The Unintended Reformation:

Has modernity failed?

posted by Peter E. Gordon

Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is noteworthy for its readiness to tread upon questions of morality and metaphysics that most historians would consider forbidden terrain. It is a common characteristic of historical scholarship as it is practiced in the modern university today that it abstains from grand philosophical themes and fastens its attention upon a narrow set of questions in an empiricist mode. This is perhaps due in part to the way that a highly administered society that is bound with ever-increasing intensity to technocratic norms is inclined to make a fetish of academic specialization. It is no doubt also due to an accumulation of historical knowledge and a professional imperative to keep abreast of the published work within one’s field. Because the drive to produce in the corporate university cannot exempt itself from the largely quantitative assessment of a scholar’s value, the sheer mass of information to be absorbed increases as the range of academic expertise narrows. Despite the new vogue for “global” history and high sales for books that extol the apparent superiority of Western civilization, most historians are humble creatures who prefer the domesticity of the local and the precise. Meanwhile, the disciplinary imperative of historicist skepticism holds in abeyance all but the most implicit normativity, though the discerning reader can usually grasp without difficulty what political or moral judgment may have animated the historian in her work and guided her toward certain conclusions. History is a strange discipline insofar as—like all human inquiry—it seeks the guidance of strong normative frameworks even while an ethic of neutrality partially occludes this guidance, and forbids the historian from trespassing upon neighboring humanistic disciplines, such as political philosophy or moral theory, in which the explicit articulation and elaboration of such frameworks would be permissible.

It is one of the uncertain merits of Brad Gregory’s book that it resists such academic imperatives and with astonishing immodesty allows itself to pronounce upon themes of grand significance that most historians would be ashamed to address for fear of professional ostracism. Whether this immodesty is a genuine virtue or whether it belongs instead to a traditional catalogue of human sins as understood within Latin Christendom is a question that Gregory, as an accomplished and erudite student of early modern religious history, will be able to answer with knowledge of history and theology that I admittedly lack. But in some respects it is actually refreshing to read a work that bursts free of historical convention and speculates in a generalist’s mode upon what the author himself calls “Life Questions.”

I will confess that I am slightly troubled (though only slightly) by the author’s unusual stylistic decision to resort to capitalization, as if the reader were an inattentive schoolchild and required a quasi-Victorian orthography to grasp the basic lesson that These Questions are Important. No matter. The Life Questions are indeed of the greatest significance for all of us, and, even if Gregory does not trouble the reader with genuinely philosophical arguments as to what distinguishes these questions, it is not hard to gain an impressionistic sense over the course of his very rich and passionately argued book as to what sorts of questions he has in mind. We might surmise that they include but are not limited to the following: What is the highest good for a human being? Is there such a good at all, and if so by what means (rational, devotional, intuitionist, and so forth) is it to be known? Gregory openly admits his skepticism as to whether modern academic philosophers have any of the right answers to these questions, and he wields his skepticism as a license to dismiss whole schools of philosophical inquiry as essentially barren exercises that are unlikely to furnish the normative orientation we need: “[M]odern philosophers beginning with Descartes understandably sought to articulate universal truths based on reason alone, without reference to authority or tradition. By the late twentieth century, there was every indication that this ambition had been a long-lived albeit profoundly influential washout.” Every indication? Washout? Those who contribute to modern philosophical inquiry or just prefer greater modesty in academic rhetoric may be surprised by statements of this kind, and one may also wonder whether Gregory has really taken the time that would be required to convince the reader that things are really as bad as all that. But Gregory has larger ambitions. Guiding his book is a deeply felt concern as to whether our own modern age is capable of answering the Life Questions and as to why we are so afflicted with disagreement and discord. According to Gregory, the fact that most of us in the modern West do not seem to agree upon any single notion of the good should be cause for worry since our situation is not merely that of pluralism but of what he calls hyperpluralism. The prefix “hyper” is meant to set off alarm bells: Our rival conceptions of the good now diverge from one another in such profound ways that we may be led to abandon all hope for a common standard by which humanity might live in peace.

