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Don’t Just Blame William of Ockham

Mark Lilla has a wonderful little review [1] at The New Republic on Brad S. Gregory’s Book, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.

After discussing the relationship of Christian (mostly Catholic) thought in relation to history, Lilla identifies a persistent trend in the way certain conservatives–especially Latin chanting trad Catholics like me–look at history.

Those who recount this kind of story tell us that at some point in medieval or early modern history the West took a momentous wrong turn, putting itself on the path to our modernity with all its attendant problems. But no single person or event was responsible for this. The blame must be shared by philosophers, theologians, and the Church hierarchy itself. This was a tragic development: had everyone only been more patient, the Church would have continued evolving, and in a good direction. The Middle Ages would eventually have waned and a new society would have developed. But the swings of modern history would have been less extreme and the worst avoided. Change would have been more gradual, radical attacks on the Church would have been unnecessary, and the Church in turn would not have fallen into the reactionary crouch it maintained from the French Revolution until Vatican II. With moral debate confined within the flexible bounds of Catholic orthodoxy, important human values would have been preserved from secular dogmatism and skepticism. We would have been spared the brutality of the industrial era, the monsters of modern science, and the empty individualism and viciousness of our time. All in all, we would be living a happier, more fruitful and humane existence.

How does one adopt this view? It is simple really. First wake up from a shallow Whig view of history.

Then read G.K. Chesterton:

[T]he great ideals of the past failed not by being outlived (which must mean over-lived), but by not being lived enough. Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout. The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.

Or read Richard Weaver on William of Ockham. Find some of Hilaire Belloc’s wilder statements that The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith. Go page through Warren H. Carroll’s “A History of Christendom. [2]” You can find these notions informing the fiction [3] of Robert Hugh Benson who thought that the re-adoption of a few Christian principles would bring back the colored uniforms and heraldry of medieval guilds. Or pick any number of pamphlets by the enthusiastic prelates of the Society of St. Pius X. The great signposts are all there, Ockham, 1517, Westphalia, 1789 and all the rest. Suddenly you have what Lilla very aptly describes as a “an inverted Whiggism—a Whiggism for depressives.”

I’ve had this view articulated to me even by a Jewish scholar at Bard College, who told me  that the Reformation ruined everything after I had given him hints that I was initiated enough to hear this.

There are a couple of fallacies hiding behind this line of thinking. Chiefly, this reverse Whiggism seems to take it for granted that the point of Christianity is Christendom, as if Jesus was born in Bethlehem to build Chartres and compose the Summa Theologica. And therefore everything from 1295 to now is a story of punctuated decline.

I like Chartres and the Summa fine but Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.

And, I think even at one point Lilla almost falls for the other error crouching behind this way of thinking when he writes “despite centuries of internal conflicts over papal authority and external conflicts with the Eastern Church and the Turks, the Roman Catholic Church did indeed seem triumphant.”

Really? Certainly there were eras and areas where the Church had the kind of comfort to develop [4] its own kind of medieval hipster ironies.

But we’re really fooling ourselves if we think the Catholic (or catholic) orthodoxy had a kind of super-hold on Europe, and we just stupidly abandoned it. People now treat the monastic movement like it was some kind of naturally occurring balancing act that just kicked in once Christianity got imperial approval. No, it was the response of certain Christians to what they felt was an age in crisis. Theological competition was not a novelty of the Reformation. After all, the Church councils did not slay Arianism by force of argument. They merely announced a hoped-for death sentence for a heresy that took centuries to vanquish.

Paganism was a persistent contender with Christian civilization. Even at the highest of the High Middle Ages, Islam was clattering through bolted door of Europe. The Franciscans and Dominicans weren’t just some new flower blooming in an orderly garden, they were another desperate response to corruption and laxity in the Church, widely known and widely mocked. And gee, we haven’t even mentioned the Great Western Schism which absolutely rocked this supposedly solid Christendom.

Christian civilization is not an abandoned fortress. Chesterton was much more right when he envisioned the Church (and its faith) as a whirling adventure. We can’t somehow get back to before secularism and totalizing ideologies anymore than Athanasius could bring things to the way they were before Arius.

