Blame it on the Reformation

By

The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society
By Brad S. Gregory
(Harvard University Press, 574 pp., $39.95)

I. 

THERE ARE ONLY so many ways of telling a story. Scan world literature and you discover a surprisingly small stock of narrative styles; narrow your search to historical writing and you find only a handful.

The oldest and most enduring is the chronicle. Chronicles all look something like the Bayeux Tapestry, the eleventh-century embroidered scroll that visualizes the stream of events leading up to the Norman Conquest. As the scroll unfurls you see men fighting on ships, followed by men fighting on horseback, followed by men fighting with swords, with the occasional lord and castle thrown in for variety. This goes on for more than two hundred feet. Since chronicles try to be comprehensive, they are wonderfully messy documentsmessy like the truth. They leave the impression that the outcomes of human action depend on choices the actors make in time, that they are weaving the tapestry as they go.

The Hebrew Bible belongs in this tradition. What makes the chronicle of the covenant so dramatic is that it follows the unpredictable encounter of divine and human freedom in all its emotional twists and turns. God chose Abraham, but would Abraham choose God? In the event, he did; but then Isaac had to choose whether to remain faithful to their covenant, as did Jacob and Esau, and so on down the line. The story that emerges is meaningful not because it exposes the irresistible work of providence, but because it doesn’t. It teaches that you must choose to be chosen. 

Human beings should be content with such stories and the gods who come with them. But few of us are. Chronicles place the responsibility for history on our very small shoulders, which is a burden we would like to shirk. We want comfort. So from time immemorial we have fabricated myths to convince ourselves that we understand the underlying processes by which the world took on its present shape. Such myths begin with some remote historical Big Bang, after which life unfolds in a meaningful, if not precisely predictable, direction. It is a revealing psychological fact that the most common historical myths that early civilizations comforted themselves with were stories of fated decline, which give temporal reasons why life is so hard. We suffer because we live in an Age of Iron, far removed from our origins in the Age of Gold. It’s not our fault, and perhaps one day the gods will smile down and return us to the world we have lost. Pazienza.

Christianity turned its back on these ancient stories of fated decline. But it has never been able to escape historical mythmaking, despite the best efforts of theologians from Augustine to Karl Barth. The reason, as Hegel formulated it so well, is that Christian revelation is based on a unique divine incursion into the flow of historical time that altered but did not delegitimize an earlier divine-human relationship. Christianity therefore begs for a story that connects the historical periods created by this event: the age before the Incarnation, the age of the present saeculum, and the age to be inaugurated by Christ’s redemptive return. Eusebius of Caesarea, in the early fourth century C.E., was the first Christian thinker to have a serious go at this, and his progressive narrative shaped much subsequent Western thinking about history. In his account, God used one providential hand to “prepare the Gospel” by guiding Hebrew history from Abraham to Jesus; and with the other hand, He built Rome up from a small republic to a vast and powerful empire. With the conversion of Constantine to Christianity these two trajectories met, fusing divine truth with mundane power and inaugurating a new epoch of God’s kingdom on Earth. Against the pessimistic pagan myth of the World We Have Lost, Eusebius offered his optimistic Goodbye to All That.

Eusebianism is a theological trap, though. For the moment bad things start to happen, the myth, and the hopes attached to it, begin to crumble. Augustine saw this firsthand after the sack of Rome in 410. Despair was immediate and widespread among Roman Christians, who began to wonder whether they were being punished by the ancient pagan gods they had abandoned. To shore them up Augustine wrote the City of God, a bloated, disorganized, brilliant polemic that still stands as the greatest Christian work on history ever written. Augustine did more than refute his pagan adversaries, who blamed the Roman collapse on the effeminate corruptions of Christianity. He reoriented Christian thinking away from the flow of history and toward its eschatological end. We do not know why God allowed pagan Rome to flourish and then joined it with the Church, Augustine tells his readers; we never did and never will. Nor do we know why He allowed it to collapse. That’s God’s business. Ours is to preach the Gospel, be righteous, remain faithful, and serve Him. The rest is in His hands.

Though the City of God became a foundation stone of Catholic theology almost from the moment it appeared, the temptation of Eusebianism remained greateven for Augustine himself, who while writing his masterwork asked his disciple Orosius to write a History Against the Pagans, which demonstrated how life had in fact progressively improved since the advent of Christianity, just in case that argument, too, was needed. This tensionbetween Augustine’s image of the pilgrim Church just passing through and Eusebius’s image of the Church triumphantwas never resolved in the Catholic Middle Ages. And for a good reason: despite centuries of internal conflicts over papal authority and external conflicts with the Eastern Church and the Turks, the Roman Catholic Church did indeed seem triumphant.

