book cover imageThe Theological Origins of Modernity
by Michael Allen Gillespie.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009
386 pages, $22.50.

Seeking to clarify what we mean by “modernity,” Michael Gillespie provides an intellectual history of the subject by reaching back to the late Middle Ages. Contrary to the accounts that present modernity as a radical break with the past based on reason, Gillespie points out the continuities between the medieval and modern worlds. However, unlike such predecessors as Etienne Gilson and Karl Löwith, who argued that modernity is merely secularized Christianity, Gillespie acknowledges Hans Blumenberg’s insight that modernity is something new and is characterized by a self-assertion rooted in human will and directed at questions left after the collapse of the medieval world. But what Blumbenberg had failed to grasp is the recognition that the shape of modern thought is determined by its antecedent metaphysical and theological traditions. Examining the origins of modernity within this tradition, to draw back the curtain that modernity has put in place to hide its religious roots, Gillespie portrays modernity as historically grounded, philosophically ambitious, and theoretically consistent.

For Gillespie, the epochal question that gave birth to modernity arose out of a metaphysical and theological crisis within late medieval Christianity and became manifested in the nominalist revolution. Prior to nominalism, Christianity was defined by scholastic philosophy, which posited the real existence of universals: reality was ultimately not composed of particulars but of universal categories of divine reason. The experience of the world as universal categories became articulated in syllogistic logic that corresponded to divine reason, and man was believed to be created as a rational animal in the image of God and guided by a natural goal and divinely revealed supernatural one.

Contrary to the scholastics, the nominalists believed reality was composed not of universal categories but of particulars. Language did not point to universal categories but was merely signs useful for human understanding; creation was particular and therefore not teleological; and God could not be understood by human reason but only through Biblical revelation or mystical experience. Nominalism challenged and eventually destroyed the great synthesis that started with the Church Fathers that combined the reason of Greek philosophy with the Christian revelation. This new vision of God that arose in the fourteenth century emphasized divine power and its unpredictability rather than divine love and predictable reason, a change that reflected the historical realities of the time with the Great Schism, the Hundred Years War, and the Black Death. With its success, nominalism eventually paved the path for what we know as modernity today.

Because it provided a new conception of God, man, and nature, nominalism wasrevolutionary. While it was able to undermine scholasticism, nominalism was ultimately incapable of providing a broadly acceptable alternative to the comprehensive world view it had destroyed. The failed attempts to find such an acceptable world view has thus characterized our history since the fourteenth century: humanism, the Reformation, and modernity itself. Gillespie spends the rest of his book describing these attempts: Petrarch and humanism, Luther and the Reformation, and finally modernity with Descartes and Hobbes. For Gillespie, all of these thinkers subscribed to the nominalist premise about the nature of reality being individualized rather than universal. On this basic ontological point, the nominalists were triumphant and subsequent disagreement was fundamentally structured by it.

Seeking a middle way between Franciscan austerity and worldly excess, Petrarch offered the portrait of the virtuous, solitary individual who attained dignity through self-mastery. For Petrarch, the divine could be realized in the individual rather than the political or religious life. Petrarch’s influence stimulated humanism that combined Christian piety with Roman virtue as presented by Cicero. By bringing the spiritual and temporal aspects of human existence into alignment, Petrarch believed that individuals could be Christian as well as virtuous in the classical sense. However, the tension between obedience to a divine will and self-development according to one’s own self-understanding became unavoidable. Ultimately this synthesis to preserve God’s authority while simultaneously elevating human will would collapse under the charges of Pelagianism, that is, the belief that human choice only was capable of choosing good or evil without divine aid.

Luther and others of the Reformation understood the same tension that Petrarch had experienced—man made in God’s image but also is depraved—but arrived at a different conclusion. For Luther, salvation was unmerited and hence uncertain. All works were inadequate and faith alone was possible through grace and in a community reading scriptures. In his correspondence with Erasmus and other writings, Luther rejected a world of human freedom in favor of one of divine sovereignty.

These two pre-modern intellectual movements, humanism and the Reformation, revealed the failed attempts to answer the fundamental questions about God, man, and nature that arose out of the nominalist revolution. These post-scholastic thinkers agreed about the nature of reality being ontologically individualistic, but disagreed among themselves about its hierarchy: divine, human, or natural. Humanists put man first and interpreted both God and nature from this perspective, while the Reformation started with God and viewed man and nature from this basis. This disagreement about the priority of reality played an important role in the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. From the rubble of these cataclysmic wars emerged a new path that became associated with modernity: the priority of nature over both God and man. Modern thinkers still accepted the nominalist premise of reality being ontologically individualistic but presented nature as the mechanical motion of matter and as the beginning point to understand God, man, and the world. The hope was that nature would provide the path out of the contradiction between human will and divine necessity that had plagued both the humanists and the Reformation.

Descartes and Hobbes sought to reconstruct the world not as human or divine but as a natural object. However, they disagreed about the nature and place of God and man in this new world. For Descartes, man was part natural and part divine. Consequently he was distinguished from nature and freed from its laws. For Hobbes, man was thoroughly natural and free only in a limited sense. While they disagreed about the nature and relation of man and God, both Descartes and Hobbes followed the same path that became associated with modernity: they opposed religious fanaticism, prioritized epistemology, and hoped for a new science based on mathematics so man could comprehend, and control, the world. They also were incapable of surmounting the sameproblem that had confronted the humanists and Reformation. While this starting point of nature seemed at first to eliminate the conflict between divine necessity and human freedom, it actually re-inscribed it within modern metaphysics as the conflict between natural necessity and human freedom. In this way, the conflict between human and divine was concealed under the guise of nature but it was not resolved. Descartes and Hobbes were no more successful than Petrarch, Erasmus, or Luther.

This disagreement about the hierarchy of being—divine, human, or nature—continued to haunt subsequent thinkers until they resolved that this problem could not be solved on modern metaphysical grounds. The crisis of modernity therefore is the recognition and continual attempt to bridge the gap between a radical voluntarism and a radical determinism. The persistence of this division and the incapacity of modern thinkers thus far to resolve this problem has led some to abandon modernity in favor of pre-modern or post-modern alternatives.

But confronting this question is simply another way of asking the questions of the relationship between reason and revelation, the nature of being, and our place in it. In other words, to understand the crisis of modernity, we need to go back to its origins and discover that it is fundamentally a theological crisis. Once we understand that our current predicament is theological in origin, we may be able to conceptualize and clarify the nature of the crisis of modernity and how a proper understanding of theology may remedy it. By presenting a historically grounded and theoretically unifying account of modernity, Gillespie provides us a way to not only to understand our current condition but how we can possibly escape from it.  

Lee Trepanier is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Saginaw Valley State University.