The Unintended Reformation:

Secular supercessionism and alternative modernity

posted by Adrian Pabst

Recent years have seen the resurgence of “metahistories” that seek to provide a single complex narrative of seemingly disparate events and developments. Among the most prominent contemporary accounts are Marcel Gauchet’s La condition historique (2005), Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) and Robert Bellah’s Religion in Human Evolution (2011). In different ways, all three offer an overarching story of how the distant past—whether the emergence of the modern state or the rise of secular unbelief as a default position or cultural capacities driving religious development—continues to shape the present. Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is another such ambitious attempt, charting the way in which Protestantism unwittingly invented the capitalism and secular liberalism that together constitute our current condition.

The strength of Gregory’s thesis is his argument that supercessionist conceptions of history and the conventional historical periodizations—Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and modernity—rest on an ahistorical logic that was invented by late medieval secular reason and progressively instituted by the forces of Protestant confessionalization and the Enlightenment. In positing absolute historical breaks—which in reality were entirely avoidable, contingent, and arbitrary—this logic is unable to demonstrate its own presupposition that the passage from the Middle Ages to modernity was somehow inevitable, necessary, and normative.

Coming from a historian, Gregory’s critique of secular supercessionism is all the more significant since it provides further historical evidence of the “poverty of historicism,” beyond the worst nightmares of Karl Popper whose eponymous book provides a critique of naturalism similar to Gregory’s. This critique implicates the fallacy involved in iron laws of history and the unintended consequences of implementing “large-scale social engineering.” However, Popper’s proposed alternative of “piecemeal social engineering” merely serves to uphold the secular liberal system which he defended against any religious critique. By contrast, Gregory’s narrative helps us to much better historicize the emergence of modernity and the process of secularization, complementing the research in historical sociology by scholars such as David Martin.

Gregory’s book goes further than Popper does in his critique of historicism. Precisely because historicism treats history as a fated and all-determining teleological process, the genuine alternative is not to opt for ahistorical, secular categories that are supposedly universal. Instead, it is to embrace history in such a way as to view intellectual, social, and political developments in terms of their specific historical roots and their unfolding both over time and across space. For example, apparently universal ideas and structures, such as the global system of national states and transnational markets that underpin modern international relations, can thus be traced genealogically to particular periods, such as the Protestant Reformation or the religious wars of the “long sixteenth century” (ca. 1450-1650). Far from being isolated events or absolute breaks in history, their emergence formed part of an era spanning the early fourteenth to the late seventeenth century during which both ideas and practices already nascent during the Middle Ages achieved fuller maturity and developed into secular modernity.

I shall return to the medieval origins of modern secularism. For now, it is important to acknowledge that Gregory’s single greatest achievement is to have documented extensively and often forensically just how pivotal the Reformation was in accelerating and amplifying the emerging process of secularization. In so doing, he traces the manifold ways through which Protestant structures of thought and practice have over time produced the contemporary condition of “hyperpluralism” that merely masks the hegemony of secular liberalism—including the predominance of naturalism and evidentiary empiricism in the natural sciences and positivism in ethics that ends in rationally irresolvable disagreements about rival truth claims. In the following passage, Gregory puts this very well:

Not in themselves, but given the assumptions of metaphysical univocity and Occam’s razor, the methodological naturalism and evidentiary empiricism that define knowledge as secular also mask the ideological alchemy by which methodological precept became metaphysical assertion. The story of the secularization of knowledge is usually told – by those who believe that metaphysical univocity and black-hole historicism are true – as though it were the rational unfolding of an intellectual inevitability. […] There is real irony here, given the failure of classic secularization theory correctly to predict the putatively inevitable “withering away” of religion in society at large.

But despite these strengths and achievements, Gregory’s account only gets it half-right. His critique of secular supercessionism is very persuasive, but his account of Protestantism’s role in shaping modernity and the contemporary era is weakened by his relative lack of attention to the Catholic roots of secularization, from Franciscan theology via Baroque scholasticism to Catholic liberalism.

My argument runs as follows. First of all, John Duns Scotus’ invention of univocity and William of Ockham’s razor are key to the emergence of modernity in general and Protestantism in particular, as Gregory repeatedly suggests. But he fails to show how the Scotist ontology of univocity and representation undermines the metaphysics of analogy and participation, which was central to Catholic-Orthodox theology and liturgy from the Church Fathers to the Church Doctors.

Far from being an obscure academic point, this shift in ideas constituted a veritable revolution. Contrary to the patristic and medieval fusion of Greco-Roman philosophy with biblical revelation that emphasized the participation of all beings in the being of the personal Creator God, Scotist univocity implied that all things are “bare beings” rather than things in relations to other things and their shared source in being itself. Modern secular philosophy, ethics and science all rest on this ontology of univocally existing beings, which are stripped of all metaphysical positioning in relation to other beings and to common being (Aquinas’s Neo-Platonist ens commune). Crucially, the same ontology provides the final foundation for the modern secular primacy of individual substance over relationality—a conceptual move that establishes the dialectical oscillation between the one and the many, the individual and the collective, monism and dualism, as well as similar antagonistic binary opposites that characterize modern secular thinking.