 

UNTIL THE Protestant Reformation. The shock of the Reformation for medieval Christians was as great as that experienced by Roman Christians after 410, with one important difference: after the assaults of Luther, Calvin, and the radical reformers, the Roman Catholic Church never got its modern Augustine. Not after the Enlightenment, eitheror the American and French Revolutions, or the industrial revolution, or the socialist revolutions of the nineteenth century, or the spread of Darwinism, or the secularization of European schools, or the extension of the suffrage, or the rise of communism and fascism, or decolonization, or birth control, or feminism, or any other major historical change in the modern era. The Church responded to most of these challenges in its traditional way: first condemning the innovators, then tolerating some differences, and finally declaring that such innovations had been continuous with Catholic doctrine all along. But the Church is slow and modern history is fast. Which is why, in the five centuries since the Protestant Reformation, it has never found its historical equipoise. The Church has no widely accepted theology of history to speak of, just a stream of papal encyclicals that reflect the shifting moods of this or that pontiff. Thinking modern history has largely been left to lay Catholic intellectuals, who have had to sail upwind alone in their little boats.

The golden age of lay Catholic historiography was the nineteenth century, when Counter-Revolutionary thinkers such as Bonald, the young Lamennais, de Maistre, and Donoso Cortés refined the World We Have Lost narrative that has nourished reactionary political movements ever since. But in the twentieth century lay and clerical writers developed a kinder, gentler variation of it that has not lost its appeal among Catholics. Let’s call it The Road Not Taken.

Those who recount this kind of story tell us that at some point in medieval or early modern history the West took a momentous wrong turn, putting itself on the path to our modernity with all its attendant problems. But no single person or event was responsible for this. The blame must be shared by philosophers, theologians, and the Church hierarchy itself. This was a tragic development: had everyone only been more patient, the Church would have continued evolving, and in a good direction. The Middle Ages would eventually have waned and a new society would have developed. But the swings of modern history would have been less extreme and the worst avoided. Change would have been more gradual, radical attacks on the Church would have been unnecessary, and the Church in turn would not have fallen into the reactionary crouch it maintained from the French Revolution until Vatican II. With moral debate confined within the flexible bounds of Catholic orthodoxy, important human values would have been preserved from secular dogmatism and skepticism. We would have been spared the brutality of the industrial era, the monsters of modern science, and the empty individualism and viciousness of our time. All in all, we would be living a happier, more fruitful and humane existence.

Some stimulating Catholic works have been written in this genre. My favorite is Reason and Revelation in the Middle Ages, by the great French medievalist Étienne Gilson. Based on a series of lectures that Gilson gave in 1937 at the University of Virginia, it traces the history of Catholic theology from its anti-intellectual origins in Church fathers such as Tertullian to the hyper-rationalism of late scholasticism, both of which Gilson rejects. He adopts the classic Thomist position that Aquinas and only Aquinas managed to reconcile reason and revelation in a way that did justice to the truths of theology and philosophy. But once the grand Thomist synthesis was undermined by Ockhamists, Scotists, and other schoolmen hoping to improve on it, reaction set in, preparing the way for Martin Luther’s crude sola scriptura and Descartes’s menacing scientific rationalism. Both have been disasters for the Western mind. Yet the Summa Theologiae is still there, beckoning on The Road Not Taken.

Other works in this style have been more political. During World War II two forceful intellectual histories were published by European Jesuits, one in Switzerland, the other in occupied France. Hans Urs von Balthasar’s monumental (and still untranslated) Apocalypse of the German Soul traced the Promethean streak in modern German thought from the Idealists and Romantics down to Heidegger and Karl Barth. Henri du Lubac’s The Drama of Atheist Humanism portrayed nineteenth-century thinkers such as Comte, Marx, and Nietzsche as prophets of modern man’s self-deification, which only ended in man’s dehumanization. Urs von Balthasar and Lubac were not simple declinists, though, and they did not romanticize an imaginary lost world. They told their stories to turn attention back to an abandoned intellectual tradition they hoped to revive after the catastrophe of world war.

