4. The modern world-view
The Renaissance 1
The Reformation 6
The Scientific Revolution 15
The religious reaction 17
Forging the Newtonian cosmology 22
The Philosophical Revolution 29
Foundations of Modern Worldview 34
Ancients and Moderns 39
The triumph of secularism 44
Science and religion: early concord 44
Science and religion: compromise and conflict 46
Philosophy, politics, and psychology 49
The modern character 56
Hidden continuities 57
To understand the historical emergence of the modern mind, we have to examine the complexly intermingled cultural epochs known as the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution.
The Renaissance is characterized by sheer diversity of its expressions and their unprecedented quality. Within the span of a single generation, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael produced their masterworks, Columbus discovered America, Luther rebelled against the Catholic Church and began the Reformation, and Copernicus hypothesized a heliocentric universe and commenced the scientific revolution. Compared to the medieval epoch, “Renaissance man” appeared as if suddenly of superhuman status. Suddenly it seemed we were capable of penetrating nature’s secrets, in art and science, with unparalleled mathematical sophistication, empirical precision, and a numinous aesthetic power. Human beings immensely expanded the known world, discovered new continents, and rounded the globe; they defied traditional authorities and asserted the truth based on individual judgment. While they appreciated the riches of classical epochs, they also felt as if they were breaking out of all ancient boundaries. Polyphonic music, tragedy, comedy, poetry, painting, architecture, and sculpture all achieved new levels of complexity and beauty. Individual genius and independence were everywhere evident, and no domain of knowledge, creativity, or exploration seemed beyond human capacities.
With the Renaissance human life appeared to hold immediate inherent value and existential meaning that balanced and even displaced the medieval focus on the afterlife as our spiritual destiny. No longer do human beings appear inconsequential relative to God, church, or nature. On many fronts Pico’s proclamation of human dignity seemed to be fulfilled. From Petrarch, Boccaccio, Bruni, and Alberti through Erasmus, More, Machiavelli, Bacon, and Galileo, the Renaissance produced paragons of human achievement such as had not been seen since the Greeks. With the Renaissance Western man was reborn.
Yet all was not light and splendor for the Renaissance arrived in the wake of a series of unmitigated disasters and continuous social upheavals. Beginning in the mid 14th c. the black plague swept through Europe and destroyed one-third of the population undermining economic and cultural achievements that had sustained the high medieval civilization. Many believed that the wrath of God had come upon the world. The Hundred Years war between France and England (1336-1565; Black death 1345; Henry V defeated French at Avignon 1382; Joan of Arc 1430 defeated the British; the war ended with the loss of British control of the continent) seemed never ending, and Italy was ravaged by internal and internecine conflict. Pirates, bandits and mercenaries were everywhere. Religious strife was international. Severe economic depression was universal for decades. The universities were sclerotic. New diseases entered through European ports; black magic and devil worship flourished as did group flagellation, the dance of death in cemeteries, the black mass, the Inquisition, tortures and burning at the stake. Ecclesiastical conspiracies were routine, including papacy backed assassinations in front of the Florentine cathedral altar at High Mass on Easter Sunday. Murder and rape and pillage were daily realities, famine and pestilence were annual perils. The Turkish hordes threatened to overrun Europe; apocalyptic expectations abounded. The RC church itself was the very center of corruption and seemed devoid of any spirituality. Against this backdrop of massive cultural decay, violence, and death did the rebirth of the Renaissance take place.
As with the medieval Cultural Revolution several centuries earlier, technical inventions played major role in making the new era. Four such inventions (all with Oriental precursors) were the
(1) magnetic compass permitting navigation,
(2) gunpowder which contributed to the demise of the old feudal order and the ascent of nationalism,
(3) the mechanical clock which brought decisive change in human relationship in relation to time, nature, work; and
(4) the printing press which enormously increased learning. All these inventions were not only modernizing but also secularizing in their effects.
1. The artillery-supported rise of internally cohesive nation-states signified the overthrow of medieval feudal structures and the empowerment of secular forces against the Roman Catholic Church.
2. The printing press allowed the rapid dissemination of new and often revolutionary ideas throughout Europe. This enabled the Reformation to be widespread (instead of remaining a local German theological dispute), and the scientific revolution to communicate scientific findings internationally. It also enable literacy and the private articulation of ideas encouraging individualism in silent reading, and solitary reflection, and so freed the masses from traditional ways of thinking in the spread of a multiplicity of perspectives now available to individuals.
3. The mechanical clock became the paradigm of modern machines, and the metaphor of the newly emerging science – indeed for the entire modern mind in its vision of nature and cosmos.
4. Likewise the magnetic compass allowed the exploration of course but also intellectual innovation in the natural world allowing the West’s sense of being at the heroic frontier of civilized history. By unexpectedly revealing errors in the discoveries of ancient explorers, Europeans got a new sense of competence and superiority over antiquity undermining previous authorities. Among these discredited geographers was Ptolemy whose status in astronomy was thereby affected as well. Navigational expeditions also required more accurate astronomical knowledge and proficient astronomers among whom was Copernicus. The discovery of new continents brought the possibility of economic and political expansion and so the transformation of European social structures. With new discoveries/continents came a new awareness of Western relativism and the boundaries to Western absolutism.
