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Adventures in Avarice, 1

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I’ve been holding off starting this post until I could finish the book I’ve been reading, but right now I’ve got about six pages to go, and I can probably make some preliminary observations.

And some observations are in order, really, because this is, in some ways, a very strange book.

It’s called The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, and it’s by Brad S. Gregory.  Gregory is, according to his bio on the back flap, “the Dorothy C. Griffin Associate Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame…”

I copied that exactly because I was a little unsure of getting that right.  In my experience, endowed chairs–which is what this seems to be–go to full professors, not associate ones.   But that may just be me being out of date.

I want to give an overview of my conscerns with this book today, and then go on later to pick out individual questions.

In one way, the premise here is not particularly original.  That the rise of the individual as the primary unit in a society, and the rise of the recognition of natural individual rights in this like speech and religion, are the direct result of the individuation of religious belief that came directly out of the Protestant Reformation is an idea that has been around for a while.

Neither Luther nor Calvin intended it to be so, but as it turned out, one of their primary convictions about the nature of belief turned out to be wrong.  The meaning of Scripture is not “plain.”  People do disagree about what it says, and about what it means, and about how it demands that Christians should live.

Once there is no longer a central authority making the judgment calls, it’s every man and woman for themselves. 

None of the the substitutes for central authority that the Protestants proposed over time–the plain meaning of Scripture, Scripture read with the infused wisdom of the Holy Spirit, even reason–provided anything at all like a definitive standard that was compelling enough to get anybody to agree on anything.

That, however, is less important, at the beginning, than the brute fact of it–if every man and woman is to use his own judgment and interpret Scripture for himself, the a doctrine of natural rights in inevitable, because it is a primary moral imperative that each of us not only judge, but refuse to be budged from our judgment. 

Standing firm by our principles even unto death becomes a kind of commandment, and the measure of an individual’s character. 

At that point, we either get governments that observe natural rights, or we get a lot of bloodshed–and for about two hundred years, we got a lot of bloodshed.

It’s after this point where the book gets very strange, and in very strange ways, too.

Dr. Gregory does not like this development, or he doesn’t seem to.

He doesn’t like what he calls “hyperpluralism,” a world in which individuals all have their own, subjective answers to the most important questions about life:  what is the good, how should we live, what should we believe.

He holds this “hyperpluralism”–and therefore the Protestant Reformation–responsible for a whole host of evils, the most important of which is what he calls “the goods life.”

The s up there is deliberate.

“The good life” is one in which most people pursue more and more Stuff, because Stuff has become, by default, the meaning of life.

And because this is the case, combined with the conviction of each and every one of us that we have the right to our own “truth,” we are unable to solve the problems of society, and especially the problem of climate change.

People will not stop pursuing Stuff, because Stuff is the meaning of their lives.  And they will not listen to experts who tell them that living the way they do is destroying the planet, because experts have no right to tell them what to think, and if they don’t want to listen they have an absolute right not to.

Now, I’m a big fan of the proposition that none of us should be forced to listen to “experts” tell us how to live, and this book has not changed my mind.  From what I can see, central authorities of belief do more harm than good even when what they propose for our belief and behavior is in fact benign.

The problem is that what central belief authorities propose is often not benign, whether that central authority is the Pope, or the Confessional State (think Luther Germany, or England under Elizabeth I), or the APA.

But what’s important to note here for the moment is that Dr. Gregory is a psychologically and philosophical ascetic.  He is literally repulsed by acquisitiveness–by people who shop till they drop, who want more and better things, who seem to subscribe to the message on the bumper sticker:  he who dies with the most toys wins.

I have no idea if Dr. Gregory lives his life in compliance with this repulsion–if he lives in a smaller house than he can afford and gives his money to the poor, if he avoids shopping, whatever.

I do know that he feels that to live a Christian life it is necessary to eschew the shopping and acquisitiveness and to live your life by giving to the poor whatever you have over what you need. 

He spends a great deal of time giving an account of the Middle Ages which presents them as a time when religion was conceived as a “lived experience” in a community of faith meant to foster virtues, rather than a matter of following rules and being able to regurgitate doctrines.

Such faith communities, he says, are no longer available to anyone, because “the goods life” has become the foundation of all advanced societies, and is well on its way to becoming the foundation of all the nonadvanced ones as well.

