"Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth," Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1998 encyclical Fides et Ratio.
Samuel Gregg wishes to see the human spirit soar, and his new book Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization offers a concise intellectual history of the West through the prism of the relationship between faith and reason.
In his analysis of this relationship, Gregg identifies several "pathologies" that emerged from the weakening of the bond of faith and reason in the 17th and 18th centuries. Gregg points to John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, which articulated the view that humans are born with no "innate ideas," but rather the mind is shaped by sensory experiences and "ideas are formed by reflecting on these experiences." This conclusion gave rise to two post-Enlightenment trends, which Gregg calls "pathologies of reason."
The first pathology was Prometheanism: If all knowledge comes from sensory experiences, "then society could be improved by changing man’s environment. Human beings, in other words, could be ‘remade.'"
The second pathology is "scientism," the notion that the scientific method is "the only way of knowing anything and everything." The effects of scientism are to reduce the idea of God to, at most, "knowledge of the mathematical structures that undergird nature" and to encourage "imperialist tendencies in the natural sciences."
Gregg observes that these pathologies are evident in Marxism.
Concluding that man draws all knowledge from the sensory experience, Marx and Engels argued the "empirical world" needed to be arranged so that "man experiences and gets used to what is really human." Claiming their arguments were scientific, the two men determined economic relations had to be transformed to change society and individuals. In brief, Marxism was a Promethean ideology that sought to remake man according to a supposedly scientific analysis of history and social relations.
Marxism can be understood as one possible outgrowth of the breakdown in the relationship between reason and faith. Marx embraced a scientistic understanding of reason to construct an ideology with quasi-religious ends: a world remade, a Communist "New Jerusalem," as Gregg writes.
Nietzsche went further, for rather than embracing reason at the expense of faith he rejected any confidence in reason and truth. Moral values, in his view, "derived not from faith or reason but from a will to power." Morality was the "self-created life, free from any constraints of truth."
Gregg draws a line from Nietzschean thought to the U.S. Supreme Court, citing a sentence from the Court's opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: "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 idea of freedom, Gregg argues, "fences off liberty from man’s capacity to know truth." By defining liberty as the "right to define one’s own concept," the Court suggested freedom is secure only when society "officially endorses relativism."
Relativism, however, has authoritarian potential. In a relativist society, anyone who holds to a truth-claim risks being seen as a threat to those who do not. Tolerance can be used to argue "no one may claim that his philosophical or theological positions are true," and questioning the correctness of others’ actions is also impermissible. Rather than being neutral, relativism is a commitment to oppose the notion of, and discussion about, truth.
Marxism and authoritarian relativism are just two of the possible consequences of the breakdown of the relationship between reason and faith highlighted by Gregg in his book. Both reject faith; one also rejects reason’s ability to grasp truth.
Without discounting the risks of the casual embrace of socialism in the United States in recent decades, authoritarian relativism seems to present particular challenges for a diverse, pluralistic political sphere. Whereas Marxism functions as an alternative, quasi-religious system of truth, relativism challenges truth itself.
What, then, is the point of a pluralistic society if relativism is ascendant? Is it to seek truth—and order society toward truth—through reasoned discourse and debate of competing truth claims? Or must all ideas and values be accepted as equally correct? If so, does that mean one must be content to hold to their views privately while publicly setting aside the notion of truth?
Denying fides and ratio would seem to force the public square into a nihilism in which the only value is the individual pursuit to "define one’s own concept of existence." Is this a recipe for civic virtue or fragmentation?
Gregg’s book raises more questions than it answers—and that’s a good thing. His history of the West offers a cautionary tale for what happens when the proper balance between reason and faith goes by the wayside.
Published under: Book reviews