A review of The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, by Brad S. Gregory

Oscar Handlin, the eminent Harvard historian, used to tell his graduate students, when they complained about his long reading lists, that historical monographs were of three kinds: one-hour books, fifteen-minute books, and five-minute books. What he meant was that a competent professional historian should be able to get through a good book in his own field in an hour. That was long enough to find out the book's subject and argument and to make notes on any source materials that he didn't already know. If the book was less good, fifteen minutes was enough to discover the weaknesses in the argument and the gaps in the documentation. You could toss a bad book onto the discard pile after five minutes. That was enough to skim the preface, wince at a few paragraphs of flaccid prose, and register bibliographic failure before dismissing the book as a waste of time.

This anecdote came to mind about two weeks into reading Brad S. Gregory's Unintended Reformation, with the final page still far out of sight. It's not an easy book. It hops back and forth like a hyperactive rabbit across 20 centuries of Western intellectual history; it makes entirely implausible demands on the reader's prior knowledge; it keeps trying to argue you merrily down such unfamiliar paths that you're constantly in fear of being taken for a ride. Then there is the effort involved in getting up from your chair and retrieving the book every time you hurl it across the room in frustration.

So why keep reading? Because the book is dense and difficult in a good way—a very good way. In fact it's a brilliant, extraordinarily learned, eccentric, opinionated, variously wrong-headed, and utterly wonderful book that will remake your whole view of Western intellectual history, if you let it. It's a book that aspires, and deserves, to stand on the shelf next to Albert Hirschman's The Passions and the Interests (1977), Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue (1981), and Amos Funkenstein's Theology and the Scientific Imagination (1986).

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The Unintended Reformation is ostensibly about some long-term effects, extending into our own day, of the 16th-century religious revolution misleadingly called the Protestant Reformation (misleading since a reformation implies an improvement, a value judgment Gregory means to call into question). Gregory, who teaches European history at Notre Dame, looks around him in modern America and sees a lot of things he doesn't like: political polarization, mindless destruction of the environment, consumerism, a lack of respect for truth, radical subjectivism in morality, hyperpluralism of beliefs, the extrusion of religion from academic life. Putting on his historian's X-ray glasses he spots behind the surface of modern life the unsmiling faces of the Protestant Reformers gazing out at him: Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the rest. They, and the theological beliefs they enabled, are to blame for these undesirable features of the modern world.

They "paved a path to a secular society," whose inevitable result is precisely these undesirable features. It is ultimately thanks to the Reformation that we live in a world where universities no longer provide guidance on what Gregory calls the Life Questions—what should I live for, what should I believe, how should I act? Instead, the modern academy simply lets its students browse aimlessly among a cafeteria of options. To any options they might choose, academe's answer is: Whatever. It's your subjective choice. It may be true for you, but it doesn't have to be true for me or anyone else.

But wasn't the Reformation over and done with a few centuries ago? Not in Gregory's view. To think so is to succumb to the error of "supersessionism," a crypto-Hegelian vice of historians who tend to assume that the distant past has been left behind, that it's no longer part of our reality. Medieval folk were odd lots and that's the end of it. But for Gregory, that's not the end: medieval folk were and remain possible selves that can be recovered by a careful critique of cultural and intellectual genetics. Historical periods and movements begin but they never really end: the memes they produce, whether recessive or dominant, become encoded in various cultural tissue and go on affecting the human organism. Part of the book's purpose is to trace certain theological memes of Protestantism over five centuries and show how they ultimately produced the unintended and undesirable effects we see around us today. Hence, the Unintended Reformation.

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But the book has another purpose beyond pinning some modern spiritual maladies on Reformation theologians. A central part of Gregory's project is to pose the question why traditional Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, is no longer taken seriously as a live option by 21st-century academics, or at least by the 93% of academic scientists who don't believe in a personal God. What is it about contemporary academic culture that puts traditional Christianity beyond the pale?

There is a ready-made answer to this question, of course, which is that traditional Christianity, and above all Catholicism, has been superseded by the advance of science, by democracy and freedom, by wealth and economic success. Catholic theology has just been proved wrong. The authoritarian structure of the Catholic Church is no longer appropriate to free societies. All this was evident enough three centuries ago, so there is no point in even raising the issue any more. The Catholic world has been successfully disenchanted by science and only the ignorant can remain in their superstition.

But for Gregory this is just supersessionism in its most complacent form. There are other reasons, besides what C.S. Lewis used to call "chronological snobbery," why traditional Christianity doesn't compete any more in the academic marketplace of ideas. Modern Christianity boasts many champions of high intellectual caliber and they wield some powerful arguments, but they can't even get a hearing in the academy; to argue for religious belief is dismissed as a particularly disreputable form of special pleading. And why are universities so intent on enabling the search for truth but so uncomfortable, indeed contemptuous, when a religious person claims to have found it?

Gregory's answer to this question is to construct an intellectual genealogy of this and other undesirable cultural phenomena of the modern world. It's a genealogy that leads, time and again, back to the Reformation and its aftermath. Roughly—very roughly—Gregory's thesis is this: The Reformers (as they called themselves) set out to abolish the authority of the Roman Church and reform its religious culture, but their critique of Rome ended up destroying Christianity as a whole, at least as a live option for most educated people in the Western world. The Reformation, by wrecking the "institutionalized worldview" of late medieval Christianity, was ultimately responsible for the wrong turnings taken by European intellectuals in the last five centuries, and thus stands as a remote (but still efficient) cause of contemporary cultural diseases.