We live in a world where avarice is no longer a deadly sin, but an actively courted virtue.

And this, in fact, demonstrably one of the ways in which Christianity has been taught and practiced since it’s beginning–if you would be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and come, follow me.

It is also something that has been reproduced in secular and even atheist literature.  Peter Singer has written extensively on the idea that the only moral way for a citizen of an advanced society to live is to strip himself down so that he acquires only the bare necessities, and then send what’s left over of what he has to the Third World.

It’s the kind of thing that reminds me that Ayn Rand was a remarkably insightful woman on those subjects she was insightful about.  It’s too bad that so many people never get past the other stuff.

For right now, though, what’s important is to remember that although Gregory argues that the belief claims of Christianity are not only true but could not be proved false by reason, he is not a conservative. 

Not even a little.

And tomorrow I can go on a little about what he wants from our world, now, and what I think is wrong with it.

Written by janeh

April 30th, 2012 at 9:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Adventures in Avarice, 1'

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  1. There are certainly modern Christians who do their best to live in communities (or, more likely, subsets of communities) that foster virtues and who think they should sell all they have and give to the poor – even though most of them would probably be as baffled as St. Francis’ relatives if one of their young nephews actually did exactly what St. Francis did.

    And it doesn’t surprise me that liberals as well as conservatives are Christians – there are lots more variety than that! And lots of non-Christians pick up tattered scraps of Christian ideas and use them – although how Peter Singer, that apostle of the right to do what you want or need when it comes to unwanted babies, argues that, when it comes to money and possessions, you SHOULDN’T do what you want and need, but instead give it away, I don’t know. I don’t much care, either. I’m not inclined to feeling guilty because I have more than someone else, or that someone much richer than I shouldn’t enjoy honestly-won goods. It’s another scrap of detached Christianity floating around in the culture, isn’t it, perhaps modified by communist beliefs. Everyone should be absolutely equal, from each according to their ability, to each according to their need. In my experience, most Christians, while giving more or less to charity according to their abilities and generosity, lack the radicalism of St. Francis, and don’t seek to put themselves into poverty – the idea is to give out of love for the poor, not to punish one’s own success by impoverishing oneself. Outward looking, towards the poor, not inward looking, towards Singer’s or possibly Greogory’s guilt for their success.


    30 Apr 12 at 10:36 am

  2. I checked out the UND faculty listings, and it gives his title exactly as you have. I also note that all his scholarship is concerned with the Reformation. That’s legitimate enough by itself, but I think if he’d go down the hall a bit and talk with a good medievalist, he might learn a few things about ‘a time when religion was conceived as a “lived experience” in a community of faith meant to foster virtues, rather than a matter of following rules and being able to regurgitate doctrines.’

    When an academic tells you some period wasn’t interested in “getting and spending” or that repeating the local shibboleths wasn’t more important that sincere belief, it usually means either he hasn’t studied the period, or the records are in poor shape. For much of western Europe in the Middle Ages are quite good.

    As for the reign of the experts, a trip down the hall to specialists in more recent history could introduce him to a wide variety–the eugenics people of course, the out and out racists–not quite the same, but VERY respectable in the 19th Century and even into the 20th–mercantilists, several varieties of politician and economist convinced of the efficiency of the massively centralized state and my own personal favorites–the ones convinced that any labor-saving device fosters unemployment. (Anyone agreeing with that one is cordially invited to dig a highway tunnel with pick and shovel–and harvest grain with a sickle. Also to study unemployment in Elizabeth I’s England.)

    People who want the reign of “experts” all imagine they’ll get to pick which ones. (In fact, the army and police get to pick.)

    I also note the good professor has no formal training listed in any science, let alone specifically climate science, so I’m a little unclear about his status on that subject–or on the “problems of society” more generally.

    That said, I don’t myself see avarice as a virtue. I don’t know anyone who does. If he means that, absent restraint, many of us will do what we ought not to do, he ought to go to the next building over and discuss the matter with the theology department. His problem isn’t with the Reformation, but with sin and free will.

    Sounds like a good book on the Reformation and the rise of “natural rights.” A pity the author didn’t stop when he came to the end of what he knew.


    30 Apr 12 at 4:16 pm

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