And when you look at it that way, it is a relief to find that God’s providence didn’t end in the 1960s or in 1789 anymore than it ended with Diocletian persecution or on Good Friday. Christian civilization is you and your uglified modern Church full of backsliders, it is you flirting on Christiandate.com, it is in your home.

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#1 Comment By Matt On September 25, 2012 @ 7:50 pm

The idea of christendom is nice and all, but as a reality, it was more about power than imparting the gospel message – however you want to define it – to communities and to individuals.

Why Nations Fail is a book suggesting that countries in control of the elite few without institutions for the populaced to fight back, are, barring extraordinary circumstances, likely to fail even after a change of leadership. I’m not so sure medeval Roman Catholicism was so different. Sure their were struggles for power – popes arguing with biships, but it’s really elites arguing with other elites. Even during the Reformation, with the printing press emerging as a world changing technology it wasn’t until very late in the 1500’s (forget when but was referenced in MacCulloch’s Reformation)that the vatican even had a printing press – long after Luther and Calvin’s works became international sellers. And the areas were Roman Catholicism were able to stem the tide of the reformation – like Spain and the Italian states – were areas where the Inquisitor’s fire was often burning.

When you’re told to believe something, yet don’t have access to that something in your own language – again, the reformers did the Biblical translations into the vernacular – the safe presumption is that their doing it to keep the control they already have. It’s not that they believe in the eficacy of the gospel. As Luther said in the preface to his catechism: “The deplorable, miserable condition which I discovered lately when I, too, was a visitor, has forced and urged me to prepare this Catechism… Mercy! Good God! what manifold misery I beheld! The common people, especially in the villages, have no knowledge whatever of Christian doctrine, and, alas! many pastors are altogether incapable and incompetent to teach.”

I love Catholics and consider them my brothers in Christ, and the reformers have their own closets with skeletons galore, they seem to be far to eager to whitewash history rather than face it as it actually happened.

#2 Comment By K H Acton On September 25, 2012 @ 9:20 pm

Reinhold Niebuhr’s essay on the Tower of Babel in Beyond Tragedy speaks to this I think. He presents it as an expression of original sin to think our society or our civilization had transcended mankind’s finiteness or particularity. That God works its humbling just as it thinks its zenith is secured. Anyway, he presents the Middle Ages as a time when the church built her own Babel of Christendom.

#3 Comment By C. R. Wiley On September 25, 2012 @ 10:06 pm

I don’t just blame Ockham–I just think his razor is dangerous, it has sliced up the world pretty badly. Sure, he’s had plenty of help. You don’t have to be a Roman Catholic to think this way–you just need a longing for a meaningful world.

#4 Comment By Alypius On September 25, 2012 @ 11:07 pm


As someone who spent most of his graduate years thinking about the sorts of questions, I concur with your estimate of Gregory’s argument. I don’t know if you have read the book, but I was disappointed when I read it, since it basically seems to be an academic version of the sort of confessional narrative you outline in your post. (I even wrote a review of it, which I hope to publish at some point.) Gregory seems to have reacted to Whiggish narratives of secular triumph by resurrecting a Whiggish Catholic narrative of his own, all the more disturbing since I am pretty convicted papist. I’m not sure I agree with you about “flirting on Christiandate.com” amounts to living in a “Christian” civilization, however. We’ve been living in a post-Christian civilization for a while now I think. On that score, Gregory’s right I think to say that the Protestant had a role to play in bringing this about. A part, but not the whole. And yes, God’s providence never leaves mankind–deo gratias.

#5 Comment By CaitlinO On September 26, 2012 @ 3:16 am

Plus, there’s always the unforeseeable impact of random events. An ancient bacterium mutated into a wildly more lethal form and the Black Plague burned its way across the world. None of the 14th century’s institutions of authority, including the Church, had anything to offer in response to this disaster, which seemed to many to have been sent as a punishment from God.

The sight of the religious community abandoning their flocks and running in terror from the Plague badly damaged the Church’s claim to authority, even though, as Chaucer and others tell us, they certainly weren’t the only ones running.

It can and, I’m sure has, been argued that diminished respect for the Church and its authority helped lead to the Reformation. Without the Reformation, it’s hard to imagine how we would have had the Enlightenment. Without the Enlightenment, we wouldn’t have had Thomas Jefferson. Well, we might have had Thomas Jefferson but he wouldn’t have written the Declaration of Independence.

