Scissor Work: On the Unintended Reformation
Around 1820 or thereabouts, just a few years before he died, Thomas Jefferson completed a long ongoing project: the creation of a personal Bible, which he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, more commonly known today as The Jefferson Bible. Years earlier, Jefferson had discussed the germ of the project with the chemist and radical Unitarian reformer Joseph Priestley. Jefferson explained that because of the demands and pressures of his presidency, it would fall to Priestley to create the Bible the world required: a strictly chronological and fully rationalized document of Christ’s word, stripped—as Jefferson saw it—of every shard of spurious doctrine and supernatural belief. No angels would descend from heaven; no miracles would be performed on Earth; and no prophets would walk the land foretelling of things to come. For Jefferson, Jesus was a good and profound man, simply born, who pursued his moral calling without ever claiming to be the only Son of God; once dead, he did not return, but his teachings remained, inspiring others to seek goodness and truth.
Despite having been tarred as an infidel and atheist when he ran for office in 1800, Jefferson needed the project more than he thought. In the midst of his first term as president, he began cutting and pasting together passages from different editions of the Bible. In 1813, four years after the end of his second term, he still hadn’t put down his scissors. He confessed to John Adams that he was in search of “the very words only of Jesus” in order to restore the wisdom of a man he greatly admired and from whose teachings he had learned much. For the rest of his life, Jefferson continued to revise his master text, excising those parts of the New Testament he considered dubious or filled with superstitious beliefs, and searching for Bibles in various ancient and modern languages whose version of the central message of Christianity he found authentic and reliable. Jefferson never published The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth: the bruising lessons of the 1800 election convinced him to keep his beliefs private, so his great project of faith would not be made public until 1895. The original Jefferson Bible is preserved in the Smithsonian Museum of American History, not far from the Declaration of Independence residing in the National Archives.
Jefferson’s sharp-edged Bible study hardly makes him unique in the annals of skeptical investigations of Christianity or any other religion, for critically engaged belief has always left a deep imprint on the content of religious texts. But was Jefferson’s scissor work a profound act of faith or an assault on the very notion of divinity? This question lies at the heart of Brad Gregory’s passionate and polemical book, The Unintended Reformation. Gregory, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame and a well-known scholar of the European Reformation, seeks to upend longstanding assumptions about the process by which Western secularism, capitalism and individualism have emerged since the Reformation. In his formulation, Jefferson is one of the key architects of what Gregory labels the great “Kingdom of Whatever,” a society indelibly shaped by religious pluralism and scientific naturalism, and ruled more by the demands of the marketplace and individual rights than by communitarian ethics and the search for the common good. The apotheosis of the unintended Reformation is the diverse, indeed hyper-pluralist and anything-goes society of the United States.
Gregory attributes the kingdom’s existence to six interrelated developments: the diminishment of God since the late Middle Ages; the rediscovery of skepticism during the Renaissance and Reformation; the role of the modern state in dictating the shape of religious toleration and coexistence; the creation of a moral philosophy devoid of religious underpinnings; the siren call of capitalism, technological and industrial innovation, and consumer-driven prosperity at the expense of faith; and the institutionalization of secularized knowledge in the modern university. In dialogue with prominent philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, Gregory tells a story that is as indebted to elements of moral philosophy and modern Catholic theology as it is to the historical reconstruction of events. The past in all its complex (if not contradictory) pastness isn’t Gregory’s focal point here; he chides many of his colleagues for their tendency to favor the intricate re-creation of a specific moment over the grand synthetic historical narrative spanning many centuries. Gregory regards history as an occasion for reflecting on and sermonizing about the past. His goal is to understand the process by which the momentous acts of reforming Western Christianity performed in the name of faith by Luther, Calvin, and other radical dissenters and their followers in the sixteenth century allowed for the growing absence of faith in Western Europe, Canada, and the United States and a decline in shared moral values in the twenty-first century.
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Gregory’s starting point is the work of the late thirteenth-century Franciscan theologian and philosopher Duns Scotus. Contrary to Thomas Aquinas, Scotus thought the essence of a thing could not be separated from its existence. His arguments brought God down to earth. Without explaining exactly how Scotus influenced the events of the Reformation—and the subsequent rise of rational theology in the seventeenth century and the unbelieving Enlightenment in the eighteenth—Gregory stresses that the scholastic tendency to question and debate all aspects of faith opened the door to a new conception of God, imperiling the special nature of the divine by measuring it with the new tools of reason.
Gregory’s portrait of the legacy of medieval intellectual life in the modern world rests on a handful of key examples. A thicker narrative would have explored a range of influential figures and their intellectual afterlives, among them Scotus’s successor and fellow Franciscan, William of Ockham; the fifteenth-century bishop-philosopher Nicholas of Cusa, whose radical Platonism cast doubt upon the entire scholastic enterprise; and prominent modern philosophers such as MacIntyre, who have sought to revive Aristotelian ethics. But in fairness to Gregory, his discussion of Scotus appears as one in a series of interwoven stories in a single chapter, not in a full accounting of the scholastic legacy for contemporary theology and philosophy.
If erudite philosophical discussions had remained confined to the lecture halls of late medieval Oxford, Paris and Cologne, debates about God’s essence would have remained purely academic. But a medieval intellectual revolution in the monasteries and universities gave way to an unbounded philosophical renaissance that embraced pagan ideas about matter being the building block of the universe, first espoused by ancient writers such as Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius, and also legitimized the possibility of doubt while searching for natural explanations of the forces at work in the world. Montaigne, Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes and Hume, among others, all figure into the intellectual lineage that Gregory traces (with many leaps along the way) right up to the New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett—who, boasting of their aggressive secularism, have declared God a flawed hypothesis that can’t withstand scientific scrutiny. At the same time, Gregory explains how the detractors of the expanding power and authority of the late medieval Church unmasked its arrogance and abuses and the questionable foundations of its key practices and institutions. Luther’s angry monastic exercises of faith, Calvin’s lawyerly examination of the Greek New Testament, and the religious insights of several generations of early reformers began to reason away the theological and moral necessity of the Roman Catholic Church. The central tenets of universal Western Christianity, whose practices created a common moral framework and upheld a strong sense of community, were irrevocably cast into doubt. Religion for all but the most believing Catholics had been set adrift from its medieval moorings.