A User’s Guide to Western Civilization

By John Zmirak Published on June 11, 2019

Pentecost was quite a day. I was having lunch downtown with one of the most eloquent opponents of the LGBT lobby, Robert Oscar Lopez. In the middle I got a call from our best defender of natural law, Robert Reilly. By the time I got off the phone, the skies had opened. Heavy rain and hailstones fell, as 70 mph winds felled trees all over Dallas. By the time I got an Uber, all the traffic lights were out. In the face of blinking red lights, drivers were thrown back on common courtesy and self-policed fairness.

I got home to find my apartment dark, warm and silent. No lights, air conditioning or internet. My phone had limited power, which I needed to save. So goodbye to social media. And even to classical music. I opened some painted-shut windows to cool off the dogs. And then I sat down to do something I hadn’t tried in a while. To read a printed book by natural light, hurrying before the sun went down.

A One-Stop Liberal Arts Education

So I picked up a new arrival. The winds the Spirit sent in the fading light saw me reading Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization, by Samuel Gregg. And I couldn’t put it down. I had no trouble reading all 160-odd pages in one sitting, despite my importuning beagles. But those two blessings of nature allowed me this period of grace, and I’m here to pass it along.

Read. This. Book. Even if you must do so by artificial light, or on Kindle, in a noisy coffee shop that won’t allow hunting dogs.

Gregg’s book is the closest thing I’ve encountered in a long time to a one-volume user’s manual for operating Western Civilization. The only other candidate I can think of is the much longer and more difficult Christianity and Classical Culture. But that demands many more slow afternoons.

An Idiocy Vaccination for Students

I wish every high school senior in America could be coaxed into reading Gregg’s book. It would serve to vaccinate them against the lazy, seductive falsehoods that await them in almost every college classroom. At virtually every college.

Gregg is learned in economics, history, philosophy and theology. A holistic thinker, he’s able to shine the sweet light of reason, gently colored by faith as if through a stained glass window, on many dank corners of modern confusion. His thesis throughout is that contemporary secularism has sawed off the tree limb it sits on.

I wish every high school senior in America could be coaxed into reading Gregg’s book. It would serve to vaccinate them against the lazy, seductive falsehoods that await them in almost every college classroom. At virtually every college.

In the name of reason, secularism forbade us to take faith seriously. Indeed, you’d have better luck winning an argument these days citing your psychiatric “transgender” delusions than naming your faith. But reason walled off from faith quickly starves to death, since it loses confidence in man’s ability to know anything real at all.

Reason Eats Its Tail

As it turns out, that bold Enlightenment confidence in the world as a place that the human mind can understand… ? Where things make sense, and we can know how to act justly… ? That’s not the product of classical reason at all. It’s a legacy of faith, which the Jews received from their forefathers and handed on to the rest of us. The classical world, for all its light smattering of philosophers, was mostly a sea of tyranny, skepticism, relativism and gross superstitious cults. Which is what post-Christian Europe is once again becoming. Quickly. More so each year.Gregg Book

Cast off that divine assurance that the world is permeable to our minds, and reason quickly flounders. It hits again and again brick walls it cannot climb. It can’t even justify empirical science. Reason quickly gives way to the brute claims of will.

Cast off the God whose Logos (word or reason) infuses everything, from quarks up through our intellects? Soon you’re calmly listening as men in white lab coats solemnly assure you that the human brain has no access to truth. Your thoughts are just a side effect of neurons shooting sparks. And lacking the spark of faith, you’re liable to nod and take notes. Instead of asking the screamingly obvious questions: So that statement of yours about neurons … it’s not objectively true, then? It’s just the side-effect of some neurons firing, too?

The scientist won’t tell you, and perhaps can’t admit to himself, what’s really going on. It’s more like this:

  • I’ve made the willful decision to reject any claims of faith.
  • I have chosen instead to pretend that only empirical science offers truth.
  • But that doesn’t make sense, since no experiments prove that.
  • And yes, my claims undermine everything I’m saying.
  • But I’ve willfully chosen not to see that. And so I’ll pretend that your questions don’t make any sense.
  • And if you resist, I’ll label you as a fundamentalist or something, and use economic or political power to marginalize or silence you.

Magpies and Monkeys

Or else you’ll be facing a mob of politicized, intersectional protesters. If you try to cite standards like “justice,” or ideals like “freedom,” they’ll shout you down. They’ll pretend they believe you’re just wielding “privilege” in defense of “white civilization.” And so, like magpies or monkeys, they’ll pick up bright, shiny fragments from the shattered mosaic of Western achievements. They’ll play with them for a while, just as long as they find them useful. But they’ll quickly get bored. Because they, too, are merely engaged in asserting their wills against yours. Cut off from faith and reason, it’s all they have left.

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Gregg’s book is a thoughtful tour through the growth of Western reason as a healthy extension of faith β€” one which we frequently need to keep faith from sinking into superstition. It’s also a guidebook on how we can resuscitate reason with faith, prune faith of false excesses, and on that wholesome basis, pursue both justice and freedom.

Therefore, as the angel told Augustine: Take and read.


John Zmirak is Senior Editor at The Stream. And co-author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration. Follow him on Twitter @jzmirak. Follow The Stream @streamdotorg.

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