Monday, May 27, 2013

The Unintended Reformation by Brad S. Gregory

I have recently finished The Unintended Reformation by Brad S. Gregory.  Without doubt, this is one of the most consequential books I've read in some time.  Gregory is a professor of history at Notre Dame, so it should come as no surprise that he approaches the subject from a Catholic angle.  Many readers--used to the Reformation being portrayed as a decidedly good thing--may find this disconcerting.  Those of a conservative political bent or of a liberal theology will find plenty to offend them as well.  I believe that this will become a seminal work, a revisionist history that (hopefully) pushes the conversation in new directions.
 The promotion for the volume notes that it is as much about the present as it is the past.  Indeed, Gregory finds the roots of our contemporary hyperpluralistic, consumerist, and religiously disenchanted society in the Reformation itself, not just the Enlightenment.  Instinctively, I already knew this, even back in my Protestant days, long before I became Orthodox.  Viewing the West as it stands now from six different perspectives, Gregory methodically and substantially connects all the dots.  His theories do not explain everything, but they explain quite a lot.  Without further commentary on my part, I will post some of his noteworthy passages, below:
The underlying problem is that most people seek--and through relentless advertising are encouraged to pursue--ever greater material affluence and comfort, despite the fact that the average American income, for example, rose eightfold in real terms during the twentieth century.  Westerners now live in societies without an acquisitive ceiling:  a distinctly consumerist (rather than merely industrial) economic ethos depends precisely on persuading people to discard as quickly as possible what they were no less insistently urged to purchase, so that another acquisitive cycle might begin.
If "rights" and "persons" no less than "morality" are mere constructs without empirical grounding in the findings of science, and only science can legitimately tell us anything true about reality, then such constructs can be deconstructed and dismissed in the pursuit of alternatives.
Reformation leaders thought the root problem was doctrinal, and in seeking to fix it by turning to the Bible they unintentionally introduced multiple sorts of unwanted disagreement.  This constituted a new set of problems, different from the first.  What was true Christianity and how was it known?  Doctrinal controversy was literally endless, and religio-political conflicts...were destructive and inconclusive.
What sort of public life or common culture is possible in societies whose members share ever fewer substantive beliefs, norms, and values save for a nearly universal embrace of consumerist acquisitiveness?
This chapter traces the historical trajectory whereby the assumptions about God, nature, and science that dominate contemporary intellectual life have come to be taken with such uncritical matter-of-factness.  they are widely regarded as ideologically neutral,, obvious truths rather than seen for what they are:  ideologically loaded, contestable truth claims based on unverifiable beliefs.
...this anti sacramental view of science and religion, if the universe as a whole were a closed system of natural causes, there would be no place for God either causally or conceptually.  God would simply be superfluous, because there would be neither a place nor any evidence for him.  But a genuinely transcendent god, if real, is not spatial at all.  So such a God, if real, no more needs room to act than he needs room to exist.  Both presuppositions--the assimilation o God to the natural world and the mutual exclusivity of natural causes and divine presence--are implicitly part of modern science as it is conceived and practiced, although bot have long ceased to be active concerns among practicing scientists qua scientists.  Bot indeed repudiate central claims of Christianity....
However human reason is construed or understood, it cannot fathom what is by definition unfathomable, and so despite traditional Christian theology's pervasive and variegated use of reason it can never finally grasp directly that with which it is chiefly concerned.
This is Scotus's univocal conception of being--"univocal" because it is predicated in conceptually equivalent terms of everything that exists, including God....and...would prove to be the first step toward the eventual domestication of God's transcendence...
The Reformation chiefly matters for the emergence of modern science in quite another way:  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.
...the denial that Jesus could be really present in the a logical corollary of metaphysical univocity.  A "spiritual" presence that is contrasted with  a real presence presupposes an either-or dichotomy between a crypto-spatial God and the natural world that precludes divine immanence in its desire to preserve divine is precisely and God's radical otherness as non spatial that makes his presence in and through creation possible, just as it had made the incarnation possible....The denial of the possibility of Christ's real presence in the Eucharist, by contrast, ironically implies that the "spiritual" presence of god is itself being conceived in spatial or quasi-spatial terms...
