Reason Versus Faith? In the West, They’ve Always Come Together
Thirteen years ago this month, then-Pope Benedict XVI gave a lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany, where he had once served as a professor of theology. Entitled “Faith, Reason and the University—Memories and Reflections,” the address sparked controversy, particularly among Muslims, who disapproved of the pontiff’s quoting Byzantine Emperor Manuel II Palaeologos, who had accused the Prophet Muhammad of “evil and inhuman” things, such as spreading Islam “by the sword.” The irony that many Muslims reacted to this charge by violently attacking Christians aside, the actual objective of Benedict’s lecture was to emphasize the importance of balancing faith and reason, a balance that had blessed Western civilization for almost two millennia but is now in peril of being upended.
Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute, takes up this thesis in his new book, Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization. Gregg argues 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.” When we get a relative balance between reason and faith, the results reflect the highest glories of the West: Thomas Aquinas (theology/philosophy), Notre Dame Cathedral (architecture), Michelangelo (art), Johannes Sebastian Bach (music), and James Madison (politics). Each of these persons, masters of their craft, recognized the essential compatibility of faith and reason, rather than perceiving them as enemies. When we get this balance wrong, the result is all manner of destructive philosophical and political systems. These either elevate reason at the expense of faith (scientism, utilitarianism); place faith in some utopian, humanistic project (Marxism, Nietzscheanism); or reject both as ephemeral deceits of an arrogant West (postmodernism).
As for what constitutes right reason, Gregg believes one of the core tenets of Western civilization is “the commitment to reasoned inquiry in search of truth.” If this is indeed a unique quality of the Western tradition, it would explain why Western culture has, at least since the advent of Christianity, been fundamentally linear and teleological. Those operating in the Western tradition have understood themselves to be oriented towards some higher good and final destination, one that, however inchoately or analogically, can be grasped by virtuous, intelligent humans. This also explains why systems of thought originating within the West that reject this balance inevitably seek to find that telos in a this-worldly, revolutionary, materialistic project like Marxism or secular progressivism. Or, in the case of what Benedict has called the “dictatorship of relativism,” we become incapable of evaluating various philosophical or religious systems in any meaningful way. Reason, then, must be founded upon core logical principles and ideas.
Central to Gregg’s thesis is the question of whether or not God is reasonable. If He is not, then, to quote Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, God “is not bound even by his own word,” and could command man “to practice idolatry.” God, in a word, would be capricious. This is essentially what Islam teaches. Islam holds to a voluntarist conception of God, which, says Gregg, “accords primacy to the will over erason when trying to understand the nature of beings and actions. God’s essence, then, is some form of will.” Voluntarism also vitiates secondary causality, meaning that God is understood to be the direct cause of everything, good and bad. Secondary causality, in contrast, which is commonplace in Christian philosophy, posits that God is the cause of man’s free will, but not the direct cause of man’s individual judgments (and thus not the author of evil).
Gregg’s thesis does not demand a particular parochial or denominational conception of faith, but rather an ecumenical, lowest common denominator understanding of the divine as the Logos, meaning that God, whoever or whatever He is, is reasonable. Such a conception of the divine easily meshes with Christianity and Judaism, but also has origins in certain streams of ancient Greek philosophy (e.g. Platonism, Aristotelianism), and even ancient Chinese teachings regarding the “Mandate of Heaven.” This natural law approach thus has meritable ecumenical play. Yet we may deduce from it such important tenets as life as a gift (it originating in a transcendent source) and that man’s freedom must be oriented not towards self-gratification but towards that same origin point, thus necessitating a pursuit of excellence, or what the ancients called pietas. Such tenets in turn guide our laws and public policies, as we must protect life (contra abortion, euthanasia) and promote active civic engagement from all citizens (contra certain strands of libertarianism).
Many observers, even if they are sympathetic both to the idea of Western civilization and a balance between faith and reason, might ask, in light of various contemporary socio-cultural trends (such as the rise of the “nones”), if it is too late to speak of revitalizing what Gregg has in mind. Yet history can be instructive. Many Europeans probably thought that faith was finished at the height of the French Revolution, when anti-religious zealots sought to radically remake a country known as the Catholic Church’s “eldest daughter.” Catholic France lost tens of thousands of priests, while hundreds of thousands of French Catholics were killed, particularly in the War in the Vendee. And yet Catholicism, somehow, has persevered (and even, to a small degree, resurged) in France. Christianity, more than 200 years removed from the guillotine and 100 years removed from the Bolshevik Revolution, remains the largest religion on the planet, and continues to grow across the “Global South.”
In Gregg’s text, what he calls a “history of ideas,” he asks the reader: “Do you understand that unless the West gets the relation between reason and faith right, it will be unable to overcome its inner traumas or defend itself from those who wage war against it in the name of particular ideologies?” With Europe and America in various stages of social, cultural, religious, and demographic decline, these inner traumas (e.g. Brexit) and external battles (migration) frequently overtake our news cycle, and lead us to doubt whether there remains any hope for the West. Yet there’s still reason to hope, and not just because history has proved faith and reason remarkably resilient and impervious to destruction. The two also, as fate would have it, have God on their side.
Casey Chalk is pursuing a graduate degree in theology from Christendom College and is senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative.