In June 2019, JWI’s Deputy Director Garrett Snedeker and Intern Jake Rinear shared a discussion with Dr. Samuel Gregg, author of the book Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization (Regnery Gateway Editions, 2019). Dr. Gregg is an author and the director of research at the Acton Institute.
Below you may find:
A transcript of the audio recording:
Snedeker: Hello and welcome to the James Wilson Podcast. I’m Garrett Snedeker. We’re pleased to be joined on the James Wilson Podcast by Dr. Samuel Gregg. Dr. Gregg is research director at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He writes and speaks on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics and finance, and natural law. He holds a DPhil in moral philosophy and political economy from the University of Oxford. He is the author of a new book, Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization, from Regnery Gateway. Joining us for this podcast is Jake Rinear, one of our summer interns at the James Wilson Institute. Jake, why don’t you start us off?
Rinear: So tell us your inspiration for writing the book. Why now and why this topic?
Gregg: Well, there’s basically two reasons. One is for a long time I’d been thinking about – as the book starts, as you know – a chapter about Pope Benedict XVI’s Regensburg Address. And I’ve written about that in the past. But when that address came out, of course, many people thought it was primarily about Islam and some of the challenges that particularly radical Islamism presents for the West. But if you read the text itself it becomes very, very clear that yes, in one way it’s about Islam, but more fundamentally it’s about us. It’s about us who live in this culture, the civilization that we call the West. And I think that speech was primarily directed to the West. It was directed to those of us who see ourselves as living within that particular tradition and way of approaching the world. So that had been germinating in my mind for a long time.
And as time went on, more and more, I looked at different phenomenon ranging from the emergence of scientism, which is the absolutization of the natural sciences that you find in much of the academy and much of the world. But also things like the religious character of some of the ideologies that are doing such damage to the West today, whether it’s different forms of Marxism, whether it’s a type of nihilism, a type of Nietzscheanism that’s just beneath the surface in many of the political philosophies we see floating on around us. So, there was a long-term gestation, if you like, for this project. Another thing which I think was also important was the fact that a few years ago I was sitting in Israel, of all places, in a kibbutz, of all places, lecturing to a group of very bright Jewish students about Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and taking them through the book.
And I thought to myself, “Well, here I am. I’m sitting in the Middle East. And yet this is indisputably a Western country.” And it starts to crystallize for me that the West goes far beyond geography. It’s about a set of ideas and underneath that set of ideas is this synthesis of reason and faith, which I think is so central to understanding what the West is, what has happened to it, and where it’s come from. So those were the two things: sort of the long-term gestation, but then some immediate reflections upon being in Israel at a particular point in time and thinking about, “How does this all fit into this tradition we call the West?” So those are the two things: a long-term impetus, long-term gestation, and then some immediate thinking sparked by being in a country that, as I said, is definitely in the Middle East, but it’s definitely a Western country.
Snedeker: You make it clear in the preface to your book that the book is a springing out of some essays and some longer writings that you’ve done over the years. But yet the framing device that you chose was indeed Pope Benedict and two lectures that he gave. You discuss a lecture in your final chapter that he gave before the German parliament in 2011. How did you conceive of the importance of both of these lectures? Did they strike you as important when they were delivered? Or was it upon reflection that you found their significance and their use for you in your book?
Gregg: Well, I certainly understood the significance of these speeches when they were given. There was something pretty remarkable, for example, about a German-born Pope being in the German Bundestag in the capital of this still relatively new, rebuilt Germany. And as the speech itself says, only a few hundred meters away from a place in 1945 where a leader of a genocidal regime killed himself. The speech itself, of course, was really about natural law. That was what the context of that speech was really about. And the indispensability of natural law for the West. Not just in terms of restoring coherence to legal thought and a political thought, but also in the sense that natural law does lead you at some point to start asking questions about where is this order ultimately coming from? Where is this reason, which is part of who we are as humans, and which enables us to understand the order in the world that is around – not just the scientific order, but the moral order, the philosophical order that’s in the world – where does this come from?
So I thought that was a pretty remarkable thing. And indeed if you read that speech, the Bundestag speech, which was given in 2011 I think it was. If you read it very carefully, it’s basically a plea to the West not to let its scope for reason to be unduly limited. It points out in the speech, for example, a very famous legal philosopher, Hans Kelsen, who is regarded as the father of legal positivism. He grappled with this question towards the end of his life: Where does the evident order in the world come from? Where does this freedom come from? Where does our reason come from? And Kelson sort of squibs the question in the end because he says, well, it must’ve been put there, but in order to have a discussion about where this comes from you inevitably end up in the realm of religion and metaphysics. And that’s simply something he didn’t want to do. He said it very carefully. And then Benedict says, “Is it really reasonable to simply exclude that question? How can it be reasonable to do that? Is it really reasonable to simply exclude the possibility that there is a rational Creator, the Logos?” which is a theme I talk a great deal about in the book. How can we exclude that as a reasonable possibility and simply assume that nothingness, or chaos, is at the beginning of everything? Because, like I often say to my students, something can’t come from nothing. Reason can’t come from unreason, order can’t emerge from chaos itself. So my point is that, at that particular speech, I think Benedict really summed up many of the dilemmas that the West faces when the synthesis of reason and faith, which begins initially with the Jews and was contributed to by the Greeks and is really given form by Christianity – what happens when that integration starts to disintegrate? And I think you end up with some of what I call the pathologies of reason and the pathologies of faith, which I talk a great deal about in some of the middle chapters of the book.
Rinear: Well, on that note, I want to focus in on one of those pathologies. While reading your book, I couldn’t help but think the passage in C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man, where he writes, “Where the old initiated, the neat and new merely conditions. The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly. The new deals with them more as the poultry keeper deals with young birds, making them thus or thus for purposes of which the bird knows nothing.” Now in your book, you explain modernity’s efforts to reshape man according to his own design, of modern day Prometheanism that ignores laws of nature and abolishes conventions, all in this idea of liberation. Could you expand on the idea that freedom finds greater expression in adherence to the laws of nature rather than in their abolition, an idea that probably sounds paradoxical to modern liberal ears. In other words, how do rules liberate?
