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Providential Modernity Seminar with Michael Gillespie

September 26, 2019 @ 1:00 pm - 2:30 pm

Providential modernity

Religions and Public Life at KIE enters the second year of the interdisciplinary Providential Modernity seminar. For the first meeting of the fall, participants will discuss a short overview of a new book project by Michael Gillespie (Duke, Political Science), “The Antitrinitarian Origins of American Liberalism,” at 1:00PM on Thursday, September 26, in Classroom Building 229.

A vegetarian lunch will be served. Email Amber Díaz Pearson to receive a copy of the paper.

Michael Gillespie describes the book project:

In my Theological Origins of Modernity I argued that what we see as secularization in the West is in fact the transference of what the medieval world imagined to be divine attributes from God to nature and human beings. This process was not an abandonment but the concealment of Christian theology at the foundation of modernity and that modernity in this sense inherited many of the problems that had beset late medieval thought in reconciling a deterministic view of creation with free will. That project began with an examination of the Realist-nominalist debate, then turned to an examination of the ideal of individuality in Petrarch and humanism, the reaction against humanism in Luther and his debate with Erasmus over the freedom of the will. I then discussed the way in which this debate was replayed in the debate between Descartes and Hobbes and concluded with a discussion of the way in which this reappeared in the French Revolution and the thought of nineteenth century Europe and particularly Germany. My current book project is a sequel to Theological Origins that begins with Erasmus, then examines the development of Antitrinitarianism, the thought of the Dutch Remonstrants and particularly James Arminius and Grotius. The fourth chapter will turn to an examination of the impact of both the Antitrinitarians and the Remonstrants on Locke and his notion of liberalism. The final chapter then examines The Declaration of Independence, focusing on its chief authors, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, who were all deeply influenced by their mutual friend, Joseph Priestly, the scientist and leading English Unitarian, and were themselves Antitrinitarians. In this way I hope to show that the supposed secular character of the American founding itself is underpinned by a particular Christian theology that is all the more powerful because it remains unseen.

The Providential Modernity seminar brings together faculty and graduate students from several area universities on a monthly basis to discuss work in the areas of history, political theology, and comparative sociology from Antiquity to the present. A key goal of the seminar is to place scholars of religion into conversation with one another and address scholarly challenges emerging from the post-secular age. “Providential modernity” encompasses a variety of social and political hopes, as well as anxieties, about the promise of history, sometimes expressed in millenarianism and apocalypticism, at other times in peaceful theodicies. In modern times, secular surrogates for providentialism found expression in revolution, social change, and the transformation of knowledge — ideas that have been conceptualized from Hegel to Fukuyama in discussions of the End of History. Many put their “faith” in “providential modernity,” while others, in despair, denied that history had any meaning at all. At the core of our deliberations will be an effort to deepen our grasp of the ways in which religions, Western and Eastern, both converge and differ in their understanding of providentialism, and how scholars may respond to the powerful working of religion in the postmodern age.


September 26, 2019
1:00 pm - 2:30 pm
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Kenan Institute for Ethics


Classroom Building 229