It’s an interesting discussion, I think. I’ll touch first a bit on the King issue, and then on your last parallels there about the odd synchonicity of Machiavelli and the Reformation.
First, about King.
I think King’s substance was never really his issue — I do think that the more informed and balanced people agree that internet posts only get you so far in terms of really affecting change in the world at large. For many participants, it rather has the opposite impact — namely, it provides a kind of steam release valve, or an outlet for venting, which in the grander scheme dissipates their ire, and channels their desire for change into internet posting rather than towards the things that must be changed in the world outside the window. Doubtless this is true, and he was quite right to point that out.
I think the main problem he ran into was his means of articulating himself. I understand his intent was to challenge, but in the context of anonymous people on the internet, that approach likely won’t yield too much success. Perhaps it works if you are a football coach or a drill sergeant or something like that, but when you are dealing with strangers on the internet, it’s doubtful that this kind of harangue is actually effective.
Hopefully he can find a better way to do what he would like to do, and be more effective in targeting for his audience. He has some of the tools of a good writer, but he would do well, in my view, to go for simple and elegant rather than adopting a style which too often seems to be quite obviously striving to be clever and seem intelligent. He obviously *is* intelligent and fairly well-read, but a better writer would find ways of expressing that erudition in more pithy, down to earth, and elegant way. More Hemingway, and less Proust. Also, more focused on the kind of style you need for the audience you are trying to reach.
It’s an interesting point on the odd temporal symmetry between the very beginning of the Reformation in Germany and the publication of Machiavelli’s most influential works. 1517 and its aftermath was truly one of the inflection points of history, and the impact of the event and its wake, in quite real terms, on the contemporary cultural situation in the West is widely underestimated, if not outright misunderstood. In part I think this is because the historical memory, when it comes to the Reformation, is itself mixed among various countries and cultures of the West, precisely because it was, and is, a source of division in the culture. However, this often has resulted in making it a kind of “off limits” or taboo topic — something which can serve to obscure the fundamental role it has played in forming the foundation for many of the contemporary attitudes that so many find so troubling.
From my own perspective, the impact of the Reformation on subsequent Western history was both collosal and wide-ranging. It impacts directly almost all of the issues people on this side of the orientational fence, as it were, are troubled about, on a foundational level. At the same time it appears to create hard limits on the ability of many actually to see down to the root of the problems, and what underlies them, because doing so would challenge an aspect of their own identity which is foundational, and which they perceive as running counter to the problems that trouble them, and instead render this problematic at the very least. In other words, one of the main problems involved with coming to grips with the issue of the underlying impact of the Reformation on contemporary culture, particularly in the United States but also elsewhere in the West, is that most Christians in the United States are children of the Reformation who revere the Reformation, or at least see it as a fundamental good, and as something that is a part of both their spiritual and historical identity. So, if one starts to describe the problems that the Reformation injected into Christianity in the West, and into Western spiritual thought and practice, and the various strands of influence this has had on cultural development in the West for the last 500 years, one can very quickly get a rather knee-jerk and negative response — because these are Reformation Christians, or at the very least people who see the Reformation as being fundamentally positive and good. Hence the problem with this kind of discussion.
Of course it’s quite true that, as you have written, the Reformation’s pragmatic impact of dividing the West religiously was damaging to the ability of Chirstianity’s contemporaneous representatives of either camp to resist more effectively the growing attacks of the anti-theistic philosophers. As a practical matter, division leads to weakness. In this, however, the Reformation is part of a longer problematic history within Christianity of division leading to weakness with grave consequences as a result. From my perspective, for example, it is quite appropriate to argue that, had the great schism between the eastern and western parts of the Catholic Church never happened, or had it been repaired relatively quickly, the events and developments within the medieval West which eventually led to the pressures that gave rise to the Reformation, as well as the disastrous demise of Constantinople in the East a few decaded earlier, may never have come to pass. But that’s a topic for another post, if and when I have the time to write it. Suffice to say that, yes, division in and of itself leads to rather disastrous outcomes in the temporal world, some of which go well beyond any kind of capacity to predict at the time the division occurs.
