We’ve witnessed for decades a long march by the secular Left to tear down Western civilization. The credo was best captured by Jesse Jackson’s infamous exhortation, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western civ has got to go!” And yet, Jackson’s own contributions to that take-down pale in comparison to the efforts of the fundamental transformers dominating the Left today, especially on our college campuses. At least the “Rev.” Jackson was sympathetic to religion.
Where the Left now stands on religion isn’t pretty. Secular leftists fancy themselves the people of “reason,” as opposed to the people of “faith” — the slack-jawed element of society. Your typical New York Times editorialist strangely sees a society of two camps: people of reason versus people of faith. There’s an assumption of separation — that you can’t have an individual who possesses both faith and reason. It’s one or the other.
This, of course, is nonsense. It’s mind-numbingly shallow. It’s arrogant and ignorant. It’s a display of profound ignorance by people who, ironically, take immense pride in their self-perceived intellectual prowess and erudition. Of course, it isn’t totally their fault, I suppose. This is what they’ve been mis-taught in our awful universities.
Truth to be told, faith and reason — fides et ratio — have long been complementary. They are allies, friends. Or, as Pope John Paul II described them in his encyclical by the same name, faith and reason are “two wings” working in tandem to elevate the human spirit to ultimate truth. The battle to recover this forgotten understanding, to properly discern and integrate faith and reason, is at the very struggle for Western civilization.
My students will tell you that this has been a concern of mine for a long time. It has also been a concern of Samuel Gregg, a brilliant scholar at the Acton Institute, who says at the opening of his excellent new book, Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization, that this same theme has occupied his mind for a long time. Here in this timely and important book, he explains why.
“The genius of Western civilization is its unique synthesis of reason and faith,” says Gregg in the opening words on the book jacket. He makes a fascinating observation, pivoting not only to what happens when you exclude faith from one side of the synthesis but what happens when you exclude reason from half of it: “Today that synthesis is under attack — from the East by radical Islamism (faith without reason) and from within the West itself by aggressive secularism (reason without faith).”
It’s a provocative but crucial insight: faith without reason begets radical Islamism; reason without faith begets aggressive secularism. The key for the West — once the Judeo-Christian West — is to recover both faith and reason, properly balanced and integrated.
Gregg begins with what he calls “The Speech That Shook the World.” Ask any 10 Westerners what that speech might be, even with the clue that it occurred in the 21st century, and none would likely name what Gregg names. Still, he’s spot on. The speech is best known as the “Regensburg Address,” delivered by Pope Benedict XVI in the city of one of the most celebrated minds in the history of the West, Albertus Magnus, or St. Albert the Great, teacher of the man that many consider the greatest mind in history: St. Thomas Aquinas. The actual title of Benedict’s speech was “Faith, Reason, and the University: Memories and Reflections.” The date was September 12, 2006, the day after the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
Benedict’s address was ferociously attacked by Muslim political and religious leaders. There were mass rallies and riots in Muslim countries and attacks on Christian churches. An Italian nun (and her Muslim driver) was gunned down in protest by two jihadists outside a children’s hospital in Somalia. Ironically, the Muslim violence came in response to what Muslims hated about Benedict’s speech — namely, a 14th-century quotation from a Byzantine emperor about Mohammed and Islam spreading violence.
“The frenzied nature of some Muslims’ reaction to this quotation,” Gregg writes, “convinced many Westerners that this Byzantine emperor was on to something. After all, people who take reason seriously don’t respond to criticism with insults, threats, and violence.”
Precisely. But Benedict’s speech was about much more than Islam. The most instructive passages were less about Islam and faith and reason than about secular liberalism and faith and reason. Or, better put, what Benedict had earlier called — just prior to being elected pope — the forces of the “dictatorship of relativism.”
“The significance of Benedict’s remarks thus extended far beyond Islam,” Gregg writes. “His lecture was about us, we who have inherited the civilization called the West.”
As Gregg notes, that’s the West of Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Rule of St. Benedict, Michelangelo’s David, Mozart’s Coronation Mass, Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew, Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Jefferson’s Monticello, the U.S. Constitution, of Shakespeare, Ambrose, Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas More, John Locke, John Calvin, Pascal, Witherspoon, Wilberforce, Tocqueville, Galileo, Jane Austen, Flannery O’Connor, George Washington, Edith Stein, and C. S. Lewis.
That’s the West of both faith and reason. Gregg calls out not only the beauty brought by those who joined faith and reason but also the pathologies brought by those who separated faith and reason. He looks at everything from Marx and the communist movement to the eugenics fanatics and “race science” movement.
The West today must not dismiss and reject what both reason and revelation have shown us to be true. That’s something that the Christian faith from the beginning has taught. As St. Paul stated emphatically (Romans 1:15-20), the Creator designed the world in such a way that the non-believer has no excuse for non-belief. God’s hand is abundantly evident in the things and the very order that has been made.
Echoing St. Paul in Romans, the First Vatican Council in its 1870 decree, Dei Filius, affirmed, “God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason: ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.” Thus, “there can never be any real disagreement between faith and reason, since it is the same God who reveals the mysteries and infuses faith, and who has endowed the human mind with the light of reason.”
As Gregg explains it, Vatican I was making an important point lost to modern secularists: reason goes beyond the empirical because reason itself is derived from a divine origin.
The great scientific pioneers of the West grasped this.
“This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being,” stated Sir Isaac Newton, a scientist unmatched in his contributions. “This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God Pantokrator, or Universal Ruler.”
The natural world tells us about the divine, if we allow it, if we permit reason its proper role. Each can inform and reinforce the other. The West was built by men and women equipped with that understanding.
Still more, the God who gave us the natural law and natural order also gave us the moral law and moral order. “Nature was a synonym for the Divinity,” Gregg writes, “that which created all things and was the source of all moral principles.”
For multiple centuries, the elite men and women saw no conflict between religious faith and scientific reason. Only more recent decades have witnessed this bizarre insistence that the two don’t co-exist.
As Gregg regrets, “Unfortunately for the West, the separation of the world of reason from the world of faith would have grave consequences, many of which weigh heavily on us today.”
To return to Regensburg, this is something that Pope Benedict XVI warned about, even as his words were reacted to most vociferously by the Islamic world.
Gregg wraps up by taking the reader back to Regensburg, where the pope asked his audience which virtue should be most cultivated by those in political life. The answer wasn’t tolerance or respect for “diversity,” but, rather, wisdom. Turning to the Hebrew scriptures, specifically the first book of Kings, Benedict noted that Solomon asked God for the wisdom to “discern between good and evil.” Quoting Proverbs 2:6, Gregg calls wisdom a divine gift: “The Lord gives wisdom.”
We are given God’s law and the natural law, and true law should be based on universal moral truths knowable through reason by believers and non-believers alike. But regrettably, reason’s ability to discern truth is now in question, as the West stubbornly and blindly distances itself from its faith foundations.
Today, says Benedict, the West is trapped in a “concrete bunker with no windows, in which we ourselves provide lighting and atmospheric conditions.” We base our universe on ourselves, with each individual attempting to impose his or her own ideal living environment.
This is why our Western world, and America, is in trouble. And there’s no way out of the darkness of the concrete bunker until we allow the light of faith to once again illuminate our reason. Kudos to Samuel Gregg for casting light on that reality and reminding us what we once knew and must know again.