Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Reforming the Reformation

Movements, systems, and factions need names, I suppose, just as much as plants or geographical formations or tools or cookies. But the problem I find with names of the objects first mentioned is that they usually mean something else as well and end up misleading.

For the sake of context, consider the word tree for a moment. If I’m two years old, I have to learn what that word means, what kind of object it denotes; later in life I may have trouble deciding whether crepe myrtle fits into that genus, but that question doesn’t make me doubt my basic understanding of the word tree. Tree doesn’t mean anything else before it means the woody plant that puts shade in my yard.

When I’m twenty-two years old, on the other hand, I have to learn the word dualism and learn to apply it to a religious or cosmological view that good and evil each have independent and balanced existence. Or perhaps I learn that the term refers to a philosophical position associated with Descartes, a position some university professors I’ve known like to allude to without understanding it. Or maybe I learn to associate the word with a certain epistemological concept, or with a particular principle of political structure. And there’s the problem. Dualism means too many things because it already means something before it gets applied to anything specific enough for professors to get confused about: it has the clear but uninteresting meaning that something has two something elses. If you tell me you bought a tree last weekend, I feel confident that the picture I have in my head is close to the true situation. But if you tell me that you had lunch with a Dualist last weekend, I don’t at all know what ideas dominated your dining partner’s speech. Although I do know that I feel very bad about the torture you suffered during your meal whichever way that conversational tree fell, all I know about the specifics of your friend’s hobby horse is that it divides whatever it divides into two.

Reformation is one of those words for me. From the mere shape of the word, all we know is that something that has had some certain shape in the past is being remolded into another shape. OK, you say, but history uses this word pretty much for only one thing: a European cultural and intellectual movement in the sixteenth century. Yes, but I’ve found that various figures identify different elements as the key among all the reshaping that occurred.

When I first heard the term as a teen (from a friend whose high-school European history class had actual content, unlike mine), I learned that Martin Luther started the movement, and I was surprised to find public-school history class so concerned with Christian theology. Maybe my American history class should have covered Methodism, Great Awakenings, and Fundamentalism, but it steered clear of the topics entirely. Well, it turns out this theological change brought on a war or two, and history classes love war. But they were wars, I believed or was led to believe, over theology; still, in my mind, the word Reformation meant the rise of Protestant doctrine. But outside of history class, which doctrine? And does Luther really have anything to do with it? Catholics may prefer to think about the Counter-Reformation. Some Calvinists co-opt the word for their own stripe of dogma and would balk at calling a Lutheran “reformed.” (“Reformed.” Ugh. Are you, Calvinist friend, saying that you, personally, were once Catholic and have been reformed into a Protestant?)

I meant for this post to be about Will and Ariel Durant, and I’ve finally come around to them. The Durants have plenty to say about Christian doctrine in their chapters on sixteenth-century Europe. But for them, the main thrust of the Reformation is that states came out from under Church control. The primary structure being reformed, in their view, was the political structure of Europe. More power to the State means more freedom . . . .

Wait, stop right there. More power to the State means more freedom? A revolutionary proposition and definitely true to a certain extent. Maybe what was being reformed most in the sixteenth century were habits of thought about politics rather than the structures themselves. We now resume our regular broadcasting. . . .

More power to the State, say the Durants, means more freedom for philosophy, more freedom for art, more freedom for science. The Durants don’t do anything as facile as pit faith against science, as I’ve heard some pastors and some scientists do. They recognize the faith of Galileo, Copernicus, and other players in the drama of the scientific revolution and the role that faith played in their work. But they certainly tell the tale of conflict between a particular Church and a few particular scientists. And the tale is not pretty.

