Blame It on Christendom

Another way to read the Reformation:

I’ve been reading this week historian Brad Gregory’s study The Unintended Reformation: How A Religious Revolution Secularized Society. I had imagined it to be a somewhat polemical book that blamed the Reformation for all our modern woes. That was dumb of me. It’s a genealogy of ideas and events that led to our current condition.

It didn’t start with the Reformation. The ideas that laid the intellectual groundwork for the Reformation sprung out of Catholic theological debate two centuries earlier. The corruption of the Catholic Church, and the arrogant refusal of its leaders to heed calls to reform before it was too late, were very real and present. Luther had reason. He had the intellectual framework in place, and he had emotional cause: the utter rot within the Roman Catholic establishment.

That doesn’t make the Reformation right, of course, but one does see how it was all but inevitable. Once the break happened, it proved impossible to contain the forces unleashed. “Sola scriptura” proved an impossible standard for building a new church, because various Reformation leaders had their own ideas about what the Bible “clearly” said. The fracturing of the Reformation, and the arguments among various theological factions, were there from the beginning.

Reverse Whiggism

It comes from the bottom of the magazine pile, but Michael Brendan Dougherty shows what it would be like to have J. Gresham Machen trapped in a Roman Catholic convert’s body:

. . . 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.” You can find these notions informing the fiction 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 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.

Roman Catholic spirituality of the church without Yankees banners, indeed.

If Jesus' Kingdom Is Not of this World

Does that mean that Europe is heaven?

From a while back, Michael Brendan Dougherty explains that Jesus didn’t die to save western civilization:

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.” You can find these notions informing the fiction 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. . . .

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.

Rod & Carl v. Brad (let charity leak)

Rod Dreher is just getting around to Carl Trueman’s review of Brad Gregory’s Unintended Reformation, a book featured here in a series of posts. The quotations are juicy in a no rocks, peaty, neat sort of way. Both authors observe the singular defect in Roman Catholic apologists — the denial of glaring realities out of commitment to theory or logic or sense of having found it.

First Carl:

The problem here is that the context for the Reformation – the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority – seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity. These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer. One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better – not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Rod adds:

Trueman points out that it’s simply not true that Catholicism today offers a unified doctrinal front in the face of Protestant disarray. That really is true, and something that Protestants who despair of the messes in their own churches don’t see when they idealize Rome. As Trueman points out, the Roman Catholic Church is enormous, and contains within it believers — even priests and theologians — who believe and teach things completely opposed to each other, and even to authoritative Catholic teaching. I have spoken to Catholics in Catholic educational institutions who are afraid to voice public support for Roman Catholic teaching on homosexuality for fear of being punished by the Roman Catholic authorities who run those institutions. The institution of the papacy has done little or nothing to arrest this. Maybe there’s not much it can do. The point is, though, that having a Catechism and having a Magisterium presided over by a Pope is no guarantee that your church won’t fall into de facto disarray. Roman Catholicism on the ground in the United States is effectively a Mainline Protestant church.

That is not an argument against Catholic ecclesiology, strictly speaking. But it’s something that Catholics who defend it against Protestantism must account for. And it’s fair to ask why it is that having such a strong hierarchical and doctrinal system has produced at least two generations of American Catholics who don’t know their faith, and who are no different from non-Evangelical Protestants, or non-believers.

Back to Carl for one more shot:

Dr. Gregory sets out to prove that Protestantism is the source of all, or at least many, of the modern world’s ills; but what he actually does is demonstrate in painstaking and compelling detail that medieval Catholicism and the Papacy with which it was inextricably bound up were ultimately inadequate to the task which they set – which they claimed! – for themselves. Reformation Protestantism, if I can use the singular, was one response to this failure, as conciliarism had been a hundred years before. One can dispute the adequacy of such responses; but only by an act of historical denial can one dispute the fact that it was the Papacy which failed.

Thanks to the death of medieval Christendom and to the havoc caused by the Reformation and beyond, Dr Gregory is today free to believe (or not) that Protestantism is an utter failure. Thanks to the printing press, he is also free to express this in a public form. Thanks to the modern world which grew as a response to the failure of Roman Catholicism, he is also free to choose his own solution to the problems of modernity without fear of rack or rope. Yet, having said all that, I for one find it strange indeed that someone would choose as the solution that which was actually the problem in the first place.

