Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Book Review 1: Unintended Reformation

This week the Monday reading group read the first chapter of Brad Gregory's The Unintended Reformation. His basic thrust, as I see it, is that one of the unintended consequences of the Reformation was the secularization of society. I suppose when you put it that way, it's not a very profound thesis.  Surely one consequence of dethroning a singular, dominating religious authority is that you not only create a plurality of other religious options, but you create a space for a non-religious option.

Gregory's thesis is more involved, however.  He probably goes a little too far--no surprise that he teaches at Notre Dame and I imagine is Roman Catholic.  I'm trying to work through some of the details in my mind, so let me merely provide some bulleted points of interest to me.

  • His writing is somewhat thick. It's a somewhat heavy style, long paragraphs, high vocabulary. It's not as bad as Christian Smith but reminds one of what I might call a faux-German style. :-)
  • He says some of the right things about his sense of things. "This is neither a study of decline from a lost Golden Age nor a narrative of progress toward an ever brighter future, but rather an analysis of unintended historical consequences..." (20). So he says... not sure if he does.
  • I'm less confident of this fundamental thesis: "Ideological and institutional shifts that occurred five or more centuries ago remain substantively necessary to an explanation of why the Western world today is as it is" (7).  I don't doubt that the present can take on a certain richness if we understand how we got here. I suspect the richness is primarily in knowing what the alternatives were.  He goes further, "we cannot understand the character of contemporary realities until and unless we see how they have been and are still being shaped by the distant past" (15). Hmmm.
Chapter 1: Excluding God
  • Gregory starts with a quote from Max Weber (1864-1920) in which Weber argues that science is antithetical to religion.  According to Weber, you just can't have a religious worldview any more because the truth of science is "not an option."
  • In effect, this chapter is Gregory arguing that this point of view is an unintended consequence of the Reformation. 
  • The two biggest culprits for the chain of events, according to Gregory, are 1) the "metaphysical univocity" of nominalism and 2) Occam's Razor.  
  • Metaphysical univocity, for Gregory, is a shift from thinking of God as genuinely "other" to thinking him as a being, the highest being.  He becomes a being (ens) rather than being itself (esse). Occam's Razor means that we look for the simplest explanation of data. Gregory believes this approach implies a "methodological naturalism," even if you believe in God. 
  • I'm still processing these last points.  I believe in the otherness of God, not univocity. But make no mistake, there would be no scientific explanation of the universe if the mode of operation was not to look for natural explanations for the physical universe.  I consider Occam's Razor a fundamental principle of good data interpretation.
  • What is peculiar about these culprits in Gregory's argument is that they are not products of the Reformation. They precede the Reformation. So I am unclear.  I think (and this is a point of investigation for me) it is generally accepted that nominalism was a basis for the Reformation. But if nominalism is the basis for the Reformation, then doesn't Gregory's argument fall apart?  The basis for secularism becomes nominalism, not the Reformation.
  • Ultimately ideas are usually epiphenomena. They rarely are the actual causes of things. The real causes of things tend to be more fundamental human drives like power and economics.
  • Another sense is that, without a commonly agreed Christianity, truth questers in the post-Reformation era could not look to religion for questions of truth. They rather sought for natural explanations and reason that they could count on for stability.
I really was not impressed with this first chapter. I do not agree with Weber, but I also don't think we can go back to "pre-critical," pre-modern times. The division of reality into natural and supernatural has been heuristically successful almost beyond comprehension.

I don't know whether God is directly pulling the strings beneath the quarks or if he has delegated that to natural laws of some sort.  But if he is directly doing it, he does it with overwhelming regularity (=natural). So it is not inaccurate heuristically to say that when God does something that is not the normal rule, it is a "supernatural" event. This distinction also allows for the most palatable solution to the problem of evil and suffering.

In short, the natural-supernatural distinction, whether it is literally the case or not, has been overwhelmingly fruitful and generative. Occam's Razor works, and we use it in common sense every day over and over.  Science works.


Keith Drury said...

Thanks for this thoughtful review of the chapter.... thick itnis!

Nathaniel said...

Given that I have not read the book, your summary of the first chapter seems to lack any claims about the reformation directly. Is it possible that the editor gave the book its title to encourage purchases and that the author may wish to argue something more subtle?

Also might you have a bias here? You state "Ultimately ideas are usually epiphenomena. They rarely are the actual causes of things. The real causes of things tend to be more fundamental human drives like power and economics." This seems to me an implicit naturalism. Given Gregory's position at Notre Dame, I think it likely he may be taking an Aristotelian articulation of nominalism as the efficient cause and Reformation is the material cause. But to imply, as you do, that non-material causes are not "real" causes seems to me a significant blind spot and implies a certain naturalism.

Ken Schenck said...

I certainly have biases. I agree with what Gregory calls "methodological naturalism" in the sense that we should first try to explain phenomenon in the light of normal cause and effect relationships and only categorize something as a miracle if it seems otherwise inexplicable. I certainly then leave room for God's providential and directive involvement as well, although I consider that far more mysterious and less quantifiable.

Cris Brown said...

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Nathaniel said...

I don't mean bias as in a personal bias. I mean in terms of how language even structures our ability to approach the topic. For instance: why is material cause "normal" and "real"? From the very outset this phraseology results in question begging.

Yes, material cause is significant and is methodologically anterior for good reason. But this is not because other causes emerge only in the lack of material cause. We certainly agree that such causes are less measurable than material ones. But that does not make them not "real" or "normal." To assume so strikes at the very heart of our ability to even speak about revelation.

Rather, the question at hand is, in my mind, is there any cause beyond material cause and if so how do we speak about it? And if there is a form of causation we may consider revelation, how do we know what it is? Perhaps most importantly we need to confront the fact that the ancient writers believed they could speak authoritatively about this question. Do we simply believe them to be naive? This is what you seem to imply when you suggest we can't go back to being "pre-critical."

The question I hope Gregory is addressing is "Did we miss something in simply dismissing our forefathers as naive?" If not, then let's just all admit revelation is a sham and get on with being agnostics. But if so, then let's talk about it or at least ponder it together. Perhaps this is what you mean when you call God "mysterious and less quantifiable." I hope so. But I don't want to "leave room" for it. I think it is far more important than that.