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Professor’s book wins prize

Meghan Thomassen | Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Brad Gregory, a professor of history at Notre Dame, won the inaugural Aldersgate Prize for Christian Scholarship for the ability to reflect the highest ideals of Christian scholarship through his book, “The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.”

Gregory, the Dorothy G. Griffin Collegiate Chair in Early Modern European History, said the award came as a surprise for him because didn’t even know the book had been nominated.

“I didn’t know anything was afoot until I got an email from the provost of Indiana Wesleyan University. I have no idea who nominated me,” he said. “It doesn’t matter, I’m pleased with the outcome.”

Gregory said the book addresses why there are so many answers to the big “life questions” people ask today.

“How did the world that we’re living in today – the West, North America, especially Western Europe – come to be the way that it is? In terms of the huge variety of people’s answers to questions about the meaning of life, what morality is, what should we live for and what we should care about, there is a hyperpluralism of truth claims about answers to ‘life questions,'” he said.

The book emerged from his interest in different ways to approach history and the Reformation time period, Gregory said.

“I found a way of connecting the two through a multi-stranded, long-term history. Certain things became clear that previously hadn’t coalesced, even though I had been thinking about them for many years,” Gregory said. “This is really not a book that anybody in their right mind would set out to write. This is a book that came to me in unexpected ways.”

Gregory said his book, approximately 500 pages, is big, both chronologically and conceptually.

“It’s provocative, and readers find it challenging in a number of ways. It’s an interrogation of the character of the university and how the different disciplines are related to one another,” he said. “It also concerns how historians divide up the past, even though we know our subdivisions into different types of history (political, economic, intellectual, etc.) isn’t how life really works. These things are all intertwined.”

The main questions also relate to Notre Dame’s identity as a Catholic university, he said.

“Notre Dame essentially has the same structure as secular universities do,” he said. “This is not meant as a critique so much as an observation, but if theology is made simply one department among others and students fulfill their theology requirements just like they do the others, then the relationship between theology and other disciplines can’t be seen.”

Gregory said there are no disciplines that ask how various forms of inquiry are related.

“We need different disciplines to understand reality in all its complexity, but there is no discipline that asks how these fit together,” he said. “Students take a smorgasbord of classes, but almost no scholars or scientists are asking questions about how they might be related. Students are confused, and it’s almost impossible to come away from an education anywhere in the U.S. today and have some kind of coherent view of what one has learned in one’s classes.”

In his classes, Gregory said he wants students to be aware of the bigger picture.

“In part, this means we need to see things in terms of their long-term historical transformation – how we have come to have the academic disciplines, institutions, assumptions, and objectives that we have,” he said.