Second, linked to the Scotist revolution is Ockham’s nominalism and voluntarism, which Gregory largely ignores. Based on Scotus’ destruction of analogy and participation, Ockham makes the twin claim that will is the ultimate principle of being (voluntarism) and that universals are merely mental concepts or names (nominalism). Ockham’s nominalist and voluntarist theology is of special significance for the genesis of secular modernity because it establishes the primacy of the individual over the universal and posits a radical separation of the infinite eternity from finite temporality—a dualism that foreshadows the transcendental philosophy of both Descartes and Kant.

In turn, Ockham’s dualist ontology provides the foundation for state supremacy vis-à-vis the Church and all other institutions within the temporal-spatial realm of the saeculum—i.e., in creedal Christianity, the time between the Fall and the eschaton. In the wake of Scotus and Ockham, the saeculum was not only redefined as an autonomous space separate from both God and the Church but was also subsumed under the dominance of the imperium, as John Milbank argues in his groundbreaking book Theology and Social Theory. Taken together, the impact of Scotist and Ockhamist ideas on the genesis of secular modernity has been widely documented by a number of scholars in the Anglo-Saxon and the continental European world—from Etienne Gilson via Louis Dupré and André de Muralt to Olivier Boulnois and Michael Allen Gillespie. For such a scholarly book, their omission is more than a simple oversight.

Third, bound up with the invention and institution of a neutral secular space was the sundering of nature from the supernatural, which Gregory merely mentions in passing. This dualism foregrounds all the modern dualisms, such as reason vs. faith, nature vs. grace or immanence vs. transcendence, that underpin the separation of philosophy, physics, ethics, politics, and economics from theology. As Charles Taylor remarks in his seminal book A Secular Age, “[o]ne of the great inventions of the West was that of an immanent order in Nature, whose working could be systematically understood and explained on its own terms.”

Fourth, divorcing nature from the supernatural not only shaped the Reformation’s five solaesola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solo Christo, and soli Deo gloria—which are all grounded in an unbridgeable gulf between creation and Creator. The nature-supernatural divide also informed the Counter-Reformation and the Baroque scholasticism of influential Catholic theologians such as Francisco Suàrez, whose theology accentuates the autonomy of “pure nature” and thereby divorces man’s natural end from his supernatural finality. This conception relegates divine grace to an extrinsic principle that is superadded to the natural realm, rather than a supernaturally infused gift that deifies nature from within (as it was for the Church Fathers and Doctors in both the Greek East and the Latin West). As a result, human activity in the polity, the economy, and society is separated from divine deification, which means that both state and market are seen as increasingly amoral.

That the market is thus viewed as morally neutral helps to explain why modern Catholicism is entirely compatible with the secular liberalism and capitalism that Gregory imputes almost exclusively to the Protestant Reformation. For a morally neutral market is compatible with the sole promotion of individual freedom at the expense of fraternal solidarity and the “preferential option for the poor.” The latter is a key element of Catholic social teaching that is ignored by the neo-Baroque position of contemporary Catholic commentators, in particular the neo-conservatism of George Weigel and the “Whig Thomism” of Michael Novak. However, this is merely the liberal laissez-faire side of the modern coin whose reverse face is the socialist utopia of statism and collectivism. How so? Both uproot the market and the state from the communal and associationist networks of civil society, thereby severing production as well as exchange from the civic virtues that are embodied in intermediary institutions, and also from the moral sentiments that govern interpersonal relations.

As the French philosophers Pierre Manent and Jean-Claude Michéa, among others, have shown, liberalism rests on nominalist and voluntarist ideas, and it grounds both the post-revolutionary left and the counter-revolutionary right. In turn, nominalism and voluntarism can be traced to Scotus and Ockham, notably to their argument that the immanence of creation is separated from the transcendence of the Creator. Thus, the modern invention of pure immanent nature—which favored the rise of secularism, capitalism, and liberalism—can be traced to both Protestant and Catholic theology. In short, one gets the sense that Gregory ends up writing a confessional Catholic history, which does not reflect the “logic” of Christendom that the Protestant Reformation destroyed.

Gregory’s account is problematic in other respects as well. First, there was no “unified, comprehensive worldview” in the Middle Ages which the Reformation split asunder. Nor was there doctrinal agreement that grounded Christian answers to the “Life Questions”—whatever these might be. On the contrary, Christendom has been divided since the Great Schism of 1054, and certainly since the Western Schism (1378-1418) that left unresolved the question of the balance between papal authority and hierarchy, on the one hand, and the consent and representation of the faithful through ecumenical councils, on the other hand.

