The Unintended Reformation:

History without hermeneutics: Brad Gregory’s unintended modernity

posted by Thomas Pfau

I would like to draw attention to three aspects of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, a book whose courage and ambition I applaud, if for no other reason than that it exemplifies what an engaged form of historiography (and humanistic inquiry more generally) can and should do. The first aspect has to do with the commercialization and commodification of knowledge in post-Reformation modernity and how it impacts advanced inquiry today. From it follows my second concern, which lies with the indebtedness of Gregory’s own narrative to the fruits of modern, disciplinary and specialized inquiry. Finally, I wish to take up the question of whether Gregory’s historiographical approach might be seriously compromised by the apparent absence of a focused hermeneutical engagement with the major voices (theological, philosophical, political, economic, etc.) widely credited with shaping the landscape of post-Reformation modernity, both secular and religious.

At every turn, The Unintended Reformation appears driven and directed by an unapologetically normative and internally cohesive Catholic view of our world and of what, somewhat vaguely, Gregory capitalizes as “Life Questions.” As Ian Hunter, in his hard-hitting critique, maintains, Gregory’s “narrative of the modern world is precommitted to the historical centrality of the Catholic and Protestant churches,” and his “portrayal and solution to the problem of modern cultural pluralism is thus wholly internal to his own confessional-intellectual position.” With this I agree, though I find that state of affairs to be much less of a problem than does Hunter. It would be a problem only if one of two things applied: 1) that one could show how any such account could be written free of all such “precommitments” (T. Nagel’s “view from nowhere”), or 2) that a different set of commitments would better serve our understanding of the issues. The first of these positions I consider to be logically indemonstrable and utopian; the second can only ever be adjudicated through an ongoing contest of narratives, in which case one still has reason to be grateful for Brad Gregory’s impassioned and erudite account of the genesis of modernity. The critiques that have appeared so far, both on this forum and elsewhere, would thus serve a valuable function, provided we recognize that their various insights are dialectically generated by the very account from which they dissent.

For Peter Gordon, the gauntlet that Gregory throws down for modernity is simply unacceptable: “What philosophical or historical arguments could convince us that this [i.e., the pre-Reformation Catholic] ideal was special? And why should we not continue to believe that our own ideals only need to be realized with greater fidelity?” (italics mine). Curiously, the Catholic framework is charged with having to legitimate itself by “arguments,” whereas our dogged adherence to secular modernity is naturalized (Paul Silas Peterson speaks of a “soft consensus,” for instance) as resting on unflagging “belief” in its continued progress. Ironically, then, the aspirational stance of a modern liberal-secular culture intent on confronting challenges, overcoming crises, and making continual progress is not particularly different from the trajectory that Aquinas maps out for our progression toward a visio beatifica. One suspects that Gregory’s most acerbic critics actually tend to argue from within a set of precommitments of their own, and that their axioms are at least as inexplicit and unexamined as his, and probably rather more so. In the fifth chapter (“Manufacturing the Goods Life”), Gregory traces the distant and not-so-distant origins of the “prevailing consumerist cycle of acquire, discard, repeat” that, in the industrialized West and the booming economies of China, Japan, and Southeast Asia, has been the norm for some time. As regards the raw facts of modern consumerism at least, I suspect that most of his critics in the academy share his misgivings. It is certainly striking how little dissent has been voiced about this chapter by Gregory’s otherwise unsparing critics within the academy. Those working at the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation, on the other hand, almost certainly would dissent. Inevitably, our “sense” of what is true and good is internal to the genealogies of inquiry and the institutional frameworks from within which we develop our claims.

That the world today shows signs of systemic trouble and pervasive abuse, almost all of it driven by profit motives, few in the secular academy will deny. Broach such topics as the corrosive impact of corporate money on politics; the strong, and by now palpable, correlations among a rapacious global capitalism, environmental degradation, and global warming; the widespread immiseration of workers in Nike’s sweatshops and Foxconn’s factories; children around the globe pressed into service as soldiers, sex-slaves, or no-pay laborers; a global arms trade vigorously pursued by almost all “developed” nations, etc.—and intense verbal hand-wringing and professions of moral indignation are sure to ensue. Yet anyone taking an uncompromising theological and normative view of the manifest abasement of our life-world as “so much raw material awaiting the imprint of human desires” and critiquing modernity as one pervasive ethical and ecological miscarriage will quickly find himself on the receiving end of similar vituperations.

