Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Gen Eds H6a: Reformation and Scientific Revolution

Finally I can move on to the sixth period in my World History series: "Renaissance and Reformation." I'll need to do it in two parts though.

These are posts in the World History part of my "General Education in a Nutshell" series. This series involves ten subjects you might study in a general education or "liberal arts" core at a university or college. The first topic in the overall series was philosophy. So far in the world history section:
The Scientific Revolution
1. The turn to reason in the Enlightenment no doubt was in part facilitated by the scientific revolution of the 1600s. The scientific revolution was based on one very crucial paradigm shift, namely, the idea that there is a natural realm and there is a supernatural realm. The natural realm behaves according to laws of cause and effect which we humans can discover.

This may seem to us to be the biblical view or the historically Christian view, but it is not. Prior to the late Middle Ages, the universe was seen more or less as a great "chain of being" from the basic elements all the way up to God. Events that took place were not seen as the product of natural cause and effect but rather the action of spiritual agents. As an example, Martin Luther committed himself to become a monk in a thunderstorm, which he saw as God trying to get hold of him.

The division between natural and supernatural thus is new in history. God is still believed to exist. He is still creator. But now he creates the world something like a machine. He creates it. He winds it up. He lets it run on its own. Is he even necessary to be present now?

This is the origin of Deism, the perspective that believes God created the world but is no longer involved. He placed natural laws into the world that run it now on its own. Some of the great scientists of the scientific revolution were Deists of this sort, like Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727).

Even those of us who are theists, though, who believe God is still involved in the world, usually believe that there are natural laws that we can discover in the world. We think of thunderstorms as natural events rather than spiritual ones... at least most of the time. We think of God's intervention as "miracles," contravenings of the natural order of cause and effect. [1]

Many such laws were discovered. Newton developed his three laws of motion. He developed his theory of universal gravitation. He and Leibniz independently invented calculus to analyze change. The discoveries and inventions haven't stopped coming ever since.

We often refer to Francis Bacon (1561-1626) as the father of the scientific method. We make observations. We develop a hypothesis. We gather more data and test the hypothesis. After we have tested the hypothesis long enough and had results that support the hypothesis, we upgrade it to a theory.

This is an inductive method. It assumes that we can induce truths about the world through discovery. It contrasts with the more deductive approach of the Middle Ages, where theological assumptions were more the starting point and truths deduced from these a priori starting points. It is part and parcel of the modern age, even if it has received considerable push back at times in the last century.

2. There are different theories about the origins of modernism. Some would point back to Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), through whom the influence of the ancient Greek Aristotle (384-22BC) came to impact late medieval Christianity. Aristotle of course was more inductive in his approach to truth (as opposed to Plato, who prevailed in Christian thought for the first millennium). It is quite possible that the dominance of Aquinas in the late middle ages set a trajectory toward a scientific age.

Also suggested is nominalism, which came to the fore in the 1300s. Nominalism largely rejected the idea of universals. Rather than there being universal truths from which all other truths are deduced--and even rather than us inducing universal truths--nominalists see only individual truths and facts that stand on their own. For the nominalist, truths are individual and largely disconnected.

Reformation and Counter-Reformation
3. It is often suggested that nominalism played a role in Martin Luther's theology. We stand as individuals before God, not as a group. Being a Roman Catholic does not save you. Only individuals who have faith in God will be saved. So individualism is a central feature of the modern age. Cultures prior to the Reformation, indeed most cultures in most places and times have been "collectivist" rather than individualistic. Indeed, it would seem to be default human nature.

Luther (1483-1546) of course did not plan to fracture the Roman Catholic Church into the tens of thousands of new denominations we have today. Luther was rather ticked at the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, which he had witnessed first hand on a trip to Rome in 1511. He was not the first. John Wycliffe (1320-84) had similarly protested corruption a little over a hundred years before.

In fact, the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church in the late Middle Ages had led Wycliffe and others to rediscover Augustine's (354-430) doctrine of predestination, the idea that God had chosen some to be saved, while all others will remain damned by default. This idea helped Wycliffe make sense of the fact that some in the church seemed to truly be Christians while many others--including Popes and other church leaders--did not.

4. Luther's own story set the stage for the crucial moment in history. He was someone who desperately wanted to be morally perfect, but couldn't manage it. When he realized that Romans 1:16-17 could be interpreted a different way, he felt an immense release. We are made right with God by our faith in Christ rather than by doing good works.

