The Modern Era: Reformation and Counter-Reformation
The first day of the new year seems like an appropriate time to reflect on where we’ve been and where we are going. It is, after all, the meaning of the Janus, the god who looks backwards and forwards, and for whom we name the month of January. A time to reflect, and a time to “proflect”, as it were.
To speak of the “present age”, or Modern Era, is to speak of an epoch of time that begins with the Renaissance and the Reformation (and also the Counter-Reformation). Usually, da Vinci (or Copernicus) is the name associated with the former and Martin Luther with the latter — the German Revolution or Protestant Reformation. These were the defining events for what we have subsequently come to call “the Modern Era”. The forces of Renaissance and Reformation together have made for what we also called “The Secular Age”. Modern Era and Secular Age are pretty well synonymous terms. But finally, at our “end of history” and in “the new normal”, we see now the end to which these two secularising forces have led us — one into religious fundamentalism and the other into intellectual reductionism.
The agonising birth of the Modern Era was reflected in the violence of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. Parallel to this was the conflict of Age of Reason with the Age of Faith. The Lutheran Revolution set in motion events that led subsequently to the Glorious Revolution in England, the French Revolution, and the Russian Revolution as well as the American War of Independence. They are all connected across the generations, and reflect an intensifying thrust of secularisation in Western civilisation.
These events have made us what we are today at our “end of history”, as have also prospective probable events that have not yet occurred but which will follow from the logic of its development. These probable events also shape what we are today. For although we tend to think of Reformation and Counter-Reformation as an unfortunate episode of the early Modern Era, full of blood and destruction, as being now behind us, the fact is that this conflictual dialectic has not yet been overcome or resolved. And this destructive dialectic, however muted it may appear at times, will continue until we find a way beyond Reformation and Counter-Reformation, for all the reasons given in the last post on “Red Scare, Black Terror“. That means, as well, a way beyond nasty dualisms of “secular” and “religious” or “the profane” and “the sacred”, and therewith also their disguised aspects in the form of “progressive” and “conservative”. Are we not growing weary of this?
In fact, it’s safe to say that some of the present shady controversies and scandals surrounding the Vatican Bank being reported (even this very day), and the acknowledged fact that the present Pope has enemies inside and outside the Vatican who want to see his reforms fail, is connected also to this long-standing ambition of elements within the Catholic Church to rollback “Europe” and re-establish “Christendom”. That is to say, rollback secularism in all its forms and restore a theocracy — a resurrected Holy Roman Empire. But Counter-Reformation seems to be the least of the present Pope’s concerns.
And I have to admit that, when I first became familiar with Jean Gebser’s works and writings, I also suspected him of being an agency of the Counter-Reformation, particularly given the influence of the Catholic theologian Romano Guardini on Gebser’s views. Coincidentally, Guardini is also perhaps the main influence on Pope Francis, who began his doctoral dissertation on Guardini, and whose name is mentioned most frequently in Laudato Si. Guardini was also an influence on Hannah Arendt, and was also one of the few anti-Nazi theologians to actually voice his dissent from the general views of the German episcopate and the Vatican.
I still think there are some elements of Gebser’s work that are somewhat recidivist or premature: the “destructive antithesis” that he highlights in The Ever-Present Origin of the “individualistic” and the “collectivist” (the Capitalistic or the Communistic) were first performed in and as Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation. And I don’t think Gebser explores the roots of that “destructive antithesis” sufficiently in Reformation and Counter-Reformation.
The great irony of the present is, that there are precise (and very uncanny) parallels between the recent history of the West and current events in the Middle East. Just as early Christendom split between the Eastern (Orthodox Greek) and Western (Catholic Latin) branches, so the Ummah split between mainly Sunni and Shi’i. Islamicists, like reactionary Catholicism, have also attempted to roll back the tide of secularisation. The atrocities of “Christofascism” or “clerical fascism” and the Black Terror of the last century (and today), which belongs to the Counter-Reformation still, is precisely reflected in the atrocities of “Islamofascism” as well. And the question is, whether this is at all connected to religion per se, or whether religion is simply a mask for something else altogether.
That “something else altogether” seems very likely connected with Gebser’s interpretation of the “destructive antithesis” of the individual and the collective, and whether it comes wearing the mask of religion or the mask of secularism or “modern rationalism” may be well beside the point. There can be little doubt that Christian “anti-communism” as the rationale for “Christofascism” was largely a cover story for a counter-revolutionary attack on secularism and “modern rationalism” in all its forms dating back to the Reformation and the Renaissance, because it also attacked liberalism, socialism, and democracy. And there’s little doubt that “Islamofascism” is the same phenomenon.
Why is that? Well… one can say that it is indeed a reflection of problem of “human nature”… the apparent inability to resolve the contradiction of individual and collective and everything else about that contradiction is just an elaborate story we tell ourselves to rationalise it or make sense of something that makes no sense at all. For what is the contradiction of individual and collective but the old fundamental paradox about the meaning of the One and the Many?
For the meaning of the Modern Era, Reformation and Counter-Reformation were the original forms of what we now call “revolutionary” and “reactionary” or “progressive” and “conservative”. It may have changed its form over the generations, but it’s the same old bone we keep chewing on. And somehow, we must find a way to get over this destructive antithesis and beyond it if we are all to survive together in the global era. That’s really the meaning of “transcendence”. And religion, as such, is not so much the issue as is our human habit of thinking in dualisms. For if Mr. Hyde doesn’t come wearing the mask of religion and piety, he simply comes wearing some other mask — even the mask of “humanism”.
Degeneration is the most striking feature of Late Modernity. Reformation has degenerated into fundamentalism, and Renaissance has degenerated into reductionism. Fundamentalism and reductionism are proof of the exhaustion of the values and inspirations that launched the Modern Era in the first place. But some backward-looking reactionary nostalgia for a pure “Christendom” as a totalitarian conception of the “mystical body of Christ” is also degeneration and decadence.