Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization

by Samuel Gregg

Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 2019

When Pope Benedict XVI visited my hometown of Regensburg, Germany, in 2006, he had just been elected as the new Bishop of Rome. Enthusiasm among Bavarians, German Catholics, and even non-Catholics was high, since a fellow countryman, now leading the Church of Rome, had come to visit. The Pope seemed to feel something similar, publicly saying that his stop in the South of Germany was a final visit to his Heimat (home or homeland).

What did not catch my attention at the time was the Pope’s visit [on September 12] to the University of Regensburg, where he gave a historic speech — now known as the “Regensburg Address” — about the relationship between faith and reason. The Pontiff cautioned his audience that for Europe — and the West — to honor its heritage and continue on a path to success, it would have to rediscover the right concept of reason, one based in the Logos, in God.

In contrast to conventional wisdom today, the Pope said that reason and faith are not opposed. Instead, they complement each other and that one is dependent on the other. Mere reason without faith, he warned, would lead to the “dictatorship of relativism” — and, ultimately, to totalitarianism. Similarly, faith alone, without a role for reason, would also lead to totalitarianism. Thus, he said, “not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God’s nature.”

Samuel Gregg’s Reason, Faith and the Struggle for Western Civilization elaborates further on Ratzinger’s message. “Reason and faith,” he says, “need not be locked in an endless struggle for supremacy.” Indeed, if we look closely at Christianity, “we find a God of love and divine reason.” And that at the very beginning of everything, we discover “not chaos but Logos.” It is the West’s “unique integration” of reason and faith, Gregg points out, that “encouraged the ideas, commitments, and institutions that [gave] the West its core identity.”

The Old Stone Bridge (Steinerne Brücke) in Regensburg. Image courtesy of Guido Radig, licensed under CCA 3.0 Unported.

The Logos is not an exclusively Christian concept. Indeed, we find it in Ancient Greece and Rome, and among the Israelites. In his tour de force through Western intellectual history, Gregg notes that Plato described the Logos as “that which made it possible for human beings to understand themselves in their world.” There was an order, some “rational and mathematical structure,” in this world that could be discovered through reason.

Meanwhile, the Israelites counterposed mythologies and the worship of earthly objects (both of which were an integral part of other religions at that time). Here, too, an order existed, one created by Yahweh. And it was up to the Israelites to discover it. The Roman philosopher Cicero put it differently, writing that “since nothing is better than reason, and since it [is] in both human being and god, the primary fellowship of human being with god involves reason.”

Christianity put this concept of reason at the center of the idea of the One God and gave it a face — with Christ as “reason incarnate.” This is clear already in the first sentence of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word” (the Word in Greek being Logos). In contrast to the Israelites, Christianity also universalized the concept, teaching that everyone is capable of using reason to attain truth and discover what is good or evil. St. Paul argued that the ability to reason was ingrained in every human heart by God. This, Gregg points out, is “clearly referring to the idea of natural law.” Furthermore, in pursuit of reason, humans would have to be free, further underscoring the principle of human freedom, already found in the Hebrew Bible.

The Church and Christians, in the quest to always know God better, would subsequently use reason to attain ever more truths and make more discoveries of the world. The high point of this was St. Thomas Aquinas’ attempts to prove the existence of God through rational arguments, as well as his application of natural law arguments to understand political and social arrangements. This integration of reason and faith was not just limited to Scholasticism: during the Enlightenment, too, people like Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, and Leibniz would search for new truths in accordance with natural law concepts.

But the movement away from this tradition of integrating reason and faith has led to pathologies that have had disastrous consequences, says Gregg. We saw this in the 20th century; unfortunately, today we still see the dangerous consequences of separating reason from faith — in phenomena like “authoritarian relativism, liberal religion, and jihadism.” As Gregg notes, disregarding or even denying reason can lead to a misguided trust in sheer will and power, as we have seen in the teachings of Friedrich Nietzsche or some segments of the Islamic community.

