Friday, August 30, 2013

"The Theological Origins of Modernity" by Michael Allen Gillespie

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

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