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The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution secularized society.

The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution secularized society. By Brad S. Gregory. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 2012. Pp. 574. $39.95.

The present work is a very learned, stimulating instance of public history--a case of a historian writing beyond the confines of his specialty to make a statement he thinks should be important to a general readership. In one sense it is a counterpoint to books by the so-called New Atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens, which polemicize against what they characterize as the intellectual vacuity and social destructiveness of religion carte blanche. This book's thesis is that the Protestant Reformation, by starting a series of unresolved religious controversies, led to the decision of major European powers to restrict religion to the sphere of private life, where individual diversity of opinion was protected by the state. Beginning in the late seventeenth century, religion was increasingly ignored in the spheres of knowledge of nature, conduct of economics, structure of government, and individual and social ethics. Due to the loss of the integrating role that religion had previously played in Latin civilization, a chaos of opinions emerged on all these subjects, which Gregory characterizes as "contemporary Western hyperpluralism."

In order to be taken seriously, Gregory needs to attack what he describes as "supersessionist" history--a notion of history in which only the immediate past impacts the present, and which in principle discounts the impact of premodern history on modernity. He points to the obvious continuance into the present of Christian belief systems that originated in the ancient world, the Middle Ages, and the early modern eras. He insists that these belief systems are in no sense anachronistic, and that they are not in principle oblivious or irresponsive to the accumulation of modern knowledge. He decries the marginalization of theology in modern research universities, and the increasing definition of knowledge as secular, and religion as, at best, subjective. On both of these points, the attack on supersessionist history and on the tendency to secular exclusivism in the more prestigious European and North American universities, Gregory makes a compelling case.

The book is written from an unabashedly Roman Catholic perspective, which has merit, since the camouflaging of scholarly perspective interferes with academic discussion. Surely, a generation with the experience of taking Marxist scholarship seriously enough to learn from it can open itself to a Catholic interpretation of the impact of the Protestant Reformation on the modern world. This is all the more appropriate since Gregory in no way idealizes pre-Reformation Catholicism, and acknowledges some of the ways in which modern civilization is superior to the Latin Catholic civilization that preceded the Reformation--particularly the greater social equality that has replaced the unquestioning acceptance of socioeconomic hierarchy in the ancient world and the Middle Ages. Nor is it objectionable to point to the negative characteristics and looming dangers of the presently reigning liberal capitalist consensus, particularly since Gregory makes it clear that he considers the failed dictatorships of the twentieth century to have been far greater evils.

However, for all his rich scholarship and compelling arguments, it is hard for non-Catholics to take Gregory's perspective and his central thesis fully seriously. For the rest of us, from our plural perspectives, the value of the book is to inform us about how a committed Roman Catholic understands the impact of the Reformation on the modern world. Although Gregory observes the neo-Thomism of Catholicism from the Council of Trent to the Second Vatican Council with what seems to be ironic detachment, it is impossible for this reviewer to describe Gregory's perspective as other than "neo-Thomist." (The objections to the late medieval theologies of Scotus and Ockham are very much in the tradition of Etienne Gilson). This means insistence on all the doctrines and practices of the pre-Reformation Latin Church and a resolute defense of as much of Aristotelianism as can conceivably be defended. In the Thomist manner, it is conceded that Aristotelianism is not sacrosanct; after all, Aristotle believed in the eternity of the world and the mortality of the soul. In the same way, Aristotle's geocentric universe, and his distinction between the changing world under the moon and the unchanging world above the moon, should have been abandoned, just as Galileo said. But Aristotle's absolute distinctions between good and bad, truth and falsehood, his insights about the dangers of money, and so on, are defended all the more fiercely.

For Gregory there is no perspectivist distinction between knowledge and truth. Hence modern natural science produces accumulating truths, and the insights of Thomas Kuhn to the contrary are dismissively brushed aside. The central place of logic in the scholastic trivium is emphatically reasserted as Gregory incessantly returns to the principle of noncontradiction. All areas of truth must be integrated with the religious truth of revelation, just as Thomas insisted. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam each were grounded in sacred scriptures based on divine revelation. Only for Islam, however, was the Holy Koran said to be revealed directly by God in Paradise. For Christianity and Judaism human intermediaries heard the voice of God. For Judaism, which did not claim to be the only true religion, there was no barrier in principle against God revealing himself to non-Jews; indeed, the Tanakh contains instances of such revelation. At least one way of looking at the imperfections of natural science is that the human mind is incommensurate with nature. Yet clearly this does not make natural science "false." Might not the same point be made about the revelations of the higher religions being incommensurate with God? Gregory observes:
  In practice, whether self-consciously or not, even highly secularized
  Westerners today continue in variegated ways to rely upon a reservoir
  of beliefs and values derived from ancient and medieval Christianity,
  as well as upon the almost infinitely complex, tangled permutations
  of Protestant, Catholic and secular adaptations of them, in addition
  to similar beliefs and values from peoples of other religious
  traditions and parts of the world. Were this not so, human life in
  Europe and North America would be either unbearably oppressive,
  unbearably chaotic, or both (189).

Is this properly to be thought of as a providential blessing, or as lamentably insufficient? The future will tell.

Gregory's observation that Latin Catholicism lost a strategic portion of its territories because of the bad behavior of its prominent leaders rather than because of false teaching, as the magisterial Protestants asserted, is probably correct. He is probably also correct that Luther's dour anthropology underestimated the capacity of human beings to be habituated in virtue. The abandonment of the saintly exempla probably established a formidable barrier against saintliness; the radical Protestants observed the absence of virtuous "fruits" among the magisterial Protestants. Gregory might have pointed to the heroic saintliness of many leaders of the Catholic Reformation (although he does not). Certainly he is correct to point to the strategic importance of the Dutch Republic, England, and the United States in the revaluation of avarice into le doux commerce that cemented affluent families and multiconfessional polities. And it is a bitter irony that economic interest seems capable of blinding the North American public to what science says about humanly-induced climate change.

How sound is Gregory's thesis that the modern world with its "hyperpluralism" was the indirect outgrowth of the impossibility of the Reformation's project of restoring the purity of the ancient church on the basis of the Protestant slogan sola scrip tura? Demonstrably, the Christian Scriptures were open to a great many interpretations and the ensuing doctrinal debate was inconclusive. The implication is that Christian pluralism was a consequence of the Reformation. This is only partly the case. In fact, before the Reformation, Latin Catholicism coexisted with the Monophysite Christianity of Egypt and Ethiopia and with Eastern Orthodoxy. For the Orthodox Neoplatonism was the dominant philosophy ancillary to Christian doctrine; and the rationalist application of Aristotelianism to Christian doctrine in the Latin church was always unsettling to the Orthodox. More important, in assessing the origins of Enlightenment religiosity, Gregory underestimates the impact of the early modern expansion of Western knowledge of the non-Western world that exactly coincided with the Reformation--particularly increased knowledge of South and East Asia. As long as Western Christendom was confronted only with Jews, the poster children of stubborn rejection of Christ, and Muslims, the infidels whom Satan had raised up against Christ, religious pluralism was not a particular problem for Latin Christians. However, the discovery of the religions of the mature civilizations of Asia, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, was another matter entirely. It was this discovery more than the exclusivist claims of post-Aristotelian natural sciences that buttressed the promotion of "natural religion" in the Enlightenment.

Queen's University JAMES M. STAYER
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Author:Stayer, James M.
Publication:Mennonite Quarterly Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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