Alan K. Henderson's Weblog


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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

You Say You Want A Reformation

Last week at Samizdata, Robert Alderson has a the latest emergence of the "Islamic Luther" meme:

The West could do worse than translate the Qur'an into local dialects and publish it on the Internet or even drop it from airplanes! We need an Islamic Martin Luther to open up the religion.

Evidently, his idea is to break the mosques' monopoly over the printed Qur'an, allowing a greater number of Muslims to assess the Qur'an for themselves rather than depend on clerics to tell them everything.

In contrast, Jonah Goldberg (column cited by TJIC in comments) takes a more pessimistic view of the Reformation. Goldberg sees the short-term violence - some of which, it should be noted, was sparked by the very sort of mass unauthorized scripture publication that Alderson recommends.

Both views miss the big picture.

Y'all may have heard about how Christianity triumphed over imperial Rome due to Constantine I making it the state religion. Now here's what really happened. Christianity began as a private-sector voluntary network. Constantine did not liberate the faith; he subjugated it to the state.

Catholics will say that the Reformation broke the unity of the Church (that is, the unity of the post-Schism Roman half of the church). This sentiment is based on three faulty assumptions: that Catholicism indeed enjoyed a high degree of unity, that the unity of the fellowship of believers depended on the continued power of Church hierarchy, and that the continued power of Church hierarchy was a good thing.

The Catholic Church was a unique creature: essentially a city-state with officials serving both the Holy See and a foreign government**, charged with regulating religion and collecting ecclesiastical taxes (and other revenues) in the nation in question. In any church-state amalgamation, the state holds the real power, and the state religion will, over time, redefine itself in accord with the whims of its political master. Even when the church is a state, over time the worldliness of its political functions will corrupt its spiritual foundation.

(**The Spanish Inquisition serves as an example of the conflicts of interest that can arise when clergy serves both Rome and, in this case, the crown of Spain. King Ferdinand wanted the Inquisition in Spain, but Sixtus IV did not. One of Ferdinand's weapons was the lobbying efforts of one of the Pope's own employees - Rodrigo Borgia, Bishop of Valencia. RTWT. Unity of the church, my Aunt Fanny.)

The Reformation broke the Catholic Church, from one big giant political entity to several smaller ones. The propagation of Bible translations were a side effect; the Protestant leaders needed to be able to preach to the masses, and the masses (and probably many of the leaders) didn't know Latin. For several generations, printing a new Bible translation was a cause for division; William Tyndale was burned at the stake in 1536 at the order of Henry VIII as punishment for his translation.

The splintering of the church was necessary. The Church Political had to be weakened so that the private-sector church would eventually prevail against it. Imagine if there had been no Church of England, and the struggles for freedom waged against it had instead been waged against an unbroken, international Catholic church. Almost all Reformation-era sects believed that the church was rightfully an extension of the state. Privatization was the work of segments of the Enlightenment, not the Reformation.

This opens up a whole other can of worms (no pun intended) - myths about the Enlightenment. No, it didn't represent a single philosophy. No, not all of it was conducive to liberty. And no, nein, nyet, it was NOT a war waged against secularists and religious folk that the secularists won. (The secularists won in France.) The Scottish Enlightenment, for instance, gave the world the award-winning Scottish Calvinist minister Samuel Rutherford, whose opus Lex Rex maintained that kings were subject to the law and not synonymous with it, and that election and not hereditary title should determine political leadership. It is no coincidence that church privatization was most successful where political power was most decentralized.

I can't do justice to the post-Enlightenment church history; the quick story is that the interdenominational warfare eventually ended. State churches remain, but have lost their teeth; now that their governments are no longer interested in waging ecclesiastical wars, these churches now serve largely as pretty ornaments to be displayed on special occasions - not exactly the mission Jesus had in mind. The Catholic Church has likewise become a more consistently peaceful church (Venice is safe). That modern Popes have a much better reputation among Protestants than their 19th century predecessors did must say something positive about the state of both the Catholic and Protestant spheres.

A Reformation post such as this may attract two sets of kneejerk responses: Catholics wanting greater mention of the good the Church has done, and Protestants wanting a bigger laundry list of Catholic depredations. This post is not about the entire Catholic balance sheet, but about a handful of specific issues. Quite frankly, Rowan Williams shoud be more offended than Pope Benedict XVI.


Applying lessons of Christendom's history to Islam is problematic. First, is that it assumes a fair resemblance between the ethical philosophies of the two faiths. I will not address that topic at this time; it requires an extensive comparative analysis of the Bible and the Qur'an that cannot be done in a single weekend (or month).

One critical difference between the two faiths that I will raise is that Islam did not start out peacefully as Christianity did. Mohammad led the city-state of Medina to conquer Mecca, and later conquered all of the Arabian peninsula. Israel was also forged in war, but the Old Testament states that the war orders, notarized with visible-to-all miracles, applied to a specific enemy (Amorites) that no longer exists. Islam has a chance of a place in the civilized world if it can make a similar claim - that Mohammad's war was likewise a one-time deal; scholars must be able to logically demonstrate that Mohammad did not call for (or explicitly warned against) raising the sword beyond Araby.

Note also that Islam has never existed as a single multinational organization in the fashion of the Catholic Church. Mosques obeyed their individual governments, not some pontiff in Mecca. Islam is already splintered, so the real question is whether a Lockean type of enlightenment can arise somewhere within the Muslim world. It will require privatization of the mosque; the clerics must value their own religious liberties - to interpret the Qur'an, Hadith, etc. on their own without the government breathing down their necks - more than they value the lure of totalitarian power.

If any mass circulation of books is to be done, I'd suggest that The Vision of the Anointed would be a better selection.

Update: I inserted the word "largely" in the text originally reading, "these churches now serve as pretty ornaments." Don't want to paint with too large a brush - Western European spiritual life is mostly dead, but not totally, and I'm sure that there are some clergy who do more for society than going through the motions of office.

Just to be clear, this characterization only partly applies to apply to the Vatican. The "pretty ornaments" phrase points to two criticisms. The first is the spiritual staleness of European religious life, which permeates both Catholic and Protestant churches. The second is a lack of significant work among top leadership to improve the overall human condition. What European state church leader has impacted Europe for that good even half as conspicuously as Pius XII and John Paul II? If there's one I don't know about, let me know.

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