As a historian of the Protestant Reformation, Gregory is convinced that much of our current predicament is due to fact that, with the early modern fracturing of Western European Christianity, the institutional and metaphysical certitude of a single notion of the good suffered a fatal compromise. Already in the sixteenth century this fracturing had left Western society in a state of profound disorientation regarding the Life Questions, and the situation since that time has by no means improved. From the initial breakdown of a comprehensive metaphysical order, the modern age has been left to stagger forth without any genuinely sound normative direction of its own, and, when it has not succumbed to mere subjectivism or reductive naturalism, it has borrowed (for the most part surreptitiously) from the religious instruction it outwardly rejects.

Gregory pursues this general argument in an ingenious fashion, by disaggregating his narrative into analytically separable but historically interconnected parts. In the first chapter he examines the way that the early modern and modern sciences have excluded God; in the second chapter he suggests that the Protestant attempt to ground theological certitude in “scripture alone” prepared the way for the subjectivistic habits of early modern and modern philosophy; the third chapter turns to institutional changes by which religion was increasingly privatized and the holistic structure of human religious community was lost; the fourth chapter traces out the general pattern of historical transformation by which a substantive notion of the “good” was supplanted by the liberal-proceduralist and insubstantial notion of the “right” that now threatens to dissolve into an unworkable hyperpluralism; the fifth chapter argues that the fracturing of Western Christianity furnished the ideological and institutional support for an ethos of consumerism such that “a symbiosis of capitalism and consumerism is today more than anything else the cultural glue that holds together the heterogeneity of Western hyperpluralism”; and in chapter six Gregory claims that with the rise of new institutions of learning and Western practices of “knowledge-making” the traditional discipline of theology found itself increasingly marginalized to such a degree that, especially in relation to the modern natural sciences, it had been “mortally crippled.” The general lesson of this narrative is telegraphed in the subtitle to the book: it was a religious revolution that “secularized” society.

At the conclusion of this multifaceted narrative, Gregory’s overall verdict is not very encouraging and it is also not very subtle: Modernity has “failed,” or, at the very least, modernity “is failing.” (Gregory uses both phrases as if they were interchangeable, though surely they are not: A doctor if told that a patient was dying would respond differently than she would if she were informed that the patient was dead.) As if this diagnosis were not dramatic enough, it turns out that modernity is not the only historical epoch to have suffered this failure. We also learn that “medieval Christianity failed” and “the Reformation failed” and “confessionalized Europe failed.” This judgment is apparently not exotic to the historical record; that is, it is not imposed as a presentist ruling from on high but is instead meant to follow in an intrinsic or historicist fashion by examining, within each era, “the objectives of [its] own leading protagonists.” While it remains unclear what would count as evidence to justify a conclusion of such remarkable breadth, it should be expected that within the confines of a single book an author can only present such a grand narrative of secularization in a highly stylized fashion. Early modern historians will disagree with various details and to some readers, including myself, the cornucopia of evidence, however rich, will hardly seem adequate to warrant the robust moral-philosophical and political conclusions that accompany Gregory’s analysis from beginning to end.

I do not propose to challenge the historical dimension of the book. Instead I should like to place some conceptual pressure on the general conclusion that modernity has failed. There is much that could be said about a statement of this sort, but it seems clear at the very least that such a claim is not historical sensu stricto. If one were to identify its genre, it would perhaps be more apt to characterize it as belonging to the discourse of the philosophy of history. I say this notwithstanding the fact that the book is not exclusively or even primarily philosophical but strives instead for a holistic perspective on modern history that interlaces analytically distinct strands of moral, political, institutional, epistemological, and metaphysical speculation. Gregory does not mention Karl Löwith, but there is something about the book—in its ambition and its rather polemical tone—that reminds me of Meaning in History. Gregory is of course aware of the fact that Hans Blumenberg responded to Löwith with a highly original and wide-ranging book that sought to defend “the legitimacy of the modern age.” Upon finishing Gregory’s book I was tempted to give it a new title: The Illegitimacy of the Modern Age.

