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Samuel Gregg’s Struggle for the West
This essay appears in the Fall 2019 issue of Modern Age. To subscribe now, go here.
I was once exchanging pleasantries with a man while waiting in line for the bar at a social function. He inquired what I did for a living, and I answered that I was an editor at a political magazine called Reason. His eyes narrowed accusingly. “How can you work at a place called Reason,” he asked, “and believe in that at the same time?” He was staring at the crucifix around my neck.
The anecdote encapsulates, however crudely, a wider phenomenon: In the modern world, faith and reason are often peremptorily assumed to be incompatible, with the sober sphere of science and the rash realm of religiosity seen as mutually exclusive domains. For Samuel Gregg, author of Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization, this development doesn’t merely make things awkward for believers at cocktail parties—it poses an existential threat to the future of our way of life.
In his book, Gregg argues that a marriage of faith and reason is one of the fundamental characteristics of “the West.” As far back as ancient Greece, Western thought emphasized “reasoned inquiry in search of truth.” Core to this endeavor was the exploration of what might be called higher things—attempts to answer questions about not just empirical reality but also moral obligations, the good life, and humanity’s origin and purpose. Meanwhile, Jews and then Christians associated God with Logos—a perfectly ordered rationality at the foundation of existence. This contrasts with a voluntaristic God capable of willing anything, even what reason suggests is immoral or self-contradictory.
To unravel faith from reason, in this view, is to undermine the Western tradition. The Australian-born Gregg, who is director of research at the Acton Institute, a pro-market think tank based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, frets about the dark places this can lead, from Marxism to radical Islam.
When we discard the need for faith, he writes, we’re left with a “pathology of reason.” One example is “scientism,” or “treating the scientific method as the only way of knowing anything and everything.” Of course, many of the most important things in life cannot be empirically measured or definitively verified. Our moral convictions—even seemingly obvious ones, such as the idea that needless human suffering is a bad thing—are, in this sense, articles of faith.
The modern era also features “pathologies of faith,” such as “fideism,” the belief that religion is “necessarily hostile to reason, or that religious precepts require no reasoned explanation.” Yet if the God of the Bible is perfectly rational and man is created in His image, it makes sense that “the desire for truth, liberty and justice is simply part of who we are.” Fencing off reason loses much of the richness of the Judeo-Christian heritage.
Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization is not a perfect book, but it points to a real and increasingly important problem with late modernity. In August I spoke with Gregg about the ideas he traces and how they map to politics in the West today. The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Slade: At the core of this book is the concept of Logos. Can you explain what that is and why it’s so important?
Gregg: Well, I found at least twelve meanings for the word. But the way it was used by the Greeks was to describe the idea of divine reason. By divine reason, I mean to say that there is a rational first cause that lies at the beginning of everything.
This all comes to a culmination in the Gospel of John, which begins, “In the beginning was the Logos.” It’s no mistake that John uses the Greek word Logos to describe “the Word,” because it implies to the Hellenic Greek audiences who were reading this, and the Hellenized Jews who were reading this, that the God who was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ is divine love, but He is also divine reason.
This has very important implications for the way that Western culture comes to understand the nature of God and [comes to understand] that human beings, being made in the image of this God, share by definition in the reasonability of that God. If you want to understand the particular way in which Western culture has integrated the idea of faith and reason—and by faith I really mean the two faiths of the West, which are Judaism and Christianity—Logos is very, very important for understanding that.
Reason without faith is scientism. Faith without reason is fideism. I want to start with the second one. The main example you give for fideism is radical Islam. Are you making an uncontroversial claim when you say that Islam denies God’s necessary and inherent reasonableness?
This reflects an age-old debate that went on within Islam between the eighth and the twelfth centuries, between one group, called the Ash‘arites, who really did insist that [the nature of] God is pure will, as opposed to the Mu‘tazilites, who stressed human rationality and even, to an extent, the rationality of God. That debate went on for a very long time, but what’s very clear, and I don’t think anyone would dispute this, is that the Ash‘arites won that debate within the context of Sunni Islamic theology. From that point onward, the conception of Allah that prevailed is very much one of God as voluntas. This means that the Muslim world has struggled with the concept of natural law, and in some cases it has fueled a type of violence within Islam.