Together with these invention and their consequences, there was also the important psychological development in which the European character, beginning in Italy, underwent change. The Italian city-states of the 14th and 15th c, Florence, Milan, Venice, Urbano, were the most advanced centers in Europe what with commercial prosperity, contact with older civilizations in the East, and with Mediterranean trade, they had the concentration of economic and cultural wealth. The weakening of the Roman papacy in its struggle with an fragmented Holy Roman Empire and with rising nation-states to the north produced in Italy a condition of cultural fluidity. The Italian city-states being small and independent of external authority, their commercial and cultural vitality all provided a political stage upon which a new bold creative spirit and ruthless individualism could flourish. The political state itself was seen as something to be comprehended and manipulated by human will and intelligence, a political understanding making Italian city-states forerunners of the modern state.
The new value placed on individualism and personal genius reinforced a similar characteristic in Italian humanists whose sense of personal worth rested on an individual capacity and its emancipation from authority/tradition in a many sided genius. The medieval Christian ideal in which personal identity was largely absorbed in the collective Christian body of souls faded in the fervor of a more pagan heroic mode: “man as individual adventurer, genius, and rebel”. Realization of the protean self was best achieved not through saintly withdrawal from the world but through a life of genuine service of the city-state (civil life), scholarship, the arts, commerce, and social intercourse/entrepreneurship. Older dichotomies were now comprehended in a larger unity: activity in the world and well as contemplation of eternal truths, devotion to the state, family, self as well as to God and church; physical pleasure as well as spiritual happiness; prosperity as well as virtue. Forsaking the ideal of monastic poverty, Renaissance man embraced the enrichments of life afforded by personal wealth, and the humanist scholars and artists flourished in the new climate subsidized by Italian commercial and aristocratic elite.
The combined influences of political dynamism, economic wealth, broad scholarship, sensuous art, and a special intimacy with ancient and Mediterranean cultures all encouraged a new and secular spirit in the Italian ruling class, extending even into the inner sanctum of the Vatican. In the eyes of the pious a certain paganism and amorality began to pervade Italian life. We see this in the calculated barbarities and intrigues of political life, but in the unabashed worldliness of Renaissance man’s interest in nature, knowledge, beauty, and luxury for its own sake. It was therefore from its origins in the dynamic culture of Renaissance Italy that thereby developed a distinctive Western personality. Marked by individualism, secularity, strength of will, multiplicity of interest and impulse, creative innovation, willing to defy the traditional limits of human activity, this spirit soon began to spread over all of Europe…
This is our modern character.
For all the secularism of the age, the Roman Church attained its pinnacle of glory: Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican stand as monuments to the church’s undisputed sovereignty in Western culture. Here is articulated the full grandeur of the Roma Catholic self-conception, encompassing Genesis and biblical drama (Sistine ceiling), classical Greek philosophy and science (the School of Athens), poetry and the creative arts (Parnassus), all culminating in the theology and supreme pantheon of Roman Catholic Christianity (La Disputa del Sacramento, The triumph of the church). The procession of the centuries, the history of the western soul was here given immortal embodiment.
Under the guidance of the inspired but un-priest-like Pope Julius II, protean artists like Raphael, Bramante, and Michelangelo produced works of unsurpassed beauty that celebrated the majestic Catholic vision. Thus, the RC church, the Mother Church, mediatrix between God and man, matrix of Western culture, now assembled and integrated all her diverse elements: Judaism and Hellenism, Scholasticism and Humanism, Platonism and Aristotelianism, pagan myth and biblical revelation. A new Summa was written integrating all historical elements in one transcendent synthesis. It was as if the church anticipating its demise mustered up all its resources, called up its most exalted cultural self-understanding, and found artists of seemingly divine stature to incarnate its this image.
Yet this efflorescence of the RC church in the midst of an era that was decidedly secular and present-worldly was a kind of paradox that was altogether characteristic of the Renaissance. For the unique position in cultural history held by the Renaissance as a whole derives not the least from its simultaneous balance and synthesis of many opposites: Christian and pagan, modern and classical, secular and sacred, art and science, science and religion, poetry and politics. The Renaissance was both an age to itself and a transition. At once medieval and modern, it was still highly religious (Ficino, Michelangelo, Erasmus, More, Savonarola, Luther, Loyola, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross) and yet undeniably worldly (Machiavelli, Cellini, Castiglione, Montaigne, Bacon, the Medici, Borgias, and most renaissance popes). At the same time that scientific sensibility arose and flourished, religious passion also surged and often in combination.
The Renaissance integration of contraries had already been foreshadowed in Petrarch’s ideal of docta pietas and was now fulfilled in religious scholars like Erasmus and his friend Thomas More. With the Christian humanists of the Renaissance, irony and constraint, worldly activity and classical erudition served the Christian cause in ways the medieval era had not witnessed. A literate and ecumenical evangelism replaced a dogmatic piety of a more primitive Christianity. A critical religious intellectuality superceded naïve religious superstition. The philosopher Plato and the apostle Paul were brought together and synthesized to produce a new philosophia Christi…..
