A Catholic friend of mine is fond of referring to the Protestant Reformation as “the Deformation.” Well, perhaps. Certainly the Reformation in England was a deformation. Henry VIII’s stripping of the altars was not only a monumental act of iconoclastic vandalism, but the cultural revolution brought about by his break with Rome—which included the dissolution of the monasteries and his daughter Elizabeth’s reign of terror—was a precursor of the horrors of the French Revolution or Mao’s cultural revolution in China centuries later.
The year 2017 will mark the five-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It is right therefore to look again at the events and their consequences, and assess our terminology, for what historians benignly call the “Reformation” was indeed not only a revolution, but the mother of all revolutions.
Before the Protestant Revolution, Europeans were united by a shared allegiance that transcended individuals and nation-states. To be European was to be Catholic. Whether you were Spanish or Swiss, Swedish or Scottish, your spiritual, intellectual, and cultural roots were first and foremost in the Catholic faith. Likewise, whether one was a prince or a peasant, a monk or a milkmaid, one ascribed to a higher loyalty that transcended national, ethnic, economic, class, and linguistic boundaries. Through the diocesan system of administration, the monastic infrastructure, and the shared Latin language, a genuinely trans-European culture existed. City-states and petty princes might go to war with one another, but there was a higher unity rooted in a shared spiritual and cultural patrimony.
The Protestant Revolution broke all that. As nation-states emerged, canny kings and grasping princes adopted the Protestant revolutionaries and used their spirit of religious independence to power their own temporal ambitions, which led to rapacious vandalism, social chaos, and ultimately persecution, bloodshed, and war. Henry VIII and Elizabeth’s tyranny in England is the prime example, but the German princes lining up with Martin Luther and the Protestants sparked first the Schmalkaldic War, after which various conflicts simmered for decades, finally breaking out into the Eighty Years’ War and the Thirty Years’ War, which tore Christendom into shreds for good.
Shattered Christendom was then plunged into a series of seemingly endless conflicts, culminating in the American and French Revolutions, the Russian Revolution, and the two World Wars of the twentieth century. Were all these wars and revolutions directly caused by Protestantism? The causes are complex, but it can be argued that the Protestant Revolution was the breach in the dam breast that allowed the subsequent flood.
The Protestant Revolution set a precedent. It provided a spiritual justification for something that had hitherto been anathema: rebellion and armed revolution. For the first time it was a noble and courageous thing to rebel against the established powers. The Protestant Revolution cast rebels as brave pioneers, prophetic voices, and banner-bearing crusaders for the common man. The Protestant Revolution established a new normal: the social dynamic of progress through conflict. Friedrich Hegel would summarize it in the age of revolution, with his famous dialectic: thesis, antithesis and resolution, and Karl Marx glorified it as the class struggle. Hence, the way forward would always be through revolution.
The revolution was one of attitude as well as arms. While violent revolt was always a possibility, it was the attitude of progress through revolution that was most fundamental. To this day, political, religious, and cultural struggles are conceived and perceived as great conflicts between the revolutionary forces of progress and the reactionary forces of repression and tradition. While the battles may take place with ballots instead of bullets, and the conflicts are conducted in back rooms rather than on battlegrounds, the atmosphere and attitude of revolution is still the default setting for progressives who view the world as one long battle against the reactionary forces of conservatism.
Need it be so? Conservatives should always be enthusiastic about true renewal. There should be nothing hidebound, legalistic, and defensive about conservatism. In the face of revolution conservatives should put forward the principles of proper renewal. Renewal, whether in religion or politics, is a return and refreshment of founding principles. Renewal re-charges the original charism and calling while avoiding the easy temptation of iconoclasm and violent revolution. Renewal repairs and re-paints; it does not revolt and violate. It weeds the garden and prunes the vine if necessary, but it does not uproot and destroy.
While revolution is to be eschewed, and renewal espoused, true unity and peace can only be established when individuals and groups of people are united in a higher and nobler belief system that transcends nationalism, ethnic loyalties, or individualism. Christendom is broken, and with it the chance for true peace is broken. Should it ever be restored it might just overcome the Prince of Chaos and welcome home the Prince of Peace.
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