To be sure, Gregory objects strongly to the Blumenbergian premise that one can tease apart the historical continuum into what he calls “a sequential series of epochal blocks,” and it is a basic lesson of the book that, because much of “the modern age” actually flows from the Reformation, we really should avoid such stadial nomenclature altogether, especially since it only abets a supersessionist logic according to which each stage of history completes and overcomes the one that preceded it. But this does not prevent Gregory from resorting to this nomenclature himself, nor does it dissuade him from offering a generalized judgment on the failure of modernity. The general lesson of The Unintended Reformation is that much of our confidence in modernity is misplaced insofar as our culture is now afflicted with a fundamental kind of disorientation: “What remains in the absence of shared answers to the Life Questions,” Gregory writes,

is a hyperpluralism of divergent secular and religious truth claims in contemporary Western states, and of individuals pursuing their desires whatever they happen to be. The world in which all Europeans and North Americans are living today is a combination of hegemonic and hyperpluralistic realities, the former safeguarding and permitting the later. Highly bureaucratized sovereign states wield a monopoly of public power in enforcing laws. The hegemonic cultural glue comes especially from all-pervasive capitalism and consumerism: scientific findings are applied in manufacturing technologies to make the stuff consumers want, whatever they want, heirs to the early modern Christians who made the industrious revolution that preceded and prepared the way for the Industrial Revolution. There is no shared, substantive common good, nor are there any realistic prospects for devising one (at least in the immediately foreseeable future). Nor does secular discourse offer any realistic prospects for rationally resolving any of the many contested moral or political issues that emerge from the increasingly wide range of ways in which individuals self-determine the good for themselves within liberalism’s politically protected formal ethics of rights. [Emphasis mine]

I do not propose to lay out all of the ways that I disagree with this thesis (much as I admire Gregory’s efforts). Instead permit me to draw attention here to just one way that this argument runs into serious difficulty. Suppose that a culture had a specific vision for how everyone should live and that this vision amounted to a comprehensive answer regarding the “life questions.” (I am dropping the capitalization because the urgency of the phrase should be obvious enough.) Its comprehensive answer was anchored in a metaphysically unified understanding of the cosmos in which all beings understood themselves as occupying their proper place and fulfilling their natural end. Gregory refers to one such understanding as “traditional Christian metaphysics.” Furthermore, because this culture enjoyed a near-monopoly on the institutional arrangements of its own society, it would have found itself in the happy position of being able to enforce its vision of the good in each and every domain of life, not only through the instruments of education but also through law, occasionally through punishment, and, perhaps most importantly, by means of a repertoire of collective and individual rituals that would serve as a constant reminder and reinforcement (bodily, affective, and spiritual) of that culture’s understanding of the highest good. Now, to many of us such a scenario may sound quite appealing: Presumably there would have been little cause for strife, and when things did not go entirely as planned the members of this society would understand that this failing was due only to the frailty or sinfulness of human nature and not to a basic error in the underlying arrangements of the culture as a whole.

Roughly speaking, this scenario corresponds to the highly stylized portrait of medieval Christian life that animates Gregory’s analysis. But Gregory is not naïve and he is not nostalgic for the way things actually were. This is because he knows and expressly acknowledges at various points in his book that this scenario was only the ideal, and that in reality Latin Christianity utterly failed to live up to its own normative model. I want to underscore this point because other critics of the book have accused Gregory of “idealizing” the medieval world or casting a backward glance of intense longing at the world we have lost. I do not think this is quite right. Gregory is careful to note, for example, that he admires the achievements of the modern natural sciences and medical research, and he obviously does not think we should simply go back to the way things actually were. But the crucial point here is that he considers the pre-Reformation scenario a failure only because it did not realize its own normative ideals. In reality, the Church all too often had recourse to what Gregory calls “coercion without caritas,” and “the church as a whole and in practice never closely resembled the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus, despite the way in which late medieval theologians self-flatteringly tended to identify the two.” Gregory’s condemnation of this failure is unambiguous: The church

in effect proclaimed not the good but the bad news always, everywhere, and among everyone, as it were—in papal and prelatic simony and nepotism, clerical greed and other forms of immorality, lay indifference and ignorance, and in any number of other ways. Whatever the church’s preservation, proclamation, and celebration of God’s actions in history, above all in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus the gap between the church’s truth claims and the actions of many Christians was in general readily apparent and sometimes enormous.