There are plenty of Muslim scholars who would say, “Yes, this actually is a genuine problem,” and there are many Muslim scholars who are trying to work this out. But it goes beyond the obvious problem of terrorism. It also means that Islamic countries have struggled with notions of constitutionalism. Constitutionalism, classically understood, is very dependent upon a certain conception of the human person, on a certain conception of reason, and on natural law, all of which is rather absent in contemporary Sunni Muslim theology.
Now, Christianity has had voluntaristic tendencies as well, but that’s always been very much a minority position. It’s had difficulty sustaining itself in Christianity because it so clearly contradicts the conception of God that you find in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.
It seems to me that there are forms of fundamentalist Christianity that do not think God is constrained by rationality. Isn’t that also fideism?
Fideism certainly manifests itself in parts of Christianity. I don’t think it’s as widespread as some people imagine it is. I don’t know many Christians who outright deny that reason has a role in how humans understand the world or even revelation.
It sounds like you think that’s a fringe position. Yet I feel like many people perceive fundamentalist Christians as essentially denying that science can tell us anything. This comes up in debates over evolution versus creation, for example, because an all-powerful God could make it look like history unfolded one way, even if it actually happened another way. Do you not think that view is actually held by very many contemporary Christians?
I tend to think it’s overstated. I don’t deny that there are some Christians who have a fideistic mindset and who have, at different points in history, allowed that mindset to become more prominent than it otherwise is, but I actually don’t think that’s a particular problem facing most of the Christian church today. I rather think the problem is much more the flip side of it. When you downgrade the power of reason, when you look at reason as not being very important, you can either go the way of the thing we’ve been talking about, which is fideism, or you can go down the path of sentimentalism. I think that’s a much more present problem in Christianity and Judaism as they’re manifest today in much of Western culture. By “sentimentalism,” I mean the sense that feelings are more important than reason, that arguments are based upon strongly felt notions rather than propositions that arise from reflection upon revelation and natural law.
Even though they come from the same problem. They both emerge from misunderstandings and downgradings of reason in the place of Christian faith.
You and I are both Catholic. I sometimes wonder if, from an outside perspective, it doesn’t look like we’re brushing under the table our own anti-rational beliefs. I’m thinking specifically of the fact that the source and summit of the Catholic faith is transubstantiation, which is a thing that empirical science would deny. We insist that something is happening, even though it can’t be empirically verified. How would you answer that objection from a good-faith interlocutor?
The first thing I’d say is that I think it’s reasonable to believe that what Christ is recorded as saying in the Gospels is true, and that when He says, “Eat my flesh. Drink my blood,” that’s what He’s talking about. In fact, we know that [is what He meant] because we also know that many of His disciples left Him precisely when He said that.
The second thing I could say is that I can’t give you an entirely empirical explanation of what happens in the process of transubstantiation. But it’s interesting that we use categories of reason—in fact, categories that were worked out by Greek thinkers—to describe what goes on. Transubstantiation literally means a transformation of the substance. Substance is different from what we see on the outside of something. The form remains the same; the substance changes. What am I doing there? I’m using rational categories to explain why something that still looks like bread after the process of consecration, the substance itself has changed. Is it a fully rational explanation? No. Is it an irrational explanation? No. I think it’s a way in which we show how reason grapples with the truth of faith and explains something of the truth of that faith without being able to explain the whole thing purely on the grounds of reason.
Scientists, by the way, do this all the time. Everyone does this with different things that happen in their lives. It’s not that, in this case, faith and reason are somehow in conflict. It’s just that reason reveals some of the truth of what’s going on, and the full truth of what’s going on is revealed by faith.
Could you say a few more words on the idea that scientists do this all the time?
What I mean is that empirical scientists develop hypotheses to explain what’s going on. They’re building upon some knowledge that they already have, but they don’t have full knowledge. So scientists, when they are pursuing inquiry, base their assumptions upon things that they think to be true because they believe that other scientists exploring similar questions have arrived at certain truths, and they trust that these scientists are telling the truth.
Small “o” orthodox Christians do the same. It’s not an exact parallel, but it does show that, to paraphrase St. Paul, faith is evidence of things unseen. Scientists have to have that faith if they’re going to engage in the scientific enterprise in the first place. They must have the conviction that there are things there that are true, which we don’t fully understand yet, but by a process of reasoning [and applying the empirical method] we can understand more.
In the book, you describe Marxism as “a pathology of religion fed by a pathology of reason.” Tell me what you mean by that.
Well, the idea of a pathology of reason and a pathology of faith is what happens when reason and faith, in the right senses of those words, become untethered from one another.