But what if the anti-Roman exclusion of divine immanence that presupposed metaphysical univocity were to be combined with Occam's razor and a conception of the natural world as an explanatory adequate system of self-contained, efficient causes?  Then there would be neither a place for the active, ever-present, biblical God of Christianity, nor a reason to refer to him except perhaps as as an extraordinarily remote, first efficient cause.  This would mean, of course, that the god under consideration would no longer be the biblical God.  It would be the God of deism....In this way, the Protestant denial of sacramentality as it was understood in the Roman church contributed unintentionally and indirectly to post-enlightenment disenchantment.
Empirical investigation of the natural world had not falsified any theological claims.  Rather, incompatible Catholic and Protestant views about the meaning of god's actions created an intellectually sterile impasse because of the objections they inevitably provoked from theological opponents, and the intractable doctrinal controversies they constantly reinforced.  What was left as a mean for understanding the natural world?  Only reason--understood and exercised in ways that did not depend on any contested Christian doctrines.
But for most innovative eighteenth-century thinkers...the principal remaining significant question about God was whether he was an initial, remote, efficient cause of the universe's deterministic mechanism, or simply a superstitious invention of unenlightened, primitive peoples ignorant of the truth about dynamic, eternal matter....His domestication now complete or nearly so among such thinkers, God was in both cases conceived as though he were spatial and temporal.
A rejection of the church's authority and many of its teachings is precisely what happened in the Reformation.  All Protestant reformers came to believe that the established church was no longer the church established by Jesus.  So they spurned many truth claims of the faith as embodied in the Roman church....The Reformation's upshot was rather that Roman Catholicism, even at its best, was a perverted form of Christianity even if all its members had been self-consciously following all the Roman church's teachings and had been enacting all its permitted practices.  Institutional abuses and immorality were seen as symptomatic signs of a flawed foundation, namely false and dangerous doctrines--that is, mistaken truth claims.
It is thus misleading to say that "Protestantism itself splintered into rival denominations, or 'confessions,'" as if there ever was some point in the early Reformation when anti-Roman Christians had agreed among themselves about wha3t scripture said and God taught.  There wasn't.
Commitment to the authority of scripture led neither obviously nor necessarily to justification by faith alone or to salvation through grace alone as the cornerstone doctrines of Christianity.  Radical Protestants made abundantly clear that the Bible did not "interpret itself" in this way, whatever protagonists claimed to the contrary.  Unfettered and unconstrained, the Reformation simply yielded the full, historically manifest range of truth claims made about what the Bible said....From the very outset of the Reformation, the shared commitment to sola scriptura entailed a hermeneutical heterogeneity that proved doctrinally contentious, socially divisive, and sometimes...politically subversive.
The assertion that scripture alone was a self-sufficient basis for Christian faith and life...produced not even rough agreement, but an open-ended welter of competing and incompatible interpretations of Luther's "one certain rule"....Scholars...have overlooked the significance of the principle of sola scriptura for contemporary hyperpluralism.  Unless radical and magisterial Protestants are studied together, historically and comparatively, this significance cannot be seen.  
Christian morality was irreducibly communal and social.  According to the Gospels, Jesus did not tell his listeners to believe whatever they wished to believe as individuals, or to follow him only in their private thoughts and interior sentiments but not in concrete, public, shared human life.  On sacrifice, forgiveness, compassion, service, and generosity simply was Christianity.  It was the Gospel concretized and enacted.  It was not something called "religion" distinguished from the rest of life, but rather all of life lived in certain way.
His [Luther's] experience of justification by faith alone convinced him that the dialectic between Law and Gospel as he understood it comprised the cornerstone for correctly understanding God's word.  It followed that the Roman church' teachings were mistaken wherever they contradicted his reading of the Bible, linked to his transformative experience of God's gratuitously given grace....all other Christians did likewise who not only denounced the sinful shortcomings of the Roman church...but in addition rejected its authority based on their respective interpretations of the Bible.  This meant rejecting in various ways many inherited Christian truth claims--often not in accord with Luther...but in an open-ended plethora of rival views about "the better interpretation."
In large measure it was Augustine's vision, still--but now in the context of a divided Christendom whose magisterial Protestant and Catholic antagonists each claimed Augustine.
...the ideological scaffolding and political framework beneath the energetic, mostly Protestant churches and effervescent evangelization in the United States between the ratification of the Constitution and the Civil War was religion of the individual, by the individual, and for the individual...."of all the countries in the world, America is the one in which the precepts of Descartes are least studied and best followed."
