Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization

Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization
(Dr. Samuel Gregg, October 17, 2019)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Dr. Samuel Gregg is director of research at the Acton Institute.  He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory.  He has an MA in political philosophy from the University of Melbourne, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree in moral philosophy and political economy from the University of Oxford.

He is the author of several books, including Morality, Law, and Public Policy (2000), Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded (2001), On Ordered Liberty (2003), his prize-winning The Commercial Society (2007), The Modern Papacy (2009), Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy (2010), Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future (2013), Tea Party Catholic: The Catholic Case for Limited Government, a Free Economy and Human Flourishing (2013), For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016), as well as monographs such as A Theory of Corruption (2004), and Banking, Justice, and the Common Good (2005). Several of these works have been translated into a variety of languages. He has also co-edited books such as Christian Theology and Market Economics (2008), Profit, Prudence and Virtue: Essays in Ethics, Business and Management (2009), and Natural Law, Economics and the Common Good (2012).  He has also written on the thought of St. Thomas More.

He publishes in journals such as the Harvard Journal of Law and Public PolicyJournal of Markets & MoralityEconomic AffairsLaw and Investment ManagementJournal des Economistes et des Etudes HumainesNotre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public PolicyEvidenceAve Maria Law ReviewOxford AnalyticaCommunioJournal of Scottish PhilosophyUniversity BookmanMoreanaForeign Affairs; and Policy.  He is a regular writer of opinion-pieces which appear in publications such as the Wall Street Journal EuropeFirst ThingsInvestors Business DailyWashington Times; American BankerNational ReviewThe StreamPublic DiscourseAmerican SpectatorEl Mercurio; Australian Financial ReviewJerusalem Post;La Nacion, and Business Review Weekly.  His op-eds are also widely published in newspapers throughout Europe and Latin America. He has served as an editorial consultant for the Italian journal, La Societa, as well as American correspondent for the German newspaper Die Tagespost.

He has also been cited in the Holy See’s L’Osservatore RomanoThe New York Times, the Wall Street JournalForbes, the Weekly StandardTime MagazineChristian Science Monitor, the Washington Post, and the New Yorker.

In 2001, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and a Member of the Mont Pèlerin Society in 2004.  In 2008, he was elected a member of the Philadelphia Society, and a member of the Royal Economic Society.  In 2017, he was made a Fellow of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University.  He is the General Editor of Lexington Books’ Studies in Ethics and Economics Series. He also sits on the Academic Advisory Boards of Campion College, Sydney; the La Fundación Burke, Madrid; the Instituto Fe y Libertad; and the Institute of Economic Affairs, London; as well as the editorial boards of the Journal of Markets and Morality and Revista Valores en la sociedad industrial.


Robert R. Reilly:


It is a tremendous pleasure to welcome our penultimate speaker at this location, Dr. Samuel Gregg. I should mention that he is a veteran Westminster speaker, albeit the prior talk he gave was when Katie Gorka was director. I was here, listening to the presentation. In any case, Sam on that occasion spoke on an earlier book, Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future. Correct? That was a wonderful book – on that occasion. But this is many books later, so he will be talking about his new book, but first I will just explain.

As I think you know, he is Director of Research at the Acton Institute. He has covered questions of political economy, economic history, ethics, finance, and natural law theory on which he is very strong, having studied that subject under the great John Finnis at Oxford University. You studied in Australia? And then, of course, he got his PhD at Oxford University in England.

I will just mention a couple other of his books, not them all because there are fifteen, and there would go half the evening: Morality, Law, and Public Policy, Economic Thinking for the Theologically Minded, On Ordered Liberty. I am going to mention his book Wilhelm Röpke’s Political Economy, Röpke being one of the best economists of the 20th century.

Sam has published broadly in many of the prestigious journals, academic and otherwise. You have probably seen his op-ed pieces in The Wall Street Journal, First Things, Investor’s Business Daily, etc. Tonight, he is going to address us on the subject of the title of his new book, “Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization.” Welcome, Sam.

Dr. Samuel Gregg:

About the Books

Well, thank you Bob. I am grateful to be here and happy to be spending some time with you at the Westminster Institute. As Bob mentioned, I last spoke here six years ago about one of my previous books called Becoming Europe, and I am very happy to be with you this evening to talk maybe thirty or forty minutes about my new book, which came out in June, which is called Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization, which is available for twenty dollars out there, even cheaper on Amazon.

Okay, well, to tell you the truth I have been pleasantly surprised by the amount of attention that has been received by the book. I have not stopped talking about it, I have not stopped being interviewed about it, I have forgotten how many podcasts I have done, but I am surprised by the amount of attention the book has gotten because as its rather broad title suggests, it is concerned with some rather broad themes, right?

It is concerned with reason and faith, rationality and religion, and how the relationship between these two dimensions of knowledge have helped to make the West different, as Niall Ferguson famously said, from the rest, but it is also about disorders, disorders between religion and faith have – and I think continue to do – enormous damage to Western societies.

Fundamental Questions

Now, the very first thing I say in the book, right at the preface, actually, I say is that the topic has long occupied my mind, in fact for more than thirteen years, but over that period nothing has changed my view that the primary challenge that is facing the West today is not political and it is not economic. Economics and politics matter, they really do, but I have become even more convinced that the most important questions facing Western societies logically precede these subjects and in many respects predetermine how we address those types of subjects.

