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  • The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society by Brad S. Gregory
  • Benjamin J. Kaplan
The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. By Brad S. Gregory. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012. 592pp. $39.95 (cloth).

This is an enormously bold, ambitious book. Contrary to what its title might suggest, its subject is not restricted to the Protestant Reformation. It is not restricted even to history. In The Unintended Reformation, Brad Gregory offers a sweeping indictment of contemporary life in the West, and a sweeping historical narrative—or a series of six narratives, to be precise—to explain how we got to where we are today. Harnessing historical scholarship to cultural criticism, Gregory argues that some of the most problematic features of contemporary life do not just have their roots in the past, but are the direct result of things that happened centuries ago. Wasteful consumerism, exploitative capitalism, unbounded selfishness, an unthinking secularism in the academy, and, crucially, a “hyperpluralism” of creeds and philosophies that leaves society without any agreed basis for morality, except for a permissive relativism-it is a dark portrait of the present Gregory paints, and he blames its features mostly on Martin Luther and the other religious revolutionaries of the sixteenth century.

Not that Gregory believes those distant reformers sought any of these outcomes. Without intending to do so, though, they destroyed the unity of Western Christendom, establishing in its place a diversity of irreconcilable truth claims. In the Middle Ages, argues Gregory, Christianity had functioned as a common, “institutionalized worldview” that [End Page 880] informed all domains of human life, from scientific inquiry to economic transactions. But the Protestant principle of sola Scriptura provided no basis for reaching agreed answers to the big “Life Questions.” Neither did “reason alone,” to which philosophers like Descartes turned as an alternative when confessional conflict ended in stalemate. Instead, the truth claims multiplied. According to Gregory, Westerners transformed their society and culture in a series of fundamental ways in order to cope with the situation. They demoted all truth claims to the status of subjective, ultimately arbitrary beliefs. They proclaimed the right of individuals to believe as they pleased, replacing the Aristotelian moral tradition with “an ethics of subjective, feelings-based, personal preference” (p. 182). They turned to acquisitiveness and consumerism as an alternative glue to hold society together. They subjected their churches to thoroughgoing control by the state. They privatized religion, separating it from other domains of life. And, building on developments in late medieval philosophy, they adopted a metaphysical naturalism that replaced the Christian concept of God with a deity who functioned as a remote first cause—and could easily be omitted altogether.

These transformations occurred in the early modern era. By the end of the eighteenth century they were largely complete, and since then they have not changed in any essential way. In this sense, argues Gregory, the Reformation created the modern West and is responsible for the most fundamental parameters of life in it. Of course, the modern era has seen dramatic developments, such as the increasing power of technology. Only two of the fundamental parameters, however, have undergone important modulations. First, the modern liberal state replaced the early modern confessional state. In Gregory’s view, this change is not really as great as it seems, for like the confessional state, the liberal one too exercises a monopoly of power in the public sphere and dictates the terms on which religion exists and is practiced. Second, the modern research university reunited the provision of higher education with the pursuit of new knowledge. This was a change from the early modern arrangement in which confessionally affiliated universities trained dutiful servants of church and state, while other institutions such as courts and learned societies pursued new knowledge on a nonconfessional basis. In this area too, though, Gregory sees the early modern change as persisting to the present day. In reaction to Europe’s religious divisions, the very definition of “knowledge” was secularized, and so it remains in the modern academy, where religious truth claims are excluded even from consideration.

Gregory has an extraordinarily wide-ranging knowledge of Western history...


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pp. 880-883
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