Thank you for the gracious introduction. Before I say a bit about my book and then respond to the thoughtful comments by Professor Gianoutsos and Hochschild, I would like simply to thank you for hosting me. When Professor Strauss contacted me a few months ago and told me that over 30 colleagues, around 1/3 of the faculty at Mt. St. Mary’s, were reading and discussing The Unintended Reformation in groups this semester, I was astounded. I also knew I had to find a way to accept his kind invitation to visit, above all so that I could do what I’m doing now: thanking you in person. I don’t think there’s any better way for a scholar to be honored than having this sort of discussion, dialogue, and debate devoted to one’s work. Quite frankly, it’s moving to know that so many of you took the time to read my book. So in a certain sense, from my perspective the most important part of my task in coming to Emmitsburg has now been discharged. Thank you so very much.
That said, I’m fairly confident I wasn’t invited here just to tender my gratitude! I am specifically grateful to Professors Gianoutsos and Hochschild for their comments on my book, and appreciate the trouble they’ve taken actually to understand it, unlike some reviewers whose criticisms reflect manifest incomprehension. Before I reply to their remarks, I will say a few things about how I regard The Unintended Reformation and what it seeks to do. This will in turn, I hope, be relevant to my subsequent reply.
The Unintended Reformation is straightforward albeit ambitious in the basic question it asks, but unconventional, unexpected, and complex in how it goes about answering it. The question is: how did the Western world’s current combination of heterogeneous truth claims about matters of meaning, value, and morality, and its hegemonic institutions, most importantly sovereign nation-states and the market, come to be as they are? This is a historical question about change over time. The answer for which I argue, as you know from having read the book, is that the unresolved doctrinal disagreements and concrete religio-political conflicts of the Reformation era set in motion ideological and institutional changes that sought to cope with the unintended and unwanted consequences of the Reformation. Because late medieval Christianity was not “religion” in any modern sense, but was intertwined with all domains of human life, the Reformation’s rejections of many traditional Christian teachings and practices, as well as of the Roman church’s authority and institutions, affected all those domains. This was important in two ways. First, with respect to the Reformation’s transformation of historical processes that were already underway (such as the increased exercise of jurisdictional control by non-ecclesiastical authorities over ecclesiastical institutions). Second, the Reformation’s rejection of many traditional Christian teachings and practices, as well as of the authority and institution of the Roman church, was crucial for the new realities it introduced (such as pervasive disagreement about Christian truth in Latin Europe—which had certainly existed in the Middle Ages, but not in anything like the sustained way or on the scale of the Reformation, and therefore with nothing close to its transformative impact).
The Unintended Reformation is a genealogical and antiteleological historical analysis that starts in the late Middle Ages and concentrates on human realities without which we cannot account for our ideological hyperpluralism and hegemonic institutions. I start then because that is how far back we need to go to explain the present. And I chose to focus on what I do because no credible account of today’s world is possible that does not encompass science and its applications, sovereign nation-states, modern philosophy, industrial capitalism and consumerism, and higher education. My book therefore includes them all in relationship to the Reformation era’s doctrinal disagreements and religio-political conflicts, and in relationship to one another. At the same time, as you know, I make no claims to comprehensiveness and explicitly acknowledge that the book scarcely mentions other major domains of human life (5, 365), the inclusion of which would have further strengthened my argument.
The book is carefully constructed and tightly argued; the six chapters must be understood together in order to grasp the whole. The highly compressed exposition means that more could and should be said about virtually everything in it. My aim is explanatory power with respect to change over time in ways that account for the stipulated explanandum, without losing the forest for the trees. How one evaluates the outcome in the present is separable from the historical analysis per se; notwithstanding modernity’s many widely acknowledged benefits, where we have ended up seems to me also troubling for multiple reasons I suggest in the book. But one might agree with the analysis and evaluate the present and our future prospects more positively than I do.
Moving on to the comments of our two respondents, which I will take in order. Professor Gianoutsos’s principal criticism is that I too unilaterally identify the Reformation as the distant source of our present condition, “the only plausible culprit that destroyed a harmonized, Christian society,” and therefore ignore other important causal factors that have contributed to the world as we know it today. First of all, as she implies elsewhere in referring to “the significant problems and abuses of the Medieval Church,” “harmonized” is hardly an adjective that characterization of pre-Reformation Latin Christendom. The “late medieval church’s many real, pervasive, and undeniable problems” (85), as I write in Chapter 2, are part of my explanation of long-term historical change no less than the doctrinal disagreements and religio-political conflicts of the Reformation era. The disruptions of the Reformation era are the key, not the claims and actions of Protestant reformers per se—and although the early modern conflicts followed from the rejection of the Roman church, that rejection was as successful as it was because of the church’s egregious, long-standing problems.
The more fundamental difficulty with Professor Gianoutsos’s criticism, however, is that it misses my point about why the Reformation was so consequential: because Christianity in the early sixteenth century was not “religion” in the modern sense, but sought to inform and influenced, for better or worse, every area of human life. Therefore a rejection of the authority of the institution behind that influence was bound to affect all those areas of life—which the Reformation did. Professor Gianoutsos’s implicit distinction between “the Reformation” and “several different phenomena related to the Reformation” seems to suggest that “the content of intellectual debate and practice in the Reformation” can be separated from the way in which disagreements about true Christianity “divided Europe, created an authority crisis, and instigated often brutal wars.” I don’t think they can, and my book shows how they’re related.