However, it was the art of the Renaissance that best expressed its contraries and its unity. Early in the 14th c only one in twenty paintings could be found with a non-religious subject; a century later there were five times as many. Even inside the Vatican, paintings of nude and pagan deities face the Madonna and Christ Child. The human body was celebrated in its beauty, formal harmony, and proportion, yet often in services of religious subjects or as a revelation of God’s wisdom. Renaissance art was devoted to the exact imitation of nature (unprecedented naturalistic realism) and yet rendering sublime numinosity, depicting spiritual and mythic being, and even contemporary human figures informal perfection and ineffable grace. But this capacity for rendering the numinous required technical innovation – geometrical mathematization of space, linear perspective, aerial perspective, anatomical knowledge, chiaroscuro, sfumato – that developed from a striving for perceptual realism and empirical accuracy. In turn these achievements in painting and drawing propelled later scientific advances in anatomy and medicine, and foreshadowed the scientific revolution’s universal mathematization of the natural world. Renaissance art depicted a world of rationally related solids in a unified space seen from a single objective perspective. This was the beginning of the world/universe as a grand machine.
The Renaissance thrived on a determined “decompartmentalization” eliminating strict divisions in the different realms of human knowledge and experience. Leonardo was committed to the search for knowledge as much as for beauty: “the science of painting”. His art revealed an uncanny spiritual expressiveness that accompanied and was nurtured by extreme technical accuracy of depiction. He painted the Last Supper and The Virgin on the Rocks but he also wrote notebooks of fundamental principles – empirical, mathematical, and mechanical – that would dominate scientific thinking.
So too did Copernicus and Kepler, with neo-Platonic and Pythagorean motivations, seek solutions to problems in astronomy that would satisfy aesthetic imperatives – one that led to the heliocentric universe. Equally significant were the religious motivations, usually combined with Platonic themes, impelling most of the figures of the scientific revolution (the “new science”), through to Newton. Implicit in all these activities was the half-inarticulate notion of a distant mythical golden age when all things had been known – the mythic Garden of Eden, ancient classical times, past era of sages. Mankind’s fall from this primal state of enlightenment had brought about a drastic fall from knowledge. Recovery of knowledge (the “new science”) was therefore itself endowed with religious significance.
So once again, just as in classical Athens the religion, art and myth of the ancient Greeks met and interacted with the new and equally Greek spirit of rationalism and science, this paradoxical conjunction and balance also characterized the Renaissance.
While the Renaissance was a direct outgrowth of the burgeoning culture of the high middle ages, between the mid 15th and early 17th centuries there was an unmistakable quantum leap in the evolution of culture in the West. In retrospect, we can see several factors operating here:
(1) rediscovery of antiquity, notably the Platonic/Pythagorean tradition
(2) commercial vitality, mercantilism, international trade
(3) city-states personality (political/economic “centers”, and
(4) technical/scientific inventions.
Yet there was something larger than any and all of these factors. There was also a new consciousness – expansive, rebellious, energetic, creative, individualistic, ambitious, and often unscrupulous, curious, self-confident, committed to this life and this world, open-eyed and skeptical, inspired and inspirited – and this greater emergence had to do with more than political, economic, technological, religious, philosophical or artistic factors. It was not accidental that the Renaissance reformulated the medieval division of history into two periods, before and after Christ (with their own time vaguely separated from the Roman era after Christ). Renaissance historians achieved an entirely new perspective on the past: history was now defined and perceived for the first time as tripartite: ancient, medieval, and modern thereby sharply distinguishing the classical and medieval eras with the Renaissance itself being the beginning of a new age.
The events of the Renaissance took place with enormous rapidity. Columbus and Leonardo were both born in the same half decade (1450-55) that brought the Guttenberg printing press, the fall of Constantinople with the resulting influx, and the end of the hundred years’ war in which both England and France forged a national consciousness. The same two decades (1468-88) that saw the Florentine Academy’s neo-Platonic revival at its height during the reign of Lorenzo the Magnificent also saw the birth of Copernicus, Luther, Castiglione, Raphael, Durer, Machelangelo, Giogione, Machiavelli, Casare Borgia, Zwingli, Pizarro, Megellan, and More. In the same period, Aragon and Castile were joined by the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella to form the nation of Spain, the Tudors succeeded the throne of England, Leonardo began his artistic career (with his painting of the angel in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ and the Birth of Venus, Ficino wrote the Theologia Platonica and published the first version of Plato in the West, Erasmus received his early humanist education in Holland and Pico della Mirandola composed the manifesto of Renaissance Humanism (Oration on the dignity of man). Much more than “causes” were operative here. A spontaneous and irreducible revolution of consciousness was taking place affecting every aspect of Western culture. Amidst high drama and painful convulsion, modern man was born in the Renaissance, “trailing clouds of glory”.
