The Unintended Reformation:

Beyond supersessionist stories?

posted by Guido Vanheeswijck

Brad Gregory’s monumental and erudite book has yielded a wide range of reactions. Highly appreciative remarks (especially from the Catholic side) are countered by rather dismissive, sometimes even venomous reviews (by Ian Hunter, James Chappel, Mark Lilla, and others), as well as by more balanced critiques (those of Peter Gordon, Victoria Kahn, and Adrian Pabst, for instance). I will not dwell on the details of these divergent opinions; I would instead like to focus on the question of whether or not The Unintended Reformation is a genuine work of history. More specifically, I would like to tackle two questions: (1) What is meant precisely by the term “a supersessionist model” of historical narrative in contrast to “genealogical history”? And (2) does Gregory succeed in writing a study in genealogical or analytical history, as he claims to do, or is The Unintended Reformation itself an example of supersessionist historiography, albeit in reverse? My answer is based primarily on a comparison between Gregory’s book and Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which are often mentioned in the same breath (cf. Lilla, Hunter, Pabst).

Gregory defines a supersessionist model of historical writing as determined by the view that

the distant past is assumed to have been left behind, explanatorily important to what immediately succeeded it but not to the present. […] its structure tends to conflate the past’s intelligibility with a quasi-inevitability conceived in holistic and supersessionist terms—as if, all things considered, of course we find ourselves where we are.

The upshot of this treatment of history is the image of a virtually absolute distance between “us” and “them”—“us” being the inhabitants of twenty-first century Europe and North America who have definitively left behind the views of “them,” our ancestors from a distant past.

Gregory’s notion of supersessionist historiography actually has much in common with what Charles Taylor has described in A Secular Age as “subtraction stories” of secularization, or what he calls in “Two Theories of Modernity,” “culturally neutral” ones. Culturally neutral stories interpret the emergence of modern Western culture in terms of a process that is not related to any specific culture, but which every culture can and eventually must undergo. From such a perspective, Western modernity is considered to be the product of a rational social evolution which, in spite of historical contingencies, is applicable to any culture whatsoever. By the term subtraction stories, Taylor wants to stress that such stories explain modernity in general and secularity in particular by the supposition that “human beings [have] lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge.” Supersessionist/subtraction/culturally neutral stories presume an a-historical logic which portrays the passage to modernity to be necessary and normative, and they thus tend to stress the notion of progress (or of decline) pertaining to the inevitable evolution from pre-modern to modern Western culture.

Against these supersessionist/subtraction/culturally neutral stories, Gregory argues for a genealogical approach to our (distant) history and its implications for contemporary society. Such a genealogical approach emphasizes the continuing influence of the distant past in the present by demonstrating that ideological, philosophical, religious, and institutional shifts “that occurred five or more centuries ago remain substantively necessary to an explanation of why the Western world today is as it is.” In his eyes, the fact that the enormous historical watershed separating pre-modern from modern Europe and North America is incontestable has paradoxically helped to mask the abiding influence of the distant past in the present. It is no coincidence that in this respect he subscribes to Taylor’s thesis in A Secular Age, that we are doomed to misunderstand ourselves if we cannot do justice to where we come from. As applied to the specific role of the Reformation in the making of modernity, Gregory’s explicit ambition is to write a genealogical history of Protestantism without the notion of “progress.”

Just as there are substantial similarities between Gregory’s “historical supersessionism” and Taylor’s “subtraction stories,” what Gregory refers to as genealogical history is akin to what Taylor in A Secular Age calls “reform master narratives,” or, in “Two Theories of Modernity,” “cultural stories.” Taylor’s reform master narrative’s point of departure is that “the straight path account of modern secularity can’t be sustained. Instead, what I’m offering here,” he says, “is a zig-zag account, one full of unintended consequences.” Since the past is sedimented in the present, a master narrative is bound to show that Western modernity, including its secularity, is primarily the fruit of new inventions, new forms of self-understanding, new practices and their unintended consequences. Such a narrative functions as a cultural theory, which describes theoretical and practical transformations, not in terms of an underlying a-historical logic, but as the growth of a specific new culture. Western modernity is thus seen as a particular culture (or an assemblage of strongly related cultures) with its own view of man, nature, God, and the Good. This culture is basically different from other cultures, as well as from its premodern predecessors, though it remains fundamentally indebted to the latter. Although Taylor and Gregory are fully aware that supersessionist theories based on an assumption of cultural neutrality have been predominant over the last two centuries, they advocate genealogical history or cultural theory as models better suited to map out both the transformations and the specificity of Western modernity.

