The Unintended Reformation:

Get over it

posted by Victoria Kahn

In many ways, the argument of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is a familiar one. Gregory aims to explain our modern condition genealogically, by tracing the “hyperpluralism” of modern religious and secular commitments to the Protestant Reformation. The unintended consequence of the Reformation was the proliferation of individual truth claims that led to the proto-liberal separation of church and state. Univocal metaphysics and Occam’s razor (the principle of explanatory parsimony) simultaneously brought God within the same ontological order as creation and led to the “exclusion of God” from scientific explanations of the natural world. Once empirical science became the new standard of truth, the metaphysical rug was pulled out from under religion and morality: belief and value became subjective and relative, leaving individuals with no standard by which to adjudicate conflicting truth claims. In the place of a substantive “virtue ethics” of the Good, some early modern thinkers began to advocate a formal, individualist ethic of rights. Without an Aristotelian teleological view of human nature and morality, European Christians were left with the mere arbitrary assertion of volition and subjective preference. In making this argument about the incoherence of modern moral reasoning, Gregory is greatly influenced by the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, though, unlike MacIntyre who located the moral crisis in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Gregory believes that our difficulty in answering central “Life Questions”—questions about how, and according to what values, one should live—can be traced to fundamental epistemological, moral, and political changes set in motion by the Reformation.

In part as a consequence of these developments, Gregory argues, the early modern period also saw the separation of morality from economics, the gradual attenuation of the Church’s condemnation of avarice as a vice, and a new appreciation of the political usefulness of the acquisitive passions. (Gregory draws here on Max Weber, Albert Hirschman, and a host of other early modern scholars.) Here, too, by rejecting the Aristotelian teleological account of human nature, Reformation thinkers contributed unwittingly to the Hobbesian and proto-capitalist view of mankind as restlessly seeking after power and material goods. Thus, subjectivism and capitalism joined hands to produce the rampant individualism, moral relativism, and ecological disaster that we know as modernity. Particularly powerful is Gregory’s account of the contribution of instrumental reason to our current crisis of global warming: “if global climate change is real and the result of human behaviors,” he writes, “it would call radically into question the dominant, post-Reformation, secular rationale for meaningful human action and the principal cultural glue that functions to hold together societies composed of ideologically divided individuals.” Recognizing this “would subvert the progressive narrative of Western modernity as an inspiring story of the triumphal liberation of individual freedom and autonomy and self-determination from hide-bound authority and oppressive tradition, suggesting instead that wishful thinking and self-deceptive illusions have long been posing as progressive rationality and Enlightened truth.” Like Adorno and Horkheimer before him, Gregory is attuned to the “dialectic of enlightenment,” or the way that Enlightenment values of freedom and autonomy contain their own dark underside of coercion and oppression. (One wonders, though, why Gregory needs to couch global warming in the form of a hypothesis rather than an established truth.)

Finally, Gregory argues that the modern Western conception of knowledge as secular, specialized, and confined by academic disciplines separated from the rest of life is also a contingent product of the Reformation. Before this watershed, knowledge included religious truths, such as knowledge of the natural world as God’s creation; knowledge of the human past, including God’s extraordinary interventions in history; and, most important of all, “the knowledge of human flourishing, the common good, and imperfect happiness as a harbinger of eternal salvation with God.” “Like politics and economic behavior, knowledge was embedded within a teleological ethics that had a supernatural end,” and such knowledge was inseparable from the reference to divine authority. After the Reformation, and as a consequence of the explosion of irreconcilable views of Christianity, secular reason became the sole criterion of truth. While this reliance on secular, instrumental reason has fueled the enormous advances of empirical science, it has also contributed to the moral crisis of modernity and the central cultural contradiction of liberalism: reason alone, especially given the “naturalist” metaphysics that underlies modern Western culture, was and remains incapable of providing a defense of moral values, including the notion of the person and that of individual “rights” that are, nevertheless, so central to modern liberalism.