We may very well owe the existence of our finest founding document to a random change in the DNA of Y. pestis.

#6 Comment By Aaron in Israel On September 26, 2012 @ 3:31 am

I haven’t read Gregory’s book, but that was a really nice little polemic by Lilla. Some great zingers in there. He’s right, too, and a lot of what he’s rightly criticizing can be seen here at TAC. I admit, I used to fall for this kind of stuff myself. Maybe I still do.

Story-tellers like MacIntyre and Taylor are themselves examples of what happens after traditions die. Everyone suddenly has the freedom to go scavenging around in the past, grabbing bits and pieces for his own favorite just-so story. As readers, I think we have to approach books by MacIntyre, Taylor, and (apparently) Gregory with extreme skepticism. Above all, resist the temptation to get caught up in some feverish enthusiasm over the latest Story.

#7 Comment By tbraton On September 26, 2012 @ 9:05 am

As far as Arius is concerned, I believe he got it only half right. According to Wikipedia, “The Arian concept of Christ is that the Son of God did not always exist, but was created by—and is therefore distinct from—God the Father.” It was not just a case of Christ “not always existing” but never existing at all. BTW I also take issue with the claim that God created Christ. Man created Christ, just as Man created God.

#8 Comment By Benjamin Nagle On September 26, 2012 @ 11:34 am

We’re at war with ourselves. Ideas, on the other hand, still have consequences. These truths are not mutually exclusive. It is important to identify the thinkers who took us down intellectual or structural dead ends and dark alleys(William of Ocham, Duns Scotus, etc.), so we can course correct. Many people have altered their society’s moral imagination–saints and sinners, poets and dictators, philosophers and economists—this does not mean ordinary struggle with sin is unimportant or would otherwise disappear, it does mean that it can differ in variety and degree from one society to another.

#9 Comment By Cosmos On September 26, 2012 @ 12:12 pm

“There are a couple of fallacies hiding behind this line of thinking. Chiefly, this reverse Whiggism seems to take it for granted that the point of Christianity is Christendom, as if Jesus was born in Bethlehem to build Chartres and compose the Summa Theologica. And therefore everything from 1295 to now is a story of punctuated decline.”

None of those writers gave me the impression that there was some rosy time in history called Christendom when all was well. What a strange critique of Carroll, Belloc, and even Chesterton!

I think the idea that runs through them is very simple: Christ came to convert people and “Christendom” is what the world looked like when a large number of Westerners were living their lives in a way that treated Christianity as the fixed point (whether it is in the arts, politics, etc.). If Christendom is the result–if not the point–of Christianity taking root, it seems like a very small and uncontroversial step to posit that the gradual movement towards a secular society that makes no reference to Christianity is in “decline” from the Christian perspective. Can you measure that? Probably not.

Perhaps at the American founding Christians were building a secular scoiety for Christ’s sake, but that is certainly not what is going on now. It seems to me that those writers were spot on: at some point in history Christianity began to lose the West’s imagination and certain things are digressing (from the Christian perspective) as a result.

#10 Comment By Charles Cosimano On September 26, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

I wonder if Chesterton was really so stupid as to think human nature would really have allowed his idea of Christendom to exist.

#11 Pingback By First Links — 9.27.12 » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog On September 27, 2012 @ 8:44 am

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#12 Comment By Mark Shiffman On September 27, 2012 @ 9:40 am

On the question of blaming Ockham and nominalism generally, it isn’t ultimately a matter of fantasizing about how the world might have been different, which we can’t know. It is a question of how deep and pervasive the Ockhamist influence is on modern western thought and of whether it is the best approach to seeking truth. Even someone with no axe to grind against the Razor can (and does) make an excellent case that all the big thinkers of modernity (for starters Luther, Descartes, Hobbes, Kant, Nietzsche, and one could add Wittgenstein and Foucault) are moving within a horizon of thought put in place by nominalism. I’m thinking of Michael Gillespie’s outstanding book The Theological Origins of Modernity, which is brilliant on the influence question –but totally punts on the truth question.

As for Christendom, I like Remi Brague’s response to the question whether we are living in a post-Christian era:

“Who can say that Christianity has had the time to translate the totality of its contents into institutions? I have the impression that instead we are still at the beginning stages of Christianity.”

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