History in A Secular Age
In The Unintended Reformation, Brad S. Gregory argues that today’s Western world is an extraordinarily complex, tangled product of projections, retentions, and transformations of medieval Western Christianity, in which the Reformation era constitutes the critical watershed. The Reformation’s influence on the eventual secularization of society was complex, largely indirect, far from immediate, and profoundly unintended. Before the Reformation there was an intellectual unity to European culture, institutionalized in the Church and reiterated throughout a complex web of practices and beliefs. The Reformation, despite its contrary goals, unleashed forces that resulted in the breakdown of the medieval synthesis and set us rushing headlong to the crisis of today, where all hope of a unified vision is lost.
What propelled the West into this trajectory of pluralism and polarization? How did we get from there to here?
We never really get a compelling answer, because this is not a traditional book about history. It is a free ranging, very broadly conceived critique of modern secularism with references to the past. That it should come from the pen of someone who can write excellent history is at first look odd, but when one considers the state of the academy, it is not surprising. After all, we are living in the age that Gregory describes, one that is disjointed and lacks any grand vision of meaning that enables fruitful discourse. Just as Charles Taylor in his much-discussed A Secular Age does not really write a book about philosophy or religious studies but about a cultural moment, Gregory is not writing about a neatly defined historical trend, still less about a given period. Gregory’s beginning point, that the Protestant Reformation with its nominalism and individualism caused the breakdown of the reigning intellectual order, is not itself new. Extending that old idea to cover secularization is a small step. Gregory’s intention is not simply to do that, however, but to write large and try to connect the dots across the ages. A historian always struggles to get the right blend of narrative and analysis. Here the analysis is the narrative. The story ranges over such a long duration that the author has chosen to tell it with limited detail. The advantage of this kind of writing is that it allows him to talk about things that only appear over the long run in the history of a culture. “Secularization” is one such thing, more multiform and nebulous than even such topics as “fear,” “love,” or “death.”
As praiseworthy as such an effort may be, I, nevertheless, found this book frustrating to read. I kept waiting for the history to begin and the social commentary to end. Unfortunately, that never happened. I learned that Mr. Gregory reads about fields outside his own like law, public policy, philosophy, politics, and more politics. But I learned little about the history of the Reformation.
Make no mistake, Mr. Gregory is an intelligent commentator on the present intellectual soup. What is frustrating is that he serves up commentary under a cover labeled “history.” It is not unlike what has been going on in the field of “historical theology” since Vatican II. Theologians scour the past for something that they find interesting and then use it to speak about the present. The past has many uses, and certainly this can be one of them. Just don’t call it history. If your marriage to Clio is getting boring, please have your fling with Calliope under another roof.
The parallels with Charles Taylor’s book from the same endowment-rich press, which seemingly has no problem producing lengthy but lightly edited books, are obvious. Gregory’s book is best described as “history in A Secular Age.” Taylor’s book succeeded as a work of philosophy in an age when philosophy defies easy definition. We have fights between analytical and continental philosophers, battles between those convinced of the death of the subject and those proclaiming the death of the death of the subject. That book was also sold under the label of “religious studies,” a term about which no one, most especially its practitioners, has ever had a clear idea. “History,” however, is a bit more intact. Why discard it?
The 1840s in the United States were a time when many felt the need to reform society. Whether it was reforming schools or prisons or the economy or the social order itself, there were no lack of ideas for making things better. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “every gentleman has in his vest pocket some plan for reforming society.” We live in a similar moment when many are dissatisfied with the status quo. Gregory and Taylor have a great deal of company. Scholars tired of writing about little things, tied down by the growth of specialization, wish to break free, much like Emerson, who wanted to break free from conventions holding back his original voice.
The message we hear from the likes of Gregory and Taylor is at its heart a simple one: the secular age has come. Much of it we like just fine, but it still leaves us dissatisfied. We seek for unity, for harmony, for comprehensiveness, for connection, for personal meaning. Yet we are acutely aware of the limits of such aspirations. We are, after all, products of a modern age and even a post-modern age that have taught us very well. We are too clever for the myths of harmony that ruled other ages. But we are nevertheless still men and women driven by all those age-old foes and friends of human nature, never able to become so self-conscious as to escape our fear and trembling, never able fully to emerge from the underground, never ready really to believe the subject has died, never quite willing to trade in the Logos for the unholy trinity of Race, Class, and Gender.
So along come brilliant men like Professors Gregory and Taylor who take us into the center of everything the postmodern world claims, but then, after doing it all the justice it deserves—and more—point to something else. In Gregory’s case, perhaps a something containing elements of a pre-Reformation era, despite his efforts to distance himself from nostalgia. For Taylor, a something that urges us not to give up the struggle for meaning and even for transcendence. Just make sure not to forget the profound complexity of it all.
And so many might find The Unintended Reformation enlightening, even hope-giving and inspiring. Others of us, though, would settle for the dry-as-dust stuff that does more to open to us a world past and lets us draw our own conclusions about the world today.
John Farina is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University. Prior to coming to George Mason, he was a Senior Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
Posted: October 13, 2013