What is at stake in their stories? Gregory and Taylor alike defend the view that religion has not been left behind or refuted on scientific grounds, but rather that religious ideas, aspirations, and norms are rejected as intellectually untenable, due to certain (philosophical, theological, social, political, economic, academic) presuppositions, without, however, having been disproven. The central thesis of both A Secular Age and The Unintended Reformation is that modernity did not originate as a reaction against religion but arose out of its inner evolution, in which Christianity has played a central role. No single aspect of Christianity (e.g., nominalism, as in Hans Blumenberg’s work), but rather an amalgam of diverse elements, has yielded modernity; similarly, no single aspect of modernity (e.g., capitalism, as in Weber’s theory), but modernity as a whole, has resulted from Christianity.

However, it is not only the general framework of their philosophical accounts of modern history that both authors have in common. There are also similar passages in each book related to specific historical moments that Gregory and Taylor select in order to underpin their respective analyses. They both stress, for instance, the unintended but strong influence of the disciplinary revolution brought about by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and inseparable from the rise of capitalist society. Due to the threat of heterodoxy and the undeniable failure of the clergy and many Christians to live by the ideals of Christianity, secular and ecclesiastical leaders alike sought to “create more disciplined and self-disciplined laity compared to the laypeople of pre-reformation Christendom.” They both refer to the proliferation of religious and secular truths along with related practices, eventually giving way to what Gregory describes as “contemporary hyperpluralism” and Taylor terms the “supernova effect.” And of course the Reformation plays an important role in both books.

However, there is no gainsaying that, whereas for Gregory the Protestant Reformation functions as the critical watershed, Taylor ascribes only relative importance to its influence. In his eyes (as in those of Marcel Gauchet and Robert Bellah), the Reformation is only a minor part of what he designates the “Reform,” i.e., a much larger development that began as far back as the axial religions and which gradually moved through different stages towards modernity. Put differently, modernity does not only arise from (reformed) Christianity but is also indebted to earlier forms of religion, in which the axial period plays a central role. But even this difference of emphasis does not take away the impression that both authors suggest similar conclusions at the end of their genealogical stories. The immanent frame that Westerners inhabit in the twenty-first century is not the product of an inevitable, logical evolution, any more than secularization is the conclusion of an intellectual argument. They are rather the upshot of what Taylor describes in Wittgensteinian terminology as “a view that holds us captive,” or what Gregory defines as “metaphysical assumptions.” Therefore, we have to acknowledge that the contemporary “view that holds us captive” derives from a historically contingent process rather than give it the status of a scientifically demonstrated fact. We must become aware that our reigning views are always (philosophical, political, economical, academic, religious) assumptions and not self-evident and ideologically neutral data.

Gregory versus Taylor

Against this background, it is rather surprising that Gregory criticizes Secular Age as having the central characteristics of a “supersessionist story,” claiming in particular that Taylor’s view of historical change is grounded in philosophical presuppositions that reflect his earlier work on Hegel. Not only is this wide of the mark; it also undermines Gregory’s own criterion for distinguishing supersessionist from genealogical histories. Two passages, quoted from his conclusion make this explicit and underline the differences between Gregory’s and Taylor’s approaches. The first focuses on the status of John Rawls’s notion of “overlapping consensus”:

What remains in the absence of shared answers to the Life Questions 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. […] Appeals to a Rawlsian “overlapping consensus” are akin to reminders of the fact that antagonistic Christians nevertheless continued to share many beliefs in common in the sixteenth century. Indeed they did. But it hardly conduced to their moral agreement or political cooperation.

Taylor often appeals to Rawls’s notion of “overlapping consensus” as the basis of our contemporary sense of a liberal order of equality, rights, and democracy. Like Gregory, he is fully aware that this consensus is justified by a host of different reasons and that it is extremely difficult for a number of people to think across these different forms of justification. Unlike Gregory, however, he considers the tension between the “overlapping consensus” and the widely incompatible justifications for this consensus as a challenge, rather than as a testimony to its complete failure. Taylor’s work is an abiding call for mutual understanding and a plea for the promotion of a society “in which all the differences between human beings could ultimately sound together in harmony.” But this harmony can no longer be the harmony of a unified answer to the Life Questions, as Gregory seems to suggest.

The second passage focuses on the theological or religious justification of human rights:

Rights and dignity can be real only if human beings are more than biological matter. The modern secular discourse on human rights depends on retaining in some fashion—but without acknowledging—the belief that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, a notion that could be rooted in nature so long as nature was regarded as creation, whether overtly recognized as such or not. But if nature is not creation, 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 unalienable 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. The intellectual foundations of modernity are failing because its governing metaphysical assumptions in combination with the findings of the natural sciences offer no warrant for believing its most basic, political, and legal claims.

In fact, Gregory himself is telling a supersessionist story here, albeit uncoupled from a rosy progressive view of the evolution of Western civilization over the past five hundred years. Instead of telling a supersessionist story about the triumph of secular reason over religion, he presents a supersessionist story in reverse. Since the failure of medieval Christendom was not due to the falsity of its metaphysical and doctrinal truth claims but derived rather from its ethical failure to live up to its own confessional ideals, Gregory’s final suggestion is that we have to return to the rejected—not refuted—metaphysical assumptions of old and face up to the challenge of making our individual lives and our society more genuinely Christian. In other words, the metaphysical assumptions of medieval Christian belief ought to supersede the assumptions underlying the most basic of modern beliefs.