In this reader at least, The Unintended Reformation provoked a mixed response. I’m sympathetic to what Gregory calls his “genealogical” method, a method that does not presume any teleological march of history but aims instead to understand the contingent choices and decisions, as well as large-scale social transformations, that produced new ways of thinking and of experiencing the world. I agree with him that many of the lineaments of the modern world were adumbrated in the early modern period, though, as I’ve already suggested, I don’t think that this claim is as new as he seems to think it is. Practically every scholar of liberalism has traced our modern social and political formation in the West to the early modern period, and many have seen liberal political theory—with all of its problems—as a response to the confessional conflicts of the Reformation. Moreover, the same is true of many of the most important European scholars of the early twentieth century: not only Max Weber but also Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss, Walter Benjamin, and Ernst Cassirer, for example, all located the origins of modernity in the early modern period, and many of them were as attentive as Gregory is to the epistemological crisis of the Reformation and the vexed socio-political consequences of its “resolution.” Still, Gregory’s sweeping narrative is impressive, in both its overarching claims and its considerable detail. It is also impressive for its attempt to grapple with big questions, such as: How should one live? How can one adjudicate competing truth claims? What is the basis of moral community? And yet, I must confess to another, even more powerful response that I had to the book and its lament of our lack of any moral compass in what Gregory calls “the Kingdom of Whatever.” This was, quite simply: “Get over it.” Yes, there is no longer a Catholic moral consensus governing Western society. Moreover, it’s not coming back, and for good reasons. Gregory titles the conclusion to his book “Against Nostalgia,” but it is impossible to imagine a more nostalgic argument, however erudite and impassioned it may be.

Let me try to sketch out a number of problems with Gregory’s argument. The first is the fallacy that the “constructivist” view of morality necessarily leads to relativism. In Gregory’s view, there are only two moral positions one can occupy: the belief in the divine source of morality or skepticism and moral relativism. Postmodern constructivism and antifoundationalism are not the repudiation of secular humanism, in his view, but only the continuation of its de facto arbitrariness. But many moral philosophers defend the possibility of generating non-subjective, non-arbitrary moral values through conversation, negotiation, and cultural interaction. Nowhere in Gregory’s long book does he seriously consider or evaluate the arguments of secular deontologists, communitarians, utilitarians, or pragmatists. He simply argues that reason has failed because it has not produced agreement about Life Questions. And this in turn leads him to assert that sola ratio (aka modern philosophy) and the Protestant sola scriptura are only different versions of each other, since both produce similar problems of adjudicating conflicting moral truths. Elsewhere, the choice facing modern individuals is described as one between faith and materialism, or what Gregory also describes as a dualist metaphysics and a univocal, naturalist metaphysics. According to Gregory, a naturalist and materialist view of human nature can’t explain human morality, politics, and social life, all of which require attention to intentionality and linguistically mediated meanings. Here, too, the opposition is too stark. Attention to intentionality and linguistically mediated meanings doesn’t necessarily require religious faith, nor is its only alternative materialism: it could instead dictate precisely the kind of concern with community and historical context with which secular moral philosophers have long been concerned. We don’t need to accept Gregory’s simple opposition between Christianity and materialism. There are other ways of conceiving of human beings, including the view that they are biologically endowed with a self-transcending capacity for reason, which is in turn capable of conceiving of a notion of human dignity and human rights.

As I’ve already noted, one of Gregory’s central gambits is that belief in reason has the same epistemological status as belief in God. And yet Gregory’s own distinction between God and this world itself suggests that these two kinds of “belief” cannot be equated. He claims that “secular affirmations of disenchantment are subjective” (by which he means that science doesn’t necessarily lead to secular disenchantment, and that religion and science are therefore compatible). But apparently the opposite—i.e., that religious affirmations are likewise subjective—does not hold equally. In fact, Gregory elsewhere seems to want to argue just the opposite point: that Christianity, with its consensus about moral values, is actually more objective than the arbitrary subjective values of modern secular reason. And this in turn leads to his claim that “the contemporary academy should unsecularize itself, and that academics should be able to investigate religious truth claims within the university, i.e., they should be able to consider these truth claims on their own terms in relation to the rest of knowledge.” Especially in his conclusion, Gregory argues that the modern secular academy should be more open-minded about religious truth claims, more willing to entertain religious answers to what he calls the important Life Questions facing every human being. If faith in reason was a historical misstep, and if there is no evidentiary basis for the positing of individual human rights, then why not be more open to the claims of religion? But, by Gregory’s own account, there is no evidentiary basis for faith either, if by evidence we understand the requirements of empirical science. Moreover, it is impossible to imagine a new consensus on the basis of Catholicism, or even of faith in general, for the reasons Gregory spends so much time delineating in his book: first, we no longer live in what Gregory describes as the Catholic mono-culture of the Middle Ages (and, we could add—and even Gregory sometimes allows—that even medieval people didn’t live in this culture); and, second, it is hard to know how such a consensus could be rationally generated anew. Gregory concedes that such religious truth claims would need to be defended in rational terms, but it is impossible to know what this might mean when he has already defined faith as not bound by the requirements of secular science. Gregory claims that others mask their preferences as reason, but in doing so he condemns his own argument as well.

