Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation traces the absence of any substantive common good—and the triumph of capitalism, consumerism, and individualism—to the long-term effects of the Protestant Reformation. Yet can the social and political ills of modern societies be understood as more or less direct, if unforeseeable, consequences of the Reformation? What is the contemporary import of thinking of modernity as the degradation of an earlier, more wholesome age? What sort of philosophical or theological premises underlie Gregory’s understanding of history, and how are political and socioeconomic factors to be incorporated into his account of modernization? We have invited scholars to respond to these and other questions, to evaluate Gregory’s thesis, and to offer their critiques of how his work might fit into broader historical patterns of interpreting the relationship between modernity and its past.
The Unintended Reformation
The Unintended Reformation is an unusual work of history in deliberately focusing as much on the present as on the past, and in emphasizing the ongoing importance of the Reformation era for understanding the Western world today. Having considered issues related to the book’s genre, method, and assumptions in the first part of my response and others related to its historical arguments and omissions in the second part, the principal focus here will be the reactions of the forum participants to my description and assessment of the present. I will also take up speculation about my supposed agenda, and the book’s lack of ideas for solving contemporary problems.Read Contents and discontents of (post)modernity.
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.Read Historical arguments and omissions.
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.Read Genre, method, and assumptions.
As a scholar working and living in the Netherlands, I apparently live in a state of affairs in which disinterested moral disorder reigns: “Whatever the particular country in which they happen to reside, all Westerners now live in the Kingdom of Whatever.” According to Brad Gregory, our present is the endpoint of a process through which we have come to lose “any shared or even convergent view about what ‘we’ think.” The result is a condition in which the grounds for morality might altogether disappear. Or, in more colloquial terms, this lack of a moral framework leads to an attitude of disinterest: “Whatever.”
I suspect that in Gregory’s view the Netherlands must be a prime example of the Kingdom of Whatever. The influence of the Reformation has nestled itself so deep in the soul of the country that Calvinist capitalist frugality and boundless moral liberalism have well-nigh become synonymous with Dutch national character.
Or at least, so the narrative goes.Read A Kingdom that no longer says Whatever.
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.Read Beyond the Catholic-Protestant divide.
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.Read History without hermeneutics: Brad Gregory’s unintended modernity.
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).Read Beyond supersessionist stories?.
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.Read Conceptualizing pluralism and consensus in the modern Western world.
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.Read Secular supercessionism and alternative modernity.
In many ways, the argument of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is a familiar one. Gregory aims to explain our modern condition genealogically, by tracing the “hyperpluralism” of modern religious and secular commitments to the Protestant Reformation. The unintended consequence of the Reformation was the proliferation of individual truth claims that led to the proto-liberal separation of church and state. Univocal metaphysics and Occam’s razor (the principle of explanatory parsimony) simultaneously brought God within the same ontological order as creation and led to the “exclusion of God” from scientific explanations of the natural world. Once empirical science became the new standard of truth, the metaphysical rug was pulled out from under religion and morality: belief and value became subjective and relative, leaving individuals with no standard by which to adjudicate conflicting truth claims. In the place of a substantive “virtue ethics” of the Good, some early modern thinkers began to advocate a formal, individualist ethic of rights.Read Get over it.
Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is noteworthy for its readiness to tread upon questions of morality and metaphysics that most historians would consider forbidden terrain. It is a common characteristic of historical scholarship as it is practiced in the modern university today that it abstains from grand philosophical themes and fastens its attention upon a narrow set of questions in an empiricist mode. This is perhaps due in part to the way that a highly administered society that is bound with ever-increasing intensity to technocratic norms is inclined to make a fetish of academic specialization. It is no doubt also due to an accumulation of historical knowledge and a professional imperative to keep abreast of the published work within one’s field. Because the drive to produce in the corporate university cannot exempt itself from the largely quantitative assessment of a scholar’s value, the sheer mass of information to be absorbed increases as the range of academic expertise narrows. Despite the new vogue for “global” history and high sales for books that extol the apparent superiority of Western civilization, most historians are humble creatures who prefer the domesticity of the local and the precise.Read Has modernity failed?.
Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is an expansively ambitious work. Indeed, its aim is to provide nothing less than an “explanation of why the Western world today is as it is.” In this regard it sits comfortably alongside Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, with whose neo-Thomist structure, content, and purpose it has much in common. Both writers mix their Thomism with Hegelianism, treating the secular world as the form in which man confronts his own alienated or sublimated religious impulse. Lying behind this philosophical-historical theory of secularization is a conception of the world as the space in which its transcendent creator manifests himself sacramentallyRead The return of sacred history.
The long-term consequences of the Reformation have been a subject of heated debate for many decades. Most accounts have taken one of two forms. On the one hand, in the wake of Weber’s magisteral Protestant Ethic, many historians have wondered about the relationship between Protestantism and capitalist development (R.H. Tawney and E.P. Thompson the most famous among them). On the other hand, many historians, philosophers, and theologians, writing from a Catholic perspective, have seen Luther’s Reformation as the blow that shattered the glorious unity of medieval Christendom. Brad Gregory is clearly of the latter camp, and he boldly revives this largely forgotten axis of “modernity critique” (even figures like Alasdair MacIntyre, to whom Gregory owes so much, pay comparatively little attention to the Reformation). In this exhaustive, and exhausting, tome, Gregory seeks to show how the little monk of Wittenberg is behind all of the most disquieting aspects of the modern condition. Although this is largely hidden by Gregory’s immense erudition and soothing style, The Unintended Reformation is a frightening and deeply anti-democratic work, both in its methods and in its findings.Read An intended absence? Democracy and The Unintended Reformation.