Alan Jacobs takes issue with Brad Gregory’s claim in The Unintended Reformation (2012) that the Reformation ended a “framework for shared intellectual life”. For one, Jacobs argues, the Catholic Church probably never succeeded in creating this framework:
It’s perfectly possible — indeed, one would think, quite likely — that the “central doctrinal truth claims of the Christian faith as promulgated by the Roman Catholic Church” were imperfectly and inconsistently understood by many medieval priests, whose education was highly variable and in some cases almost nonexistent. And what did those clergy actually teach the laypeople of medieval Europe? The historical record seems to indicate pretty clearly that actual teaching, from pulpit or elsewhere, was highly variable too. It seems strange that Gregory doesn’t consider the possibility of this kind of intellectual failure, serious though it could be. Instead, he takes refuge in what seems to me to be nothing more than a consoling fiction: that there was one “framework for shared intellectual life” everywhere in the Latin West that stood consistently for an entire millennium.
This could double as a critique of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981), which looks back at Aristotelian-Thomism as a coherent moral framework that our present, fragmented, emotivist public sphere lacks. Sometimes MacIntyre makes me imagine medieval French peasants debating the double effect before a tavern brawl.
Jacobs’s critique might temper enthusiasm for MacIntyre and Gregory, but it’s not exactly a devastating criticism of the Catholic Church. I can almost hear the ghost of Pope Callixtus III cry across time: “Hey, post-15th century Reformers,” he cries after excommunicating Haley’s Comet in 1456, “you try catechizing Christian peasants before the printing press gets invented!”
The critique works against Gregory better than Taylor, for whom the Reformation elevates “everyday life”. Taylor also — as Jacobs admits — is much more attentive to method. His book Modern Social Imaginaries is a useful precis to A Secular Age, and is the clearest exposition of his method for tracing the ideal and material forces that shape common folks’ worldviews.
The overall point, however, is well taken. Catholic historians who celebrate medieval culture and criticize modernity might draw more from the Protestant tradition of critique, and might better recognize the complexities of Protestant traditions. Jacobs again:
[In A Secular Age, Taylor] does not mention the name Kierkegaard. Not once. (Gregory mentions him a single time, in a mere list of Protestant thinkers.) Yet it would be impossible to name anyone who thought more deeply, more rigorously, and more critically about the relationship between Protestantism and the emergent secular though the other names that one might mention in that context, for instance Barth and Bonhoeffer, are equally ignored by Taylor and Gregory.
Right on the money. But Kierkegaard is a strange duck that doesn’t fit Taylor’s project very well. Kierkegaard — like Augustine, Nietzsche, and Walter Benjamin — understood that Christian belief was imperiled by the social construction of internal time-consciousness. (I have been unhealthily perseverating on this topic lately.) Kierkegaard would reject the “identity-form of Christianity” that Taylor is comfortable with, which principally amounts to a constellation of moral sources. But that’s because Taylor is a Hegelian, not because he is a Catholic. And then there is the rumor from Barth that Kierkegaard is “too Catholic”. My obsession with Kierkegaard’s ecclesiology is for another time.