Ironically, some of the more severe polemics against the The Unintended Reformation thus end up confirming one of Gregory’s central claims, namely, that “the secular academy is the domain of Weberian facts, not values—except, contradictorily, for the one hegemonic and supreme value that no judgments about competing truth claims pertaining to values or morality should or can be made.” Indeed, the disagreement between Gregory and his (il)liberal critics seems to be less about whether “religious truth claims made by billions of people are excluded from consideration on their own terms in nearly all research universities” (italics mine) than whether they should be.

Part of what makes The Unintended Reformation such a courageous and intriguing, if also a deeply vulnerable work is that its author has extended his indictment of modern (Western) “hyper-pluralism” and its deeply impoverished and fragmented idea of community into a critique of the modern university; and here, Gregory is surely not alone. For the past two decades or so, the majority of those working in the humanities and the interpretive social sciences have witnessed the value of focused and sustained learning and the integrity of fields be progressively diluted and frittered away by an increasingly separate class of professional administrators. The prevailing impression is one of administrative hubris and a top-down, micro-managerial approach intent on fitting academic research on the Procrustean bed of donor-driven funding models and neo-utilitarian criteria of “relevance.” Is it not, then, at least plausible that one should want to inquire into the deep genealogy that has caused higher education to be redefined as a corporate endeavor, and knowledge as some amorphous “experience” pragmatically peddled in the academic marketplace? Has not the conflict of faculties identified by Kant expired amid the sheer indifference and parallel trajectories followed by countless fields and sub-fields of specialized inquiry? And is Gregory not right to worry “how the kinds of knowledge thereby gained in different disciplines might fit together, or whether the disciplines’ respective, contrary claims and incompatible assumptions might be resolved”? Can we really afford not to ask any questions concerning the ends of knowledge? Do we not ignore at our own peril Augustine’s distinction between the intrinsically normative intellectual virtue of studiositas and a strictly procedural, agnostic quest for new information (curiositas)?

Today’s students’ self-image as consumers effectively prevents them from approaching study as a potentially transformative process and thus prevents them from grasping the historically contingent and strangely incoherent formation of the universities to which they flock. Instead, they are invited to have fleeting and often random “exposures” to what, at my home institution, are euphemistically called “areas of inquiry”—areas whose intellectual premises, Brad Gregory notes, are as incommensurable as their ends are uncoordinated and unarticulated. Yet criticize the desolate and confused culture of learning as it prevails at many private and public institutions as symptomatic of modernity’s deep-seated incoherence, and the same pattern of angry dismissal of such views as dogmatic, reactionary, and narrow is bound to resurface. To be sure, there is no shortage of well-researched and mostly dispiriting accounts of the excesses of the corporate university and the, by now, almost complete transformation of learning from a quest for meaning into a sort of intellectual tourism (see, e.g., the books by A. Delbanco, D. Bok, S. Collini, M. Edmundson, G. Tuchman, and many others). Yet, with few exceptions (such as Brad Gregory’s closing chapter or the work of his colleague Mark Roche), all these analyses conceive of the dramatic shifts in higher education over the past decade or two as some peculiar “crisis” that has suddenly and inexplicably erupted within the academy. To his critics, Gregory’s contention that these developments might be linked to the distant genesis of liberal and secular pluralism as it arose in the wake of the Reformation is rather too disconcerting. Hence contemporary academia alights on the idea of a specific and limited “crisis” (as in “The Crisis of the Humanities”), a term eagerly employed because it allows us to frame as a capricious and supposedly remediable mishap what, in fact, may have deep and potentially irreversible sources in the distant past.

All this takes us to the second area of concern, which has to do with how Brad Gregory’s own “genealogical” approach relates to the prevailing historicist forms of inquiry that have shaped the social sciences since the age of Durkheim and Weber. Yet to raise that question is to confront something of a paradox in Gregory’s decidedly negative appraisal of post-Reformation culture. For his overall argument and, more particularly, his account of the deepening incoherence in the culture of advanced learning appear, at times, to be contradicted by his own procedures. First, one might wish that The Unintended Reformation had opened with a more explicit methodological reflection on how Gregory’s ability to tell his long and complex story about the pathway into our secular and hyper-pluralist modernity pivots on certain assumptions about causation in the overlapping domains of politics, economics, education, religious culture, and so on. At times, Gregory seems on the verge of giving us such an account, such as when, in his final chapter, he laments the de-centered and disjointed nature of modern historical and humanistic inquiry; and here I am for the most part inclined to concur.

