Monday, April 15, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books

"THE UNINTENDED REFORMATION – How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society” by Brad S. Gregory (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; available from The Book Depository International at $NZ43:38)

            “I know that history at all times draws / strangest consequence from remotest cause” says Thomas Becket in T.S.Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. And though the phrase has been quoted often enough to become a cliché, that doesn’t make it a whit less true. Where we arrive at in history is the result of a complex chain of actions and decisions that were meant to drive us in quite a different direction. We are always wrong about where we think we are going in history. Decisions made and actions taken now will have consequences that we cannot remotely foresee. They will make a world quite disconnected from any intentionality.

            Brad S.Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is a long, scholarly and very demanding illustration of this thesis. Its 400 large and closely-printed pages of text are followed by nearly 200 pages of end-notes and index. Gregory is a Professor of Early Modern History at Indiana’s Notre Dame University and his book has been published by Harvard University Press. This is not light popularisation, yet its theme is quite simply stated.

            Five hundred years ago, argues Gregory, Protestant Reformers believed they were reviving an authentic Christianity, which was being stifled by a corrupt and superstition-laden Catholic church. They believed their revolution would make Europe more authentically Christian. Instead of making Europe and Western civilization more Christian, however, their efforts inadvertently secularised society and created the conditions for a consumer-driven capitalism in which religion is privatised and marginalised. After an initial period of fiercely partisan zealotry, the Protestant Reformation made the West less Christian.

Notre Dame is a Catholic institution and the odd reference in The Unintended Reformation suggests to me that Gregory is a Catholic. However, this is in no sense a partisan work. When he discusses the Reformation, Gregory includes contemporary Catholic attitudes thereto and sees them as part of the problem. He is not fantasising about “a world we have lost” and his Conclusion is called “Against Nostalgia”, making the obvious point that, however much we may regret a corporate, public and generally-accepted system of belief and morality, it is not coming back any time soon. (And for the record, this book was awarded a scholar’s prize by Indiana’s Wesleyan University – not a noticeably Catholic institution.).

In his introduction Gregory declares:

As a whole this book constitutes an explanation about the makings of modernity as both a multifaceted rejection and a variegated appropriation of different elements of medieval Christianity…. This is neither a study of decline from a lost Golden Age nor a narrative of progress toward an even brighter future, but rather an analysis of unintended historical consequences that derived from transformative responses to major perceived human problems.” (pg.20)

Each of the book’s six long chapters begins with a reflection on the present and asks how it came about. Each then goes back to intellectual and social conditions in the later Middle Ages and follows their consequences through to the present. At least in part, The Unintended Reformation is a protest against current periodization employed by most historians; and their notion that the modern world can be explained solely with reference to the “Early Modern” world and Enlightenment, while everything before that is relegated to irrelevance. Further, Gregory is concerned to interrogate the pervasive use of “we” by socio-historians when they refer to the present and assume that a secular, non-religious view is now normative and uncontested. In reality, “we”, if used honestly, would have to include a hyperplurality of world-views including many directly related to the religious past.

The opening chapter “Excluding God” sees the origin of a major philosophical problem in the late medieval adoption of Duns Scotus’ conception of God not as being itself (esse) but as a being (ens). “If real”, says Gregory, “a transcendent God is not subject to empirical discovery or proof.” But when Scotus’ conception of God was backed by William of Occam’s univocalism, God was sidelined and became just another aspect of nature – a being greater than other beings, but still a being. 

This would have remained a matter for the academies, with little wider impact. But comes the Reformation and

“…the intractable doctrinal disagreements among Protestants and especially between Catholics and Protestants…. had the unintended effect of sidelining explicitly Christian claims about God in relationship to the natural world. This left only empirical observation and philosophical speculation as supra-confessional means of investigating and theorizing that relationship. With this unplanned marginalization of disputed Christian doctrines, widespread univocal metaphysical assumptions and the nominalist principle of parsimony became unprecedentedly important as the de facto intellectual framework within which such observation and speculation would unfold – and within which modern science would emerge.” (Pg.40)

Gradually God was squeezed out of discourse concerning nature even though, as Gregory observes, there is absolutely no way that the modern natural sciences have in any sense “disproved” God’s existence. Further, the God rejected by “science” is not the Christian God.

