Just finished reading The Theological Origins of Modernity, by Michael Alan Gillespie. (University of Chicago Press, 2009).
Brief summary: Gillespie turns the conventional reading of the Enlightenment (as reason overcoming religion) on its head by explaining how the humanism of Petrarch, the free-will debate between Luther and Erasmus, the scientific forays of Francis Bacon, the epistemological debate between Descarte and Hobbes, were all motivated by an underlying wrestling with the questions posed by nominalism, which according to Gillespie dismantled the rational God / universe of medieval scholasticism and introduced (by way of the Franciscans) a fideistic God-of-pure-will, born of a concern that anything less than such would jeopardize His divine omnipotence.
Subsequent intellectual history is, in Gillespie’s reading, a grappling with the question of free will and divine determinism. Protestantism involved at its core fideistic, denying free will will in order to preserve God’s absolute power. However, this in turn culminated in an ambivalence about salvation. If God simply wills whom to save, human action has no real merit (ex. Luther’s “sin boldly”). Gillespie’s chapter on the debate between Erasmus-Luther was among the most interesting in bringing this out.
Also fascinating is Gillespie’s detailed analysis of Rene Descartes and Thomas Hobbes. The latter is usually depicted as an atheist (or his religiosity dubious at best) and his philosophy as chiefly political but Gillespie believes him sincerely religious (if not exactly orthodox) and reveals the underlying metaphysical concerns behind his thought.
And so Gillespie says, even in modern times, we are bequeathed with a similar wrestling between humanity’s political ambitions (the expansion of freedom) and the inability to reconcile this with science’s inherent determinist worldview. Likewise, in the post-9/11/ confrontation with Islam (which makes a brief appearance at the end) we are again confronted with the fideism and absolutism of Islam which sees the West’s assertion of individual autonomy as a challenge to God’s omnipotence, for whom our only response ought to be obedience.
Here is fundamental point of Gillespie’s thesis
… the apparent rejection or disappearance of religion and theology in fact conceals the continuing relevance of theological issues and commitments for the modern age. Viewed from this perspective, the process of secularization or disenchantment that has come to be seen as identical with modernity was in fact something different than it seemed, not the crushing victory of reason over infamy, to use Voltaire’s famous term, not the long drawn out death of God that Nietzsche proclaimed, and not the evermore distant withdrawal of the deus absconditus Heidegger points to, but the gradual transference of divine attributes to human beings (an infinite human will), the natural world (universal mechanical causality), social forces (the general will, the hidden hand), and history (the idea of progress, dialectical development, the cunning of reason). …
That the deemphasis, disappearance, and death of God should bring about a change in our understanding of man and nature is hardly surprising. Modernity … originates out of a series of attempts to construct a coherent metaphysic specialis on a nominalist foundation, to reconstitute something like the comprehensive summalogical account of scholastic realism. Th e successful completion of this project was rendered problematic by the real ontological differences between an infinite (and radically omnipotent) God and his finite creation (including both man and nature).
I found the last chapter of the book a bit rushed and inconclusive — the post-9/11 spectre of Islam makes a cursory appearance at the tail-end, but Gillespie offers little in the way of a prescription as to how we are to apply what we have learned to the encounter. Nonetheless, I found Gillespie’s revisionist intellectual history of modernity on the whole immensely informative — a provocative challenge to the conventional, secular reading of history.
Some far more insightful reviews
- Religious Modernity, by Lee Trepanier. University Bookman Fall 2011 offers a more detailed summary of the path of Gillespie’s argument.
- David Burrell identifies some problems in Gillespie’s philosophical treatment of “nominalism” and “scholasticism,”, contrasts Gillespie’s examination of modernity with that of Charles Taylor’s, and concludes: “the rich historical genealogy we have been following loses much of its richness by the author’s attempt to trace its exuberance to an ill-defined singularity like ‘nominalism,’ as crucial as that sea-change has been.” (Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. 11/09/08).
- William Edgar concurs that the categories of realism and nominalism don’t quite work as a master narrative, yet heralds The Theological Origins of Modernity as “intellectual history at its best” — “a very good read and full of insights into some of the most significant voices that have shaped the modern world.”
- Edward Feser finds that Gillespie’s account of the long-range consequences of nominalism is compelling and important, but the defense of his overall thesis and his suggestions for contemporary application are surprisingly underdeveloped” (The Review of Metaphysics 12/01/09).
- Massimo Fagioli (University of St. Thomas) believes “its overall vision of the relationship of Christian theology and modernity needs to be integrated with other issues the book only deals with marginally — [such as] — “the critical relationship between nature and grace, a problem that has had a huge, perhaps disruptive impact on the balance of the western (Catholic and non-Catholic) theological tradition, especially from the seventeenth century on.”