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.”

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