Yet at the same time, his “genealogical” narrative would have been altogether impossible without the abundant fruits of modern disciplinary and specialist forms of inquiry. Having distilled his narrative overwhelmingly from an abundance of secondary literature (economic, theological, philosophical, etc.) that he often synthesizes to brilliant effect, Gregory’s indictment of the “definitional secularity and highly specialized character […] of knowledge in the Western world today” leaves one with the impression that he might be biting the hand that feeds him. Whether Catholic, secular, or something else yet, we are all moderns and, as such, find our intellectual flourishing to be paradoxically bound up with modernity’s institutional and intellectual resources. This fact remains in force even as we struggle to achieve a perspective on modernity’s own presuppositions, which, one should think, not only ought to be acknowledged by the author of The Unintended Reformation, but should also temper the serene confidence with which many of his fiercer critics embrace the very modernity that Gregory calls into question.

My third and final concern has to do with the something strangely absent from The Unintended Reformation, namely, a patient hermeneutic engagement with the major voices who were, themselves, the catalysts and self-styled advocates of the process of modernization (Luther, Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, A. Smith, Kant, Hegel, and Mill, to name but a few). What makes this absence so strange is that it was precisely the strength of the Thomist model of disputatio to tie the validity of any reasoned position to its ability to prove itself under hermeneutic scrutiny over against competing arguments. In contrast with modern (post-Baconian) method, which argues from principle and, in so doing, tends to exclude rather than engage competing views, a Scholastic model of reasoning was wholly bound up with patient hermeneutic attention to other accounts of God, man, and world. To be sure, a book traversing such a broad swathe of history as The Unintended Reformation may not be able to give us detailed readings of the countless works and voices that have helped shape our successive understanding of the “modern.” Yet the pattern of rare and brief snippets of primary text carefully tailored to support the point Gregory is keen to make at that moment tends to drain these voices of their complex and, not infrequently, internally conflicted nature. Even as The Unintended Reformation tells a passionate, dispiriting, and often-persuasive story, it seems oddly removed from the voices that have wrought and, however inadequately, conceptualized the major shifts in our understanding of human agency, responsibility, notions of the good life, etc., that Gregory finds so troubling in post-Reformation Western societies. Close exegesis would show writers such as Locke, A. Smith, Kant, Hegel, or Darwin to have been, at times, genuinely troubled by the implications of their own arguments, as well as by their increasingly frayed and tenuous outlook on the theological traditions (Calvinist, Pietist, Lutheran, Anglican, et al.) that, well into the nineteenth century, continued to shape moral and spiritual lives in powerful ways, though perhaps more at the level of material practice than abstract inquiry.

As a result of its lack of the kind of hermeneutic attention that is so richly on display in Gregory’s earlier monograph, Salvation at Stake (2001), the genealogical account put forward in The Unintended Reformation frequently seems overly schematic or “highly stylized” (Peter Gordon). Perhaps the most obvious case in point would involve his frequent characterization of “late medieval Christianity [as] an institutionalized worldview” and similar references to “the traditional Christian view,” a framework supposedly first weakened by Duns Scotus’ univocalism and then decisively overthrown by the Reformation. Here Gregory’s narrative rests too exclusively on a rather abstract and monolithic understanding of medieval Christianity, one distilled almost exclusively from its theological and philosophical propositions but surprisingly inattentive to how these often abstract contents were realized in extraordinarily complex and regionally diverse liturgical and sacramental practices. While the existence of pre-Reformation heterodox movements is acknowledged in passing, Gregory does not consider to what extent their presence might complicate either his notion of medieval Christianity as an “institutionalized worldview” or his claim that the decisive break with that view only occurred after 1500. Henricians, Waldensians, Franciscan Spiritualists, Joachite Millenarians, Lollards, Hussites, Conciliarists, and many other movements were driven, in their various ways, by a profound desire to understand more fully the Christianity in whose sacramental and liturgical practices and theological self-understanding they so controversially participated. Eamon Duffy, who surprisingly receives only one mention in Gregory’s account, has offered a powerful account of the beauty and intricacy with which pre-Reformation spirituality was realized in fifteenth-century English parish life. Emmanuel Le Roy La Durie’s pioneering study of Montaillou had drawn another rich and vivid picture, showing just how regionally varied, peculiar, and often heterodox the “institutionalized worldview” of medieval Christianity really was.

