The Unintended Reformation:

Genre, method, and assumptions

posted by Brad S. Gregory

More than 60 reviews of The Unintended Reformation have appeared since January 2012, including forums in four journals (Historically Speaking, Church History, Catholic Historical Review, Pro Ecclesia), in addition to the multiple sessions that have been devoted to the book at professional conferences. The responses here at The Immanent Frame add another ten. I am grateful to my colleagues for their responses, to Jonathan VanAntwerpen and The Immanent Frame for hosting them, and for the opportunity to reply. I am gratified the work has provoked discussion and debate that shows little sign of abating. I am also pleased that most reviewers have acknowledged the book’s ambition and erudition, and that some regard it as an important analysis of modern Western history comparable to Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age or Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Less satisfying (although not unpredictable) has been the ways in which the book has been misread, misunderstood, and misrepresented by some reviewers, including some respondents here.

Because The Unintended Reformation is unconventional and unsparingly compressed, understanding it requires careful reading. It deliberately crosses disciplinary and chronological boundaries normally kept distinct. Without these transgressions, its animating question about the intertwined formation of contemporary Western ideological and institutional realities could not have been answered. I knew its arguments would be unwelcome to some readers, because it interrogates some very widespread assumptions and commitments that tend to be taken for granted in contemporary Western society in general and in the academy in particular. Hence my statement in the final paragraph: “Subversive ideas and unsettling research that threaten seemingly settled foundational assumptions are just as likely to be welcomed now as they were in the late Middle Ages—that is, not at all.” The responses of some readers have confirmed what I supposed. Few people are comfortable having their cornerstone beliefs or accustomed ways of doing things called into question.

The Unintended Reformation is a book that, among other things, helps to explain why antagonistic attitudes toward religion, especially religious traditions that make substantive and explicit truth claims, are common in the academy. It shows how secular alternatives to religion have come to be widespread in contemporary Western life, and argues that their dominance is ideological rather than neutrally justifiable in intellectual terms. These are not arguments likely to find many fans among those with secular (or “postmetaphysical”) commitments in the early twenty-first century, so it is not surprising that some have responded to the book with a lightly veiled sense of outrage. But my concern has never been, nor is it now, whether critics like the book; it is whether they have understood it, and if so, whether they have convincing objections or counterarguments. Anticipating the dislike of the book by some readers while I was writing it hardly seemed a justifiable reason to alter arguments based on banal observations about the present or the interpretation of a great deal of evidence about the past—especially when the same arguments also explain the widely varied response to the book.

If The Unintended Reformation is wrongheaded or mistaken, as a whole or in its parts, I want to know. I appreciate the efforts made by colleagues to point out where they think it is off-base with respect to unacknowledged biases, methodological assumptions, use of evidence, the omission of relevant issues, interpretations of the past, or assessments of the situation in which we find ourselves. The essays here have made a number of such criticisms. Responding point-by-point to each review would have been tedious for readers. I have instead identified what seem the most substantive criticisms and grouped them into three different sorts of objections: (1) those pertaining to the book’s genre, method, and assumptions; (2) those concerned with its historical arguments and omissions; and (3) those that pertain to the book’s description and evaluation of our present situation. A single response would have grown very long, so at the editors’ suggestion I have written a three-part reply. I am happy to take up any of the other points broached by any of the respondents in subsequent contributions.

*   *   *

A number of respondents, including James Chappel, Ian Hunter, and Peter Gordon, regard The Unintended Reformation as a work of metahistory, philosophical history, or philosophy of history rather than as history. I disagree. It uses evidence to understand the human past and explain change over time, and is therefore a work of history. But it is not an ordinary work of history, for methodological reasons that arise internally from the historical question it seeks to answer. As a historian, I was fully aware of its atypical character in conceptualizing, researching, and writing it; I articulate this in the Introduction. Indeed, the book’s scope as history extends to the historicizing of intellectual assumptions—in relationship to human desires, behaviors, and institutions—that most scholars take for granted as part of the framework within which we do our work, including those “questions of morality and metaphysics that most historians would consider forbidden terrain,” in Gordon’s phrase. So it could be argued that insofar as The Unintended Reformation historicizes what is usually allowed to pass unquestioned in the doing of history, it is more radically historicist than most historical studies. Calling it “philosophy of history” or “philosophical history” does not neutrally describe its genre, but rather performatively endeavors to sidestep the unexpected historicizing of common yet contestable philosophical assumptions that are part of the history it tells. For if it is “not really history,” the intended implication seems to be that historians can dismiss it and get on with business as usual. The book historicizes the contingent, constructed character of what questions historians are tacitly permitted to ask and what assumptions they are silently expected to uphold. It historicizes what modern history is, which, depending on historians’ philosophical commitments, is bound to be unsettling.

