Ongoing conflict with and within the Middle East has spawned a significant literature
regarding the clash of civilizations between Western liberal democracies and Islamic
nations in particular (see Samuel P.Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking
of World Order [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996]). The war on terror, combined with
mass emigration from theMiddle East to Europe, has added urgency to this concern. Does
ordered liberty require a deep, cultural adherence to institutions and practices with historical
roots not to be found in Islamic countries? Or is ordered liberty the product of a specific setof
beliefs to which any rational person can and, given the chance, would subscribe?
Samuel Gregg sides with those who see ordered liberty as fundamentally a matter
of right thinking. But right thinking, in his view, is encouraged or discouraged
depending on the nature of ones intellectual tradition. Reason, Faith, and the Struggle
for Western Civilization is an attempt to lay out for a popular audience the reasons why
Western civilization has been uniquely favorable to human dignity and freedom.
Unfortunately, according to Gregg, peoples in the West have forgotten or even come to
despise the tradition of rational thought on which ordered liberty relies, thus leaving it
and our civilization as a whole vulnerable to decline and even conquest at the hands of
those who reject the reasonableness of human dignity and ordered liberty. For Gregg,
our misunderstanding of the relationship between reason and faith stands in the way of
right thinking as that misunderstanding spawns hostility toward rational faith, adherence
to false faiths, and a failure to confront religious irrationality.
According to Gregg, Western civilization is fundamentally ordered by rational
inquiry into the good. The reason for this? Western religions within the Judeo-Christian
tradition view God as logos, which is to say divine reason. And this vision has shaped
Western culture, defined as that which is adorned, cultivated, protected, and worshiped
(p. 8). Thus, if we want to understand what is central to a civilizations culture,
we must ask what it seeks to uphold. What does it revere? What cult is at its heart? (p.
8). In the West, the answer is reasoned inquiry in search of truth (p. 9).
All belief systems make truth claims. Jewish and Christian truth claims emphasize
each persons capacity to use practical reason to discern right and wrong, good and evil.
From this capacity, Western civilization has developed limited government respectful of
the rational persons it governs. The problem, for Gregg, is that todays dominant belief
systemsincluding those in the Westlack rational bases; they do not encourage their
adherents to reason through to what is true and right.
According to Gregg, there are three types of contemporary alternatives to Western
civilization. The first two are internal (and damaging) to the West: scientism and the
sentimentalized religion of humanity. The third and most well-known alternative,
which is foreign to and openly hostile to the West, is Islam. Each of these competitors
against the historical mainstream of Western civilization undermines liberty. The
common element among them, somewhat ironically, is faith.
By scientism, Gregg means the various forms of socialist ideology deriving from
Marxism that seek to apply the scientific method to social issues. In all its forms,
scientism is rooted in an excessive faith in what is essentially a methodology of trial and
error. Taking a mode of investigation for the whole of mans reason, scientism brings
with it a determinism that denies human dignity and free will. It also fosters a Promethean
delusion that those with the right knowledge may change the world and, most
important, human nature. Misplaced scientism produces totalitarianism as its adherents
seek to make the person fit into irrational and essentially religious dreams of a utopian
Although the religion of humanity may be traced to the overtly religious sentimentalism
of Auguste Comte, Gregg emphasizes its importance in shaping the thought
and work of seemingly more secular figures such as John Stuart Mill. Here, too, dignity
and free will are denied in favor of mechanisms employed by the state. The difference
between the religion of humanity and scientism comes down to the formers irrational
insistence that love for ones fellow man requires state control over his life. Such control
actually undermines mens capacity to lead good lives because it denies the existence of
objective truths about human nature. The result is an insistence on massive government
programs aimed at helping individual persons by taking away their autonomy in the
name of a kinder, gentler society and personal character. Underlying this argument is
Greggs classical liberalism, according to which rational engagement with markets
provides the discipline necessary for proper character development.
Finally, Gregg criticizes Islam on two counts. First, he notes the extent to which
revelation takes precedence over reason within Islamic theology. Second, he emphasizes the extent to which Islam demands that its revelatory injunctions be transformed
specifically and directly into law rather than merely into social practice, which may or
may not influence law and politics. Combined, he argues, these elements make Islam
particularly hostile to Western civilization and to the kind of public reason he deems
essential to the maintenance of ordered liberty. Those who value Western civilization
must put their house and mind in order, or it will fall before Islams irrational but
powerful claim to the divine right of conquest.
