It is a bright note of hope, set against the present daunting darkness, that shines throughout Samuel Gregg’s “Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization,” both illuminating the past and shedding much-needed light on the present situation.
Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization, by Samuel Gregg (256 pages, Gateway Editions, 2019)
“The West has long been endangered,” stated the distinguished lecturer, by an “aversion to the questions which underlie its rationality, and can only suffer great harm thereby. The courage to engage the whole breadth of reason, and not the denial of its grandeur—this is the programme with which a theology grounded in Biblical faith enters into the debates of our time.”
His comments came near the conclusion of a widely covered and much discussed address delivered at a German university—an address so notable that Samuel Gregg, in his excellent new book Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization, calls it “The Speech That Shook the World.”
Ironically, the Regensburg Address, which was delivered by Pope Benedict XVI on September 12, 2006, at the university he taught at from 1969 to 1977, is both rather short (less than 4,000 words in length) and, I think it can be strongly argued, hardly read. Most people who have heard of the Address know that it upset many Muslims, but they would be hard-pressed to say much more it, never mind explain Pope Benedict’s main point.
That point, writes Dr. Gregg, can be put in the form of a question:
Do you understand that unless the West gets the relation between reason and faith right, it will be unable to overcome its inner traumas or defend itself from those who wage war against it in the name of particular ideologies?
Dr. Gregg, who has written widely on politics and culture while working as director of research at the Acton Institute, is careful to point out that not all of the West’s many problems “revolve around the question raised at Regensburg,” as “mono-causal explanations are usually wrong.” But in having Pope Benedict’s Address set the tone and inform his core arguments, Dr. Gregg takes on several interrelated tasks, all with a crisp, accessible style: showing the importance and genius of Pope Benedict’s penetrating analysis of modernity, highlighting the core issue of faith-and-reason, arguing for the necessity of a robust and orthodox Christianity, diagnosing the main pathologies and ideologies at work in the West today, and insisting that Christians must be careful to not dismiss everything that has come down from the Enlightenment era.
That’s a lot to handle in less than 200 pages, but Dr. Gregg does so adeptly, providing the sort of introductory, “101” book that serves as a firm foundation for further and more detailed study. This is not to say that Dr. Gregg is light on details or depth (there are some 350 footnotes, after all); rather, he purposefully focuses on the forest while judiciously zooming in to focus on various trees. This is a Big Picture book in the best sense of the term, the sort of popular but learned tour of the West needed today, especially when most Western Civilization courses are little more than angry, unbalanced leftist litanies of outrage that find little or nothing good in the Greco-Judeo-Christian heritage.
The second chapter, “Making the West,” is a good example of Dr. Gregg’s approach. Beginning with Edward Gibbon’s problematic but deeply influential History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Dr. Gregg charitably and clearly demonstrates how Gibbon badly misrepresents the ancient Jewish people, especially their beliefs about the role of reason. He notes that the “Jews’ violent antipathy to the idolatry that permeated the world surrounding them” was based in a “radically different conception of God” than that found among the pagans in relation to their many gods—ordered and holy rather than capricious and amoral—as well as a unique understanding of God’s relationship with the material world. From Judaism, then, came a belief that the world was good and ordered, and that humans possessed real freedom and free will precisely because God had endowed man with these tremendous gifts.
Dr. Gregg then discusses the Greek contribution to philosophical, political, and scientific thinking, observing both the variety of viewpoints among the various ancient Greek thinkers and the limitations caused by the prevailing polytheism. This leads into the Greek encounter with Jewish thought—a key point in Pope Benedict’s Address—an encounter that is a precursor to the Christian revolution, which was monotheistic, universal (or catholic), moral, and rooted directly in the Logos—that is, the risen Christ.
Early Christianity was radical in its claims about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and in its emphasis on equality, both in the insistence that all men and women could know truth via natural reason and in the belief that faith is completely compatible with said reason and is offered to all, regardless of social status, sex, or nationality.