That is why the long period from the twelfth century through to the fifteenth century and beyond witnessed the emergence of various Catholic reform movements such as conciliarism and even Anglicanism—a theological tradition in its own right since John Wycliffe, William Tyndale and Richard Hooker, and one that cannot be subsumed under Reformed Protestantism, as Gregory wrongly suggests. And this is not to mention all the theological disputes among different Catholic traditions and religious orders, including the Franciscans, the Dominicans, and the Jesuits. By underplaying both the pre-Protestant divisions and the rival traditions within Catholicism, he portrays the Reformation as an absolute caesura—an argument that comes close to the historicism he otherwise rightly rejects.

Second, connected with this is Gregory’s tendency to view our contemporary condition as hopelessly and irreversibly secular, with liberal states continuing

to depend on the widely embraced pursuit of consumerist acquisitiveness to hold together the ideological hyperpluralism within their polities. Hence modernity is failing, too, because having accepted the redefinition of avarice as benign self-interest – a latter day extension of early modern Christians’ self-colonization by capitalism – it relies for cohesion on a naturalized acquisitiveness that simultaneously undermines other shared beliefs, common values, and social relationships on which the sustainability of liberal states also depends.

Of course Gregory is right to insist on the sheer dominance of secular reason that grounds both liberalism and capitalism in the US, Europe, and beyond. Yet at the same time, secularization was only ever half of the story—if that. Just as religion never went away (certainly not in supposedly secular Europe), so too can faith revert to public prominence. In fact, over four-fifths of the world population are, in some significant sense, religious. According to the work of Eric Kaufmann, current demographic trends indicate that the more traditional strands of different world religions have higher fertility and retention rates, which suggests that neither secular liberalism nor secularized religious creeds will be dominant in the future. In this light, it is hard to escape the impression that Gregory writes at times from a narrow Western and even US-centric perspective, and that occasionally he reasons in a quasi-ahistorical manner that is at odds with his effort to historicize secularization.

There is also concrete hope for the West, which in many ways is more secular than the rest, precisely because the intellectual hegemony of secularism is over. Aggressive positivism and militant atheism, far from being harbingers of the future, are a sure sign that secular reason is in terminal crisis. If it continues to be dominant, then that’s because it is so thoroughly institutionalized, as Gregory’s book thoroughly illustrates. But if the institutions of modern secularism fail to deliver on the peace and prosperity which they purport to provide, they will lose legitimacy and popular support—as with banks, regulators, and even federal government during the most recent of capitalism’s periodic crises.

That opens up the possibility for new settlements that transcend the artificial divide between “the secular” and “the religious”—new forms of association that promote the common good for people of all faiths and none. Various religious and non-religious movements, both within and across national boundaries, have a unique opportunity to craft ideas, institutions and practices that transform secular liberalism and capitalism. Starting points for such a “great transformation” include, firstly, statutory caps on usurious interest rates; secondly, the introduction of the “living wage”; thirdly, the promotion of regional and local banks (including credit unions); fourthly, fundamental corporate governance reforms (including workers’ representation, employee co-ownership, incentives and rewards for medium-term profit optimization—not short-term maximization); fifthly, the mutualisation of welfare (with mutual trusts operating independently of “big government” and “big business”); and sixthly, institutional links between schools and universities committed to a broad education beyond secular categories, etc.

Secularism has undoubtedly been the dominant story of modernity. But since modernity is itself the product of theological shifts and changes within religious traditions, it is unsurprising that some faiths are integral to modernization, such as certain strands of Calvinism, Puritanism, and Pentecostalism, as well as Catholic Baroque scholasticism and Catholic liberalism. By contrast, more traditional, orthodox faiths such as the Romantic strand of Catholicism (as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI put it), Eastern Orthodoxy, and certain Muslim traditions like Sufi Islam resist modernization and seek to transform the secular outlook of global modernity.

In short, the master narratives about the universal validity of secular values that dominated the modern age are breaking down. We have already entered a phase of history that is not properly captured by labels such as the “postmodern” or the “postsecular.” The false universalism of secular principles is not merely being contested, as was the case throughout the modern period. Nowadays religious ideas and practices are changing the terms of public debate and putting forward concrete alternatives in virtually all spheres of human activity. Notions of reciprocity, mutuality, and relationality are coming to the fore in public discussions on ethics, political economy, and science. We are witnessing a real intellectual return to religion that cannot be reduced to the spread of fanaticism. “Programmatic secularism” that relegates faith to the private sphere or co-opts it in the course of secularizing modernization reinforces rather than overcomes both religious fundamentalism and militant atheism.

Crucially, there is an alternative modernity beyond the opposition between the rationalism and the fideism that have produced secular extremism and religious fundamentalism. This opens the way for an alternative account that rejects their shared modern logic and analyzes religion on terms beyond the false divide between a purely secular and an exclusively religious perspective. There is in fact a radical “middle” position: faith can lead to a strong notion of the common good and a belief that human behavior, when disciplined and directed, can become more charitable. There can also be secular intimations of this: the more faith-inspired practices are successful even in narrow secular terms (e.g., more economic security, more equality, more sustainability), the easier it will be for nonreligious institutions to adopt elements of such an overarching ethical framework without fully embracing its religious basis.

It’s not a happy ending that Gregory’s story lacks. It’s hope.

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