Now, the ways in which the relationships between reason and faith has shaped the West and in many ways subterranean. We do not notice them going on. Occasionally, however, they thrust themselves directly into our view. Now, one such manifestation has been clearly the religiously motivated violence that Western nations have confronted during the 21st century’s first two decades. Now, this issue was first surfaced directly, and I have to say I think very courageously, by Benedict XVI in his 2006 Regensburg Address. The address I think will be retrospectively remembered as one of the 21st century’s most important speeches.

Regensburg Address

Now, most of us I suspect remember this address because of the response it received from much of the Muslim world. But if you read the speech carefully, you realize very quickly that it is less about the Muslim world than it is about us, we who are the inheritors of what this civilization that we call the West. That speech concerns how this integration of reason and faith that was developed in the West is fundamental to the West’s identity, and how the separation of reason and faith is core to many of the West’s problems. Indeed, my book argues that if we want to understand the bloodshed of the 20th century’s darkest decades, we need to understand just how much they owe to what Joseph Ratzinger once called pathologies of faith and pathologies of reason.

Now, fortunately, there is more to this story than the ways in which the Western societies become unmoored when reason and faith get separated from each other, and one of my arguments is that not only can reason and faith correct each other’s excesses, but they can also enhance each other’s comprehension of the truth, thereby I think renewing the civilization we call the West.

Faith and the Enlightenment

Another theme of the book, one which I know is controversial for some people, is that the various movements of peoples and ideas that we often group together under that broad catchphrase called the Enlightenment – I suggest that some of these ideas and some of these people need not be seen as perpetually at odds with what I call the faiths of the West.

Now, it is not a question of ignoring tensions because there are plenty of them. They abound in fact, and I highlight many of the tensions throughout the book, but I also argue that the ideas that began emerging towards the end of the 17th century cannot be explained I think without the background of the Jewish and Christian cultures out of which the various Enlightenments arose. Likewise I think more than a few of the freedoms and achievements now embraced by believing Jews and Christians would I think have struggled to see the light of day without the efforts of particular Enlightenment thinkers and particular Enlightenment texts.

Now, there are many parts of the book I could highlight to you this evening, but our time is limited, so I am going to focus on just one theme, and that theme is the relationship between what I call the religious faiths of the West and that broad movement of ideas called the Enlightenment, that movement of ideas which has shaped for better and for worse the world in which we live today, so the title of my brief remarks tonight is, “From Logos to Enlightenment and Back Again.”

Uneasiness and Skepticism

So many of the ongoing tensions I think that permeate modern Western societies today come back I think to two things. One, the first, is an uneasiness among many people of faith about the Enlightenment project. The second is skepticism about religion among many of those who consider themselves to be the contemporary heirs of the Enlightenments. Let me give you an example: it is my view that Christianity has still not yet fully come to grips with the full implication of the economic revolution that was launched by the Scottish Enlightenments greatest and most enduring monument, which of course is Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations.

Many Christians I would argue have tended to marginalize and sometimes ignore some of Adam Smith’s key and I think empirically valid insights. Now there are many reasons for this, but one reason I think is the fact is that much of the Christian world is still, three hundred years later, still struggling to deal with many of the consequences of the various Enlightenments. So some people of faith, I would argue, basically see the whole Enlightenment project, the whole Enlightenment experience, as something to be rejected, holos-bolus. It is seen as being at the root of all the West’s deepest problems.

Other people of faith however, seem frankly subservient to anyone or anything who claims the title of being modern, of being enlightened. But that in its own way I think also betrays an inability to deal with or think clearly about the whole Enlightenment experience. On the other side of the ledger, many self-described modern Westerners plainly regard religion per se as obscurest, repressive, as something humanity will eventually liberate itself from. Religion is considered a type of avatar of a world in which things were accepted simply on the basis of authority, usually coercive authority, and as being something that is at odds with the natural and the social sciences.

Now, I think to my mind there are two difficulties that characterize some of these trends. The first I think is that they overestimate the break which the various Enlightenments made with the pre-Modern world. But second, I think these attitudes also embody a major blindspot, and that blindspot is just how seriously the faiths of the West have taken reason and the ways in which the ways of the West – by which I mean Christianity and Judaism – the ways in which they liberated the pagan world from irrationality and superstition, and how these two faiths gave impetus to the seriousness with which the West takes reason.

Judaic Origins for Reason

Now, the rise of reason in the West is often associated with Greece and Rome. To be sure, many of the roots of philosophy and the natural sciences go back to figures like Plato and Socrates. One of my book’s central contentions is that the real revolution of reason does not begin with the Greeks. I think it begins with the Jewish people. Indeed, I would say that without the Hebrew prophets, there is no Western civilization.

So when we read for example the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, it is very clear that on one level the Israelites reject pagan idolatry because the one god had commanded them not to worship other gods, but the Hebrews hostility toward idolatry also reflected their radically different conception of god and therefore of the material world because before anyone else did, Jews came to the realization that the entities worshipped by Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans were not what these peoples claimed them to be.

To ascribe divinity to physical elements like water or characteristics or events like war was literally nonsense for the Jews, so to this extent, Judaism’s audacious confrontation of pagan mythology was a powerful affirmation of human rationality because when the Hebrew prophets rebuked pagan idolatry, they were doing something strictly reasonable. So it is on these grounds that I argue in the book that the Jews’ liberation of human reason from mythology and from nature worship amounted to one of humanity’s most powerful enlightenments.