When the Renaissance, the spirit of individualism reached the realm of theology and religious conviction within the church, in the form of the Augustinian monk Martin Luther, there erupted in Europe the momentous Protestant Reformation. The Renaissance had incorporated both classical culture and Christianity in one expansive vision, but the continued moral deterioration of the papacy in the south now encountered a new resurgence of religiosity in the north of Europe. The relaxed cultural syncretism displayed by the Renaissance church’s embrace of Greco-Roman pagan culture (including the immense patronage this demanded) helped to precipitate the church’s absolute religious authority. Armed with the thunderous moral power of the Old Testament prophets, Luther defiantly confronted the Roman papacy’s patent neglect of the original Christian faith revealed in the Bible (which became available in print with the Gutenberg press). Sparked by Luther’s rebellion, an insuperable cultural reaction swept through the 16th c reasserting the Christian religion while simultaneously shattering the unity of Western Christendom (i.e., the Roman Church).
The immediate cause of the Reformation was the papacy’s attempt to finance the architectural and artistic glories of the high Renaissance by the theologically dubious means of selling spiritual indulgences. Tetzel the traveling friar whose sale of indulgences in Germany
Provoked Luther in 1517 to post his 95 theses, had be so authorized by Medici Pope Leo X to raise money for the Saint Peter’s Basilica. An indulgence was the remission of punishment for a sin after guilt had been sacramentally forgiven – a church practice that was influenced by pre-Christian Germanic custom of commuting the physical penalty for a crime to a money payment. To grant such an indulgence, the church drew from the treasury of merits accumulated by the good works of the saints, and in return the recipient made a contribution to the church. A voluntary and popular arrangement, the practice allowed the church to raise money for financing crusades and building cathedrals and hospitals. At first applied only to penalties imposed by the church in this life, by Luther’s time indulgences were being granted to remit penalties imposed by God in the afterlife, including immediate release from purgatory. With indulgences remitting sins, the sacrament of penance was compromised.
Beyond the matter of indulgences was the more fundamental question of the long-developing political secularism of the church hierarchy, undermining its spiritual integrity while embroiling it in diplomatic and military struggles; the problem of deep piety and terrible poverty (and plagues) among the church faithful, in contrast to the often irreligious but socially and economically privileged clergy; the rise of monarchical power, nationalism, and local German insurgency against the universal ambitions of the Roman papacy and the Hapsburgs’ Holy Roman Empire. Yet the more immediate cause, the church’s expensive patronage of high culture informs a deeper factor behind the Reformation, namely the anti-Hellenic/Platonic spirit with which Luther sought to purify Christianity and return it to pristine biblical foundation. For the Reformation was also a purist Judaic reaction against the Hellenic (and Roman) impulse of Renaissance culture, Scholastic philosophy, and much post-apostolic Christianity in general. Yet perhaps the must fundamental element in the genesis of the Reformation was the emerging spirit of rebelliousness, self-determining individualism, and the growing impulse for intellectual and spiritual independence which had developed to a crucial point where a critical stand could be taken against the West’s highest cultural authority, namely the Roman Catholic Church.
Luther desperately sought for a gracious God’s redemption in the face of so much evidence to the contrary both God’s damning judgment and Luther’s own sinfulness. He could not find that grace in himself or in his works, nor did he find it in the church, not in its sacraments, not in its ecclesiastical hierarchy, and assuredly not in papal indulgences. It was, finally, faith in God’s redeeming power as revealed through Christ in the Bible, and that alone, which rendered Luther’s experience of salvation, and upon that rock alone did he built his new church of a reformed Christianity. In contrast, Erasmus as a devout humanist wished to save the church’s unity and mission by reforming it from within. But the church hierarchy was absorbed in other matters and remained intransigently insensitive to such needs, while Luther, with equal intransigence, declared the necessity of a complete schism and independence from an institution he now vowed as the seat of the antichrist (i.e., the Roma Church).
Pope Leo X thought of Luther’s revolt as just another monk’s quarrel, and he long delayed any answer to Luther’s objections. Three years after the 95 theses had been posted Luther received a papal bull to submit which he burned. At the meeting of the Imperial Diet, the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor Charles V declared that no single friar could be right in denying the validity of all Christianity for 1000 years and wishing to maintain the unity of the Christian religion, Charles V placed an imperial ban on Luther (who refused to recant) as a heretic. But empowered by rebellious German princes and knights, Luther’s theological insurgency rapidly expanded to an international upheaval. In retrospect, the post-Constantinian welding of Christian religion and the Roman state had proven to be a two-edged sword contributing to both the church ascendancy as well as to its eventual decline. The overarching cultural union maintained in Europe for 1000 years by the RC church was now irrevocably split.
But it was Luther’s personal religious dilemma that was the bottom line in the Reformation. Luther’s acute sense of alienation and terror before the omnipotent saw that it was the whole man who was corrupt and needed God’s forgiveness (not just particular sins that could be erased by the church). Particular sins were merely a symptom of a more fundamental sickness in man’s soul that required healing. One could not purchase redemption, step by step, through good works or the legalisms of penance or other sacraments (not to mention indulgences). Only Christ could save the whole man, and only man’s faith in Christ could justify him before God. Only in this way could the terrible righteousness of an angry God, who justly damns sinners to eternal perdition, be transformed into the merciful righteousness of a forgiving God who freely rewards the faithful with eternal bliss. As Luther discovered in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, human beings could not earn their salvation by good works or even by true belief; rather, God gave it freely to those who have faith. The source of that faith is the Holy Scripture wherein God’s mercy is revealed in Christ’s crucifixion for all humankind. There alone could the Christian believer find the means for salvation. The RC church with its cynical marketplace practice of claiming to be dispensing God’s grace, distributing the merits of the saints, forgiving men’s sins, and releasing them from debts owed in the afterlife, in return for money for its own irreligious purposes, meanwhile claiming papal infallibility, is an imposter. The church could no longer be the medium of Christian truth (instead the Christian truth came through faith and faith was granted those who were individually inspired through reading of Holy Scripture).