Like many more conventional works of history, The Unintended Reformation uses evidence from the past to explain change over time. It draws from a wide range of primary and secondary sources in order to answer its main question, about the formation of contemporary institutional and ideological realities in Europe and North America. These I respectively take to be, most influentially and uncontroversially, sovereign liberal nation-states, a pervasive market capitalism, and an open-ended range of religious and secular truth claims about matters of meaning, morality, value, and purpose—what I call in the book a “hyperpluralism” of answers to “Life Questions” (or “life questions,” if one prefers). Closely related to the obvious reality of ideological hyperpluralism is a wide range of different human behaviors and practices that reflect different moral and metaphysical commitments, values, and priorities. Note that the historical explanation offered in the book for how we have arrived at this situation is distinct from however one might evaluate the latter, whether one approves or disapproves of it, and in what ways. Note as well that value judgments about our current situation are bound to be variegated and contentious precisely if the book’s argument is correct about the formation of a wide range of present-day rival ideological views about answers to life questions. In other words, strongly divergent responses to the book constitute additional, corroborative evidence for its interpretation about contemporary hyperpluralism. It is quite possible that one could agree with the book’s historical analysis of the formation of modernity’s institutional and ideological character, as well as its description of our present condition, and regard the latter evaluatively as a desirable expression of multicultural exuberance, technological triumph, entrepreneurial ingenuity, and an ever more tolerant and inclusive future for humanity that allows individuals to maximize their preferences, whatever they might be.

The question of how sovereign Western nation-states, expansive capitalist markets, and hyperpluralism came to be as they are cannot, as nearly as I can tell, be adequately answered by adhering to the way in which most professional historians (myself included) do our work. Seeking to answer it therefore required an unconventional albeit still entirely historical methodology. By “adequate” I mean an analysis of historical evidence that could account in principle (if never in practice, which would be impossible) for all the commitments and comportments that comprise our hyperpluralism—religious as well as secular, every ethical and metaphysical truth claim in whatever form or combination. There was no way to do this, it became clear, by adhering to the conventional ways in which professional historians customarily divide our labor and ask our questions. As an early modernist, I am not supposed to ask such questions. I am expected to stay in my chronologically delimited field, leaving such questions to modernists (particularly to specialists in post-WWII history) and to the appropriate social scientists and practitioners of “neighboring humanistic disciplines,” such as the “political philosophy or moral theory” mentioned by Gordon. But such a division of labor itself reflects the historically constituted differentiation of knowledge-making that calls for historical explanation rather than conformist acceptance.

As part of our present hyperpluralism, many people belong to institutions and make truth claims, including religious truth claims related to specific practices, that derive from the premodern past rather than from the modern world. These truth claims and institutions have interacted in complex ways with institutions, ideas, beliefs, and behaviors of more recent historical origin. They too must be accounted for. So certain aspects of the way in which we professional historians usually do our work, such as sharply separating modern from premodern history, had to be modified in the pursuit of answering the book’s main historical question. This in no respect warrants Hunter’s accusation that I am guilty of “targeting ‘professional history’ as an obstacle to [my] enterprise” in any wholesale way, any more than it justifies his allegation that I reject historicism as such for its ostensibly inherent incompatibility with all claims of historical continuity. Hunter apparently forgot about the Introduction’s reference to “the proper recognition of historicism as a necessary prophylactic against anachronism. There is no gainsaying this for anyone who wants to understand the past” (7). This principle informs the entire book; indeed, as already noted, the book is arguably more historicist than works of history that conform to the modern assumptions it historicizes. I share with Gordon “the historicist’s readiness to see all paths and all ends as vulnerable to time.” They are. But I reject as specious the assumption that all premodern paths and ends have somehow succumbed to that vulnerability simply by dint of being premodern—that we are in effect bound to enact the part prescribed for us by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in seeing especially the distant past as “a repository of expired meanings and outmoded practices,” as Thomas Pfau has recently put it in his magisterial work, Minding the Modern: Human Agency, Intellectual Traditions, and Responsible Knowledge. Nor do I think that seeing this has anything, per se, to do with whether one is a historian, a theologian, or any other sort of intellectual, any more than it has to do with being a religious believer or not.