Hebrew prophets were not philosophers as the Greeks understood that term, but they did play a major role in opening the human mind to objective reality. So why does this matter? Well, it matters because one of the obstacles that inhibited the Greeks’ mind ability to make sense of reality was the frankly stupid pagan religions that dominated the ancient world. All of the pagan religions without any exception, they all promoted the idea that humans were ultimately at the mercy of some deeply unpleasant, very fickle, shortsighted, greedy deities.

Now, that belief gave rise to an enormous intellectual problem because how could a universe of selfish, irrational gods – how could this universe be reconciled with some of the great insights into reality that were being achieved by Greek philosophers? How does a world ruled by such destructive deities – how can it be reconciled with Aristotle’s assertion that man can discern the laws of nature by studying physical phenomena or with Archimedes’ mathematics, or with Plato’s insistence that there must be some type of first cause, a rational creator with whom everything begins? These things were irreconcilable.


What changed the situation in the ancient world forever was of course Christianity. Christianity’s teaching that god first revealed to the Jewish people was a god who loved humanity so much that he had entered directly into human history to redeem human beings. This was a remarkably attractive alternative to the likes of selfish, deceptive beings like Zeus, Mars, and Venus.

But there was something else, something else underscored by the new religion. This something else which comes directly from Judaism was that god had a rational and creative nature. We find this theme powerfully expressed in the opening words of the Gospel of John.


Now, I am sure almost everyone here knows this took the first verse 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,” logos.

Now to Greeks, to Romans, and to Diaspora Jews, audiences who were deeply familiar with the language of Logos, this word made the point that the Christian god was not irrational. He was different to these pagan entities because while Christ was certainly love, he was also divine reason, logos, in all its forms. This logos had created the world, infused the world and humanity with order, and had written the reasonability that is integral to logos himself into the human being made in his image.

Now, when you think about it from that perspective, you start to see why this faith was so attractive to many Greeks and Romans who were rightly proud of their intellectual and cultural accomplishments because in Christianity they found a faith they respected many of their successors but also reconciled these achievements with the idea of a rational creator in ways that paganism never could have done.

The Synthesis of Reason and Faith

So Christianity’s integration of what might be called the Greek Enlightenment into Judaism’s unique religious achievement set the pagan religions that had blurred intellectual horizons of the Greek and Roman worlds – it set these religions on the way to extinction. People now understood that religion should be concerned with the truth, the truth about ultimates realities, and therefore being concerned with the truth ought to be compatible with reason.

And the result I think was a civilizational platform that Greek and Roman philosophers I do not think could have constructed on their own, so it is this synthesis, this synthesis of reason and faith achieved by the West, which I argued is core to the identity of the West. It underlies for example the commitment to rational inquiry into truth, which is the central feature of Western culture.

Liberty over Decadence

It is also crucial to understanding another characteristic Western emphasis, which is that of liberty. Now, by that I do not just mean liberty in the sense of minimizing unreasonable coercion – that is important – but by liberty, I also mean the self-mastery that we achieve when we freely choose virtue and flourishing over vice and decadence.

The West’s integration of reason and faith also helps to explain why universities arose in the medieval period, why we saw the natural sciences develop in the West the way they did, and why 13th century Christian theologians like Albertus Magnus, a teacher of Thomas Aquinas, why people like him underscored the importance of observation, experimentation, and what we today call data.

So when you think about all that, it is in that light I think that we realize that the usual story of the Enlightenment with its emphasis on reason, the scientific method, progress, improvement, liberty from superstition, etc., we realize the idea that the Enlightenment marks a total rupture with the pre-Enlightenment world, you start to see that that is a less than plausible story.


Take for instance the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica on the 5th of July 1687. Now, in many ways this book proved to be decisive for the Western world, stating basic hypotheses from which an astounding range of calculations could be developed. The Principia represented a revolution in the natural sciences. Nature’s secrets it seemed had not only been unlocked they had also become quantifiable.

Now, Newton is of course widely regarded as the hero of Enlightenment. You see pictures all through the 18th century of Newton with lightning strikes around him, with light – as if he is an angelic being – surrounding him. Well, rather less attention is paid to the fact that Newton was also a devout Christian, albeit with some heterodox views concerning the Trinity.

One reason that Newton wrote the Principia was to refute what he regarded as the material premises underlying René Descartes’ Theory of Planetary Movements. For Isaac Newton, god was much, much more than a master clockmaker. Newton’s god was a creator who had called the world into being and who was intimately involved in that same world all the time. Newton’s creator was the god of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and he was also the preexistent logos. This is a phrase used by Newton, the rational force within the universe. Impatient with those who mocked religion, Newton held that god had revealed in the scriptures a great deal about himself and the world, that human beings would not otherwise know.

Newton, it turns out, was just as impressed by the learning of the Hebrew prophets as he was with Greek thinkers, but there were two critical differences introduced by the various enlightenments. The first was an emphasis upon applying reason to human beings’ habits, customs, and traditions to assess whether these habits, customs, and traditions contributed to human wellbeing or whether they were in fact masks for oppression. Nothing – Enlightenment thinkers believed – should be exempted from the application of critical reason.

