TagReformation

Catholicism and Protestantism

The Christian doctrine which Protestantism emphasizes is that every human being, irrespective of family, class, or occupation, is unique before God; the complementary and equally Christian doctrine emphasized by Catholicism is that we are all members, one with another, both in the Earthly and the Heavenly City.

Or one might say that, in conjugating the present tense of the verb to be, Catholicism concentrates on the plural, Protestantism on the singular. But authentic human existence demands that equal meaning and value be given to both singular and plural, all three persons, and all three genders. Thus, Protestantism is correct in affirming that the We are of society expresses a false identity unless each of its members can say I am; Catholicism correct in affirming that the individual who will not or cannot join with others in saying We does not know the meaning of I.

— W. H. Auden, review of Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther (in Forewords and Afterwords)

re-litigating the Reformation

With the 500th anniversary of the Reformation coming on, I’m already seeing pieces — they annoy me too much for me to link to them — that see the anniversary as an opportunity to take sides, to say The Reformation is good because it supports this thing I approve of or The Reformation is bad because it supports this thing I disapprove of or This good thing just happened and thanks be to the Reformation which after all caused it or This bad thing just happened so curses upon the Reformation which after all caused it. It’s going to be bad enough when serious Catholics and Protestants use the anniversary to cudgel one another — that’s already started — but everyone else is going to want a piece of the action as well.

We could strive to understand the Reformation, to open up a very complex and multilayered phenomenon for reflection, to break down simplistic caricatures, to discover unexplored (or underexplored) possibilities. But taking sides is what our cultures seems to do with everything now. Everyone seems to be asking of every phenomenon, though with their own tribal affiliation substituted, “Yes, but is it good for the Jews?” So what does the Reformation mean for feminism, LGBTQ rights, transgender rights, race, Republicans and Democrats, Muslims in Europe? That’s what we’re going to be hearing for the next year: a few words on Martin Luther and then that’s enough about him, let’s talk about us and figure out whether Luther is for us or against us. Whatever is happening in this very moment will be the interpretative key people will use to (they think) unlock the meaning of the Reformation. For those of us who are more seriously interested in history and the complicated ways it does and does not shape the present, this is not going to be fun.

historical addendum to the previous post

The word ‘Protestant’ … originally related to a specific occasion, in 1529, when at the Holy Roman Empire’s Diet (imperial assembly) held in the city of Speyer, the group of princes and cities who supported the programmes of reformation promoted by Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli found themselves in a voting minority: to keep their solidarity, they issued a ‘Protestatio’, affirming the reforming beliefs that they shared. The label ‘Protestant’ thereafter was part of German or imperial politics for decades, and did not have a wider reference than that…. It is therefore problematic to use ‘Protestant’ as a simple description for sympathizers with reform in the first half of the sixteenth century, and the reader will find that often in this book I use a different word, ‘evangelical’. That word has the advantage that it was widely used and recognized at the time, and it also encapsulates what was most important to this collection of activists: the good news of the Gospel, in Latinized Greek, the evangelium.

— Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History

The City of God is not Brussels

Christians are duty bound for theological and historical reasons to support the ever closer union of Europe (which does not imply a superstate) and to deny the value of absolute sovereignty or the lone nation-state. Tragically, the Reformation, Roundhead, nonconformist, puritan, whig, capitalist, liberal version of Britishness last night triumphed over our deep ancient character which is Catholic or Anglican, Cavalier, Jacobite, High Tory or Socialist. The spirit of both Burke and Cobbett has been denied by the small-minded, bitter, puritanical, greedy and Unitarian element in our modern legacy. Unfortunately it has duped the working classes, once again to their further ruination.

John Milbank. Aside from its rather massive condescension — We of the cultural elite know what’s best for those poor duped working-class folk who simply can’t be trusted to act in their own self-interest — this comment perfectly embodies what we might call Zombie Hegelianism. The genuine and full-blooded belief in the irresistible forward march of the Weltgeist has long-since died, but here’s its reanimated corpse: a vague notion that there’s some correspondence between the current European project and the transnational, transcultural Body of Christ. But if we’re going to immanentize the eschaton can’t we ask for something more robust than a bloodless bureaucracy?