What, then, is taken to justify the demarcation between modern and premodern historical realities such that, for someone who wants to understand the world as it is today, premodern truth claims and institutions can supposedly be ignored, save for their invocation as part of a come-and-gone predecessor historical era? It seems to be the stadial, supersessionist assumption, institutionalized in the historical profession, that the intellectual insights associated with the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment (however one nuances or complicates the historical realities to which these terms refer) legitimate the exclusion of such institutions and truth claims. They are, accordingly, “not to be taken seriously”—despite the fact that many millions of people today take them very seriously indeed. Moreover, notwithstanding the actual continuation and present-day existence of religious traditions and of intellectually sophisticated theology, philosophy of religion, and historicist but non-skeptical biblical exegesis, the institutionalized arrangements of almost all research universities render these endeavors highly marginal at best to contemporary Western intellectual life, when they are not excluded altogether from the institutions most important for the pursuit and transmission of knowledge. The exercise of academic freedom need not acknowledge them, and indeed, according to dominant arrangements, it can, should, and must exclude them. Adrian Pabst’s view that aggressive positivism and militant atheism are “a sure sign that secular reason is in terminal crisis” and that we are in the midst of a “real intellectual turn to religion,” whatever its applicability in wider Western societies or among some intellectuals, does not seem to me to describe the ethos of any leading research university in Europe (including the UK) or North America. Harvard’s Report of the Task Force on General Education, for example, referred unexceptionally to “the resolutely secular world of the academy.”

Be that as it may, any description of the present that does not account for the reality of religious traditions, including intellectually sophisticated religious believers, is inadequate. Similarly, the institutionalized assumption is mistaken that the exercise of scientific, philosophical, or historical-critical reason has somehow shown all such beliefs to be untenable. What actually needs explanation in this regard is how such intellectually viable views came to be excluded from consideration in research universities—that is, how higher education came to be secularized. A corollary is that the stadial, supersessionist view of Western history—however unobjectionable it might be for answering many historical questions and for training graduate students in manageable fields of specialized research—cannot answer the question of how the present Western world came to be as it is. Because that was my question, I needed a different methodology that nevertheless remained fully historical.

A historical methodology capable of seeing how the distant past continues to affect the present had to question the supersessionist associations of conventional periodization. This of course is not tantamount to dispensing with the designative convenience of referring to periods—“ancient,” “medieval,” “early modern,” and “modern,” for example—that indeed reflect major historical changes that are also part of my analytical narrative in a manner consistent with its historicism. The method also had to be judiciously selective rather than trying to be comprehensive, lest the result be completely unreadable. Therefore, as I state in the Introduction and follow through consistently in the book, the method required judgment in identifying those aspects of the past with the greatest explanatory power for understanding the present while ignoring as little as possible, the exclusion of which would adversely have affected the arguments being made. In other words, the method employed would have to serve a deliberately selective, targeted, genealogical history, one that uses whatever evidence from the past is relevant for explaining the formation of the institutional and ideological character of present-day North America and Europe, able to account in principle for every claim and behavior within the hyperpluralism.

