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 Policy; Journal of Markets & Morality; Economic Affairs; Law and Investment Management; Journal des Economistes et des Etudes Humaines; Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics and Public Policy; Evidence; Ave Maria Law Review; Oxford Analytica; Communio; Journal of Scottish Philosophy; University Bookman; Moreana; Foreign Affairs; and Policy. He is a regular writer of opinion-pieces which appear in publications such as the Wall Street Journal Europe; First Things; Investors Business Daily; Washington Times; American Banker; National Review; The Stream; Public Discourse; American Spectator; El Mercurio; Australian Financial Review; Jerusalem 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 Romano, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, the Weekly Standard, Time Magazine, Christian 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’s a tremendous pleasure to welcome our penultimate speaker at this location, Dr. Samuel Gregg. I should mention that he’s 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’ll be talking about his new book, but first I’ll just explain.
As I think you know, he’s Director of Research at the Acton Institute. He’s covered questions of political economy, economic history, ethics, finance, and natural law theory on which he’s 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’ll 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’m 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’ve probably seen his op-ed pieces in The Wall Street Journal, First Things, Investor’s Business Daily, etc. Tonight, he’s 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:
Well, thank you Bob. I’m 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’m 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’s been received by the book. I haven’t stopped talking about it, I haven’t stopped being interviewed about it, I’ve forgotten how many podcasts I’ve done, but I’m surprised by the amount of attention the book has gotten because as its rather broad title suggests, it’s concerned with some rather broad themes, right? It’s 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’s also about disorders, disorders between religion and faith have and I think continue to do enormous damage to Western societies.
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’s facing the West today is not political and it’s not economic. Economics and politics matter, they really do, but I’ve 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 don’t 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.
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’s 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’s 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.
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’s not a question of ignoring tensions because there’s 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’m 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.”
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’s 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’s 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’d argue, basically see the whole Enlightenment project, the whole Enlightenment experience, as something to be rejected, holos-bolus. It’s 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’s 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.
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’s 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’s 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’m 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’s 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.
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 don’t think could have constructed on their own, so it’s 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. It’s also crucial to understanding another characteristic Western emphasis, which is that of liberty. Now, by that I don’t just mean liberty in the sense of minimizing unreasonable coercion – that’s 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’s 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.
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.
It’s also true that some Enlightenment thinkers and their way of studying 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 don’t think so.
The flip side however to all these positive developments are the negative aspects of Enlightenment thought. They include – I’d 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’re 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.
Now, the things of which I’m speaking are not stuff of everyday political discourse or debates about economic policy, they don’t even feature significantly in what passes for high level cultural discussions today, yet the stakes are really high. They’re very high for the West because it’s clear that the integration of reason and faith that’s 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’s be clear, there’s no going back to a pre-Enlightenment world. We can’t go back in time. We can’t pretend that the various Enlightenments never happened. At the same time, I don’t think we need to settle for a civilization that marginalizes the faiths of the West in the name of reason and science.
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’s 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.
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.
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’ve always thought that we can’t 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’s 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’s 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.
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’s 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’s 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 don’t 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’s 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.
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 don’t know, he’s 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’s 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’s 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’m afraid the West is lost, but I don’t believe the decline is inevitable. I say it again. There’s 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’s truly enlightening and fully consistent with the faiths of the West, and I think it is to build a future for the West that’s firmly grounded on the sure knowledge that it is in the end the truth embodied in the logos that sets us free. Thank you.