Better still, perhaps we could think of the European political order as a set of practical arrangements for improving the common weal and evaluate them in that pragmatic spirit, rather than as spiritual prostheses, extensions of the Church of Jesus Christ.

operating systems & the Reformation

I wrote this some years ago in a post that has now been taken down — reposted here — but with Umberto Eco’s death the topic is fresh again. Thus this excerpt: 

Have you heard the one about computer operating systems and the Reformation? You probably have. Most people got the story from the Italian semiotician and academic superstar Umberto Eco. In his telling, from an article he published in 1994, it goes like this:

The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach — if not the kingdom of Heaven — the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

More on this interpretation in a moment, but I can’t go any further without commenting that my friend Edward Mendelson — professor at Columbia, literary executor of W.H. Auden, and occasional character in the novels of Alexander McCall Smith — made the point six years before Eco did, and just as wittily and incisively:

In the 16th century the printed book helped make possible the split between Catholics and Protestants. In the 20th century this history of tragedy and triumph is repeating itself as farce. Those who worship the Apple computer and those who put their faith in the IBM PC are equally convinced that the other camp is damned or deluded. Each cult holds in contempt the rituals and the laws of the other. Each thinks that it is itself the one hope for salvation.

Each of these cults corresponds to one of the two antagonists in the age of Reformation. In the realm of the Apple Macintosh, as in Catholic Europe, worshipers peer devoutly into screens filled with “icons.” All is sound and imagery in Appledom. . . . A central corporate headquarters decrees the form of all rites and practices. Infallible doctrine issues from one executive officer whose selection occurs in a sealed boardroom. . . .

As in Protestant Europe, by contrast, where sects divided endlessly into smaller competing sects and no church dominated any other, all is different in the fragmented world of IBM. That realm is now a chaos of conflicting norms and standards that not even IBM can hope to control. . . . When IBM recently abandoned some of its original standards and decreed new ones, many of its rivals declared a puritan allegiance to IBM’s original faith, and denounced the company as a divisive innovator. Still, the IBM world is united by its distrust of icons and imagery. IBM’s screens are designed for language, not pictures. Graven images may be tolerated by the more luxurious cults, but the true IBM faith relies on the austerity of the word.

My first thought on re-reading Mendelson’s extended metaphor, which I went around quoting for several years after it first appeared, is: How much has changed! It is growing increasingly difficult to remember that IBM was once a colossus striding the earth, and that people spoke of almost any non-Apple computer as an “IBM machine.” In 1988, the major players were hardware manufacturers.

Six years later, when Eco develops the same conceit, there is one subtle but important shift: he doesn’t speak of “IBM” but rather “MS-DOS” — not a maker of computers but an operating system. And this is the path the conflicts would take: not Apple versus IBM, but Mac (conceived more as an operating system, as a way of organizing and presenting data, than as a physical machine) versus Windows.

Rage — sing, goddess, of the rage

Perhaps we are witnessing a return to a mode of more immediate access that in turn informs a sort of faceless orality—to the sort of thing we might associate with (for instance) social media such as Twitter. Online interactions lose the old alphabetic sequential rigour and logic; they function as emotional rather than intellectual megaphones. Poke your head into online interaction—about the new Star Wars movie, about Doctor Who’s representation of women, about Gamergate, about the 2015 Hugos, anything you like—and what comes across most strongly is that people feel intensely and are moved to express those feelings with a vehemence that cannot comprehend that others might feel just as strongly in a different way. ‘The characteristic mental disorder of alphabetic societies,’ according to Ong, ‘is schizophrenia, but of analphabetic societies it is anger and polemicism. Old oral was very angry.’ I really can’t think of a neater encapsulation of the online culture surrounding genre in the twenty-teens than ‘Anger and Polemicism’. Perhaps we are indeed moving towards a combination of oral choler and typographic flatness. Renaissance and Reformation scholars attacked one another with furious rage over things they believed mattered intensely—God in the world, how we are saved, how we must live. People today employ the same furious rage, and many of the same rhetorical tactics, over the issue of the crossguards on the lightsabre glimpsed, for less than a second, in the trailer to the forthcoming Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens.

