Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Unintended Reformation

I recently finished a really interesting book I've been meaning to read for a long time, so now of course I'm going to tell you about it. The book is The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society by Brad Gregory, a professor of early modern history at Notre Dame. Professor Gregory's principal argument in this book is that "the Western world today is an extraordinarily complex, tangled product of rejections, retentions, and transformations of medieval Western Christianity, in which the Reformation era constitutes the critical watershed." In other words, as the subtitle suggests, he argues that the Reformation, a religious movement meant to revitalize and re-sanctify western Christianity, had an unintended but instrumental role in giving birth to the modern, secular society we live in today.

As an introductory point, he argues against the traditional, supersessionist view of modern history, in which "the distant past is assumed to have been left behind, explanatorily important to what immediately succeeded it but not to the present." Rather, he argues, much of the distant past has not been left behind, but continues to influence the present through its continuing ideas, values, worldviews, and institutions. "If this book's argument is near the mark," he says, "we cannot understand the character of contemporary realities until and unless we see how they have been and are still being shaped by the distant past."

Three Problems

Gregory sums up the argument of his book with three basic problems faced by early modern Christendom. First, late medieval Christianity was increasingly troubled by a gulf between the ethical prescriptions of the Christian faith and the actual practices of its followers, even (and especially) the clergy. This was a problem that reform-minded Christians hit on for centuries before the Reformation, but Luther and his contemporaries took the minority opinion that the church's problem was not simply moral, but doctrinal: the church was failing in its struggle against corruption and sin not simply because of personal or institutional failings to live up to its vision, but because of actual doctrinal error in its teaching. The solution, they thought, was to base the teachings and practices of the Church on Scripture alone, apart from manmade traditions which had led to the present muddle.

Yet this introduced a new problem: turning to the Bible as the sole authority for matters of faith and practice did not produce a renewed Christianity as the reformers hoped, but multiple, conflicting Christianities based on incompatible (but "authoritative") readings of Scripture, which fought with force of arms for more than a century and with words for far longer. In his second chapter Gregory expounds pretty exhaustively on the plurality of doctrinal claims that arose among the Protestants, even within ten years of the 95 theses. "From the early 1520s," he says, "those who rejected Rome disagreed about what God's word said. Therefore they disagreed about what God's truth was and so about what Christians were to believe and do." To list some of his examples:
  • In 1522, Andreas Karlstadt disputed Luther's disdain for the book of James as well as his views on the nature of the Old Testament, oral confession, the Eucharist, and the permissibility of religious images.
  • Luther and Melanchthon famously parted ways with Zwingli over the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
  • Between 1525 and 1527, nine different reformers published twenty-eight treatises against Luther's view of the Lord's Supper, leading to the Marburg Colloquy in 1529 and the split between Lutheran and Reformed Christianity.
  • Zwingli disagreed with his former Zurich colleagues Hubmaier and Grebel about the biblical basis for infant baptism. The early Anabaptists sharply denounced other reformers' practice of infant baptism, again on biblical grounds. In Grebel's words, "the baptism of children is a senseless, blasphemous abomination against all scripture."
  • Leaders behind the German Peasants' War repudiated Luther's distinction between "the Gospel" and social, economic, and political concerns, arguing for a stronger connection between the two. After the failure of the Peasants' War, by the late 1520s, the Anabaptists began dividing rapidly over a host of doctrinal issues.
  • Other attempts to distinguish true Christian teaching from false based on evidence of fruits of the Spirit, direct testimony from the Spirit, or reason were similarly unsuccessful; Protestants disagreed about what exactly the fruits of the Spirit looked like, how reason was to be used in formulating Christian truth claims, and what the Spirit was "saying" to them at the moment.
A few especially powerful summary statements from Gregory, again supporting the point that sola scriptura was (and still is) the source of a great deal of doctrinal pluralism among Protestants:
Christians who rejected the authority of the Roman church and its truth claims, notwithstanding certain alliances and reconciliations (such as the Lutheran Formula of Concord) among some of the constituent groups, never exhibited anything remotely resembling agreement about their own, alternative 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 what scripture said and God taught. There wasn't. (p. 91)
Had Protestants simply disagreed about the interpretation of Scripture as such, their disputes would have remained much more circumscribed than they became. But more was sought—and needed—because the principle of sola scriptura itself did not yield the desired result. The would-be solution for reforming the late medieval church immediately became an unintended, enormous problem of its own, one different in kind from the problem of how to close the gap between the Roman church's prescriptions and late medieval Christians' practices. ... in addition to their continuous doctrinal disagreements with defenders of the Roman church before and after the Council of Trent, Protestants disagreed among themselves on multiple fronts. They disagreed about the meaning and prioritization of biblical texts, and the relationship of those texts to doctrines regarding the sacraments, worship, grace, the church, and so forth. They disagreed about the broad interpretive principles that ought to guide the interpretation of scripture, such as the relationship between the Old and New Testaments or the permissibility of religious practices not explicitly prohibited or enjoined in the Bible. They disagreed about the relationship among the interpretation of scripture, the exercise of reason, and God's influence in the hearts of individual Christians. And they disagreed about whether (and if so, to what degree) explicit, substantive truth claims were even important to being a Christian, with some spiritualists and alleged prophets radically relativizing the place of doctrines in Christian life. (pp. 109-110)
This problem of doctrinal pluralism among Christians and the resulting contentions (up to and including warfare and executions) that produced little progress towards resolving their differences gave rise to a third problem: "how was human life among frequently antagonistic Christians to be rendered stable and secure?" How could Europe be saved from completely fragmenting along confessional lines? How could future Thirty Years' Wars be prevented?

