Blame It on Scotus

I was a child of the 1950s and ’60s, but came of age in a medieval intellectual tradition. A boy from a medieval village, I first taught at a medieval university (Aberdeen). My mentor there had spent a scholarly lifetime in the Vatican archives assessing the church in late medieval Europe. Inspired by his definitive biography of the university’s founder, the reforming humanist bishop William Elphinstone, I published an essay on the contemporary relevance of Erasmus’s approach to church reform. Subsequently, as a professor of theology and director of an interdisciplinary research center in theology and public issues at the University of Edinburgh, I adopted an approach to university and public life formed by the public-spirited piety of Elphinstone, Erasmus, and John XXIII.

No one informed me that this mix of medieval formation and Catholic reform was simply not possible. No one, that is, until I read Brad Gregory’s book, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Imagine my shock to discover that, far from being the conduit of catholicity I had always thought myself to be, I was in fact a cause of secularism. Why? Because—according to Gregory—I was actually a Protestant, a religious revolutionary who was meant to have destroyed the Christian order of medieval Europe, not embraced it as his own. I was a case of theological false consciousness, that walking, talking oxymoron, a medieval Protestant. Oops! My mistake.

The thesis of Gregory’s intellectual tour de force is simple: Protestants created the modern world; Brad saw it and it was not good. As its title implies, The Unintended Reformation argues that the present unhappy state of the Western world is rooted in a set of unintended consequences triggered by sixteenth-century reformers who sought to address the moral shortcomings of the medieval church by appealing to the authority of Scripture. In doing so, they unwittingly opened a Protestant Pandora’s box of woes, releasing the evils of individualism, secularism, and consumerism, and in the process ending, in Gregory’s words, “over one thousand years of Christianity as a framework for shared intellectual life in the Latin West.”

And so in Gregory’s court the Protestant Reformers are arraigned for the manslaughter—if not murder—of our happy medieval estate of integrated living and thinking. Three other names appear as accessories on the charge sheet. The first is John Duns Scotus, the medieval Franciscan theologian and scholastic philosopher. By arguing that we must use the same terms to speak of God and the created world “univocally,” rather than by analogy as Thomas Aquinas argued, the Subtle Doctor or original Dunce (depending on your point of view) started the Enlightenment heirs of the Reformation on the road to the inevitable conclusion that we have no need of a supreme being to explain the natural world. A fellow Franciscan, the razor-wielding William of Ockham, hastened them on their way. The third culprit is not a person but a discipline, modern historiography and its practitioners, guilty of manifold crimes: exiling the medieval past to explanatory darkness; dividing history into an archipelago of sub-disciplinary islands; and excluding religion from the scholarly conversation on hidden metaphysical grounds. Such comprehensive errors lead Gregory to conclude his analysis with a spirited call to “unsecularize the academy.”

In making his ambitious case, Gregory identifies six pernicious unforeseen ramifications of the Protestant Reformation. First, God was excluded, as the Western intellectual tradition embraced Scotist univocity and the linked Protestant hostility to a sacramental view of the universe. Second, doctrines were relativized, with the exclusion of God foreclosing the possibility of agreement about truth claims, laying the basis for the “hyperpluralism” that has dogged Western thought from the Protestant exegetes of the Reformation right up to our own modern philosophers. Third, as Christendom split apart, warring Catholics and Protestants looked to the rising nation-states to protect their interests, and churches ended up being controlled by their erstwhile protectors; gradually the medieval values of solidarity in the family, church, and society gave way to modern individualism, in which Protestants emphasized grace alone for salvation, and did so under the guise of a liberty guaranteed by the liberal state. Fourth, with the loss of such communities as the social context for cultivating virtue, morality became a matter of subjective definition by autonomous individuals demanding their rights. Fifth, the economy became detached from ethics, in distinction to the medieval world, where they were inseparable; what was once seen as avarice, a deadly sin, was demoted to mere acquisitiveness—or even boosted as enlightened self-interest, laying the basis for such moral calamities as rampant consumerism and financial deregulation. Finally, Gregory charges, “the doctrinal disagreements of the Reformation era and the ideological and institutional responses they engendered” prefigured today’s secularization and specialization of knowledge, a knowledge routinely pursued with little or no concern for its relation to life.

Gregory deserves our gratitude for daring to break from the confines of his academic guild and raise questions of fundamental public concern. Why is the world in the state it’s in? How did we get here? And what has become of the university? In Gregory’s view, the answers show how dismayingly far we have sunk. Instead of the medieval ideal of moral communities of solidarity living in a creation made by a creator beyond our ken but not our love, we inhabit a world characterized by little thought of God or neighbor. Instead of a community of scholars dedicated to the integration of all knowledge in the knowledge of God, we now have secular universities of increasing specialization that exclude God.

Speaking as someone who leads an independent ecumenical institute for advanced research dedicated to generating theological ideas with global impact, I can say with confidence that Gregory has my full attention. His cry is music to my ears. Why then do I disagree with the argument he sets out with such erudite eloquence?

