The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, by Brad S. Gregory. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012. 574 pp. $39.95 cloth.
Readers of Brad Gregory’s book may after finishing it worry about the author ’s well-being. Almost anywhere a reader turns in this account of the long-term consequences of the Protestant Reformation, Gregory tallies up the endless failures that characterize the modern West. The consequence of these cultural upheavals is a hyper-pluralism that, among other things, turns morality into preference, marginalizes theology, and privatizes faith. So, for instance, the polarization of American society along the Blue State-Red State divide, or the challenge of global climate change, or the denial of truth claims by academics in realms of values and meaning—three matters that worry Gregory—“have been centuries in the making and are thus unlikely to go away anytime soon” (15). By the time readers come to the end of this metanarrative of declension, they will find no consolation. Although he wished for a “happier ending,” Gregory concluded with a summary of failure: “The intellectual foundations of modernity are failing because its governing metaphysical assumptions in combination with the findings of the natural sciences offer no warrant for believing its most basic moral, political, and legal claims” (381). Readers may wonder how Gregory goes about his daily routines after writing such a bleak and unrelenting account of the West’s failings.
And yet, other aspects of the book reveal a highly functioning scholar. Here is an accomplished historian teaching not at one of the boutique Roman Catholic Great Books colleges where students sometimes graduate as monarchists but supervising graduate students at one of the United States’ most selective Roman Catholic universities, an institution for that matter that embodies much if not all of the diversity—in programs, faculty, and students—that Gregory laments. He is also the author of important monographs that have won awards not from nuns teaching history in parochial schools but from professional academic organizations that accommodate the fluctuating intellectual standards that Gregory bemoans. Furthermore, the publisher of the book is not one of the many pious presses that churn out inspiration and guidance for the faithful but one of the elite Ivy League university presses whose list reflects the very sort of intellectual relativism that is a consequence, as Gregory argues, of the sixteenth-century upheaval of religious life led by Martin Luther.