It is precisely in the material practices of religious communities that we witness a hermeneutic of what a “sacramental worldview” concretely meant, something of far greater reality and presence than can be captured by any body of theological propositions. Invariably, though, the gravitational pull of The Unintended Reformation is away from social and material historiography and toward philosophical theology, which itself, in the two centuries leading up to the Reformation, becomes a far more fragmented enterprise than Gregory acknowledges. Instead, the emergence of univocal forms of theological predication—a line of argument lately revived in stridently absolutist terms by the “Nottingham School” (particularly by John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock)—seems to receive disproportionate emphasis. In passing, one should also note that Richard Cross (incidentally a colleague of Brad Gregory at Notre Dame) has seriously challenged the allegedly pivotal impact of Duns Scotus’ univocalism on the genesis of modern thought. To be sure, somewhere in late Scholasticism—and here I would think, above all, of Ockham, Gabriel Biel, and Nicolas Autrecourt—we do, indeed, observe a momentous shift, whereby God is placed on the same ontological plane as all created, particular existence, and where a quasi-legalistic theological concern with divine omnipotence (potentia absoluta) trumps, and implicitly jeopardizes, the rational order (potentia ordinata) wrought by God. The impression is that of a conspicuous failure on the part of late Scholastic theologians to imagine and embrace God’s absolute transcendence as post-Nicaean Patristic thinkers all the way up to Anselm and Aquinas had been able to do.

Yet even if one were to restrict one’s understanding of medieval Christianity to its theological and philosophical superstructure, a book pursuing aims as ambitious as those of The Unintended Reformation owes its readers a more fully realized account of how, specifically, this momentous conceptual shift came about. In the end, it is the lack of specific hermeneutic engagement with the complex intellectual and material world of pre-Reformation religious culture that renders Gregory’s meta-historical approach perversely modern in its own right. With good reason, Gregory places great emphasis on the effects of “radical” (anti-magisterial and increasingly anti-ecclesiastic) Protestantism, a phenomenon that, so his thesis, “has distorted our understanding of the Reformation as a whole and obscured its relationship to contemporary hyperpluralism.” Still, however novel and disconcerting one may find the proliferation of religious views and spiritual ideas, so intensely felt and argued already in mid-seventeenth-century Puritan England, Catholic Christianity itself has, likewise, proven to be an internally complex formation, and that in at least two ways. First, as an attempt to build a viable form of community on something as mysterious and overwhelming in its implications as the incarnation, Christ’s atonement, and the resurrection, and as one of the first movements (along with Stoicism) to argue that a just moral order had to be universalizable, Christianity obviously had its work cut out for itself. Viewed less as a body of “settled” theological propositions than as a rich, variegated, and sometimes contested array of liturgical and sacramental practices, Catholic theology from late antiquity into the high middle ages constitutes less an apologetics of these practices than an ongoing and necessarily imperfect quest for understanding their theological intent and spiritual efficacy.

At the same time, beginning with Patristic thought, Christianity understands itself as, above all else, an attempt at engaging with the secular—rather than either withdrawing from or anathemizing it—namely, by assisting individuals and communities with achieving stability, integrity, and orientation in their daily pursuit of life in a created, finite, and profoundly uncertain saeculum. Neither before nor after the Reformation was the secular understood as an alien realm inopportunely and illegitimately intruding into Christian life and disordering its outlook on the central “Life Questions.” Rather, the saeculum has always been the reality toward which Christian practice and thought is oriented in its attempt to reimagine it as a just, responsible, and sustainable community. This I take to be the point made by Adrian Pabst, who demurs at Gregory’s “false divide between a purely secular and an exclusively religious perspective.” Newman’s view of Christianity as an idea whose development over the preceding eighteen hundred years had gradually, though still not conclusively, clarified the implications of its central mysteries thus recognizes (rightly, I think) that struggle and contest are integral to human knowledge, no less in the area of religion than in that of things finite. Long before, Augustine had offered a forensic account of human psychology that shows this agonistic pattern to be integral to our will and our entire constitution as human beings. Peter Gordon has shrewdly pointed out how at some point or other in Gregory’s account every epoch (including medieval Catholicism) is said either to “have failed” or to “be failing.” What prompts these dispiriting appraisals is an underlying expectation of a definitive and just world, and a desire to draw a final line under the balance sheet of two thousand years of Western history. Yet wanting to locate the eschaton in this world is, itself, an intrinsically secular desire and, to say the obvious, very much at odds with any known form of Catholic theological reasoning. If modernity’s sin of choice is pride (as indeed I think it is), Brad Gregory’s most grievous fault may be that of despair.

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