Monday, 12 March 2012

Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation

Brad Gregory's new book on the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation is generating a fair bit of online discussion, and has already been reviewed in the Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Times Higher. It's a brave book. It breaks out of chronological and disciplinary comfort zones in a way that few historians dare in these days of ever increasing specialisation. It's brave in another way too. Historians are typically inclined to sidestep normative debates about the true, the good and the beautiful. Gregory does not. This is a moral (and theological) history of Western modernity, which ends with a call for the desecularization of the university. It's already being compared with two other bracing works by Catholic thinkers, Macintyre's After Virtue, and Taylor's A Secular Age.

Of course, Protestants are likely to have some significant reservations about aspects of the argument. For a thoughtful engagement along these lines see Dale van Kley's review in Books and Culture:

The book's homepage is here:

Jonathan Israel's Enlightenment

Over the past decade, Jonathan Israel has been remapping the Enlightenment in a massive trilogy of books published by OUP: Radical Enlightenment (2001), Enlightenment Contested (2006), and finally Democratic Enlightenment (2011). Together they amount to 2500 pages, and take us from Spinoza to the French Revolution, from the Americas to Greece and Eastern Europe, with fascinating chapters on European perceptions of China and India.

Reviewers have consistently praised Israel's extraordinary energy and resourcefulness, his facility in a variety of languages and his researches in dozens of archives. Yet many have also expressed serious misgivings about his vision of the Enlightenment. He discerns a three way struggle in the eighteenth-century between a materialist Radical Enlightenment, a compromised Moderate Enlightenment, and a traditionalist Counter-Enlightenment. Israel's sympathies lie wholeheartedly with the Radical version, and he aims to uncover the Enlightenment foundations of modern secularism and liberalism. But numerous reviewers have suggested that the analysis is far too schematic. Thinkers are assigned to ideological blocs, and each bloc is associated with a package of ideas or values. But on closer inspection, ideologies and alignments prove to be more complex, and Radical Enlightenment does not have all the best tunes.

The dispute is perhaps best followed through Israel's exchange with Samuel Moyn, following the latter's highly critical review in The Nation:

The current debate over the Enlightenment illustrates Croce's point that 'All history is contemporary history'. The issues debated in the eighteenth century have risen to the surface once again, above all the place of religion in public life. For all its faults, Israel's project does help us to understand how the Enlightenment has always been contested. Despite his affinity with the new atheists, his work reveals the persistent power of religion in Enlightenment Europe. He admits that secular materialists were only a radical fringe, nearly always outflanked and outnumbered by advocates of Christian Enlightenment or Counter-Enlightenment. These unresolved controversies of the eighteenth-century are being played out in the twenty-first.

Secularization revisited

The classic secularization paradigm has gone into decline over the past couple of decades. Many sociologists are no longer convinced that modernity is 'the engine dragging the gods into retirement' (as Rodney Stark and Roger Finke once put it). The current issue of the Historical Journal carries two historiographical reviews which further qualify modernist assumptions. The most ambitious and wide ranging is Jonathan Clark's essay, 'Secularization and modernization: the failure of a "grand narrative"'. Clark surveys a very wide range of historical research and is characteristically learned and provocative. Jeffrey Morris focusses on modern Britain in his piece on 'Secularization and religious experience'.

Both are worth reading alongside David Martin's latest book, The Future of Christianity (Ashgate, 2011). Martin was one of the earliest and most persistent critics of the traditional paradigm, but he has been careful to retain a modified theory of secularization, one that avoids strong teleology. He is wary of the bald claim that secularization has 'gone into reverse'. The book distils a lifetime of learning and reflection on topics like Pentecostalism, Eastern Europe, master narratives and religious violence.