Gregory notes that late medieval intellectual life was not static or sterile:
Any picture of medieval Latin Christianity as a homogenous, uniform set of rigidly prescribed, strictly enforced, and closely followed practices is deeply misleading, however much this myth survives as a vestige of nineteenth-century liberal views of the Reformation or of nostalgic romanticism in Catholic notions of the Middle Ages.” (Pg.83)

However, intellectual diversity in the Middle Ages was largely anchored on teleological, Aristotelean-Thomist assumptions and more was shared than was contested in intellectual life. In his second chapter “Relativizing Doctrine”, Gregory argues that this framework was stripped away and teachings became so diverse as to be mutually-exclusive. Protestant reformers attempted to attack a corrupt church by attacking what they saw as an accretion of non-biblical traditions, because in one form or another they believed in the concept of sola scriptura – the concept that a purer Christian doctrine would emerge if the Bible alone were referenced and non-scriptural traditions and canon law jettisoned.  But it was soon evident that scripture, despite a frequent and erroneous claim, was not and is not “self-interpreting”. Among Protestants, cutting loose from tradition and in most cases from church councils meant strong disagreement on essential doctrines. The short-term solutions were various confessional formulations and local enforcement of these using the power of the state. Another solution was to lean on the Holy Ghost as arbiter – God would directly reveal the truth of scripture. So we go down the Pentecostal path, or come to the “inner light” of Quakerism. But none of these resolve the multiple doctrinal differences between Protestants (let alone between Protestants and Catholics); and opportunity is given to the sceptic claim that therefore all confessional truth claims are wrong. This leads ineluctably to the more recent superstition that reason alone with tell us moral and intellectual truths. But this proves to be as much of a chimera as sola scriptura, creating a world in which there is no objective moral or intellectual truth, but only opinion based on personal preference.

Gregory’s argument here is a densely-referenced historical one. But along the way, he demolishes handsomely those who claim that morality is based only on evolutionary urges; and the notion of “freedom” as being disconnected from essential values. More than anything, there is the bankruptcy of unanchored reason:

 “Attempts to salvage modern philosophy by claiming that it is concerned with asking questions rather than either finding or getting closer to finding answers might make some sense – if one just happens to like asking questions in the same way that thirsty people just happen to like seeking water rather than locating a drinking fountain, or indeed having any idea whether they were getting closer to one. Appeals to philosophy as a “quest” or a “journey” toward the truth about morality, meaning, or metaphysics by means of reason presuppose a promising path to follow. Neither the history of modern philosophy nor the state of contemporary philosophy suggests any reason to think that reason alone offers one. The evidence of nearly four hundred years suggests that those who persist nonetheless are as Pollyannaish as those who doggedly continue to maintain the sufficiency and perspicuity of scripture as a basis for Christian truth despite a half-millennium of irreconcilable biblical interpretation, and a lack of any consensual means of deciding among them. The reasonable conclusion is that it is irrational to go on thinking that reason alone might yield truth about human values, priorities, meaning, or purpose.” (Pg.126)

In his third chapter “Controlling the Churches”, Gregory notes that despite co- existing with many different polities, the Catholic Church was never absorbed by or coterminous with a given state. Also the doctrine of ex opere operato taught that the workings of grace and the efficacy of sacraments never relied on the personal holiness of those administering them. But emphasising individual “godliness” in its ministers, and having broken with church traditions, Protestantism could survive only by leaning on the coercive arm of the state. At this point, Gregory distinguishes between “magisterial Protestants” and “radical Protestants”. By “magisterial Protestants”, he means those able to create confessional states with the help of political patrons – Luther in Germany, Calvin in Geneva, the Church of England etc. By “radical Protestants” he means those who gained no such political support. The doctrinal problems of magisterial Protestants were apparently “solved” only because they had the secular political power to impose a local orthodoxy, and stamp out alternatives.

The very success of confessional regimes, magisterial Protestant as well as Catholic, in suppressing radical Protestants between Munster in 1535 and England in the 1640s kept the number of radical Protestants small and their socio-political influence minimal. Thus the fact of political approval and support, essential to long term success in forging Lutheran or Reformed Protestant confessional identities across a wide swathe of the population, has for centuries been conflated with doctrinally and theologically normative Protestantism in the Reformation era. This is analytically unfortunate, because there is no intrinsic, necessary, or logical connection between enjoying political support and rightly interpreting God’s word…” (Pg.151)

To put it more simply, the “success” of Protestantism was not the victory of a purified doctrine, but of a secular power to enforce highly-contested doctrines. Please note that in this analysis, Gregory says the same was true of Catholic countries as they regrouped and reacted to the Protestant Reformation. Philip II’s Spain was as much a confessional state, with orthodoxy enforced by the royal government, as Elizabeth I’s England was. But Catholic doctrine was not engendered by the state or its appointees, as the doctrine of magisterial Protestant countries was. The essentially Erastian relationship between church and state in magisterial Protestant countries set the pattern for a secular control that would gradually compartmentalise and minimalise the role of religion in life.

