Q and A with Professor Brad S. Gregory

An Interview with Professor Brad S. Gregory

Professor Brad S. Gregory, Dorothy G. Griffin Collegiate Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame, and author of The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (2011) reconnected with Executive Director of the Collegium Institute, Daniel Cheely, to answer questions about “The Future of the Historical Study of Religion,” the influence of the Catholic intellectual tradition in his academic career, and the importance of cultivating reflection on the unity of truth in the modern research university.

Q. You were the featured speaker for a Collegium Institute panel on “The Future of the Historical Study of Religion.” How would you characterize your approach to that subject? What recommendations would you propose for the field?

A. I have long argued that the attempt to understand past people on their own terms, by which I mean to render them in ways we have reason to think they would recognize themselves, should be the indispensable first task of historians, including historians of religion. The principal obstacle to this objective, in my view, is the assumption of often uncritically held metaphysical commitments by historians about religion per se, many of which informed classic explanatory theories of religion from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (e.g. Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Freud, Malinowski). To impose reductionist theories of religion on religious men and women is simply to construct them in one’s own image, according to one’s own secular beliefs. But attempting to understand and reconstruct the beliefs, behaviors, and commitments of past religious actors on their own terms does not mean that is all we can or should do in the historical study of religion. The historical reconstruction of divergent, opposed beliefs and behaviors in context permits us to go quite some way in explaining change over time, simply because people’s convictions, whether religious or not, self-consciously held or only implicit, usually inform their behaviors. And explaining change over time is one of the most important tasks and most difficult challenges historians face. The value of historically reconstructing opposed beliefs and conflicting behaviors is especially apparent in periods of profound religious disruption, such as the Reformation era in Western Europe, which is the main focus of my own research.

Q. You earned two degrees in philosophy from the Catholic University of Louvain and have developed your academic career at the University of Notre Dame. How would you say that the Catholic intellectual tradition informs your work and your vocation?

A. I am constantly aware of my faith commitments as a scholar. But paradoxically, that awareness has led me to develop a historical methodology that, so far as I can tell, is consistent with Catholicism but in no way dependent on it. The main reason for adopting this approach is that I want to write history that is potentially persuasive to scholars who do not share my commitments. To lead with one’s faith is a bad strategy if one wants to convince those who don’t share it. But this doesn’t mean adopting the status quo dismissiveness or contemptuousness about the plausibility of religious truth claims that is quite common in the academy. Hence my own approach includes a criticism of the frequently unquestioned metaphysical and epistemological assumptions that still inform much scholarship about religion, in which methodological naturalism is too easily elided with metaphysical naturalism — in effect, thereby denying that any religious claims that purport to speak of transcendent realities, an afterlife, miraculous events, and so forth, could be true. The Catholic intellectual tradition has also influenced me to think broadly about the human past, because of the ways in which it conceives human life as a complex, interconnected whole. And it has led me to think about history in the long term, in part because Christianity is a religious tradition with its origins in the ancient world but has persisted to the present, having been inculturated during the intervening two millennia in an extraordinary range of different societies and cultures. I don’t think a Catholic intellectual should be indifferent to that; certainly a Catholic historian should not be. 

Q. “The Unintended Reformation,” your wildly successful second monograph, traces the secularization of the modern research university. How can room still be made for God at this university? How might it be possible to recultivate reflection upon the unity of truth?

A. This is related to what I said above. In our current context, I think probably the most important assumption that needs to be undone is that the success of the natural sciences in explaining natural regularities is somehow related to the implausibility of the truth claims of revealed religions about a transcendent creator-God. Many Christians unwittingly make this assumption, too, and don’t understand how to articulate or conceive alternatives that are consistent with their faith. The key to making “room” for God (an interestingly and unintentionally revealing metaphor for a reality that, if indeed real, is non-spatial) is questioning the metaphysical assumptions that led to God’s exclusion in the first place, and becoming aware of the ways in which they continue to function in the academy today, almost always among scholars who are unaware of them. When God and creation were conceived univocally as part of being beginning in the fourteenth century, when Occam’s razor was applied to the relationship between explanatorily adequate natural causality and divine presence, when natural and supernatural causality were understood to belong to the same flattened plane of causality in the seventeenth century, the presuppositions were in place for the eventual exclusion of God via the increasing explanatory power of the natural sciences. But this in effect imagines God as hypothetical causal agent within creation, not as the extra-temporal and non-spatial transcendent creator of it. Those who think God’s existence is somehow imperiled or rendered implausible by neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory or any other area of the contemporary natural sciences simply do not understand what traditional Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for example, mean by “God.” Note that this tack of trying to open a place for religious discourse in the university does not rely on setting intelletual concerns aside, allowing people to speak on the basis of “faith” or “from the heart,” but of questioning complacent assumptions based on historical knowledge and philosophical argument.

Rekindling reflection on the unity of truth is a different kind of problem, one born more of research specialization and the extraordinary proliferation of knowledge in every academic discipline and subdiscipline, with no end in sight. Here, in brief, I would say that a crucial first step is to realize that concern with interdisciplinarity, while commendable for its recognition that scholars and scientists should take account of research relevant to their own inquiries that is conducted outside their own specialties and disciplines, is not enough. It is a symptom of, not a solution to, research specialization. What we need to recover as the basis for thinking more deeply about the unity of truth is an appreciation for the interconnectedness of reality in ways that not only can enable, say, physicists and molecular biologists to talk to one another, but also natural scientists and humanistic scholars. Human beings, for example, are systems of matter-energy, complex organisms made of cellular systems, members of social groups and political institutions, and users of language and cultural symbols — all at the same time. But how many scholars or scientists in the academy are trying to understand how all these realities are related to each other, in ways that do justice to each of the phenomena involved rather than asserting, for example, that neurobiology embedded within evolutionary processes can explain everything?

Q. Please tell us about your experience speaking at the inaugural event of the Collegium Institute and about your hopes for the institute’s future.

A. I think the Collegium Institute is a superb initiative, and I was honored to be the speaker at its inaugural event. I enjoyed the experience very much, found the discussion lively and engaged, and appreciated the comments by Professors E. Ann Matter and Justin McDaniel and Penn’s Department of Religious Studies. There is no reason why Catholicism and the Catholic intellectual tradition should be marginalized or indeed, ignored, in secular research universities, whether public or private, given the extent to which programs in Jewish or Buddhist Studies are institutionalized and flourishing. Robust programming that brings to bear, on the full range of disciplines, in contemporary research universities, Catholicism’s intellectual heritage and abiding power as a living, intellectually viable religious tradition in the present can, it seem to me, only enhance the range of discourse at a university such as Penn, or indeed anywhere else. It makes the range of questions and topics that can be addressed more diverse and thereby increases academic freedom. I hope the Collegium Institute flourishes into the future and draws a wide range of students and faculty, non-Catholic as well as Catholic, into its lectures, conferences, and other events.