Marxism, in one sense, is a pathology of reason, insofar as it represents the rigorous application of a type of scientific mindset to try to understand history, to try to understand the economy, and to make predictions about what’s going to happen in the future. It’s not embracing a full-bodied conception of reason that you find, for example, in the works of St. Thomas Aquinas or in the broad, classical natural law tradition. It’s a very confined conception. Reason is very much purely limited to the empirical. That’s the sense in which I mean Marxism is a pathology of reason, because it blocks off reason from thinking about the ultimate questions in life and basically says: “These are not important. Let’s just move on.”
But it’s also a pathology of faith. If you look at the structure of Marxism, if you look at the way that Marxism analyzes the world, it has a whole eschatology of its own. The end point of history is not the coming of Christ. The end point of history is this idyllic state called communism. The more you look at Marxism, the more it has the characteristics of a type of pseudo-religion. [It has] a sacred book. It has its prophets, like [Karl] Marx and [Friedrich] Engels. It has its saints, like Che Guevara. It has a type of almost church-like organization. You have the party. You have a hierarchy. It all starts to look very much like a religious organization.
Do you see the current rise of “democratic socialism” in the United States as a continuation of this same pathology, or is this something different from Marxist socialism?
I don’t see it as substantially different, insofar as the religious-like characteristics that you find in nineteenth-century Marxism—some of the methods may have changed. They’re not openly advocating violent upheaval à la Lenin, although I suspect some of them would like to see that. But the essential structure I think is more or less the same.
It’s also a pathology of faith insofar as it’s demanding faith from people, particularly young people. It’s asking people to invest their deepest convictions in this particular political project. It’s also a pathology of reason insofar as, if you ask democratic socialists questions about “What’s the ultimate purpose of human action? Do you believe in notions of true free choice? Do you think that reason is capable of knowing more than empirical truth?” my guess is they would say no to all those things, just as nineteenth-century Marxists would say no to all those things.
Let’s talk about the ideas of free choice and free will, which also pervade your book. How does that fit into God as Logos and the understanding of the West that you’re putting forward?
It’s very difficult to find robust accounts of free will and free choice outside small “o” orthodox Christianity, small “o” orthodox Judaism, and certain schools of natural law. Once you move outside those religions and that particular philosophical approach, what you typically find are hard determinism, the type of determinism you find in Karl Marx, or soft determinism, [by which] I mean you have the illusion that you’re making free choices, but you’re not really.
I argue in the book that one of the things that distinguishes Western civilization is this particular emphasis upon freedom. You see this in the Greeks. You see this even more strongly, I would argue, in the Hebrew scriptures. And you see this discussed endlessly in Christianity. What’s meant by free will is that it’s really your free choice that’s determining whether you go in one direction or another. You really are making substantive choices.
When you opt to do something evil in the world, it’s not just the evil that you impact upon others. It also changes who you are as a person, which gets to the idea of freedom for something. You find this expressed, for example, in the writings of St. Paul, when he talks about this higher freedom to which people are called. It’s a type of self-mastery, whereby freedom, in its highest sense, is associated with the free choice to do the good consistently. That’s a very different conception from liberty as simply the absence of constraint. You obviously need the freedom from unreasonable constraint to make choices—otherwise it’s not really free choice. But this higher freedom that is very much integral to the Hebrew-Christian scriptures is something that’s very distinctive to the West’s understanding of the nature and purpose of freedom.
The book mostly focuses on rejections of these ideas coming from the left. Do you think the commitment to respecting people’s freedom to make choices, even if we don’t like those choices, is eroding on the political right as well? And if so, why is that happening suddenly?
My short answer to that is yes. I do think we see a decline in attention to the importance of freedom, in the sense of the need to have the space and the autonomy—consistent with everyone else’s freedom, and consistent with the demands of reason, and consistent with the designs of justice—to be able to make the type of free choices through which you realize human flourishing. There’s no other way to realize human flourishing except by this capacity to make choices, which means of course you have to have some provision for people to make dumb or even evil choices. I do think that there is eroding respect for the necessity of that form of freedom in some sections of the political right.
I worry about this when it comes to “integralist” groups within the Catholic Church. I worry about this with the language they use. I think it’s very disturbing that they are quoting authoritarian legal theorists like Carl Schmitt, who was, of course, a Nazi. It’s very disturbing that they are turning to some of these sources to explain their antipathy to, let’s call it, liberal order.
