Reason, faith, and the pursuit of wisdom
“However secularized a civilization may become,” writes Samuel Gregg in his excellent new book, “it can never entirely escape from the burden of its spiritual inheritance.” The civilization of the Western world is the product of a singularly fruitful marriage between faith and reason, between Jerusalem and Athens. Unfortunately that marriage is now on the rocks, and a final divorce would be catastrophic. Gregg is right; a civilization cannot escape its spiritual inheritance. But a civilization can die.
In his Regensburg Lecture in September 2006—an address which should be recognized among the most important public statements of our era—Pope Benedict XVI explained how the partnership between faith and reason is endangered: by a form of faith that rejects reason on one hand and a type of reason that rejects faith on the other. In Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization, Gregg fleshes out that argument and its implications—implications that are critical to our future.
In the Regensburg Lecture, as in virtually all of this work, Pope Benedict handled difficult topics with a disarmingly simple style, making his argument easy to grasp. Sadly, the speech was poorly covered by the mass media, which focused almost exclusively on the angry reaction from militant Muslims—who, also sadly, proved the Pontiff’s point, attempting to stifle a reasoned and respectful critique by irrational violence. That unbalanced reaction drew attention away from the Pope’s trenchant criticism of the sterile, materialistic rationalism that has come to dominant the world once known as Christendom.
Gregg, too, writes with a simple, engaging style, and although he deals with profound themes he aims his arguments at the general reader rather than the specialist. This is a short and accessible book, which could serve well as an introduction to the topic.
Reason and faith are not natural rivals, Gregg observes—at least not in the Western intellectual tradition. The Jewish heritage, inherited by Christianity, focuses on the Logos: the Word, the Truth. The Old Testament is replete with references to Wisdom, God’s partner in creation. And then of course “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” and we see the Logos in human form. In the Scriptural understanding, Gregg notes, “Wisdom is also considered a more than human quality. It is a divine gift.”
The philosophers of ancient Greece made no claims to direct Revelation. Yet Plato too spoke of wisdom as something divine. The Logos of Greek philosophy meshed easily with the understanding of Jews and Christians. Truth and wisdom were seen as blessings to be pursued and accepted gratefully. Reason could work its way toward the Logos, but would stop short of the ultimate, which could only be grasped in contemplation—and even then, fleetingly and partially. From the perspective of both Athens and Jerusalem, wisdom involved a spiritual component: something not merely logical, not merely cognitive.
The marriage between faith and reason produced the great universities, the flowering of the arts, the explosion of scientific knowledge that built Western civilization. But no human effort is perfect, and this partnership too always had its trials. A deformation of faith begot hostility toward reason, and vice versa, in unhappy, recurring episodes of Western history.
These problems grew serious, however, when modern philosophers reduced wisdom to knowledge and the champions of the Enlightenment insisted that scientific analysis must replace religious faith. Gregg takes pains to explain that, despite the hostility of the philosophes, the best minds of the Church remained devoted to scientific inquiry, and it is foolish to suggest that “devout Christians were universally opposed to various Enlightenments.” Unfortunately their respect for reason was not returned, and it is much closer to the truth to say that the thinkers of the Enlightenment were universally opposed to faith.
So began a long detour in thought—a costly philosophical wrong-turn in the Western world. Because the Enlightenment approach was a deformation of reason as understood by classical philosophy, it has produced increasingly unbalanced results. From Voltaire and Rousseau, the philosophical stream flowed all too quickly into Nietzsche, whose explicit rejection of reason is, Gregg rightly remarks, “the antithesis of the best aspects of the Enlightenment.”
In our own time the rejection of reason has morphed into what Pope Benedict described as the “dictatorship of relativism.” In his Regensburg Lecture, Benedict said:
In such conditions, tolerance is no longer a matter of establishing the freedom to express one’s views and argue about what it true. Instead it becomes a tool for shutting down discussion by insisting that no one may claim that his philosophical or theological positions are true. [emphasis in original]
In the absence of rational discussion, public discourse descends into emotionalism. And when the natural desire for truth and for answers to questions is further thwarted by political correctness, which shuts down arguments, frustration mounts, producing bursts of violence. The challenge that faces us now—the challenged addressed in Gregg’s useful book—is whether we can recover our spiritual inheritance, and with it our capacity for reasoned dialogue in pursuit of wisdom, before our civilization dissolves into chaos.
Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization, by Samuel Gregg. Regnery/Gateway.
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