Without question, an additional chapter on forms of communication that included the impact of the printing press, as well as a chapter on the relationship between Europe and hitherto unknown peoples in the Americas and Asia—two of the additional six chapters, incidentally, that were originally part of the book’s conception—would have enriched it. But would they have changed the basic argument, or have identified important influences on the shaping of our world that were separate from the Reformation’s influence? I think not. They would rather have strengthened the book’s argument by showing, for example, how the early German Reformation radically altered the already thriving medium of print, providing a medium for polemical theological controversy on a vast scale that lasted throughout the Reformation era and beyond. Print crucially helped to spread the rival truth claims, whether religious or secular, that are central to my argument. So too, although Spanish and Portuguese commercial and missionary efforts began prior to the Reformation, starting in the 1550s with French Huguenot efforts in Brazil, the story of early modern European expansion is simultaneously one of “exported confessional conflict” (to use the felicitous phrase of Anne McGinness, a recent Notre Dame Ph.D.)—between France and Portugal, between Spain and the Netherlands, between England and France, and so on. Deep into the eighteenth century, European colonial commerce and colonialism were thoroughly intertwined with confessional rivalries.
To criticize my argument one would have to show that Christianity on the eve of the Reformation, for better or worse, really was not all that important for intellectual life, social relationships, the exercise of power, economic exchange, ethics, or universities. More than half a century of scholarship by medievalists have made clear that it was, which is why I make use of it in my book. Indeed, the ways in which Christianity was so influential was partly what outraged the reformers who rejected the Roman church. That is why the Reformation is the crucial watershed without which we can’t understand the world we’re living in today, however we evaluate it. None of this, in my view, has anything to do with whether Protestant readers might not like the book. Catholic readers might not like the way I call attention to the problems of the late medieval church, or the unresponsiveness of popes to the intellectual challenges posed by modern knowledge. The point is that the past has made the present what it is, whether we like it or not. The possible objections of certain readers are never sufficient reason, in my view, to pretend otherwise. There are countless things about the past I wish were different; wishing doesn’t change them, and ignoring them simply diminishes one’s own understanding of and in the present. Historical arguments must always be criticized by pointing out problems with the interpretation or neglect of evidence, not because of readers’ preferences for a more congenial, user-friendly past.
I readily concede that I don’t mention any particular ways in which protagonists in the English Revolution contributed to the formation of modern political rights and “fundamental freedoms,” when I say e.g. that the “spread of protective individual rights is perhaps the greatest outcome of modern Western liberalism” (375). I am well aware of everything Professor Gianoutsos mentioned about the contributions of the English Revolution to modern liberal democracy. But my deeper point is that politically protected individual rights regarded not in the abstract but combined as they are with no shared substantive morality, ever-widening technological capabilities, and ever-increasing levels of consumption seem not to qualify as an unqualified good in their effects—heretical as this point has seemed to some secular reviewers. The separation of church and state, protection of individual religious preference, and circumscription of religion helped to solve certain problems inherited from the Reformation era. They also helped to create unforeseen problems, the character of which is only now, perhaps, starting to become apparent.
I will move on now to Professor Hochschild’s two points. First, I am agnostic as to what particular form a metaphysics might assume such that the incomprehensible simultaneity of divine transcendence and sacramental immanence is maintained, as understood in traditional Christianity prior to the advent of metaphysical univocity. I really have no horse in this race; I am neither a theologian nor a metaphysician, and am not one to devote my intellectual energies to arguing for an Augustinian, Thomistic, or some new conceptual direction that from the start takes into account post-Newtonian physics. So long as basic teachings about e.g. the reality of the creator-God, creation, the incarnation, the resurrection, grace, the efficacy of the sacraments, and so forth are maintained, I have no problem at all with multiple approaches. But I regard this as an intellectual question internal to Christian theology, one fundamentally different from questions about unsecularizing the academy so as to bring theological discourse from different religious traditions into dialogue with modern academic disciplines in universities; and this is different yet again from trying to imagine a serious public discourse about God in a society like ours in which, as David Bentley Hart has recently and I think rightly said, “we have reached a moment in Western history when, despite all appearances, no meaningful public debate over belief and unbelief is possible.” Although I’m not especially keen on Gadamer, my book’s final chapter is meant to contribute to the unsettling of complacency about “our own disciplinary narratives of self-sufficiency” for which Prof. Hochschild rightly calls.
On her second point, about what Catholic institutions might contribute to secular research universities, I hope that my call for unsecularizing the academy—a claim I make on the basis of its own ostensible commitment to academic freedom—might itself be a source of hope not only to Catholic scholars but more broadly to religiously committed academics in different disciplines. In the context of the contemporary academy, which is dominated by elite research universities, Catholicism can show itself to be intellectually credible only by demonstrating awareness of cutting-edge research and showing either (1) how research findings are compatible with whatever religious truth claims are being claimed as true, or (2) why the findings should be questioned, or how the assumptions underlying them are mistaken, arbitrary, or otherwise problematic. In claiming, near the end of Chapter 6, that Catholicism is a tradition whose “fundamental mode” is the participatory over the propositional, I did not mean to denigrate the critical intellectual role played in the articulation and defense of the faith by those whose participation in it includes theological understanding. Catholicism makes truth claims, and to be credible they have to be made articulately by persons of learning and judgment in relationship to the findings of the natural sciences and other disciplines. My point is simply that as far as Catholicism is concerned, one needn’t earn an advanced degree in order to pursue holiness by imitating Christ. Being smart is not a prerequisite for being a Christian. I am sure we all personally know extraordinary, committed Christians who have somehow managed without going to graduate school.
Thus far my remarks. Once again, thanks to Professors Gianoutsos and Hochschild, and more generally to all of you.