Gregg: Well, I think the type of freedom that we’re talking about is two-fold. One is the freedom that comes from recognizing reality. You can’t be free from reality. You can want to be free from reality, but you can’t really free yourself from the reality that we have a reason. Our reason is more than purely instrumental. We can know more than empirical truth. We can know more than the truth revealed by the natural sciences. In fact, the reason we do the natural sciences in the first place is because our reason tells us that truth is worth knowing for its own sake. It’s not just a purely instrumental thing. The truth is worth knowing for its own sake. We are, in fact, designed for truth. Now, we are weak, we are fallible, we make mistakes, we do all sorts of dumb things in our choices and we rationalize evil things all the time.
But none of that detracts from the fact that, when you think about the nature of human reason, it’s more than purely instrumental. A good example I always like to use is someone who does medicine. They’re not just doing it because they think it’s fun to know that penicillin kills germs. They’re doing it because they presumably want to save life and promote health. So those things are good in themselves and not sort of empirically determined objectives. They’re things that our reason instantly recognizes as being true in itself. So, in that sense, the connection to freedom, the bigger connection to freedom is that we are only truly free, in the full sense of the word, when we live in truth. There’s no freedom in living in lies. There’s no freedom to be found in embracing error. Because when you do that, you’re blinding yourself to deeper and wider realities that are around us and apprehendable to our reason if we choose to use it.
So that’s what I mean by this higher freedom. And I think that is part, very much part of the Western tradition, the type of freedom for excellence. The Jews understood this extremely well. The Jews really are the ones who begin this whole trajectory. They are the ones that understand this very clearly. The Decalogue, for example, the last command of the Decalogue is really, “Don’t be envious.” It’s all about surmounting our passion. You find something similar in the Greeks, although the Greeks have the problem that they can’t root the life of virtue, the life of good in some sort of deeper First Cause that gives meaning and purpose and direction to the universe. And Christianity comes along and basically shows that the ultimate form of freedom is this freedom that comes from choosing the true, the good, and the beautiful and living the life of excellence. And that slavery and unfreedom is when we choose to dwell in error. And that I think is crucial for understanding the West today. And I don’t think it’s a mistake that when we lose sight of that decadence starts to emerge very quickly.
Snedeker: I think in there’s a lot of the work that we do at the James Wilson Institute. For example, Professor Arkes caught a lot of flack after the Hobby Lobby decision came down in 2014 because he expressed a strong insistence on the line that we hear from a lot of conservative lawyers, that you do in fact have a right to be wrong, that this is compatible with this idea of religious toleration and religious freedom. And persistently Professor Arkes was articulating the belief or beliefs of the American founders, including Lincoln, that religion has to have some core, objective, or what we would call inherent values, not just instrumental values.
Gregg: Right, right. I mean, when I talk about something like religious liberty, religious liberty is not about tolerance in the first place. That’s something I think is very important to understand. Religious liberty is not about simply establishing a realm in which we’re not killing each other because of religious differences. That’s a type of subordinate thing. It’s not unimportant. It’s actually quite important. But the real point of religious liberty, the only reason it makes any sense, is because it’s about the search for ultimate truth. It’s about the search for transcendental truth about the universe and religious liberty is about giving everyone the freedom to search for those truths and then living their lives in accordance with the truth, with the conclusions that they reach about these very important questions that I say in the book. I use religious liberty as an example.
The first thing to say is that’s pretty much how Locke understood it. If you read Locke’s letter on toleration, it’s all about truth. He talks about truth over and over and over again. Locke is not indifferent about religion. He’s clearly a Christian. He gave a whole reasonable defense of Christianity. And he’s not a religious relativist. Toleration is all about establishing conditions whereby people can peacefully pursue knowledge of the truth. You find the same thing more or less articulated in things like the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae which makes it very clear that the reason you have tolerance is that people can then be free to search for the truth. So, the truth is the ultimate foundation of religious liberty. And that I think is something that… you don’t find this articulated in other cultures. You really don’t, you didn’t find this articulated in the cultures outside those that have been…outside the one that’s been formed by the two faiths of the West, which of course are Judaism and Christianity. You don’t find this sort of language and thought being employed, and I think it goes back to this understanding of the relationship between reason and faith that’s core to the Western tradition and which gives freedom the particular meaning that we’ve been talking about today.
Snedeker: You detail how modern liberalism has gutted reason and theological truth from many religions resulting in what you call these “religions of sentiment.” But it then leads to the natural follow-up: Are we better off holding onto these shells, though deeply flawed, for their secondhand benefit? Or do you think that these are just too flimsy to contain any real value?
Gregg: You know, you’re maybe the fifth person today to ask me that precise question. And I think it’s obviously on peoples’ minds, right? Because this is the argument about, “Well, maybe I don’t believe these things myself, but it’s nice to have religion around because it sort of softens mores. It makes people more respectful to each other. It makes life more pleasant if people go to church or synagogue on Sunday. It’s nice to have a day off” …all these sorts of things. And these things are not to be discounted. They’re not unimportant. But it does seem to me that if you empty out the shell, then, in the end, at some point, and I think we’re seeing this now, there are plenty of people who will say, “Well actually this is just meaningless. This is in the end a type of false life, false culture, false society that we’re living in. We should just dispense with this because we’re just way too rational for these sorts of things.” So, I think if our society goes down that path too far, you end up like a lot of western Europe where there’s a type of cultural Christianity in some parts of different countries but the number of people who actually really believe these things to be true is actually quite small.