This is followed by a masterful excursion through “the West’s DNA” and then Scholasticism and the place of the universities, which were founded first and foremost to “search for God” and to learn how best to “explain and defend what they believed to be the truths of Christianity” (cf 1 Peter 3:15). The chapter ends with a brief mention of the tendency, faced by Aquinas, of some scholastics—Dr. Gregg mentions “various Franciscan orders,” but does not mention William of Ockham or Duns Scotus (until a later chapter)—to reject Greek philosophy, as well as the dichotomy within Averroists between faith and natural reason.
The middle third of Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization zeroes in on the Enlightenment and the increasing divide between faith/revelation and reason/science. Dr. Gregg argues (again, in a manner similar to what Ratzinger/Benedict also argues in various works) that it is incorrect “to say that devout Christians were universally opposed to various Enlightenments,” a point that highlights two interrelated themes: the continual and rigorous Christian engagement with (and support for) scientific thought and theory, and the ways in which certain influential thinkers became increasingly irrational and scientistic as they began to abandon faith or created conveniently false notions of faith.
That paved the way for “faiths of destruction,” as demonstrated in the demonic violence of the French revolution, the pseudo-religious fervor of Marx, the “religion of humanity” posited by Mill and Comte, and the thoroughgoing skepticism of Nietzsche. The irony of the latter, Dr. Gregg notes, is that in many ways Nietzsche was “the antithesis of the best aspects of the Enlightenment,” rejecting reason (even scientific reason) as “a mere projection of what really matters—power.” He was, however, aligned with Enlightenment understandings of freedom, which emphasized autonomy and “liberation” over love of order and truth.
The past century, in so many dark and horrible ways, brought to bloody conclusions the inner logic of the deadly pathologies of scientism, skepticism, atheism, and nihilism. Dr. Gregg insists, rightly, that such “pathologies of reason and faith have continued their proliferation in the West through the twentieth century until today.” His chapter on authoritarian relativism, liberal religion, and jihadism traces these deep sicknesses, drawing upon insights from Newman, Benedict XVI, Fr. James Schall, Lukas Wick, and Fr. Samir Khalil Samir, among others. The West’s unique “integration of creation, freedom, justice, and faith,” writes Dr. Gregg, “is always fragile, and undermining any one of them undercuts the others.”
Creation is essential to intelligibility, and without intelligibility, “freedom is only a mirage, justice a sophism, and faith nothing more than emotivism or ideology.” Who can deny that sophistry, infantalism, and ideologies dominate the cultural and political landscape today?
So, what to do? The final two chapters—“A Way Back” and “On Earth as in Heaven”—put forth a variety of observations, suggestions, and arguments, and as such provide plenty of food for thought and robust discussion and debate. I doubt anyone will be fully satisfied with all of Dr. Gregg’s suggestions, as there is plenty to argue about when it comes to how Christians should engage in and with the liberal order (or even what that order fully involves), understand religious liberty, go about addressing economic challenges, and forming alliances with non-Christians groups and movements.
But I also doubt that readers of good will can doubt or dismiss the heft involved in Dr. Gregg’s work, which is an example of vital dialogue rooted in objective truth and abiding faith, not content to toss out clichés and slogans without any rhyme or reason. And it is written with an obvious love for a civilization and culture built squarely on the foundations of Christianity. The great Christopher Dawson, writing in 1931, in Christianity and the New Age, stated that
notwithstanding the materialism and secularism that have always been present in our culture, and which today seem everywhere triumphant, that achievement has been perhaps the most remarkable that the world has ever known.… However secularized a civilization may become, it can never entirely escape from the burden of its spiritual inheritance.
It is that same bright note of hope, set against the present daunting darkness, that shines throughout this book, both illuminating the past and shedding much needed light on the present situation.
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The featured image is “The Consummation of Empire” (1836) from The Course of the Empire series by Thomas Cole (1801-1848), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.