restricted access The Theological Origins of Modernity (review)
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Reviewed by
Michael Allen Gillespie. The Theological Origins of Modernity. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2008. xiii + 386 pp.

Dauntingly ambitious and consistently insightful, The Theological Origins of Modernity is to date the most informed study to convincingly demonstrate that secularization is an overstated fiction, which has significantly distorted our understanding of intellectual and political history. In stark contrast to Steve Bruce’s God is Dead: Secularization in the West (2002), Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007), and Theodore Ziolkowski’s Modes of Faith: Secular Surrogates for Lost Religious Belief (2007), which claim that secularization is either well underway or an established fact in the contemporary West, Gillespie’s book is in the tradition of Vincent P. Pecora’s Secularization and Cultural Criticism: Religion, Nation, & Modernity (2006), Tracy Fessenden’s Culture and Redemption: Religion, the Secular, and American Literature (2007), and Pericles Lewis’s Religious Experience in the Modernist Novel: God’s Afterlife (forthcoming, 2010), which demonstrate that what we witness in the West is not so much “the erasure or disappearance of God but the transference of his attributes, essential powers, and capacities to other entities or realms of being” (274). What makes Gillespie’s book relevant and groundbreaking is not so much his major claim as it is the nuanced and complicated journey he takes to arrive at his conclusion.

Gillespie begins the journey by tracing the theological origins of modernity back to a medieval crisis in Christianity between scholasticism, which reifies universals as the incarnation of divine reason, and nominalism, which provisionalizes the universal as it prioritizes the particular. According to Gillespie, it was ultimately [End Page 463] nominalism that shaped European thought by calling being into question and thereby producing “a new ontology, a new logic, and a new conception of man, God, and nature” (16). This triad of man, God, and nature turns out to be decisive, for Gillespie defines humanism, the Reformation, and modernity in relation to each one. Humanism prioritizes man and thus interprets God and nature on the basis of man, while the Reformation prioritizes God and thus interprets man and nature on the basis of God. Given their radically different approaches, humanists and reformers waged intense battles. Gillespie reads these battles in relation to Pelagianism, a “heretical” doctrine that holds that humans have not been irreparably damaged by original sin. Hence, humans can behave as moral agents without divine assistance, so they are primarily responsible for their own salvation and Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross is not the basis for redemption. Pelagianism had a polarizing effect. In the tradition of Pelagius, many Christian humanists developed philosophies that limited divine power and underscored human freedom and moral responsibility as the way to the divine. In opposition to Pelagius, many Christian reformers developed theologies that extended divine power and underscored human servitude as the road to the divine.

Modernity sought to sidestep the conflicts between humanists and reformers by prioritizing nature. However, and this is where Gillespie is at his scholarly best, modernity neither overcame nor resolved the earlier conflicts about God and man but merely concealed them within its metaphysics. To clarify and justify his approach, Gillespie reads Kant’s third antinomy, which foregrounds the contradiction between the mechanical laws of natural necessity and the insistent claim to human freedom, as one of the most unresolved dilemmas haunting western philosophy. Kant prioritizes the mechanistic view of nature “as a self-evident truth of reason” (276). As an offshoot of this nature-first approach, Kant believed transcendental idealism solved the conflict between mechanical necessity and human freedom “by differentiating the phenomenal realm of nature and necessity from the noumenal realm of freedom and morality” (277).

However, if modernity has understood “the world not as a product of a Promethean freedom or of a radically omnipotent divine will but of the mechanical motion of matter” (262), this certainly did not eliminate the crucial questions about the contradiction between mechanical necessity and human freedom that are central to Kant’s third antinomy. What Kant did was merely to conceal or ignore rather than resolve the conflicts between humanists and reformists by prioritizing nature as the axiomatic point of [End Page 464...