Luther questioned all accretions into Christianity by the RC church that were not found in the New Testament; these were expelled by the Protestants. The centuries’ accumulation of sacraments, rituals, and art, the complex organizational structures, the priestly hierarchy and its spiritual authority, the natural and rational theology of the Scholastics, the belief in purgatory, papal infallibility, clerical celibacy, Eucharistic transubstantiation, the saints’ treasury of merits, the popular worship of the Virgin Mary, and finally also the Mother church itself, all these had become antithetic to the individual Christian’s primacy of faith in Christ’s redemptive grace: justification by faith alone. The Christian believer had to be rescued from the obscuring clutches of the old system for only in one’s direct individual responsibility to God could one be free to experience God’s grace. The only authority is the authority of Scripture – all else was irrelevant.
In defense of the church, Catholic theologians argued that the sacramental institutions were both valuable and necessary and that its doctrinal tradition, which interpreted original revelation, held genuine authority. Moral and practical reforms were necessary but the inherent sanctity of the church was sound. Without tradition, these theologians held, God’s Word would be less than potent in this world and less understood by the faithful. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit invested in the institutes of the church, the church could draw out and affirm elements not in the biblical text. Indeed, the church in its earliest apostolic stages preceded the NT, and in fact produced the NT and canonized as God’s Word.
The Reformers in turn argued that the church had replaced faith in the person of Christ with faith in the doctrine of the church. “It had thereby placed the church between God and man.” Only direct contact with the Bible could redirect the human soul in its contact with Christ. In the protestant vision, true Christianity was founded on grace alone and Scripture alone. While the RC church agreed that those were indeed the fundamental elements of the Christian religion, it maintained that the institutional church, with its sacraments, priestly hierarchy, and doctrinal tradition as intrinsically and dynamically related to that foundation – faith in God as revealed in the Scripture – served the propagation of that faith. Erasmus argued against Luther that man’s free will and virtuous actions were not to be entirely discounted in the process of salvation. Roman Catholicism held that divine grace and human merit were both instrumental in redemption and did not have to be viewed as being in opposition. Most important, the church argued that Scriptural based faith and institutional tradition were not in opposition; on the contrary, Catholicism provided the living vessel for the Word’s emergence in the world.
Yet for the Reformers the church actual practices belied its ideals. Its priestly hierarchy was too corrupt and its doctrinal tradition too remote from revelation and to reform these structures was both futile and theologically erroneous. Luther argued persuasively for God’s exclusive role in salvation, man’s spiritual helplessness, the moral bankruptcy of the church, and the exclusive authority of Scripture. The Protestant spirit prevailed in half of Europe and Western Christianity was no longer monolithic nor a source of cultural unity.
The peculiar paradox of the Reformation was its essentially ambiguous character for it was at once a conservative religious reaction and a radically libertarian revolution. The Protestants forged by Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin proclaimed revival of Bible based on Judaic Christianity, unequivocally monotheistic, affirming the God of Abraham and Moses as supreme, omnipotent, transcendent, and “other” and man as fallen, helpless, predestined for damnation or salvation – and in case of the latter entirely dependent on God’s grace for redemption. Whereas Aquinas had postulated every creature’s participation in God’s infinite and free essence and asserted the God-given autonomy of human nature, the reformers perceived the absolute sovereignty of God over his creation in more dichotomous terms of man’s innate sinfulness making the independent human will inherently ineffective and perverse. While Protestantism was optimistic concerning God (the gratuitous merciful preserver of the elect), it was uncompromisingly pessimistic concerning man (that “teeming horde of infamies” - Calvin). Human freedom was so bound to evil that it consisted merely of the ability to choose among different degrees of sin. For the reformers, human autonomy suggested apostasy. Human beings’ true freedom and joy lay solely in obedience to God’s will and the capacity for such obedience arose solely from God’s merciful gift of grace. Nothing the individual did could bring him/her closer to salvation. Nor could human beings’ illumination be achieved through rational ascent of a Scholastic theology contaminated by Greek philosophy. Only God could provide genuine illumination, and only Scripture revealed authentic truth. Against the Renaissance dalliance with a more flexible Hellenized Christianity, with pagan neo-Platonism and its universal religion and human deification, Luther, and more systematically Calvin, reinstituted the more strictly defined, morally rigorous, and ontological dualistic Augustinian Judaic-Christian worldview.
