Reforming the Reformation: A Review

This is what I would have said back in January if I had had the time to finish the book then.  We're having a discussion about it here on campus this week, if you want to know more.  This is what I'll be saying, more or less.

Comment on Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012).

This is an intimidating book.  It is also a book that is very difficult to summarize.  Not only does it take on the whole of European history from the high Middle Ages to the present; it also critiques the very historiography upon which our narrative of European (and, by the by, American and, indeed, world) history has tended to depend.  Name something—anything—that you know about the development of the modern world and Prof. Gregory’s book will have something to say about it—and then it will show you how everything that you have ever believed about it is wrong. 

The triumph of secular modernity, the absolute freedom of the individual, toleration and choice as the ground of freedom, the separation of "religion" and state: all (according to Prof. Gregory) were unintended consequences of the destabilization of Christianity during the so-called Reformation with consequences that we ourselves do not (yet) fully appreciate.  It's a mind-blowing argument if, like me, you've spent your life trying to understand why every book on religion you've ever read wants nothing more than to prove that here, at long last, we've found the origins of true interiority, of a true, unmediated experience of God.  And then you learn that that is because it is simply a product of our modern obsession with separating "religion" out from our public, political life so as to avoid the kinds of clashes that wracked Europe throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.   

No, that's not quite it.  Prof. Gregory's argument is difficult to summarize.  Because, you see, it touches on everything, all at once: science, philosophy, reason, religion, economics, consumption, education, secularization, politics.  Everything.  And then turns it upside down.  Much as the Reformation (albeit, unintentionally) did with the grounds of Christian society.  So that now we can have one of our very own presidential candidates claiming that it is unchristian to worry about massive disparities in wealth or about ways in which to help the poor.  Only in America.  (Because, frankly, in Europe, they gave up being Christian after World War II.  Or thereabouts.  Prof. Gregory has something to say about that, too.  It has to do with the churches in Europe being so closely allied with their governments.  Which, in fact, ours are, too, but in a different way.  It's complicated.  Read chapter 3.)  And then there are the reasons we can have the kind of vapid non-arguments that we do in the public sphere, with everyone insisting that he has the right to believe whatever he wants to because there are no grounds upon which we can actually base our belief other than reason (which, as Prof. Gregory shows, is nowhere near as definitive as the philosophers would have it, quite the reverse; that's chapter 2) or choice ("I want it, so it must be right"; chapter 5).

People in the Middle Ages (those ever-so-dark "Middle Ages") knew better.  At least, that seems to be what Prof. Gregory is saying (he hedges, not wanting to sound too nostalgic).  Certainly, they believed in an ethics grounded on virtue, not just choice (chapter 4).  And they believed in sources of wisdom other than reason (chapters 1 and 2).  Like, for example, Scripture.  Or tradition.  Or (heaven help us) God.  I suspect Prof. Gregory is going to be criticized, by medievalists more than any one, for being a bit nostalgic here.  Although, as a Christian and a medievalist, I am, of course, delighted.  Bring back the Age of Faith!  Bring back a world in which life had a purpose and meaning other than dying as old as possible while staying as "young" as possible so as to accumulate the most toys!  (I paraphrase.)  I wish that I felt smart enough right now to do his argument justice, I know you are going to be anxious about everything that I've just said and want to tell me how Prof. Gregory has gotten it wrong.  (I know this because my family and colleagues have every time I've tried to tell them something about his argument.  "Reductive" is the word I've heard most.)  But I know, too, that I need to find some way to express what I've learned from him because it affects everything that I think about why I study the past, never mind the present or future.  So let me try to say a few things that are a bit more measured, so as to give you a clearer sense of the ride you are in for if you haven’t yet read his book.

Chapter One: “Excluding God.”  How did we (modern, Western, secular humanists) get to the point where we could believe even for an instant that religion and science were somehow at odds?  This is an argument that would have made next to no sense in, say, the thirteenth century, when scholastics like Thomas Aquinas were busily engaged in reading Aristotle as a way of refining their understanding of the natural, material creation of God.  That it has taken on the status of near mythological truth since then (think, for example, of every children’s book you have ever read in which Galileo is presented as a martyr to “science”) has nothing to do with any purported threat that science (a.k.a. “empirical investigation of the natural world”) might make to theology.  Rather, it depends on two metaphysical claims made from within theology, the first positing God univocally as a highest being among others (rather than as the transcendent Creator of being), the second (better known as Occam’s razor) insisting that “if God was unneeded to account for causal explanations of natural phenomenon, there was no reason to invoke him” [p. 52].  Bluntly, it was not the scientists who excluded God from science, but the theologians.  And, thanks to the bitter controversies of the early sixteenth century among theologians over the working of God in nature (a.k.a. the sacraments), which ended by leaving the scientists without a theological leg to stand on, God has yet to come back, precisely because it was the theologians who originally pushed him out.

