The Theological Origins of Modernity

Gillespie (2008)

Gillespie (2008)

Immediately upon seeing the title of this recent work by Michael Allen Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity, you may think, ‘Here’s another conservative attempting to show that the modern era did not radically break with religion like we moderns commonly assume – another regressive intellectual wishing to denounce secularism as not-so-secular’. ‘Perfect’, I say. On first appearances, arguments like Gillespie’s are prone to two weaknesses.

Firstly, if someone argues that modernity has theological origins they cannot also argue that the corruption of the West, the permissive nature of modern society and so on and so forth are the product of modern secularism (a complaint common among regressives). Why? Because secularism does not exist by this thesis. Secularism is just theology in public-sphere clothing. This is the minor weakness.

The major weakness of such theses is that they are prone to committing the genetic fallacy. Just because modernity’s origins are theological does not mean that modernity is theological. As an everyday example of this fallacy, think of wedding rings. So the common example goes, just because once upon a time wedding rings indicated a man’s ownership of his wife does not mean that is what wedding rings represent today. Today they may very well represent the mutual love and respect between a man and woman, a sign of their fidelity to one another. Accordingly when someone approaches a modern married woman and says, ‘Why do you wear a wedding ring? Don’t you know that wedding rings were invented to show that women are their husband’s property’ the married woman can rightly reply, ‘Don’t you know that the meaning associated with the origin of wedding rings has no bearing on their meaning today. If you think that the patriarchal origins of wedding rings implies that my husband owns me, then you are committing the genetic fallacy’.

But, back to Gillespie. What do you find when you actually read the book and don’t just work off the title?

Well, you find a thoroughly researched work. Great swathes of the book are handed over to recounting, first, a thinkers biographical details and, secondly, their contribution to the history of ideas. For example, of the chapter on Thomas Hobbes one third is roughly about how his mother soiled her pants as the Spanish were anchored off the coast, thus giving birth prematurely to Thomas junior. ‘Fear and I were born twins’, Hobbes reputedly declared. But you know that well enough from his writings, so the biographical details are superfluous. Then the next third of the chapter details his ideas: men are particles in motion and fear is a manifestation of their aversion to collision; they enter a social contract; absolute monarchy rules, OK! Finally the last third of the chapter goes into the original research. In Hobbes’ case Gillespie argues that he was not an atheist but believed in a non-interventionist but omnipotent God. Hobbes’ God determines in advance all of mankind’s actions; predestination reigns. Consequently, men have no free will (p. 252). This provides the basis for Hobbes’ materialism and determinism and, subsequently, his political theory. Gillespie’s point seems to be that Hobbes was not the atheist monster from Malmesbury but the theist monster from Malmesbury.

Gillespie repeats this process for Descartes and others, gradually making his way from the middle ages to modern society. Then, Hey Presto! modernity has theological origins. As Gillespie states,

…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). (pp. 272-73)

He continues, referencing a debate between Karl Löwith and Hans Blumenberg:

What actually occurs in the course of modernity is thus not simply the erasure or disappearance of God but the transference of his attributes, essential powers, and capacities to other entities or realms of being … both man and nature are [subsequently] infused with a number of attributes or powers previously ascribed to God. To put the matter more starkly, in the face of the long drawn out death of God, science can provide a coherent account of the whole only by making man or nature or both in some sense divine. (p. 274)

Gillespie concludes that while this (ontic) transference of God’s qualities on to man and nature silenced theological disputes over the course of modernity it also served to remove theological debate from the public sphere (p. 273). Consequently, challenging one’s theological beliefs has become a private matter. So when people do come into the public sphere to assert such beliefs (e.g. September 11) they find a public sphere without the capacity to challenge their beliefs intellectually. By implication, in the modern public sphere only force remains for dealing with such recalcitrant public displays of theology.

But here’s the political philosophical dilemma. If Hobbes’ political theory has theological origins and he recommended that we all submit to an absolute monarch to avoid civil war, then how can modern state theory, based as it is on divided sovereignty – the opposite of absolute monarchy – have the same theological origins? If Gillespie contends that Hobbes’ united power and modern liberal democracy’s separation of powers have the same origin then isn’t he trying to have his cake and eat it too? It’s as if he’s saying, ‘Yeah, Hobbes has theological origins and, yeah, liberal democracy has theological origins’ and wants us to think that this could actually mean something. When an argument proves everything, or in this case the theological origins of the two extremes of state theory – absolute power and divided power – then it proves nothing.

For anyone interested in the subject area, Gillespie’s Theological Origins of Modernity is well worth a read. It is well researched and sheds new light on aspects of the history of ideas. Nevertheless, do not read this work and go off attacking your modern friends with claims that they are really believers, and ignorant ones at that. Any modern worth her salt will be well versed in the use of reason and will immediately pull you up on that fallacious argument.

And as a last word of warning, note that in the Preface Gillespie thanks Joseph Cropsey, a brilliant disciple of the brilliant Leo Strauss, but a disciple of Strauss nonetheless. This obviously does not entail that Gillespie is in the exotericist clique, but he seems to have paid his dues.


