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Dale Van Kley


Where the Rot Started?

Brad Gregory's "Unintended Reformation."

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Before engaging this book's central argument, justice demands a rundown of the book's many virtues. Not the least of them is a methodology that, abstracting large swatches of human thought and activity from an admittedly seamless experience, uses these as ancestral family trees in order to trace the genealogy of the present back to the 16th century and beyond. With due attention along the way to the interrelatedness of these cultural family trees, each chapter therefore begins with a chosen aspect of the entire present before dropping back to the Catholic Middle Ages and tracking it forward through the Reformation back to the present. Following hard upon the first, a second virtue is the book's insistence on the presence of the past in the present, and the related contention that in no respect has the present definitively put that past to rest. A third laudable feature is Gregory's insistence on contingency and his refusal to regard the present as the inevitable product of the past. And a fourth is his courage to venture outside a delimited geographical, chronological—even disciplinary—field and to take the entire course of Western history as his province. By the time the book reaches its last page, few areas of human activity have failed to make it into the analysis. Even as a tract, the book is negatively even-handed, delivering its blows to the "liberal" Left and the neo-conservative Right alike.

The chosen areas for analysis are the perceived incompatibility of religious belief and all forms of "science," the relativization of all forms of belief, the subjectivization of morality, the secularization of knowledge in the academies, the gradual subjection of all churches to the modern state, and the increasing subordination of both to the market. The book's thesis is that these developments interacted in such a way as to give rise to the contemporary Western world. One of Gregory's more intriguing arguments is his development of Amos Funkenstein's demonstration that the beginning of the process whereby natural philosophy excluded God from the universe—and "science" excluded the god-hypothesis from its working assumptions—had nothing to do with science per se but rather with the late-medieval theologian-philosopher Duns Scotus' positing of "being" as univocally shared by God and his creation, followed by William Occam's nominalist insistence on the particularization of being and the dictum that causal explanations should include no more "causes" than absolutely necessary—Occam's notorious "razor." The result was to make God the first and highest in the genus of being and dispensable as a hypothesis when modern science failed to find him.

But since neither Duns Scotus nor Occam was a Protestant, the question arises of what these developments as well as all the others had to do with the Protestant Reformation. For that is the central argument of this book, namely, that the Protestant Reformation was at least the catalyst if not the always the cause of the developments that gave rise to those features of Western modernity singled out for this book's analysis.

Gregory's argument works at two levels. The first and least controversial level is that it was the division of Christendom itself or the rending of the seamless robe of Christ that either caused or accelerated these developments. Thus it was that in the case of the Scotist-Occamist move to make God part of his own creation, this "univocal ontology," as Gregory calls it, slipped through the interstices of the schism and unobtrusively took hold in scientific thinking on either side of the confessional divide after a century of inconclusive theological debate succeeded only in marginalizing theology as unprovable opinion. The same schism similarly sundered Christendom's moral communities, preventing a common practice of the virtues and relativizing morality. One of the chief beneficiaries of the schism was the confessional state that increased its power over divided churches on either side, eventually quarantining theology in ever staler university spaces while striking up alliances with the newer sciences and attendant technologies, which did better than theology at enabling states to project their power further. The same could be said for the growing market economy, which eventually rubbed the rough edges off confessional differences by uniting all in pursuit of the "goods" as opposed to the good life.

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