Most of us today do not believe that we live in such catastrophic times. But over the past thirty years the Road Not Taken genre has come back into vogue among a new generation of anti-modern Catholics (and some Anglicans) on the left and the right, from members of the post-modern Radical Orthodoxy movement in Britain to conservative American writers around First Things magazine. And they have all taken their cue from what has turned out to be one of the most influential books of our time: Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which appeared in 1981.

After Virtue is catnip for grumpy souls. By blurring the lines between intellectual history and philosophical argument, MacIntyre developed a compelling just-so story about how our awful world came to be. Once upon a time the Aristotelian tradition of moral reflection, which ran continuously from antiquity through the Catholic Middle Ages, gave Europeans a coherent narrative for understanding and practicing virtue in their individual and collective lives. That tradition was destroyed by the “Enlightenment project.” (Note to students: distrust any book that uses this empty phrase.) Once the Lumières undid the work of centuries they were left to justify morality on rational grounds, which they necessarily failed to do, since morality can only be understood within a living tradition of practice. Their failure then prepared the way for acquisitive capitalism, Nietzscheanism, and the relativistic liberal emotivism we live with today, in a society that “cannot hope to achieve moral consensus.” MacIntyre expressed no explicit hope or desire to return to Middle Ages. Instead, his book ends with a visionary call for the creation of future moral communities based on old modes of thought, where a coherent moral life might once again be sustained. The final sentence reads: “We are waiting not for a Godot, but for anotherdoubtless very differentSt. Benedict.”

 

II. 

AFTER VIRTUE IS NOT an academic work of history and does not pretend to be. It is a strong work of advocacy that ends with a prayer. The same is true, alas, of Brad S. Gregory’s huge, and hugely frustrating, new book, which seems to have been inspired by MacIntyre’s example. The difference, though, is that Gregory would have us believe that he is writing conventional history. A first glance at his wide-ranging chapters on post-Reformation developments in philosophy, politics, education, economics, and civil society, supplemented by 150 pages of rich footnotes, would incline you to believe him. Ecstatic blurbs from distinguished historians who should know better reinforce the impression. But the deeper you delve into this book, the more you begin to feel that you are watching a shadow-puppet play on the wall of some Vatican cave. A straightforward history of the post–Reformation West written from an explicitly Catholic standpoint would have been a welcome addition to our understanding of the period and of ourselves. Instead, Gregory has offered up a sly crypto-Catholic travel brochure for The Road Not Taken.

The book’s aim, he tells us, is to explain “how Europe and North America today came to be as they are.” (After the book’s second page contemporary Europe is hardly mentioned, making this yet another Americano history of “the West.”) And how do we live now? Not well. Gregory worries that our political life is polarized, that economic greed and mindless consumerism are idealized, that environmental degradation is accelerating at an alarming rate, that standards in schools are declining, and that public discourse is governed by ideological correctness and cultural relativism. And who doesn’t worry? But for Gregory these vast and various problems have a single source: the “hyper-pluralism” of modern societies. This term appears with metronomic regularity here, modified by a slew of adjectives like “never-ending,” “confusing,” “unintended,” “unwelcome,” “gangrenous,” and “hegemonic.” In an Agnew-esque moment he even complains of “pullulating pluralism.” “All Westerners,” Gregory declares at one point, “live in the Kingdom of Whatever.”

Except when they don’t. For by now this hyper-pluralism has been so deeply rooted in our institutions, especially universities, that those who question it are excommunicated from intellectual life. On the one hand, “within the limits of the law, literally anything goes as far as truth claims and religious practices are concerned”; on the other, “the religious truth claims made by billions of people are excluded from consideration on their own terms in nearly all research universities,” where “those who reject any substantive religious answers to the Life Questions ... are statistically overrepresented.” What bothers him is not that there is no social consensus, but that the one we have supports moral pluralism. “There is no shared, substantive common good, nor are there any realistic prospects for devising one (at least in the immediately foreseeable future).” Nor can we expect help from Catholic universities, which in their rush to appear accepting of modernity have “unwittingly invited in an intellectual Trojan horse bearing a load of subversive assumptions.”

This picture of our present will be familiar to anyone who reads the American theocons, left-leaning Radical Orthodoxy figures such as John Milbank, and occasionally Charles Taylor. Whether you find it plausible will probably depend on the kind of day you’re having: it expresses a mood, not an analysis. But unless you do accept it, very little in Gregory’s book will make sense to you, since it is essentially a five-hundred-page connect-the-dots puzzle that begins with the way we supposedly live now and works back to the Big Bang of the Protestant Reformation. Its method is an inverted Whiggisma Whiggism for depressives.