Natural Sciences

The second difference was the development of highly specialized ways of thinking. In the 18th century, very distinct branches of science started to emerge. What had once been grouped together under the title of natural philosophy was gradually separated into specialized disciplines like biology, zoology, and geology. We see similar developments with the emergence of what we call social sciences: topics like politics and economics, which had hitherto been grouped collectively under the title of natural jurisprudence, these subjects started to be studied separately.

Now, the benefits of this approach I think can be observed around us today. Enlightenment thinkers working in the natural social sciences spurred forward enormous advances in economic development in our ability to cure disease, to diminish poverty, to prolong human life, and grow in our understanding and even mastery of the natural world.

Material Prosperity

It is also true that some Enlightenment thinkers and their way of studying the world alerted more and more people to genuine injustices existing in the world. Adam Smith’ s Wealth of Nations for example showed how the then dominant mercantile system was not only inefficient in creating wealth, his book also highlighted how mercantilism involved widespread denial of economic freedom, how it fostered rampant corruption, and how it privileged those with political power at everyone else’s expense.

Now, would insights like these, which have helped make the world more materially prosperous, economically freer, more creative, physically healthier – would all of these insights have been achieved without some of these Enlightenment thinkers? Well, we can never definitively answer such questions, but I have my doubts. Are the economic and scientific achievements fostered by particular Enlightenment thinkers something that today’s religious believers would want to do without? Personally, I do not think so.

Negative Aspects

The flip side, however, to all these positive developments are the negative aspects of Enlightenment thought. They include – I would suggest just to give you a quick list – the growing absolutization of the scientific method, the tendency to limit rationality to empirical rationality, the collapse of the specialization of knowledge, into a fragmentation of knowledge, the growth of the belief that human nature itself can be altered through science or power, the development of ideological projects fostered by intellectuals – of course – who want to redesign society from the top-down, and maybe above all, efforts to fill the void left by religion’s marginalization with utopias, socialist utopias, marxist utopias, fascist utopias, liberal utopias, and now, we see in our own time, environmentalist utopias.

Then there is the way that the same trends have needed religion’s relegation to the realm of preference, to feelings, and subjectivity because one side effect of the scientific triumphs flowing from the Enlightenment was that some people began treating the empirical sciences as the only form of true reason and the primary way to attain true knowledge.

But if reason is reduced to the scientific, the empirical, then reason’s ability to contemplate religious questions I think is radically compromised. And when religion is relegated to the realm of subjectivity, of emotions, of feelings, it means that god’s nature can no longer be one of logos, and when that happens, we are left with one of two things: either god is pure will, a being who we must obey blindly even if he commands us to do terrible things, which is the fundamental theological problem facing the Islamic world today, or one the other hand we have to conclude that god is a celestial teddy bear, a being who never warns us, never corrects us, who does nothing but affirm us no matter how irresponsible or stupid or evil our choices and actions might be.

No Going Back

Now, the things of which I am speaking are not stuff of everyday political discourse or debates about economic policy, they do not even feature significantly in what passes for high level cultural discussions today, yet the stakes are really high. They are very high for the West because it is clear that the integration of reason and faith that is core to the West’s identity has broken down, perhaps especially among intellectuals and the shapers of culture, and somehow that integration needs to be restored.

But let us be clear, there is no going back to a pre-Enlightenment world. We cannot go back in time. We cannot pretend that the various Enlightenments never happened. At the same time, I do not think we need to settle for a civilization that marginalizes the faiths of the West in the name of reason and science.

Reconciling Faith with the Enlightenment

So what do we do? How do we bring the world of the Enlightenment, the world of what was called the republic of letters back into some type of constructive contact with the world of the faiths of the West out of which of course the various enlightenments had emerged?

Well, to my mind there are two tasks to undertake. One is historical, the other is philosophical. When I say historical, I mean we have to correct the historical record. We have to refute the myth that the various enlightenments were uniformly hostile to religion and that the faiths of the West were somehow holos-bolus completely opposed to everything and anyone associated with Enlightenment.

Now, the good news is that there has already been much scholarly work done in this area. Over the past ninety years, a range of scholars have illustrated that quote, “only a small fraction of Enlighteners were anti religious, that the overwhelming majority were interested in finding a balanced relationship between reason and faith,” end quote. Enlightenment thinkers it turns out were intensely interested in religious questions and not necessarily from a hostile standpoint.

Even those working in as scientific a field as geology in the 18th century did not set out with the intention of trying to eliminate god from natural history. Instead, quote, “They searched for the regular natural laws that they believed god had set in motion at the beginning of time,” end quote, so god was understood clearly to be working directly in history but also as Newton had suggested in impersonal, secondary ways, which were observable by human beings just as Saint Paul had explained in his Letter to the Romans.

Catholic Embrace

When it comes to specific religious traditions, the Catholic Church is often perceived as the Enlightenment’s great opponent. Now, no doubt that was true in many, many cases, but plenty of 18th century believing Catholics from laymen and laywomen to bishops combined constructive reflection on Enlightenment ideas with loyalty to Rome. Many Catholics supported Enlightenment inspired political and economic reforms without compromising their religious beliefs one iota.

Openness to the new learning can be seen in the willingness of Catholic missionaries to promote practices such as vaccination. Eighteenth century Jesuits even introduced the writings of decidedly non-Catholic thinkers like Benjamin Franklin into Spanish Colonial America alongside curricula stressing the natural sciences. In North America not very far from here, prominent Catholics like the Carroll family, religiously devout but well read in Enlightenment thought, supported the American Revolution and the subsequent experiment in republican government.

