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Book Review: Reason, Faith and the Struggle for Western Civilization

Monday, 24 February 2020  | Ian Hore-Lacy

Reason, Faith and the Struggle for Western Civilization

By Samuel Gregg

(Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 2019)

Sam Gregg asserts that the genius of Western civilisation is its unique synthesis of reason and faith, as expressed in Jewish and Christian faiths and cultures. He expounds the proposition that, while the Enlightenment in fact maintained a good connection between reason and faith, their subsequent uncoupling has given rise to several social pathologies. Those pathologies lacking faith include scientism and Marxism, and more broadly aggressive secularism; those lacking reason include resurgent Islamism.

Gregg is an Australian Catholic with an Oxford PhD in moral philosophy and political economy, and is research director at the Acton Institute in USA. His 2010 book Christian Theology and Market Economics was co-authored with Prof. Ian Harper, well known here. His many other books cover economic and ethical issues, including one on How America can Avoid a European Future (2013).

Gregg’s review of the historic relationship between faith and reason and the outworking of their imbalance or disconnection leads to a call for reasserting the importance of understanding the role of a reasonable Creator, as in the Hebrew scriptures undergirding Judaism and Christianity, essentially the logos. It is this understanding that gave rise to the flowering of reason and the establishment of science in the West.

‘The ways in which the relation between reason and faith has shaped the West … are in many ways subterranean. Occasionally however they thrust themselves directly into our view’, and this book helps us see how and why. ‘One argument of this book is that not only can reason and faith correct each other’s excesses, but they can also enhance each other’s comprehension of the truth, continually renewing Western civilization.’ The theme of truth enabling freedom runs through the book. Certainly we need to reassert faith as a counterpoint to scientism.

Another argument is that the Enlightenment is commonly misrepresented as a disparagement of faith, whereas civilisation shaped by it actually has Jewish and Christian faith as a central pillar. The rationale and historical support for this is expounded, drawing on various scholars and particularly Joseph Ratzinger, the former Pope Benedict, and especially his 2006 Regensburg lecture addressing ‘pathologies of religion and reason’.

Gregg defines ‘the West’ as being where totalitarianism, economic collectivism and hostility to Judaism and Christianity are rejected in favour of ‘political ideas such as personal freedom, the rule of law, constitutionally limited government, the distinction between church and state, and human rights’. At the same time, he points out that ‘the West has been the source of ideas and movements that contradict both reason and key Jewish and Christian teachings’, notably Communism, Nazism with the holocaust and, more insidiously, American Progressivism with racial overtones and detours into deism. This happens when the vital Western basis integrating faith and reason is eroded by reason becoming restricted to empiricism focused on science, and faith becoming detached from biblical history, allowing its collapse into sentimentalism.

Gregg spends some time on Jewish, Greek and Roman thought. Due to its emphasis on God’s creation as the foundation of reason, ‘The Jews’ liberation of human reason from mythology and nature-worship amounted to one of humanity’s most powerful “enlightenments”’. The notion of human freedom and responsibility follows from this. He shows where the Stoic logos corresponds with the Hebrew understanding of God as Creator and results in ‘an account of the divine that could be reconciled with human rationality’, well articulated by Aristotle. But Judaism presented ‘the revelation of a particular God, … demanding and often inscrutable, but who rescued his people from their mistakes and, compared with pagan deities, was reasonable, just and moral’.

He suggests that, out of all this, Christianity stressed three ideas very influential in the development of Western culture: God’s rational and creative nature; affirming that all people are capable of knowing truth (especially moral Truth) through natural reason; and freedom to choose and act rightly (or wrongly).

A chapter on Faiths of Destruction suggests that Karl Marx, J.S. Mill and Fredrich Nietzsche had in common that ‘many of their ideas “amounted to pathologies of religion fed by pathologies of reason”’. This leads to a chapter on Authoritarian Relativism, Liberal Religion and Jihadism – all arising from declining passion for truth (beyond the measurable and empirical) ‘as scepticism about moral and religious truths attained ascendancy in culture, politics and law’, especially in the USA. Postmodernism as such does not get a mention.

What Ratzinger called the dictatorship of relativism means that tolerance ‘becomes a tool for shutting down discussion by insisting that no one may claim that his philosophical or theological positions are true’. Truth is banished as a benchmark. Relativity rules, and following Nietzsche ‘all questions of justice are condensed to who has power and who does not’. Furthermore, relativism ‘can empty Christianity of its commitment to rationality’. Islam’s detaching of reason and morality from what is asserted as God’s will has similar roots, contra the Judaeo-Christian logos. This is why the Islamic concept of God and Islamic terrorism are unintelligible to many in the West.

So, ‘those who care about the truth … must combat the pathologies of reason and faith, and do so in ways convincing to believers and nonbelievers alike in a post-Enlightenment West’. Gregg suggests that this might be by way of focusing on four interlinked theses - creation, freedom, justice and faith that is rational - allowing for revelation as well as reason.

‘Without logos, the West is lost.’ Embracing it by integrated faith and reason is ‘to act in a way which is truly enlightening, fully consonant with the faiths of the West, and to build a future grounded on the sure knowledge that it is the truth which sets us free’. So we need ‘to re-establish the moral ballast required to keep the ship of Western civilisation from capsizing', as a reviewer (Zachary Gorman) put it. 

Ian Hore-Lacy is a founding Zadok board member (1978-98), author of Responsible Dominion - a Christian approach to sustainable development, and now Senior Advisor for the World Nuclear Association. He is co-author of Down to Earth Discipleship, a pastoral ‘book’ on the web:

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