Gregory's chapters two through six follow the pattern of these questions pretty faithfully in five different areas of late medieval life: truth claims/answers to what he calls "Life Questions" ("serious questions about life, with important implications for life"), the institutional church and its relationship to the state, moral/ethical norms, the economy, and academia. Before the Reformation, each of these things was guided and shaped teleologically according to the faith and teachings of the late medieval Catholic Church. None were perfect, but all were unified and defined by the Church and its Christological vision of what constituted the "good" (virtuous) life.

The reformers, then, saw in the Church's failure to live up to its ideals in these things evidence not just of moral weakness, but systemic doctrinal error. Their goal was to replace human traditions and the false teachings of the Church that had accreted over the centuries with authentic Christianity as laid out in the Bible, the only ultimate ecclesial authority. Due to the unintended problem of Protestant pluralism, however, they did not succeed at this task, but instead added to Roman Christianity numerous Christianities that, because of their mutually contradictory claims, frequently clashed with each other in their visions for "biblically" transforming each of these areas of life.

By the mid-seventeenth century, weary from thirty years of confessionally-motivated bloodshed, many Europeans not at the front lines of their respective Christendoms began to look away from Christianity and its seemingly endless disagreements for a stabilizing principle that would produce societal unity rather than division. Despite their claims to the contrary, early modern Christians effectively excluded themselves from the discussion of what "Christendom" would look like because of their inability to agree on it. But increasingly, people realized that reason might be able to answer questions on life and ethics, that the liberal state could defuse religious conflicts by permitting freedom of worship and mandating tolerance, that modern capitalism and consumerism could meet peoples' needs and even make them quite happy with the "goods life", and that universities actually did much better when they were not protecting religious traditions from free inquiry. With little choice and plenty of motivation, early modern western society learned to function without the Church(es) at its center.

So answers to the "Life Questions", no longer based on Christian truth claims, are now highly pluralistic; the consensus of our culture is to believe whatever you like and live however makes you happiest, as long as you tolerate others' beliefs and lifestyles. The state has power over the churches (even if it uses that power to mandate religious tolerance and pluralism in the guise of "freedom of religion"), harkening back to the magisterial reformers' turn to secular magistrates for protection and civil enshrinement of their beliefs. "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." And knowledge, especially academic knowledge, is considered secular and academic by default, in contrast to religious "opinions". Gregory argues that this is so not because secularism somehow rose up and displaced Christianity as the ideological matrix of the modern western world, but because during the Reformation Christianity retreated from its central position in society into doctrinal controversies and polemicism. Much like how the Church itself rose to fill the space left by the fragmented Roman Empire, so now secular reason came in to take the place once occupied by a now-divided Christendom. Christianity is supposed to apply to and transform all of society, you say? Well, which Christianity?