Yet the specific kinds of impacts of the Reformation which I see as being more influential over the past five centuries of history in the West, while stemming ultimately from the fruitless division created by the Reformation, lie in other areas — areas which have tended to facilitate the rise of anti-theistic rationalism to the state of its current hyper-dominance in Western culture. While these areas are far-flung and encompass virtually all aspects of our contemporary culture, for the purposes of this note I’d like to focus on one key aspect — the attitude of the Reformation toward authority, and the impact this has had on the relationship between Christianity and the temporal world in the West (including anti-theistic secularist thought).
In this aspect, and in very broad brush, the Reformation was an assault on the existing system of religious authority — specifically the religious authority of the Catholic Church — and the replacement of that personal, hierarchical authority with the authority of a text. This critical element – that is, the undermining of a unified religious authority – cascades down the trail of the subsequent history of the West. Of course, nothing in history is fore-ordained, but the groundwork and the subsequent trends, and the connections between them, are unmistakeable.
Even within the framework of the religion itself, when you make a text your highest authority, with no dispositive-for-everyone interpreter of said text, you end up with both (1) an endless (and in fact, impossible to end) tendency towards division due to the inevitable proliferation of textual interpretations and (2) a religious experience which is very heavily bent towards the cerebral without any inherent corrective. Point (1) is why we have a different “flavor” of church on every streetcorner, all with their own versions of the truth, all with disagreements with each other about things which seem trivial to non-Christians (and also to many Christians as well!). Point (2) is why American Protestantism in particular has constantly had waves of the opposite — emotion-based versions of Christianity, either Pentecostalism, or some kind of revivalism, to counterbalance the comparatively cold textualism of established Protestant Christianity. ( This also informs much of the contours of the “lower” less liturgical forms of Protestant worship services.) So you end up with a situaton where the religion itself is inherently weakened by division, and which is institutionally utterly incapable of ending the process of division — like some kind of cancerous mitosis it simply keeps spreading its divisiveness. And the resulting myriad of churches which are spawned by this process tend to careen between a kind of textual fundamentalism (after all, there is no authority beyond the text itself, no living body of authoritativeness beyond the text beyond the power of any individual interpreter to persuade, so if the text is not adhered to strictly, authority itself is undermined with no replacement), on the one hand, and a kind of apocalyptic emotionalism (as a corrective to the relatively cold and cerebral text-based religion), on the other.
The impact of this on the broader Western world and culture beyond religious belief and practice itself has been enormous and in many respects profoundly negative. With respect to the specific issues you’ve addressed (the victory of anti-theistic philosophers over religion, and the tendency for religion to remove itself from the concerns of the world), these are traceable to the legacy of the Reformation. As you’ve noted, in part the problem with philosophy and religion in the modern era is that philosophy (anti-theistic philosophy at least) kicked religion’s ass, in a way, because religion came poorly equipped to the fight. One large reason for this is that the textual authority mindset is, in itself, uninterested in philosophy or philosophical reasoning as a baseline for discourse on these issues. Instead, all arguments must proceed from, and be validated by, the overaching authority of a text. This stands in sharp contrast to the prior practice and mode of discourse of Christianity vis-a-vis philosophical argument — whether in the period of the early Church, or later during the scholastic period in the West. While Nazianzen and Aquinas may not have been personally equipped to address the kinds of arguments that would be raised by Descartes, Voltaire and others, had the mindset of engaging with philosophy been maintained, both in substance and in language, in a more full sense, religion would have had a much better chance in this fight. A more holistic approach to religion — a more catholic approach — was, and is, needed to deal with this kind of challenge. A textual authority based approach is simply not equipped to do this, precisely because its own mode of discourse is estranged from that used by the philosophers and their related empiricists in the scientific world.
A few objections may be raised at this point. What of the liberal mainline protestants who are all about social justice? What about people like Francis Collins — doesn’t he engage in dialogue using the contemporary intellectual vernacular?
Well, the liberal protestants are really an example of very much the same phenomenon mentioned above — namely, reliance on a text-based authority, with simply a different interpretation driving it. The liberal protestants don’t spend a tremendous amount of time re-ariculating their faith in the language of contemporary intellectual discourse, but have instead simply embarked upon their own text-based interpretation of the religion which is just as removed from the language of Aquinas and Nazianzen, not to say of Robert George and David Hart as well, as are any other forms of contemporary protestantism. It is simply another manifestation of interpretative pluralism which plagues Protestantism as a whole and weakens it, and the rest of Christianity along with it. This is evidenced by the singular failure of such churches not only to grow and thrive, but even to maintain their ranks. Far from articulating their faith in a way that is both intelligible and convincing to a contemporary intellectual mind, they seem to have rather spectacularly succeeded in convincing such minds of the irrelevance of their religion in general. They are a symptom, therefore, of the same problem manifesting itself in a different way, rather than an exception to it.
