Last year, during the 500th year after the Augustinian friar Martin Luther posted his controversial views on the church door in Wittenberg (if this bit of historical trivia actually happened, which is contested), I thought I ought to read something about Reformation history. Somehow I hit on Brad S. Gregory's Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World
. Though this book was not perhaps what I had had in mind, I'm glad I happened on it.
Gregory is a much honored academic, teaching Early Modern (European?) history at Notre Dame University. He has a clear conclusion about the Reformation events this book sets forth:
The Reformation is a paradox: a religious revolution that let to the secularization of society.
His narrative of the theological currents in Lutheranism and Calvinism, of radical Protestantisms of slightly later vintage like Anabaptism, and of the Catholic counter-reformation seemed clear enough to me, though I am not that well read in this period.
But what was really interesting was where this book comes from and where it proved to be going. At the very outset, I was stunned by Gregory's concern to restate the basic elements of Christian belief. A moment's thought suggested that of course this was necessary. I'm sure his students, even at Notre Dame, come to this history with little concept of the doctrines of creation, sin, incarnation, atonement, and Church that were the framework of daily medieval life (and still undergird the more complex modern Christian formations). I expect Gregory knows his audience. And the need to draw this out points to his central thesis:
The Reformation had the long-term impact of gradually and unintentionally transforming Europe from a world permeated by Christianity to one in which religion would be separate from public life, becoming instead a matter of individual preference.
... ... The first unintended consequence of the Reformation itself was the proliferation of so many rival versions of Protestantism. ...
A second major unintended consequence of the Reformation era came out of the relationship between magisterial Protestantism [established churches] and Catholicism. ... From the Catholic perspective, heresy was institutionalized in multiple forms. As far as the Protestants were concerned, the Antichrist got a major second wind. The Reformation did not overcome or abolish Roman Catholicism; rather, it actually contributed directly if unintentionally to rejuvenating the Roman Church.
In his telling, what he calls the "wars-of-more-than-religion," particularly the Thirty Years War
fought across what is now Germany and Austria and the English Civil War, failed to resolve theological differences between various professing Christians, but were too devastatingly destructive to continue. Meanwhile, the enterprising Dutch rebelled against Catholic Spanish overlords and made a virtue of tolerant religious pluralism suggesting another way. In Gregory's view the Dutch replaced the idea of the good
life with the "goods"
life, and this capitalist invention satisfied a growing number of people and their rulers. Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in launching the new United States invented "separation of church and state."
Religion, regardless of its content, could be tolerated so long as all who benefited from individual religious freedom agreed on its newly limited scope and agreed as well to obey the political authorities who extended and protected that freedom. Making religion a personal choice and restricting its scope made religious freedom as well as religious toleration possible. It also led to separating out many other areas of life from religion. ...
... for you and for everyone else, religion is not about how political authority is exercised or how the economy is regulated or what laws get made and enforced.
He wants his readers to see this as a mixed blessing. Can we, for example, respond to the cancerous capitalist economic growth imperative which drives climate change when individual freedom is enshrined as our highest good? Good question, but not one to which Gregory claims there is a simple answer. He concludes:
We find ourselves in our present situation of hyperpluralism because individualism and liberalism have succeeded so well, beginning with an individual freedom that has proven simultaneously to be freedom from religion. You can believe whatever you want and live however you wish within the laws of the state, and so can everyone else. That's both a great blessing and a big problem. ...
As a woman and a lesbian, I tend to come down heavily on the side of needing to allow all flowers to bloom in seeking Truth, whatever that might be. I'd be erased in a less plural society. But Gregory's challenge is bracing and healthy to anyone seeking to envision both good life and good society.
As I read this volume, I kept thinking that, if Dorothy Day
had decided to frame broadly how she thought about the Protestant Reformation, I think she might have come up with a view not far from that put forward by Professor Gregory. She did not, that I know of, give the Reformation such thought. But as she seemed to understand this history, Luther, Calvin, et al., had strayed from a flawed but probably retrievable Mother Church; their revolt broke European Christendom, which was already in trouble, and led to ever more splintering into smaller and smaller sects among the Christian faithful. This was properly a source of great sadness. She didn't condemn, but she disapproved and hoped some of those led astray would get over their heresies (as some people in her orbit occasionally did).
As I knew her, Dorothy simply chose to be a loyal, orthodox, daughter of a Church formed by opposition to Protestant challenges, who nonetheless felt no intellectual contradiction in framing for herself a boldly idiosyncratic way of living her piety. She didn't think down-the-line coherence was required of her intellectual furniture -- and she was often open to not demanding greater consistency in others.
Such graceful inconsistency alongside consistency is one way to live with the contradictions Professor Gregory raises -- perhaps the best way.