The prescriptive content of the country's foundational political documents was so thin and abstract as to be virtually nonexistent:  "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," but nothing about how to live, how to exercise one's liberty, or in what happiness consists....It was their legally protected freedom, if they so chose, to live for their own enjoyments and pleasures and the acquisition of material things, to pursue the fulfillment of their desires while ignoring whomever they chose to ignore.  It was constitutional.  Each American citizen had a right to it.  Such a life would bear scant resemblance to the teachings of Jesus, who preached the opposite...
Millions of Americans seem still to believe the Wilsonian notion that the United States has a divine destiny and providential mission to accomplish in the world, that of "spreading freedom and democracy"...the aim is apparently to force (at least certain strategically selected) others to be free, if necessary through proactive military intervention, even if it means killings tens of thousands of the would-have-been-liberated and unsettling the lives of millions more.
...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...Everything becomes "political" because once morality has been subjectivized no arguments can succeed, since there is no shared set of assumptions from which they can proceed.
This chapter argues that a transformation from a substantive morality of the good to a formal morality of rights constitutes the central change in Western ethics over the past half millennium...Those who repudiated the Roam church uncoupled the medieval discourse on natural rights from the teleological Christian ethics within which it had been embedded.  That discourse was transformed and the consequential trajectory to a modern ethics of rights established as a result of Christian contesting about the good, the violence of the Reformation era, and the subsequent demands for religious freedom....In society at large, aside from the ever burgeoning dominance of consumerism and capitalism, nothing has replaced Christianity in providing for shared goods.  The result is a de facto reliance on emotivist, individual preference to determine the good as such and a seemingly inexorable trend towards increasing permissiveness necessarily coupled with ever more insistent calls for toleration.
Fleeing the scriptural unmasked Whore of Babylon, anti-Roman Christians would have to constitute a moral community afresh, based on the Bible.  Yet no such alternative moral community emerged.  There were only rival moral communities...
...all Protestants based their flight on the same foundation:  their interpretation of scripture...Because they read differently, they fled differently.
From the outset of the reformation to the present day, the insistence on sola scriptura and its adjuncts has produced and continues to yield an open-ended range of incompatible interpretations of the Bible, with centrifugal social and wide-ranging substantive implications for morality.
Indeed, the moralistic character of early modern Catholic and magisterial Protestant regimes...helps to explain why in the early twenty-first century many Christians understand ethics less as the pursuit of holiness linked to human flourishing as part of the imitation of Christ, than in legalistic terms as "following the rules" lest punishment ensue.  It also helps to account for the strength of the dominant secular narrative of Western modernity as an emancipatory drive for ever-greater individual liberation from resented impositions, with religion interpreted primarily as a form of oppressive social control.
 ..."we hold these truths to be self-evident:  that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."  Given that there had never been anything self-evident about such claims, however, common they had become by the late eighteenth century, one might admire the strategic moxie that in pressured circumstances sought preemptively to stifle all would-be criticism and debate.  That is what claims of self-evident truths try to do, by offering assertions in place of arguments....the founding documents of the United States enshrined not a substantive ethics of the good but a formal ethics of rights, one that eparted in critical ways from the conception of rights both in medieval Christianity and in magisterial Protestantism during the Reformation era. 
Something new was created:  a "private sphere" within which individuals could do as they pleased based on their own beliefs and preferred goods, provided they were publicly obedient.
The threat of subversion and fears of heterodoxy in the conflicts between confessionalizing Catholic and magisterial Protestant rulers made obedience the central social virtue of early modern Europe.  And the central social virture of Western modernity, within the institutions of the liberal state, is toleration--as it must be.
The consumerist cycle of acquire, discard, repeat now makes up the default fabric of Western life in the early twenty-first century, regardless of how one assesses it and whether or not one resists it, because "the conditions under which choices are made are not themselves a matter of choice"....ubiquitous practices of consumerism are more than anything else the cultural glue that holds Western societies together...acquisitiveness unites us....Classic moral critiques of capitalism's exploitative (and often brutally gendered) effects on industrial workers have lost none of their relevance amid the scramble to outsource labor since the 1970s....Only now Western consumers are spared having to see the workers who make their stuff and the factory conditions in which they toil.