Let me touch on three points. First, Gregory’s take on Duns Scotus is not uncontested. Not all agree that Scotus’s argument for a univocity of being led inexorably to the Enlightenment expulsion of God from a self-explanatory nature and the secular modern university; Thomas Williams, for example, argued persuasively in a 2005 essay in Modern Theology that “the doctrine of univocity is a semantic doctrine, and although Scotus does associate some ontological claims with that doctrine, it is highly misleading to talk...about a ‘univocalist ontology.’”

Second, Gregory’s binary and absolute distinction between the medieval Roman Catholic and Reformation Protestant worlds is no longer tenable. There has been a major shift in our understanding of the relation between different religious traditions, one that sees faith boundaries as both highly porous and mutually informative. The recent work of Peter Schäfer on the origins of rabbinic Judaism in the Common Era, The Jewish Jesus: How Judaism and Christianity Shaped Each Other, asserts “the fluidity of boundaries” both within and between religions, and describes “identities that are less stable and boundaries that are more permeable than has been previously thought.” I would argue for the same permeability in understanding the relationship between Roman and Reformation Christianity.

And third, pace Gregory’s view of the all-conquering supersessionism of the modern academy, there exist major examples of contemporary research that start with the medieval era in analyzing the modern world. One thinks, for example, of the work of Saskia Sassen on the origins of globalization in her Territory, Authority, Rights, with its telling subtitle: From Medieval to Global Assemblages.

At a deeper level, I believe that when it comes to the liberal consequences of the Reformation, its Scotist precursor, and Enlightenment aftermath, there is a tale to be told besides the one presented in The Unintended Reformation—a different account of the same history. Appropriately, it is also a Catholic story. It is the story of the intended liberal consequences of the Reformation and Enlightenment and their embrace by a Catholic Church at ease with secularity.

The Australian Catholic theologian Robert Gascoigne tells this other story in his 2009 book The Church and Secularity: Two Stories of Liberal Society. Gascoigne acknowledges the story of the church and liberal society that informs Gregory’s genealogy of the modern world. This liberal narrative—the one Gregory blames for its corrosive effects—understands freedom in terms of the autonomous individual and his right to pursue private notions of the good without any societal restrictions beyond those necessary to protect property and personal security. This narrative is inherently secularizing, casting any religiously informed notion of the common good in the public square as an unacceptable restriction on individual freedom and rights.

But the other liberal story, the one Gascoigne champions, tells of a freedom that can only be found in community and a shared quest for the common good. In that quest, religiously informed values, voices, and votes are to be welcomed, above all in a common defense of human rights as the Catholic as well as secular condition for human flourishing. Gascoigne puts it this way:

 

The freedom that is fundamental to liberal societies can be the source and guarantee of the love, solidarity, and respect that make authentic community possible. Liberal society, refraining from imposed traditions of meaning and social hierarchies, has the potential to encourage the free development of mutual respect and affinity, without the intrusion of rank and the temptation of hypocrisy. Yet it is also true that the disengagement of individual freedom from socially reinforced traditions of meaning and the expectations of social custom can become the rejection of any meaning and value outside the ego, the mere assertion of the desire to dominate, control, and consume, the destruction of the ethical substance that enables individuals to develop and express themselves in a social milieu. In this sense, liberal society can and does tell two stories: a positive story of freedom of conscience and the development of unconstrained community, as well as a negative story of self-centeredness, vacuity, and the commodification of human values.

 

It is the negative story of liberal society that Gregory tells with such astonishing architectonic reach, from the medieval era of faith to the Madoff era of financial scams. But it is not the whole story, by any means.

To raise doubts about Gregory’s thesis is simply to acknowledge the terrific intellectual energy and dialogical purchase of his thinking. His book opens a new round in the great debate on liberal modernity, and its range and interconnected detail invite entry into that debate and dialogue at many points. For me—an oxymoronic medieval Protestant—the heart of the matter is whether Gregory can acknowledge that there are in fact two stories of the church and liberal society, and thus be persuaded that all is not lost in the modern academy. For there is hope beyond Gregory’s despair, and it lies with the church’s affirmation of the other story of liberal society, the one behind Robert Gascoigne’s call for “the Christian faith’s own understanding of freedom, as the response to God’s gift of life and love”—an understanding, he writes, that “can serve to nourish all expressions of freedom in liberal society that are orientated to mutual respect and just relationships.”

The Unintended Reformation is a landmark publication to rank alongside John Milbank’s Theology and Social Theory—a profound work of original scholarship with a provocative thesis that will shift the parameters of academic and public debate on religion, thought, and society.  My point is not to disagree with such a magisterial work, but merely to encourage readers to consider that other, more hopeful story of secularity and the modern world. As John XXIII put it in his journal entry for January 8, 1903: “Yesterday my learned professor of Church History gave us excellent advice, particularly useful to me: read little, little but well.” The Unintended Reformation is not little, but we should all read it well.

Published in the 2012-06-15 issue: 
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William Storrar is a minister of the Church of Scotland, and a visiting professor in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

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