Chapter Two: “Relativizing Doctrines.”  Ask anybody: “What should I live for, and why?  What should I believe, and why should I believe it?  What is morality, and where does it come from?  What kind of person should I be?  What is meaningful in life, and what should I do in order to lead a fulfilling life?” [p. 74] You all know the answer: whatever you choose.  Because, after all, “truth is whatever is true to you, values are whatever you value, priorities are whatever you prioritize, and what you should live for is whatever you decide you should live for” [p. 77].  You are absolutely free to choose whatever you want to believe and to live accordingly.  What other basis for choosing do you have?  Not religion!  How many times have you heard it said, after all, that “all religious beliefs are subjective, no religious doctrine is more than a human construct, and/or that all religion is to be explained exclusively in terms of its social, political, and psychological functions”? [p. 76]  Pretty much every day, right?  Except, again, this is not what anybody believed prior to the sixteenth century, when the Protestants began to insist that it was Scripture and Scripture alone on which Christians should base their understanding of God’s self-revelation.  Not tradition, not the teaching of the Church over time.  Just the reading of Scripture.  But whose?  You can see where this is going.  Again, it was hardly the intention of the reformers to suggest that “biblical interpretation was in principal a matter of opinion or preference” [p. 88], but that is where we have ended up.  And not only with Scripture, but with reason, too.  Have you noticed lately how hard up the philosophers are to come to some—indeed, any—agreement about the answers to Life’s Questions based solely on the ruthless criticism of all previous answers on the basis of reason?  The best we can do at the moment seems to be to say, with Foucault, “Look, there’s power.  Let’s resist it.”  Except, of course, when it is a matter of exercising our own freedom to choose.  Particularly, if we are lucky enough to be Americans, what church we go to.  Which brings us to…

Chapter Three: “Controlling the Churches.”  The argument of this chapter is perhaps the most chilling in the book, and that is saying something when we haven’t even gotten to the chapters on morality, consumer society, and education.  Sure, it is frustrating that science and religion have been perceived to be at odds.  And, sure, it is unsettling that there are no satisfying answers to Life’s Big Questions, but we’re free, right?  Particularly in America, we are free to worship (or not), whenever, however, whomever and/or whatever we choose.  Nothing—not even finding the answers to our questions about the meaning of life—is worth sacrificing this freedom for, right?  Except that we aren’t free, not really.  Not, at least, in the way we imagine.  Rather (and I said this was chilling), even in America, even in the great Land of the Separation of Church and State, we (Christians of all denominations and confessions, along with our fellow Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews) are only as free as our state allows us to be.  It is the state—that is, the prince, the magistrate, the government—who determines our religion, not our religion that determines our state.  Cuius regio, eius religio.  Indeed, the only difference between our situation and that of the Russian Orthodox under the Soviet Union or, indeed, the Jews under Nazi Germany is that the state has declared that our religion will be one of toleration rather than (as in most European countries) state-determined or (as under communism) officially suppressed.  In Prof. Gregory’s words: “Whether in Western confessional, liberal, or totalitarian regimes, states control churches: whether they prescribe, permit, or proscribe religion, they do so entirely on their own terms, exercising an institutional monopoly of power in the public sphere” [p. 130].  State control of religion has been the unintended consequence of the peace of Augsburg, not “separation of church and state” (a.k.a. secular society free from the control of religion) as Americans so fondly believe.

