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The Theological Origins of Modernity

3.8 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0226293462
ISBN-10: 0226293467
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Editorial Reviews


"This book is an excellent complement to Charles Taylor's A Secular Age and a powerful counterpoint to Mark Lilla's The Stillborn God. All three hold that the story of modern philosophy is both superficial and hollow if its theological/metaphysical components are denied. Highly recommended."

"The Theological Origins of Modernity is not just informative; it is insightfully recuperative as well—helping us to understand ourselves better in the present. Though Gillespie only reaches our contemporary situation in his last chapter, we might hope that, incomplete as it unavoidably is, that chapter might form the nucleus of a successor work. At the end of his current book we are more than assured that Gillespie is up to the task."
(Stephen A. Erickson Review of Politics)

"In this rich and dense book, [Gillespie] is self-consciously trying to correct the 'standard' understanding of the origin of modernity. Rather than being the 'victory of secularism,' modernity, he says, is a series of attempts to grapple with fundamental theological issues."
(Brad Green Chronicles)

About the Author

Michael Allen Gillespie is the Jerry G. and Patricia Crawford Hubbard Professor of Political Science in Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and professor of philosophy at Duke University. He is the author of Hegel, Heidegger, and the Ground of History, and Nihilism before Nietzsche, both published by the University of Chicago Press.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (August 15, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0226293467
  • ISBN-13: 978-0226293462
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #388,421 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Jake Keenan on June 13, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book exceeded my expectations on so many levels. It is hard from the vantage point of 2009 to imagine a better intellectual history of the last thousand years of European development. And in telling the debates of religion on how the Western legacy came to be what it is today it greatly enriched my view of who we are. For a book on philosophy-religion and in less than 300 pages it pulls apart the principle lines of development by stories of individuals, of debates between them, and of their times. The debates, or rather multiyear parallels and arguments, between Luther and Erasmus and later between Descartes and Hobbes were teased apart as important fulcrums in the shifting of ideas. But a hundred or more other familiar names fill in other parts of the story including great profiles of Ockham and Petrarch. On another level, at the beginning and at the end of the book, Gillespie draws these founding issues of modernity over to the post 9/11 world and similar issues within the Islamic world.

The book is wider in focus than Funkenstein's Theology and the Scientific Imagination but has a similar depth and assurance in bringing out the theological roots of science. It starts earlier and shows how all the issues from the Renaissance to the birth of science are reactions to the deep revolution of nominalism in the thirteenth century where the Greek-Christian-hierarchy balance of scholasticism gave way to a radical view of God's will which undermined humans' own freedoms and an easy rationality in the world. All the reactions that followed have turned variously to humans, to god, or to nature (e.g., Humanism, Luther's faith under predestination, and science) to try to repair the heritage of the wildly free god of nominalism.
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Format: Paperback
Modernity, broadly understood as a "realm of individualism, of representation of subjectivity, of exploration and discovery, of freedom, rights, toleration, liberalism, and the nation state," is often assumed to be rooted in a growing hostility toward, or at least indifference to, theological ideas. Michael Allen Gillespie, a professor of political science and philosophy at Duke University, uses this book to argue against this point. Rather than a disengagement from theological discourse, he suggests modernity has actually been a completely different set of answers to questions that we would recognize as explicitly theological.

He begins his discussion by going all the way back to medieval Scholasticism, and in particular looking at the rift between Scholastic realism (or universalism) and nominalism. Scholasticism was dominated by realist thought, which said that everything in the world was merely a kind of Platonic simulacra of the only thing that was real - the perfectly rational, divine mind of God. During the early fourteenth century, William of Ockham became one of the most outspoken opponents against realism and for a position known as nominalism. Nominalism rejected the central position of realism, and suggested that such a divine reason which human beings could access and understand didn't even exist in the first place. (Ockham was not, for clarity's sake, proposing atheism. He was instead saying that the mind of God was something so distant from the frailties of the human intellect that we will never understand it - i.e., the deus absconditus of Martin Luther.) This got him into a lot of trouble with Pope John XXII, who eventually excommunicated him.
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I almost gave this book 4 stars not because there are flaws in the material itself, but because it was so good I was disappointed that a publisher would hold it back from the even-higher greatness it might otherwise have. What am I referring to? "Islam-and-the-West." Islam is a hot topic these days - even Oxford University, as I understand it, recently constructed a building dedicated to Islamic studies on their campus. Michael Allen Gillespie (henceforth MAG - my apologies to the author) clearly did not set out to write a book about Islam, but it would seem that the publisher pressured him to force his work into the mould of their interests. The book is not really about Islam at all, but about Modernity's true genetics - not the history that Modernity tells to itself about how it was borne by affirming science and democracy in the face of the tyranny of the Roman Catholic Church. The first chapter, originally an article, and a concentrated blast of what is to follow through the rest of the book, has nothing at all to do with Islam or the "clash of civilizations," but has rather to do with where Western Europe came from and how that has led us to where we are politically, theologically, philosophically, culturally. It's brilliant. Unfortunately, the book was forcibly given a preface and an epilogue about Islam, and the end of the last chapter was brutally disfigured to conform to this publisher-imposed agenda. (I don't _know_ this for a fact, of course, just as I don't know for sure that matter exists, but both seem self-evident, and to deny either would be laughable unless there's a really good argument backing one up.)

MAG locates tensions within the Latin Western theological tradition, beginning properly with the Nominalist Revolution in Philosophy (but going back to St.
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