Is there a better argument for why they might reject the liberal order that wouldn’t rely on those sources—an argument that you would find more valid?
To the extent that liberal order departs from a robust conception of reason, to the extent that liberal order is detached from natural law, then I think liberal order loses its structure, its coherence, and its sense of why it’s important to be free. There’s an enormous difference between liberal order based upon the broad claims of natural law that Aristotle, and Aquinas, and Maimonides, or a Protestant like Hugo Grotius would attach to liberal order and a liberal order in which things like markets, constitutionalism, limited government—all these good things—are essentially grounded upon nihilism or a type of raw majoritarianism. When liberal order is based upon strong natural-law foundations, I think it works pretty well. But when liberal order is based upon foundations that reject natural law, then I think critiques of what is going on are very valid.
What’s an example of liberal order being grounded on these things that are unstable? I’m trying to differentiate between a badly grounded liberal order and an illiberal order.
I suppose part of the problem is that when a liberal order is grounded upon let’s call it nihilism, let’s call it utilitarianism, let’s call it positivism, then you can’t produce principled arguments for why people should not do terrible things. Because in the end, if you don’t have a type of “right reason” argument at the foundation of why you take constitutionalism seriously, why you take markets seriously, why you take the rule of law seriously, it’s very hard to stop those things shifting in the direction of illiberal behavior. That is what I think many people see happening today. I suppose my argument would be that liberal order doesn’t have to be like that.
Last one: You talk about how, if we reject the idea that there are truths outside of what we can measure with a microscope, then there can be no morality. I think that’s an incredibly interesting and important point. But if there is such a thing as moral truth that’s knowable, then why shouldn’t that truth be reflected in government policy? If we believe morality is objective, if we believe it’s not just a matter of personal opinion, and if we believe we’re right about what it is, then why shouldn’t people be required by law to consistently behave accordingly?
I think it’s a two-part answer. One is it’s very clear that all law has a moral dimension to it—even a decision about which side of the road people are going to drive upon. There’s nothing about the left or the right side of the road that’s intrinsically valuable in itself. What matters is you make a decision because you value human life. If you have people just choosing what side of the road to drive on, human beings are going to get hurt.
Rule of law ultimately is about restricting arbitrary behavior. Why? Well, probably because arbitrary behavior makes life messy, but also because we think it’s unreasonable. In other words, we think it’s wrong for people to behave in an arbitrary manner. So there is a sense in which morality is intrinsically part of law. There’s no such thing as an amoral piece of legislation. There is some good [that the law is trying to accomplish].
The second part of the answer, however, is pretty much the answer that people like Thomas Aquinas gave. Because we value the type of flourishing that can only occur through free choice, the law has to make room for the possibility that some people are going to choose stupid things and some people will choose outright evil things. The question of whether the law should prohibit or forbid a certain action is very much dependent upon how much you think it’s important that the law, for the purposes of the common good, prevents certain forms of behavior, and how much you conclude that space and autonomy are needed so that people can flourish.
This is the type of thing that legislators and judges wrestle with all the time. It’s always a question of “How do we balance the needs of people to make free choices so they can flourish with the notion that there are some things that we do not want people to do because they would make life so difficult that it would be impossible to flourish?” A good example would be something like murder. Having a law against murder is not going to stop all murders, but it does give people the reassurance that if someone is killed, then the legal system will have a means of dealing with that.
The law exists in part to deter such forms of behavior.
I don’t think there’s always a hard and fast rule for dealing with these things. A lot of it depends on the type of circumstances in which societies exist. Thomas Aquinas said, for example, that it would be a mistake for the state to try and shut down an entire economy that was run on prostitution because the result would be total chaos. Even though prostitution is something evil, if you shut down a society that’s based upon an economy of prostitution, you’ll have a civil insurrection on your hands. That’s an example where someone like Aquinas would say, “There are cases where the state has to tread very carefully.”
On the other hand, there are certain things that the state in my view should prevent. There are certain things that are so damaging to the common good that they make human flourishing extremely difficult.
Is that the argument for banning murder but not, say, banning blasphemy?
There may be cases in which blasphemy laws are appropriate, but it’s very difficult to give a definitive ruling on something like blasphemy laws without knowing something about the society, its history, et cetera. On the other hand, with something like murder, it’s very clear, I think, what the law needs to be. The same thing would apply to something like theft. ♦
Stephanie Slade is managing editor at Reason magazine.
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