Excluding God

Gregory's first chapter is different. In it, he explores the origins of the secular, scientific worldview that is so commonplace today as to make atheistic materialism virtually a given in many scientific and academic circles. In this way of thinking, science and religion are seen as being in conflict, with science having gained the upper hand since the Enlightenment. The idea of God is unnecessary and untenable because the advance of science has rendered him useless, "disenchanted" the world. The claims of religion are seen as antithetical to and disproven by the claims of science. He cites Max Weber for an example of this kind of thinking:
And today? Who today still believes—aside from certain big children whom one can indeed find in the natural sciences—that the findings of astronomy or biology or physics or chemistry have something to do with the meaning of the world or indeed could teach us something about it? By what path could one come upon the trace of such a "meaning", if any is there? If the natural sciences lead to anything and are suited to belief along these lines, it is to make the notion that there is a "meaning" of the world die out at its roots! And to conclude: science as a way "to God"? Science, this power expressly antithetical to religion? No one today in his heart of hearts is in doubt that science is antithetical to religion, whether or not he admits it to himself.
And this way of thinking its not today presented as one philosophy among many: it is widely taken as absolute bedrock truth in our culture, on the basis of which religious truth claims can be disregarded out of hand. Gregory says, "the assumptions about God, nature, and science that dominate contemporary intellectual life ... are widely regarded as ideologically neutral, obvious truths rather than seen for what they are: ideologically loaded, contestable truth claims based on unverifiable beliefs." In this chapter he traces the trajectory of western thought regarding the relationship between God and the "natural" world.

Western Christian thinkers up through Aquinas gave prominent place to what is known as an "apophatic" view of God: mysterious, transcendent, rationally, incomprehensible, beyond all of our attempts to describe him. Of course some knowledge of God is possible through what he has revealed to us, but "central Christian claims about God—the reality of his providence, the fact of his grace, the compatibility of his will and power with those of each human being—are unavoidably and irreducible mysterious." God existed in an entirely different, mysterious way than we flesh-and-blood creatures do, but rather than making him remote or totally unknowable, make possible his divine immanence and knowability through all things. Gregory refers to something like this as a sacramental view of reality. Apophatic theology is still alive and well in the Orthodox Church; the twentieth-century theologian Vladimir Lossky wrote of God's counterintuitive transcendence of being, knowledge, and everything else we know:
Now God is beyond all that exists. In order to approach Him it is necessary to deny all that is inferior to Him, that is to say, all that which is. If in seeing God one can know what one sees, then one has not seen God in Himself but something intelligible, something which is inferior to Him. It is by unknowing that one may know Him who is above every possible object of knowledge.
Later, he quotes St. John of Damascus:
God, then, is infinite and incomprehensible, and all that is comprehensible about Him is His infinity and incomprehensibility. All that we can say cataphatically [positively] concerning God does not show forth his nature, but the things that relate to his nature.
But in the west, two medieval Christian thinkers planted the seeds for the eventual end of the sacramental view of God in western culture. The first was John Duns Scotus, who believed that God had to share at least one predicate, namely existence, with everything else in order to be knowable at all. "Insofar as God's existence is considered in itself and in its most gradual sense, Scotus agreed [with Avicenna] that God's being does not differ from that of everything else that exists. ... Scotus's move made God, in Robert Barron's phrase, 'mappable on the same set of coordinates as creatures.'" According to Scotus, God belonged to a more encompassing reality along with his creatures and and does not "exist", but exists in it in the same way that do.