As for Francis Collins, the discovery institute and so on, these are generally people who are critical of the conclusions of science within its own framework. In other words, they raise interesting and important questions about whether the scientific conclusions about matters such as species evolution and the like are really justified based on the epistomological rules and conventions of the scientific method, the evidence that is available and the like. While these are important conversations to have (and the fact that the scientific community, which is supposed to be based on peer critiques to begin with, is so hostile to them is in itself quite telling), nevertheless they are not the kind of conversation we’re talking about here. Rather, they are pointed conversations that are taking place within the framework of empiricism itself. In order for religion to regain its place in the world and not continue to be sidelined by the anti-theistic moderns and empiricist fundamentalists, the actual questions concerning the questions religion and philosophy are struggling with must be addressed directly — and not indirectly by means of critiques within the framework of empiricism itself and its epistemology. So, while this kind of critique can be helpful if it is properly formed and based, nevertheless it is not the kind of direct engagement on the basis of the larger questions, articulated in the framework that the contemporary intellectual mind can appropriate, that is needed to undermine the tyrannical regime of modernism that we labor under today.
What does this look like? What does it mean? It simply means that rather than basing the entirety of its legitimacy on fidelity to a text, Christianity must articulate itself in a more robust, holistic way — in a way that the world understands, in its contemporary idiom intellectually, in a way that embraces the goodness of what is already in the world, and in us. The early church embraced this in its dialogues with the philosophically-minded Greeks (**) and in its use of philosophical terms and discourse to articulate Christian truth in ways that were intelligible and intellectually sensible to the mind of that world. The medieval church did so as well, and not in a completely unproblematic way, either, but nevertheless refused to see philosophy, mental reasoning and work, and intelletctually sophisticated articulations as being inappropriate because they did not all proceed from a text. To be sure, none of these Christians saw their philosophizing or discourse as being inconsistent with scripture — far from it. Yet it was always recognized that there is much that is not addressed in scripture in a way that is clear enough to avoid division and dispute, and that therefore some articulation is not only beneficial, but necessary in order to maintain unity, and preach the faith truly to achieve the goal of the great commission itself.
Of course, in order to work, this must be based on the idea that there is an authority, or an authoritativeness, that exists beyond the mere text of scripture. That relies on the idea that not only is scriptural text, as revealed truth, true, but also that there is a human, worldly element of authority which is also authoritative precisely because of the action of God in the world through the Church. The authority is that of God, not only speaking through the text of scripture, but speaking through the Church itself, and the humans, flawed though they may be, who inhabit that Church. This is very difficult for Protestants to accept, because it goes against the very thing that the Reformation was aimed against, at least in part. But it remains the case that this is the link that is missing, the block that comes between the strong faith of many Protestant Christians, on the one hand, and the kinds of failures you’ve articulated in your earlier note.
And that link is this — when Protestantism ditched the personal, living authority of the Catholic Church and its Tradition, and tried to replace this with a text in an effort to avoid the corruption inevitable with human involvement in that authority, it created (unwittingly for sure) a rather narrow, rigid type of Christianity which, eventually, would become disconnected with the world. Why is this? Because Protestantism, in ditching the Catholic Tradition, also ditched sacramentalism (***), the aspect of Catholic Christianity (by which I mean not just the current Catholic Church, but also the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox churches) which makes the world transcendent, holy and sanctified — which transforms the world, the physical, the temporal into an encounter with the transcendent and the infinite, and which confirms the ultimate goodness of the world, and its status as gift from the creator to man. The sacramental approach to Christianity constantly affirms to the believer that the world is good, that the world is gift, that the world is holy and sanctified by God’s grace, and is a tangible means of encountering God in the here and now, and not just in some future place. This is why these churches have ALWAYS been very concerned with the world at large, with the cultures in which they exist, with the state of morality and the like — because the world is gift, the world is being saved, the world is being transformed, and the Church is the main means by which this is supposed to occur. Catholic Christianity is holistic, it embraces the world in this way, and transcends it.
