How the West Integrates – and Disintegrates - Reason and Faith

29 Jul 2019

Samuel Gregg gives Social Trends Institute a glimpse of his latest book, about the particularities of Western civilization and the challenges it faces.

Let’s start with the obvious question about Reason, Faith, and The Struggle for Western Civilization. What inspired you to write this book?

A primary inspiration was Benedict XVI’s 2006 Regensburg Address. I’m very confident that it will go down as one of the 21st century’s most important speeches. At the time, most people thought he was offering an analysis of some of the deeper theological reasons for radical jihadist terrorism. There was obviously that dimension to the talk. Yet the more I read the address, however, the more I saw that it’s essentially about us. It’s about the civilization called the West, how its particular integration of reason and faith is central to the West’s self-understanding, and how the rupture of that integration has given rise to pathologies of reason and pathologies of faith. In a way, my book takes the analysis offered at Regensburg and uses it to try and understand some of the deeper problems facing Western culture which get lost sight of amidst the fray of everyday politics and 24 hour news-cycles.

Are you surprised at the high degree of attention the book is receiving?

In one sense, yes. The book is about ideas that aren’t the subject of everyday public discourse. On the other hand, the idea of Western civilization is of perpetual interest to many people, whatever their political, philosophical or religious views. It’s as if, at a subliminal level, everyone—including those who live in non-Western cultures—knows we all have a stake in what happens to the West.

You’re very clear that the West can’t be reduced to geography and has nothing to do with race. So what makes the West, to be blunt, the West?

In one sense, the West is about particular moral commitments and institutions, such as ordered liberty, rule of law, constitutionalism, etc. But I argue that, at a much deeper level, the West is very much defined by the particular way that it has worked out the relationship between reason and faith and the consequences this has for rational inquiry into truth.

And when I say “faith,” I mean orthodox versions of Judaism and Christianity and the way that they understand God. In one chapter, I speak very directly about what I call “The Miracle of the Jews.” The Jews’ hostility to idolatry, for example, reflected their radically different conception of God and his relation to the material world. Judaism’s dramatic confrontation of idolatry and pagan mythology amounted a powerful affirmation of the rationality of God and therefore of human reason. This was an intellectual revolution, and it occurred several centuries before the Greeks starting getting to anything close to the Hebrew prophets’ insights.

It all comes together in the idea of God as Logos. When he was trying to explain the Jewish notion of God to Greek and Roman audiences, the first century Jewish scholar and Roman official, Philo of Alexandria, used this Greek phrase to describe an essential dimension of God’s nature: that God was Divine Reason itself. The Gospel of John hammers home this point in its very first line: “In the Beginning was the Logos.” The civilizational effect was to ground Greek and Roman achievements in philosophy, law, and the natural sciences on a foundation that the frankly stupid pagan religions never could. It also gave meaning to human freedom, justice, and an understandings of the created world that triumphed over the pagan religions’ fatalist understanding of these things.

Surely it’s not so simple a story? Isn’t the story of the West’s emergence much more complicated than this?

Indeed it is! I make it very clear that the process whereby the integration of reason and faith worked its way into Western culture was full of distractions and, at different points, went wrong. In fact, I suggest that the time in which the reason-faith integration reached a type of apotheosis—the Middle Ages—was also the period when the integration started weakening...

Which brings me to a phenomenon that your book addresses in detail: the Enlightenment.

Yes. I suppose this is one of the book’s most controversial part. Perhaps it’s because one of my main interests is political economy and the thought of Adam Smith, and subsequently the intellectual changes of the eighteenth century, but the argument that the West’s cultural and intellectual history from the time of Isaac Newton onwards can summarized as “Enlightenment reason versus the faiths of the West” has always struck me as simplistic. It’s a much more convoluted history.

Skeptics like David Hume and mockers of organized religion like Voltaire, for example, were very much outliers. For the most part, most “enlighteners” was religious believers. Likewise, believing Jews and Christians were hardly opposed holus bolus to the Enlightenment’s genuine achievements in the social and natural sciences. Were there tensions? Of course! But we must look more carefully to the nuances of this history and cease indulging stereotypes of the period if we are going to have a proper discussion of the topic of reason and faith in our own time.

If that’s the case, why do you think the West’s integration of faith and reason has fallen apart?