The second was William of Occam, who extended Scotus' idea of metaphysical univocity (applying the concept of "existence" to God in the same sense as to creatures) and more thoroughly rejected the views of Aquinas, who had still held to something like an apophatic approach to theology. In his nominalist theology, God is not an abstract essence or "the sheer act of to-be" but a discrete thing, however much he differed from every other entity. Occam also contributed his well-known principle of heuristic parsimony, "Occam's razor", the idea that explanations of natural phenomena "ought not to multiply entities beyond necessity." Scotus' metaphysical univocity and Occam's razor, Gregory argues, put in place the intellectual pieces for "the domestication of God's transcendence and the extrusion of his presence from the natural world." Again, these ideas are opposites of the classical Christian consensus even into the post-Schism west; continuing Lossky's quote of John of Damascus, "God does not belong to the class of existing things: not that He has no existence, but that He is above all existing things, nay even above existence itself."

Added to these major pieces were the Renaissance revivals of three major philosophical traditions, which were not adopted wholesale but partially and ended up contributing to the parting-of-ways of theology and science in the late medieval era through to the seventeenth century. From Platonism came the idea of mathematics as an explanatory language—for the physical world rather than the transcendent world of forms. From Stoicism came "a view of nature as homogeneous and deterministically governed by forces"—though without the pantheist underpinnings of "mutual sympathies". And from Epicureanism came a focus on the uniformity of efficient, natural causes with no reference to final causality—though with a physics based on Stoic determinism rather than random collisions between atoms.

But all of these philosophical and theological developments were largely confined to the academy. The central claims of Christianity were not based on any philosophy but on the testimony of God's salvific actions in history, reinforced by the familiar rhythm of the church and her traditions. These new philosophical ideas might have been assimilated into her thought as Aristotelianism had been, "so long as the church's teaching, preaching, worship, devotional practices, and prayer continued to convey and embody the faith's central truth claims."

But if the nature and meaning of God's actions, how Christians were to live, or Christianity itself were called into question, then these ideas might be able to transform the conversation about God's relationship with the world in unexpected and un-Christian ways. This is what happened in the Reformation. As in the other chapters, the continual doctrinal disagreements among Protestants and Catholics effectively made explicitly Christian claims about God and the natural world untenable; again, which Christianity? With little in the way of consensus in the foreseeable future, what was left were confessionally neutral ways of understanding the created world: empiricism and reason. The sidelining of Christian truth claims and the front-and-center inclusion of philosophy in this task turned out to be fertile ground for assumptions of metaphysical univocity and the principle of parsimony. In other words, science and reason did not "disprove" any theological claims, as is commonly supposed. Rather, incompatible views of different Christian confessions about the meaning of God's actions effectively removed theology from its place as, in Aquinas' words, "queen of the sciences". The tenuous alliance between science and theology was broken because "theology" was no longer a singular, coherent thing like the growing body of scientific knowledge.