Democracy is the right to buy anything you want.  Freedom's just another word for lots of things to buy.
But neoclassical economists no less than the champions of consumerist self-fashioning are quite wrong in thinking that the practices of never-ending, material acquisitiveness are an unavoidable given of human nature, a cross-cultural and trans historical constant,.  Such a claim naturalizes acquired, contingent human behaviors in order to justify them and to preempt analysis.  Most human cultures have not exhibited such practices, nor have they believed what most modern Westerners believe about material things and their acquisition:  rather, "consumer aspirations have a history."
...Protestants unambiguously condemned avarice, acquisitive individualism, an any separation of economic behavior from biblical morality or the common good....Yet, Luther and Reformed Protestants disagreed with their Catholic contemporaries about teleological virtue ethics...One's actions...did not contribute to one's salvation which was entirely and exclusively God's free gift of grace by faith alone....This was a long-term, internal development within Reformed Protestantism in which once-devout, shared busyness would eventually yield to individuals' self-appointed secular business in a disenchanted "public sphere," within which the descendants of Reformation-era Protestants had learned to segregate economic behavior from interior dispositions.
Luther's sharp two-kingdom distinctions between faith and politics, the inner man and the outer man, the freedom of a Christian and obedience to secular authorities, were probably more important than a zealous work ethic as an indirect influence on the development of modern capitalism.
Conflating prosperity with providence and opting for acquisitiveness as the lesser of two evils until greed was rechristened as benign self-interest, modern Christians have in effect been engaged in a centuries-long attempt to prove Jesus wrong.  "You cannot serve both God and Mammon."  Yes we can.  Or so most participants in world history's most insatiably consumerist society, the United States, continue implicitly to claim through their actions, considering the number of self-identified American Christians in the early twenty-first century who seem bent on acquiring ever more adn better stuff, including those who espouse the "prosperity Gose" within American religious hyperpluralism.
The substantive emptiness of the nation's founding documents was possible not only because Americans were strongly shaped by Christian moral assumptions, but also because so many of them had simultaneously departed in practice from the traditional Christian condemnation of avarice.
If Christianity is among other things a discipline of selflessness in charitable service to others, then the United States' legally protected ethos of self-regarding acquisitiveness, culturally reinforced at every turn, would seems to be its antithesis.  The latter says "satisfy your own desires"; the former, "you must deny your very self."  But if one thinks religion is about the life of the spirit rather than about the material world; that faith is about what one feels inside rather than what one does with one's body;  that detachment from material things implies an inner attitude rather than actually giving things away; and that one has already "got saved" by one's "personal Lord and Savior" in the self-chosen congregation that makes one feel most comfortable, then one perhaps doesn't see much of a conflict.
Liberal Protestant theologians and skeptical biblical scholars, having hitched their wagon to post-Kantian philosophy beholden to univocal metaphysical assumptions, found that wagon's payload progressively lightened until it was unclear how Christianity could consist of anything more than post-Schleiermacherian pious sentiments.
The interpretation of scripture had been centrally important in Christianity from the time of the church fathers....The Reformation's fundamental claim of sola scriptura upped the ante considerably.  According to those who rejected the Roman church, Christian experiential knowledge and the prospects for eternal salvation now turned directly and entirely o the correct understanding of the Bible....the bible was not sharply contrasted with the "human additions" and mere "traditions of men"....According to Protestants, anyone who looked anywhere else for this knowledge, including the "holy" example of the church's saints, was self-deceived.
Charles Hodge:  "the Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science.  It is his storehouse of facts; and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches, is the same as that which the natural philosopher adopts to ascertain what nature teaches."  Hodge's insouciant confidence reflected an intellectual complacency about religio-social and historical realities....American Protestant theologians were as little equipped to handle the intellectual challenges of Darwinism, German biblical criticism, and historicism as Aristotelian natural philosophers had been prepared to accommodate Newtonianism in the eighteenth century....of an attempt to determine, as some sort of lowest common denominator, what it was that all Protestants shared in common and then to promote it....It turned out that they shared only their rejection of the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.


