Here and there – Reformation

Europe’s House Divided, 1490 – 1700

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 2003

One benefit of doing Summer Schools at Cambridge, Harvard, or Oxford, is to hear dedicated people in seats of learning enjoying the act of teaching.  That was comparatively rare for me when I attended Melbourne University a long time ago.  Well, one benefit of reading this book is to experience Diarmaid MacCulloch doing just that.  The subject is tricky and beset with land-mines, but the author navigates his way patiently and with justified authority.  I had read the book in Penguin form when I was writing on the subject.  The print there was too small to read in comfort.  Now, in this large, and expensive, version, you can take your time and get the full benefit of the author’s learning and application.

Most people brought up in the West will have their own biases.  I am a lapsed Protestant who has an incurably firm view about the impact upon humanity of the prodigious learning of Augustine and Aquinas.  In addition to his primary degree, the author took the Oxford Diploma of Theology.  He was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England, but he broke with the Church over its attitude to homosexuality.  In the Introduction to this book he says ‘I do not now personally subscribe to any form of religious dogma (although I do remember with some affection what it was like to do so).’  In 2001, he was awarded a Doctor of Divinity by Oxford University.  He has also accepted a gong.  Perhaps because any prejudice that he may have may simply reflect my own, I see no lesion of bias in this book.  If I am right about that, it is a very significant achievement.

Permit me another general observation.  In the current debate, if that is the term, about teaching Western civilisation, reference is often made to the Reformation as if it were some unalloyed blessing.  It was anything but that.  It brought generations of war and misery promoted wholly by this schism.  You don’t need the intellect of Kant to see that division flowing from doctrinal feuding is the worst.  Heresy may be the most lethal term in our language.  The Germans know this.  After World War II, they were asked what the worst war they had endured was.  They had two examples from hell before their living eyes.  A majority went back more than three centuries to cite the Thirty Years War.  That war is a dreadful blot on all our history, a direct product of the division wrought in the Reformation, and a frightful debit in the balance sheet of religion on earth.

The author patiently explains how the theory of transubstantiation was not made official in the medieval church, but got weighty backing before Aquinas.  We are looking at a medieval – pre-Renaissance – reliance on Aristotle – and his discussion of the nature of existence and the essential difference between substance and accidents.  In the sweet name of the son of the carpenter, how many of the flock were up for that gig?  There was a related issue of the exclusive (privative) intellectual snobbery of the clergy (priesthood).  ‘Their professionalism was expressed by their possession of an information technology – literacy (the ability to read and write).’  And the priests were bent on maintaining their monopoly – if necessary by burning to death people who had the temerity to want the gospel in their own language.  (One significance of the rise of lawyers in the Inns of Court was that they also challenged this monopoly.)

And then the author goes straight on to another disaster that is still wreaking misery for so many in and out of the church.

Clergy were increasingly differentiated from the laity by the official attempt to make the clergy celibate for the whole of their careers, thus separating them from the sexuality which is the most intimate mark of an ordinary human being.  This was a requirement borrowed by the clergy from a separate and distinctive section of the Church’s life – monasticism.

Does one of the great cancers on our community come down to us still from the monastery?

The author is particularly good on two doctrines that in my view have blighted mankind – original sin and predestination.  (OK – here are my prejudices – Augustine and Aquinas took the simple teaching of a Jewish Hasid (holy man) and drenched it in the chilling but pretentious logic of Aristotle and Plato – and it’s a fair bet that the son of the carpenter had never heard of either – and so armed generations of priests with the power to put down you and me for the benefit of their God; it was a bizarre and cruel form of religious authoritarianism that lasted for centuries – and makes the balance sheet look even worse for religion.)

In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul gave an extended commentary on the biblical story of Adam and Eve as they committed the first act of disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden: the first sin.  Augustine saw this corruption – original sin – as passed down from Adam to all humanity like a hereditary disease, and he linked heredity to sex, because like all heredity, sin was embodied in the act of procreation….All sin was thus Adam’s first sin, and no human being could escape it…..Augustine’s intellectual formation had been in a late form of Plato’s philosophy: Plato’s deity was perfect, individual and incapable of suffering, because suffering involves change which implies imperfection.  Since the perfect deity cannot change his mind, his decision about whom he chooses from humanity must be made only once.  All the saved must be predestined to salvation (and though Augustine rarely said this explicitly, all the dammed to damnation)….One can easily sympathise with the dry observation of the modern theologian Horton Davies that a God who cannot suffer is insufferable.