In Protestant Europe, openness to the new learning was perhaps even greater. The most famous example of course is the Scottish Enlightenment. A very large proportion of Scottish Enlightenment thinkers – the Reverend Francis Hutchison, the Reverend William Robinson, the Reverend Hugh Blair, the Reverend Adam Ferguson, the Reverend Thomas Reed – these people combined Protestant Christian faith with a deep interest in Enlightenment approaches to subjects ranging from philosophy to history to economics, and the same men insisted that the best of the new learning was compatible with Christian faith.

Take Reason Seriously

Now, I could go on and on and I do go on and on in my book about this, but I stress this historical side because I have always thought that we cannot have a clear debate about the present unless we have a clearer understanding of the past. My second suggestion concerns the need for religious believers to insist that they take reason just as seriously if not more seriously than those who consider themselves contemporary heirs of the Enlightenments, and that I think above all concerns renewed reflection upon God’s nature, God’s nature as love and mercy but also God’s nature as the Logos.

Now, of course there is a risk to reemphasizing God’s nature as Logos because there have been points in the past when some Christians have drifted in the direction of hyper rationalism. We saw this with some of the later medieval scholastics, people who, by the way, were deeply criticized by other Catholics such as Thomas Moore and John Fisher. But hyper rationalism is hardly the primary problem facing the religions of the West today. It is just not. On the contrary, a very real problem facing the two faiths of the West is the rampant sentimentalism in which so many synagogues and churches in the West presently drown in from the bottom to the very top.

Pathologies of Faith and Reason

When you separate faith from reason, many pathologies of faith and reason today – and I talk about these in my book – one such pathology is fideism, blind obedience, a deep suspicion of reason. Again, [this is] the fundamental problem facing much of the Islamic world today. But another pathology is sentimentalism, when faith becomes seen primarily as the realm of feelings, of emotions, even of unreason.

Now in that world, this world drowning in sentimentalism, attention to logic, to coherence of thought, to evidence, to things as basic to human reasoning as the principle of noncontradiction, are presently being dismissed as rigidity of thought. Hence, we end up with absurdities such as prominent clergies trying to tell us that two times two sometimes equals five… or not for who are we to assume that God will not betray his own nature as Logos?

Seen from this standpoint, the Fideist and the Sentimentalist – they certainly have one thing in common and that thing they have in common is neither of them regard God as having the character of Logos. What is also clear is that the sentimentalism presently affecting large swathes of Judaism and Christianity in the West is all about diminishing of faith, the clarity of faith, and the seriousness of faith because the god fully revealed in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures is certainly merciful but he is also just, and that means that God is reasonable and very clear in his expectations of us because He takes us seriously. [unintelligible] if we do not return the compliment.

So I return to identifying God as divine reason, to emphasizing the logos in the Gospel of John. It is not about us downgrading the importance of emotions like love and joy, anger and fear. We are not robots. Feelings are central aspects of our nature and they often give us insight into reality, but human emotions need to be integrated into a coherent account of faith, of human reason, of human choice, of human action, and human flourishing, and then we need to live our lives accordingly. So the return to logos is not just about restoring inner coherence to the proclamation and practice of for example the Christian faith. It is also about helping the world bequeathed to the West by the Enlightenment to understand that human reason can’t come from nowhere, that being can’t come from nothingness, and something can’t come from a void.

Vernon Smith

One of the people who was kind enough to write an endorsement of my book is the 2002 Nobel Prize-winning economist Vernon Smith. Now, for those of you who do not know, he is the inventor of an entire field of economics called experimental economics.

Now, you might assume that Professor Smith is the Enlightenment man par excellence. Well, much later in his life, because he is 93 years old now, Professor Smith embraced the Christian faith, and until relatively recently, he had not discussed this publicly, but he did so during a 2016 lecture about religion and science that he gave at the Acton Institute.

Now, one thing that Professor Smith stressed in this lecture was his realization that quote, “What is inescapable is the dependence of science on faith,” end quote. What does he mean by this? Well, by faith Professor Smith had in mind St. Paul’s definition that quote, “Substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The point is this: that just as the natural sciences that are so prized by the Enlightenment cannot arise from fundamental irrationality nor can human reason arise out of nothingness.


We may not yet see it face to face, but in the beginning there must have been the logos. It is this commitment to full-bodied reason that includes but transcends the empirical that really matters, but that commitment in turn depends on recognition that if there is a god, and whether we call him First Cause, Yahweh, Cristos, Pantocrator, divine providence or supreme being, he must be the logos, the logos whose rationality and liberty are reflected in our reason and our ability to choose freely to know and live in the truth.

So the stakes are this: without this commitment to logos, I am afraid the West is lost, but I do not believe the decline is inevitable. I say it again. There is nothing inevitable about the fate of the West. Why? Because the free choice for logos and therefore for reason and for faith is never beyond us. The desire for truth, for liberty, and for justice is simply part of who we are. To give rational form to these human longings is thus to act in a way that is truly enlightening and fully consistent with the faiths of the West, and I think it is to build a future for the West that is firmly grounded on the sure knowledge that it is in the end the truth embodied in the logos that sets us free. Thank you.