Steve Robinson said...

Wow! Amazing stuff. I guess I need to get this and pass it on to my "Christian" Ayn Randian friends. HA! Thanks for the quotes and recommendation.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recommendation. I've been noticing the book and hesitating. I'm no longer on the bubble, and it's on the way to my Kindle.

Unknown said...

I am the first to stand agog at the "stream" of errors that have crept into Western thought and life. (And I finally get to use the word agog.) And I think I will be picking up this book at least through inter-library loan.

But shortly after my conversion to Orthodoxy my excitement over Father Romanides rhetoric (I don't use that word negatively here) on the matters of the "problem" of the West, it occurs to me that I had to change some of my terminology for my own internal self-understanding to remain intact.

Father Romanides, Brad S. Gregory, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin and others like Owen Barfield all are part of this common philosophical thread. But they each have their own version of "something happened on the way to heaven."

But it seems that the "something" has always been with us. I'm surprised how much of our modern afflictions go back to the dawn of recorded civilization. Many of the matters of Lysistrata for example seem decidedly modern, even timely.

Even the debates within Greece of which we have record (and if you include all the various schools of philosophy they seem to cover a great breadth, perhaps greater than modern day debates, which often feel narrow) they are merely echos of debates that were happening unrecorded (or mostly so) long before.

One can write an essay on what it means to be a good king from "Henry V" or just as easily from the tales of Gilgamesh. One can ever read the books of Kings and Chronicles from the Hebrew Scriptures and find such... political... editorial voice.

The abstract verses the particular, the collective vs the individual, what does it mean to be a community, what's just, and even whether or not any of these terms have universal or merely nominal value. It has always been here.

These essential questions, even the process of questioning, hasn't changed in the modern world, it has only been amplified by the use of fossil fuels to drive more and more efficient machinery. We have greater tools of both constructive and destructive power.

There was an interesting change to Ancient Greek theatre when they entered the Hellenistic age. Prior to that plays were almost always written and performed for specific events, but after the acropolis was rebuilt plays were more more competition and entertainment.

What the debate must have been about the shift from the religious significance to this more "commercial" experience! To be a fly on the wall when they argued about that, I wonder. I wonder whether it would connect to this very thread still being pulled by these modern philosophers.

Terry (John) said...

Well, yes. No doubt the basic questions always remain the same, as in “nothing new under the sun.”

I might add that Gregory deals very harshly with Catholicism, as well as the Reformation. Of course, he is not criticizing the Faith, but the faith as practiced in medieval Christianity, and their later political accommodations. He sees it as a failure all the way around, on all sides. In short, there was no Golden Age, from which the West fell.

This fits well with my own approach to the study of history, as I have never detected one either, not even in Byzantium. This is one reason I value the message of this book. In our broad popular culture there is an inclination to see ourselves as the End of History, the culmination of progress and the template for everyone else. Belief in this Americanist heresy hinges, I think, on the concoction of our founding as something of a Golden Age. Contemporary angst, on the part of many, is tied to our perceived fall from this ideal, that in fact never actually existed. Gregory’s work suggests that our hyperpluralistic society should come as no surprise, but is the very natural-even predictable-consequence of those forces unleashed by the Reformation.