This is what we might call an internal criterion for failure: Gregory wants to use the ideal articulated within medieval Christian culture itself as the standard by which to judge that culture deficient. But we should notice a certain peculiarity of the medieval ideal that may distinguish it from other scenarios for the arrangement of human culture: this is precisely the fact that this culture placed a high value on a single and comprehensive metaphysical vision of the cosmos. Moreover, this vision of a comprehensive metaphysical order nourished the expectation that all members of society live in conformity with the norms that were said to inhere in that metaphysical picture itself. Gregory does not tell us very much about what happened to people who did not share that metaphysical vision or who contested its most vital doctrinal beliefs. But it is not difficult to recall that medieval Church institutions developed elaborate rituals and practices for coping with those whom it characterized as heretics or followers of untrue belief. Social and economic exclusion was not uncommon. Although caritas may have remained the ideal, it was an ideal of loving-kindness that needed enforcement lest too many divergent tendencies shatter the comprehensive metaphysical vision upon which that ideal seemed to depend. Persecution, torture, imprisonment, and capital punishment were the ultimate instruments of coercion in a culture that allowed for a diverse range of cultural commitments but occasionally resorted to violence when minority groups did not conform to its most basic normative or metaphysical principles. Gregory does not say much about these minorities, though I presume he would be ready to admit that their treatment did not reflect the Christian ideal of caritas. He does not consider the possibility, however, that this treatment may tell us something important about the very notion of a comprehensive metaphysics itself.

Gregory appears to recognize that the expectation of strong conformity is one of the underlying features of the medieval Christian world that most distinguishes it from the society that has emerged in the West since the early modern era. In fact, he is clearly troubled by the degree to which we have now abandoned the comprehensive metaphysical ideal that medieval Christians professed. This helps to explain his impatience with modern philosophers who cannot agree upon even the most rudimentary normative ideas as to how we should structure our collective life. Here is his rather astonishing scenario:

Put in the same room Remi Brague, Daniel Dennett, Jürgen Habermas, Vittorio Hösle, Saul Kripke, Julia Kristeva, Jean-Luc Marion, Martha Nussbaum, Alvin Plantinga, Hilary Putnam, John Searle, and Peter Singer. Tell them they will be fed and housed, but that they cannot leave until they have reached an agreement about answers to the Life Questions on the basis of reason. How long will they take? I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Perhaps I am not the only reader to find this passage breathtaking, not only because of the cavalier attitude it adopts toward the efforts of modern philosophers, but also because of its rather juvenile thought experiment of a post-modern Last Supper that, much like the dinner party in Buñuel’s film The Exterminating Angel, would go on forever presumably because it lacks the One Final Guest who could provide the definitive answers to the Life Questions. I will confess that when I reached this passage I was tempted to stop reading. It is quite simply not a serious argument. I raise this matter here only because in other respects I admire Gregory’s ambitions and found his book engaging. But I also want to call attention to this passage because I believe it illustrates a deeper problem with his argument overall.

As I have noted above, Gregory wants to claim that we must consider medieval Christendom a failure when we judge it in accordance with its own internal criteria. Now, when Gregory examines the modern predicament of liberal and hyperpluralist society today, he says that he is only interested in applying the same technique; that is, he is supposed to apply an internal criterion for failure here too. The problem is that he does nothing of the kind. For, according to Gregory himself, it is one of the distinctive features of secular society in the modern West that it has abandoned the expectation of a comprehensive and shared metaphysics that was a governing principle of medieval Christendom. This is not a technical point. According to Gregory, the social ideal of caritas could make sense only within a teleological conception of the universe according to which everyone and everything was thought to be the creation of a benevolent God whose goodness was the object of veneration and the paradigm for one’s own conduct. Strong conformity was an intrinsic part of that ideal. But one of the distinctive features of modern liberal culture is that it seems to be abandoning the expectation that its members share any single metaphysical vision. In a modern liberal society, the strong conformity that was a requirement in medieval Christendom no longer plays a determining role.

Gregory seems to think this turn away from strong conformity is a bad thing because it signals our loss of any substantive notion of the good. Bereft of this normative principle we find ourselves thrown us back upon our own meager and subjective resources for deciding upon doing whatever it is we wish to do. Hyperpluralism is the inevitable result. Now, most readers will recognize that this is a slippery slope argument of the most drastic kind: It upholds one true standard for things going as they should, and when that standard is abandoned we are meant to conclude that nothing could possibly go right. The slope in this case is not just slippery, it is frictionless.

