Behind Door #3

I just finished Diarmaid MacCulloch's new book All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy, which I felt was timely and appropriate as we approach the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's posting of the 95 Theses.  And I am glad I did, because the book is brilliant and insightful (and more accessible than his massive previous book The Reformation: A History).  There are a number of things that you can talk about with regard to the book, but one thing that struck me from reading it was how the Reformation presented a fundamental choice for Christianity, and how we are still wrestling with the legacy of those choices.

To understand the nature of the choice, we should go back and think about Augustine.  In the Original Blessing series of posts from last month, we looked at how Augustine sees the physical world as being fundamentally corrupted by the sin of Adam, and how physicality itself as the locus of the human problem generally.  This view creates a series of theological problems, but it creates a particular problem by the time you come to the time of the Renaissance.  Think about the core ideas of the Renaissance--the realistic form of the body, a concern for and interest in the natural world, the recovery and celebration of art and culture that does not derive from explicitly Christian sources, as three examples.  All of this gets grouped into the broad category of "humanism," because it begins from the premise that the physical world, including the human body and human experience, is something worth celebrating and exploring and learning from and about.

All of this sits uneasily with Augustine's theological account of the fallen nature of man.  If the human body is corrupted in its physicality, it seems weird to celebrate the physical form.  If human beings are fundamentally corrupt in their base state without the intercession of grace, then the celebration of human culture--especially non-Christian culture--is a move in the wrong direction.

MacCulloch's book, to me, suggests that Luther and the Reformation he jump-started was, in part, a doubling down on the Augustinian account of the human person and embodied physicality over and against the more positive Renaissance account of those same subjects.  There is a conflict between Christianity and Renaissance humanism, Luther might say, and so we must resolve this conflict in favor of God--as understood in Augustinian terms.  Seen in this light, there is a direct line between what Luther started and the Ark Encounter in Kentucky, with its unwavering insistence that human knowledge must give way to "biblical truth" as understood in a particular way.

Door #2 is the approach taken by the Roman Catholic Church, which was to deny in principle that there was a conflict at all.  But MacCulloch makes the point that one of the effects of the Reformation on the Roman Catholic Church was that in generated a much more expansive account of the role of the institutional Church, and more specifically the office of the Pope.  This expanding Papal Magisterium, it seems to me, becomes the hidden (or not so hidden) translation layer between traditional theology and the developing humanism.  In other words, the Roman Catholic Church took the position that there is no conflict between traditional theology and humanism if both of those things are "properly understood," and the "proper understanding" is provided by the Magisterium.

To me, that is the take away from the Galileo affair.  Nicolaus Copernicus, a Catholic priest by the way, more or less said the same stuff Galileo was saying two generations before Galileo, and it generated little in the way of heat.  But by the time you get to the early 17th Century, as the Reformation was at its highest boil, the Vatican saw itself as a necessary adjudicator of the right and wrong ways to reconcile science and religion.  This can be seen as part-and-parcel of the growth of an all-encompassing vision of the role of papal teaching in the Roman Catholic Church.

So, you have one side saying that this humanist thread was rotten at its root, and you had another side saying that you can only pursue the humanist project if you get sign off from Rome for your project.  In that light, it is not particularly surprising that by the time you get to the 18th Century, the proponents of the humanist project were also promoting the reduction of the role of religion.  The Enlightenment, in part, is about science and other forms of humanism asserting their rights to exist on their own terms, free of either a hostile or smothering Christianity.  And, as we know, that project in large measure succeeded, leading to our modern world and the low-level (sometimes flaring up to high-level) conflict between humanism and religion.

But MacCulloch notes that there was a third option, a Door #3, that was not really taken.  Here, MacCulloch highlights Erasmus as something of an avatar of this third way, and notes that Erasmus was not exactly an enthusiastic endorser of Augustine's ideas.  Maybe their is a conflict between Renaissance humanism and Augustinian theology because Augustine's theology is bad, and Renaissance humanism should act as a corrective and critique of that theological system.  Neither the Protestant or Roman Catholic approaches allow for the underlying theological pre-suppositions to be called into question by science or other humanist systems--those systems must either be rejected (Protestantism) or reconciled through increasingly convoluted exercises of papal authority (Roman Catholicism).

I know this is my personal hobby-horse, but if you embrace the proposition that all truth is God's truth, then there is no reason to privilege Augustine over Copernicus--or Darwin, or Da Vinci, or whomever.  All of them are exploring and articulating some facet of God's truth, so all of them are coming in at the same basic level.  Holding those types of knowledge at the same level and letting them inform and correct each other allows for religion and science to exist together with far less conflict than the current Cold War that exists between the two.

I've talked before about how we seem to be on a threshold of some kind of new paradigm in Christianity.  It seems to me that the folks at the forefront of this move are in different ways calling for some version of Door #3--let's get out of our completely fossilized positions and look with fresh eyes at our preconceptions about what Christianity means and is about.  If the Reformation era is over, and I believe that it is, it's worthwhile to think about the road that was not taken 500 years ago.  And to see if that may be the road we want for the future.

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