Audience member:

That was magnificent. You mentioned Benedict, and I would highly encourage all to read that, separating Pope Benedict from Franny the Red, his imposter replacement who may not be legitimate or may be, who knows. I am encouraged, I am compelled to buy your book, to read it, to share it, and your ideas are just superlative. I am [encouraged] by what I heard tonight. I hope the others agree with me.

Dr. Samuel Gregg:

Thank you. You mentioned the Regensburg address, that is what I think you were partly referring to. I would also recommend that people also read his address to a gathering of French intellectuals in Paris in 2008 [or] 2009. I would also recommend that one reads his 2011 address to the German Bundestag. You find in these lectures him developing more of these themes out of the Regensburg address, and applying them to, first of all, what is happening in university life. And in the case of the Bundestag address, and it is about how these issues, some of which I have talked about tonight, affect politics and how they affect our understanding of law. We were very blessed to have such a man as Pope.

Audience member:

Newton’s errant or heterodox trinitarian theology, could you just give me a thumbnail of what that might be?

Dr. Samuel Gregg:

Oh, he denied the Trinity. Yeah, that is slightly heterodox. There is a very good book that came out a couple of years ago, and the author’s name escapes me, but it is about Newton’s faith because traditionally, Newton had been seen as, well, he is a sort of conventional figure of his time, he had to say these things because if he did not say these things about religion, then you were going to be viewed with great suspicion, etc.

But no one had actually gone and really read his religious writings. It turns out that he had read every book of the Bible. He was deeply familiar with the Church Fathers. He spent a lot of time thinking about the Church Fathers and writing commentaries on them. He also wrote texts in which he was very direct in refuting the atheists and the deists of his own time. But in terms of his understanding of the Trinity, he was basically someone who said no, there is just one God, and it is not three persons, it is just one God.

He does not talk about that too much because that would have gotten you in to a lot of trouble at the time, but he was, as John Locke of all people said, Newton was ferociously critical of atheism and those who adopted atheist and materialist premises when they were pursuing scientific inquiry. This is why he was very critical of Descartes. Descartes, it turns out, was also a religious man, but the premises of his way of understanding philosophy and sciences is implicitly materialistic, and Newton was deeply critical of this.

When you think about that, and Newton is sort of the hero of the Enlightenment, it turns out, well, actually, he is a very strong religious believer who takes this stuff pretty seriously. It starts to change the way you think about some of these things when you realize, well, maybe these Enlightenments are a little bit more complicated than we often realize, that not everyone involved in the Enlightenment is a Voltaire or a Rousseau. Otherwise, we would be in big trouble.

Audience member:

If you are familiar with it, can you comment on Tom Holland’s new book on Christian revolution?

Dr. Samuel Gregg:

Yeah, I have to tell you [that] I have not read the book. I have only read reviews. Now, he is talking about some similar themes to what I am addressing. He does not focus as strongly as I do upon the way in which Christians taught reason deadly, deadly seriously, so much so that pagan philosophers who were debating Christians in the first, second, third, fourth centuries would mock the Christians as the quote unquote “high priests of truth” because the Christians would constantly [bring up the concept of truth, and would reply to the pagans], no, no, truth is serious, truth is real, we can know truth through reason, which was something that most pagan philosophers of the time were very much against. We need to remember that Plato’s Academy was mostly not dominated by people like Aristotle. It was actually dominated for most of its existence by hedonists, philosophical hedonists and skeptics.

So, my book looks much more at the trajectory of these ideas, and how they played out in time, whereas I think Tom Holland’s book does touch on some of those issues, but it is much more about some of the cultural changes that Christianity introduced into the way people that thought about the world and each other, so you can go from thinking about a world in which there are human beings and then there are slaves to whom you can do whatever the heck you want, to a world in which, okay, there are still slaves, but we cannot do whatever we want to them because they actually are human, which starts to raise questions about, well, why are they slaves in the first place? So that is some of the difference I would say between my book and what he is trying to do. They are not opposed to each other. It is just different approaches to a similar question.

Audience member:

Hearing you talk about Enlightenment – so often the Enlightenment is talked about as if it were a monolith.

Dr. Samuel Gregg:

Right, which is one of the very big myths.

Audience member:

Could you elaborate a little bit more on the parts of the Enlightenment, particularly the French, but also to some extent the English, that were the opposite of what you emphasized, in other words, they were hostile to faith, and that in order to better understand the contemporary problems that we have inherited from them.

Dr. Samuel Gregg:

Sure, well, what you find, first of all, you have people like Voltaire, who viewed religion, organized religion, as deeply repressive by nature. Voltaire was not an atheist. He was not an atheist, he was more or less a deist of some sort, but they view the institution itself as being highly problematic, and they view many of the teachings of Judaism, Christianity – Voltaire was deeply anti-Semitic, by the way, viciously anti-Semitic. That is not often talked about, but it is true because he saw Judaism as being this highly primitive thing, so by the way did Gibbon with the way he talks about the Jews, [which] is unbelievably bad. But my point is this, so this is how they viewed religion, so that is one set of problems.

Another set of problems is what you find, for example, with John Locke. Now, there are a lot of good things you can say about John Locke, but one thing that was deeply problematic with John Locke is his view that human beings acquire knowledge purely through the senses, through experience, that we are blank slates, and things are just projected on to us. The problem with that is that it leads to the conclusion that, well, if only we alter the structures around us, we can get rid of all of these flaws in human beings, and that has led to a lot of very, very bad ideological projects being imposed from the top down by intellectuals literally trying to redesign society from the top down, and that I think is one of the major problems that you find with certain strands, certain types of Enlightenment thought, the idea that you can literally redesign society as if you are God himself, and people have been doing this for a very, very long time.