Gregory’s conclusion is also disturbing because it gradually becomes clear that, for him, tolerance is a problematic virtue, a form of moral relativism produced precisely by the absence of consensus on Life Questions. Things were better, he implies, when we didn’t need to be tolerant of differences and simply agreed with one another. There are other disturbing passages in the book, which also hint at a less appealing agenda, which one might miss if one were only to skim it. For instance, Gregory bemoans the “demise of the family” and sees same-sex marriage as “aggressively secularizing” and motivated as much by “overtly antireligious, bigoted vindictiveness as by principle.” This would be news to a lot of gay Catholics, not to mention those gays and others who are not bigoted or vindictive. Like many political conservatives, Gregory seems to think that any coherent assertion of value is crypto-Christian. Thus, he argues that the Declaration of Independence’s “self-evident” truths couldn’t be asserted without being shored up by shared Christian values, and that the moral foundations of rights claims are inextricable from Christian truth claims. Without these Christian values, such claims are incoherent, so modern defenders of rights should simply own up to their unacknowledged presuppositions. Whatever one might make of the historical accuracy of Gregory’s claim about the founders, the claim that rights now need a Christian foundation does not logically follow.

Finally, it’s worth addressing head-on Gregory’s central claim that disagreement about Life Questions is evidence of the failure of the modern moral project. At least in the United States, it’s possible to argue that such disagreement is a sign of tremendous success. The United States is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world, and for the most part we live together peacefully. This was the success “intended” by those early modern thinkers who sought a way out of the endless cycle of sectarian conflict and religious war. Of course, we still have serious problems to confront, not least the untold harm we are doing to the planet by our activities as producers and consumers. And Gregory’s argument that this harm is the price of adopting instrumental reason and consumerism as the bonds that tie us together in the absence of shared religious conviction is at least worth serious consideration.

In ways that I’m sure he has recognized, Gregory’s book dramatizes the very problems that he diagnoses. These problems are not trivial. It is not difficult to imagine Christians and Muslims or religious believers in general and secular atheists discussing “religious truth claims,” but it is virtually impossible to imagine the shared criterion on the basis of which such claims could be adjudicated. And it is even more difficult to imagine these truths claiming agreement on the part of all members of a society. When liberals argue for tolerance, are they defending a substantive virtue or are they simply throwing up their hands (“whatever!”) at the demise of shared virtues? And yet, some of Gregory’s arguments seem to militate against his own overarching argument as much as for it. When, for instance, in his bid for the serious reconsideration of the role of religion in the academy, he defends the coexistence of serious historical scholarship and religion, i.e., of historicism and faith, he also provides a counterargument to the equation of “black-hole historicism” with relativism that his own narrative seems to suggest. Historical change—e.g., the crisis of the Reformation and subsequent developments—needn’t be seen as a declension of moral values. For example, the sudden invention of a new kind of individual rights talk in the 1970s (a frequent example of Gregory’s, borrowed from Samuel Moyn) is a sign, not necessarily of the incoherence or arbitrariness of rights claims, but of their newfound historical truth value, given the momentous historical changes in the period of de-colonialization, for individuals of a great variety of cultures and religious beliefs. It is not only Christianity that reveals its truth in history. And just as historicism, by Gregory’s own admission, does not necessarily lead to cultural and moral relativism, so secular reason does not necessarily need to be shored up by religious faith.

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