219 Reason & Christianity

Rodney Stark, a professor at Baylor University, clearly declares the thesis of The Victory of Reason (New York:  Random House, c. 2005) in his subtitle:  Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success.”  More precisely:  “Faith in reason is the most significant feature of Western Civilization” (p. 105).  He explores the historical processes within Christianity wherein “reason won the day, giving unique shape to Western culture and institutions” (p. x) beginning with Early Church thinkers such as Irenaeus, Origen, and Augustine who insisted “that reason was the supreme gift from God and the means to progressively increase their understanding of scripture and revelation.  Consequently, Christianity was oriented to the future, while the other major religions asserted the superiority of the past” (p. x).  

To Stark:  “The success of the West, including the rise of science, rested entirely on religious foundations” (p. xi), and, furthermore:  “the rise of the West was based on four primary victories of reason.  The first was the development of faith in progress within Christian theology.  The second victory was the way that faith in progress translated into technical and organizational innovations, many of them fostered by monastic estates.  The third was that, thanks to Christian theology, reason informed both political philosophy and practice to the extent that responsive states, sustaining a substantial degree of personal freedom, appeared in medieval Europe.  The final victory involved the application of reason to commerce, resulting in the development of capitalism within the safe havens provided by responsive states.  These were the victories by which the West won” (p. xiii).  

Uniquely among all religions, Christians urged individuals to reason.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  All things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made that was made.”  With these words the Apostle John paved the way for a rational religion with mystical implications.  Accordingly, Augustine demanded:  “‘Heaven forbid that God should hate in us that by which he made us superior to the animals’” (p. 6).   Reason enabled believers to delve ever deeper into the storehouse of Scripture, better discerning God’s revelation, and successive Church councils refined doctrines as well as refuted heresies.  Creation and Scripture both reveal God, so Christians such as St. Albert the Great (Aquinas’ mentor) encouraged careful, scientific study of the world.  Consequently, as Alfred North Whitehead concluded, in his definitive Science and the Modern World, scientific development took place in the West as Medieval thinkers insisted “on the rationality of God, conceived as with the personal energy of Jehovah with the rationality of a Greek philosopher’” (p. 15).  

Still more, as theologians pondered the mystery of the Trinity they developed a unique understanding of persons who freely think and will.  “Saint Augustine wrote again and again that we ‘possess a will,’ and that ‘from this it follows that whoever desires to live righteously and honorably, can accomplish this’” (p. 25).  As persons free to think and make decisions, we find freedom our natural milieu and our common human nature provides the foundation for natural rights and justice.  So while slavery was tolerated within Christian circles for several centuries, there was a strong bias against it.  As Lactantius noted, in his Divine Institutes, Christians considered others “brothers,” equal in worth before God.  “‘Since human worth is measured in spiritual not in physical terms, we ignore our various physical situations:   slaves are not slaves to us, but we treat them and address them as brother in the spirit, fellow slaves in devotion to God’” (p. 77).  Slavery simply disappeared in the Medieval world.   

Contrary to egregious stereotypes still circulating in many schools and  universities—“a hoax originated by antireligious, and bitterly anti-Catholic, eighteenth-century intellectuals” such as Voltaire (p. 35)—science flourished (often within  monasteries) throughout the Medieval period.  The “Dark Ages” were in fact hardly dark at all!  As the Roman Empire collapsed, millions of individuals were increasingly free to innovate and prosper.  New technologies—water mills, wind mills, horse collars and shoes increasing horse power, wheeled plows, fish ponds, cloth making, chimneys, eyeglasses, clocks, compasses—gradually improved the living standard of ordinary folks.  Simultaneous advances in high culture—pipe organs, harpsichords, violins, polyphonies, Romanesque and Gothic architecture, Dante and Chaucer, scores of universities such as Oxford and Salamanca and Prague—demonstrated the sophistication and originality of Christians throughout the Middle Ages. 