This reassertion of “pure” traditional Christianity was given further impetus throughout European culture by the RC counter-reformation beginning in the mid 16th c with the Council of Trent (an acrimonious 19th ecumenical council held from 1545-1563, when RC became aware of its crisis and began to make internal changes). The papacy reformed itself from within and became austere so much so that the church restated the tenets of its faith while maintaining the church’s essential authority structure and sacramental authority in just as militant terms as did the Protestants. Thus, on both sides of the divide, Catholic in the south and Protestant in the north of Europe, orthodox Christianity reestablished itself in a conservative backlash against the Renaissance’ pagan Hellenism, naturalism, and secularism.
Yet for all its conservativism the Protestant rebellion against the church was an unprecedented revolutionary act in Western culture. Not only as a successful social and political insurgency against the Roman papacy and ecclesiastical hierarchy, with the reformers supporting the secular German rulers and other countries, but first and foremost as an assertion of individual conscience and consciousness against the established church framework of belief, ritual, and organizational structure. For the fundamental question of the Reformation concerned the locus of religious authority. In the Protestant vision neither the pope nor the church possessed the spiritual competence to define Christian belief. Luther taught instead the “priesthood of all believers”: the religious authority rested finally and solely in each individual Christian, reading and interpreting the Bible according to his/her own private conscience/consciousness in the context of his/her personal relationship with God. The presence of the Holy Spirit, in all its liberating and inspirational and non-institutional freedom was to be affirmed in every Christian against the quenching constriction so the Roman church.
It was the unflinching individual confrontation with God that revealed to Luther both God’s omnipotence and mercy. The two contraries characteristic of Protestantism, independent human self and all-powerful Deity were inextricably related. Hence, the individualism of Protestantism is twofold: (1) alone outside the church, and (2) alone before God. Luther spoke:
“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen”
Thus, the Reformation was a new and decisively assertion of individual conscience and of Christian liberty; of critical private judgment against the monolithic authority of the institutional church. This movement propelled the Renaissance further out of the medieval church and medieval character. Thus, while the Reformation was a Judaic-Christian reaction against the Renaissance pagan-Hellenistic culture, it was also a continuation of the Renaissance personal individualism and autonomy. The era saw both the Renaissance and the Reformation as revolutionary – and it was this Promethean Zeitgeist that impelled Luther’s rebellion far beyond where he wanted to take it. For the Reformation was in this sense only part of a much larger expression of a cultural transformation taking place in the West.
Here we encounter another extraordinary paradox of the Reformation: for while it was intensely and unambiguously religious, its effects were profoundly secularizing. By ridding itself of the authority of the church (the internationally recognized court of religious dogma) the Reformation opened the West to religious pluralism, religious skepticism, and finally a complete breakdown of the medieval Christian worldview. Once the Mother church had been rejected no new orthodoxies (and there were many attempts) could stand up against individual conscience/consciousness and the priesthood of all believers, and no infallibility could be regarded as legitimate. Strangely once the initial enthusiasm waned, the absence of the catholic womb, historical tradition, and sacramental ceremony, left the individual Christian unprotected against the vagaries of private doubt ands secular thinking. From Luther on the west’s intellectual critical faculties were becoming increasingly acute.
It must be remembered that Luther was raised in the nominalist (today we would call it “realism”) tradition leaving him distrustful of earlier Scholastic attempts to bridge reason and faith with rational theology. There was for Luther no natural revelation given by human reason and its knowledge of the natural world. Like Ockham, Luther saw natural human reason as so far from comprehending God’s will that any rationalist attempt to do so was absurd. There could be no genuine coherence between the secular mind and Christian truth, for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was foolishness to the wisdom of the world. Scripture alone could provide the saving grace necessary for salvation, and this claim held all sorts of implications for the modern mind in apprehending the natural world.
By restoring biblical theology over against the Scholastics’ philosophical theology helped to purge the modern mind of Hellenistic notions that nature was permeated by divine rationality and final causes. Protestantism therefore provided a revolution of theology that solidified the movement began by Ockham away from classical Scholasticism and it thereby supported the development of the “new science” or the modern science of nature.
The Reformers’ distinction between Creator and creature, between God’s inscrutable will and man’s finite intelligence, and between God’s transcendence and the world’s contingency, allowed the modern mind to approach the world with a new sense of nature’s pure mundane character with its own ordering principles that might not correspond to man’s logical/rational assumptions about God’s divine government. Paradoxically, by so limiting the human mind to knowledge about this world it also opened up that knowledge. God had graciously and freely created the world fully distinct from his own infinite divinity. Hence that world could now be apprehended and analyzed not according to sacramental participation in static divine patterning (after neo-Platonic and Scholastic thought) but according to its own dynamic material processes (nature as machine, albeit created by God), devoid of direct reference to God and his transcendent reality.
This disenchantment of the world (of immanent divinity so making it a “machine”) completed the Christian destruction of pagan animism, and the Reformation allowed and encouraged this radical revision by modern science. The way was then cleared for a naturalistic (materialistic) view of the cosmos, which later became deism (a God distant from the machine of nature), and still later in the 19th c. became secular agnosticism (no God). Even the Reformation’s biblical subjection of nature to man’s domination contributed to this process by encouraging man as knowing subject over and against the object of nature and of being divinely authorized to exercise his sovereignty over the natural (non-spiritual) world. As God’s magnitude relative to his creation/nature was affirmed, so too was man’s magnitude over nature. Subduing nature was a divine directive even as this directive, once secularization was complete, was simple justified in terms of human beings’ autonomy and dignity in the modern mind.
