Reason, Faith and the Struggle for Western Civilization: A Review

Image of Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization
by Samuel Gregg
Gateway Editions 2019
Hardcover 256

A month or two ago, I came across Samuel Gregg’s book while perusing items at Acton.org, and the title caught my eye. In my personal efforts to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5), I’ve frequently felt that I don’t yet have an adequate understanding of the relationship between faith and reason, and by extension, the relationship between the sciences and Scripture.

The book didn’t take me where I hoped to go on that topic. It did, however, provide an interesting and enjoyable survey of the history of Western thought, and one of the better interpretations of the role of reason and Christianity in Western thought.

Samuel Gregg is the director of research at the Acton Institute and has degrees in philosophy from the University of Melbourne (MA) and Oxford (PhD). Though he has written a pile of books, mostly on economics, his focus in this volume is more history-focused than I expected. Though the hardcover edition has 256 pages, I also felt that it ended at just about the point where there should have been several more chapters on various views of the relationship between faith and reason and analysis of supporting arguments—as well as more consideration of potential strategies for preserving what remains of Western Civilization.

Chapters six and seven do address these topics, and they aren’t a bad start, but I was hoping for a deeper and more comprehensive exploration.

Gregg’s writing is highly readable, and sometimes strikingly synthesis-dense. That is, he sometimes connects quite a lot of dots (ideas, persons, themes in Western history) in a few relatively short sentences. The writing flows with an apparent ease that suggests he has deeply absorbed this information—either that, or he has an extraordinary note-taking and accessing system!

I have to respect that.

The argument

The preface frames the book’s purpose and identifies the central thesis. (References in this review are Kindle location numbers and are somewhat approximate).

I hope, however, that this book shows that the far greater bloodshed of the twentieth century’s darkest decades, carried out at the behest of ideologies that hardly need to be named, owed much to what I call, after Joseph Ratzinger, pathologies of reason and faith. Fortunately, there is more to this story than the ways in which Western societies become unmoored whenever reason and faith drift away from each other. One argument of this book is that not only can reason and faith correct each other’s excesses, but they can also enhance each other’s comprehension of the truth, continually renewing Western civilization. (67)

Gregg returns to the concept of “pathologies of reason” and “pathologies of faith,” throughout the book, and further develops the idea that faith and reason need each other in order to avoid these “pathologies.”

In the preface, Gregg also acknowledges the book’s reliance on the thought of Joseph Ratzinger and John Finnis (78).

Chapter one uses Joseph Ratzinger’s (a.k.a., the retired Pope Benedict XVI’s) 2006 speech “Faith, Reason, and the University: Memories and Reflections” as the backdrop for, and much of the substance of, a discussion on what Western Civilization is.

It’s also here that we first see Gregg’s interest in Islam, and his view—with Ratzinger—that Islam’s belief system is deeply anti-Western largely because it’s anti-Reason (112).

This is a perspective on Islam I hadn’t previously considered and, though it seems tangential to the question of how faith and reason ought to relate, it does provide some context for exploring that question.

Is God a reasonable Deity? This question matters, not least because one alternative to a Deity who embodies reason is a Deity who is pure will, operating beyond reason. Quoting the French scholar of Islam, Roger Arnaldez, Benedict noted in his Regensburg lecture that such a God “is not bound even by his own word.” He could even command us “to practice idolatry.” (125)

Gregg considers several ways to define what makes a culture “Western,” highlighting the roles of freedom from coercion and freedom of thought, and their relationship to a high view of truth and reason. He insists that the synthesis of these ideals with Christian belief is essential to understanding the West.

This strong attachment to reason, however, does not by itself account for the distinctive character of the West. Without the Christian and Jewish religions, there is no Ambrose, Benedict, Aquinas, Maimonides, Hildegard of Bingen, Isaac Abravanel, Thomas More, Elizabeth of Hungary, John Calvin, Ignatius of Loyola, Hugo Grotius, John Witherspoon, William Wilberforce, Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, C. S. Lewis, Edith Stein, Elizabeth Anscombe, Reformation, Oxford University, Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint Matthew, Bach’s Saint John Passion, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Pascal’s Pensées, Hagia Sophia, Mont-Saint-Michel, or Rome’s Great Synagogue. Absent the vision of God articulated first by Judaism and then infused into the West’s marrow by Christianity, it’s harder to imagine developments like the delegitimization of slavery or the de-deification of the state and the natural world. (229)

The chapter also includes a discussion of what went wrong in Western Civilization (242), with more explanation of the concept of pathologies of faith and pathologies of reason (301). The latter challenges some widely held beliefs about Enlightenment thought—a task he revisits later in the book.

As we shall see in subsequent chapters, the Enlightenment was much more complicated and far less monolithic than is often realized. It wasn’t a single episode, a set of accomplishments, or even the discovery of a single way forward. Nor was it anywhere nearly as antireligious as is sometimes supposed.

The book identifies the late-Enlightenment movement toward separating faith and reason—limiting religion to the realm of the purely subjective—as the primary culprit in the decline of Western thought (especially 335ff).

Highlights

For me, highlights from chapters two through seven include the following:

  • Three Christian ideas that strongly influenced the West (640-687): “God’s rational nature, a natural law that all men can discern, and human freedom as the power to choose the good and the true.”
  • Isaac Newton’s use of pantokrator (something like “Ruler of All,” 835).
  • Discussion of the nature of Deism (835ff)

Though Deism was on the rise during Newton’s lifetime, most men of science still shared his non-deistic understanding of God’s nature. Kepler, for instance, was a deeply religious Lutheran who believed that the Creator’s plan for his world was knowable through reason and revelation. (861)

  • Scientism’s self-refuting premise (1175), and its contradictory exaltation of reason while also “depreciating” reason’s role in distinguishing right from wrong (1210).
  • J. S. Mill’s contribution to the decline of Western thought (1400).
  • A differently-nuanced analysis of Nietzsche than I have previously read (1441ff).
  • Discussion of the problem of Fideism, using a different definition than I’ve seen elsewhere: “belief in the incapacity of the intellect to attain to knowledge of divine matters” and an “excessive emphasis on faith” (1654; Gregg is quoting from the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Faith).
  • The claim that Islam’s view of God as irrational is to blame for religiously-motivated terrorism: interesting, but he does not prove it (1833). There are probably faiths that hold to irrational deities (or quasi-deities) and yet generally embrace peace (e.g., perhaps, Buddhism and Confucianism?).
  • Two major Enlightenment forks and a link between the U.S. Founding Fathers and the concept of natural law:

Benedict XVI affirmed a crucial distinction between the two great revolutions of the Enlightenment, the French and the American, and before becoming pope he had argued that the latter proved more open to Christianity’s integration of reason and faith. He described “the Anglo-Saxon trend, which is more inclined to natural law and tends towards constitutional democracy,” as superior to the project associated with Rousseau, which “ultimately aims at complete freedom from any rule.” (2274)

Though it isn’t comprehensive, Gregg’s book is an important contribution to understanding Western thought in an age where misunderstanding—and simple ignorance—seem to be on the rise. I hope to read the book again before too long, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to better understand where the West once was, intellectually, as well as where it is now, and how it got here.

784 reads

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.