Well, people who say that a people as a whole are cursed with a hereditary disease have at least one very ugly fellow traveller.

Just what was it that gave these whizz kids the right to seek to wedge the infinity of God or the mercy of Christ between their paltry syllogisms?  And how do you seek to get someone into a church when at the back of your head is a song that says ‘Tough banana, your number’s already up, Sport’?  And in getting faith to take on logic with no runs or goals in, were they being any smarter than the Marylebone Cricket Club offering to take on the Yankees at baseball?

The thinking of the medieval church on indulgences being sold out of a ‘treasury of merit’ was as attractive as the thinking underlying derivatives that gave us the GFC.  Luther?

In any century in which he was born, Luther would have guaranteed a richly memorable night out, whether hilariously entertaining or infuriatingly quarrelsome.  Yet Freud is of little help in understanding Luther, whereas Augustine….is of central importance.

Although Luther rejected Aristotle, he could not break out of the gloom of Augustine.  Or the intellectualism – Luther came up with his own incantation that you won’t find in the bits in red – justification by faith alone.  Is that any more intelligible than transubstantiation?  Well, what got to Luther about indulgences was that they were dead against his own doctrine.  Logic then led him to deny the worth of good works.  ‘This was the parting blow of his book, and it was the very heart of the Reformation’s reassertion of the darkest side of Augustine: a proclamation that the humanist project of reasonable reform was redundant.’

And logic also led to division and death among the revolutionaries.  In 1526 four were solemnly drowned for being too progressive about baptism.  The community following Zwingli ‘committed itself to a policy of coercing and punishing fellow reformers whose crime was to be too radical.’ This is inevitable in revolutions.  And Luther would find out, with Lindy Chamberlin, that if you open your mouth often enough, you will put your foot in it.  The Peasants’ War was put down with the torture and death of thousands who had survived the battlefield.  ‘Luther, the champion of the ordinary Christian, had been transformed into an apologist for official savagery…’

The author deals briskly with Calvin.  Perhaps I might refer to what I said elsewhere after referring to MacCulloch.

God lets out the odds to make the winners feel better.  What kind of God would want to do that to his creation?  This kind of thing may have got by when Calvinists were a minority faith.  They could look at the masses outside for the damned.  But what if everyone came inside, and there was no one outside to look down on?  A minister addresses a congregation of 100 people.  Only one will be saved.  And guess who everyone thinks that will be….. In truth, there was more than just a touch of the soulless doctrinaire Lenin in Calvin.  These smug, dour killers of joy have probably done far more damage to the cause of religion than the Renaissance Popes.

The English reformation had nothing to do with God or religion and everything to do with Henry VIII and politics.  MacCulloch – charitably, perhaps – says that Harry believed his first marriage was bad, but he mentions that this king ‘cruelly emphasised his commitment to his personally devised religious ‘middle way’ by executing three papal loyalists and three evangelicals.’  That’s more Stalin than Lenin.  One evangelical observed that Harry liked to celebrate a new wedding by burning someone at the stake.

What about the Counter-Reformation?

Luther’s parallel solitary struggles with God led him ultimately to a sense that his salvation was an unconditional gift of God, making him free of all his natural bonds; this freedom empowered him to defy what he saw as worldly powers of bondage in the medieval western church.  Inigo [Loyola] found that his encounter with God was best expressed in forms drawn from the Iberian society which had created the most triumphant form of that same church: chivalric expressions of duty and service.  The contrasting conversion experiences thus led respectively to rebellion and obedience.  It was a momentous symbol of what came to separate Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation.

And could we see different developments in the civil polities on either side of that fault-line?

We are about half way through the book – near the end of Volume I.  The second part covers the bloody aftermath, including the Thirty Years’ War.  It may drag for some.

The final part refers to the Enlightenment and, as published in 2003, says this:

….the revelation of child abuse by certain clergy and religious of the Church….has had a catastrophic effect on the perception of the Church hierarchy in the English-speaking Catholic world, and if Catholics in other cultural settings react in the same way when they begin to take notice of what has happened, the effects on Roman Catholicism are likely to be profound.  The crisis places a question mark against the imposition of compulsory celibacy on the Church’s ministry as formidable as any posed by Protestants in the first decades of the Reformation.

That is an example of the insight and clear exposition of this model book of history.

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