GREGORY CHOOSES not to weave one grand narrative that tells this sorry tale. Instead he teases out six historical strands that get separate treatment: theology, philosophy, politics, morality, economics, and education. This strategy entails much redundancy, since the moral he draws in each chapter is the same. But it also reveals that he has two unconnected stories to tell about how everything went to hell.

The first story is about the historical Reformation, which is his academic specialty. Gregory does not provide even a brief history of the Catholic Middle Ages that preceded the Reformation, only a single, static, rose-tinted image of The World We Have Lost. (He also avoids the term “Catholic,” preferring instead “medieval Christianity,” which sounds more inclusive.) If not an entirely happy world, it was at least a relatively harmonious one, despite what everyone thinks. Yes, there were theological disagreements and conflicts over authority, pitting popes against monastic orders against church councils against emperors against princes. Yes, the church split into east and west, and for a time there were rival popes. And yes, mistakes were made. Heretics were roughly handled, pointless Crusades launched, Jews and Muslims expelled or worse. Still, through it all, the Catholic complexio oppositorum was held together by a unified institutionalized view of the human good. “Over the course of more than a millennium the church had gradually and unsystematically institutionalized throughout Latin Europe a comprehensive sacramental worldview based on truth claims about God’s actions in history, centered on the incarnation, life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.” And this translated into a “shared, social life of faith, hope, love, humility, patience, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, compassion, service, and generosity [that] simply was Christianity.” Hieronymus Bosch must have been high.

Then it happened. The Church itself was largely to blame for creating the conditions that the early Reformers complained of, and for not policing itself. The charges leveled by Luther and Calvin had merit, and theirs was originally a conservative rebellion aimed at returning the Church to its right mind. But then things got out of hand, as the intoxicating spirit of rebellion spread to the spiritual Jacobins of the radical Reformation. They are our real founding fathers, who bequeathed to us not a coherent set of moral and theological doctrines, but the corrosive pluralism that characterizes our age. The radicals denied the need for sacraments or relics, which ordinary believers believed in, handing them Bibles they were unequipped to understand. Sola scriptura, plus the idea that anyone could be filled with the Holy Spirit, inspired every radical reformer to become his own Saint Pauland then demand that his neighbors put down their nets and follow him. Disagreements erupted, leading to war, which led to the creation of confessional states, which led to more wars. Modern liberalism was born to cope with these conflicts, which it did. But the price was high: it required the institutionalization of toleration as the highest moral virtue. The nineteenth-century Catholic Church rejected this whole package and withdrew within its walls, where intellectual life declined and dogma ossified. It thus left the rest of us to sink ever deeper into the confusing, unsatisfying, hyper-pluralistic, consumer-driven, dogmatically relativistic world of today.

And that’s how we got from Wittenberg to Wal-Mart.

 

BUT IF YOU DON'T buy that story, Gregory has another. This one, which has little to do with the Reformation, focuses on transformations in medieval theology and early modern philosophy. This is not his specialty (nor mine), which is perhaps why the writing here is clotted and the thoughts seem second-hand; positions are stated rather than argued, and without regard to well-known objections and rebuttals. Essentially the issues come down to the old quarrel between affirmative theology and negative theologyvery roughly, over whether we can speak meaningfully of the attributes of God, or whether He is the He of whom nothing can be said. As Gregory rightly insists, how one thinks about this question affects how one thinks about nearly everything else. That is what makes the history of medieval Christian theology and philosophy so fascinating to study: every possible permutation of every possible argument about every possible subject is to be found there. The more one encounters it in all its variety, the more derivative subsequent philosophy seems.

Medieval Christian thought was hyper-pluralwhich is why Thomas Aquinas hoped that his Summa Theologiae would resolve its fundamental antinomies and make order out of chaos. Brad Gregory, though, is committed to the view that before the Reformation the harmony of the heavens was mirrored in Christian life and thought. And so he makes the bald assertion (argument would be too strong a word) that before the late-medieval writings of Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, something called “traditional Christian metaphysics” held sway, and leaned in a somewhat negative theological direction. According to “traditional Christian teaching,” he writes, “God is literally unimaginable and incomprehensible.” It is hard to know what he means by “traditional” here, given the centuries of disagreement about just what it means to say that God is, or acts providentially, or performs miracles, or was incarnated, or can be understood, or is present in the Holy Eucharist. Or how such a metaphysics manifested itself at the popular level, where ordinary clergy and common believers thought of God as the Big Bearded Being, took miracles to be the direct work of His hands, venerated the saints and their sacred relics, practiced magic, and swallowed the host whole, lest their teeth add wounds to the flesh of Christ.

