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Did it all go wrong with the Reformation?

By September 28, 2012 One Comment

My academic meeting for the month took place at Valparaiso University in Indiana. The occasion was a roundtable discussion of Brad Gregory’s big and big-splash book, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Harvard University Press 2012). The volume is complex, highly learned, insightful, sometimes shrewd, often impassioned. It mourns the loss of comity on the current scene and our degeneration to a consumer culture. (We aspire to a goods society, Gregory observes, not a good one.) It honors our public commitment to genuine equality and human rights, and worries that our standards of public discourse cannot mount a rationally convincing case for them. Lots of good insights, in other words, then the kicker: by the book’s genealogical method of explanation, the Protestant Reformation started the process that has brought us to our pretty pass. That is, Gregory’s book evokes a critique of modern civilization well-practiced in pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism.

So it seems to me, so it has seemed to assorted reviewers, and so it was averred by other participants at the roundtable. But the author demurred. All eras and systems have fallen short of the glory of delivering on their promises, he repeated. And indeed, his Conclusion begins with the words that drew the most attention at our meeting: “Judged on their own terms and with respect to the objectives of their own leading protagonists, medieval Christendom failed, the Reformation failed, confessionalized Europe failed, and Western modernity is failing, but each in different ways and with different consequences….” As if to underscore his own point of view, Gregory titles this chapter “Against Nostalgia.”

But this riff on Tolstoy’s line about unhappy families doesn’t quite satisfy me. For, as I read his account, Gregory sees all systems from the Reformation on as having to fail, as being riven by contradictory fundamental principles: sola scriptura without a common hermeneutic (the Reformation), privileged churches fatefully beholden to the state (confessionalized Europe), a procedural sense of rights and reason unable to achieve consensus on the substance thereof (modernity). Late medieval Christendom, on the other hand, failed by falling short of an ideal that was coherent, workable, flexible-yet-authoritative. Theirs was, by Gregory’s lights, (1) a comprehensive and fully shared worldview that was (2) institutionalized in practice and by supervisory agencies (think church hierarchy and monastic orders) and (3) regularly reinforced by a ritual common to high and low alike, the liturgy of the eucharist that set before participants the very image of the loving, sacrificing Christ who was source and end of the worldview in the first place. On this reading the late medievals potentially had it all together, also for the rest of us, but forfeited it all by their hypocrisy, embossed in the notorious corruption and abuses of clerical power in their age.

Seems to me that the corruption and abuses were not accidentals but essentials of the system in question—fundamental contradictions in their own way. If not Luther, someone else was bound to light the dynamite that blew the system apart. But that doesn’t lessen Protestants’ burden for trying to lessen the damage and speak to what I agree with Gregory to be an accelerating deterioration of things at the end of modernity. The supple comprehensiveness of the late-medieval ideal isn’t bad, and the creation of ritually grounded alternative communities as espoused by certain Protestants as well as Catholics is a hopeful promise. The Damoclean sword of funding that now hangs over the modern university, together with the manifest futility of the American political process, show that two key institutions of secular rationalism are close to a dead end. We need to hope that the transition to the next age is not as “interesting” as the proverbial curse has it, or as costly as Gregory’s book spells out time and again.


James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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