Chapter Four:  “Subjectivizing Morality.”  But what is so bad about that?  After all, who wants a whole society governed by ideals of religious, even Christian, morality?  Isn’t it better for the state to oversee the interests of the polity so as to protect the individual from other people’s ideas of what is right?  Except, of course, for the fact that all the state cares about is protecting itself.  After all, what other basis for existence could it have?  Virtue?  Morality?  But aren’t these wholly private, subjective concerns?  And Heaven forbid that anybody—even God—should tell us what to do privately, never mind publicly.  Like, for example, clothe the naked.  Or feed the hungry.  Or care for the sick.  Or visit the imprisoned.  Or comfort the afflicted.  To be sure, most of us agree that all of the above would be good things, but only insofar as their exercise did not impinge upon our individual rights.  (State-supported healthcare, anyone?)  It should go without saying that medieval Christians would have been appalled at this attitude.  What about virtue?  What about ethics?  Ah, but wouldn’t trying to live according to some external, even divinely-sanctioned ideal infringe upon the free exercise of our sovereign wills?  No, we are much better off, surely, with at least this unintended consequence of the sixteenth-century breakdown of the institutionalized Christian worldview according to which human perfection consisted in the disciplined realignment of one’s individual will with God’s (a.k.a. virtue).  Rights are better than virtue, right?  Mind you, sixteenth-century Protestants and Catholics would be likewise appalled at our present-day subjectivized morality, but then they shouldn’t have been so restrictive, indeed Puritanical, about morality, should they?  And, besides, who would they have been to talk, what with all the wars that they fought trying to insist on their own particular brand of morality?  Much better to go with the Golden Age Dutch Republic and allow individuals to choose their own beliefs—and goods—with, of course, the proviso that they obey the laws of the state.

Chapter Five: “Manufacturing the Goods Life.”  Because that’s what we really want, isn’t it?  Consumer choice.  Of all of the rights that we look to our modern, secularized states to secure, the right to pursue the goods life is arguably uppermost on even the most politically liberal agenda.  What, after all, could be more sacred than building a home, caring for our spouses and children, providing for our families?  Even God loses out, never mind the hungry and poor, when it is a matter of remodeling our kitchens.  Just think of all the arguments that we make about how best to spend our money (and, therefore, for most of us, our time).  Is it ever, in fact, wrong to want to make one’s home more comfortable, if not for oneself, then for the sake of one’s children?  To be sure, it is somewhat sinful (note the metaphor) to indulge oneself with say, gourmet chocolates or luxury cruises or expensive automobiles.  But virtue, if it lies anywhere, surely lies in the exercise of our liberty to make for ourselves the best possible—read, most materially comfortable—lives that we can.  Again, medieval Christians had a rather different take on the unfettered acquisition of material goods, as, again, did sixteenth-century Christians.  (They all called it “greed” and considered it a sin.)  But, again, as with morality more generally, so with the morality (or not) of accumulating possessions: the harder Catholics and Protestants tried to assert their understanding of Scripture, the sacraments, ethics, and the role of the Church in society, the more bitter the disagreements—and wars—until the only thing that was left that they weren’t fighting about was, you guessed it, money.  If it was impossible to agree on how best to live the Christian life, at least it was possible to agree how best to live the comfortable life—and so comfortable Christian Europeans and their American descendents became.

Chapter Six: “Secularizing Knowledge.”  But, again, so what?  Leaving aside the large-scale social effects of capitalism’s wholesale ethical take-over, surely the whole point of human life, certainly of modernity’s technological progress, is to make ourselves masters of the world as we know it. After all, isn’t that what our educational system is all about?  Training our future scientists and engineers and entrepreneurs to turn out more and more, better and better stuff?  What other purpose of human life could there be?  Tragically (and here it seems to me Prof. Gregory really is describing a tragedy), even our university-trained intellectuals have no idea anymore, as even our humanities scholars get swept up in making arguments about how their subjects of study might (or might not) be “relevant.”  “Relevant,” that is, to the secular task of creating specialized (ideally marketable) knowledge independent (by definition) of its relationship to any universal moral or ethical standard.  And whose fault is this?  Once again, as with the study of the natural world in particular, so with the study of the human sciences more generally: the theologians.  Or, rather, the theologians as they found themselves crippled by their own disagreements over how to engage with the new gains in knowledge about the human past and the natural world being made in their day, assisted by the universities as they became instruments of the secular state.  Whereas in the thirteenth century, theology held itself up as the queen of the sciences, the discipline by which all others were to be judged, by the beginning of the nineteenth century, the theologians—ever more isolated in their confessional camps—had more or less given up the ghost.  What was left was a universalizing claim to “objective” scientific knowledge in the face of which religion would seem to serve only the Romantic and, therefore, wholly subjective role of individual self-realization. And not even that, once the German model of the research university dedicated to the increase of new—that is, socially and materially applicable, but above all “objective”—knowledge took hold on both sides of the Atlantic. 

