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.