Modern Thomists have long asserted that the departures from the Summa by Scotus and then Ockham unintentionally paved the way for modern philosophy and science. The (simplified) argument goes like this: Scotus compromised God’s transcendence by claiming that a single concept of being applies both to Him and to His creation, whereas Thomas had said that only an analogy could be established between them. Once God and creation were thought to inhabit the same mountain, so to speak, the question arose how far up the slope one needed to go to explain things farther down. The answer of modern science would be: not very far. God is a hypothesis that we can, for practical purposes, do without. For Thomists such as Étienne Gilson, the decoupling of modern science from theology, and subsequently from morality, was foreordained by these two subtle theological departures from the grand Summa.

Gregory, though, is not interested in defending Thomismor even theology, which he appears to distrust, believing perhaps that it is incapable of proving what he wants it to prove. So like many American theoconservatives, he makes a populist turn. He is annoyed not only that “religion is not and cannot be considered a potential source of knowledge,” just “a matter of subjective opinion and personal preference,” but also by the contemporary secular assumption that “knowledge must be based on evidence, it must make sense” and that it “must be universal and objective: if something is known or knowable, its content is not contingent on who discovers it.” He wants to defend other “ways” of knowing, which he calls “salvific participatory” and “experiential,” along with “a sacramental view of reality.”

At this point a narcotic haze descends on the book. Gregory wants us to believe that medieval Christendom before the theological fall seamlessly harmonized distinct “kinds” of knowledge, blending theology, natural science, and “individually differentiated participatory knowledge of the faith and its shared way of life, based ultimately and above all on God’s actions in Jesus.” And what was the nature and content of that knowledge, exactly? Gregory never explains. Perhaps by its very nature it cannot be communicated verbally. The most we are told about Christian life in the old days is that “the better that one lived itthe holier one wasthe clearer did [God’s] truth become, a sapientia beyond mere scientia. The lived holy wisdom of the saints, quite apart from whether they were erudite or brilliant, embodied most conspicuously this sort of knowledge.” I leave the reader to make sense of those words. The meaning of the following sentence, though, is perfectly clear: in medieval Christianity, “the pursuit of knowledge for some other end, or as an end in itself, was literally vain in the sense of purposeless.”

Faith seeking understanding, with a curfew at eleventhat’s Gregory’s historical, and apparently future, ideal. So what happened? Well, late scholasticism, which pursued its dialectical games late into the night, mindless of the lived faith of others, shares part of the blame. Then, of course, the Bible was “let loose among the ‘common man’” by the Reformation. After that, states and universities became divided by confession, knowledge became a tool of state power, scripture was subjected to the higher criticism, and disciplines became separated from each other. In Europe, Wilhelm von Humboldt’s modern research university distanced itself from religious questions and affiliations, and in the United States religious colleges governed by milquetoast liberal Protestants eventually succumbed to this German virus, giving birth to our centerless multiversity, which spawned today’s anti-rational, anything-goes postmodernism.

And that’s how we got from scholasticism to structuralism.

 

IT'S QUITE A STORY, or two stories, that Gregory tells. Now it’s my turn.

Once upon a time, when men were men and Jupiter was venerated, a sun-addled provincial prophet declared himself the Son of God and developed a following among anti-colonial zealots, resentful slaves, and bored housewives on the Roman Palatine. Their antinomian movement brought chaos to a flexible, complex pagan world and upset its settled moral understanding of life. There followed a contest for command among rival Judeo-Christian and Gnostic sectarians armed with different scriptures, in a war of words that soon involved Monarchians, Montanists, Arians, Nestorians, Pelagians, and countless other soon-to-be-declared heretics. As they argued about absurd matters such as whether spirit can be made flesh, partisans of the old gods shook their heads, pointed to the corruptions of their virtuous romanitas, and blamed everything on the warring upstarts.