The real difficulty with this argument, however, is that it imports from medieval Christendom a criterion that has little place in modern liberal notions of social membership. Most of us today simply do not adhere to the ideal of a holistic social order and we no longer expect or even value the ideal of a society that grounds itself in a single metaphysical conception of the cosmic whole. In fact, many liberal theorists would say that it was the precisely the violence of religious persecution and religious conflict in previous centuries that helped to bring the idea of strong conformity into discredit. We want to arrange things in such a way that when our ideals are not shared we are less tempted than our medieval predecessors to resort to coercion. The ideal of a modern liberal regime (an ideal we have certainly failed to realize to any adequate degree) is one in which certain norms of cooperation can be endorsed by nearly all participants irrespective of their metaphysical commitments. Notwithstanding the truly unfortunate arrogance of the so-called “New Atheists,” the characteristic stance of liberal society toward substantive metaphysical commitments is not dogmatic rejectionism but epistemic humility. This is why John Rawls famously characterized his own theory of justice “political, not metaphysical.” And for similar reasons Jürgen Habermas recommends that we build a society on the basis of nothing more than intersubjective argumentation itself and without recourse to metaphysics. What he calls “post-metaphysical thinking” does not presume that all members of a society surrender their respective religious beliefs. It only suggests that, given the current pluralism of our crowded world, we can no longer afford the arrogant expectation that others will conform to the metaphysical commitments we happen to hold and that we should no longer make such conformity a requirement for social inclusion.

Gregory does not judge the liberal ideal according to its own internal criteria. He does not see the liberal ideal as viable chiefly because he does not think that there can be any viable alternative to the substantive conception of normativity that helped to underwrite the medieval Christian world. He states this with the boldest confidence: “Once the metaphysical basis of an ethics of the good has been jettisoned, nothing remains in principle [my emphasis] but the human will and its desires protected by the state” (189). We are protected from this nihilistic outcome today only thanks to the surviving metaphysical beliefs of “ancient and medieval Christianity” and “secular adaptations to them, in addition to similar beliefs and values from peoples of other religious traditions and parts of the world.” Absent these persistent resources of the world’s metaphysical traditions, “human life in Europe and North America would be either unbearably oppressive, unbearably chaotic, or both.”

I fear that this is not a good argument. A great many philosophers have disagreed and continue to disagree as to what sort of meta-ethical commitments we require for our ethical beliefs. It is surely a bit grand and obviously too soon to conclude that if one type of meta-ethical commitment is cast aside everything must go to hell in a handbasket. And here is the point. Why should there be only one species of meta-ethics that somehow remains our permanent ideal? It may strike some historians as disciplinary heresy that Gregory can speak with such confidence about the one ideal that remains an ahistorical constant. But whether Gregory’s argument is actually “historical” in this deeper sense strikes me as beside the point. His real concern, on my reading, is that modernity cannot survive if it refuses the meta-ethical ideal that once served as the organizing principle for medieval Christianity. But what philosophical or historical arguments could convince us that this ideal was special? And why should we not continue to believe that our own modern ideals only need to be realized with greater fidelity? Here we confront a certain asymmetry in the way Gregory writes about the various “failures” of distinctive ethical schemes: He seems to think that the modern alternatives have all failed because of their intrinsic defects, whereas the Christian ideal failed only because we failed to measure up to its demands. In the one case the failure points to a basic flaw in the metaphysical scheme itself; in the other case the failure was merely one of execution.

Few of us today can feel confident that modernity has things right. But abandoning the dream of a comprehensive metaphysics does not necessarily lead us on the path to perdition. We know all too well that modern totalitarian regimes have built their brutal practices in accordance with quasi-scientific ideas that rival in their arrogance the comprehensive metaphysical schemes of the medieval world. The ambition of making over all of reality in accordance with a single metaphysical principle remains a serious temptation for any of us today and perhaps no less so than it was for our ancestors. But modernity alone cannot be blamed for these ambitions. In fact our abstinence from any such single metaphysical principle is often said to be the one cherished ideal that modern liberalism permits itself, notwithstanding its attitude of generalized skepticism toward all ideals. It therefore seems odd to fault modern society with a failure like that of medieval Christendom when it is the stated rule of post-metaphysical liberalism that we no longer expect a single ideal to be realized. Gregory is generous enough to say that the medieval ideal only failed because of the fact of human frailty and because human beings, sinful creatures as they are, did not live up to their own religious standards. We should extend this same generosity to our contemporaries and we should not judge the ideal deficient only because our own intolerance prevents its realization.