Now, that is very different from let us say the natural scientist who says, well, I am interested in discovering things about the world so we can master the world, but I am under no illusions that I can change human nature. That is a very different type of enterprise. There are differences between, not just individuals, but in the case of the Scottish Enlightenment it is a very different experience from the French Enlightenment precisely because the Scotts were actually much [humbler] in the way they thought about the world and what they thought they could understand about the world. People like Smith, people like Thomas Reed, and others placed a lot of emphasis on what we do not know, what we cannot know, and why we should be very careful about trying to assume that we can do all sorts of things that would make us be like God.

These are just some of the deeper I guess methodological differences at work, but also some of the different conceptions of human nature at work as well because for Jews and Christians, humans were free but flawed, good but inclined to sin, etc. Many Enlightenment thinkers took the view that if only we could just change everything around us, we could produce more or less perfect societies. Some like Rousseau basically saw civilization itself as something that is deeply corrupting of human beings, which is why he viewed Sparta as being the perfect society. We think about that, that is also a deeply insidious, and some of the potential political effects of what that could produce. It produces books like Emile, which is Rousseau’s educational program, which is, hey, let them do what they want. That does not work out so well as anyone with children will tell you.

Audience member:

There is an essay that Bob Reilly wrote recently –

Dr. Samuel Gregg:

…who is quoted in my book I should mention.

Audience member:

…because this goes back to most probably the most basic question which Bob brought up, they are trying to change Columbus Day to the Indigenous Peoples Day. Bob, you wrote an excellent article on that.

Robert R. Reilly:

Thank you.

Audience member:

And it is when Columbus arrived, the indigenous people, many groups, did not understand that they were different. Am I correct on that, Bob? Is that what your point was? They did not have a word for being a human being. In other words, they did not perceive themselves as having the ability to reason, so if we start out with groups of people who do not even reason or have the ability to see themselves as different. I do not know what I am trying to ask, really, but I think there is a connection here because we are talking about more elevated forms of intelligence with the Greeks and the Romans, and the Jewish people, but how did we make the leap? How did those groups make that leap?

Dr. Samuel Gregg:

Well, in the case of the Jewish people, it is clearly this conception of God as being a rational being, who has created a world which is good, not filled with all of these nasty, unpleasant deities who are literally falling around with people’s lives just because they happen to feel like it, so that is one thing. In the case of Greek thinkers, as I mentioned, they had this huge intellectual problem because they were making all of these wonderful discoveries in the natural sciences, etc., but they had this ridiculous religious view.

But in their case, people like Plato, Socrates, and others, there is a minority of them who more or less come to the conclusion that there must be an uncaused first cause. They more or less come to that conclusion, which is somewhat of a revolutionary statement at the time. That is not something that most Greek philosophers were thinking of, so these people were subtly challenging the prevailing religion of the time. But they could not quite get there. I think one of the things in his History of Freedom in Antiquity, Lord Acton says that the problem with the Greeks is that they could not get themselves all the way to this conception of a rational creator who creates the world and is also involved in time. It takes Christianity to do that.

In the case of the Romans, the Romans were the great extractors of all that is interesting and useful from all other civilizations. They are very good at that, but their great achievement I think was law. Roman law I think was their great achievement, and you see particularly people like Cicero and first century Roman lawyers, a lot of serious thinking about what does it mean to be reasonable, and how does our commitment to reason shape the nature of law. But in the end, the Romans themselves are producing these wonderful insights into law and how law should govern society while simultaneously they are worshipping pagan gods, and engaging in things like gladiatorial matches, so the Romans could not have done it by themselves. I think the great crossover starts to happen before Christianity when you find in the second and first centuries before the time of Christ, you see the Hebrew Scriptures translated into Greek in Egypt.

Why did this happen?

It happened because diaspora Jews, and remember most Jews are not living in the Land of Israel at this time. Most Jews are diaspora Jews at this point, [who] lost the capacity to speak Hebrew, to read Hebrew, and so they are more or less Greek-speaking, Greek thinking. Their Bible had to be translated into Greek, which meant they used words like logos to mean trying to describe the nature of God, so you see a crossover, cross-fertilization of some of these Greek words and concepts with the Hebrew Scripture. That is a type of civilizational dynamic, which I think sets the field up very nicely for Christianity to come in and reshape so many of these things. It is no coincidence, I think.

I think Rodney Stark has done very good work in this regard. He has written many books. He is a sociologist of early Christianity and Judaism, but his argument is he thinks most of the early converts to Christianity – obviously, there were some Greeks and some Jews, but he thinks that overwhelmingly most of them were Hellenized Jews, who were intellectually ready for this message because they had Greek philosophy, they had Greek concepts, they had Greek ideas. But they were very committed to the idea that Yahweh is one, He is the creator, He is the beginning of time, and Christianity makes that work together. It also makes many of these central Jewish claims about the world much more palatable to Greeks and Romans because remember Christianity dispenses with most of the old law, and that is a very important difference. It made conversion much easier.

Audience member:

Yes, and along those lines, for about three hundred years Christians were actually worshipping in Jewish temples, and in the main temple as well.

Dr. Samuel Gregg:

Yes, in synagogues. Yes, because the break between Judaism and Christianity takes much longer than I think most people realize.

