Loads of Learned Lumber

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Brad Gregory, _The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society_ via Mark Lilla

I ORDINARILY DO not write an entry on a book until I have finished it, but since it may be years before I finish Gregory's fairly dense study, I feel an urge to note right now the odd coincidence that I was in the middle of its second chapter when I read the review of it ("From Luther to Walmart") included in Lilla's The Shipwrecked Mind.

(In fact, this was the only chapter of The Shipwrecked Mind that I had not read before; the other pieces had appeared in New York Review of Books, but "From Luther to Walmart" had been published in the New Republic--not one of my usual stops.)

Lilla is none too complimentary. He sees Gregory's book as typical of the nostalgia he diagnoses as central to conservative thought. Conservative intellectuals, Lilla argues, posit a Golden Age that preceded a fall into modernity (and our present bloody-minded anxieties) and then attribute that fall to some thinker or idea, such as the gnosticism and "immanentizing the eschaton" (Voegelin) or Machiavelli (Strauss).

For Gregory, according to Lilla, "before the Reformation the harmony of the heavens was mirrored in Christian life and thought." Reformation theology, which sought only to correct some problems with the church, had unintended philosophical consequences that led to the secularization of the natural sciences, education, and political economy--and their attendant alienation and anomie.

The thing is---since I had just started Gregory's book not long before I read Lilla's review, I happened to know that Gregory explicitly denies having written the kind of book Lilla is describing. In his introduction, he states, "This is neither a study of decline from a Golden Age nor a narrative of progress toward an ever brighter future, but rather an analysis of  unintended consequences that derived from transformative responses to major, perceived human problems" (20-21; emphasis mine).


Still, even though Gregory, in his own estimation, is not writing out of philosophical nostalgia, and even though he is obviously a thorough and careful scholar and writer, I'm not sure Lilla's characterization is unfair. Gregory is meticulous about drawing connections between Reformation thinking and secularizing social trends, but something in his tone suggests not just that the secularization of the west was contingent upon certain philosophical developments within Protestant thinking, not just that it was avoidable, but that it was also undesirable, and may even be reversible.

As Jeremiahs go, Gregory is subdued. But is there a little Jeremiah in there? Lilla has a point, I think. I plan to carry on with the book, though--Gregory may be no Franz Rosenzweig, but he's an intellectual mensch nonetheless.

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