Adam Roberts. “A combination of oral choler and typographic flatness” — that sounds really, really awful and really, really plausible. But I wonder if it’s true that this anger arises when people “cannot comprehend that others might feel just as strongly in a different way.”  Maybe they comprehend just that, and they simply hate others for feeling differently, and want to punish them for it, and drive them from the field of battle, and pour salt on the foundations of their city. Carthago delenda est.

the most incisive commentary on today’s disputes about whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God

The process whereby ‘faith and works’ become a stock gag in the commercial theatre is characteristic of that whole tragic farce which we call the history of the Reformation. The theological questions really at issue have no significance except on a certain level, a high level, of the spiritual life; they could have been fruitfully debated only between mature and saintly disputants in close privacy and at boundless leisure. Under those conditions formulae might possibly have been found which did justice to the Protestant — I had almost said the Pauline — assertions without compromising other elements of the Christian faith. In fact, however, these questions were raised at a moment when they immediately became embittered and entangled with a whole complex of matters theologically irrelevant, and therefore attracted the fatal attention both of government and the mob. When once this had happened, Europe’s chance to come through unscathed was lost. It was as if men were set to conduct a metaphysical argument at a fair, in competition or (worse still) forced collaboration with the cheapjacks and the round-abouts, under the eyes of an armed and vigilant police force who frequently changed sides.

— C. S. Lewis, from Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century. See also: “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?”

accounting for modernity

This is one of my placeholder posts, in which I lay out the barest outline of thoughts that I hope to develop in detail at some later date. Points here will be asserted rather than supported.

Thomas Pfau’s Minding the Modern and Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation retell a story that’s about a hundred years old now. I am not certain when and with whom it originated, though its most influential early proponent was probably Etienne Gilson. The story goes like this: thanks largely to the rise of the great European universities, the High Middle Ages saw the gradual emergence of a fully-orbed philosophical theology that reached its omnicompetent fullness — insert here the inevitable comparison to Chartres Cathedral — in the work of Thomas Aquinas. In the mind of the Doctor Angelicus the greatest pagan thinkers found their proper place and their teleological fulfillment as buttresses of a Christian theology that adequately accounted for (which is not to say explained or explained away) all that we know and believe about God, humanity, and the rest of Creation. But cracks in this great edifice soon appeared, thanks to the ongoing rivalry between philosophy and theology. This division in turn allowed nominalism to emerge, primarily in the work of Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, and their ideas widened the cracks dangerously. Then Luther, trained in this destructive nominalism, stuffed explosives in the gaps and blew the whole thing to smithereens. This is called “The Birth of Modernity.” It is the disaster from which our culture has never recovered.

No two thinkers tell this story in exactly the same way — there are disagreements especially about who the chief villains are — but the account has been remarkably consistent over time, and pretty much impervious to scholarship that would complicate the picture. See for instance the incisive, assured, and masterful work of Heiko Oberman, who long complained that people committed to the story I have just related simply would not listen to a more nuanced and complicated account of nominalism. (Oberman demonstrated again and again that widely divergent thinkers get lumped together in the “nominalism” category.)

All this as background for my complaints.

Complaint 1: The story that Pfau and Gregory tell is nearly a hundred years old now, and people who praise their books don’t often enough acknowledge the earlier embodiments of it, by Gilson, by Jacques Maritain, by a whole range of largely Thomist theologians who see their account as the authentically Catholic one — despite the fact that, as Oberman points out, there is an almost equally longstanding Franciscan counter-narrative that defends the orthodoxy and the intellectual coherence of some of the nominalists.

Complaint 2: I simply don’t agree with the story. I do not see Thomist thought as the intellectual equivalent of Chartres cathedral; I believe the dialectical structure of Thomas’s thought, imposed on him by the institutional structures of the medieval university, yields a categorical rigidity that renders certain vital insights inaccessible to him. The nominalist critique of Thomas is far, far stronger than the neo-Thomist narrative of modernity’s emergence acknowledges.