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One fateful wrong turn was the acceptance of what the author calls the "univocal conception" of God's being. In Gregory's telling, this was a way of understanding God that contrasted with that of earlier Christianity, which had understood Him as both a transcendent Creator and as causally immanent in His own creation. The univocal concept of God's being, which (Gregory claims) goes back to the late medieval Franciscan theologian, Duns Scotus, instead sees God as one ens among many; He is an infinite being and created other, finite beings in time, but He is not different from them qua ens. This concept supposedly entails that God can be neither radically transcendent nor intimately present to his Creation. He is ultimately just one item in a list of beings, formally distinct from them.

For Gregory, the univocal concept is a sort of theological meme that emerged as dominant in the 17th century, when, thanks to the violent theological quarrels of the Reformation, scientists and philosophers wanted a conception of God that allowed them to bracket confessional theological debate so as to get on with the task of understanding the natural world. The univocal concept, when combined with a nominalistic view of knowledge acquisition and a ban on analysis in terms of final causation, allowed them to do just that—to concentrate on the world as a mechanical system, to be investigated using empirical methods. The emerging scientific community was already oriented to "the relief of man's estate" (in Francis Bacon's phrase), and unless you were a Kabbalist, a divine cause wasn't going to help with that agenda.

The problem, from Gregory's point of view, is that the univocal concept of God's being was false to the historical traditions of Christian theology. Worse, when combined with Ockham's razor and a nominalist epistemology, it led to natural laws being seen as a more concrete and useful explanation of the world around us than a divine final cause. Theological explanations came to be despised as being "barren of works" (Bacon again), i.e., without technological payoffs. Success at exploiting nature created a bias in favor of methodological naturalism, which in principle excludes divine causation and the miraculous intervention of God in the natural order.

In the end, Gregory sees the whole Enlightenment argument over the last three centuries—that science has superseded theology—as a gigantic exercise in begging the question. It is an argument that only appears to succeed because it has been fighting all these years a metaphysical straw man, the univocal concept of God—the clockmaker God as he was vulgarly conceived—rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Science has successfully replaced God only because the God it replaced is the metaphysically defective God of 17th-century natural philosophy.

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A second false turn occasioned by the religious revolution of the 16th century came as the result of the Protestant principle of sola scriptura. Whatever the intention of the Reformers, sola scriptura in practice led to fissiparous sectarianism, to the principle of private judgment, and ultimately, Gregory argues, to modern hyperpluralism. Hyperpluralism (one of this book's many terms of art) is the "enormously wide range of incompatible truth claims pertaining to human values, aspirations, norms, morality, and meaning" that characterizes the modern Western world. The principle of sola scriptura turned out to be entirely inadequate as a criterion of belief.

Once European states were compelled by pragmatic considerations to give up their projects of confessionalization—the forcing of consciences—individuals were left free to decide for themselves what they would believe. Liberalism ultimately protected this freedom as a right, and expressive individualism encouraged people to believe that religion was a matter of taste, to be chosen along with your jeans and your hairstyle as expressing your personal fashion sense. Religion became "spirituality." When a modern "spiritual" person finds herself in despair—like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love (2006)—the god she calls upon answers in her "own voice, speaking from within." In this case, the voice told her, evidently, to divorce her husband, go to Italy to enjoy life, to India to discover Hindu spirituality, and to Bali to find a dashing new lover.

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Among the riches of this book are thought-provoking pages on how Protestant ecclesiology led to the privatization of religion. Another stimulating chapter takes off from Max Weber and Albert Hirschman to argue that modern practices of consumerism existed on a behavioral level in the late middle ages. But because they were embedded in and constrained by the ethical framework of institutional Christianity, these practices did not evolve into capitalism; but the "ideological shift" which allowed the emergence of an ethic of consumerism was an indirect result of the Reformation and the destruction of the institutionalized moral framework that went with it. The remarkable sixth chapter contains a fascinating short history of the extrusion of religion from North American universities from the 19th century to the present. It explains why religion is absent from the modern academic mind: "Intellectually sophisticated expressions of religious worldviews…have not been ‘left behind' or ‘overturned' by ‘modernity' or ‘reason.' They have been institutionally excluded and ideologically denounced, not disproven."

The book closes with an appeal to the modern academy to "unsecularize" itself. Gregory argues, indeed, that the academy needs religious belief to accomplish its own aims and pursue its own ideals, even those that seem perfectly secular. Secularism and scientism, in the absence of some larger metaphysical or theological framework, eventually subvert their own assumptions from within. And the hostility to belief—to final truths—that characterizes the modern academy is of a piece with emotivism in ethics and the absence of a common good in our wider social and political life. They proceed ultimately from the "modern charade," the pretense that the modern belief in naturalism is something already "demonstrated, evident, self-evident, ideologically neutral, or something arrived at on the basis of impartial inquiry." The secularization of knowledge which resulted from the Reformation is nothing but "ideological imperialism masquerading as an intellectual inevitability." If left uncriticized, it will ultimately consume its own children. Secularism is not a great achievement of Western culture, as progressive historians believe, but a threat to it: a threat to the respect for truth that constitutes true enlightenment. Respect for truth springs from the same sources as religious belief, and if you kill the one, the other will die as well.