When you think about it, denying the mess of history is odd for folks who say Protestants are docetic in their ecclesiology (as in we deny its visibility or physicality). As much as we may spiritualize communion, Protestants have no trouble admitting the errors of our churches. Where we draw the line is with our nations.

Blame It on the Reformation (Part Six): We'll Take the Blame, Thanks

In his last chapter Gregory directly links Protestantism to the secularization of knowledge. Pardon the digression, but if secular means “of this present age” as opposed to the age to come, how could any knowledge that human beings now have not be secular? Even theology qualifies as secular in this sense, but knowledge of God does pertain to the world to come in a way that knowing how to fix a leak does not.

This distinction between the secular as temporal and the sacred as eternal haunts Gregory’s statement of the Reformation’s consequences for knowledge. He writes, “these three features of knowledge — its secularity, its specialized and segmented character, and its intrinsic separability from the rest of life — are related, and derive in complex and unintended ways from the doctrinal disagreements of the Reformation era” (304) By the way, Gregory’s understanding of knowledge should give neo-Calvinists goose bumps (and suggests that neo-Calvinist w-wishness is the gateway drug to Roman Catholicism). Later he connects the dots between Christian knowledge and a sacramental — even incarnational — view of all things:

Structurally homologous to the relationship between creator and creation in [Roman] Catholic Christianity is the relationship between the divine and human natures of Jesus; between grace conveyed in the sacraments and the material signs that convey it; between the real presence of Christ and the eucharistic elements after consecration; and between the human soul and human body. If one rejects the traditional, non-univocal Christian conception of the relationship between God and creation, these other aspects of Christianity are bound sooner or later to topple like dominoes. . . . Reject the traditional Christian conception of God as creator, and creation disappears as well, leaving eventually a disenchanted world in its stead.

And here comes the Francis Schaeffer-like jeremiads:

But it is a world that removes any divine constraints on liberated individuals, who as the neo-Protagorean measure of all things can in principle thus exercise their will as they please [what about the dignity of the human person that Rome has been promoting since Vatican II?] This is what the formal ethics of rights protected by the modern liberal state allows individuals to do within its laws. And the Western symbiosis of consumerism and capitalism since the industrious [sic] revolution has provided increasingly unencumbered, self-constructing selves with a never-ending array of stuff to fuel constantly reinforced acquisitiveness as they go about their business. (346)

Shazzam!

I am little fuzzy on what Gregory means by univocal notions about God or why he believes Protestants are afflicted with them since sacramental and incarnational ways of looking at creation do exactly what Gregory accuses univocal language of doing — putting creation and the creator both on the same ontological plain.

But what is odd about Gregory’s domino theory of secularization is that the relationships among body and soul in human beings, or the two natures of Christ are not at all comparable to the distance between the creator and creation. Protestants, especially Reformed ones, have long stressed divine transcendence in ways that put high barriers around temptations to view the universe in incarnational ways. And as the sociologist Steve Bruce has argued, Jewish monotheism, early Christianity, and the Reformation were keen to overturn pagan or Christian conceptions that identified or even located God (or the gods) within the created order. This biblical insistence on God’s otherness provides a theological justification for secularization (as I argued in A Secular Faith and which I reproduce):

Steve Bruce, a British sociologist of religion, observes that one of the key factors in modernization is another infelicitous word, to which sociology is prone, rationalization. By this he means the eradication of the cosmic order typical of civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia in which distinctions between the natural and supernatural worlds, or between the human and non human were fluid or non existent. In effect, the divine was bound up with the cosmos, immanent in and throughout the world. But with rise of monotheism in ancient Israel, God became radically transcendent and other. As Bruce explains, the God of Israel “was so distanced from [his followers] as to be beyond magical manipulation.” This deity’s laws could be known and had to be obeyed, but he could not be “bribed, cajoled, or tricked into doing his worshipers’ will.”

Bruce argues that in the same way that ancient Judaism introduced a transcendent God into ancient near eastern religion, Christianity did the same in the Roman Empire where previously “a horde of gods, or spirits, often behaving in an arbitrary fashion and operating at cross purposes, makes the relationship of supernatural and natural worlds unpredictable.” Christianity “systematized” the supernatural and made religion much less a matter of magic than a code of conduct or right response to divine order.