Now, that said, you don’t have to be a religious believer to recognize, and I say this in the book very clearly, that in Orthodox Judaism and “small-o” orthodox Christianity, you find the most reliable, most persistent transmitters of the four theses, the four themes that I think lie at the heart of what it means to be the West. And the four things are: creation, the idea that there is a divine Creator, that we are co-creators, that this Creator is rational, he’s the Logos, he’s involved in the world. He, he’s not a sort of deistic clockmaker and he’s certainly not Fate. Secondly, it’s freedom, which we’ve already talked about. A third is justice, the particular understanding of justice that you find articulated in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. And then of course there’s the notion of faith itself. And Judaism and Christianity have a particular understanding of the nature of faith which takes reason very, very seriously.
You don’t need to be a believer to accept all those things as being true. So, one of the things I say is that even a nonbeliever can accept that the synthesis of reason and science that’s been worked out in the West over the centuries is central to its identity. What I think that does for the believer is puts the believer in the position whereby they have to be much more willing to say and affirm that “I’m a believer, I’m a Christian. I’m a Catholic. I’m an Eastern Orthodox. I’m a Jew, a practicing Jew…because I believe, not just because I’ve had some sort of religious experience (although I say, you know, that’s something a lot of people have), not simply because of what Christians call grace (although that’s obviously part of the deal), but also because I believe that the account of the world that is offered by the Jewish and Christian faiths is true. And it’s true because it’s reasonable.” And this I think is something that has been lost sight of by many people, including many very serious Jews and Christians who live good lives, believe in God and practice their religions very faithfully.
Too many of us have lost sight of the importance of reason in the accounts that they give of the world and the purpose and meaning of life. And that I think is the challenge for believers: If we’re going to get back to a synthesis of faith and reason, we need to be talking much more seriously about reason and affirming that we are in fact the people of reason. And those people who claim to be reasonable, even though they’re articulating scientism or liberal religion or Marxism or Nietzscheanism, and all the other pathologies that I identify, they in fact are not taking reason seriously at all.
Rinear: So when discussing freedom as one of the fourth theses that you just talked about, you offered this claim, and it is, “Without conscience, personal responsibility and man’s ability to choose between excellence and decadence, Western civilization would come to an end.” Would you follow a perfectionist liberal, like a Joseph Raz, in hailing autonomy as valuable in itself? Or do you view freedom only as an instrumental good, which can and should be suspended in the service of the cultivation of morals?
Gregg: Yeah, and that’s another question which I think is perennial for any discussion of the West. I guess I would say that a position that’s particularly consistent with the, let’s call it the “Anglo-American tradition” of ordered liberty, is there’s a type of instrumental good to liberty in the sense that it gives us the freedom to make the choices that we’ll need to make if we’re going to achieve a life of excellence. And it’s really in the choosing itself that we adopt these virtues and these goods and make them part of ourselves. So, it has an instrumental value. And then there’s the question of this sort of higher freedom that we talked about, this higher freedom of excellence.
Now, the political problem, of course, is that there’s disagreement, even among people who are fully convinced that there are these virtues, there are these goods that are worth pursuing. There’s disagreement about the role, for example, of the state, the role of law in shaping our society so more and more people have the freedom and the conditions in which it becomes more possible to make these types of choices. And I think there are some core conditions of that common good, let’s call it the political common good, that allows that to happen. Things like rule of law, things like constitutionalism, things like a certain set of rights that are grounded in a strong account of natural law, etc. But that’s going to change, for example, in conditions of war, in times of war. The nature of the common good is augmented or changed in different respects because the societal needs are different for the period of time in which that war is going on. So we’re willing to accept certain restrictions on our freedom at that particular time because the common good necessitates it.
I think the other thing, I think the other thing which is important in this discussion is that law and politics, and I make this very clear in the book, law and politics do have a role in shaping the moral culture. That would have been an argument that would have been completely uncontroversial to a Jew, a Greek, Roman, or a Christian up until relatively recently. There’d be very little disagreement about that. Now, there are some people who say, “No, no, it’s all just about autonomy. It’s about assuring autonomy and that’s the highest good.” Well, you know, that law and politics argument is going to be going on for a very long time.
What I don’t think it should distract us from, however, is that there is this thing called “culture” which is very important for setting the parameters and the understandings by which politics and law operate in the first place. When you live in a society in which the culture is such that people believe, “Okay, there is a rational Creator. Our freedom is made in a certain way. We have reasons, it’s directed to the good” – all those things are in place – you’re going to end up in a very different society than one that says, “No. freedom is the only thing that matters, and by freedom we just mean pure autonomy and choice for its own sake, and the only thing that matters is that we don’t kill each other.” They’re two very, very different societies. In the end, while law and politics do have a role in shaping and determining what type of society we end up as, in the end I think it comes down to the culture which is most prevalent. And, in the West, I think that the best way which that can be developed is by a reintegration of reason and faith in a way that replicates something of what it was like in the past. Now there’s no going back to a pre-Enlightenment world and we should be very careful and weary about romanticizing the past. Not everything about the past was great. Not everything about the medieval period was wonderful, particularly if you were a Jew or if you were a woman or any number of other social categories.
Snedeker: The movie Midnight in Paris is a wonderful dramatization of this.
Gregg: Yes, yes, exactly. I’m very familiar with that and that’s exactly the point. So the challenge, I think, for people committed to the idea that there is this thing called the West, and at the heart of it is this synthesis of reason and faith – and it’s not just a question of reintegrating in a way that rescues some of the truths of the past – we have to think about what that’s going to look like in the future. And one of the things I say is that I think this means that religious believers have to think about and address the whole Enlightenment phenomenon. Because what I think you find today is either –including among believing Jews and believing Christians — one of two things. One is complete rejection of anything to do with the Enlightenment or, on the other hand, a type of subservience that everything before the Enlightenment was darkness and blackness and it all sorts of bad things and then the Enlightenment comes along and makes us “more enlightened people.” And one of the things I try and do in the book is to show that the interaction of the world of the Enlightenment that emerged towards the end of the 17th century and continued all the way to the early 19th century, was much more complicated, much more complex, and in many respects doesn’t hit those stereotypes, the stereotypical reactions that we often see from believing Jews and Christians today.