There was also a new attitude towards truth. For the RC the deepest truths were first of all divinely revealed as recorded in the Bible and these then became the basis for further truth through church tradition – each generation of theologians was inspired by the Holy Spirit, creatively acting upon that tradition and forging a more profound Christian doctrine. Much like Aquinas’ active intellect took sense impressions and formed them into intelligible concepts, so did the RC church’s active intellect take basic tradition and from it render more penetrating formulations of spiritual truth. But from a Protestant perspective the truth lay finally and objectively in the revealed Word of God and only fidelity to that truth alone can render theological certainty. In Protestant view the Roman Catholic tradition is a long and worsening exercise in subjective distortion of that primal truth. Catholic objectivity was nothing than the establishment of doctrine conforming to the subjective demand of the Catholic mind and not to the external sacrosanct truth of the Word. The Roman Catholic mind had become even more distorted by incorporating Greek philosophy intrinsically alien to the Bible.
Protestantism’s reclamation of the unalterable Word of God fostered in the emerging modern mind a new need to discover unbiased objective truth apart from the prejudices and distortions of tradition. It thereby supported the growth of critical scientific mentality. To confront entrenched doctrine courageously, to subject all belief to fresh criticism and direct testing, to come face to face with objective reality unmediated by traditional preconceptions or vested authorities – such a passion for disinterested truth informed the Protestant mind and hence modern mind generally. Of course, in time, the Word of God itself would be subject to the new critical scientific spirit and secularism would triumph.
The very foundation of the Reformers’ appeal to objective truth also provoked its dialectical collapse. Luther’s stress on the literal interpretation of Scripture as the exclusive and unbiased basis for knowledge of God’s creation left the modern mind with an impossible tension as it confronted the distinctly un-biblical revelations of the soon to be established secular science. Two apparently contradictory, or at least incongruent, truths had to be maintained simultaneously, one religious, one scientific. The fundamentalist Bible only hastened the long developing schism between faith and reason as the Western mind tried to accommodate science. The Christian faith was too deeply ingrained to be sloughed off but neither could scientific discoveries be denied. Eventually the latter would outweigh the former in both intellectual and practical significance. In that process the West’s “faith” would itself be radically realigned and transferred to the victor of science (i.e., “scientific materialism”). Ironically, in the long run Luther’s zealous reinstatement of a Scripture-based religiosity was to help precipitate its secular antithesis.
The Reformation had another effect contrary to Christian orthodoxy. Luther’s emphasis on the primacy of the individual’s conscience/consciousness would eventually lead to our modern sense of the interiority of religious reality. Truth would be truly individualistic – a matter for the personal subject. As time passed the Protestant doctrine of justification through faith seemed to place the emphasis on the individual rather than on God, on the individual’s personal faith/ideas rather than on their external validity. The self became the measure of things, self-defining and self-legislating. Truth became increasingly truth as experienced-by-the-self. Thus, Luther would move through pietism to Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy and eventually to Romantic and Hegelian philosophical idealism, and finally to philosophical pragmatism and existentialism of the late modern era of the 20th c.
The Reformation was secularizing too in its realignment of personal loyalties. Previously the RC Church had had the loyalties of virtually all Europeans but the Reformation succeeded in large part because it coincided with the rise of secular nationalism and German rebelliousness against the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire especially the latter’s effort to subdue all of Europe under its authority. This effort was defeated with the Reformation and Western Christendom was marked by intense aggressive competition – since there now was no longer a power, internationally or spiritually, to which individual states were responsible. Moreover, individual national languages already spurred on by the Renaissance literatures were now strengthened against Latin (previously the universal language of the educated) by translating the Bible into the vernacular (e.g., Luther into German and the King James Committee into English – the Reformers were above all philologists and, for example, the German and English languages largely came about through the translation of the Bible). The individual secular state now became the defining unit of cultural, political and economic authority. The medieval RC matrix unifying Europe had disintegrated.
No less significant were the Reformation’s effects on the political-religious dynamics both within the individual secular state and the individual person. With secular rulers now defining the religion within their territorial state, the Reformation unintentionally moved power from the church to the state, just as it did from priest to layman. Because most of the principal monarchs chose to remain RC, their continual attempts to centralize and absolutized political power caused Protestantism to be allied with resisting bodies such as the aristocrats, clergy, universities, provinces, and cities, that all sought to increase and enhance their individual power and freedom. Hence the cause of Protestantism also became the cause for political and individual freedom. The Reformation’s new sense of personal religious self-responsibility and the priesthood of all believers also supported the growth of political liberalism and individual rights. At the same time the religious fragmentation of Europe necessarily promoted a new intellectual and religious diversity. From these factors there emerged increasingly secularizing political and social consequences:
(1) individual state-identified churches,
(2) the division of church and state,
(3) religious tolerance, and
(4) finally the predominance of secular (civic) society.