Although Roman Catholicism, in Bruce’s scheme, began to remythologize the cosmos and people the universe with angels, saints, and other “semi divine beings,” the Protestant Reformation “demythologized” the world. Bruce is not necessarily contradicting Scruton and Lewis who describe the way in which the separation of religion and politics characterized the West even before the sixteenth century. His concern is more narrowly sociological than historical. But his is still one with some relevance for contemporary American Protestants who oppose secularization as inherently anti religious. For Bruce, Protestantism “eliminated ritual and sacramental manipulation of God, and restored the process of ethical rationalization.” Historians of science have argued that this sort of rationalization was key to the development of scientific discovery. As Bruce explains, “Modern science is not easy for cultures which believe that the world is pervaded by supernatural spirits or that the divinities are unpredictable” because systematic inquiry into the natural world assumes that “the behaviour of matter is indeed regular.”

Consequently, with Protestantism the domain over which religion “offered the most compelling explanations” narrowed considerably. In fact, the Protestant Reformation’s secularizing impulse reduced the power of the church and “made way for a variety of thought and for the questioning of tradition which is so vital to natural science.”

Although Bruce does not say so, the same point could be made for the modern science of politics. By reducing the authority of the church in the secular or non religious sphere, Protestantism solidified the separation of church and state that had long characterized the West and came to dominate the modern era. Gone was the notion that revelation or churchly authorities govern the civil jurisdiction. Instead, with Protestantism (although individual Protestants themselves may have still operated with a sense of Christendom) came the possibility for the study of and theorizing about politics to emerge as a separate sphere. (247-48)

Of course, Gregory (and neo-Calvinists and theonomists) think secularization is pernicious. I myself will grant that it has some down sides, but so has most of human existence, including the Middle Ages. But it is wrong to see only negative consequences with secularization since the secular stems from the Christian affirmation of divine transcendence and sovereignty, and a refusal to immanentize the eschaton.

Blame It On the Reformation (Part 5): Channeling Schaeffer

In his chapter on economics and the “goods life,” Brad Gregory has a kvetch-fest about free markets and consumerism (that echoes Francis Schaeffer on Aquinas):

The earlier and more fundamental change was the disembedding of economics from the ethics of late medieval Christianity’s institutionalized worldview, in conjunction with the disruptions of the Reformation era. What needs explanation is how Western European Christians, whose leaders in the Reformation era condemned avarice across confessional lines, themselves created modern capitalism and consumption practices antithetical to biblical teachings even as confessionalization was creating better informed, more self-conscious Reformed Protestants, Lutherans and Catholics. Conflating prosperity with providence and opting for acquisitiveness as the lesser of two evils until greed was rechristened as benign self-interest, modern Christians have in effect been engaged in a centuries-long attempt to prove Jesus wrong. “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” Yes we can. Or so most participants in world history’s most insatiably consumerist society, the United States, continue implicitly to claim through their actions, considering the number of self-identified American Christians in the early twenty-first century who seem bent on acquiring ever more and better stuff, including those who espouse the “prosperity Gospel” within American religious hyperpluralism. Tocqueville’s summary description of Americans in the early 1830s has proven a prophetic understatement: “people want to do as well as possible in this world without giving up their chances in the next.” (288)

To his credit, Gregory does not exempt the Roman Catholic Church from the guilt of avarice. He observes that the Renaissance papacy was not too bullish on self-denial.

. . . the popes and cardinals at the papal court, along with wealthy bishops in their respective dioceses — who, already long before the Avignonese popes and their courtiers intensified all these trends in the fourteenth century, so often sought to augment their incomes through simony, pluralism, and a deep participation in the monetized economy through the purchase of luxurious material things and the borrowing of large sums of money. (253)

At the same time, he credits the papacy with an effective rejoinder to modern acquisitiveness, the Church’s social teaching:

They reiterated the claim that the natural world is God’s creation, intended by God for the flourishing of all human beings; repeated that economics and the market are not independent of morality; reasserted that the right to private property is not absolute, but is rather subordinate to the common good; restated that unrestrained acquisitiveness does not serve but rather impedes genuine human flourishing and eternal salvation; confirmed the biblical view that the pursuit of affluence above love for God and service to others is idolatry; argued that minimizing workers’ wages in order to maximize profits is exploitative and immoral; and insisted that the poor and marginalized, as a matter of justice, have a moral claim on the more affluent to share with and care for them. (296)

What is missing from this social teaching and from Gregory’s account is where human beings, who are supposed to be dead in trespasses and sins, are supposed to summon up the reservoirs of virtue to carry out such social teaching. His summary does mention eternal salvation on the plus side and idolatry on the down side, but where is grace and how do fallen people become good apart from the supernatural work of the Spirit? Not even the best of the church’s sacramental system and all of that papal charism could prevent popes from padding their accounts, nor did the theology of the medieval church prevent the hierarchy from raising revenues through the sale of grace — as in indulgences.