It follows directly from this that the kind of authority which would be embraced by a church which retains sacramentality would itself be sacramental — that is, would itself be in the world, be a part of the world which is being transformed by and through the power of God. It would be an authority which is not of the world (God’s authority comes from God himself, who is not of the world), but which is very much in the world, very much a part of the world, very much reflecting the world in all of its variation, in all of its articulation — and not merely a scriptural text, as central as that text is to the Tradition which is articulated over time by this authority in the world, in a way that the world can understand, and in a way that can reach the world in its own idiom. This authority inheres in the episcopate, in the papacy which is its center, in the tradition articulated by the church through these, and through councils, and through theologians accepted by the church and so on. It is ulimately more holistic, and more engaged on most levels with the world, than the most seeker-friendly hipster-worship-band Protestant church can ever be with its text0-based-authority system. Ultimately, it is also much more open to the world, because the world is the locus of sacramentality — including things like mental articulation and philosophical discourse, two avenues of “the world” that the Church has historically embraced as a part of its mission to be “in the world”.
From the perspective of this kind of authority, and this kind of Christianity, it isn’t really an option to stand aloof from the world, or from a particular culture in the world — precisely because all is cherished, all is shot through with grace, all is in the process of being transformed and renewed by God through the Church. The Church is central in this process, but it presupposes an embracing of the world as fundamentally fallen but being in the process of being transformed and redeemed. It cannot countenance a stand-offish aproach to the world as irretrievably fallen, or as being of limited relevance to a faith that is solely based on fidelity to textual revelation. By contrast, if you are a text-based believer without a sacramentally-based faith whose approach is based on a text and a mostly cerebral understanding of it, coupled with the occasional emotional reaction, rather than an actual physical encounter with God on a regular basis (“oh taste and see, that the Lord is good”), well, you’re going to be tempted at the very least to reject entanglements with a fallen world, or a particular civilization, or what have you, because it ultimately “doesn’t matter”. What matters is fidelity to the textual authority for a small remnant.
This is why protestantism has been an unmitigated disaster for Western Christianity in particular, and for Christianity as a whole. That is not to say that the Western Catholic Church of the early 16th century was not in desperate need of reform — it was! — or that many of the reforms that came about as a part of the counter-reformation were not very useful — they were! But it does mean that the trajectory that Protestantism set much of Western Christianity on was a deeply tragic one, and quite apart from all of the blood that was spilled in its wake. It is simply the case that by creating a kind of Christianity which was non-sacramental and mostly careening between hyper-rationalism and hyper-emotionalism in a roller-coaster type fashion over the course of time, a gradual withdrawal from the actual world took place — a kind of vacating of the space, which allowed other ideations to move into, and eventually take over, that space. The Catholics have never really stopped their engagement with the world, both in practical and in intellectual terms. But the trends unleashed by the Reformation were very powerful, and had huge and negative impacts on Catholic countries and cultures as well, precisely because the countries which were Protestant came to dominate the world, and spread their own culture together with that domination (a process which continues today). The tide has been a global one, and the voice of the Catholics (and the smaller voices of the Orthodox in their own contexts) has been all but drowned out.
I do think that engagement with philosophy is critical. One author you may want to look into is David Bentley Hart. He’s a philosopher and theologian — he’s Eastern Orthodox, but he isn’t a partisan. He takes a view similar to yours in that the battle needs to be fought on both fronts, and that Christian philosophers are needed to do so. He has written a few good books, although they can be difficult reading at times in part due to his own style of writing (which he has admitted himself can be difficult).
(**) I realize that many Protestant Christians, perhaps most of them, view this as having been a terrible mistake. They could not be more wrong, actually, and in my view it is precisely this kind of knee-jerk reaction against any kind of philosophically based articulation of religion that lies at the heart of the problem we’re discussing here.
(***) By sacramentalism I mean not merely embracing baptism, or perhaps baptism and communion as “sacraments”, but rather an entire worldview which sees the world itself as a living sacrament, shot through with the presence of God, and something which, in very specific and concentrated moments, becomes what the Church refers to formally as “sacraments”.