Capitalism developed in the ninth century as Catholic monks managing profitable farms sought to “reformulate fundamental doctrines to make their faith compatible with their economic progress” (p. 55).    As Stark defines it:  “Capitalism is an economic system wherein privately owned, relatively well organized, and stable firms pursue complex commercial activities within a relative free (unregulated) market, taking a systematic, long term approach to investing and reinvesting wealth (directly or indirectly) in productive activities involving a hired workforce, and guided by anticipated and actual returns” (p. 56).  As monasteries acquired more and more land, devout monks sought to manage them well, appropriating new technologies and envisioning a cash economy with just prices far better than antiquated barter systems, realizing the importance of property rights, profits, mortgages and credit.  Private property, Thomas Aquinas argued, must be defended “‘because human affairs are more efficiently organized when each person has his own distinct responsibility to discharge’” (p. 79).   Eminent theologians such as Aquinas “declared that profits were morally legitimate, and while giving lip service to the long tradition of opposition to usury, these same theologians justified interest charges” (p. 63).  They intuited the “miracle” of capitalism—“as time goes by, everyone has more” (p. 106).  

During the late Middle Ages a vigorous capitalistic system flourished.  Abacus schools (often called “Italian schools”) proliferated and trained clerks (adept at double-entry bookkeeping) for slots in burgeoning businesses.  International banks, bills of exchange, and venture capital loans all fueled a dynamic economy.  Additionally, as Christians “medieval capitalists often were concerned about the personal morality of those whom they employed” (p. 111) and stressed frugality and charity.  Within capitalist circles was an association of folks known as the Humiliati, devout Catholics who eschewed luxury and committed themselves to “‘austerity, prayer, fellowship and manual labour, while living with their families’” (p. 121).  They also “pledged to give all of their ‘excess income’ to the poor” (p. 121).  Moving north, capitalism subsidized the woolen mills in Flanders and Holland.  A “precursor to the modern stock exchange” was evident in Bruges, a booming city with a population of 90,000 as early as 1453.  In Antwerp and Amsterdam—and indeed wherever free enterprise capitalism thrived—prosperity ensued.  

When nation states developed in the 15th century, however, these capitalist centers collapsed as the increasingly absolute monarchs of Spain and France determined to control (and expropriate for themselves) their nation’s wealth.  They extended their tentacles into Italy and Holland, crushing (through taxation and regulation) the industries that enabled Florence and Bruges to proper in earlier centuries.  What Adam Smith would label mercantilism led to economic stagnation and repressive policies subverting the common weal throughout Europe.  England also turned in a despotic direction under the Tudors as Henry VII and his descendents sought to centralize power and control the nation’s wealth.  But important historical events (e.g. as the Magna Charta) and traditions (e.g. a genuinely decentralized economy) countered the centralizing tendencies of absolutism and allowed certain kinds of representative government and free enterprise to flourish.  Consequently, Englishmen at home and abroad nourished a capitalist commitment and Alexis de Tocqueville described the United States “early in the nineteenth century as ‘one of the freest and most enlightened nations in the world’” (p. 212).  

So “Christianity created Western Civilization” (p. 233).  Concluding his work, Stark cites “one of China’s leading scholars” who wondered why the West now dominates the world and “studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective.  At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had.  Then we thought it was because you had the best political system.  Next we focused on your economic system.  But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion:  Christianity.  That is why the West is so powerful.  The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics.  We don’t have any doubt about this’” (p. 234).  And, says Stark,  “Neither do I” (p. 235).  

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On September 12, 2006, Pope Benedict XVI delivered an oft-misrepresented lecture at the University of Regensburg addressing “faith, reason and the university.”  Reminding his hearers of the historic importance of such scholarly conclaves, he pointed to an earlier gathering near Ankara, Turkey, in 1321, between Manuel II Paleologus, the Byzantine emperor, and a noted Persian intellectual.  Challenging the historic Islamic commitment to Jihad, the Christian ruler highlighted the blatant contradiction between one of Mohammed’s early declarations—“There is no compulsion in religion”—and his later endorsement and implementation of Jihad, holy war.  Manuel II issued a challenge:  “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”  

Spreading the faith with the sword is wrong, Manuel argued, because such violence violates the very nature of God.  “God,” the emperor said, “is not pleased by blood—and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature.  Faith is born of the soul, not the body.  Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak and reason properly, without violence and threats.”  To a Christian ruler, “shaped by Greek philosophy,” Pope Benedict says, “this statement is self-evident.  But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent.  His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality” (#14).  Unlike Muslims, Christians believe that in the Logos and an intricate harmony between faith and reason.  Unfortunately, this balance was lost as Nominalists (such as William of Occam) in the late Medieval world joined Muslims in elevating God’s Voluntas above His Logos.  

