No God, no reason, no civilization…
Ideas have consequences—especially those ideas about God’s nature. This fact is evident to anyone paying half-attention to the newly acquired prominence of Islam on the world stage. Even secular Western culture is shaped by the prominent views of God.
Sadly, much of the religion in the west reinforces the secular view that religion is irrational. God is not seen as a God of reason, giving rise to three distorted views of God’s nature, according to Samuel Gregg.
One is “God-As-Will,” but untethered to reason. This is a God who acts arbitrarily, one whom we must simply obey. Freedom is thus found in unquestioning submission, no matter how irrational the divine command.
Another is “God-As-Love,” but without reasonableness. This is a being who, like an irresponsible parent, simply affirms his child’s choices, no matter how foolish or evil such decisions might be.
A third possibility is “God-Beyond-Reason.” This produces a narrowed understanding of human reason itself: one that confines our rationality to the verifiable scientific method, and thereby declines to permit it to ponder the bigger questions opened by the intriguing possibility that Divine Reason exists.
The consequences become readily apparent.
If any of these conceptions of God prevails in a culture, we can hardly be surprised that attempts to answer why we make particular choices—moral, political, legal, and economic—become reduced to strongly felt feelings, utilitarian calculations, or, more recently, what the philosopher Tyler Burge calls “neurobabble.” Instead of seeking rational resolution of problems, we increasingly defer to reigning majority opinion, panels of experts, consequentialist rationalizations devised to legitimize all sorts of evil, or some type of force—whether expressed though democratically elected temporary majorities or outright coercion.
Notions of natural law and right reason also become harder to comprehend in these circumstances. After all, if the God who created man is an irrational entity or just another sentimental humanitarian, why should we expect humans to be reasonable? …
The fact that instinct plays a role in human decision-making isn’t exactly a new insight. What makes humans different from animals—and opens up the very possibility of civilization in the first place—is our capacity for natural reason and free choice. These enable us to resist our baser predispositions, to know the good, and then to choose it. Yet it is very challenging for a culture to sustain this specific vision of reason and choice if it conceptualizes God as a Cosmic Will capable of contradicting Himself, a Celestial Teddy Bear whose prime responsibility is to cuddle us, or a Supreme Watchmaker who allows us to discover the mechanics of how things work but doesn’t regard us as worthy of knowing his deeper reasons for creating the world.
Without a reasonable faith, Christians in the west have no way to counter those who do have reasons for their faith—those who have reasons to “decapitate hostages, burn prisoners of war to death, gun down cartoonists, slaughter Jews shopping in kosher markets, and then claim religious warrants for doing so … .”
Most contemporary discussion of these matters has focused, with good reason, on the connection between Islam’s view of the Deity and Islamic violence. Less attention, however, has been paid to the way in which the West’s own loss of a sense of God as Logos [Divine Reason] helps explain why much of it seems to be living in what Robert P. George aptly describes as an “Age of Feelings.” Violence isn’t, after all, the only way in which profound irrationality can be expressed. …
The Islamic world is struggling with a particularly virulent God problem. For everyone else, this matters, because while we can protect ourselves to an extent against those who want us to submit to a thoroughly voluntaristic vision of a Deity who acts unreasonably, at some point the cessation of Muslim violence is going to require many Muslims to change their minds about God’s nature. …
Yet anyone who cares about Western civilization should also remember that no matter how materially prosperous and technologically advanced we become or how much we celebrate concepts such as rule of law, the coherence of these achievements will be increasingly tenuous if our culture-forming institutions—ranging from families and universities to synagogues and churches—continue embracing sentimentalist conceptions of the Divine.
For all the affirmation and apparent comfort it offers, the West’s Age of Feelings could well turn out to be one of the darkest and most anti-civilizational of them all.
“God, Reason, and Our Civilizational Crisis” by Samuel Gregg was published in Public Discourse and is available at the website of the Witherspoon Institute