There were still other unexpected and paradoxically secularizing effects. Despite the Reformers’ Augustinian demotion of man’s inherent spiritual power, they had also given ordinary, everyday human life in this world a new significance in the Christian scheme of things. When Luther eliminated the traditional hierarchical division between clergy and lay, and in blatant defiance of church law, decided to marry a former nun and father a family, he endowed the activities and relationships of ordinary life with religious meaning not previously emphasized by the church. Holy matrimony replaced chastity as a Christian ideal. Domestic life, raising children, mundane work, and the tasks of daily existence were now upheld as important areas within which the spirit could grow and deepen. Occupational work of whatever calling now became a sacred calling and not the just the monasticism of the medieval period. With Calvin, a Christian’s worldly vocation was to be pursued with spiritual and moral fervor in order to realize the Kingdom of God on earth. The world was not an inevitable expression of God’s will to be passively accepted in pious submission, but rather an arena in which man’s urgent religious duty was to fulfill God’s will through questioning and changing every aspect of life, every social and cultural institution, in order to help bring about the Christian commonwealth.
In time this religious uplifting of the everyday was to take on an autonomous non-religious character. Marriage for example once freed from the church (as a sacrament) became regulated by civil law, a secular contract more easily entered into and dissolved. The Protestant call to take the world more seriously, to revise society and embrace change, served to overcome traditional religious apathy both to this world and to change, and thereby gave the embryonic modern psyche the religious sanction and internal restructuring it required to propel the progress of modernity and liberalism in many spheres, from politics to science. Eventually of course this impulse to make over the world became autonomous (of religious motivation) and eventually turned against the religious bulwark as another profound oppression to be overcome.
Important social consequences of the Reformation also became evident in relation to the economic development of European nations. The Protestant affirmation of moral discipline and the holy dignity of work converged on the Calvinist belief in predestination, whereby the striving/anxious Christian, derived of the RC church’s sacramental justification, could find signs of being among the elect if one could successfully and unceasingly apply oneself to disciplined work and one’s worldly calling. Material productivity was often the fruit of all this effort which when combined with the puritan demand for ascetic renunciation readily lend itself to the accumulation of capital (Max Weber’s thesis: Protestant work ethic).
Thus, whereas traditionally the pursuit of commercial success was seen as directly threatening religious life, now the two were recognized as mutually beneficial. Religious doctrine was at times transformed or intensified in accord with the prevailing social and economic temper. Within a few generations, the Protestant work ethic along with increasing assertive and mobile individualism played a major role in the growth of an economic middle class tied to the rise of capitalism. Capitalism was already developing in the Italian city-states in the Renaissance and was further advanced by new wealth from the new world, the opening up of international markets, expanding populations, new financial strategies, new developments in industrial organization and technologies. In time much of the original spiritual orientation of the Protestant discipline had become focused on secular concerns and material rewards realized through productivity. Religious zeal yielded economic vigor that pressed forwards on its own.
The counter-Reformation similarly brought on unforeseen developments in the direction opposite to what was intended. The RC Church crusade to reform itself and oppose the spread of Protestantism took many forms from the revival of the inquisition to the practical reforms and mystical writings of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. But the counter-Reformation was spearheaded above all by Jesuits, a RC order that established itself as militantly loyal to the Pope and attracted many strong willed and intellectual men. They engaged in missionary work overseas, assiduous censorship, and Byzantine political intrigue in the courts of Europe. They educated the young, especially those of the ruling class and so forged the new Roman Catholic elite. Jesuits became the most celebrated teachers on the continent. But they taught not only RC faith and theology but also a full humanistic program from the Renaissance and classical era – Latin and Greek Letters, rhetoric, logic, metaphysics, ethics, science, music, mathematics, and even the gentlemanly arts of fencing and acting, all with a view towards developing a scholarly “soldier of Christ”. Morally disciplined, liberally educated, and critically intelligent, the Jesuits sought to give form to a “Christian man” capable of outwitting Protestant heretics and further the great Western tradition of catholic (universal) learning.
Hundreds of educational institutions were established by the Jesuits throughout Europe, and these were soon replicated by Protestant leaders similarly mindful of the need to educate the faithful. The classical humanist tradition based on Greek paideia was therefore sustained for the next two centuries thereby offering a new source of unity among those for whom Christianity was fragmenting. The consequence of this liberal arts program of both pagan and Christian viewpoints, inculcated with critical rationality resulted in a decidedly unorthodox tendency towards intellectual pluralism, skepticism and even revolution. It is no accident then that Galileo, Descartes, Voltaire, and Diderot all received a Jesuit education.
Here was the most drastic and secularizing effect of the Reformation: for with Luther’s revolt Christianity’s medieval matrix split into two, then into many, then seemingly commenced to destroy itself as new divisions battled each other throughout Europe with unbridled fury. The resulting chaos in the intellectual and cultural life of Europe was profound. Wars of religion reflected violent disputes between ever multiplying religious sects. The need for a unifying vision capable of transcending irresolvable religious conflict was urgent and broadly felt. It was amidst this state of acute metaphysical turmoil that the scientific revolution began, developed, and finally triumphed in the West as the “new science” of the Enlightenment.