After a few centuries, though, things settled down. Antinomianism gave way to a loose theological-political orthodoxy that blessed a new civilization with a coherent moral order, new stocks of learning, and extraordinary artistic achievements. It lasted a millennium. But, as luck would have it, a second biblically inspired movement, also appealing to underdogs, came along and undid the work of centuries. Another contest for command arose among radical sectarians divided over absurdities; all coherence was lost. And once again, after five centuries, things settled down, and today a new moral-political orthodoxy existsthough this time without theological trappings. For in hindsight we now see that though the sixteenth-century reformers who attacked the old orthodoxy chanted sola scriptura and sola fide, the real meaning of those utterances was simply me, me, me. In fact, the telos of this movement was established even farther back by Jesus himself, who was a libertarian Idea on donkey-back. It was he who prophesied the final triumph of individualism over cruelty, domination, and all duties except to oneself. It took centuries of war and the deaths of millions to get that message right. But now we have.

So all hail the new and final orthodoxy! And watch it spread beyond Europe and North America to jungle villages and the tents of Araby! It brings a true and perfectly coherent worldview that makes sense of the human condition (we are bodies that are born and die alone), of what lies beyond (nothing), and of what we need to be happy (get lots of stuff and stay entertained). We are all connected now. Borders are collapsing, sovereignty is fading, and there is plenty of parking (though nowhere really to go). We are about to realize humanity’s most noble visionnoble because anyone can participate and it makes nobody feel bad. True, the new catechism has not reached everyone; there are still holdouts in collars and turbans and forelocks attached to the old regime. But if they don’t convert, their children or grandchildren eventually will, with a click of whatever will have replaced the mouse. Soon peace will guide the planets and Whatever will steer the stars.

That’s quite a story, tooand an old one, pieced together with fragments from Eusebius, Otto of Freising, Bacon, Condorcet, Hegel, Feuerbach, Kojève, and computer hackers working in basements around the world. And of course it is nothing but a mythnot a lie, just an imaginative assemblage of past events and ideas and present hopes and fears, just as Gregory’s myth is. So where does that leave us? Well, it leaves us with the task of examining these orthodoxies in their own terms and judging for ourselves their presuppositions, aspirations, and effectswhich is what theology and philosophy have traditionally done. But this is precisely what today’s religious romantics, like Gregory, shy away from, preferring instead to construct mytho-histories that insinuate rather than argue, and appeal to readers’ prejudices rather than their rational faculties. They become what Friedrich von Schlegel once said all historians are at heart: prophets in reverse.

Why does anyone think it worthwhile to consult such prophets? For the same reason people have always done so. We want the comfort, however cold, of thinking that we understand the present, while at the same time escaping full responsibility for the future. There is a book to be done on Western mytho-histories in relation to the times in which they were written, and the social-psychological work they accomplished in different epochs. Such a book would eventually trace how, beginning in the early nineteenth century, archaic theological narratives about the past were modernized and substituted for argument in intellectual proxy wars over the present. In the chapter on our time, it would note how techno-libertarian progressives and liberal hawks rediscovered Goodbye to All That bedtime stories that induced dreams of a radiant global democracy, while conservatives read ghost stories, then sang themselves to sleep with ancient songs about The World We Have Lost.

One wonders why Brad Gregory felt compelled to add to our stock of historical fables. He is obviously dissatisfied with the way we live now and despairs that things will only get worse. I share his dissatisfaction and, in my worst moments, his despair. But it enlightens me not at all to think that “medieval Christendom failed, the Reformation failed, confessionalized Europe failed, and Western modernity is failing,” as if each of these were self-conscious “projects” the annual reports of which are available for consultation. Life does not work that way; history does not work that way. Nor does it help me to imagine that the peak of Western civilization was reached in the decades just before the Reformation, or to imagine that we might rejoin The Road Not Taken by taking the next exit off the autobahn, which is the vague hope this book wants to plant in readers’ minds.

Perhaps it’s just that I align myself more closely with Augustine than Gregory does. Though a lapsed Catholic, I share his assumption that the detritus we leave behind in history is a symbol of our fallenness, revealing little more than that. And I see the wisdom of his view that if members of the Church wish to serve it, they must let the past bury itself and concentrate on spreading the Gospel by word and especially deed in the here and now. The Road Not Taken is an empty fantasy, distracting Christians from the only road that ever matters: the one in front of them. Remembering that makes all the difference.

Mark Lilla is Professor of the Humanities at Columbia and the author, most recently, of The Stillborn God. This article appeared in the October 4, 2012 issue of the magazine.

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