This is not the lack of a hermeneutic, as Pfau alleges, but rather an acutely self-conscious method that cleaves closely to its overriding purpose in reading texts and using evidence. Any lengthy consideration of the complexities of the many major thinkers whose ideas are incorporated in the book—in the manner of Pfau’s own “forensic readings of representative arguments” in his more tightly focused Minding the Modern, which is in his own words “committed to close textual analysis as its principal method”—would have distended the exposition and distracted from the relentlessly explanatory aim of The Unintended Reformation. I am well aware that all the thinkers I quote, summarize, or refer to have much more to say than what I say about them. But exploring their ideas is not the aim of the book, nor does its argument depend on close, commentarial readings—a fact entirely missed by Chappel in his mischaracterization of my treatment of “Foucault, Heidegger, and other ‘postmodern’ intellectuals.” I began reading Foucault and Heidegger in the mid-1980s, when during my graduate work in philosophy in Leuven I had entire courses respectively dedicated to close readings of their texts. Nor do I think that mine is “a deeply vulnerable work,” as Pfau suggests. On the contrary, if my method were entirely successful in identifying the historical processes that produced the institutions that encompass our contemporary hyperpluralism, there would in principle be no overlooked counterexamples—because every truth claim in answer to the life questions, whatever its basis or content, belongs to the narrative and can be incorporated as partly constitutive of it, whether or not any given claim or value or behavior is explicitly addressed or considered in the exposition. Note that the principled inclusion of all protagonists’ truth claims on their own terms in the historical analysis says nothing at all, one way or the other, about whether any of the claims are true. It only assumes that, unless in particular instances we have reason to think otherwise, their respective protagonists claim they are.

There is nothing in this methodology that falls outside the purview of the professional practice of history, which is regarded as the use of evidence to explain change over time. Some readers seem to have confused the book’s historicization of the alleged obviousness of metaphysical naturalism with a positive affirmation of certain religious claims—as if there were no intellectual space between postmetaphysical and confessional stances. The book instead provides for the non-reductionist incorporation of all protagonists’ moral and metaphysical views on their own terms. Then, methodologically, it analyzes the consequences of these protagonists’ interactions with an eye toward answering the book’s question about the formation and character of the present. Besides affirmation of a critical-realist epistemology, which is necessary if one is to do history of any sort, and affirmation of the principle of non-contradiction, which is necessary for any rational undertaking whatsoever, the book’s historical analysis depends no more on my beliefs than on those of any reader. The underlying methodology with respect to understanding the views of any and all historical protagonists is no different from that employed in my first book, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe. It deliberately seeks not to impose on those protagonists any assumptions that, as nearly as we can tell, distort their views or values, when understanding them is the task at hand. But our work is not then done, because this method discloses protagonists espousing an open-ended range of conflicting truth claims, some of which, as embodied and enacted in the past, have had enormous consequences. Therefore their identification and analysis potentially have great explanatory power in accounting for how the past became the present.

Like most works of history, The Unintended Reformation uses both primary and secondary sources, references to which are given, per scholarly convention, in the (145 pages of) 1,152 notes. The employment of sources is ruthlessly geared toward the book’s explanatory purpose. The use of a wide range of secondary sources, many of which are themselves based much more exclusively on primary sources, was necessary—and is not in itself a liability, unless one thinks that other scholars’ work cannot be used to make more ambitious arguments about change over time. To have tried to write a book of this scope based only on primary sources would, in the first instance, have taken decades and required many volumes. More to the point, it would have subverted rather than served the goal of showing how the different domains of human life explored in answering the book’s central question are related to one another—the forest would have gotten lost in the trees. In fact, for good reasons almost no historians think that history should be based entirely on primary sources. Much depends on how one uses others’ scholarship and what arguments one makes based on it. Chappel’s assertion that “The Unintended Reformation is not a serious work of history, in the traditional sense” is trivially true, because it is not a traditional work of history at all. But it is a serious work of history for anyone who thinks questions about the making of the contemporary Western world are serious ones, as many readers apparently do. Chappel’s statement is bizarre that “No collection of sources, however vast, could ever invalidate the claims being made here.” Every historical claim in the book plus the argument as a whole, like the claims in any work of history, is subject to criticism and refutation. If someone can marshal convincing evidence to show, for example, that late medieval Christianity was not as pervasively influential in the multiple areas of human life as generations of medievalists have shown it was, or that sixteenth-century magisterial and radical Protestants actually believed the same things and worshipped together, or that nineteenth-century Western philosophers were not divided among themselves in fundamental ways, or that our contemporary hyperpluralism is a mirage and consists of people who really agree about how we should live, it would invalidate many claims in the book. The absence of such counterexamples from Chappel or others suggests that my arguments about these and many other points are at least substantially correct—because, as in any convincing work of history, they are based on a great deal of evidence whether drawn from secondary or primary sources.