Michael Allen Gillespie (2008), The Theological Origins of Modernity, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

3 thoughts on “The Theological Origins of Modernity

  1. First, a compliment: this is well argued and delightfully written as always.

    I found this post interesting as I’ve read about half of the Gillespie book and was wondering what he was, in the end, going to end up arguing. (Like a lot of similar books, there was a mass of — fascinating — historical detail, but I -was- wondering continually about what kind of argument this was going to be used to advance.)

    So. Does he actually end up saying things to ‘moderns’ like ‘you are beleivers and ignorant ones at that.’? That -is- odd. It’s not only because, it is (as you rightly argue) obviously fallacious, but also because it would make me wonder who he would be trying to score points off with such a (not very convincing) argument?

    I mean, If someone said to an atheist “in being an atheist, you’re actually — by a long historical chain — a particular kind of theist.”, why would said atheist be compelled to say: “Oh. You got me. Better start openly professing the underlying theism now that I know it’s there.

    But I admit that this makes me wonder whether Gillespie is in fact, making the argument that you’re imputing to him. Note that (as I never finished the book) I have nothing else to go on apart from my vague sense that this argument is too silly to be made by anyone, which is not necessarily the best way to establish whether or not someone is making an argument (given the number of idiotic arguments that tend to exist at any given point time.)

    However, isn’t it possible to argue that two things might have the same origin, without trying to -either- discredit them or to argue (which would also be vacuous) that the distinction between them become nugatory by virtue of their common root?

    Note: I’m not trying to deend Gillespie here (I didn’t finish the book, and thus don’t really know what he ended up saying) but I -am- just thinking that the book did remind me of well, a lot of work in the history of ideas that would be difficult to tie to an inexplicably anti-modern agenda advanced via the genetic fallacy.

    I mean, Skinner and Pocock seem to me interested in tracing the common roots of ideas that seem heterogeneous to us today, but also manifestly devoid of any (silly) intention of “disproving them” thereby.

    Similarly, when Isaiah Berlin, ties thinkers as different as Rousseau, Vico, Hamaan, and Marx to the ‘reaction to the Enlightenment’ he doesn’t seem to me to have any intention of aruging that the distinctions between such thinkers are insiginficant, especially at the political level. It’s only that we (obviously) learn more about these guys if we see them in the light of their shared history.

    I suppose also (thinking of someone like Alasdair macintyre) another reason for writing that sort of ‘genetic account’ would be to say, we can’t resolve the debate between x and y, because we never resolved the issue of “A” of which x and y are derivative. This is what I actually got the impression Gillespie was up to, which, may be misguided (or even wrong in its claims) but does strike me as less obviously silly than just going ‘you’re something that you think you’re not — nyah, nyah’, which, as you say, doesn’t really seem to cut much mustard, assuming, as the idiom does that mustard is something that needs to be cut.

    [Just realised that my inability to understnd the mustard cutting metaphor is to do with my inveterate belief that mustard comes in jars.]

    Best wishes and hope this finds you well,

    -Mal

    • Thanks Mal,

      As Charles II said of Thomas Hobbes: I thoroughly enjoy his repartees. Likewise, I yours. I too am perplexed. How would one cut mustard?

      Your suspicion is correct: Gillespie does not explicitly condemn moderns as ignorant believers. However, there is no lack of an audience for such an argument were he to make it. I have in mind the sophist who would put this book in his bag of tricks to drag out in debates with modern secularists. And, indeed, the only point of making such an argument would seem to be for the rhetorical victory. I also do not imagine any conversions would come of it.

      Given that Gillespie stops short of the claim that common origins implies anything, the primary value of the book seems to be that it points out the theological origins of modernity and, therefore, the common origin of various ideas. And the final chapters do briefly touch on your point about resolving issue ‘A’ of which x and y are derivative — substituting ‘theological issues’ for A and ‘radical Islam’ and ‘Western secularism’ for x and y, respectively. There is a great deal of merit in such endeavours.

      But there is one issue with this endeavour that I shall raise in a series of short points, but which I will preface by saying that a brief glimpse at his CV is evidence enough that he is an intellectual juggernaut. Nonetheless, the issue.

      (1) There will be those who read the book and think that they can draw the further (genetic-fallacious) conclusion which I warn against, i.e. that secular modernists are deluded and think they’re secular modernists when really they’re theists. The further conclusion, as you noted, would be erroneous.

      (2) Now, the author is not responsible for his audience (although I’m not sure what Socrates’ response to that would be), but the book’s title cannot be a mistake; indeed, it is the same title of a 1999 article by Gillespie that led to the book. So it would seem the title was not a publisher’s provocation, aimed at the sophist market. We can be fairly certain the provocation was Gillespie’s idea. Provocation itself is no sin, argumentative or otherwise.