This had huge effects on personal morality. Gregory’s fourth chapter
 “Subjectivizing Morality” considers again the Protestant Reformation’s rejection of canon law and attempt to build a purely Bible-based system of morality. But no such unified system developed because there were so many differences among Biblical interpretations. The way was opened for morality to be relativised. After the hugely destructive wars of religion, the solution (pioneered in 17th. Century Holland) was to separate something called “religion” from the rest of life. Once Christianity and worship were compartmentalised as purely private activity, codes of morality became simply matters of personal preference. Self-interest became the dominant morality, with no moral system to unify society or internalise social duties. In detailing the long-term consequences of this, Gregory can become quite satirical, but justifiably so, as in:

“… the widespread default in  Western societies at large is emotivism, an ethics of subjective, feelings-based, personal preference, which only exacerbates the unresolved and irresolvable disagreements. The de facto guideline for the living of human life in the Western world today seems simply ‘whatever makes you happy’ – ‘so long as you’re not hurting anyone else’ – in which the criteria for happiness too, are self-determined, self-reported, and therefore immune to critique, and in which the meaning of ‘hurting anyone else’ is assumed to be self-evident, unproblematical, or both. Because there is no shared framework in which such disagreements might be rationally debated and perhaps overcome, and yet life goes on, moral disagreements are translated socially into political contestation within an emotivist culture – one that is closely related to if not largely identical with the individualistic ‘therapeutic culture’ diagnosed by Philip Rieff.”(Pg.182)

Or again, addressing the foundational incoherence of secular morality:

It is not uncommon to hear people insist on the constructed arbitrariness of moral values and yet denounce certain human actions as wrong because they violate human rights. That such a self-contradictory absurdity seems to be widespread and tends to escape the notice of its protagonists suggests both that it is deeply rooted and that it fulfils an important function. Its latter half depends on…’smuggling’: the importation of unacknowledged premises and convictions from normative religious worldviews that its protagonists have ostensibly discarded, and which are inadmissible on the protagonists’ own terms.” (Pg.225)

In what may be the book’s most pungent chapter, “Manufacturing the Goods Life”, Gregory notes that the medieval world-view condemned avarice and acquisitiveness. And, despite belittling the chosen poverty of monastic orders, so did the early Protestant Reformers:

The bottom line is clear; like radical Protestants, the magisterial reformers, including Calvin, unambiguously condemned avarice, acquisitive individualism, and any separation of economic behaviour from Biblical morality or the common good. Despite their rejection of voluntary poverty as a means to and expression of Christian holiness, their attitudes about the proper human relationships to material things and acquisitiveness are much closer to those of medieval Christianity than to the central assumptions of modern Western capitalism and consumerism…” (Pg.269)

But the individualisation and privatisation of belief in the Reformation led to the idea of personal merit unconnected with the greater social good. Hence, in societies where religion was privatised, the greater pursuit of individual profit became first acceptable, then the norm, as religion’s restraining caveats were also privatised. In chronicling all this, and especially in his analysis of early mercantile Holland, Gregory is not merely restating Max Weber’s famous century-old thesis on the connection between Protestantism and capitalism. Certainly there’s a Weberian tone to his account of Calvinism seeing the individual soul as depraved, seeking signs of God’s favour and “election”, and ultimately finding them in personal wealth. But Gregory is always aware, as Weber wasn’t, that rise of a consumer capitalism was an unintended outcome of the Protestant reformation – not intrinsic to it. For all that, he can trace a direct line from the privatised, individualised morality of the Erastian Protestant state to “shopping therapy” in the mall.

The book’s last chapter “Secularizing Knowledge” essentially restates some of the intellectual themes of the opening chapter– the journey from universities built around a shared Thomist-Aristotelean base to confessional Protestant states first privileging Bible studies in universities and then becoming secularised so that eventually theology was banished from the academies.

Despite the different materials of each chapter, there is a common theme. Privatised Biblical interpretation led to privatised religion, which in turn led to privatised morality, unconnected to corporate belief, Christian tradition or shared values. The disconnected individual became the centre of the universe and therefore the prime value became self-interest (whether spiritual or material). From this grew not only consumer capitalism, but also secular liberalism, which emphasises individual rights, but which, in and of itself, has nothing to say about the corporate good of the community as a whole. None of this was foreseen by Protestant Reformers and certainly none of this was intended, but it was the clearest long-term outcome of their efforts. To claim that Protestantism revivified Christianity, one would have to arbitrarily stop the clock at the relatively early point where reformers were attacking the many, gross and obvious abuses of the Catholic Church. But beyond that early phase, the Protestant Reformation did not work to perpetuate the Christian community.

How do I criticise this as a book? Of course, like all books which argue a case, it is in part a polemic, but it is a well-researched one and the case it makes is a good one. In future, those who disagree strongly with its conclusions will still have to grapple with its argument. In that sense it is bound to be seminal.

I do sometimes regret the author’s style. He can allow sentences to run on too long in too many subordinate clauses. But he can also makes points forcefully and pithily, as I hope the short passages quoted in this over-long notice prove.

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