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Friday, September 28, 2012

The Unintended Reformation, Pro and Con

I'm very grateful to Rick for pointing me over the summer to a fine new book by Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, published by Harvard University Press. Here's a description: 

In a work that is as much about the present as the past, Brad Gregory identifies the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation and traces the way it shaped the modern condition over the course of the following five centuries. A hyperpluralism of religious and secular beliefs, an absence of any substantive common good, the triumph of capitalism and its driver, consumerism—all these, Gregory argues, were long-term effects of a movement that marked the end of more than a millennium during which Christianity provided a framework for shared intellectual, social, and moral life in the West.

Before the Protestant Reformation, Western Christianity was an institutionalized worldview laden with expectations of security for earthly societies and hopes of eternal salvation for individuals. The Reformation’s protagonists sought to advance the realization of this vision, not disrupt it. But a complex web of rejections, retentions, and transformations of medieval Christianity gradually replaced the religious fabric that bound societies together in the West. Today, what we are left with are fragments: intellectual disagreements that splinter into ever finer fractals of specialized discourse; a notion that modern science—as the source of all truth—necessarily undermines religious belief; a pervasive resort to a therapeutic vision of religion; a set of smuggled moral values with which we try to fertilize a sterile liberalism; and the institutionalized assumption that only secular universities can pursue knowledge.

The Unintended Reformation asks what propelled the West into this trajectory of pluralism and polarization, and finds answers deep in our medieval Christian past.

It's a terrific read, encyclopedic in the sources it draws on and compelling in spinning them together into an interesting and valuable narrative.

That said, I'm also grateful to Rick for pointing me to this critical review of Gregory's book by Mark Lilla. Lilla writes that the book is part of a trend toward "The Road Not Taken" narratives, all nostalgic about the medieval Christian world, among Catholic thinkers. "Gregory would have us believe that he is writing conventional history," Lilla writes. "But the deeper you delve into this book, the more you begin to feel that you are watching a shadow-puppet play on the wall of some Vatican cave. A straightforward history of the post–Reformation West written from an explicitly Catholic standpoint would have been a welcome addition to our understanding of the period and of ourselves. Instead, Gregory has offered up a sly crypto-Catholic travel brochure for The Road Not Taken." Gregory's book, he says wittily, is the product of "an inverted Whiggism—a Whiggism for depressives."

Rick himself is not entirely taken with Lilla's review. I'm more sympathetic to it. As I said, I sincerely like and learned from the book. But I did get the sense that Gregory's book would not suffer--might even benefit--if the reader simply skipped the last ten to fifteen pages of each chapter. I feel sure that Gregory would not have written the book but for those sections; but I also think those sections are the most questionable parts of the book. Certainly they make the slyness of the preceding materials more apparent. Still, I encourage you to read the book--and the review--for yourselves. Whether you agree with its narrative or not, it's still fascinating, highly readable (I will forgive much from an author who mentions the Insane Clown Posse in the introduction to a book about the historical consequences of the Reformation), and full of interesting details and synthesis. 


Posted by Paul Horwitz on September 28, 2012 at 08:07 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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"Fracturing" and pluralism leading to the death of religion seems like the Whig myth to me. That theory of the Reformation operates purely on the formal level.

A more plausible account of the Reformation, to me anyways, comes from Charles Taylor, in, for example, his "A Secular Age" where he describes that the dominant IDEAS of the Reformation--- the "buffered self," for example, as he calls it--- entail a diminishing role for Church and an increasing technical, materialist society.

Indeed, in a way even Marx better addresses the Reformation.

To me, where the author would go wrong (and admittedly this only based on the abstract) is the demonstrably false claim that the Reformation led to a society with "an absence of any substantive common good," which is, pace Taylor, a too-easy "subtraction story" that simply rehashes secularist triumphalism.

Posted by: AndyK | Sep 28, 2012 9:28:59 AM

Thanks for the tip, Paul and Rick. I'm working on Diarmaid MacCulloch's book on the Reformation, and can move smoothly into this one!

AndyK, where does Marx take on the Reformation? The German Ideology?

Posted by: Chris Lund | Sep 28, 2012 11:50:17 PM

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