Rinear: Yeah. And, you know, a lot of ink has been spilled in recent years about some of these topics. And one writer that’s taken them up is Patrick Deneen, who writes in his recently published Why Liberalism Failed that, from its inception, American liberalism as license contained the seeds of its own destruction, and in so doing he identifies what he sees as a flaw in the West and in particular the American political philosophy. So, could you respond to his argument and expand on the differences you see between the French and American revolutions and conception of rights, especially as they relate to natural law as placed within the American legal and political framework?
Gregg: Well, I’m glad you mentioned the natural law because that is one critique that I’ve had of Professor Deneen’s arguments. And I’ve written about this in different places and I don’t address it explicitly in this book, but anyone who reads the book will be pretty clear about where I come down on these sorts of issues. And my argument is that to talk about the Enlightenment as some sort of monolithic phenomenon is a mistake. There’s lots of different Enlightenments. There’s a German Enlightenment, a French enlightenment. There’s an Early French Enlightenment and a Late French Enlightenment. There’s an Italian Enlightenment. There’s an English Enlightenment. Then there’s, of course, the Scottish Enlightenment, which I think was the most important of all of them. There was even an Irish Enlightenment, so to talk about the Enlightenment as if it’s one monolithic phenomenon, I think is misleading.
The second thing is, within these different traditions of Enlightenment thought you find different mindsets about religion and, in fact, one of the things I argue is that most self-described Enlighteners – this is how they will see them as understood at the time – most of them were not anti-religious. Most of them, including plenty of people in, for example, something like the French Enlightenment, were committed Christians. These were not people who were looking to overthrow God. Now, there were some people like that. Hume, David Hume, is clearly an example of someone who self-identified as, to use a contemporary expression, an infidel. Clearly a nonbeliever, and clearly had reservations about religion. But people like him were quite marginal. And there are other figures, like Voltaire who is very skeptical about organized religion. There are many important 18th century figures such as Frederick the Great (who was clearly some sort of deist), who are very hostile towards religion.
But it’s actually not the case when you look at some of the other Enlightenments, especially, let’s call it the “Anglo-American Enlightenment” and the Scottish Enlightenment. Well I take quite a bit of time in the book talking about the Scottish Enlightenment. And one of the observations I make is that it’s not an anti-religious movement. It’s just not. It’s just not. Most of the people involved in this are ministers of the Church of Scotland. Someone like Thomas Reid, who is clearly a part of the Scottish Enlightenment and one of the most important philosophers, I think, of the 18th century, and a minister of the Church of Scotland whose religion is quite “small-o” orthodox in its nature. And you see their influences are the ones that tend to prevail throughout a great deal of the Anglo-American Enlightenment. Now there’s always outliers. There’s always those who are skeptics. There are always those who were skeptical about religion, about even notions of truth that can be found outside the natural sciences. But they were the exception rather than the rule. And I think that when it comes to thinking about some of these things, what we realize about the Anglo-American Enlightenment, the Anglo-American experiment in ordered liberty, there’s clearly a very strong commitment to natural law that pervades it. It’s indisputable.
I don’t understand… let’s call it… I mean the expression is “anti-liberal critique” — It’s not quite what it’s about, I think that’s not always an accurate description — but this notion that everything was bound to end up this way…well, for one thing, I think the real error in thinking and practice that people like Professor Deneen identify, these real things, precede the various Enlightenments. He talks about voluntarism, for example. Voluntarism emerged in the medieval period. Or nominalism. Nominalism is, again, another error that emerged in the medieval period.
These are not exclusively modern phenomena. Or if you think about the way that the language of rights is used — language of rights goes back a very, very long time and a lot depends upon the grounding in which these words are being used. And if you use rights in the context of a natural law argument, that’s very different from a concept of rights that’s bounded upon the notion that right are basically about what the majority of the powerful wants and they can change whenever the powerful or the majority want them to change. So, I guess part of my critique of Professor Deneen is that I think the cause and effect that he identifies is questionable. I think his genealogy of ideas is questionable. And I think that the Enlightenment is much more complicated than he is suggesting, and that there wasn’t, in fact, anything inevitable about some of the trends that we’ve seen happen in the United States.
I don’t think, for example, there’s a straight line between John Locke’s letter on toleration and, or his treatises on government…I don’t think there’s a straight line between that and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. There’s just a lot of other things that are at work which I don’t think are adequately accounted for.
Snedeker: No, I think that’s right. And, of course, we at the James Wilson Institute appreciate any reference of our namesake’s tutor, Thomas Reid. And the influence on Wilson from Reid was extraordinary in his memorable opinion in Chisholm v. Georgia, which is an exposition on Reid’s distillation of sovereignty residing within the individual and the individual having certain inalienable rights. But core among them is not only the right and the agency, but also the responsibility [of the individual], and that the state cannot be seen as anything but a collection of individuals, and those individuals inevitably have agency. And so, naturally, I think it flows. But just to come back to some of the items that you mentioned earlier on the different types of Enlightenments, there’s I think a modern tendency to look back on the Enlightenment period with a particularly keen eye towards the Scientific Revolution. And your book details how Isaac Newton considered himself a religiously obedient natural philosopher at the time, not an atheistic scientist as he’s often portrayed today.
