Category: history

Without Intent

After sitting on my shelf for about a year, I finally dusted off The Unintended Reformation; How A Religious Revolution Secularized Society,  by Brad S Gregory, a professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame.  I quickly became engrossed. However to read it is one thing, but to digest it is another. I finished the reading about three weeks ago, but my mind is still attempting to comprehend its full meaning.

For me to write anything approaching a decent review would take more time and space than  I‘m prepared to give today. I’ll leave reviews to others. So I will approach the book in bits and pieces, chew a little on it, then let it rest until the next time.

As the title makes clear, Gregory does not question the intent of the reformers. The argument of the book is

“that the Western world today is an extraordinarily complex, tangled product of rejections, retentions, and transformations of medieval Western Christianity, in which the Reformation era constitutes the critical watershed.”

The book develops the claim that “incompatible, deeply held, concretely expressed religious convictions paved the path to a secular society.” To do so he uses “a wide-ranging, multifaceted genealogical analysis of the Reformation era” ….

The first chapter is entitled “Excluding God.” To do this he points to changing philosophical arguments that actually began before the Reformation, but eventually provide bases for much that follows.

The traditional Judeo-Christian view of God is that of being radically distinct from the universe as a whole; one who created what came to be ex nihilo. Such a God cannot be explained and is thus beyond our comprehension without intervening revelation. This God cannot be fitted into intellectual categories. The Christian view is that this is the unfathomable God who raised Jesus from the dead, thus ratifying the incarnation, and who himself was the very God of creation. Gregory points out that “It is self-evident that a God who by definition s radically distinct  from the material world could never be shown to be unreal by empirical inquiry”….

However philosophers sought out and found a way to help explain God. It is beyond me to explain the intricacies of such thought.  John Duns Scotus believed that he could show that God’s being did not differ from everything else that exists. Thus, according to Gregory, he paved the way for the eventual taming down of God.

William of Occam, a student of Scotus,  went much further. He rejected the traditional way of speaking about God as being incomprehensible. According to the thinking of Occam “’God’ had to denote some thing, some discrete real entity”…. This came about as the result of a philosophical argument that became known known as Occam’s razor. Thus, according to Gregory, “the intellectual pieces were in place, at least in principle, for the domestication of God’s transcendence and the extrusion of his presence from the natural world.”

After wading through this argument, Gregory uses the remainder of the chapter fleshing out the explanation as to how this has informed both religion and science as time progresses.1

Gregory’s book has ignited opinion, both pro and con. Some excellent commentary by various scholars can be found at: The Immanent Frame.

  1.  Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation; How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012)
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