The heart of our cultural confusion beats in the typical undergraduate survey class. In this telling, faith – which is contrasted with reason – ruled during the “Dark Ages,” when regal churchmen persecuted the development of science and free inquiry. The Reformation legitimized theological speculation, while the Enlightenment gradually removed the blinders of faith altogether, allowing Westerners to think rationally and empirically. This history – which conflates all of Christendom with the condemnation of Galileo and all of the Enlightenment with the skepticism of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Hume – has become the modern secularists’ founding mythos.
The book proceeds to prove its thesis about the proper alignment of faith and reason, as Gregg demonstrates the philosophical trends that created what he calls “faiths of destruction.” He is at his most provocative, and relevant, when discussing “authoritarian relativism.” Appropriate tolerance, which is rooted in the Judeo-Christian respect for humanity’s freedom to search for truth, devolves into tyranny by first leveling, then proscribing, all truth claims. This “dictatorship of relativism” as Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI called it, promotes polylogism every time its foot soldiers beg people to speak “my truth,” especially if their “lived experience” never intersects with ontological reality. It is this milieu which must be redeemed.
In this volume, Gregg accomplishes two breakthroughs. The first is that he covers the birth of Western order until the twenty-first century, and takes the reader from despair to hope, in the space of 166 pages (and 15 pages of footnotes). The second is that he leaves the reader hoping for more. One would have been fascinated to read his thoughts on transhumanism, the logical marriage of Prometheanism and scientism, for example. However, delving into contemporary issues may have unnecessarily dated this volume. Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization is a compact and accessible introduction to the history of Western thought that any undergraduate could digest in an afternoon – and profit from for a lifetime.
People of faith may be challenged by a book that calls on them to broaden their mind, no less than to deepen their faith. Yet repairing this breach in popular imagination is the point of Gregg’s book. It would be incorrect “to say that devout Christians were universally opposed” even “to various Enlightenments,” Gregg notes. He shows how Catholics and Protestants, whether Scottish Presbyterians or French Jesuits, cultivated critical engagement with Enlightenment thought.
Just as materialists cannot experience life to its fullest by reducing all human thought to flashing neurological impulses, neither can Christians reach their potential apart from the renewal of their minds. This Pauline phrase implies that, for God fully put their talents to use, their sanctification demands that they develop their mind to its fullest extent. In so doing, they will follow the footsteps of the greatest thinkers, writers, and saints of their tradition.
St. Clement of Alexandria – in ways, an intellectual heir to Philo Judaeus – wrote in his Stromata that he would “not shrink from making use of what is best in philosophy” in service of the faith once delivered unto the saints. He ascribed to philosophy among the Greeks an analogous role to that which he assigned to the Hebrew Bible among the Israelites: to prepare them to accept the Gospel. He suggested philosophy had been revealed directly by God to the Greeks. (He also believed, erroneously, that Plato had read the Septuagint.)
This late-second/early-third-century authority shows that the tension between faith and reason within faith communities is hardly new. He rebuffed those who said Christians should have no recourse to philosophical concepts and categories. “I am not oblivious of what is babbled by some, who in their ignorance are frightened at every noise, and say that we ought to occupy ourselves with what is most necessary, and which contains the faith,” he wrote. “Others think that philosophy was introduced into life by an evil influence.” Instead, he held that, by facilitating contemplation and self-control, “philosophy is in a sense a work of Divine Providence” and “conducive to piety.” Conversely, it was Tertullian – who asked rhetorically, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” – who ended his life in heresy, a critic of the civilization constructed by the fruitful dialogue between those two citadels.
People of faith recognize that the West is crying for rejuvenation. Thankfully, those who follow this program of reintegrating piety and reason will find that the Western mind has within itself the seeds of its own renewal.