Scissor Work: On the Unintended Reformation

Scissor Work: On the Unintended Reformation

Scissor Work: On the Unintended Reformation

Brad Gregory wants to upend how we think about the emergence of capitalism, secularism and individualism.


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.

Yet the Word of God was no firm anchor either. By making the Bible alone the source of renewed faith, learned and inquiring Christian humanists and Protestant reformers inadvertently exposed it to competing readings and interpretations. Their enthusiastic editing and translation of the New Testament raised doubts about the authoritativeness of any text (let us not forget the printing error in the “Wicked Bible” of 1631 that transformed the Seventh Commandment into a phrase of infamy: “Thou shalt commit adultery”). Radical reformers discerned in the Word the basis for a social and political revolution, which provided compelling reasons for the marriage of politics and religion as a stabilizing force in an increasingly unstable world. As Gregory discusses, devastating events such as the German Peasants’ War, the French Wars of Religion and the English Civil War forced organized religion into a position subordinate to secular authority. Yet no matter how rulers dictated the practice of religion in a post-Reformation world, they could not quell intellectual doubt and religious dissent. Early modern states had either to resist or accommodate this new reality. Increasingly, they chose the latter.

The intellectual consequences of these developments were no less revolutionary. New forms of truth emerged, and because they were based no longer in Scripture but in nature, or perhaps in the clarity of the post-Cartesian mind unbounded by anything greater than itself, the question of how to reconcile different truths became more urgent and compelling. Galileo, citing Augustine, would famously declare that two truths cannot contradict each other (which, ironically, is the position of the Roman Catholic Church today); an equally pressing question was how to ensure that the singular truth of faith was secured in its essential texts. As scholars and theologians sought to establish the definitive Bible through the application of new forms of knowledge, the answers changed.

In imitation of Luther, William Tyndale boldly translated the New Testament into English in 1525; James I required no fewer than forty-seven experts arguing over every line to create the King James Bible in 1611. Behind these modern Bibles lay a world of uncertainty about biblical texts in ancient languages. In 1707, the Anglican theologian John Mill identified more than 30,000 variations in different versions of the New Testament—in Greek and Latin. No wonder Jefferson read a library of Bibles with scissors in hand! Yet could such rational exercises really shore up belief and dispel doubt? In the absence of a strongly Catholic tradition, with its accumulation of centuries of learned doctrine, authority and institutions offering the path to good answers to life’s questions, faith for many Protestants became increasingly grounded in a personal experience of God.

Thus, Gregory argues, the immediate unintended consequence of the Reformation was a religious smorgasbord, a seemingly endless feast of faiths, leading to the creation of modern nations that eventually accommodated every possible permutation of belief that didn’t violate their civil laws. As J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur observed in his Letters From an American Farmer (1782), his adopted homeland was “a strange religious medley,” and he concluded that all this co-habitation and intermarriage would breed “religious indifference.” Crèvecoeur was correct in thinking that Americans would grow accustomed to living with people of other faiths, and that familiarity would dull the nature of these distinctions for many, but he was wrong to conclude that tolerance would necessarily lead to complacency or a complete melding of beliefs. Many Americans are as likely to change religion as to buy a new car, let alone move to a new house, but the vast majority still believe. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 92 percent of Americans—6 percent less than in a 1967 poll—reported a belief in God.

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The crux of Gregory’s account of the unintended Reformation is his analysis of the Dutch Golden Age, a bridge between the legacy of medieval Christianity and the pluralist promise of Anglo-American liberalism. After a bloody liberation from Spanish Catholic rule leading to a declaration of Dutch independence in 1581, Rembrandt’s contemporaries decided to emphasize shared gain rather than to persist in their struggles over divisions of faith. The result was the first post-Reformation society, tolerant without being ecumenical. No longer guided by medieval Christian ethics, with its critique of avarice and usury, the Dutch reinvented their economy—and more important, their attitudes toward wealth and consumption—to accommodate the needs of a prosperous commercial society engaged in long-distance trade as well as local production and consumption.

The Dutch invited people of many different faiths into their midst to maximize profit on the road to prosperity, creating new levels of interaction and intimacy between people who lived and worked together but did not share the same beliefs. Gregory re-examines Max Weber’s classic formulation of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, shifting its center of gravity from England to the Netherlands. We owe the origins of the shopping mall first to the Dutch, who dispelled the sense of guilt from the desire to acquire, and subsequently to New England Puritans and their liberal progeny, who insisted that the generation of wealth was a common good that would build a better society. Consider the consequences, on a global scale, of capitalism and consumerism in our own day, and you will understand why Gregory laments the weakness of institutionalized religion when confronting the economic might of the Dutch East India Company.

Just as Machiavelli’s observations of the Renaissance papacy cleaved politics from Christian morality, the benighted industriousness of the seventeenth-century Dutch made a virtue out of another vice. The tulip craze—a project in market speculation managed largely by Dutch Mennonites—was a byproduct of a world smitten with novel fiscal instruments and enjoying new levels of material comfort. But what role did the Reformation play in stimulating these new attitudes? In earlier centuries, merchants routinely recorded in their ledgers that they were accounting “for God and profit.” The slow but steady decline of the pious medieval businessman in favor of the full-fledged amoral capitalist marks the process by which God ceased to be a shareholder. That this shift occurred in Catholic lands as well as in the Protestant diaspora stretching from Amsterdam to New Amsterdam, London to Bombay, doesn’t really figure into Gregory’s analysis.