Complaint 3: Relatedly — though in terms of influence rather than philosophical coherence — I think the systematic ambitions of Thomist thought are misplaced and ultimately destructive. I am deeply sympathetic to the argument made by Simone Weil, most fully in her essay “The Romanesque Renaissance,” that the High Gothic era, rather than achieving an admirable completeness of philosophical and theological understanding, fell victim to the temptations of a “spiritual totalitarianism.” The much-admired synthesis of Thomist thought carried with it, necessarily, a lamentable arrogance (which perhaps Thomas realized in his famous end-of-life self-denigration: “all that I have written seems like straw to me”). That synthesis — which never achieved its own aims — needed to be broken; we would not benefit by its restoration.

Complaint 4: Gregory and Pfau want to tell us, along with Dostoevsky, that ideas have consequences, and indeed they do. But other things have consequences too: the organizational structures of institutions (like universities) and of whole societies; the emergence of technologies that enable widespread communication, travel, and trade; the rise of the nation state, a topic whose importance for evaluating religious experience and conflict has been powerfully described by William Cavanaugh. Too often Gregory and especially Pfau write as though ideas can be neatly detached from these and other forces.

Complaint 5: Modernity, and the Reformation, have their good sides — their very, very good sides, their contributing-to-human flourishing sides, their advancing-the-Gospel sides — that neither Gregory nor Pfau, despite occasional tips of their scholarly chapeaus, treat with sufficient seriousness.

Complaint 6: Gregory and Pfau, again with infrequent half-hearted chapeau-tipping, treat Modernity as effectively monolithic. In fact there were always powerful forces resisting or countering what we now think of as the mainstream of modernity, just as a little later on there was a “Counter-Enlightenment” that existed alongside and in constant creative tension with what we usually (loosely, vaguely, inaccurately) call the Enlightenment, Isaiah Berlin being the best describer of that vital and neglected movement. There were many modernities, many Enlightenments, and many ways of dissenting from them all.

On this Reformation Day, it is good to remember that Martin Luther belongs to the entire church, not only to Lutherans and Protestants, just as Thomas Aquinas is a treasury of Christian wisdom for faithful believers of all denominations, not simply for Dominicans and Catholics. This point was recognized not long ago by Franz-Josef Hermann Bode, the Catholic Bishop of Osnabrück in northern Germany, when he preached on Luther at an ecumenical service. “It’s fascinating,” he said, “just how radically Luther puts God at the center.”

Luther taught that every human being at every moment of life stands absolutely coram deo, before God, confronted face-to-face by God. This led him to confront the major misunderstanding in the church of his day that grace and forgiveness of sins could be bought and sold like wares in the market. “The focus on Christ, the Bible and the authentic Word are things that we as the Catholic Church today can only underline,” Bode said. The bishop’s views reflect the ideas of many other Catholic theologians since the Second Vatican Council as Luther’s teachings, especially his esteem for the Word of God, have come to be appreciated in a way that would have been unthinkable just a century ago.

In regard to the Reformation it might be said that the whig fallacies of secular historians have had a greater effect over a wider field than any theological bias that can be imputed to Protestant writers. And the tendency is to magnify the Reformation even when it is not entirely complimentary to the Protestants to do so. It is easy to be dramatic and see Luther as something like a rebel against medievalism. It is pleasant to make him responsible for religious toleration and freedom of thought. It is tempting to bring his whole movement into relief by showing how it promoted the rise of the secular state, or to say with one of our writers that without Martin Luther there would have been no Louis XIV. It may even be plausible to claim that Protestantism contributed to the rise of the capitalist; that in its ethics were evolved the more than seven deadly virtues which have helped to provide the conditions for an industrial civilization; and then to bring this to a climax in the statement: “Capitalism is the social counterpart of Calvinist Theology.” So we complete the circle and see Protestantism behind modern society, and we further another optical illusion – that history is divided by great watersheds of which the Reformation is one. Sometimes it would seem that we regard Protestantism as a Thing, a fixed and definite object that came into existence in 1517; and we seize upon it as source, a cause, an origin, even of movements that were taking place concurrently; and we do this with an air of finality, as though Protestantism itself had no antecedents, as though it were a fallacy to go behind the great watershed, as though indeed it would blunt the edge of our story to admit the working of a process instead of assuming the interposition of some direct agency. It is all an example of the fact for the compilation of trenchant history there is nothing like being content with half the truth.

— Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). A contemporary work like Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is simply the mirror image of the Whig interpretation, and depends on the same false reifications.

the Whig interpretation of the Reformation

In regard to the Reformation it might be said that the whig fallacies of secular historians have had a greater effect over a wider field than any theological bias that can be imputed to Protestant writers. And the tendency is to magnify the Reformation even when it is not entirely complimentary to the Protestants to do so. It is easy to be dramatic and see Luther as something like a rebel against medievalism. It is pleasant to make him responsible for religious toleration and freedom of thought. It is tempting to bring his whole movement into relief by showing how it promoted the rise of the secular state, or to say with one of our writers that without Martin Luther there would have been no Louis XIV. It may even be plausible to claim that Protestantism contributed to the rise of the capitalist; that in its ethics were evolved the more than seven deadly virtues which have helped to provide the conditions for an industrial civilization; and then to bring this to a climax in the statement: “Capitalism is the social counterpart of Calvinist Theology.” So we complete the circle and see Protestantism behind modern society, and we further another optical illusion – that history is divided by great watersheds of which the Reformation is one. Sometimes it would seem that we regard Protestantism as a Thing, a fixed and definite object that came into existence in 1517; and we seize upon it as source, a cause, an origin, even of movements that were taking place concurrently; and we do this with an air of finality, as though Protestantism itself had no antecedents, as though it were a fallacy to go behind the great watershed, as though indeed it would blunt the edge of our story to admit the working of a process instead of assuming the interposition of some direct agency. It is all an example of the fact for the compilation of trenchant history there is nothing like being content with half the truth.

– Herbert Butterfield, The Whig Interpretation of History (1931). A contemporary work like Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is simply the mirror image of the Whig interpretation, and depends on the same false reifications.

 

Evangelicals and Catholics Apart

Today I finished reading Jody Bottum’s An Anxious Age, and it’s a lovely book: smart and beautifully written. But it describes an America that I’m not especially familiar with: an America divided between a theologically-renewed JPII-style Catholicism and a “post-Protestantism” (Jody’s phrase) that’s the gaseous residue of an evaporated mainline Protestantism. The Christian world I know best as (a) a native-and-recently-returned Southerner and (b) a longtime resident in the evangelical mecca of Wheaton, Illinois simply plays no role in Jody’s story. I don’t know whether my puzzlement at that is a result of my limited perspective or Jody’s or both. But in any event the book left me feeling like an anthropologist from Mars, to almost coin a phrase, looking at an America that’s not any America I’ve directly known. I can’t help thinking that if Jody had seriously reckoned with, for example, Mark Noll (whom he cites once), George Marsden (whom he does not cite), or Eugene Genovese (ditto), he’d have produced a more complex book. Maybe not better; but I think more faithful to the richness of America-and-Christianity, an amalgamation that has a different feel when you’re resident in the Southern or evangelical provinces. Still, that could be my provincialism speaking.

Let me announce an interest here: I have spent much of the last quarter-century looking for ways to connect evangelical urgency and Catholic tradition. My Anglicanism is just this, an attempt to be fully catholic and fully reformed — something I tried to express when I contributed to this page for All Souls Anglican, the church I helped to start in Wheaton — see the answer I wrote to the last question on that page. As I commented earlier today on Twitter, in the last twenty years I’ve seen theologically-serious Protestants become more and more respectful of and interested in Catholicism — but I have simultaneously seen many serious Catholics withdraw completely into a purely Catholic world, with little interest in other Christian traditions except to critique them — as, for instance, in Brad Gregory’s much-celebrated but (in my view) absurdly tendentious The Unintended Reformation, which blames almost everything bad in modern society on this vast and amorphous (but somehow unified) thing called “the Reformation.”

(And I love you, Jody, but you use “Protestant” in a similar way in your book.)

