Posts Tagged ‘Protestantism’

February 7th, 2014

Historical arguments and omissions

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A number of the forum reviewers raise objections to various aspects of the historical arguments in The Unintended Reformation. Others criticize me for having neglected what they regard as important omissions that adversely affect the book’s arguments. I will consider each of these sorts of criticisms in turn. Many of these critiques derive from the difficulty of keeping in mind that the book’s structure—a function of its method, which follows from its explanatory purpose as discussed in the first part of my response—distributes phenomena from the same historical era across six chapters rather than keeping them together. In combination with the necessarily compressed exposition, which also derives from the method, this sometimes results in readers not heeding or forgetting what is incorporated elsewhere in the book.

November 26th, 2013

Beyond the Catholic-Protestant divide

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The epigraph of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation comes from an essay that Jacques Maritain wrote for the Review of Politics in 1942 entitled “The End of Machiavellianism.” In it, Maritain evinces some of his own realist, even tragic sensibilities—his hunch that human beings often do not deliver on the grand promises that they make, and that what may have appeared so good long, long ago can bear rotten fruit centuries later. Although tracing the distant and historical causes of contemporary problems can be like trying to identify “in a river’s mouth,” as Maritain writes, “which waters come from which glaciers and which tributaries,” if we are to have any chance of understanding ourselves, the work cannot be avoided. The epigraph offers a glimpse into Gregory’s intentions and his inspiration, and it helps explain why he would read his area of specialization, the Reformation, in darker terms than some of his American colleagues. For Jacques Maritain, the Protestant reformers set in motion the modern, rationalist thinking that severed the ontological bonds between the realness of the world and the intellectual capacities of the knower. For Gregory, the tragedy of the Reformation was not the content of the reformers’ ideas but the unsolved and unsatisfying contestations between Catholics and Protestants.

November 6th, 2013

History without hermeneutics: Brad Gregory’s unintended modernity

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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.

October 16th, 2013

Conceptualizing pluralism and consensus in the modern Western world

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Without pointing out those places where I agree with Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, I would like to add a qualification to his claim that the modern Western world is correctly described as “hyperpluralistic.” The term “hyperpluralism” is sometimes used in socio-political discourse to refer to the fragmentation of political interest groups and the resulting challenges associated with forming coalitions. Gregory, however, often writes about “contemporary Western hyperpluralism with respect to truth claims about meaning, morality, values, priorities, and purpose.” He thus uses the term in a more general sense, which includes moral, philosophical, cultural, political and theological aspects.

October 1st, 2013

What is religion in China? A brief history

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The complex and ever-changing relationship between the Chinese state and the nation’s religions stretches back thousands of years. While the state never struggled with religious leaders for power, it governed an embedded religiosity in the population, one best described as diffused, non-exclusive, and pluralistic. As a companion to The Immanent Frame’s newly launched series of essays on the state of religion in China, this piece embarks on a brief historical survey, outlining the wide variety of beliefs and practices that religion in China encapsulates, and paying particular attention to the events and philosophies that have shaped the policies of the atheist People’s Republic of China.

September 24th, 2013

Secular supercessionism and alternative modernity

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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.

January 25th, 2013

What has been will be again

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Marcia Pally’s incisive essay on “the new evangelicals” highlights a relatively small but growing population of white evangelicals who appear to be embracing broader, less conservative visions of the common good, and public policy views (at least partially) more in line with Democratic politics than their recent forebears.  While her descriptions presumably are not limited to those who necessarily call themselves “new evangelicals,” she does invoke the work and ideas of public evangelicals who clearly self-identify as such. This points to an interesting observation worth considering here: to assume the mantle of newness is to make an ideological statement as well as a historical claim.

May 11th, 2012

Everson’s Children

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Everson v. Board of Education is considered a landmark of First Amendment jurisprudence. That 1947 case marks the first time the Supreme Court held that the disestablishment provision of the First Amendment is binding on the states, and not just on the federal government. The “incorporation” of the principle of disestablishment thus completed the task begun seven years earlier in Cantwell v. Connecticut, when a unanimous Court held that free exercise applied to the states. In Cantwell, the Court overturned the convictions of three Jehovah’s Witnesses, who had been arrested for unlicensed soliciting and a breach of peace.

April 9th, 2012

The problem with the history of toleration

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The problem with the history of toleration is not that no one is studying it. There is now a rapidly growing number of books and articles approaching the topic from a number of angles and in several different countries. The problem is that we assume that all of those studying toleration are studying the same thing. Though in fact we are describing a diversity of arrangements, dynamics, and possibilities taking place in different societies at different times, we still write and think as if there were a single proper form of toleration to which all others should adhere, or an ideal like “religious freedom” to which all should aspire.

April 6th, 2012

Christian genealogies of religious freedom

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As a historian of religion, much of my recent work has focused on tracing the genealogy of what we call religious freedom in developments internal to European Christianity. My goal has not been to frame a normative theory of what limit ought to be placed on the freedom of religion—whatever this word is taken to mean—in any contemporary jurisdiction nor (apart from the effect of British colonialism on India) to trace the very different histories of the modernization of cultural traditions in other parts of the world, as these traditions have been shaped by the complex forces of economic development, nationalism, and technologization.