Overall, Greggs critique is pointed and powerful. His positive argument is less
successful. It is understandable that in his brief defense of Western civilization he should
treat Judaism and Christianity in somewhat utilitarian termsas valuable for what they
produce for society rather than in terms of any transcendent or other-worldly value. But
a book about the connections among limited government, natural rights, and the
particular institutions, beliefs, and practices developed within and from Judaism and
Christianity should take those religions seriously on their own terms. Gregg does not.
He goes beyond rejection of sentimentality to strip Christianity in particular down to its
most rationalistic elements, making one wonder what is so dignified about rational
calculators of the goodor why God would have bothered to create such beings in the
first place. In brief, a straightforward Deist or Stoic account of the rational bases of
liberty would be more consistent and convincing than this attempt to rationalize the
Jewish and Christian religions.
Greggs decision to place reason before faith in his title is important here. In
contrast with the Catholic tradition to which Gregg in many ways adheres, he subsumes
faith within reason. This approach is somewhat ironic given the attention he gives to
Pope Benedict XVIs Regensberg Address (September 12, 2006), aimed at showing
that contemporaries are wrong to define reason to include only that which is empirically
falsifiable. Gregg fails to engage with the many ways of knowing that are important not
just to religious persons but to all persons. Not quite dismissing Benedicts concern that
rationalism risks reducing Christian faith to metaphysics at the cost of knowing and
giving love (qtd. on p. 110), Gregg merely nods to the problem that excessive
rationalism will potentially turn faith into irrational fideism.
Mere acceptance on faith may pose as much of a problem for the West as Gregg
avers. But it remains unclear what counts as reason for Gregg beyond logical deduction
from a series of intellectual propositions (p. 111). Here it is significant that
Gregg chooses to ignore the papal encyclical Veritatis splendor by John Paul II (August
6, 1996; Washington, D.C.: USCCB Publishing, 1993). This encyclical begins by
emphasizing mans yearning for absolute truth and thirst to attain full knowledge of
it (p. i). That is, John Paul II posits an internal compass that is not a matter of selfgenerated
reason but rather a response to something outside itself and a desire to be one
with it. This understanding of the pull of ultimate truth, deeply embedded in the
natural-law tradition, rests on a view of human understanding far wider than Greggs.
Perhaps the most relevant example here is the moral imaginationthat process
by which a self creates metaphor from images recorded by the senses and stored in memory, which are then occupied to find and suppose moral correspondences in
experience. An intuitive ability to perceive ethical truths and abiding law in the midst of
chaotic experience (Jonathan Jones, Defining Moral Imagination, First Things,
July 1, 2009). Moral imagination has long been recognized as an important mode of
reasoning, developed in our culture through an understanding of great literature, in
which examples of right and wrong conduct are made luminous.
For Gregg, a persons Christian or Jewish faith seems largely irrelevant to the
persons overall character, his or her soul. What, then, has our civilization given us as
guideposts to a good life? Here Gregg summarizes John Finniss list of theses deduced
from that persistent and particular pattern of human thought and action that has been
transmitted across time and has made the West what it is (p. 135). This list of civilizational
themescreation, freedom, justice, and faithis in a circular argument said
to cohere without need of any hierarchical ordering; it is highly reminiscent of Finniss
other list of presumptive good things, his Basic Goods (Natural Law and Natural
Rights [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980]). It builds on one element of Thomistic
understandings of natural lawthe existence of certain self-evident truths (e.g., the law
of noncontradiction)a rationalist interpretation of history and human experience. As
such, it eschews the integrative tradition central to the West in favor of a reductionist
epistemology that says, in essence, that reason can be made broad enough to encompass
certain notions regarding the divine.
Yet religion is more than reason, just as it is more than faith. The root of the term
religion means to bind. And thismeaning indicates the sense in which culture truly comes
from the cultnot just as a matter of etymology but as a matter of human experience.
Judaism and Christianity do more than posit a rational God. They generate customs and
practices, the content of common life, from which come our understanding of rights and our
ability to make them real. For Gregg, meanwhile, religion is merely a set of beliefs about the
divine that [are] somewhat removed from culture, politics, and economic life (p. 34). This
artificial separation of faith detracts from an argument essentially concerned with the necessity
of traditions deeply rooted in specific religions for the survival of ordered liberty.