Or let me take two different, and differing, examples. My internet friend Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has been writing a series of posts on what he calls the New Distributism — a topic in which I have expressed some interest — but he frames it as a “distinctive Catholic theology of economics,” and I’m not Catholic, at least not of the Roman variety, so I guess I’m not invited to this party.

Or consider this: a manifesto on immigration reform that I, as someone appalled by anti-immigrant hysteria in America, might well sign on to — except that the Catholic authors of the manifesto emphasize that hostility to immigrants is not grounded in (for example) race but in “something deeply protestant and anti-Catholic” in the American mind, and that the corruption of the original American experiment is wholly Protestant: “The United States was founded by anarchic British Protestant immigrants, who oppressed and in many cases killed the local people, with a native claim to this land.” This is followed by an appeal that simply rules out non-Catholics: “May we, as Catholics, guided by the message of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of the Americas, stand and pray and even act in a way that gives voice to those who suffer in fear and pointless despair.”

But do we really want to see immigration reform — or economic reform (hearkening back to PEG’s posts) — as distinctively Catholic issues? It seems to me that these are issues on which all Christians might benefit from thinking together. But not if Catholics persist in seeing soi-disant “Protestants” as their chief adversaries. Late in his book Jody writes that by the 2012 election “the ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ project had failed.” No kidding.

consequences of the Reformation (a preview)

What I’m offering here is a mere outline of an an argument that I want to make in more detail later. It is inadequate on its own because of its dearth of quotations from and detailed analysis of the books under consideration. I’m posting it now more as a reminder to myself than anything else, though I would welcome thoughtful feedback too.

Two of the most ambitious and widely-discussed works of intellectual history in recent years are Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007) and Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation (2012). The books are interestingly comparable in many ways. Both are written by Catholics; both rely on a very old and simplistic story about what the Reformation brought into being; both are strangely incurious about developments in Protestant thought after, and even during, the sixteenth century.

For Gregory, the cardinal error of the Reformation — which he tends to present as a uniform agent, as I’ll show below — was to apply intellectual remedies to a moral problem. In dismissing alternative views to his own, he writes that “the failure of medieval Christendom was not a function of the demonstrated or demonstrable falsity of central doctrinal truth claims of the Christian faith as promulgated by the Roman Catholic Church”; nor were there any problems stemming from too great diversity in religious practice or “an enforced uniformity of piety and religious practice.”

The failure of medieval Christendom derived rather from the pervasive, long-standing, and undeniable failure of so many Christians, including members of the clergy both high and low, to live by the church’s own prescriptions and exhortations based on its truth claims about the Life Questions. It was at root a botching of moral execution, a failure to practice what was preached.

Gregory doesn’t, as far as I can tell, do anything to establish the truth of his claim that the only failings of the medieval church were moral — though it is clearly vital to his understanding of the period. (“The Reformation ended more than a thousand years of Christianity as a framework for shared intellectual life in the Latin West.” All by itself, with no assistance from the Catholic Church.) Certainly many people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries came to believe that at least some Catholic teachings were false. In a book about the consequences of the Reformation, the assertion that such falsehood was not established — or maybe that (Gregory’s prose is vague here) any such demonstrations of falsehood were inconsequential — seems to be the mootest of moot points.

But let’s waive all that and assume that these claims of Gregory’s are correct. Even if so, these scarcely exhaust the possible explanations for “the failure of medieval Christendom.” It’s perfectly possible — indeed, one would think, quite likely — that the “central doctrinal truth claims of the Christian faith as promulgated by the Roman Catholic Church” were imperfectly and inconsistently understood by many medieval priests, whose education was highly variable and in some cases almost nonexistent. And what did those clergy actually teach the laypeople of medieval Europe? The historical record seems to indicate pretty clearly that actual teaching, from pulpit or elsewhere, was highly variable too. It seems strange that Gregory doesn’t consider the possibility of this kind of intellectual failure, serious though it could be. Instead, he takes refuge in what seems to me to be nothing more than a consoling fiction: that there was one “framework for shared intellectual life” everywhere in the Latin West that stood consistently for an entire millennium.

