Of all the crises facing the West today, one of the most pernicious has to be the rise of a cultural and moral relativism which maintains things are neither inherently good nor bad, but rather a product of culture and perspective. This threatens to white-ant our entire civilisation by eating away at our institutions and, more importantly, our fundamental values.
So grave is this threat that some hardline conservatives have started to question the value of the Enlightenment, with the initial progress of the West seen as leading inevitably to secularism and postmodernism. Such a response seems to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so it is timely that Dr Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute has brought his insights to the debate in his book Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization.
Gregg’s thesis is that the great genius of the West has been the way it has balanced reason and faith, which he writes “correct each other’s successes” and “enhance each other’s comprehension of truth”. Great enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke and Isaac Newton used rational inquiry to extend our knowledge and improve our world, but their quest was anchored in some fundamental Christian truths about the value of the individual and humanity’s capacity to exercise free will. This same moral anchor proved the difference between the positive change of the American Revolution and the unhinged despotism of the French Revolution.
Gregg argues the real problem facing the West is not predicated on our free institutions or an excess of progress, but the fact that faith has been decoupled from reason to the point where many believe faith is the antithesis of reason. This is largely a product of the 19th century. Nietzsche is obviously singled out for condemnation, though he is not the only culprit identified. Gregg is keen to point out the German philosopher did not end with his famous dismissal of God, but went on to dismiss rational inquiry as a whole. He ended up at a theory of power now seen as a precursor to fascism. The book’s message is clear: the path from dismissing long-held moral truths to despotism is less of a slippery slope than it is a sheer cliff.
The book identifies two main problems associated with this growing disconnect between faith and reason. The first is ‘Prometheanism’, the idea that man has no intrinsic morals but instead is entirely a product of their cultural surroundings. This threatens to undermine the concept of free will, denying that people are ultimately responsible for their actions, and thus destroying both the concept of the individual and of justice as the West has long understood them. It also opens the door to sinister dreams of man being ‘remade’ through social conditioning.
With the death of religion, a heavenly afterlife based on good works has been replaced with schemes to create earthly utopias; be they socialist paradises or more recently efforts to establish a world without gender. As Jewish theologian Will Herberg first argued, man is innately religious, and as such these dreams can take the place of faith psychologically. Nazism and Communism were and are godless faiths, in a perverse way fulfilling man’s search for purpose.
The other threat Gregg identifies is ‘scientism’: believing only that which can be objectively proven. The problem is that a whole host of core questions concerning man’s existence cannot be proven scientifically. Morality is an abstract concept which has led to the postmodernist position that it is a social construct. This goes against everything the Western tradition once stood for, with morality being innate and the whole concept of inalienable rights being based on their universality.
This ultimately comes back to a shared Judeo-Christian heritage, which sees man as made in the image of God with the ability to reason and choose between right and wrong. That is not to say people have to be Christian to have morals. Thomas Aquinas looked back to the Ancient Greeks and saw that even without divine revelation they believed an awful lot of the things Christians believe. In response he looked to the theory of natural law: the idea that a large part of how God intended us to act is accessible through reason alone. Gregg emphasises the concept of ‘logos’ from the Gospel of John and the parallel concept of ‘dabhar’ in Judaism. In essence this is the idea that God is order and reason, so the universe is comprehensible. He argues this has always been a spur to rational inquiry and is central to the very nature of the West.
The book completely rejects the stereotype that Christianity has been historically hostile to reason. Gregg argues monotheism was a rational choice to believe in an ordered universe—which scientific discoveries have only reinforced—compared to the chaos and superstition of polytheism. This logic is demonstrated by Aristotle, who reasoned the necessity of an intelligent creator from first principles. Beyond this point, Catholic theologians have a long tradition of combining as it were the intellectual traditions of ‘Athens’ and ‘Jerusalem’. The IPA Review of April 2019 showed how John of Salisbury created what might be dubbed an early classical liberal treatise by doing just that. As a Catholic, Gregg does not resist the opportunity to point out that Luther openly complained about papal scholars being too engaged with the Ancient Greeks.
While Gregg attacks the ‘pathology’ of reason divorced from faith, he believes the opposite is also true. Christians can fall into the trap of blind faith, though this is an aberration rather than sound theology. Perhaps the most controversial part of the book is that it maintains Islam is characterised by ‘fideism’, the idea that Allah cannot be understood by human beings and must be unthinkingly obeyed. He acknowledges there was a time when the Islamic East was more open to the ideas of the Ancient Greeks than Western Christendom, but maintains subsequent culture wars saw the Muslim world recede from this point. Crucially, Muslims do not interpret the biblical line about man being made in the image of God in the same way, and are therefore less open to humanism. Gregg is very careful to cite his sources clearly on this.
The current state of the West is epitomised by this quote from Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”. This was stated in a ruling on the issue of abortion, but the idea there can be no truth and the individual defines their own morality is a liberty the book suggests threatens to undermine all others. We have to agree on fundamental truths in order to have a functioning political society, even if that list should be kept as short as possible. Rights to life, liberty, and property will only be maintained if people buy into the fact they are good and necessary, and that it is morally wrong to deprive people of them.
Borrowing from Pope Benedict XVI, who is featured heavily throughout, Gregg describes the ‘dictatorship of relativism’, a society which is intolerant of those claiming to hold any sort of truth. Free speech is dying because having an open debate to establish what is true is no longer seen as relevant. As Gregg puts it, “having developed and secularised a range of freedoms that originated in its preEnlightenment heritage, the West has found it difficult to maintain the moral ballast needed to sustain such liberties”. In the Christian ideals of free will and divine judgement there was a justification for freedom that went beyond the libertine ideal of being able to do as one pleases. If freedom is based only on the latter, it is essentially utilitarian and can thus be discarded when it upsets or offends more than it pleases. The book concludes with a call to re-establish faith, or at the very least a truth that goes beyond the limitations of scientism.
Even quietly religious readers may be uncomfortable to hear this call to proselytise. The nature of classical liberals is to leave others alone. This is, after all, what we want for ourselves—freedom is our driving desire. Nevertheless, Gregg’s warning is prescient and should be heeded in some fashion. There is a need to re-establish the moral ballast required to keep the ship of Western Civilisation from capsizing. No other ship has ever offered the same degree of liberty.