Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization
By Samuel Gregg | Regnery Gateway, USA | 2019, 192 pages

This book provides a wonderfully accessible overview of the evolution of a concept which has been the key to the development of Western civilisation, or we might better say is the hallmark of Western civilisation: the mutual interplay of faith and reason. Gregg shows how this key was sought by the Greeks, found by Judeo-Christianity, and progressively lost during the Enlightenment. He examines the kinds of pathologies which are produced by both faith and reason respectively when they are decoupled from one another.

Gregg starts out with “The Speech That Shook the World” — the Regensburg Address of Pope Benedict XVI in 2006, in which Ratzinger warned of the danger of the uncoupling of faith and reason. The fact that Ratzinger hit the nail on the head with his words here were — sadly — borne out by the violent (and sadly in some cases fatal) reaction of fundamentalists across the Islamic world. But Ratzinger’s words were for the West as much as for anyone else, for the integration of faith and reason which had been the hallmark of the West has been in crisis for a long time now, and the disasters of recent Western history are the bitter fruit of that crisis.

Ancient Greeks

Western civilisation begins with a Greek word and concept: logos, which refers to rational order — one we embody in words. This is in a way the Greek discovery, and it unleashed their philosophical speculations. The irrationality of the gods of Greek religion always seriously trammelled philosophical speculation. Vastly different was the religion of the Jews with its supremely rational God, and the advent of Christianity revealed fully the hidden depths of this rationality (the logos was made flesh) and on the rationality of God is founded the rationality (and freedom) of man.

In the thought of St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), this synthesis of faith and reason is brought to a supreme realisation. At the very same time, however, significant fissures between faith and reason began to appear in the incipient rationalism of the Latin Averroists as well as the incipient fideism of elements within the Franciscan order.

Various developments

Gregg prefaces his discussion of the great disjunction between faith and reason which takes place in the Enlightenment with an important proviso. He cautions the reader against an overly simplistic dismissal of all of Enlightenment thought tout court as anti-Christian. He is at pains to point out that much of the Enlightenment movement was quite compatible with Christianity, citing the historian Ulrich L. Lehner as saying “only a small fraction of Enlighteners were anti-religious; the overwhelming majority were interested in finding a balanced relation between reason and faith.” He points out the critical engagement of many Catholic intellectuals with the Enlightenment.

Gregg also reminds us that there was not just one Enlightenment, but several, and they differed in their attitude to the faith. The Scottish Enlightenment for instance involved a number of particularly religious men, such as the Presbyterian minister Thomas Reid (1710–1796). The leaders of the American Enlightenment similarly, despite their declarations of separation of Church and State, were mostly very well disposed towards religion in general, and Christianity in particular.

This was, however, not the case in the French Enlightenment. Gregg quotes Joseph Ratzinger’s distinction between “the Anglo-Saxon trend [in Enlightenment thought], which is more inclined to natural law and tends towards constitutional democracy,” from that associated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which “ultimately aims at complete freedom from any rule.” 

New religions

And even though the work of such Englishmen as Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke never shares in the French animus against Christianity, they mark a decided shift away from metaphysical speculation in favour of utility and the empirical and so pave the way to scientism and the two great secularist ideologies of the nineteenth century: Marxism and liberalism. Ironically, although these two systems are prefaced on a rejection of religion (though in a much more virulent manner in Marxism), Gregg points out the quasi-religious character of both:

Like Judaism and Christianity, Marxism has its own canon of sacred books — the works of Marx, Engels, and Lenin, among others — which its adherents study as Jews and Christians study the scriptures. Marxists join a church-like organisation — the Party — with its own faithful (party members), clerical hierarchy (the Central Committee, the Politburo, the general secretary), theologians (Marxist theoreticians), saints (Che Guevara or Lenin, whose embalmed body is venerated in a shrine), and doctrines from which party members may not stray without compromising their orthodoxy.

Even the intellectuals that John Stuart Mill envisages overseeing the implementation of liberalism function as a kind of “clerisy”. It took Nietzsche of course to bring things to their logical conclusion: with the disappearance of God also goes any claim to objective truth (a delusion for the herd), and all we are left with is the will, and in particular the will to power.

Faith alone

In a sense, Nietzsche marks the culmination of the rationalist pathology stemming from the decoupling of faith and reason. The faith side of this binomial has a pathology of its own: fideism. In chapter five, Gregg discusses the origins and implications of the fideism which has come to dominate (as Ratzinger warns in this Regensburg address) the world’s greatest bastion of fideism, which is Islam.

He describes the fateful showdown which took place in Islam between the ninth and twelfth centuries, in which the pro-reason school — the Mutazilites — were defeated by the fideistic, voluntaristic school of the Ash’arites. The implications of this defeat went far beyond Islamic theology, into every aspect of the Islamic worldview, and in a dramatic way into political thought: the perceived mode of divine rule sets the standard for political rule, and so if God’s power is envisaged as tyrannical and mankind’s correct attitude is one of submission (“Islam” means submission) then similarly, political power is conceived of as despotic over a submissive population.

Gregg does not despair for Western civilisation. Decline, he thinks “ is not inescapable”. He considers that those who conceive of a reason as closed to faith must acknowledge that this view created Marx and scientism — with all the destruction they have wrought on the world. On the other hand, those more sympathetic to faith must acknowledge that the Enlightenment has been part of a bulwark against the kind of fideism which has come to dominate the Islamic world. But above all, there will be no recovery without the rediscovery of what made Western civilisation in the first place: the interplay of faith and reason. “Without Logos, the West is lost.”

Fr Gavan Jennings

Rev. Gavan Jennings studied philosophy at University College Dublin, Ireland and the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome. He is co-editor of the monthly journal Position Papers. He teaches occasional...