Lighting a candle, burning down the house
This is post two in my Reformation series. Part one is here.
After pointing out that “much of the anticlerical rhetoric which became an integral part of the Reformation was actually the product of long standing disputes among the clergy, rather than spontaneous lay criticism”, Diarmaid MacCulloch has a very nice description of what that old order was like for the day to day life of people in Europe:
The structure created by Gregory VII’s first reformation was a marvelous way of containing the teeming variety of Western Christendom’s religious needs. A devout Christian hungering to reach out and touch the world beyond death could do so in a rich variety of different settings: in the savage austerity of the monasteries of contemplative hermits, the Carthusians; in the deliberately and exuberantly extravagant liturgy of most ceremonial version of the Benedictine Rule, the Cluniacs; in the dramatic preaching of friars or the clerical stars of the secular pulpit chaplaincies; in lighting a single candle at a lonely wayside statue of God’s Mother; in craning forward in a crowded parish church to see the elevation of the consecrated bread and wine in the Mass at some cheerfully decorated side altar. The people most withdrawn from the concerns of the world might be equally esteemed in by those right in its center: so in fifteenth century England, Carthusian hermit-monks dominated the production and distribution of devotional literature, eagerly and perhaps wistfully read by kings and noblemen amid the squalid and often brutal jostles for power which passed for government in England a the time. The Church was everywhere in society. The three most complicated machines which most people would ever see in this world were the pipe organ, the clock and the windmill: the first two were exclusively to be found in churches. What better proof that the Church was in command of humankind’s most adventurous and innovative thinking? What better organization than the church to give western Europe a sense of it’s common identity?
Of course, in addition to the in-fighting among the various groups of religious there were real problems arising from the mixing of religion and politics – as the next passage shows:
Yet the two Popes between them occupied St. Peter’s throne for two decades (and who deeply detested each other) had a very selective understanding of what might glorify the papacy. Alexander VI, from the Valencian noble family of Borja (Borgia), shielded his vulnerability as an outsider against his many Italian enemies by ruthlessly exploiting the Church’s most profitable offices to promote his Borga relatives, including his own children children by several of his mistresses – a scandalous flouting of clerical celibacy imposed by the twelfth century Reformation, even if the Pope’s two most notorious children Lucrezia and Cesare had not provided extreme examples of aristocratic self indulgence. Julius II relished being his own general when he plunged into the Italian wars which proliferated after the French invasion, and he was especially proud when in 1506 he recaptured Bologna, second city of the Vatican states after Rome and lost to the papacy seventy years before. The contemporary Italian historian Fransesco Guicciardini commented with delicate sarcasm that Julius was ‘certainly worthy of great glory, if he had been a secular prince.’ The Popes ludicrously obvious failings in their pretensions as leaders of the universal church made a mockery of their defeat of the conciliarists, and did nothing to end continuing criticism of papal primacy. That made the papal machine all the more sensitive to any new challenge to its authority, or to any attempt to resurrect language and idea which had been used against it before, as Luther discovered in the years after 1517.
This high level failure to play by the rules and trust in Providence – which is seen Reformers like Luther and Zwlingi as well – did not go unnoticed by others with an axe to grind. Skipping ahead from Chapter One to Chapter Four, we come to this:
Martin Luther and magesterial reformers of the 1520’s like Bucer himself had been radical in their own strictly limited way. They posed a radical challenge to the authority claimed by the western Church’s hierarchy, but they did so in order to claim for themselves the first five centuries of Christianity: indeed the essence of their cause was that the official Church had unjustifiably added doctrine to this hard fought original package. The old Church denied that its medieval additions were anything more than developments of the truths which the early Church had discovered; hence B.B. Warfelid’s insight that the sixteenth-century Reformation was a struggle within the mind of Augustine. What happened now, however, was that a great variety of challenges arose beyond the contested area of authority, taking up matters on which Luther, Zwingi and the Pope agreed. More radical spirits denied that the outcome of the early Church’s history was the right one, the outcome that God wanted.
I have very serious trouble finding sympathy for this last claim, a great deal more trouble than I do in finding sympathy for Luther and Zwingli. Who are we to say that history’s unfolding has been a failure? What would a ‘correct’ history look like and how what would it take to get there? How many ‘year zero‘ ‘s would it take? Why would God ‘hide’ his church until now? And it’s always hidden “until now” it seems. The untethering of religion from history has been, in my mind, a disaster. Here is where the hobgoblin of ideology first breaks loose. Another sad result – sadder than any of the papal scandals I’ve linked to above – is that this is a poisoning of the well of Christian teaching. As awful as Borgia was, for example, he is one man and his abuses do not alter the essence of the institution or the culture in which they took place. This ahistorical approach, on the other hand, is in jeaodardy of loosing touch with the signifigance of incarnation, God’s beachead in history, and thereby risks turning Christianity into just another ideology.