The Protestant denial of Roman sacramentalism also had unintended consequences, since it tended to involve univocal metaphysical assumptions of which the reformers may not have been aware. As usual, Gregory says it better than I could (can you tell I enjoy his writing style?):
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 protect divine transcendence. But in traditional Christian metaphysics the two attributes are correlative: it is precisely and only God's radical otherness as nonspatial that makes his presence in and through creation possible, just as it had made the incarnation possible. (Otherwise, Jesus would have been something like a centaur—partly human and partly divine, rather than fully human and fully divine.) 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—which is why, in order to be kept pure, it must be kept separate from and uncontaminated by the materiality of the "mere bread".
Some more quotes illustrating how the modern "conflict" between science and religion came to be, shaped by univocal metaphysics and Occam's razor:
Having sidelined theology, scripture, tradition, and religious experience as source of knowledge about God, the reason exercised by nearly all leading seventeenth-century thinkers, whatever its particular manifestations or emphases, assumed a univocal metaphysics. God existed—and thus, analogous to creatures, God was an individual ens, an entity within being, or God was in some way coextensive with the totality of being. The entire category of God's actions in history had been unintentionally paralyzed by doctrinal controversy. Hence reason—including observation and experiment—bore the full burden of the endeavor to understand God's relation to the natural world. Therefore all theology that sought to avoid confessional controversy had to be natural theology, based on reason alone.
To be sure, God remained important in the reflections and natural-theological theorizing of many scientists throughout much of the nineteenth century.  But whether individual scientists continued to insist on his integral relationship to the natural world, relegated him to a remote first cause, or denied his existence altogether, the combination of two ideas had rendered him expendable. The first was the metaphysically univocal conception of God as a highest being among others: this brought God within the same ontological and causal order as his creation. The second was Occam's razor: if God was unneeded to account for causal explanations of natural phenomena, there was no reason to invoke him. A clear corollary of this notion was methodological naturalism. God simply no longer had a place in the workings of the world, whether spatially or causally: if all natural events were adequately explained by natural causes, God was redundant. So however unrepresentative at the time was Laplace's famous quip to Napoleon in 1802 when asked about the place of God in his physics—"I have no need for that hypothesis"—the leading French physicist of his day proved to be prophetically prescient.
Despite cascades of (post-)Enlightenment propaganda to the contrary, the mathematization of ordinary natural processes could entail no exclusion of God's alleged, abiding, mysterious presence in and through them. That required metaphysical univocity and Occam's razor: if a natural cause explained a natural event, it was though, there was nothing supernatural about either. Therefore, as post-Newtonian deists believed, once all the regularities of nature were understood to have natural causes, God could be no more than a remote first cause. Nor, despite generations of (post-)Enlightenment polemics denouncing allegedly primitive superstitions, did the discovery of laws that explain natural regularities exclude the possibility of extraordinary actions by God. That, as we shall see, required a dogmatic, unverifiable belief that natural laws are necessarily and uniformly exceptionless, such that miracles as traditionally understood were impossible. But if, having absorbed and taken for granted metaphysical univocity, one imagined that God belonged to the same conceptual and causal reality as his creation, and if natural regularities could be explained through natural causes without reference or recourse to God, then clearly the more science explained, the less would God be necessary as a causal or explanatory principle.
The key point is not, as is commonly but wrongly believed, that the empirical investigation of the natural world made or makes a transcendent God's existence increasingly implausible. It is rather that this presumption depends historically and continues to depend on a conception of God as a hypothetical supernatural agent in competition with natural causality ... In diametric contrast, with the Christian conception of God as transcendent creator of the universe, it is precisely and only because of his radical difference from creation that God can be present to and through it. This is the metaphysics that continues to underlie and make possible a sacramental worldview, against supersessionist conceptions of history, in combination with any and all scientific findings.
But as with Newtonianism in the eighteenth century, (neo-)Darwinism can be troubling to Christians on scientific grounds only if they have a univocal conception of being and reject a sacramental view of reality. 


After reading The Unintended Reformation, I have a new appreciation for Bishop Ware's statement in The Orthodox Church that "[Orthodox Christians] have known no Middle Ages (in the western sense) and have undergone no Reformations or Counter-Reformations; they have only been affected in an oblique way by the cultural and religious upheaval which transformed western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries." Obviously to turn to Orthodoxy is not to simply rewind the clock five hundred years, for (at least in America) it exists within the religiously pluralistic society forged in the fallout of the Reformation. But it at least offers one Christianity among many that is unique in its freedom from the distorting influences on western faith unintentionally brought about by the Reformation.

This book powerfully confirmed several of the doubts about the basis of Protestantism that I already had confirmed by Orthodox teaching. Specifically, about the unsuitability of sola scriptura for producing a (single) rule of faith and the misguided, factious nature of attempts to recreate Christianity "from the ground up". Such methodologies are fertile ground for disagreement and controversy which, as Gregory shows time and again, can have disastrous effects that no one wanted.

The book was also very distressing. For though it expertly disagnoses the historical origins of modern, western secularism, it offers little idea of how, or if, the hundreds of Christianities out there can be reunited or how the secularization and pluralization of society can be reversed. Should Christians even desire these things? Even as I am increasingly able to believe in the unity of the Orthodox Church, The Unintended Reformation reminds me of a broader, ecumenical kind of unity among all Christians that has been missing for over a millennium before the Reformation, for which I still long and pray.

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