Taylor’s view is clearly different here. According to him, the foundation of modern ethics can be detached from a theistic anchorage. Its governing principles (e.g., the universality of human rights) may be justified by a host of different reasons, both secular (Kantian, utilitarian, ecological, etc.) and religious. Taylor makes it clear that, although the shift toward secularization has undoubtedly made religious belief optional, it has yielded a number of positive changes as well, like the affirmation of ordinary life, a deeper notion of the self, a more egalitarian order of society, etc. His genealogical story does not fall prey to the temptations of a supersessionist template, whether its evaluative coloring is positive or negative, progressive or conservative. Whereas Gregory stresses the negative aspects of the unintended consequences of the Reformation, Taylor sees both positive and negative aspects intertwined on the balance sheet of the passage to modernity.

This is not to say that Gregory’s erudite presentation of the lasting impact of the Reformation is off the mark. Nor that his final conclusion is incorrect:

[…] the rejection of historical supersessionism as a mistaken view of Western history since the Middle Ages permits a candid recognition of the fact that intellectually sophisticated expressions of religious worldviews exist today as part of Western hyperpluralism. They have not been “left behind” or “overturned” by “modernity” or “reason.” They have been institutionally excluded and ideologically denounced, not disproven.

Taylor comes to an analogous conclusion in A Secular Age. There was a time when anti-Christian and secular worldviews were institutionally excluded and ideologically denounced. Now, the situation in the Western world has changed, the tables have been turned. Therefore, we are in need of defending the right to, and the intellectual possibility of, a believer’s particular stance without excluding other stances. That is undoubtedly Taylor’s position. Maybe it is Gregory’s as well, but his unwittingly supersessionist approach in certain aspects of his genealogical story suggests otherwise.

According to James Chappel, for example, it is clear that, insofar as Gregory blames the failures of modernity on hyperpluralism, The Unintended Reformation must be seen as a “deeply anti-democratic work.” He argues that Gregory’s interpretation of the unintended consequences of the Reformation is more than circumstantially related to the intentional absence of the term democracy in his book, since democracy is precisely the incorporation of multiple viewpoints into the body politic. I think, nevertheless, that Chappel’s verdict is much too harsh. Granted, Gregory is very sensitive to the dangers inherent in “hyperpluralism.” He knows (like so many others) that it is hard for people to think across their ideological gaps and that it is tempting to imagine that their views are the only plausible and valid ones. And he in fact argues that this kind of attitude endangers democracy, since it always threatens to degenerate into a kind of Kulturkampf. Consequently, his explicit aim is to find a remedy for modernity’s failure to “invigorate democracy, restore public civility, get citizens to care about politics, and so forth.” Like Taylor, he acknowledges the fact of ideological hyperpluralism. Unlike Taylor, however, he is much less confident—even incredulous—that this “supernova effect” might lead to a society in which it remains possible for religious belief to take on new meaning from its embattled optional position. That difference is mainly due to Gregory’s (unconscious) failure to escape from the supersessionist template that he deliberately wanted to avoid.

As Taylor maintains in “Two Theories of Modernity,” the major error of supersessionist/acultural histories is their reading of the passage to modernity in terms of beliefs to the detriment of the background understanding against which those beliefs are formulated. By exclusively focusing upon the change of beliefs, they interpret the transition to modernity as a shift between already formulated possibilities regarding the propositional contents of belief (as if our ancestors could make exactly the same choices that we do). In The Unintended Reformation, Gregory mainly, if not exclusively, focuses on the (doctrinal) and metaphysical beliefs that have been changing throughout the last half-millennium.

Taylor, on the other hand, does not only focus on the level of beliefs; he also stresses the importance of two other levels: that of embodied understandings and religious practices and that of the symbolic and the social imaginary. From that stance, it is clear that the changes in our embodied understandings and social imaginaries alter the repertory of possibilities regarding the understanding of religious experience. As such, genealogical/cultural theories are able to show the originality of the modern view of the good and the specific relation of the modern transformation to that very view of the good.

In contrast to Taylor, Gregory does not focus on the levels of embodied understandings and social imaginaries. And that is why he fails to examine what Taylor, in “Two Theories of Modernity,” designates “certain facets of the modern constellation, closely interwoven with our understandings of science and religion, that do not strike us as being part of the transformation to modernity—such as the various forms of modern inwardness, or the affirmation of ordinary life.” Thus Gregory utterly misses the role of these new embodied understandings and social imaginaries in the rise of Western modernity, particularly in relation to the redemptive force of religious belief, however optional it may be in contemporary Western society.

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