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Faith And Logos In Peril

September 28, 2019 Frontpage No Comments


Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization (Samuel Gregg: Regnery Publishers, $19.92 on Amazon).

“Western societies become unmoored whenever reason and faith drift away from each other,” writes Samuel Gregg, research director at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids. And yet, “unless the West gets the relation between reason and faith right, it will be unable to overcome its inner traumas or defend itself from those who wage war against it in the name of particular ideologies.”
Gregg modestly calls this work an intellectual history, but it’s more than that, because in the battle of ideas there are winners and losers. “Ideas have consequences,” wrote Richard Weaver — and bad ideas have very bad consequences. If the wrong ideas win, we lose. Gregg agrees.
He takes on a demanding task, “to clarify which ideas are distinctly Western, to identify those that have contributed to the West’s development as a civilization, and to specify how they differ from other cultures’ dominant intellectual settings.”
Gregg’s masterful and surprisingly readable account follows the winding path taken by reason and faith through the centuries, and the forces that have threatened to drive them apart. To open the discussion, he takes us to the historic Regensburg Address delivered by Benedict XVI in 2006. The Pope’s topic was Islam, to be sure, but a fundamental question emerged: Is God a reasonable deity?

In The Beginning
Was The Word

The German philologist Bruno Snell has traced the fascinating history of the “discovery of the mind” that occurred in the centuries between Homer and Plato. It was with Heraclitus, Snell writes, that man first became aware of the existence of the logos, the everlasting reality that existed in a world constantly changing (Heraclitus is famous for arguing that we cannot step in the same river twice: new waters are always flowing in).
Gregg picks up the story of logos, “the word,” a century after Heraclitus, with Plato’s understanding that “the world’s orderliness reflected a rational and mathematical structure that itself proceeded from an intellect and was susceptible to human reason.” Aristotle, Plato’s student, came even closer, concluding that “God is a living being, eternal, most good; and therefore life and a continuous eternal existence belong to God; for that is what God is.”
The intellectual groundwork was complete: logos was a concept but was also a reality, personified in the divine, and with the Gospel of John we learn His name. Gregg: “The evangelist took the first verse of the book of Genesis, ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,’ and adapted it to ‘in the beginning was the word’ — in Greek, in the beginning was the Logos.”
So the evangelist gave logos a name, firmly uniting faith and reason in the person of Christ. That unity has stood at the foundation of Western Civilization, also known as Christendom, ever since.
“[U]nless the West gets the relation between reason and faith right, it will be unable to overcome its inner traumas or defend itself from those who wage war against it in the name of particular ideologies,” Gregg writes.
Yes, “Western societies become unmoored whenever reason and faith drift away from each other,” but they are also driven apart by force and by falsehood. With that understanding in mind, Gregg traces the winding path taken by reason and logos through the centuries. His goal? “To clarify which ideas are distinctly Western, to identify those that have contributed to the West’s development as a civilization, and to specify how they differ from other cultures’ dominant intellectual settings.”
His work reflects an easy command of a wide array of sources, which allows the reader to be comfortable with the obvious fact — in reviewing three millennia of history, one must be selective. Instead of focusing on a particular thinker, Gregg identifies and articulates ideas that developed and became more clear, or were rejected as inadequate, in the intellectual development of the West. As we are guided through the years, Gregg provides ample references, should the reader feel compelled to dig deeper.

Logos Confronts Modernity

In sorting out post-Enlightenment errors, Gregg identifies two “pathologies.” The first “flowed from the conclusion that, if all knowledge ultimately resulted from reflection upon sensory experiences, then society could be improved by changing man’s environment. Human beings, in other words, could be ‘remade’.” Gregg calls this a Promethean enterprise, alluding to the figure in Greek mythology who famously declares, “I hate all the gods,” in Prometheus Unbound.
The line from Aeschylus is quoted approvingly by Karl Marx, but philosopher Eric Voegelin points out that for Aeschylus, Prometheus is mentally ill — even mad — and deserves the punishment he is suffering (Zeus chained him to a mountain where an eagle gnaws at his liver every day). For Voegelin, moderns who celebrate Prometheus as victorious over the gods are simply promoting a gnostic gospel divinizing man, turning reality upside down.
Gregg’s second pathology characteristic of post-Enlightenment reasoning is called scientism, an error “based on what philosophers call a self-refuting premise….The truth of the claim ‘no claims are true unless they can be proved scientifically’ cannot be itself proven scientifically,” he explains.

In Ideology, Your First Step May Be Your Last

Both of these pathologies lie at the foundation of Marxism and its countless postmodern variations. In his Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, Marx defies philosophy, which seeks only to understand the world; “the point is, to change it,” he roars — and in The German Ideology, he identifies a “Truly Socialist Man” as Robinson Crusoe, who is totally self-sufficient and needs no contact with anyone to be fully. . . . Promethean. Man can be remade after all (but only after the most violent revolution ever waged, Marx adds).
But the second pathology cannot be ignored: If one embraces the errors at the core of an ideology — if you walk in the door and close it behind you, so to speak — the system’s logic owns you, because you can no longer appeal to the reality you’ve left behind.
The notion of “progress” lies at the heart of postmodern rejection of truth. For Augustine, “progress” refers to the growth in virtue of each individual soul. “History” refers to Salvation history, period. That notion lies at the foundation of Western Civilization, once known as Christendom. Gregg wants to preserve it. Hence, one must reject an ideology’s promise of “progress” on Earth, a promise that can be fulfilled only after empowering the ideologue.
Early on, Gregg identifies the need to “dismantle myths.” The idea of “progress” is one of the most pervasive, and poisonous, myths of our own time. With the loss of logos, we are reduced to appetites — to “feel good about ourselves” — or passions, including the libido dominandi, what Nietzsche calls the “will to power.” Deny the true God of faith, and you get the false god of power.
One wonders, does the loss of faith lead to the loss of logos? Or vice-versa? When it comes to civilized life, the two rise or fall together. Like oxygen and hydrogen, they are both necessary to quench man’s thirst for flourishing in freedom, truth, and order.
Moreover, even though we might deny faith and abandon logos, that does not liberate us from the law of cause and effect. “Without logos, the West is lost,” Gregg writes. We can’t wish that self-evident truth away. And it is a high price indeed.

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