The expository compression of The Unintended Reformation is like a closed accordion. It is deliberately compact so as to be able to address the interconnected phenomena necessary to answer its guiding question in a single volume of reasonable length, despite covering more than half a millennium and a wide geographical range. Virtually everything treated in the book could and should be discussed more extensively and in greater detail. Any one of its six chapters could have been a lengthy book of its own, expanding part of the accordion’s bellows, as it were, by employing many more examples to support and sustain the same arguments in much greater detail and with more nuance. But so far as I can tell, this would not have altered any of the chapters’ basic arguments; it would only have made for a much longer and more finely textured exposition. To continue the metaphor, the book could also have been made more comprehensive by increasing the thickness of the accordion’s bellows: indeed, I originally outlined the book in twelve chapters, the inclusion of which would have widened and strengthened the overarching argument. Chappel misses both the book’s method and argument in characterizing its six chapters as “more or less independent essays, following an iterative logic”; on the contrary, as I state repeatedly (20, 24, 365-366), all six chapters must be understood together for the book’s argument to be understood. The book’s logic is not iterative, but agglutinative and cumulative—it is a whole comprised of intertwined parts, all of which must be combined and their connections grasped. So it is not surprising that Chappel did not understand the book, compares it to Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment, and thinks its “story itself is extremely simple.” Thankfully other reviewers, here and elsewhere, appreciate its complexity. My point in what Gordon calls the “ingenious fashion” of “disaggregating [my] narrative into analytically separable but historically interconnected parts” was to gain greater explanatory power than is possible if one follows the tendency of historians to concentrate on certain types of history—intellectual, political, social, economic, cultural—to the relative exclusion of others. Guido Vanheeswijck’s criticism that I ignore Taylor’s social imaginary seems rather to ignore the ways in which The Unintended Reformation is more encompassing and less exclusively concerned with philosophy and intellectual history than is A Secular Age—e.g. in its more robust treatment of the institutional exercise of power, economic desires and behaviors, morally informed social practices, and institutional sites for the pursuit and transmission of knowledge, and how all of these cannot be understood apart from ideas that they influence in turn.

I am neither opposed to microhistories nor hostile to monographs, as is evident from the fact that they are integral to the arguments in my book. I entirely agree with Pfau’s statement that my “‘genealogical’ narrative would have been altogether impossible without the abundant fruits of modern disciplinary and specialist forms of inquiry.” Indeed, I expressly state as much and follow through on it in the book: “the pursuit of persuasive answers to many historical questions requires just this sort of partitioning of the past (indeed, this book’s project would have been inconceivable without the fruit of such scholarship by a great many historians working over multiple generations)” (8). But as indispensable as specialized scholarship of whatever sort is in answering some historical questions, it plays only a small part in explaining how contemporary Western institutional and ideological realities came to be as they are, because it is usually limited to a chronologically and geographically restricted subfield. If one’s question concerns the formation of today’s Western world, a great deal of such scholarship must be read and one has to know what to do with it. Most historians are simply uncomfortable transgressing boundaries into fields in which they do not have expert training. More than ever do I think the benefits outweigh the risks: provided one has done sufficient work, the insights and explanatory power gained vastly offset the inevitable criticisms by specialists about particular points.

Contrary to the accusations of some respondents, there is nothing teleological about such an approach. There is nothing teleological about genealogy per se—my method respects the full contingency and non-necessity of the past unfolding as it has. By definition the past made the present what it is, but things did not have to turn out as they have because people did not have to act in the past as they did. At the same time, it would be naïve to imagine that the exercise of even the most determined individual autonomy enacting the most original human innovation could occur outside the concrete social, political, cultural, and economic contexts inherited from the past, as Marx understood so well.