But to acknowledge variability in this monolithic structure of belief, in time or space — or, even if this story of fixed truth were true, to consider failures in the understanding and transmission of Catholic doctrine — would be to undermine Gregory’s whole argument, which is, again, that in trying to apply intellectual remedies to moral problems the Reformers inadvertently generated tragic cultural consequences. If the medieval Western church was in fact beset by doctrinal inconsistencies and incoherences, in addition to its moral ones, then the magisterial Reformers’ strategies become easier to understand and defend, and it becomes harder to blame the whole of Infamous Modernity on them.

I find Gregory’s book massively tendentious and unfair in its determination to see intellectual Catholicism as a simple victim of the Reformers’ acts of (however inadvertant) destruction. Taylor’s A Secular Age strikes me as a much richer, deeper, and more fair-minded book. Taylor is much less ready than Gregory to dismiss the achievements of modernity: he knows, as Gregory often seems not to, that if the Catholic Church had been able to stifle the Reformation in the cradle we might be living in a world that few of us would want to live in. (One of the oddest features of Gregory’s book is that its concluding chapter, “Against Nostalgia,” could scarcely be more nostalgic about the Catholic Middle Ages.)

But there is a flaw that Taylor’s book shares with Gregory’s: a failure to recognize that from Martin Luther on the most intelligent Protestants have been quite aware of, and concerned or alarmed about, the forces that they unintentionally unleashed, and have devoted constant and rigorous thought to these issues and how they might be addressed in light of biblical truth and (often enough) Catholic tradition.

Consider this: Taylor’s 900-page book about the varieties of secularization and secularity that have arisen in the past half-millennium, and the varieties of actual or possible Christian response to them, does not mention the name Kierkegaard. Not once. (Gregory mentions him a single time, in a mere list of Protestant thinkers.) Yet it would be impossible to name anyone who thought more deeply, more rigorously, and more critically about the relationship between Protestantism and the emergent secular — though the other names that one might mention in that context, for instance Barth and Bonhoeffer, are equally ignored by Taylor and Gregory.

Moreover, the magisterial Reformers themselves, from Luther to Calvin to Richard Hooker, even in the midst of social upheaval, are often quite acute on the very matters that concern Gregory and Taylor.

Both Gregory and Taylor construct stories in which “the Reformation” is the one historical actor, while poor Catholicism stands by, helpless to prevent the birthing of Modernity (understood by Gregory as a monster simpliciter, by Taylor as something more ambiguous, rather like Doctor Frankenstein’s creation as described by Mary Shelley). A more truthful account of the past five hundred years would acknowledge (a) the full range of ways in which Catholicism participated in its own dethronement, (b) the remaining power and influence of Catholicism both intellectually and as a set of forms of Christian practice, (c) the deep, lasting commonalities between at least the magisterial Reformation and the doctrinal inheritance of the Christian west going back to the Fathers, and (d) the immense devotion, creativity, and intellectual rigor which the deepest Protestant thinkers have brought to the very problems which Gregory and Taylor address.

Laypeople also had an active role in announcing the reassurance of God’s forgiveness to one another. When a Christian was suffering spiritually over a sin he had committed, absolution from a pastor after a private confession was ideal. But since confessing to a clergyman was not always possible, the church made provision for lay absolution. (A fascinating example, which one can trace from Rittgers’ book to a 2004 article by Christopher B. Brown, is the authority of midwives to pronounce absolution: as quoted in Brown’s article, “In order that the mother in labor may be assured of such divine grace and of the forgiveness of her sins, the midwife or another knowledgeable person may, in such danger and necessity, where no minister is available, absolve and remit her sins herself: ‘Dear sister, since our dear Lord Jesus Christ has given us Christians this power here on earth, that each should and may, in necessity, absolve and remit the sins of another who confesses her sins, believes in Christ, and desires the grace of God, and that the same is then absolved in heaven … [and] since you have made such a confession before me, and in true faith desire the grace of God and the forgiveness of your sins, I therefore, in the stead and by the command of Christ, hereby release and pronounce you free of all your sins, in the Name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.’ ”) In such lay absolution, ordinary men and women were taking up the seemingly clerical work of giving God’s consolation to one another.

Lauren Winner on Ronald Rittgers’s new book The Reformation of Suffering.

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