Luther and His Progeny: 500 Years of Protestantism and Its Consequences for Church, State, and Society, edited by John C. Rao
This will be interesting….
With this post, I begin my exploration of this book edited by Rao. The title is self-explanatory. My intent is not to get into the theology, but to examine the impact on society and what this meant (and means) for the growth of the state.
Of course, I recognize that I cannot publicly conduct this examination without theological blowback; do not be offended if I do not reply to any such comments.
I will also suggest: as I view a commonly accepted culture as perhaps the most important weapon against a growing state, whatever my view of the theology it cannot be escaped that the Reformation blew apart the previously commonly accepted culture. What we know today as “the state” did not exist throughout much of the European Middle Ages – it could not exist, given the view of “the law” during this more-or-less 1000 year period.
With this, let’s begin with the introduction: Half a Millennium of Total Depravity (1517 – 2017): A Critique of Luther’s Impact in the Year of His “Catholic” Apotheosis.
Our civilization is so sick that even the best efforts to prop up its tottering remains manifest the same illness that is step by step bringing the entire structure crumbling down. The disease in question is a willful, prideful, irrational, and ignorant obsession with “freedom.”
I can hear the howls in the audience – at least from those for whom libertarianism is the highest ideal, that freedom and liberty (as the terms are understood today) will unleash the best in humanity. All I can suggest is stick with me; we might all learn something.
Rao describes the events that Luther unleashed not as a “Reformation,” but a “Revolution”; I had never thought about these events in this way, but in retrospect it seems a more accurate label. It isn’t that Luther gave birth to ideas of his own; there were numerous sources indicating that man’s individual reason and conscious were both a reliable and sufficient pathway to God.
Nevertheless, the Christian man of the Late Middle Ages was too aware of the reality of sin to leap directly into an adulation of his individual willfulness.
Luther, and Calvin after him, offered a theology that embraced man’s “total depravity”; it was hopeless for man to attempt to transform himself and his communities into a manner that would be pleasing to God. It was hopeless for man to improve himself – we know what this means on an individual basis, when a man sees no hope: suicide.
But this lack of hope, this suicidal condition, came to be known as man’s “freedom”:
The remedy he offered was freedom from a Law that man, in his depraved, post-lapsarian state, could not possibly aspire to keeping.
Thus was born a negative definition of liberty – a freedom from the Law; within a couple of generations, the Enlightenment offered a new form of redemption: exultation in man’s sins and imperfections. Whatever one believes regarding theology, it cannot be denied that western man revels in almost every type of depravity and that modern liberalism promotes this as virtuous. All to the benefit of a growing state.
“Total depravity” became a self-fulfilling doctrine and the individual who could never hope to be reconciled with God made himself a god instead.
With man’s “freedom” being the ultimate (and only) good.
Rao’s opening chapter is entitled A Necessary Reform, Depraved From Birth. Again, I return to my idea of a common culture; I also think about comments offered by Jordan Peterson – and I paraphrase: don’t destroy the wheat with the chaff. As applied in this context, keep what is good of the culture, reform what is not – do not tear down all.
Rao does not ignore the chaff; he sees in the Europe of 1517 defects that could be – and were – exploited; not least in this was that the Catholic sovereigns – including the Pope – were constantly at war with each other – even to the extent of allying against each other and with the Muslim Turks!
Attempts at reform were made; vested interests would intervene and the proposed reforms were watered down. Within this environment, Luther unleashed the destruction of the unity of western Christianity and a “civilization integrally connected with the Catholic religion”; in its place came “the triumph of arbitrary willfulness.”
Rao examines the opportunity that Luther brought to princes and various local authorities to break free from the dual and competing governance of the Church; many took advantage of this opportunity to become the sole sovereign, unanswerable to any higher or alternate authority. This came to become the state that we know today.
I am immediately struck with considering the view presented by Jacques Barzun in his magnum opus, From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life. Barzun begins with Martin Luther. He describes 1500 as the “dawn”; he views World War I as the suicide of the west – decadence.
Rao and his fellow authors would say that Luther brought on no “dawn”; instead, the decadence and suicide came in 1517.
I must say, well before I heard of Rao or began reading this book, I suggested a similar view: the west’s liberalism, with its roots in the Renaissance, gave birth to the decadence that even Barzun finds today. I purposely avoided making a statement about the Reformation, as I did not (and still do not) feel qualified to dive into theology. Rao and his co-authors will now carry this load for me.
There is no possibility of freedom absent man accepting to live under a common culture, a culture that sustains and enhances life – this is not a sufficient condition for freedom to flourish, but it is a necessary condition.
In other words, defining freedom as man’s individual willfulness – even respecting solely the negative rights of libertarianism – offers us the opposite of freedom; in the place of common culture providing governance, we get the state.