For those of a certain temperament, it may be a frustration to see that the contemporary order abjures any single and authoritative meta-ethical standard and that it cleaves only to provisional and proceduralist practices for our common life that rest on nothing more secure than ongoing reasonable debate over what should count as a social good. Gregory says his book is “against nostalgia,” but it seems to me that he expresses nostalgia for a specific type of metaphysical foundationalism as if this were—and would remain for all time—the only trustworthy ground for our collective life. Such nostalgia may be widespread among those theologians who feel that there is only one metaphysical path to God. But it is atypical amongst historians since it does not easily harmonize with the historicist’s readiness to see all paths and all ends as vulnerable to time.

Gregory should nonetheless be commended for adding his voice to the clamorous debate over normativity that is so typical of our own liberal society. I suspect that that debate will continue for a long time. I also suspect that we will constantly fall short of that ideal and that our society will continue to be marked by exclusion and intolerance and inequality. But the modern ideal remains. Of course liberalism itself is a historically contingent ideological-institutional formation, and we may find that it does not measure up to its own ideals. (The persistence of astonishing social inequality, for example, suggests that we are not even halfway to where we should be by our own standards of justice.)

The difference between the medieval ideal and the modern, however, is that the medieval ideal as a matter of principle did not admit of metaphysical diversity, since it grounded its norms in a single comprehensive doctrine to the exclusion of all others. This exclusionary stance toward competing forms of life was not an idle matter of philosophy: it served as a warrant for persecution and for acts of extraordinary violence. So I cannot see how the medieval ideal can persist without compromise in a world where strong conformity on the level of metaphysics is no longer a real possibility. In many regions across our globe absolutist doctrines of strong conformity still threaten the lives and well being of too many innocents. I never cease to be surprised at the fact that believers will seek to demonstrate the superiority of their own faith by slaughtering those who believe in a different one. The medieval ideal of a comprehensive metaphysical order may have retained at least the illusion of plausibility when populations and empires had not yet reached their current levels of heterogeneity. But religion will only be able to survive and to retain its own redemptive meaning today if it adapts itself to the cognitive dissonance of multiple cultures and faiths. Without this internal adjustment and a correlative modification of political-institutional forms, the survival of the post-metaphysical ideal remains highly uncertain.

Tags: , , , ,

Printer-Friendly Version


2 Responses to “Has modernity failed?”

  1. avatar Andy Rowell says:

    Very good. Thanks for this. Yes, an alternative Christian view to Brad Gregory’s would not mourn the downfall of Christendom–wishing that it would only have been implemented more comprehensively; it would instead argue that Christians should in their own life together model their metaphysical ideals in the pluralistic marketplace of ideas confident that the product they are pointing to is of such high quality and value that many will want to buy it. This is the position of Karl Barth, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and others.

  2. avatar Jim Harrison says:

    The notion that intersubjectivity is the basis of value is not only found in Habermas. It’s in the New Testament. I believe that has something to do with this Holy Ghost business or so Gary Wills likes to insist. One can talk about Medieval Christianity as the expression of a metaphysical vision but the Church itself recognized that only a divinely guided consensus (the Magisterium) could discover, preserve, and explain the meaning of the faith whether the truths to be be enunciated came from an interpretation of scripture or philosophical deduction. As the Reformation demonstrated in dramatic fashion, doctrine goes all over the place once unity is broken. The irony is that science, a candidate to serve as a partial replacement for religion, is actually less beholden to consensus than faith since its validity is warranted not by the continuing guidance of the Spirit but by the (apparently) unchanging nature of things, which participates bodily in the process of research in the form of equipment, lab animals, and reagents. To the extent that modernity is molded by science, it is less a product of human wishes than the old religion since it at least includes nonhuman reality as well as intersubjectivity in its calculations.

Leave a Reply

Please note: All comments will be approved by an administrator before they appear on this page.