One of the more curious—and symptomatically revealing—among the divergent reactions to The Unintended Reformation has been the assertion that it presupposes or depends upon my Catholic commitments, as if I were oblivious to assumptions of which I have been professionally self-conscious on virtually a daily basis for well over twenty years. Hunter’s review is the most determined in this respect, alleging a “return of sacred history” with a putatively “undisguised Thomist-Catholic viewpoint,” indeed “a Hegelian-Thomist historical hermeneutics serving Catholic apologetic purposes” suited to “the teaching of a confessional theological faculty” rather than to the pluralistically secular academy because the book is supposedly “in the genre of Catholic confessional hermeneutics, where historical narratives are composed as unfoldings of predetermined metaphysical or theological doctrines.” I actually consider myself in some respects more Augustinian than Thomistic, and I like Newman, in other ways, more than either Augustine or Aquinas, but that is beside the point. The question is whether the book is written from the perspective of or depends upon anything Catholic, or indeed on any religious commitments at all. It does not—paradoxically, this is because of an important distinction between faith and reason that derives from, but is not dependent on, the substantive teachings of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Catholic Christianity maintains that many truths can be known on the basis of reason, apart from assent to any alleged divine revelation. Understanding texts and interpreting historical evidence, for example, do not depend on religious faith, any more than does grasping the empirically based explanation of regularities in the natural sciences. At the same time, as a demand of logic, no religious tradition’s truth claims can actually be true if they flatly contradict any genuine knowledge from whatever source. The conviction about the compatibility of faith and reason became part of Christianity among Greek and Latin patristic authors in relationship to ancient learning, was expressed in the medieval scholastic notion of philosophy as ancilla theologiae, is evident in a work such as Newman’s Idea of a University, and has been reiterated in recent Vatican documents such as John Paul II’s encyclical Fides et ratio. It is crucial to Catholic scholars and scientists because, provided they understand their own tradition well enough, it permits them to engage in inquiry without making their intellectual work dependent on their faith commitments in a manner that would restrict its relevance to those who share their religious views. The paradox is that a distinction drawn from the Catholic intellectual tradition permits one to do scholarship without relying in any substantive way on that tradition’s own faith-based claims.

This distinction is maintained throughout The Unintended Reformation. The book’s treatment of medieval Christianity, the Reformation era, and the formation of modern institutions and ideas down to the present are historical analyses based on evidence that do not depend on my religious beliefs. The book does not presuppose that God is real or that Catholicism is true. Every protagonist’s views about the life questions, whether based on assent to authority and tradition, scripture alone, reason alone, or intuition or sentiment, are taken on their own terms as the indispensable and non-reductionist methodological first step in the argument. Medieval Latin Christianity has an unavoidable historical rather than a metaphysical or normative priority in any narrative of the past half-millennium of Western history, because of its social, cultural, political, educational, and material pervasiveness into the early sixteenth century. This has nothing to do with my being Catholic. Nor does the open-ended range of ways in which Protestants have interpreted scripture since the 1520s or the many conflicting ways in which foundationalist reason has been understood and elaborated in modern philosophy beginning in the seventeenth century. If my arguments are mistaken about these matters, the errors are a function of misinterpreting and/or ignoring relevant evidence, not of my religious beliefs. Nor are these beliefs the basis for my description of contemporary hyperpluralism, which incontestably includes a wide range of protagonists espousing religious as well as secular views.

Our hyperpluralism includes Roman Catholicism, which is a viable intellectual option in relationship to all the findings of the natural sciences whether or not I or anyone else assent to its teachings. This distinction between intellectual viability and assent is a corollary of the distinction between reason and faith as understood in Catholicism. Seeing how it is so depends on knowledge (and not affirmation) of Catholic claims in relationship to other academic disciplines. Other religious traditions might also offer intellectually viable options in relationship to the findings of academic disciplines, as I imply in the book. It seems that Hunter and several other respondents have confused this argument, which has the potential to complicate the complacent secularism of academic life within the postmetaphysical immanent frame, with an affirmation of the truth claims of Catholicism. I suppose that is psychologically comprehensible as an expression of annoyance when one is confronted with a historical argument that Catholicism—the rejection of which is a premise of the dominant ideologies of Western modernity—avoids certain kinds of problems characteristic of Protestantism and modern philosophical foundationalism. Yet annoyance hardly seems sufficient reason for misreading and misrepresenting a book.