Right. Absolutely. If you read, very carefully, some of his religious writings, he knew a lot about religion and he took religion very seriously. He was very hostile to atheism. He was hostile to deism. In fact, the supplement that he wrote to his famous Principia is really about refuting deistic accounts or materialist accounts of the operations of the planets and the workings of the natural world. And there’s no question that he considered himself a Christian. Now, he didn’t believe in the Trinity, so that clearly marks him out as heterodox, but he had very little patience — this comes out over and over again in his private writings, and from people who knew him, like John Locke. John Locke was struck by how vehemently opposed Newton was to atheism and materialist accounts of the universe. So, that’s a whole story about the Enlightenment that I think has been lost, not just to people who are self-styled promoters of the Enlightenment, but even among many believing Jews and Christians who don’t pick up on these very important nuances.
Snedeker: How might our understanding of Newton’s harmonizing of faith and reason aid the, I guess, practitioners of biology and chemistry and physics, how might it inform their work today?
Gregg: Well, I think one clear away is that Newton clearly believes that God is Logos, which is a concept I keep coming back to again and again in the book — that God is a divine reason. Logos is the Greek word for Word, “capital w” Word. But for Greeks, Logos also implied divine reason, divine reason that wasn’t just static, but divine reason that was operative in the world and in the lives of people and in the natural world. So, for a contemporary scientists who takes, say, Newton very seriously, he says, “Okay, Newton believes that God is the Logos and the Logos is not this sort of clockwork, clockmaker deist who sets the world in motion and just lets everything go along.
The Logos of Newton is an active, rational Creator. And what that tells us, should tell the scientist, is that there is not chaos to be found. There is order to be found. And, in fact, when you look at the scientific enterprise, it’s premise, the whole thing, the very language is premised on the idea that there is design, there is order, there are things to find, there’s truth to find, and that everything fits together. So, if you take Newton’s idea of Logos and directionality and purpose and design all very seriously, then that is bound to lead the natural scientists, first of all, to see that their very project is about exploring and knowing more about this design, but also that that project in the first place couldn’t get underway unless there was this confidence that there is some type of created order in the world that we can know through our reason.
So, the scientific enterprise in itself, when does it go off the rails? It goes off the rails when it loses sight of those truths. And I don’t mean just in terms of epistemology, of how we know what we know, but when science gets detached from this broader conception of reason, that reason can tell us not just how things work, but how we should act and how we should not act, then the natural sciences can go in some very dark directions. It can lead to things like, well, we know how to efficiently exterminate entire groups of people. We can engage in medical experiments upon human beings, etc. We can fall into the trap of thinking that we can change human nature itself. Because once science gets detached from that greater sense of reason that people like Newton and others clearly believed was there and was true and was noble, then you have things like scientism. And you have what I call Prometheanism, the notion that somehow we human beings can create a new man.
And if you look at some of the ideologies of the 19th and 20th century, like Marxism for example, it’s deeply scientistic. It’s deeply convinced that you can design a new human person by simply altering the conditions that surround human beings and the societies in which we live and that you should remove those human beings and those ideas that impede the type of improvement that you’re looking for, the type of change that you’re looking for in human nature. That’s how you end up with gulags, with concentration camps, and all sorts of very bad things all in the name of producing a new man.
Rinear: So you identify three manifestations of the divorce between faith and reason. There’s the external assault on the West by religiously inspired terrorists, the internal crumbling that manifests itself in reasons reduction to science, and faith’s collapse and descent into sentimentalism. You argued that all these diseases stem from the same general cause, but do they all share the same cure?
Gregg: The big picture cure, of course, is a reintegration of reason and faith. That has to occur on a wide cultural level. And I think particularly religious believers need to take that on as their particular project. But you’re right, I think it doesn’t always play out precisely the same way. So, in the case of scientism, the scientist who recognizes that the natural sciences can’t explain everything about the world, that there are things that are simply beyond the natural sciences can nonetheless appreciate that “Maybe I need to think about reason in a broader sense.” To flip that to, let’s say, the case of religious sentimentalism. In their case, it’s less a question about reason per se, although that’s part of it. It really comes down to a reconsideration of who God is.
Because if God is the god that religions of sentiment saying that he is, then we’re stuck with a big Teddy bear as the deity. So, in their case, I think the challenge is to re-conceptualize the place of reason in the nature of God himself. So, you see what I mean? There’s this broader picture of reintegrating faith and reason. But the way it plays out in these three main problem areas that I try and identify is going to be slightly different because the disintegration of reason and faith has taken different forms. It’s a disintegration, but the way it has manifested itself is slightly different.
Snedeker: Relatedly, one social pathology you do not mention in the book, but I think combines at least two of these aforementioned manifestations of a divorce of faith and reason is what has been called the New Gnosticism. A belief in the modern separation of the material world and man’s body, mind, and soul through technology. This has as its logical endpoint realized in the rise of the transgender ethic. Tell us if you agree with this assessment and how you might conceive of this New Gnosticism yourself.
Gregg: Well, I see the New Gnosticism as a type of manifestation of dualism, a type of dualistic conception of the human person, which is really starts in a modern sense (it’s not as if this is new idea), but it takes on modern form in the writings of Rene Descartes who talks about, he says things like, “I think therefore I am.” The point being that my identity, who I am, simply resides in thought, in thinking. My body is simply the vehicle in which I happen to exist.
So, I don’t talk about this in enormous detail, but it clearly has something to do with this disintegration of the ideas of faith and reason. Because one of the ways that Christians in particular worked out this relationship between mind and body was through the concept of soul. Soul is not your mind. The soul is this dynamic unity of who you are, body and spirit, spirit and body. The two things are intimately linked and inseparable from one another. When faith stops taking reason seriously, it stops asking those sorts of questions, it stops thinking about how to articulate and defend this realistic account of who human beings are to those people who are not believers. On the other hand, when you throw faith out the door, then I think you fall into the trap of doing what scientists and social scientists do, which is to make distinctions and to draw distinctions in such a way that you end up starting to separate things from each other that were never meant to be separated in the first place.
