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by Brad S. Gregory


The Montréal Review, September 2012


"The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society" by Brad S. Gregory (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012 )


"What is bold and unusual about The Unintended Reformation is that it comes from an explicitly Christian perspective and ends by arguing that only religion-properly understood as a doctrine of solidarity-can allow humanity to escape from the predicament of the modern, the material curse of poverty and the mental afflictions of prosperity. Gregory not only offers what is today a highly original combination of history and morality but also cogently explains why that combination is needed today."

-Harold James, The Financial Times


The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society is an ambitious experiment in historical explanation that is as much about the present as the past. It analyzes the historical formation of some of the dominant beliefs, ideas, assumptions, practices, and institutions of the contemporary Western world. Its basic argument is that in complex ways, contemporary North American and European life is in multiple respects the unintended and hitherto unrecognized result of the unresolved doctrinal disagreements and destructive religio-political conflicts of the Reformation era. We do not understand ourselves or our world and its distinctive predicaments unless we see this.

In many respects The Unintended Reformation is an unsettling and unusual book. It is not only revisionist history, but history that interrogates categories and assumptions that historians tend to take for granted. Self-consciously rejecting teleological narratives, it is structured as six genealogical explanations of long-term historical change. Each starts in the late Middle Ages and runs to the present, emphasizing the transformative effects of the Reformation era. The book thus transgresses conventional schemes of historical periodization. It rejects the widespread idea that historians of the modern era can adequately account for the formation of the hegemonic institutions and hyperpluralistic truth claims characteristic of the contemporary Western world.

The book argues that historical realities from five and six centuries ago are still influencing the present in profound yet largely unacknowledged ways. Methodologically, the chapters' respective subjects are separated for analytical purposes in pursuit of explanatory insight; but they are simultaneously related to one another and must be read together in order for the argument as a whole to be understood. Readers who concentrate on individual chapters at the expense of the whole are bound to miss and misconstrue the book's overarching argument.

I assume that the most consequential historical realities have the most explanatory power for historians concerned to explain how the contemporary world came to be as it is. This principle underlies the choice of the domains of human life analyzed in the book's six chapters: the relationship among religion, science, and metaphysics; the bases for truth claims about "Life Questions" related to human values and meaning; the public institutional exercise of political power; ethical discourse and practices; human desires, consumption, and capitalism; and the pursuit and transmission of knowledge in relationship to higher education. Although Western Christianity since the late Middle Ages is at the book's heart, no credible account of the making of the contemporary Western world could ignore modern science, modern philosophy, capitalism and consumerism, sovereign states, individual autonomy, and higher education. The book delineates the relationship of the Reformation era's disagreements and disruptions to these major historical realities.

At the outset of the sixteenth century, "religion" in Latin Christianity did not denote something separate and separable from the rest of human life; rather, Christianity was an institutionalized worldview that sought to inform all of life's domains. The Protestant Reformation's rejections of the Roman church were therefore hugely consequential. In important respects, the book is an analysis of the multiple ways in which "religion" came to be understood differently, disembedded from the rest of life, as a result of the concrete religio-political disruptions between the 1520s and 1640s and the socially divisive doctrinal disagreements that began in the early Reformation and have never gone away.

In order to address long-recognized problems in the late medieval church, magisterial and radical Protestant reformers turned to the Bible, to God's word alone. This immediately produced disagreements about the meaning and application of scripture which, viewed more broadly as answers to Life Questions about values and meaning, have persisted since the early 1520s in ways that were not true of the late Middle Ages. In early modern Europe, efforts were made to control and contain the socially divisive and sometimes politically subversive effects of these disagreements. Rival answers to the same sorts of Life Questions have proliferated and been complicated since the seventeenth century through modern philosophy. Its history since Descartes demonstrates that secular answers based on reason have replicated in a rationalist idiom the contested, open-ended, and unintended character of Protestant answers based on scripture.

The long-term outcome of the Reformation era's disputes is today's hyperpluralism of religious and secular truth claims about Life Questions. Its institutional incubator is the liberal sovereign state, which protects the rights of individual citizens to believe as they wish and do as they please so long as they are politically obedient. The symbiosis of consumerism and capitalism provides the most important cultural glue that holds together this ideological heterogeneity.

A reader who randomly browses through the book might wonder what rival metaphysical theories, intractable ethical disagreements, climate change, the culture wars, and the secularized academy have to do with the Reformation or with each other. The book not only traces their interrelationships back to late medieval Christendom, but argues that academic disciplinary specialization prevents us from seeing important connections among phenomena usually studied separately. In addition, most historians' tendency to concentrate on different sorts of history--social, intellectual, political, economic--at the relative expense of other sorts hampers our understanding of the past. All of them must be incorporated because of their combined explanatory power, a corollary of their interrelated historical influence. The Unintended Reformation is a sustained argument that human beliefs, ideas, desires, behaviors, and institutions cannot be isolated from one another if we want to understand the contemporary Western world.

If the book's argument is near the mark, it should stimulate a reconsideration of numerous assumptions about the making of the modern Western world. For example, the book is written against the widespread assumption of a supersessionist conception of history. Despite modernity's radical transformations and the ever-accelerating pace of historical change, the Reformation era still influences the present in profound ways. Once the past is gone, it is not necessarily over. This has important implications for how historians understand change over time, regard some aspects of historical causality, and conceptualize historical fields.

Through a historical analysis of the relationship among metaphysics, Christian theology, and science, the book undermines the widespread but mistaken view that the findings of science are incompatible with claims of revealed religion per se. The idea that science compels or even tends toward atheism is based on preferential metaphysical beliefs that conflate God with the natural world and transgress the methodological self-limitations of science.

By historically reintegrating the radical with the magisterial Reformation, the book offers a rethinking of the Reformation as a whole. Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism, including the Church of England, were not typical but rather the Reformation's great exceptions because only they received sustained political support. What "scripture alone" produced and produces is an open-ended range of views about the meaning of the Bible.

As a final example, in tracing how a substantive morality of the good was replaced by a formal ethics of rights in modern liberal states, the book offers reflection on moral discourse and disagreements today. Christians' contestations about the good in the Reformation era led eventually to modern liberal democracies in which individuals determine the good for themselves. Advanced secularization has exposed the extent to which modern political communities continued to rely on substantive moral beliefs appropriated from Christianity, and the consequences of their increasing rejection in recent decades.


Brad S. Gregory is Professor and Dorothy G. Griffin Collegiate Chair of Early Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame.




By Eric Nelson

It has become commonplace to attribute the rise of modern political thought in the West to a process of "secularization." In Medieval and Renaissance Europe, so the story goes, political thought was fundamentally Christian, an exercise in applied theology. To ask what form our political lives should take was, during this period, inevitably to ask what form God wished for them to take. Questions about politics quickly became questions about Revelation, about the proper understanding of God's commands as reflected in Scripture. It was, in short, an age of "political theology." In the sixteenth century, however, this worldview began to erode...

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By Richard Swedberg

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber is one of the world's most famous studies in social science, competing for the first place with works such as Capital by Karl Marx and Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville. What accounts for its fame and that "the Protestant work ethic" has become a common expression in many languages? First of all, there is the bold and counterintuitive thesis in Weber's work: religion helped to create modern capitalism. The story of how the link between religion and capitalism came into being is also constructed in a very dramatic way, with the earnest Protestant believer looking for signs to please God, and discovering that hard work and profit-making are such signs...

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