Ironically, the real issue raised by the book on this point is the opposite of that alleged by Hunter: it is not that I have “affirm[ed] the truth of the Thomistic metaphysics” in an “ahistorical and absolute manner,” but rather that the business-as-usual assumptions that exclude the possibility that any religious beliefs might be true reflect ahistorical and absolute, anti-religious metaphysical views in what amounts to secular confessional history. I have addressed this point in two articles in History and Theory. Methodological naturalism in the sciences has metastasized into a de facto closed-universe, atheist metaphysics in the humanities, with the result that widely institutionalized beliefs are no longer seen as the preferential faith commitments they are. The alternative is neither a traditionally confessional “return of sacred history” nor the redoubled insistence on the legitimacy of secularist ideologies as though they were unobjectionable. It is rather a metaphysically neutral historical methodology that leaves open the possibility that some religious beliefs might be true (and are incontestably still affirmed as true, and in their wide-ranging heterogeneity acted upon, by real people). Such a metaphysically neutral alternative approach also acknowledges the intellectual sophistication with which some religious claims are articulated, and does not mistake one’s own beliefs, whatever they are, for evident or self-evident truths in the midst of our welter of rival truth claims about the life questions.

The accusation by Victoria Kahn and others that, in the book, I offer no arguments in support of the truth of Catholicism is perfectly correct—because The Unintended Reformation is not an argument for the truth of Catholicism. I think the book’s historical analysis could be used in a manner consistent with Catholic truth claims. But a work of positive apologetics would require a great deal of additional labor, none of which is undertaken in the book. I am not, nor do I aspire to be, a theologian. Yet theology is not only part of history—it remains part of contemporary intellectual life despite its banishment from secularized research universities. Thus, to ignore it is irresponsible for anyone who wants to understand the fullness of contemporary intellectual life, including the difference theology might make to it. I suggest that anyone who thinks theology does not belong should read, for starters, David Bentley Hart’s most recent book, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. The historically argued takeaway from The Unintended Reformation, with respect to Catholicism, is that it avoids the sorts of open-ended pluralism characteristic of Protestantism and modern philosophy with respect to the life questions, because Catholicism relies not on Thomism or indeed any particular philosophical or theological view per se, but on an ostensibly authoritative tradition about God’s actions in history. Again, this argument neither is nor aspires to be a demonstration of the truth of Catholicism; indeed, it holds even if all religion is illusory and God a fiction. Because Western modernity is premised on the authority of secular reason exercised by the autonomous self, it is, unsurprisingly, an unwelcome argument for those committed to such views of reason and the self. But it simply is not a positive argument for the truth of Catholicism. It is restricted to a claim about Catholicism’s intellectual viability, which is something that everyone who understands the issues involved can and should acknowledge, regardless of their own beliefs, in the same way that everyone can and should acknowledge the same for Judaism and Islam.

In sum, then, and to conclude the first part of my response, The Unintended Reformation is in no substantive sense a Catholic history, nor does it depend on any religious beliefs. An open-minded atheist could have written the book, the analysis of which stands even if Catholicism is complete nonsense and all religious beliefs turn out to be mistaken. It is neither a “return of sacred history” nor “confessional history,” but rather a metaphysically neutral historical analysis that implicitly criticizes de facto secular confessional history for its dogmatic metaphysical naturalism or functionally equivalent, postmetaphysical skepticism concerning all religious truth claims. Chappel faults me for an alleged “paucity of theoretical complexity.” I don’t think so. On the contrary, part of the book’s theoretical complexity lies exactly in historicizing, and therefore disturbing and subverting, what historians usually mean by “theory.”

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Printer-Friendly Version

Leave a Reply

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