Audience member:

I was going to ask about Joe because you talk about rationality, but the lesson of Jobe it seems to me is that yes, God may be rational, but we were not there at the creation.

Dr. Samuel Gregg:

Where were you when I created the world?

Audience member:

We could not possibly know the rationale that God is using whenever He does [something].

Dr. Samuel Gregg:

Well, I actually do not talk about Job in particular, but I do talk about this question of mind, how God’s mind is something that we cannot possibly have full knowledge of because we are not God, so that is one [thing]. The second thing I think is that (and I say this in the book) that if God is who He says He is, and He proves that He is who He says He is, and He indeed possesses these capacities of logos, then we can have some confidence that things that seem inexplicable to us, the death of a child, a natural disaster, etc., fit into some overall plan devised by this great mind that we cannot see, we cannot understand, but this great mind can know and understand.

Now, that is not going to lessen the grief of a mother who has lost her three-year-old child, but it is not an irrational explanation of what has happened, so recognizing God is logos tells us something about ourselves, that we are rational, etc., but it also says that there are some things that are beyond the capacity of the human mind, which we have to trust that this great first cause, this creator, this logos, that there is a reason why he is doing these things.

A pagan would never say something like that. A pagan would say, well, he is just doing whatever he wants because he feels like it. There is a difference. There is a very important difference. It does not mean that the Christian or the Jew can come up with a very specific explanation for why this terrible thing happened to occur, but a Jew or Christian can provide an explanation of a wider pattern of why these things might have happened in a way that the pagan mind certainly never could, and certainly none of the hedonistic or sophist philosophers of Greece could have done either.

Audience member:

Thank you very much, Dr. It was a brilliant presentation. I just came back from the Senate in Rome. Of course, if they knew your book, maybe things would be different. They are doing exactly the opposite of what you write, and they are destroying Western civilization. I was there actually helping organize a counter Senate, which went, by the way, very well with Indians from the Amazonas that want to be civilized, who believe in the law. How do you see that?

Dr. Samuel Gregg:

Well, I have lots of thoughts on that, but we do not have all night, so I [just] have a few thoughts [to share]. I was actually thinking about this today on the plane. One thing that the current turmoil that you see in the Catholic Church, something that is replicated in all Christian Confessions, actually, right now is that you see this very clear division between those who believe some of the things I have been talking about tonight, and those who believe other things, who more or less embrace a type of sentimentalism, sentimental humanitarianism, God is a teddy bear, He could not possibly want me not to do that, how could He do this to us, He must love us, therefore He must affirm whatever we do. That is a very widespread idea, so that is one thing.

But what I have noticed as a consequence of this is that way of thinking, when you read about it and you see it on Twitter, you see it on Facebook, you see it on social media, what overwhelmingly comes across to me is just how weak and pathetic it is. No, it really is. When you read what some of them are saying, two times two can equal five. Why? Because God can do whatever he wants. No, God would not do that, etc. Or notions of ongoing violations of the principled non-contradiction (white can be black, black can be white, this type of thing). And the response to critique that they receive is just repetition. They just constantly repeat the same thing over and over and over again because they cannot provide a rational explanation for the positions that they hold, so that is what has impressed me.

I have even had some – I would call them acquaintances, who consider themselves – let us call them secular liberals, who have said to me, ‘Well, I do not believe what you believe, but these people, I really do not believe what they believe,’ because it is junk. It is intellectual junk. It is just not serious. And the fact that people who are not believers can see that and can observe that, which would horrify these people, by the way, because they are the people they worship, the fact that these people can see this very, very clearly, and can see the contradictions, can see the non-sequiturs, can see the aggression with which they deal with anyone who dares to say no, I do not think that is actually what Christ would want, and we have some pretty good evidence for that, and that no, I do not think that Jesus is John Lennon.

I am exaggerating, but my point is the way that when they respond to those arguments with aggression, it is an attempt to shut down discussion, which is an attempt to shut down discussion of things which are rather important. In one sense, some of these tumults are sort of really revealing who believes what, and why they believe what they believe, so the light is being shown on a lot of these things, and we are discovering who is on the side of light, and who is not. That has not been so clear up until relatively recently, but now it is abundantly clear.

And the thing is that this type of thinking that you see that I am criticizing, the fact that it is so weak, intellectually so weak, emotionally very powerful in some instances, but intellectually so weak, I am convinced it cannot last. It cannot last. I mean someone said to me once what you see going on is a sort of revenge of what he described as leftwing conservatives. What do you mean by that? People who are living in 1968 and the world has never ended, it is stuck in 1968. And I have had younger people say to me, wow, these people do not know what they are talking about, literally.

In that sense, I am sort of optimistic because I was reading today that – remember there was an Austrian bishop who said that indigenous people cannot possibly understand the celibacy of priesthood. He was actually a missionary bishop in the Amazon who boasts about never converting anyone, but at the center today, there was an actual, real, live priest from the Amazon who said anyone can accept this, anyone can embrace this if they want to. This is not something that is incomprehensible to us. The progressive neocolonialism, as I would describe it, that was on full display today, I mean the error of it was on full display today. And it was revealed by a quote unquote “indigenous person,” a priest from the Amazon, who said no, of course I can accept it, I can understand it. Who are we to say that we cannot understand these things?

Robert R. Reilly:

Great, Sam, thank you very much.