The story of Galileo is grim enough. But even more disgusting is the story of Giordano Bruno. A Dominican, skeptic, and mystic, Bruno believed in an infinite universe with an infinitude of Copernican systems. Good-bye to the debate over whether the sun or the earth is at the center of the universe! He also taught the Platonesque doctrine that God is the Divine Mind whose body is the universe. Yes, that idea makes him not a Christian teacher. But the Church, instead of defrocking Bruno and clarifying to the world that he was not one of the orthodox, arrested him, held him for seven years with sporadic hearings sometimes a year apart, and eventually burned him alive for his views on the Trinity and Incarnation. I don’t even have to look at this story through the Durants’ secular-humanist lenses to see the point clearly: if anything needed reforming, it was the political power of the Church to hold and torture people for their beliefs. And profession of Protestant doctrine didn’t do much to reform that structure, or we wouldn’t have had Calvin’s Geneva. Now if only we could prevent the State from torturing people for their beliefs!

Now, to end with a note of clarification, I’m a man of great faith: I believe I am a part if the Church that Jesus taught about. I also believe that in some way Jesus spoke truthfully when He said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Friday, September 14, 2018

Where Have I Read This Before?

I’ve read this story somewhere before. A very rich man comes to the highest political office in a powerful country. His wife, perhaps not feeling the attachment to her husband as keenly as some married women do, has her own home and tries living there for a while. Meanwhile, the new leader discovers to his annoyance that he cannot do or say whatever he wishes but must defer sometimes to the advice of his Cabinet. Then certain newspapers become concerned when they discover that he has tried to hush up a payment that suggests improper influence in the election that brought him to power. In spite of his wealth and position, he is thin-skinned, and everyone around him learns that they must coddle him.

Yes, these points of Anthony Trollope’s The Prime Minister sound very familiar, and yet . . . and yet the lessons of the story are so very different. Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium and now Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, is scrupulous to the point of impracticality. He does nothing apart from principle – will not, for instance, endorse any candidate whose election would tend to sustain his – the Prime Minister’s – tenure in office. His wife, however, has no such hesitations and encourages Mr. Lopez to run: or to “stand,” as the English say. (Oh, yes, feelings of discomfort held toward a man with a Latin name play a part in the tale.) When Lopez loses and applies to the Duke for repayment of his campaign expenses, P.M. Palliser finds himself in a moral dilemma and writes the check because he believes Lopez to have been deceived. Everyone with a moral sense believes Palliser to be an upstanding man. Even his political enemies refrain from making any personal accusations about the payment.

I’m only about 60% of the way through the book, but the biggest theme so far seems to be power and compromise: how they work together and how they are opposed. While Plantagenet Palliser can see, for instance, that he must compromise and defer at times with his Cabinet, he can’t see at all that his wife, Glencora, has her own mind that he must sometimes defer to. Now it could be that, the Victorian era being what it was, Trollope would just accept the domination of a man over his wife however much he may sympathize with the woman whose husband doesn’t use his oversight justly. After all, as far as I’ve read, Glencora doesn’t get her way on her most important project and must simply learn how to deal with the situation. Maybe Trollope, as a Victorian author, expected his audience to share Glencora’s acceptance of her position.

But I don’t think so. The same dynamic happens with another couple in the book, and there Trollope doesn’t let the cultural norm stand. Emily Wharton’s husband has none of the Prime Minister's virtues, and she becomes miserable soon after her marriage when she discovers the true, dastardly character of the man she has given herself to. Emily indeed believes (as surely many women at the time did) that she must acknowledge that she has ruined her life and must simply suffer the just consequences by dutifully living out her life of misery. But her father – the old guy – the old conservative guy – wants her away from the scoundrel and devises a scheme of payment that will assure the separation be permanent.

Trollope received a lot of criticism for The Prime Minister when it was published. His position in the book isn’t radical feminism by our standards, but it appeared so in the 1870s, and the newspapers and journals (written mostly by men, of course) let him know about it. I don’t know what his mostly female readership thought of the idea of separating from a cruel, deceitful husband. I suppose I don’t actually know that Trollope won’t side with the Y chromosome by the end of the book. But I doubt it.

By the way, Trollope tells us that Emily’s husband doesn’t know that he’s a bad person or that he disgusts her. He thinks spending money he doesn’t have and defaulting on loans is just a way to do business. Yes, I’ve heard this story somewhere before.