So, yes, I think that the problem that you’re identifying, which is really a mind-body problem, which is really a problem of dualism, has been contributed to by the separation of reason and faith. And it has meant that many people who consider themselves to be people of faith are not very good at explaining why things like gender ideology are simply scientifically untenable, but also people of science have lost the capacity because of the expulsion of faith, the expulsion of the idea of human beings as being integrated entities, mind and material, body and spirit, they’ve lost that sense, and then they fall into the trap of accentuating a distinction into two things that have nothing to do with one another. So, yes, I think the faith and reason question flows very naturally into that type of problem.
Snedeker: We thought we would change gears a little bit and move on to another intriguing section of your book on Islam. You quote the Jesuit theologian Samir Khalil Samir on Sunni Islam stressing the argument of authority (God established this) prevailing over that of rationality (reason allows man to meet knowledge of the moral law). And you go on to say “This is a relationship of strict subordination. Such a God is not bound by the qualities inherent in the Logos.” Does this mean that Islam contains the seeds of its own destruction or, at least, is Islam incoherent?
Gregg: Well, one of the things I tried to say in the book is that if you want to understand the contemporary crisis within, particularly, Sunni Islam, it does come back – and plenty of Muslim theologians and philosophers will tell you – it does come back to this voluntaristic conception of God that is very prevalent in Sunni Islam has been dominant, mean totally dominant, since about the 13th century. And if you have a voluntaristic conception of God, Divine Will, then that can order you to do all sorts of unreasonable things. Now, one of the things I try and say is that if you want to understand contemporary radical Islamism, you have to appreciate that this is really the core of the problem. Because the tendency we have in the West is to say, “Oh, well as long as we get them out of poverty, all of these problems will go away.” And I say, well, that’s actually not true because if affluence was the cure for terrorism, then why is it that most terrorists, as I point out in the book, from Muslim backgrounds, they almost all come from pretty affluent backgrounds themselves? They’re not poor people. There’s plenty of research that shows that poverty and terrorism actually have very, very little to do with each other. It’s really about ideas.
That’s what’s at the core of it. So, if you look at Islamic history, and I talk about this in the book, there was a time in which there were competing schools of thought and there was one school of thought that took reason much more seriously than the dominant school, which was called the Asharites. The Asharites were the ones who were very suspicious of any philosophy that wasn’t of any immediate practical import. And they basically won the argument. They won the argument that happened in Islam between about the 8th century and the 12th century. And they won it decisively.
So, at the moment, one would have to say that Islam as a religion has a major problem precisely because of its conception of God and what that means for its conception of reason and what that means for its conception of natural law. There are natural law scholars who come from Islamic backgrounds, but they have this problem, they have this big problem of the nature of God as that is understood in mainstream Islamic, Sunni Muslim theology. So, working that out is, as I say, not something that Westerners can do. We can’t fix this problem for them. That can only be done by believing Muslims who are willing to embark upon this project of rethinking the nature of God, which in turn will open up the possibility for rethinking the place of natural law and right reason in human beings when it comes to their conception of the world and how one ought to act politically, legally, economically, socially.
So, that’s an enormous challenge. Because those people, and I’m sure we all know some of these people, they are very much on the margins of the Islamic world. And they’re being kept on the margins. I have people like this who I’m actively trying to help in resolving some of these issues, but they themselves will tell you that this is not a simple question. And unless you take these deeper questions about faith and reason and human nature and God’s nature much more seriously than typically we find, say, “liberal” theologians in the West are willing to do, they’re going to be stuck in this trap and only they can get themselves out of it.
Snedeker: Well, it’s encouraging to know that there was a debate between the Mutalizites and the Asharites. I’m wondering if it was a matter of sheer political force or just simple strength in numbers that would have propelled the Asharites. I’m not an Islamic scholar, I’m not sure. Is there, in the text of the Koran, a greater coherence internally for the Asharite position, or does the Koran leave open just as reasonable an interpretation from the Mutalizites?
Gregg: Well, I think it’s fair to say that the voluntaristic interpretation of the nature of God is much more prevalent in the Koran and the whole idea of Sharia. This is why people like Remi Brague, who’s maybe the world’s leading comparative theorist on Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, he says things like the difference between Islam and Islamism is a matter of degree. It’s not a matter of kind.
And that voluntaristic interpretations of the nature of God do tend to fit much more with what the Koran says and what Sharia says, than, let’s call it, a more rationalistic position. The group that were more talking about reason in this particular period of time between the 8th and 15th century, if anything they tended more towards rationalism, the sort of the critique that was articulated to them by Asharites. They were accused of basically falling into the trap of being highly rationalistic, something that, of course, small-o orthodox Christianity is equally critical of. So, the Asharites were reacting against a type of thinking that, in some respects, marginalized God.
So, this is very interesting because what it tells us is that when this debate went on in the past, it was a type of rationalist versus voluntarist. And that’s not encouraging for the future. So, that means, I think, is the challenge for Islamic philosophers and theologians who are trying to deal with this problem is that it’s not simply a question of going back and trying to revive these more rationalistic schools of thought that once existed in Islam. I think it’s a question of building or trying to build a robust case for natural law from within Islamic tradition and practice and being fully aware that that is not as easy a task as it is to do in say, for example, Christianity.
Snedeker: The final chapter of your book is what I thought was a stirring call to revisit and appreciate the lessons of the American founders on balancing reason and faith within the polity. And, naturally, we at the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights and the American Founding are sympathetic with this argument. You’ve talked a little bit about it already, but can you delve a little more deeply into how you understand the gaps to be filled in the present? Are they moral, legal, cultural, or political primarily? And what are some ways you envision filling them?
