Friday, February 27, 2009

Protestantism: Gift and Task

(A little in-joke for our ELCA readers, there.)

Funny thing about the Reformation.  Sometimes it gets blamed for driving reason out of Christianity, other times for brining reason in.

Some years ago, in a get-to-know-you meeting with some other adjunct faculty at a small college, a young Papist professor talked about her doctoral work at the Gregorianum on -- well, we don't really remember, because it was so far over our heads.  Let's say it was the roots of nominalism in the Scotist hacceity.  Maybe it was.  Anyway, somebody else commented on how philosophy and theology had once been so deeply entwined, and she harrumphed, looked at the lone Lutheran in the room, and said, "Yes -- until 1517."

Well, golly.  It is not unfair to argue that the Reformers placed reason well below Scripture on their hierarchy of authorities.  Indeed, when John Donne talks about "reason" in his sermons, as he frequently does, he means Scriptural authority for a philosophical statement.  It is a legitimate criticism of Protestant theology, including some of the good stuff, that it uses Scripture to interpret the world, rather than the reverse.  Worst-case scenario:  creationism.

But then you have another Papist, Charles Taylor, trying to understand the roots of secularism.  How did society, at least in the West, become so tragically separated from a transcendent source of value?  Who is to blame?  Surprise!  Protestants.

As the case is summed up in a Dissent review of Taylor's A Secular Age, linked up top, there is in every traditional society a "tension ... between the life of religious ascetics and the inevitably less perfect lives of ordinary people," but the history of Latin Christendom is distinguished by  (and this may be counterintuitive for some readers, because they forget that the Reformation is a typical swing of the Latin pendulum, not a radical break from its course) “the deep and growing dissatisfaction with it.”  The reviewer explains:

The movement that culminated in the Protestant Reformation began in the Middle Ages. There were repeated efforts by the church, first to reform its own practices and later to restrain as idolatrous the veneration of saints’ relics, magic, miracle-mongering, and dancing around the maypole. The Reformation radicalized this move by abolishing this tension and inaugurating the “priesthood of all believers.” Ordinary life — work, play, sex — began to take on sacred meaning. The Christian virtues were no longer those of ascetic monks; an ethos of personal responsibility and self-discipline became available to everyone.

But, according to this narrative, an attempt to sacralize the mundane world backfired, and created a "this worldly-ethos" which "made it possible to cut loose from religiosity altogether." And "Thus a reforming movement in Christianity was in time transformed into militant secularism."

Well, there's evidence for this as well.  The reviewer points to the rise of experimental science in Protestant societies, which is tricky:  Galileo and the great navigators were of the Romish persuasion.  But at the end of the day, those societies in which the Reformation theologies first took hold are today among some of the most secular in the world (using the customary, and wrong-headed, understanding of the term; see above).  Best-case scenario:  Consider Bonhoeffer, trying to "speak of God without religion."

Still, we wish philosophers would get it straight.  Did the Reformation mark the end of reason or the beginning?  The suspense is killing us.

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