Book Excerpt: Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization

I am not a fan of the French Revolution nor the Gallic flavor of the Enlightenment. Paint me red, white, and blue for the American Revolution’s tasty version of the Enlightenment, which drew from England and Scotland.

Eager as I always am to counter the modern “enlightened” (French) view that decouples faith from reason, leaving it to float away like a hot-air balloon; and that unyokes reason from faith, leaving it to leap freely and with gusto into gulags and killing fields, I thoroughly enjoyed Regnery Gateway’s recent release of a new book by Samuel Gregg, Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization.

The book uses Pope Benedict XVI’s address at Regensburg as a springboard back in history to consider the roots of philosophical reasoning and the development of theology with special attention to St. Thomas Aquinas, and shows how Western Civilization, now so badly wounded by neglect and attack, depends for its vitality on both faith and reason to thrive.

Here is an excerpt:

Benedict XVI affirmed a crucial distinction between the two great revolutions of the Enlightenment, the French and the American, and before becoming pope he had argued that the latter proved more open to Christianity’s integration of reason and faith. He described the “Anglo-Saxon trend, which is more inclined to natural law and tends towards constitutional democracy,” as superior to the project associated with Rousseau, which “ultimately aims at complete freedom from any rule.” [Joseph Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance]

Recent studies of the political theory underlying the American Founding support Benedict’s thesis about the American Revolution. Thomas G. West, for instance, has shown that an emphasis on natural rights was the most consistent link between the politial writing of the Founding Fathers, key documents like the Declaration of Independence, and numerous state constitutions and legislation of the time. But West has also shown that these rights were seen as derived from and limited by the natural law. [Thomas G. West, The Political Theory of the American Founding: Natural Rights, Public Policy, and the Moral Conditions of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017).]

Others have demonstrated that virtually every American college of the Founding period instructed its students in natural law, emphasizing the connection between natural reason and biblical revelation and how this connection should inform private and public conduct. [For example: Anna Haddow, Political Science in American Colleges and Universities, 1636-1900, New York: Octagon Books, 1969.] Against such a background, it is no surprise that the clergyman Moses Hemmenway, a Harvard graduate and a regular correspondent with John Adams, should remind Governor John Hancock and the legislators of Massachusetts in a 1784 sermon that “Natural Liberty does not consist in an exempting from the obligations of morality and the duties of truth, righteousness and kindess to our fellow men. … Our natural rights are bounded and determined by the law of nature.”

One of the sections of the book compares and contrasts Christianity’s conception of God as Logos (the Word of God, or principle of divine reason and creative order, identified in the Gospel of John with the second person of the Trinity incarnate in Jesus Christ) with that of Islam’s conception of God as pure will. This is well worth chewing over alongside pondering the antics of Ihlan Omar (D-MN5) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MN15).