; and if the presence of that desire in our souls is itself a gift of grace, it must be possible to fulfill. In other words, by the mere act of taking shade under the intellectual olive tree, we open ourselves to the possibility of realizing the strangest, and yet most wonderful, of all relationships of love, namely, that between incommensurables.

As a consequence of what we have been saying, it becomes clear that the intellectual olive tree could never have been planted by a human being, but only by God, for it accomplishes what we could never do: make the antipathy of incommensurability into the blessed peace of a God-given proximity. In the end, there is no more reason to hate a doctrine incommensurable with our own than there is to love it; as we have said, reason made their incommensurability evident, but it did not create it. Prior to being illumined by the light of reason, it was begotten of the light of providence. If, then, the intellectual olive tree is the enduring covenant of peace between religions, we must think of it as analogous to the love that brings things into being, the love of the very act of creation, which, beyond every rational plan, makes things what they are, and perfect as they are.