and while the disreputable sort of Calvinist and the disreputable sort of Catholic still brawl online, in official ecclesiastical circles the rule is to speak of the Reformation in regretful tones, like children following a bad divorce who hope that now that many years have passed the divided family can come together for a holiday, or at least an ecumenical communion service.
Meanwhile, the secular intelligentsia can only really celebrate the Reformation’s anniversary in instrumental terms. From the perspective of official liberalism, most of the Reformation fathers were fundamentalists and bigots, even worse in some cases than the Catholics they opposed. So for the Lutheran and Calvinist rebellions to be worth memorializing, it must be as a means to secularizing ends — the liberation of the individual from the shackles of religious authority, which allowed scientific inquiry and capitalism to flourish, made secular politics possible, and ultimately permitted liberalism to triumph.
.. a world that was built on the wreckage created by Christian civilization’s civil war. Neither the Protestants nor Catholics won that war between the faiths: The instrumentalists did, the Machiavellians, the Westerners who wanted political and economic life set free from the meddling of troublesome priests and turbulent prophets.
.. 500 years after Luther threaded his 95 tweets together and pinned them to a door in Wittenberg, it’s their propaganda that deserves the most scrutiny, the most skepticism, the strongest doubts.
At the heart of that propaganda is a simple story about authority and the individual. First, this story goes, Protestantism replaced the authority of the church with the authority of the Bible. Then, once it became clear that nobody could agree on what the Bible meant, the authority of conscience became pre-eminent — and from there we entered naturally (if with some bloody resistance from various reactionary forces) into the age of liberty, democracy and human rights.
.. The Reformation and its wars did indeed diminish religious authority, secularize politics and allow certain kinds of individualism to flourish. But they also empowered (and were exploited and worsened by) the great new gods of modernity, the almighty market and the centralizing state, which claimed their own kind of authority
.. eventually revived the worst tendencies of the old Christendom, anti-Semitism and millenarianism, in fascist and Communist experiments that added the genocide of millions to the modern state’s list of crimes.
.. because Cromwellism, mass murder in the service of secular power and commercial wealth, has just as strong a claim as liberty or individualism to define the world that succeeded Christendom’s collapse.
.. It is also possible to imagine a world where an undivided Roman church harnessed science and technology to its own sort of religious-totalitarian ends, and became a theocratic boot stamping on a human face, forever.
So perhaps the modern world as we know it was the best we could do, the only path to liberty and pluralism and mass prosperity, however many Cromwells it required to get here.
.. But my own (biased, Catholic) guess is that given the technological and social changes already at work in early modern Europe, the great new modern powers, the state and the commercial interest, would have come to bestride the world no matter what happened to Christian unity.
.. the history of Western colonial ventures, in which for hundreds of years it was mostly the intensely religious (as compromised and corrupted as their churches often were) that remonstrated against mass murder and enslavement, that sought to defend natives and establish norms for their protection
.. What are our pan-national institutions, our United Nations and European Union, all our interlocking NGOs, if not an attempt to recreate a kind of ecclesiastical power, a churchlike form of sovereignty, on the basis of thinner, less dogmatic but still essentially metaphysical ideas — the belief in human dignity and human rights?
.. But they are a made-up religion whose acolytes at some level know it — and the thinness of their metaphysics, their weak claim on human loyalties, makes them mostly just a pleasing cloak over the dark power that’s actually stabilized the modern world, the terrifying threat of nuclear war.