The final piece of Gregory’s puzzle concerns efforts to find the answers to life’s biggest questions in secular projects of knowledge that would increasingly challenge religion’s monopoly on truth. Ever since Luther broke with Rome, there has been no single, self-evident pathway to truth for believing Christians. One of the unintended results of the Reformation has been the choice to believe what you wish—in a particular Christian God, in a nondenominational God, in the truth of a different faith (a subject absent from Gregory’s exclusive focus on the history of Christianity), or not to believe at all. The quest for answers, Gregory argues, has given birth to proliferating forms of knowledge, to political liberalism and its expansive sense of citizenship, as well as to institutions and an ethics of rights carefully cleansed of a particular faith commitment.

Following MacIntyre and Taylor, Gregory questions many of these results. He laments the inability of modern philosophy to devise effective solutions to important questions about the nature of the human condition, and he sees the roots of these anodyne efforts in the failure of liberalism to create a good society based on reason alone. He also offers a rejoinder to scientific proponents of naturalism like Dawkins by defining science as fundamentally amoral in the literal sense: unable to create a code of ethics for human behavior from its store of empirical observations about the natural world. Gregory has no ax to grind with science as science, and he chides those who dismiss the findings and consensus of the scientific community on issues like global warming. He is concerned instead with why scientists—those “priests of nature,” in the language of Newton’s age—wish to define faith without declaring the nature of their own beliefs.

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These are strongly worded and deeply felt criticisms that can all too easily be dismissed by readers who do not share such convictions. While Gregory is very careful to demonstrate what he knows about the past, he is often quick to make grand declarations about the present, creating an uneasy tension between his meticulous scholarship and his useful criticisms of contemporary society. Indeed, elements of his portrayal of modern secularism verge on caricature and are unlikely to earn him the respect of those he seeks to debate—namely, his colleagues at many colleges and universities who, whatever their religious beliefs, see things differently. In the spirit of John Henry Newman and C.S. Lewis, Gregory invites us to consider how faith can be foundational not only for the study of religion, but for many different projects of knowledge inside the halls of academe. He expresses the hope that such an education would have an ameliorating effect on society by restoring some of the best elements of medieval Christian community that have been lost in a post-Reformation world. Put another way, he wants a different coda to the Reformation, one that provides an ecumenical foundation for the twenty-first-century university.

While faith can indeed animate great projects of learning as well as provide a strong and positive basis for moral reflection and community, it has also been invoked as a justification for violence and murder. Lest he be accused of being purely nostalgic for a world we’ve lost, Gregory highlights the problems of late medieval Catholicism and acknowledges that there were compelling reasons—such as the papacy’s fiscal abuses, moral laxity and secular ambition to create a strong state—to question some of its practices. Yet his account of how the Protestant splintering of Western Christianity gave birth to the modern world does not address several crucial issues, such as the ongoing tensions and divisions within Catholicism from the Reformation to the present day. How did the Roman Catholic Church contribute to religious pluralism and the erosion of a sense of shared purpose and community? What role did the interactions of Christianity with other religions play in the creation of modern pluralism and tolerance?

Gregory’s unintended Reformation is a resolutely Protestant story. Yet the history of post-Reformation Catholicism is replete with examples of how the Church’s encounters with a wider world—whether in colonial Latin America, Ming Dynasty China or twentieth-century Italian Harlem, in Robert Orsi’s famous account of American Catholicism witnessed at the altar of the Madonna of 115th Street—provoked many adjustments, both before Leo XIII’s encyclicals (which defined the Church’s relationship to the modern age) and even after the Second Vatican Council. Gregory knows this history well, which makes its near absence in The Unintended Reformation especially noticeable. Without it, one might conclude that Gregory’s greatest regret is the fact that Christians relinquished a unified faith in favor of personal faiths, and at the expense of any shared sense of community.

What does Gregory hope to accomplish by writing history as moral theology? He grudgingly admits that no reasonable account of the past would make the largely illiterate, politically restrictive, materially impoverished, disease-ridden and war-torn societies of the premodern era seem preferable to life in a society that, while awaiting its Second Religiousness, offers some reasonable promise of health, education and well-being. The large questions we grapple with today include how to rectify the balance of things in light of globalization, overproduction, heightened consumption, rising population, the poverty endemic to many parts of the world, the consequences of an increasingly technologically driven infrastructure and environmental depredation. If I have understood Gregory correctly, his answer to the failure of the Enlightenment is a call for a renewed Christian ethics, and its infusion into the realms of education and public life as a first step toward solving these problems.

The Unintended Reformation is an ambitious undertaking, and I cannot help but admire Gregory for daring to step outside his scholarly nook to write a manifesto for the present informed by the past. Yet I think his arguments are dogged by his unwillingness to understand the people with whom he disagrees most, on the premise that they have given up on the Truth. His account of the modern inhabitants of the Kingdom of Whatever doesn’t do justice to the nuances of nonbelief; by no stretch of the imagination can the majority of this minority be described as New Atheists. Also, the question of whether the best aspects of liberal politics and religion have failed as utterly as he seems to think is far from settled. What most eludes Gregory’s grasp is the plurality of the contemporary American society he sets out to describe. In the end, he doesn’t convey the many manifestations of belief in America, or explain why someone would think that the modern world is re-enchanted rather than disenchanted in the face of doubt.

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