Gregg: Well, one of the things I say is that the American founding does provide a good example of a world in which the faiths of the West interacted with Enlightenment thought and Enlightenment thinkers in a positive, constructive, and relatively harmonious way. So, the notion that faith and reason are just bound to be in some sort of eternal conflict, it’s just not true. There are good examples. Now that said, there are also bad examples. There are examples in which this whole thing has not worked out so well. To that extent, I would say that, the American founding provides us with a type of model. But there’s no going back, right? There’s no going back to the late 18th century. There’s no going back to that. But what it means for us today is that people of faith need to rehabilitate the case for the reasonability of God, the reasonability of the Jewish and Christian faiths, the reasonability of our positions. That we are not, in fact, fideists, we’re not fundamentalists. That our view of God is not that of a Divine Will that’s acting in a purely voluntaristic way. But it’s also not “God is a sentimental Teddy bear.”
It’s our job to rehabilitate the idea of God as Logos and what that means for human beings and to challenge those people who, let’s call them what Michael Novak used to call people like this: “smiling secularists.” They’re not hostile to people of religion. They just don’t get it. They see the social utility, etc., but they just don’t get it themselves. And I think for them the challenge is to appreciate that religion is not primarily a question of social utility, that it is ultimately about truth. It’s about metaphysical truth. It’s about those truths that are properly called religious. And to a certain extent it involves appreciation of philosophical truth. So, their challenge is to think about these things in terms of religion, particularly Orthodox Judaism and “small-o” orthodox Christianity, as taking reason very seriously. That’s the challenge.
And it seems to me that though that is what has to happen if we’re going to get anything near a type of reintegration of reason and faith that avoids the mistake of just trying to replicate everything as it was before. Because, as I said, there’s no going back. There’s no going back, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from the types of approaches that were adopted in the past.
But also I think we have the advantage today that even more and more scientists are coming to recognize that the notion that the world evolved out of chaos, that there was nothingness in the beginning, is looking more and more implausible. In fact, I quote the Nobel economist Vernon Smith, who is a Christian by the way, a very deeply believing Christian who points out that things like quantum physics, if anything, are showing us the irrationality of arguments that say that there’s nothing in the beginning and that atheism is the only reasonable position. So, that’s an example of scientists, men of the Enlightenment, or people who would describe themselves as working in the tradition of the Enlightenment, seeing how something like even the natural sciences are pointing in some way towards evidence of a rational Creator. What Paul talked about in his second letter to the Romans, when he talked about seeing secondary evidence for the existence of God.
So, I think there’s a lot of different resources that can be used, but I also think it’s worth reminding ourselves that when it comes to the American founding, that this is not an anti-religious movement. It’s just not. Even people like Franklin and Jefferson who were… I guess you’d call them Epicurean deists — I think that’s probably an accurate description that they would not resile from — even they saw that this question of the relationship between reason and faith was a deadly serious one. And while they might not be able to embrace particular beliefs of Christianity, they weren’t prepared to say that there’s nothing there. So, I think the American founding provides us with some guidelines, with some historical experience for our own challenge today in reconciling the faiths of the West with the various Enlightenments, which emerged towards the end of the 17th century.
So, that’s why I’m optimistic. I mean, most of the books you read about Western civilization today, they’re usually pretty depressing books, right? They’re always gloom and doom with “We’re finished, our civilization is caput. We’re neck deep in hedonism, etc.” You know, and there’s some truth to that. But I’m not wanting to give up because I think there’s plenty of evidence that you can stitch these things back together if there are enough people of good wisdom who are prepared to invest the time and intellectual resources and who have the patience to pursue this type of project.
Here’s a good example: Joseph Ratzinger, otherwise known as Benedict XVI. One of the things I find fascinating about his theological and sometimes his more philosophical writings is that his typical starting point for these discussions of complex questions facing the West is not the scriptures, it’s not medieval thinkers. He almost invariably starts with the Enlightenment and Enlightenment-influenced thinkers, and I think that’s a way to try and regenerate this integration of reason and faith. Start where they are. You want to talk about the Enlightenment? Let’s talk about the Enlightenment. Did you know that most Enlightenment thinkers were not anti-religious? Did you know that scientists have by-and-large, up until maybe relatively recently, been, for the most part, men of faith, who did affirm that there was a rational Creator, etc?
So, I think that’s the way that we approach and begin this project of civilizational renewal in a way that’s faithful to the tradition, but which also takes account of developments since then. Both good developments in terms of things like quantum physics, really pointing towards evidence of a rational creator at the beginning of all things, but also the experience of the 20th century, the terrible things that happen when reason and faith are separated and these pathologies of reason and pathologies of faith start to take root and start to spread throughout Western countries.
Rinear: Well, you’ve talked in the book about how when the second Great Awakening swept over the United States and effectively scrubbed this brief flash of secularism that arose out of Thomas Paine’s publication of The Age of Reason. And in part you argue that America’s religious heritage prevented Paine’s argument from really taking deep root. So, it sounds like you’re optimistic. Do you not fear that the rising percentage of nones, that’s n-o-n-e-s, people who don’t identify with a religion in the country, does that not scare you, that we’ve permanently abandoned faithful roots or do you think that there is a religious revival that could come up in the future?
Gregg: Well, America has gone through periods of time whereby it has seen that unbelief is on the rise and religious belief practice and belief is in decline. If you look, for example, at 18th century America… that was a pretty unchurched society. Lots of people who were never baptized, lots of people who never went to church or never went to synagogue. There were plenty of people who lived removed from religious life. So, it’s not as if we haven’t been in this position before. I think in the late 19th century, for example, was another instance of this when you see the rise of progressivism, when you see the rise of the social gospel, all of which represent certain secularizing tendencies of which we’re seeing some of the fruits, if that’s what you want to call them, today. So it’s not as if we haven’t been in some of these positions before.
