The Past Is Never Dead

The Past Is Never Dead January 23, 2013

William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is the argument of Brad Gregory in his monumental and erudite volume, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. This 600 page ramble of Western history traces interlocking themes that affect us today but which gained their fresh life in the Reformation. I’d say the book is a critique of modernity as much as the Reformation while it is also a strong apologetic for the Catholic Church.

A big idea is that there is a seamless story from the late Medieval church into the Reformation and that what was unleashed in the Reformation — a revolution in religion — has resulted in modernity and postmodernity. In other words, with undeniable sophistication, he lays at the door of the Reformation the seeds of secularism that we inhabit today. The world’s enchantment took a step backward, then, because of the Reformation.

Gregory connects John Duns Scotus and William of Occam to a new metaphysic (univocity vs. analogy) that more or less made God’s being like our being and put God into the materialistic universe of proof vs. non-proof (and God loses since God is transcendent etc), and the Reformation’s battle over transsubstantiation was but one example of how a metaphysic can unleash theological battles that ended up separating God from reason and science. (I’m not a specialist in this field but I’m not so sure the Protestant view of the “presence” of Christ might be more analogical that univocal and the Catholic view more univocal.) Science divorced God from the discussion and scientists could no longer be considered intelligent unless they presupposed a personal God. Gregory’s discussions involve probing into how relativizing doctrines and controlling the churches (State control of Reformation churches) and subjectivizing morality (manifest in Western’s sense of tolerance) and manufacturing the goods life (Weber’s famous thesis at a new level) led eventually to a secularizing of knowledge (keep God out by method).

Let’s grant Gregory the lion’s share of his argument: the Reformation’s cracking up of medieval Christianity’s hegemony [this was not proven or explicated and I do wonder how unified late medieval times were] led to fractures not only at the ecclesiastical and theological levels but also at the intellectual, political, aesthetic and scientific levels — and those fractures have led to modernity. And let’s grant that Gregory is not being nostalgic and pleading a return to the medieval conditions — as if one could. But let’s not fail to observe that the two major thinkers — Duns Scotus and William of Occam — who got the ball rolling here, were Catholics. In the end, it was also the anti-institutional move by the Reformers that set this ball rolling. Also, ironically, Gregory’s book leaves a fairly sharp periodization of the Reformation.

Over time, of course, the assault on authority and power in the Catholic Church led to democratization with all its implications, including thousands of sorts of Protestants (and post Protestants). And, Yes, at some level then the Reformation contributed to the secularization of society – though some might point a long finger or two at strains of Catholicism as well.

Is the Post-Reformation world a better world (for the church) than the Pre-Reformation world?

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