The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society

March 8, 2012

This is a very unexpected book. Brad Gregory's first book, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe, was much admired: a detailed, scholarly work that stayed fairly firmly in the 16th century. The Unintended Reformation, by contrast, ranges over six centuries and tackles almost everything that is wrong with our world today, from moral relativism to climate change and political strife. It does engender a certain amount of satisfaction, not to say mild pride, to find a Reformation historian solving the problems of the modern world, but it is a bit of a shock.

An important part of Gregory's thesis is that if academics thought the way they really ought to, then this kind of book would not come as such a surprise. He attacks our inability to explain the modern world historically any further back than the 18th century at most. In his view, many fundamental features of European and North American culture and society today can be traced back to the upheavals of the 16th century, and our failure to understand this lineage has led to a failure to understand ourselves.

Gregory is not arguing for direct causation: his model is instead one of a complex genealogy as he seeks to trace the family tree from which modern attitudes have descended. He identifies six siblings as the modern progeny of the Reformation: the hostile relationship between science and religion; Western society's hyperpluralism; the privatisation of religion; the moral divisions within modern states; the symbiosis of capitalism and consumerism; and the secularisation of universities.

Some parts are more convincing than others. The relationship between science and religion undoubtedly suffered from the bitter antagonisms of the 16th century that sidelined the debate about God and nature and put everyone on the defensive (thus the unfortunate episode with Galileo). Whether we should also blame Duns Scotus for causing the "domestication of God's transcendence" and turning him from a thing apart into a thing that could be empirically disproved is less evident. The Reformation's contributions to moral relativism are hard to deny; the proliferation of conflicting truth claims did nobody any favours, and the antagonisms within Christianity left states backing away from churches and universities following suit. Whether consumerism then flourished because there was nothing else to hold society together is not perhaps as clear.

The message here is not a joyful one: "medieval Christendom failed, the Reformation failed, confessionalized Europe failed, and Western modernity is failing". But there is at least an explanation, and there are also some modest suggestions for improvement. At one level, this book is an academic call to arms, challenging us to "unsecularize the academy" and broaden the debate. If nothing else, we could be sure of a level playing field if all academics (not just religious ones) could "acknowledge their metaphysical beliefs as beliefs rather than...pretending that naturalist beliefs are something more or skeptical beliefs are something else". In addition, instead of meekly accepting the periodisation and the disciplinary separation that have become habitual, academics could consider the bigger picture and the road by which we arrived at this unhappy state of affairs.

This book is truly breathtaking in its scope, erudition and sheer nerve. There is no faulting Gregory's grasp of Reformation history, but to his analysis of what has happened since there could be many objections raised. This is relatively unimportant, however. Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism was not completely right either, but it was brilliant nevertheless. Gregory's is a work not just of genuine scholarship but also of sincere moral purpose, which, even if it annoys, frustrates or fails to convince, has opened up an immensely important debate. There may yet be time to fix some of what went wrong in the Reformation.

The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society

By Brad S. Gregory. Harvard University Press, 592pp, £25.00. ISBN 9780674045637. Published 26 January 2012.

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