What is valuable in Western Civilization and why is it worth saving? Okay, that isn’t exactly the title of the latest book by Samuel Gregg, the Acton Institute research director, but it could very well be. It is a crucial question for the contemporary world, having moved quickly from multiculturalism to globalization (and its backlash, populism) to the tyranny of moral relativism.
In proceeding to answer this query, Gregg shows admirable honesty and modesty. Honesty because he acknowledges early in the volume his intellectual debt to Benedict XVI and John Finnis in crafting his arguments, and modesty in underplaying his merits in diagnosing the intellectual and moral ills that plague these first years of the second millennium, tracing their roots, and pointing toward possible ways forward. For no small amount of perspicacity is needed to carry out these tasks and to communicate one’s findings clearly and effectively.
This is a slim volume divided into seven easily readable chapters for one familiar with the history of Western thought. It begins in chapter one with the critical event of Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address, where he deals with the issue of a “reasonable faith” with regard to Islam. The point is not so much whether the articles of belief could be rationally or scientifically explained away, as to whether it would it would be in accordance with reason to believe in them; that is, to hold them true.
Chapter two narrates the “Making of the West” from the twin sources of Jerusalem and Athens, giving rise to that distinctive, dynamic synthesis of faith and reason in the Middle Ages. Herein lies the supreme achievement of Western civilization to which the whole of humanity is indebted.
Although the Enlightenment is routinely faulted with breaking the balance between faith and reason (chapters three, “Reason and its Corruption”, and four, “Faiths of Destruction”), that is not the whole story. As Benedict XVI reminds us, were it not for the prior synthesis, the Enlightenment itself could not have occurred. Neither would the gains in rights and freedoms as well as technological advances which we now enjoy have taken place.
Today’s double scourge of secularist scientism and islamic jihadism are pathologies of reason and faith respectively (dissected in chapter five, “Authoritarian Relativism, Liberal Religion, and Jihadism”), and they are best remedied by regaining the proper balance between these paths which together lead to the fullness of truth.
But “Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization” is no jeremiad, and it refreshingly indicates how to move on. For this Gregg relies on insights from John Finnis, on how the four-fold notions of creation, freedom, justice, and faith which undergird the West and our best accomplishments so far need to be recovered (chapter six, “A Way Back”).
The essay ends on a high note of optimism. Precisely because human beings are free, “decline is not inevitable” and what is truly valuable in Western heritage can still be saved, notwithstanding the challenges of postmodernism (chapter seven, “On Earth as is in Heaven”).
Personally, I would have liked Gregg to expound a bit more on how his reading of the Anglo-Saxon enlightenment, embodied in the United States, proves more congenial to the preservation and advancement of Western civilization than the Continental European variant. American society itself is mired in existential doubt as the limits of the social contract experiment based on individual consent as the sole source of legitimacy appears to have been reached.
Further, gender ideology, which originated in the United States, has spread rapidly to other countries, wreaking havoc among families and societies. What’s more, in 2019, the United States fertility rate has dipped below replacement level, with a significant rise among the religiously unaffiliated or “nones”. This doesn’t seem to fit well with Gregg’s contention.
But perhaps even then, because human nature is what it is, the desire for the infinite, a thirst only quenched by God, in fact remains in each one, however dormant it may appear and despite survey responses to the contrary.
Alejo José G. Sison teaches at the School of Economics and Business at the University of Navarre and investigates issues at the juncture of ethics, economics and politics from the perspective of the virtues and the common good. For the academic year 2018-2019, he is a visiting professor at the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He is an editor of the recently published “Business Ethics: A Virtue Ethics and Common Good Approach” (Routledge 2018). He blogs at Work, Virtues, and Flourishing from which this article has been republished with permission.