Which, there being no time machines, rather leaves us all—to put it mildly—in the soup.  There is, as Prof. Gregory argues, a terrible irony in the triumph of secular modernity over the theological fragmentation wrought by the sixteenth-century attempts at reform, not least in its dependence upon the ideals of toleration and scientific naturalism as the grounds for the existence of secularized, liberal society.  We now live in a world in which there is no institutionally-accepted intellectual justification for our most profound moral and ethical beliefs, indeed no grounds on which to argue that we are anything other than meat-puppets driven by our most basic physical desires and needs.  In Prof. Gregory’s words: “Rights and dignity can be real only if human beings are more than biological matter.”  That is, only if human beings are in fact creatures made in the image and likeness of God—the theological basis of the claim for human dignity in the first place.  “But [to quote Prof. Gregory again] if nature is not creation [as our scientists are wont to argue], then there are no creatures, and human beings are just one more species that happened randomly to evolve, no more ‘endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights’ than is any other bit of matter-energy.  Then there simply are no rights, just as there are no persons, and no theorizing can conjure them into existence” [p. 381].  However much we may celebrate our hard-won liberties as individuals, if we have no Creator to endow us with rights, there are none.  And, therefore, no basis whatsoever to restrain the state from rescinding them whenever it chooses.  So much for the goods life; it’s really all we have left.  For now.

I wish that I could tell you that Prof. Gregory is just being overly nostalgic for a Middle Ages—or, rather, a Christianity—that never existed.  But I can’t.  For one, Prof. Gregory is simply too good a historian for that.  Part of the reason that his book is so long—and it could have been longer—is the great care that he takes in charting every nuance of every step that the sixteenth-century reformers took as they moved further and further away from the possibility of any reconciliation with each other, never mind with the tradition from which they were busy distancing themselves.  But it is also because Prof. Gregory himself isn’t so much nostalgic for a past that never existed (and which, in any case, we have lost thanks to our own vastly improved historiography—no more Galilean martyrs) as he is wistful for a future that never had the possibility to become, precisely because our present is still so deeply entangled in the repercussions of the great sixteenth- and seventeenth-century debates. 

But maybe, after all, this is in fact a good thing at least insofar as we are still so entangled; at least insofar as, culturally, we might even still care about the kinds of things that medieval and Reformation-era Christians cared about.  Like virtue.  And meaning.  And caring for our neighbors.   Not to mention, our world.  This, it seems to me, is what Prof. Gregory’s book is really calling for.  Not a return to the Middle Ages, but a reform.  If there is a nostalgia to his book, it is a nostalgia not for a particular social, cultural, or intellectual structure as such, but rather for a willingness to risk everything for the sake of a truth that is not of this world and yet upon which this world ultimately depends.  It is not that the theologians of the sixteenth century were wrong to ask the questions that they did of their tradition; it is rather that their successors gave up, leaving the world to give its own answers about what was valuable and important while they dug themselves in. 

Are we ready now to dig ourselves out?


  1. Thanks for the thoughtful synopsis. I'll have to read the book when I'm back in the US. Based on this summary, though, it seems like a useful diagnosis of where our modern, secular age (in Charles Taylor's sense) came from. I don't have time to write a long comment now, but I'm tempted to respond: so what--isn't this simply the modern condition? You quote Brad Gregory as saying: "Rights and dignity can be real only if human beings are more than biological matter." Why should this be the case? Only if you insist on some kind of ontological foundation does it follow. Pragmatists and other antifoundationalists, such as myself, are perfectly happy to say that rights and dignity are real things that we have created, just as we have created the state itself and other institutions, which are no less real for being the result of human work. (Try telling the next traffic cop who gives you a ticket that it doesn't matter, because the traffic law is a social construction and therefore isn't real.) They may be more fragile than we would like, as the horrible history of the twentieth century has shown us, but that doesn't make them unreal, any more than a Lalique crystal vase isn't real just because it could so easily be reduced to a pile of shards.

    It seems to me like another way to read Gregory's book (again, based on your summary) is as the history of Kant's idea of enlightenment: how a certain set of human societies freed themselves, at least partially, from their self-imposed tutelage.


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