How has modern western society come to be the way it is -- namely, hyperpluralized? How are we to account historically for the fact that contemporary western society is host to a dizzying array of incompatible truth claims on nearly all matters of ultimate importance? How are we, furthermore, to understand the increasingly fractious and polarized nature of politics, especially in the United States, and the incessant culture wars that afflict this country? Why do we seem to be powerless to curb consumerism and the way it contributes to global climate change? Finally, why is it that the public square of most western democracies is so secular and our public universities have no place for God?
Answer: The Protestant Reformation.
This is the argument of Brad Gregory's important and ambitious new book, "The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society." In the fall of 2012, Gregory and a select group of scholars gathered together to discuss his controversial thesis at Valparaiso University, a leading international and independent Lutheran university located in northwest Indiana. The round table conference featured presentations by Yale philosopher John Hare, University of Chicago Reformation scholar Susan Schreiner, Williams College past-president and professor of history emeritus Francis Oakley, along with responses by Gregory himself; there was also rich discussion of the book among the 30 invited participants from neighboring colleges and universities.
Gregory thinks that the Protestant emphasis on the Bible as the sole source of authority in Christian theology coupled with the insistence on the individual's right to interpret it for him- or herself goes a long way toward explaining the shape of the modern world and its many besetting problems. In their effort to reform medieval Christendom, Protestant reformers unwittingly and unintentionally planted the seeds of modern secularism in the soil of early modern Europe. They did so through their many debates about what the Bible actually says, debates that were never successfully resolved and therefore produced multiple contradictory religious truth claims. The result was a growing lack of confidence in religious truth itself that contributed directly to the marginalization of theology and God from life in the modern period. Whereas in the Middle Ages Christianity had provided the social glue and fundamental sense of meaning and purpose for human existence, in the modern world these crucial functions have been taken over by consumerism. We cannot agree on anything of any significance, for, owing to the unintended effects of the Reformation, we have lost all sense of a universal truth and universal moral standard. But we can agree that we should produce and purchase as many goods as possible, for this makes us happy and wealthy. We have substituted the good life for the goods life, to borrow Gregory's term. We know human rights are important to our way of life, but we can no longer agree on a foundation for them, so we argue a lot, listen very little, never arrive at consensus, and then to go shopping, trying in vain to consume our way out of our dire dilemma. Our addiction to consumption is steadily degrading the environment.
Presenters and participants at the Valpo conference praised Gregory for the considerable breadth and depth of his work, shared many of his concerns about contemporary modern society, but also took strong exception to his argument about the nature and origins of our many contemporary woes. Hare questioned the value of Gregory's project, which assumes a kind of God's-eye view of history, while both Schreiner and Oakley challenged Gregory's apparent nostalgia for the medieval past. Schreiner also objected to Gregory's interpretation of the Reformation, arguing that disagreement, discord, and uncertainty are fundamental to the human condition; they are not the result of a failed Reformation. For his part, Gregory conceded no ground, reasserting his bold thesis at every turn. The conference reached no consensus on The Unintended Reformation; it was not designed to do so. Rather, the conference marked a first important step in the efforts to reflect on the meaning of the Reformation for the modern period.
The 500th anniversary of the Reformation will be celebrated in 2017, and as an institution with direct ties to Protestantism, Valpo wishes to think carefully and deeply about its Protestant heritage. As it seeks to engage the modern world in all of its multiplicity, it's important to understand how the Reformation has shaped contemporary society, and also how the Reformation might still have unique resources for dealing successfully with the challenges of modernity to which it has contributed: Valpo agrees with Gregory about the Reformation's continuing relevance, but it endeavors to see this relevance in a more balanced and even positive light.