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 theology—very 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-plural—which 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 Thomism—or 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 it—the holier one was—the 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 eleven—that’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.