The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, by Brad S. Gregory
The opening of the cover flap to the hardcover edition of this book gets immediately to the heart of it: Notre Dame professor of early modern European history Brad Gregory identifies the unintended consequences of the Protestant Reformation and traces the way it shaped the modern condition over the next five centuries. As a result, these consequences–a hyperpluralism of religious and secular beliefs, an absence of any substantive common good, and the triumph of capitalism and its driver, consumerism–marked the beginning of the end of more than a millennium during which Christianity provided a framework for shared intellectual, social, and moral life in the West.
In many ways the book reminded me of Charles Taylor’s classic of a few years back, A Secular Age, which attempts to answer the question he poses: “Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?”
Contrary to what you might immediately think about as an answer to this and related questions, it is much more complicated and the issues involve much more than the usual simplistic “religion vs. science” reactions that one often gets. And the results of the consequences that Gregory identifies are not all negative. For example, my take on one major consequence is quite positive, for it involves the post-Reformation evolution of tolerance that ultimately led to the genius of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution which prohibits the government establishment of religion while mandating its free exercise, a clause which I believe has as much or more to do with the notion of American exceptionalism as any other cultural trait.
This is a wide-ranging book with considerable philosophical depth and moral seriousness about issues arising from profoundly disturbing and creative events of 500 years ago that are still current and unfolding. A challenging read, but worth the effort.
Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography, by Bruce Chilton
This book has been around for awhile, but I just got around to it this summer. It was a fun book because it gave me a perspective on Paul and certain aspects of his life and thought that are not immediately evident from his letters in the New Testament. And there certainly is a human side to this portrayal, for Paul had his failings and his struggles, not to mention enemies from without and within. The author, who is a professor of religion at Bard College as well as a priest, is fair and balanced in his rendition of these elements, in addition to the coverage of Paul’s critics over the years and currently. Without Paul, arguably there would be no Christianity, so, for me, the importance of this story is that, whether or not you are a Christian or of no faith, this is one of the most important figures in the history of the West. Chilton tells his story well.
The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Bronowski
This summer I revisited the DVD edition of this acclaimed public television series from the early 1970s along with its companion book that was published several years later. Bronowski traces the development of science as an expression of the special gifts that characterize man and make him different in kind and preeminent among the animals. It is a fascinating journey through Western intellectual history from man’s beginnings to the age of computers that is as fresh as it was over 40 years ago and the commentary and on site demonstrations make it come alive. It’s a classic.