Increasingly, however, Gregg warns that what we are seeing more of today in Western society is the opposite case — that is, a complete disregard for and denial of the role of faith. This has led to the ideology of rationalism. And for Gregg — as well Benedict XVI — the problems that result from this are manifold. If one does not believe in a universal God who can be known through reason, if one does not believe in the existence of an unmoved mover — that is, something permanent that was before us and will stay eternally true — then how can there be any universal and objective truths, let alone any concept of right and wrong? Without faith, the very basis of the natural law is absent — as is the idea of the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Used by Pope Benedict XVI, this tiara is part of the private Philippi Collection in Kirkel, Germany.

The consequence of reason without faith is precisely “the dictatorship of relativism” that the Pope had warned us about. If there is nothing transcendental, then there can be no universal truth, and everything is reduced to a matter of opinion or taste or expediency. As Gregg points out, the logical consequences of this can be horrific, as the gruesome policies of the fascists and the communists attest. “In the face of an abomination like Auschwitz,” Gregg says, “a convinced materialist has, strictly speaking, nothing to say beyond observations of a mechanical and empirical nature.”

Without God as Reason, laudable social and political ideals are too often corrupted. To the strict rational materialist, for example, the idea of progress becomes merely the pursuit of wealth and prosperity — and the acquisition of material possessions is seen as the end in itself. The idea of freedom, too, without the insights of faith becomes license, the freedom to ‘do whatever one wants to do,’ rather than a genuine liberty as understood in the Western tradition. Gregg, in fact, sees this ethos exemplified in a written statement by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” [emphasis added]. In such a vision, everyone has his or her own definition of what truth and the good really mean.

Lost in such a vision is the idea that our free, democratic societies — including our dynamic and entrepreneurial economies — can only exist on the basis of moral and ethical foundations. As Yuval Levin puts it, pointing to the West’s religious roots, “a free society [is] deeply rooted in the West’s liberal and pre-liberal soil.” But in our scientific age, such religious roots have been disregarded as ancient superstition or even as the legacy of ‘Dark Age’ mysticism.

But it is not only religious belief — man’s deep yearning for universal truth — that is at risk from an exaggerated rationalism. As Friedrich Hayek showed in his criticism of Cartesian and Benthamian uber-rationalism, a society’s traditions, social institutions, and mores — that is, the entire ‘social fabric’ that developed over centuries and millennia — are also in danger since they may no longer make sense under strict, rational, cost-benefit analysis. Such cultural institutions and practices may simply have to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

This all sounds terribly pessimistic. Gregg, however, thinks there is a way forward: a return to “the West’s unique integration of reason and faith” — that is, a return to the Logos. But how realistic is this? It’s hard to say. As a Catholic, I find myself in agreement with nearly everything Gregg says. There is no question that the West needs to “combat the pathologies” of reason divorced from faith, and that our societies need “firmer roots through an encounter with the religious traditions of the West.” The problem is not too much faith but rather an inordinate reliance on reason to the detriment of the faith. (This should remind us of G.K. Chesterton’s famous line: “a madman is not someone who has lost his reason but someone who has lost everything but his reason.”)

On the other hand, I find myself wondering: would non-believers be convinced by Gregg’s arguments? While belief in God’s existence is not absolutely necessary to recognize the importance of the concept of the Logos or of the Judeo-Christian principles derived from it, are there many non-believers who honor this heritage or recognize its significance? More importantly, can we really expect that modern-day atheists will easily adopt such a view? To be sure, Gregg is not necessarily attempting to be a guide to the cultural renewal of the West; his is a philosophical and historical book. And yet, while it does seem as if Jews, Christians, and other admirers of the West might agree with his thesis, I found myself asking how can we persuade its detractors?

Perhaps the main utility of Gregg’s book is that it eloquently refutes the profound misunderstanding that Christianity is solely based on faith and somehow contrary to reason. It ably shows that an exaggerated and narrow emphasis solely on the empirical, the rational, and the scientific can lead to grave problems. Most importantly, it reminds us that the heritage of the West — from the Israelite tribes to Ancient Greece and Rome, all the way to Pope Benedict XVI — offers us the best way to “shore up the walls of reason and faith against the battering waves of philosophical materialism, liberal religion, Prometheanism, scientism, authoritarian relativism, and jihadism.” ◼️