The other thing which I gives me optimism is that when people say that they are “none,” that they are not religious, when you probe very carefully you discover that actually they are, they are religious in the sense that they have made some conclusions about the universe, or seem to have, and are living their lives in ways that they think comports with their conclusions about this particular subject. So that’s one thing. So, man is homo religiosis. We can’t help but be religious creatures, everyone at some point in their life asks religious-like questions about the ultimate meaning of the universe and what this means to me, my choices and how I live my life and what this means for my society. So, you can’t escape these questions. I also think it’s true to say that if you look again at historical examples, that periods of widespread disbelief are often succeeded by periods in which people rediscover the faiths of their ancestors.
What’s an example of this? An example of this is modern day Israel. Remember, modern day Israel was a society that was founded by the very secular, very socialist, in many cases outright atheists who tried to build a sort of society along those types of lines. And what you see in a society like Israel today, a very modern society and a society in which science is prized, which has an increasingly dynamic economy, which is seen as a type of beacon, all of hope for many people in the Middle East and elsewhere. It’s also a society that’s becoming more religious. It’s — I go to Israel every year, a couple of times a year, and every time I go I can’t help but see how more religious the society’s becoming, even among people who describe themselves as secular Jews. You see very clearly, you see they’re starting to re-embrace religious practices, they’re doing ceremonies that they don’t quite understand, but they want some sort of connection with who they are and where they’ve come from. You see more men wearing yamakas, you see more places shutting down for Shabbat.
And all of this is very consistent, is all held together with a society that is very, very modern in many respects. So, I think you can see that that’s just one example. I could probably quote others, but that’s an example of a society that was very secular, very socialistic, atheism was seen as the preferred position of the intellectual class. Well, that’s changing and it’s changing faster, I think, than most people realize. So, those are examples that give me hope that a type of reintegration of reason and faith is not beyond the West. It’s not beyond us. Decline is always a choice and we don’t opt for a decline by simply letting reason and faith wander further and further away from each other.
Rinear: Sure. So, your arguments meet sympathetic ears on this podcast, and it’s really a pleasure as you take the reader on a tour through centuries of Western literature. But the frank reality persists that a lot of people in the West, especially young people, just haven’t been exposed to the ideas that underlie the claims in your book. So, if you could assign a required reading list for every person in America, what three books would you include on the list? Not including, of course, Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization.
Gregg: There’s any number of books. Let me start. For those people who are interested in exploring and understanding the tradition of natural law and who are prepared to take that time to think through these questions and to ask questions about the nature of reason and how that relates to questions of human freedom, to justice, to the nature of society and community and even the nature of rights. It’s a tough read, but I’d recommend John Finnis’s book Natural Law and Natural Rights. Now, I’m slightly biased. He supervised my DPhil at Oxford. But that book I think is very profound in explaining reason’s potentialities and powers.
And the last chapter is about the case for God. And what’s interesting is that the book says, “Look, you don’t have to believe in God to accept all these claims about natural reason, natural rights and natural law. Aquinas, by the way, said the same thing. You don’t have to accept belief in God to adhere to claims of natural law. But natural law does tend to point you in that direction because it makes you ask questions about where this ultimate reason comes from. So that’s one text. I think that it deals with many of the modern objections that we’ve talked about today: to having a more than instrumental view of reason and having this richer conception of reason that points in the direction of truth, the good, and the beautiful. So that’s one thing.
A second book which I would suggest, and this is a very different book, and in some sense it’s also a very different book. I would really recommend reading Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Why would I say that? One reason is it’s a type of representation, it’s a type of the high point of the Scottish Enlightenment. And it’s important because it’s a work of social science. And it’s a work of social science that tries to understand reality through an empirical lens. And that’s very important because I think that we’ve lost sight, in many respects, of the nature of social science and the way in which that applying it can reveal many important things about the world that we had hitherto not paid attention to or had ignored. So, Smith’s Wealth of Nations does reveal many things about the workings of modern commercial societies that people had sensed before but had not really put their minds around and had not outlined in a systematic way. But it’s a very important work of social science that I think represents– it’s the culmination, if you’d like, of the best of the Scottish Enlightenment. But also, it represents one of the major achievements of the Enlightenment project. And this is something I think, frankly, a lot of religious believers should read and have an appreciation for to understand how these things work.
Last of all, and this is a much shorter text, I’d really suggest reading Benedict XVI Regensburg Address. It’s about 3,800 words long. It does not take very long to read and I would really recommend reading it. First of all, by itself, the way it takes us through the trajectory of Western history, how the West became the West, how the integration of faith and reason started to break down. But then I’d recommend — highly recommend — reading it in conjunction with the commentary that was written by the late and the very great Fr. James Schall, SJ, who wrote a whole analysis of the Regensburg Address. So read the Regensburg Address and then read Fr. Schall’s commentary on it. It’s extremely helpful for understanding what’s happened to us, where we’ve come from and how we can move back towards the type of integration of faith and reason that Benedict XVI talked about at Regensburg and which I say is central to understanding what’s happened to the West and how we can put things together.
I’m really happy to say, Fr. Schall, it may have been one of the last things he wrote, but he wrote an endorsement and it’s on the back cover as well as Vernon Smith, the 2002 Nobel laureate in economics. Very different men, both very devout Christian, one approaching things from the standpoint of a social scientist, the other from the standpoint of theology and philosophy and yet many of their conclusions about the world and the relationship between faith and reason ended up in the same place. So, Natural Law and Natural Rights is one book I would seriously suggest people read, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and the Regensburg Address accompanied by Father Schall’s commentary.
Snedeker: The book is Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization by Dr. Samuel Gregg. You can find it at fine booksellers nationwide and on Amazon. Thank you very much, Sam, for an enlightening conversation and we look forward to chatting with you again in the future sometime.
Gregg: Thanks for having me on. It’s been a pleasure to be with you and I greatly commend the work of the James Wilson Center to anyone who’s listening. You’re doing great, great work.
Snedeker: Thank you very much.
Rinear: Thank you.