The sale of years off of purgatory was particularly angering to him. In it he saw Rome raising money for its buildings so that it could bask in opulence and greed. The traveling "salesman" Johann Tetzel in 1516 was the last straw. Luther would object to purgatory as an unbiblical idea of a piece with salvation by works. If we are saved by grace, then we do not have to "work off" our sins in purgatory.

Also gone then were the books of the Apocrypha that Jerome (347-420) had called "deuterocanonical," a "second canon." One of these books in particular, 2 Maccabees, gave a slim basis for purgatory, which Luther could not stand. This is why the Roman Catholic Old Testament has at least seven more books than the "Protestant" Old Testament. Luther completely took them out of his Bible and, in response, the Roman Catholic Church upgraded them and affirmed their full inclusion at the Council of Trent in 1545.

On October 31, 1517, Luther posted 95 debate points or "theses" on the door of the cathedral at Wittenberg, the city where he taught. Little did he know that it would spark a revolution. He would be put on trial. He would be hidden and protected for a year--many individuals saw an opportunity to break free of the power of the church. During that year, he would translate the Bible into German.

The rest is history.

5. Once one person had pulled away from the Roman Catholic Church, using the idea of the interpretation of the Bible as the basis, it was probably a forgone conclusion that this "protest" would be unending. Words are susceptible to multiple interpretations, and so we have seen come into play what Paul Tillich called, the "Protestant Principle": "Protestant" churches are almost destined to split over and over again in an endless cycle of differing interpretations. Protestant and Orthodox churches (which split in 1054) have unity because the institution is the primary organizing principle rather than a text.

There was perhaps a small chance that the separating group would remain a unity if Luther had been able to reach an agreement with the second great protester--Huldrych Zwingli. But Zwingli was a cantankerous man, who found no room for latitude with Luther on the nature of communion. In their 1529 "colloquy" at Marburg. Luther argued that Jesus was really present in communion, even if the bread and wine did not literally become his body and blood. For Zwingli, it was only a reminder, nothing more, and anything more was abominable. [2]

When they parted ways, the trajectory of tens of thousands of Protestant denominations was sealed.

6. Numerous other Protestant and almost Protestant groups would soon rise. There were the "anabaptists" that Zwingli opposed and drowned in the river for believing the Bible did not teach infant baptism. There was John Calvin (1509-64) in Geneva Switzerland, who picked up Wycliffe's ideas on predestination and formed one of the first comprehensive Protestant theologies.

In England, King Henry VIII (1491-1547) split with the Roman Catholic Church in order to get a divorce and the Church of England was born. Thankfully, those who set up its doctrine and practices had more noble purposes. In Scotland John Knox (1513-72) started the Presbyterian movement.

7. As is often the case, the lines between politics and religion blurred. What territories would end up Protestant in some way? What territories would remain Catholic? Spain and France remained Catholic. England, after a small regrouping under "Bloody Mary," would remain separated from Rome. The German lands at the time were divided into hundreds of territories of varying size, the "Holy Roman Empire." Each territory made up its own mind about whether to go Lutheran or remain Catholic. Austria would remain Catholic. Many of the German states in the northwest went Lutheran.

The Thirty Years War (1608-38) was fought not least partly on the grounds of religious disagreement. Which side would win? After pummeling each other for decades, it was decided that they would agree to disagree. This is wisdom that each generation needs to know before it pummels itself all over again.

8. Suffice it to say, these changes were world changing and profoundly disorienting. At the turn of the century 1600, there was an almost morbid mood. Shakespeare captures this mood in some of his plays. "All the world's a stage and all its men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts." [3] "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour across the stage and then is heard no more. Tis a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." [4]

It was into this uncertainty that Francis Bacon and the scientific revolution walked. It was this uncertainty that led Rene Descartes to ask what he could say for certain. The scientific revolution and Enlightenment would follow.

  • There is a point where it is best to agree to disagree. The amount of force it would take to win would create greater devastation than the "wrong" you are trying to eliminate, if you could ever win.
  • When a religion is only based on the interpretation of a text, that religion will multiply in endless variety.
  • The scientific revolution and modernism grew out of angst and a desire for certainty once religion had ceased to provide it.
Next Week: Renaissance and a New World

[1] In the Bible, miracles are acts of great spiritual power, greatly unusual acts that provoke wonder. But there is only normal and spectacular, not natural and supernatural.

[2] This same spirit of absolute certainty would soon lead him to drown in the river those who did not see infant baptism in the biblical text. He died soon after in battle against the Catholics.

[3] As You Like It.

[4] Macbeth.

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