If the Reformation contributed to modern acquisitiveness, at least it supplies a good explanation for why people are selfish and want to acquire lots of cheap stuff. It is called depravity. The Reformers also knew that the only genuine remedy and the only way for people to lead a selfless life is through the operation of the Holy Spirit. If we want the redeemed and lost to live virtuously, we need to redefine this notion of human flourishing, call it some kind of moral subsistence, and double-down on efforts to beef up the authorities — parents, teachers, pastors, neighbors — who create expectations that restrain human viciousness.

In the meantime, Gregory’s history needs to avoid the kind of sermonizing that follows from an assumed theology, or he needs to write his own version of How Shall We Then Live?

Blame It On the Reformation (Part 4): Jerusalem and Athens All Over Again

On the subject of morality (chapter four in The Unintended Reformation), Brad Gregory performs a sleight of hand that is well-nigh remarkable since Protestant-Roman Catholic differences on ethics may be the most important feature of the break among Rome, Geneva, Wittenberg, and Canterbury. Gregory says:

This chapter argues that a transformation from a substantive morality of the good to a formal morality of rights constitutes the central change in Western ethics over the past half millennium, in terms of theory, practice, laws, and institutions. (184)

He goes on:

The fundamental historical realities that drove the central change were the religious disagreements and related sociopolitical disruptions of the Reformation era, because in the late Middle Ages, Christianity — with all its problems — was Western Europe’s dominant, socially pervasive embodiment of a morality of the good. As we have seen, Protestant rejections of the authority of the Roman church produced an open-ended range of rival truth claims about what the Bible meant. Correlatively, they yielded rival claims about what the Christian good was and how it was to be lived in community. (185)

What Gregory fails to consider is that his baseline for Christian ethics was precisely what was at issue in the medieval church and that the virtues Rome advocated were distinct from biblical morality. He fails to consider this because the stable Christian ethics that the Reformers abandoned were actually a synthesis of pagan and biblical truths — in other words, an unstable compound for the so-called good life.

Gregory argues that Christian ethics before the Reformation were synonymous with Aristotelian virtue ethics. What occurred over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was an abandonment of Aristotle:

. . . Aristotelian final causes were rejected and replaced by a conception of nature as a universal mechanism of efficient causes that encompassed human beings, and thus subsumed morality. Yet the elimination of any natural teleology from human life rendered not just problematic but incoherent the related notion of moral virtues as precisely those acquired human qualities and concrete practices whose rational exercise enables the disciplined reorientation of human passions and impulses, and thus the realization of the human good. If there are no final causes in nature, and human beings are no more than a part of nature like everything else, then there is not such thing as human nature conceived teleologically in Aristotelian terms. (181)

And perhaps if human nature conceived teleologically along Aristotelian lines leaves no room for discussing the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration and sanctification. Sorry, but where exactly is the Christian conception of the good in this standard by which to evaluate early modern moral philosophy? Gregory doesn’t appear to suffer the anguish described by Paul in the Epistle to the Romans because the Notre Dame historian is seemingly more concerned with community (Europe) than with the individual (creature) who stands condemned by God’s law:

Based on logically antecedent truth claims about reality and history, late medieval Christian ideals were laden with other truth claims about how human beings should act so that they might pursue the common good in this life and be saved eternally by God in the next. In other words, Christianity on the eve of the Reformation entailed an eternally ramifying ethical discourse based on a metaphysics that was disclosed through a history and embedded within a politics. With its teleological ethics rooted in God’s self-revelation through his creation and his covenant with Israel, above all in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, medieval Christianity involved reciprocally related moral rules, the practice of moral virtues, and a moral community — the church — all of which were supposed to foster the common good and the salvation of souls. (190)

All of this reflection on virtue may have been valuable for European society. And this is why two-kingdom folks don’t mind a dose of Aristotle when it comes to talk about a shared life together with other persons. But when it comes to the elephant in the Christian room — namely, “what must I do to be saved?” or “who can stand in that great day?” — Aristotelian or Thomistic accounts of human flourishing just won’t comfort sin-sick souls like Martin Luther who saw a difference between the proximate goods of social virtues and the absolute good of keeping God’s law perfectly, entirely, and perpetually.