Blame It on the Reformation (Part Six): We'll Take the Blame, Thanks

In his last chapter Gregory directly links Protestantism to the secularization of knowledge. Pardon the digression, but if secular means “of this present age” as opposed to the age to come, how could any knowledge that human beings now have not be secular? Even theology qualifies as secular in this sense, but knowledge of God does pertain to the world to come in a way that knowing how to fix a leak does not.

This distinction between the secular as temporal and the sacred as eternal haunts Gregory’s statement of the Reformation’s consequences for knowledge. He writes, “these three features of knowledge — its secularity, its specialized and segmented character, and its intrinsic separability from the rest of life — are related, and derive in complex and unintended ways from the doctrinal disagreements of the Reformation era” (304) By the way, Gregory’s understanding of knowledge should give neo-Calvinists goose bumps (and suggests that neo-Calvinist w-wishness is the gateway drug to Roman Catholicism). Later he connects the dots between Christian knowledge and a sacramental — even incarnational — view of all things:

Structurally homologous to the relationship between creator and creation in [Roman] Catholic Christianity is the relationship between the divine and human natures of Jesus; between grace conveyed in the sacraments and the material signs that convey it; between the real presence of Christ and the eucharistic elements after consecration; and between the human soul and human body. If one rejects the traditional, non-univocal Christian conception of the relationship between God and creation, these other aspects of Christianity are bound sooner or later to topple like dominoes. . . . Reject the traditional Christian conception of God as creator, and creation disappears as well, leaving eventually a disenchanted world in its stead.

And here comes the Francis Schaeffer-like jeremiads:

But it is a world that removes any divine constraints on liberated individuals, who as the neo-Protagorean measure of all things can in principle thus exercise their will as they please [what about the dignity of the human person that Rome has been promoting since Vatican II?] This is what the formal ethics of rights protected by the modern liberal state allows individuals to do within its laws. And the Western symbiosis of consumerism and capitalism since the industrious [sic] revolution has provided increasingly unencumbered, self-constructing selves with a never-ending array of stuff to fuel constantly reinforced acquisitiveness as they go about their business. (346)


I am little fuzzy on what Gregory means by univocal notions about God or why he believes Protestants are afflicted with them since sacramental and incarnational ways of looking at creation do exactly what Gregory accuses univocal language of doing — putting creation and the creator both on the same ontological plain.

But what is odd about Gregory’s domino theory of secularization is that the relationships among body and soul in human beings, or the two natures of Christ are not at all comparable to the distance between the creator and creation. Protestants, especially Reformed ones, have long stressed divine transcendence in ways that put high barriers around temptations to view the universe in incarnational ways. And as the sociologist Steve Bruce has argued, Jewish monotheism, early Christianity, and the Reformation were keen to overturn pagan or Christian conceptions that identified or even located God (or the gods) within the created order. This biblical insistence on God’s otherness provides a theological justification for secularization (as I argued in A Secular Faith and which I reproduce):

Steve Bruce, a British sociologist of religion, observes that one of the key factors in modernization is another infelicitous word, to which sociology is prone, rationalization. By this he means the eradication of the cosmic order typical of civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia in which distinctions between the natural and supernatural worlds, or between the human and non human were fluid or non existent. In effect, the divine was bound up with the cosmos, immanent in and throughout the world. But with rise of monotheism in ancient Israel, God became radically transcendent and other. As Bruce explains, the God of Israel “was so distanced from [his followers] as to be beyond magical manipulation.” This deity’s laws could be known and had to be obeyed, but he could not be “bribed, cajoled, or tricked into doing his worshipers’ will.”

Bruce argues that in the same way that ancient Judaism introduced a transcendent God into ancient near eastern religion, Christianity did the same in the Roman Empire where previously “a horde of gods, or spirits, often behaving in an arbitrary fashion and operating at cross purposes, makes the relationship of supernatural and natural worlds unpredictable.” Christianity “systematized” the supernatural and made religion much less a matter of magic than a code of conduct or right response to divine order.

Although Roman Catholicism, in Bruce’s scheme, began to remythologize the cosmos and people the universe with angels, saints, and other “semi divine beings,” the Protestant Reformation “demythologized” the world. Bruce is not necessarily contradicting Scruton and Lewis who describe the way in which the separation of religion and politics characterized the West even before the sixteenth century. His concern is more narrowly sociological than historical. But his is still one with some relevance for contemporary American Protestants who oppose secularization as inherently anti religious. For Bruce, Protestantism “eliminated ritual and sacramental manipulation of God, and restored the process of ethical rationalization.” Historians of science have argued that this sort of rationalization was key to the development of scientific discovery. As Bruce explains, “Modern science is not easy for cultures which believe that the world is pervaded by supernatural spirits or that the divinities are unpredictable” because systematic inquiry into the natural world assumes that “the behaviour of matter is indeed regular.”

Consequently, with Protestantism the domain over which religion “offered the most compelling explanations” narrowed considerably. In fact, the Protestant Reformation’s secularizing impulse reduced the power of the church and “made way for a variety of thought and for the questioning of tradition which is so vital to natural science.”

Although Bruce does not say so, the same point could be made for the modern science of politics. By reducing the authority of the church in the secular or non religious sphere, Protestantism solidified the separation of church and state that had long characterized the West and came to dominate the modern era. Gone was the notion that revelation or churchly authorities govern the civil jurisdiction. Instead, with Protestantism (although individual Protestants themselves may have still operated with a sense of Christendom) came the possibility for the study of and theorizing about politics to emerge as a separate sphere. (247-48)

Of course, Gregory (and neo-Calvinists and theonomists) think secularization is pernicious. I myself will grant that it has some down sides, but so has most of human existence, including the Middle Ages. But it is wrong to see only negative consequences with secularization since the secular stems from the Christian affirmation of divine transcendence and sovereignty, and a refusal to immanentize the eschaton.