Protestants such as Luther further tended to dehellenize theology—even despising, in Luther’s case, reason itself.  Immanuel Kant’s 18th century effort to anchor “faith exclusively in practical reason” (#35) arbitrarily reduced religious faith to a purely subjective response, making it a “personal experience,” and liberal theologians in the 19th century (following Schleiermacher) effectively discarded the “God of the philosophers” in order to seek personal encounters with the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”  This complex historical development, cogently summarized by Benedict XVI, has led to the pervasive skepticism and relativism so baneful in the modern academy.  Removing reason from religion, voluntarists—whether Mohammed or Duns Scotus, Luther or Kant—paved the way for the pervasive irrationalism so evident everywhere.   With Kant, they mistakenly tried to protect religion by discarding metaphysics and setting “thinking aside in order to make room for faith” (#35).  So we now face a world clearly described by Socrates, in Phaedo, when he appraised the many conflicting philosophies pervading Athens and said:  “It would be easily understandable if someone became so annoyed at all these false notions that for the rest of his life he despised and mocked all talk about being—but in this way he would be deprived of the truth of existence and would suffer great loss.”  However difficult the challenge, Benedict urges us to side with Socrates—and Emperor Manuel II—and discern the truth of being, the Logos whereby all exists, and find our real raison de etre.  

Benedict’s lecture, says James Schall in The Regensburg Lecture (South Bend:  St. Augustine’s Press, c. 2007), “is one of the fundamental tractates of our time” (p. 9).  It deserves extended commentary as well as reading and re-reading.  The Pope “has an amazing capacity to get to the heart of things.  He is a wise man in the proper sense of that term.  That is, he knows how to find the order in things.  He knows the foundational issues” (p. 5).  Open to Reality, he wants to “straighten out our minds about where we are and what we are about.  Acting correctly presupposes thinking correctly, presupposed understanding what is” (p. 10).  Rightly understanding what is about God rightly concerns us.  “Is He logos or not, is He sola voluntas or not.  We need to grasp the import of such inquiry” (p. 44).  Christians who worship a reasonable God and Muslims who worship an arbitrary, voluntarist Allah do, in fact, worship different gods!  Therein lies the radical, irreconcilable differences between these two religions.  Christian martyrs die for their Lord; Muslim suicide bombers randomly kill, taking others’ lives in the name of Allah.  

Remarkably akin to Islam, the modernity crafted by Western intellectuals such as Descartes and Rousseau and Marx assumes “that the first principles of reason are themselves subject to will.  Contrary to Aristotle, they do not ‘bind’ reason to what is.  Modernity, in its philosophic sense, means that we are bound by nothing.  There is no order in things or in the mind, for that matter, that would ground any order.  There is only the order we ourselves make and impose on things.  This view of modernity has developed, in large part, to protect us from the notion that truth obligates us.  The real question thus becomes, in the classical sense, what ‘limits’ reason?  The answer is what is, reality” (p. 106).  

Eminent Christian theologians, from Origen onwards, have relied on Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle as well as biblical revelation.  Western Civilization stands as witness to their invigorating intellectual work.  We need (personally and collectively) both good philosophy and theology.  As the 21st century begins, the West has, sadly, fallen on hard times.  (I saw hints of this when, mid-way through my career as a history professor, World Civilizations replaced Western Civilization as a staple in the general core.  Jesse Jackson’s orchestrated marches at Stanford University toward the end of the ‘80s—chanting “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western Civ Has Gotta Go”—memorably marks that transition.)  

Professor Schall’s exegesis of Benedict’s lecture amplifies and illuminates its message.  We must reestablish the truth at all things were made by the Word—God, essentially, is the Mind making all that is coherent.  As rational creatures, we are called to behold this Mind and conform our minds to His.  “Mind is universal, as Cicero often said” (p. 128).  Either God capriciously calls for Jihad or rationally pleads for brotherly love.  Between the two gods there is simply no common ground.  Reasonable discussion, the Pope hopes, might lead to a common commitment to what our minds, open to what is, simply must tell us what is true regarding the “One in whom we live, and move, and have our being.”  