There are many reasons, but I’d argue that a primary problem were tendencies to reduce reason to the natural sciences and the empirical method, as well as the associated trend to associate religion with feelings and emotions at the expense of reason. There were signs of this in the thought of certain Enlightenment thinkers. It really took off, however, in the nineteenth century. Whether it’s Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, or Friedrich Nietzsche, the writings of these thinkers reflect deep pathologies of reason and faith. Marxists, for instance, insisted upon the strictly scientific character of their analysis of history, and yet Communist parties also reflected the deep imprint of organized religion: they had hierarchies, dogmas, theorists, creedal statements, and weren’t slow to identify some as orthodox and others as heretics.

You’re used that phrase “pathologies of reason and faith” several times. Tell me what you mean by that. Where do they come from?

In the end, these pathologies proceed from mistaken conceptions of God. If, for example, you think of God as Love—and only Love—then there’s the risk that you’ll ignore that dimension of God as Logos. That’s how you end up with the sentimental humanitarianism that effectively functions as the real religion of many self-styled secular humanists and, unfortunately, a good number of Jews and Christians. But it’s also how we find ourselves saddled with problems like scientism—the notion that the only way to know truth is through the empirical method associated with the natural sciences. The idea of Logos reminds us that reason includes but also goes beyond empirical forms of inquiry. Scientism, by contrast, leaves us helpless in the face of questions that the empirical method can’t answer, such as moral dilemmas.

We associate the Enlightenment with the blooming of the natural sciences. Do you think that the Enlightenment itself is an embodiment of pathologies of faith and reason?

I think there are shades of good and bad in the various Enlightenments. The acceleration of knowledge of the natural world associated with figures like Newton has surely been a force for liberation. I also think that the economic ideas and changes associated with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations have generally been beneficial for the world. But there are also black spots. The scientism that has its roots in aspects of Francis Bacon’s thought is most definitely an unwelcome development. Likewise the skepticism of David Hume has had disastrous consequences for philosophy, though I’d note that his friend Thomas Reid, another Scottish Enlightenment luminary, wrote one of the best refutations of Hume’s position on such questions.

We also need to remember that there is more than one Enlightenment, and some, such as the Scottish Enlightenment and the more general Anglo-American Enlightenment experience, were never hostile in principle to religion in general or Christianity and Judaism in particular. That’s one reason why the two great Revolutions spawned by the Enlightenment—the French and American—were so different with their outcomes vis-à-vis religion.

These are some of the reasons why I think it’s a mistake for orthodox religious believers to view the Enlightenment in entirely negative terms. Besides, many of the philosophical problems associated with the Enlightenment, such as tendencies to voluntarism and nominalism, were present in the medieval world. I think there is much more continuity between the pre-modern and Enlightenment worlds than we often suppose – for better and for worse.

At the end of your book, you express an optimistic outlook. In fact, you insist that decline in the West is not inevitable. Why do you think that, given just how prevalent you believe pathologies of reason and faith have become through the West?

Pathologies can shape events and people for a long time but they can’t sustain themselves. They fall apart under the weight of their own contradictions. Even someone who is profoundly scientistic has to admit that the empirical method is itself based on non-empirical but nonetheless self-evident truth claims, such as the principle of non-contradiction.

The entire scientific enterprise relies heavily on a pre-empirical presumption of order and intelligibility. Every day, scientists seek explanation, describe in words what they have found, attempt to demonstrate how their discoveries relate to what’s already known, reflect upon and respond to criticism of the theoretical explanations they give to their findings, and search for—and find—directionality in the order of things. All this is beyond the scope of the empirical method. It also points to something else because human reason can’t come from unreason.

Put another way, the idea of Logos, which is central how Judaism and Christianity have integrated reason and faith, is far more plausible than the idea that everything begins in nothingness or a grand void of emptiness. That realization is key to any significant revival of the West. Getting back to Logos is the way back to healing the rupture of reason and faith, of rationality and religion. If we do that, everything else falls back into place. There’s no going back to a pre-Enlightenment world and I don’t think we should want to. But we can have confidence that, if we freely choose, we need not settle for a West in which reason and faith are locked in perpetual conflict. The truth about the God who is Love but also Logos really can set us free.

Samuel Gregg has participated in three STI Experts Meetings and written chapters in two of its publications. He is the research director at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He writes and speaks on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He holds a D.Phil. in moral philosophy and political economy from the University of Oxford. His previous books include, among others, For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016) about which he gave STI a previous interview and Becoming Europe (2013).

Buy the new book on Amazon: Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization.