Samuel Gregg, Research Director at the Acton Institute, is the author of numerous essays and 15 books. He has written works on political economy, economic history, the papacy, ethics in finance, and natural law theory; he is also a regular contributor to Catholic World Report. His most recent book, titled Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization (Regnery Gateway, 2019), has been praised by the late Fr. James Schall, Roger Kimball, Daniel J. Mahoney, and others.
Gregg recently corresponded with CWR about his new book.
CWR: Your book is bracketed by reflection on two major addresses by Benedict XVI. Why is his thought so important to the book? Specifically, how does his Regensburg Address set the tone and context for some of your essential points?
Dr. Samuel Gregg: The Regensburg Address’ significance goes far beyond the question of the cause of jihadist violence. It’s really an extended reflection on how the West’s particular integration of reason and faith gradually developed before eventually becoming undone. That wasn’t so well understood at the time, but careful reading of Benedict’s text makes this crystal clear. When you examine the history of Western culture, you quickly see that the expression and makeover of different ideas about reason and faith by figures like the Hebrew Prophets, Socrates, Paul, and Aquinas, but also Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, and Friedrich Nietzsche have contributed to civilizational growth as well as regression in the West.
Many of our present problems reflect what I call pathologies of reason and faith. The expression isn’t mine. It’s Joseph Ratzinger’s. A pathology is a sickness, and the West is awash with sicknesses of faith and reason: the sentimental humanitarianism that’s corrupted large segments of Jewish and Christian opinion, the scientism that infects so many of our universities, the mixtures of Marxism and Nietzscheanism that permeate considerable portions of our public discourse, and the authoritarian relativism that’s used to shut down any contribution to public life which affirms that there is more-than empirical truth. Each of these phenomena are marked by distorted conceptions of reason, or faith, or both. Taken together, they are crumbling the West from within and weakening its ability to defend itself from those who would like nothing better than to see the West disappear.
CWR: Speaking of “the West,” the phrase is often mentioned in scholarly and public conversations, but it is also often left undefined and is rarely brought into focus. You, however, do so in your first and second chapters. What is so unique about the West?
Gregg: Many people think of the West in geographical terms, as North America, Western Europe, etc. But that’s obviously misleading. Australia and Israel are unquestionably Western nations, but they are in neither of these parts of the world. We get closer to the meaning of the West when we look at certain conceptions of liberty and justice and the particular ways they assumed institutional forms in the West. Rule of law is a good example. Yet non-Western countries that arise out of very different traditions, such as India and Japan, have adopted similar political and legal arrangements.
In some respects, we can identify the West through certain representative figures and even works of art. Michelangelo’s “David” isn’t Arabic or Hindi. No one would call it anything else but a product of the West. Likewise, Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral is plainly Western rather than Central Asian in design. Winston Churchill was a man of the West rather than a man of Chinese culture.
But if you want a more specific definition, I think that the West is ultimately about reasoned inquiry in search of truth, and its way of searching for truth has been profoundly shaped by the manner in which Judaism and then Christianity affirmed the idea that God of the Bible is a rational being—the Logos. That understanding of God made all the difference, not least because it rescued the Greek and Roman world from the nonsense of pagan religion and fit well with emerging Hellenic insights into disciplines like mathematics and the natural sciences.
CWR: You just mentioned reasoned inquiry. Plenty of people today associate the flowering of reason with the Enlightenment. That itself is a large topic and a complex era, much of which is explored in your book. Is it accurate to say that you neither embrace nor damn the Enlightenment, but rather see it as possessing positive and negative qualities?
Gregg: Yes, that’s an accurate assessment. It is partially thanks, for example, to the Enlightenment’s focus on specialized inquiry and insistence on submitting everything to critical analysis that we have developed greater comprehension of the natural world as well as fields of human endeavor like the economy. Nor am I sure that we would have developed rich concepts of religious liberty or economic freedom without the forays of Enlightenment minds into these areas.
We should also recognize that, contrary to what we’re often told, most Enlightenment thinkers weren’t hostile in principle to orthodox religion. Plenty of them were believing Jews and Christians. On the religious side of the equation, many religious believers were interested in and impressed by Enlightenment accomplishments, and had no difficulty reconciling these discoveries with their religious beliefs. That includes, by the way, many 18th-century Catholics who were perfectly orthodox in their faith.
On the other hand, I have no doubt that certain Enlightenment thinkers set in motion some dangerous trends. One was the notion that, just as the natural sciences had helped us attain enhanced mastery over the natural world, you could likewise reshape human nature through the same methods. Another Enlightenment-inspired idea with long-term negative consequences was the belief that human beings are essentially blank states. That clashed with the Jewish, Christian, and natural law conviction that knowledge of the truth about good and evil was imprinted into human reason itself.
The point is that engaging in blanket condemnations of everything to do with the various Enlightenments is as ahistorical and frankly ideological as those who think that everything in the medieval period was wonderful. Any serious discussion of the relationship between reason and faith has to avoid such stereotypes if these conversations are to bear fruit.
CWR: You draw particular attention to two pathologies that do seem to have come out of the Enlightenment. One of these is scientism, which asserts that the natural sciences and empirical method of verification are the final (or even sole) authorities on what is good and true. The other is a Prometheanism which effectively deifies man into a being able to alter everything and anything that he chooses to change. How do these manifest themselves in our post-Enlightenment world?
Gregg: We know we’re confronting scientism whenever we hear someone in a debate say, “The science says…”—as if only the natural and social sciences can provide us with information that is decisive for moral and political decision-making. Our societies are neck-deep in such claims. Obviously the information yielded by these disciplines can help us make wise decisions. It’s good to know, for instance, that incentives matter and shape behavior in the realm of the economy, or that certain drugs have specific effects upon people. But such information can’t tell us by itself that it is morally good or politically wise to choose X rather than Y.
As for Prometheanism, this is especially widespread among intellectuals. The very idea of the intellectual emerged during the Enlightenment to describe those who not only thought about the world but who wanted to use ideas to change society. That turned out to be a double-edged sword. It allowed 18th-century Westerners to start grasping the inefficiency and injustice of the mercantile economic system and begin dismantling it. But intellectuals also drove some of the very worst political experiments of the 20th century.
CWR: I suspect that you especially have Marxism in mind here. In your book, you argue that Marxism amounts to a type of religion. Can you expand on this argument, especially how it might help explain the current revival of interest in socialism and communism?
Gregg: It was the Jesuit historian of philosophy Frederick Copleston who maintained that Marxism outlasted so many other 19th-century philosophies partly because it was a kind of faith. After all, Marxism has dogmas, sacred texts, prophetic figures, theorists, an entire eschatology of history, and even its own “saints” like Che Guevara. Marxism also commanded a type of religious-obedience that led many Communists to kill millions of people or even meekly accept their own destruction at the hands of other party members. Above all, Marxism offered an all-encompassing ultimate explanation of everything that aped the claims and forms of the Jewish and Christian religions.
Is this driving the renewed interest in socialism and communism today? Yes and no. Plainly the renewed interest has some contingent causes. I’m very much an advocate of free markets. The case for the market economy was, however, especially damaged by the 2008 financial crisis. This contributed to some people, especially those with little memory of communism, asking whether some form of economic collectivism might be a way forward. At the same time, man is homo religiosus. We can’t help but ask religious questions. Who am I? Where do I come from? Is there a God? If there is, who is he and how do I know him? Marxism provides quasi-religious, albeit false, answers to such queries.
CWR: We’ve seen many times over in recent decades that democracy and constitutionalism have achieved limited to no-success in Islamic countries. What are the theological reasons for this? Why do so many Western intellectuals and politicians refuse to see the theological underpinnings involved?
Gregg: Many Western political and religious thinkers and leaders—including some prominent Catholics—have bought into the proposition that the problems facing Islamic nations are essentially material in nature. That in turn reflects a rather materialist conception of what matters in life. Such people consequently conclude that if poverty goes away, majority-Islamic nations will become just like us.
This view of the world, however, runs into some significant problems concerning facts. If poverty was the primary cause of terrorism, then India and Africa would be overrun by terrorists. But they aren’t. Nor does the materialist explanation account for the fact that most jihadists terrorists come from affluent and educated backgrounds.
In my book I maintain that the workability and sustainability of political frameworks like constitutionalism depends a great deal on the type of understanding of the nature of human beings—and therefore the nature of reason, and thus the nature of God—which exists in a given society. In the long-run, constitutionalism collapses into mere proceduralism in the absence of a strong commitment to natural law. But natural law is premised on a certain understanding of reason, one which isn’t presently widespread, as plenty of serious Muslim believers will tell you, in the Islamic world.
Let me state it this way: if you have a voluntarist view of God and the world—that God’s essence is pure Will (voluntas)—then a concern for the reasonability of God, and therefore for human rationality, becomes unimportant if not irrelevant. And that has consequences for political order.
CWR: In a chapter entitled “A Way Back,” you reflect on the need for a return to Logos and natural law in order for the West to not only survive, but thrive. How realistic is such a return? What are some practical ways that it can be accomplished?
Gregg: One reason for optimism is the sheer implausibility of the alternatives. If there is no Logos, then it is very hard to sustain, for instance, the coherence of the scientific enterprise. The natural sciences assume many things which suggest that there is a Rational Creator: that, for example, there is order in the world that has to come from somewhere and which is knowable to reason. Absent that presumption—which is a far more reasonable claim than the position that the belief that everything begins in a void—the foundations of the natural sciences start to look very shaky indeed.
In terms of practical steps, I suggest that Jews and Christians need to purge their minds and institutions of all the emotivism and sentimental humanitarianism that has turned many of them into mere political activists, and reduced many religious organizations to mildly-spiritual versions of otherwise completely secular NGOs. Christians and Jews need to insist that they take reason very seriously—far more seriously than those secular-minded people who have assumed that they have a monopoly on rationality.
This implies taking natural law seriously—as seriously as Saint Paul did, as seriously as Maimonides did, and as seriously as Augustine and the entire classical tradition of Western thought did. If you take natural law seriously, it’s hard to avoid concluding that the God of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures is indeed the Logos: a God of Love who is also Divine Reason itself. On that foundation and potentiality lies the key to the West recovering the truth about itself.
CWR: Switching gears, let me ask a question about a different subject. As you know, there has been much debate recently over the relationship between Catholicism and liberalism. Acknowledging how difficult it can be to define “liberalism”—a word with many different shades and meanings—what do you make of that debate? How can your book help in understanding the context and stakes?
Gregg: I’ve been involved in that discussion for about two years. Most of my focus has been on those dimensions which touch on matters of political economy as well as the American Founding.
Broadly-speaking, I’ve offered a qualified defense of Catholicism’s ability to engage constructively with what’s often called “liberal order.” I also think that the American Founding is worthy of support and even advocacy by Catholics. It’s not that present-day Catholic critiques of contemporary Western liberalism are without merit. But I also think that some of that critique involves endless attacks on strawmen and ignoring some important economic and historical facts. In some instances, it’s an argument which has collapsed into ideology.
Putting all that aside, my book suggests that the core ideas associated with the Anglo-American Enlightenment are essentially friendly to the claims of natural law and the careful integration of reason and faith forged by Judaism and Christianity. That’s one reason why I think that the dismissal of the American Founders as “Enlightenment rationalists” is simply polemics.
Leaving aside the fact that few of America’s Founders actually meet that description, there are enormous differences between, for example, the Anglo-American Enlightenment and various strands of Continental Enlightenment thought. It’s not a coincidence that the American Revolution never took on an anti-Christian dimension—unlike the French Revolution from 1790 onwards. No less than Joseph Ratzinger has highlighted this precise contrast on numerous occasions, a fact that those Catholics hostile to the American Founding studiously ignore.
In the end, I hold that many of the beliefs and institutions associated with “liberalism” today would function in a very different way if the view of God and humanity underpinning them was rooted in the idea of Logos, as described by both the first century Jewish thinker Philo of Alexandria as well as the Apostle who authored the Gospel of John, and a robust conception of natural law which goes along with that. It’s our view of God’s nature which makes all the difference, including to the Catholicism-liberalism discussion.
Without Logos, the West is over. But I don’t think that decline is inescapable. A free choice for Logos, and thus for reason and faith, is never beyond us. The inner yearning for justice, truth, and freedom really is part of who we are. To give rational form to these human desires is consequently to make choices which are truly enlightening and fully consonant with the two faiths of the West. That’s what enables the West to envisage a possible future firmly rooted in the certain knowledge that it’s the truth which sets us free.
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