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Roger Scruton—an academically trained English philosopher who now writes full time, the author of eminent treatises such as Modern Philosophy and The Aesthetics of Music—explores, in The West and the Rest:  Globalization and the Terrorist Threat (Wilmington:  Intercollegiate Studies Institute, c. 2002) “the vision of society and political order that lies at the heart of ‘Western civilization’” (p. x).  From its inception Christianity held aloft Jesus words:  “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”  Two realms, St. Augustine’s two cities—the religious and the political—should co-exist and retain their proper boundaries.  “The idea persists in the medieval distinction between regnum and sacerdotium, and was enshrined in the uneasy coexistence of Emperor and Pope on the two ‘universal’ thrones of Medieval Europe” (p. 4).  Consequently, “throughout the course of Christian civilization we find a recognition that conflicts must be resolved and social order maintained by political rather than religious jurisdiction.  The separation of church and state was from the beginning an accepted doctrine of the church” (p. 5).  While many religions are tribal or national, Christianity was ever a “creed community,” open to Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and freemen.  Flourishing within the Roman Empire, it “adopted and immortalized the greatest of all Roman achievements, which was the universal system of law as a means for the resolution of conflicts and the administration of distant provinces” (p. 21).  In the secular realm, Christians were loyal, law-abiding citizens of the state; in the spiritual realm, however, they obeyed God only.  

Islam, on the other hand, insists there can be no separation of church and state—all is one under the sovereign authority of Allah and the ulama who claim divinely imparted knowledge and imams who interpret Mohammed’s edicts in the Koran.  Islam is not a political system, but it insists on controlling the political order.  “Like the Communist Party in its Leninist construction, Islam aims to control the state without being a subject of the state” (p. 6).  Islamic law, the sharia, minutely regulating all kinds of behavior, is envisioned as the perfect resolution to all social as well as religious issues. 

In Scruton’s judgment, the separation of church and state began to unravel during in the West during the Enlightenment.  This was because it is “impossible to understand the French Revolution of one does not see it as primarily a religious phenomenon” (p. 44).  Both the monarchy and the Church were to be destroyed by the Revolution’s “fanaticism and exterminatory zeal” (p. 45).  As revolutionary movements and ideologies grew empowered during the next two centuries, a “godless theology” gained momentum and a rather unanticipated “culture of repudiation” emerged, extending even to such hallowed entities as the family.  This is evident in a pervasive “demand for rights” wherein politics degenerates into “a scramble to claim as much from the common resources as they will yield” (p. 68).  Added to this is the postmodern repudiation of objective truth and, indeed, reason itself!  Enamored of Nietzsche, eminent intellectuals such as Foucault and Derrida recite his prescription:  “There are no truths, only interpretations.”  An inconsistent and self-contradictory relativism necessarily devolves from this, placidly holding that all cultures, as well as all viewpoints, are equally valid.  “All distinctions are ‘cultural,’ therefore ‘constructed,’ therefore ‘ideological,’ in the sense defined by Marx—manufactured by the ruling classes in order to serve their interests and bolster their power.  Western civilization is simply the record of that oppressive process, and the principal purpose of studying it is to deconstruct its claim to our membership” (p. 79).  Nothing can be judged, nothing condemned—except, of course, universal truths and objective values and anyone who dares challenge the regnant relativism.  

Thus today we have a newly-apologetic West facing a suddenly-militant and aggressive Islam.  In an economically globalizing world conflicts inevitably erupt and “the Islamists have identified the core component of the system that they wish to destroy” (p. 134).  Globalization’s tentacles, spreading into Muslim lands, revealed a secular society without foundation in divine law, challenging most all the traditions sacred to Islam.  “It is the very success of America in founding a common loyalty without a shared religious faith that so incenses the Islamist extremists” (p. 65).  Scruton’s analysis is fresh and insightful.  While not the whole story, it tells important truths regarding what distinguish “the West from the rest” (p. 159).