      (3) However, and this is a big however, so: HOWEVER, coupled with his choice of title, Gillespie’s actual conclusion seems to be that modern man is too big for his boots. I get the feeling that Gillespie is trying to do more than just point out modernity’s theological origins in arguing that the (ontic) characteristics of God have been transferred to man (i.e. pursuing omnipotence and omniscience through technology and science) or nature (i.e. deep green ecologists [omnibenevolence] and doomsday predictors [Protestant omnipotence], depending on your theological bent). I’m inclined to believe he thinks this ontic transference is modernity’s grave mistake?

      (3.1) So, whereto from here? Do we give back Humpty Dumpty’s characteristics? Or do we just learn from our mistakes and move on, humbled by the ontic folly of the modern period? I’m not sure which Gillepsie would choose. For him to choose either would require that he believe our modern forgetfulness was the antecedent condition of the twentieth century — that our modern hubris caused at least one of the twentieth century’s terrible events. But one could not attribute this causality claim to his argument if all he is doing is drawing our attention to the ontic shift.

      (3.2) So I guess my reply turns on the question: Does Gillespie attribute any historical (causal) force to the ontic shift? But if the answer is ‘No’ then it is difficult to see what could come of drawing the theological origins of modernity to our attention. For if the answer is ‘No’ — if the ontic shift exerts no force on the present — then it is hard to see how Gillespie’s insight could in any way help to resolve the discord between x and y.

      (4) I’m inclined to reject both options at (3.1). Maybe Gillespie would as well. Yes, we should learn from the mistakes of the twentieth century, but I can’t see that shifting the characteristics of God onto man was the cause of those mistakes. As such, I can’t see that the shift itself was a mistake. Having said that, I hope it’s not because I have my eyes closed that I cannot see.

      All the best and hope you are well,

      Dylan.

  2. Dylan,

    A courteous, cogent and frighteningly prompt reply! I apologise if my own response is, in contrast, both tardy and incoherent; I hope, at the very least, that it isn’t rude.

    I think your points about Gillespie are spot on: it -does- seem preposterous to blame the disasters of the last century on what you call ‘the ontic shift’. Further, even if there were something to this it a) verges on a kind of pleonasm (the disasters of the last century were brought about by the things that led to the last century) and b) does, in any case, seem an odd thing to point out, unless you have the (dubious) conviction that the King’s Horses and King’s Men still retain an antediluvian enthusiasm for egg repair operations such that they could be mobilised to undo what was wrought by William of Ockham et al….a dubious proposition at best.

    Having said that, I have, of late (though wherefore I know not) been reading a book by a very intelligent, erudite (occasionally pompous), but pleasingly left-leaning -theologian- (John Milbank) who has intrigued me by his own approach to an argument that could be seen as similar to Gillespie’s (although without the suspicious ambiguities).

    The first chapter of Milbank’s book (before some interesting work on Hegel/Marx, 20th century theology, and then, for some reason, Heidegger and Deleuze) argues that many sociological explanations of past religions (he engages with Durkheim, Weber, Parsons, Luhmann, Berger and others) suffer from having elevated a particular (familiar) vision of society on to the past (something that is of course a -concern- of sociology that has affected its method). From, here, Milbank argues, said particular vision of society is given the status of a universal model of ‘society’ in general such that the traits of different socieites can all be seen as social ‘functions’. the problem, Milbank, thinks with this is that the existence of said ‘funcitons’ depends (the argument owes something to Marx) on the elevation of a particular social form into the paradigm of society in general.

    Milbank then suggests that the society that is presupposed (often a liberal, capitalist, early 20th century society) -exists- on the basis of theological presuppositions of a certain kind (liberal Protestant ones).

    Unlike (?) Gillespie Milbank seems to think that the theological presuppositions are not simply in the past (such that they -culminated- in the present), but that they still underwrite the present society.

    The odd (and interesting thing) about Milbank’s account is that because he seems to take it -as read- that there are theological presuppositions behind the ‘secular’ (granted that this is not an idea we are obliged to accept!) he does not simply rest content with what Blumenberg criticised as the fault of ‘secularisation hypotheses’, i.e. he does not simply smile triumphantly at the suggestion that theology could have a posthumous affect in a world that disavows it (as if this were a rhetorical coup de grace) he instead assumes that this is so OBVIOUS that it cannot constitute an interesting claim in its own right. Instead, M. seems to suggest the interesting question is -which theology- best provides a vision of the alternatives to the present….

    Now, I’m not sure, about any of this (one could argue that M’s whole perspective is skewed by dogma or whatever…) but reading this book did make me think about Gillespie, in the sense, that I think Milbank’s position is more consistent. This is not to say that you have to accept his argument: in fact you could take M. as a reductio ad absurdum of Gillespie: either theology is and has always has been crucial (as M. believes) or it is something which cannot possibly claim relevance to the present, simply by virtue of having preceded it.

    Not sure whether this is helpful (especially as I’m sure you’re not interested in arguing about Milbank), but I did think, it might be helpful in identifying the point at which G. would have to either leap, or admit that he was tilting at windmills.

    Best wishes and hope we get to meet someday.

    -B.C.

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