I’ve read many texts about faith and reason questions but few spell out like this one just how significant getting the faith-reason relationship right is for the West.
The book begins with Benedict XVI’s famous Regensburg address, and shows that its primary critique was of the West. For a long time, Samuel Gregg says, the West has been shaken by what he calls “pathologies of reason” and “pathologies of faith.” An example of a pathology of reason would be the reduction of reason to the natural sciences. An example of a pathology of faith would be Marxism. To resist these pathologies, the West has to correctly order its commitment to reason with what the author calls “the two faiths of the West,” so that reason and faith can balance and correct each other.
The book explains how the West’s unique integration of reason and faith occurred. It stresses that the process really begins with the Jewish people and the way in which their religion embodied a commitment to rationality and freedom centuries before the Greeks came to anything close to the same insights. That’s a welcome corrective. Connected to this is the fact that the Greeks’ achievements couldn’t be fully realized because of the pagan religions’ highly irrational nature.
Gregg shows how the idea of God as Logos (Divine Reason) was crucial for integrating Greek rationality with Judaism’s conception of God as a free, rational and active Creator. Christianity, Gregg says, universalized this idea and made it central to the West’s understanding of itself.
Three chapters of the book focus upon showing how the breakdown in the West’s integration of reason and faith has contributed to so many of the destructive forces that has caused many people to doubt the integrity of the entire Western project, such as Nazism, Marxism, and Nietzscheanism – but also “softer” forces that have corroded the West over time. These include utilitarianism and liberal religion, the latter being a form of sentimental humanitarianism that has laid waste to much of Christianity and Judaism in Western countries. Gregg doesn’t suggest that the disintegration of the reason-faith nexus is the only cause; but he does claim it is an underlying problem that links many of these trends.
There is a controversial thesis in this book. Gregg argues that the West needs to reassess the widespread view that the Enlightenment, as a movement of ideas that stressed reason and the social and natural sciences, was somehow deeply at odds with Jewish and Christian religious beliefs.
He acknowledges that there have been tensions but claims that it’s a myth that the entire Enlightenment was a highly anti-religious enterprise. He marshals plenty of facts to back up his position. He shows just how sympathetic many active Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox Christians as well as many pious Jews were to many of the Enlightenment’s achievements. Most “Enlighteners,” he argues, were conventional religious believers of the time, especially those who participated in the Anglo-American and Scottish Enlightenments. This strikes me as very important given the debates going on today about how religious believers should think about the Enlightenment.
Most contemporary books about Western civilization are doom, gloom and pessimistic in tone and conclusion. Gregg doesn’t go down that path. He is optimistic that the West can recover if it can rediscover the particular synthesis of reason and faith that marked its emergence and continues to influence us today, whether we realize it or not. The last two chapters demonstrate how this could occur.
Lastly, the book is written with a very accessible style. Whether they agree or not with the book's argument, specialists and no-specialists alike will enjoy.