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.


10 responses to “The Modern Era: Reformation and Counter-Reformation”

  1. says :

    Still here, are we? Not surprising. Humanity is apparently as deaf as it is dumb. (Or is it, “comfortably numb”?)

    It’s been a while since I expressed my appreciation for the “shouting from the rooftops” school of “wake up and smell the coffee!”. Still falling on deaf ears for the most part (alas) but…as as friend once put it, “our institutions will be the last to change.” (Wonder who said that?)

    May the New Year bring peace (and both/and logic) to all here and beyond.

    “All things are possible..,”


    • Scott Preston says :

      Well, well, if it ain’t the ghost of Christmas past! Nice of you to drop by. Happy New Year to you.

      Yes, I’m still here — hair has gotten shorter, beard has grown longer, kidney disease with a brief period of hospitalisation, a few more books in the library, horns sprouting from my head…. Maybe I should return to the mountain for a new photo for my “about” page. The present one is ten years old now. Yes, I’m still here… about 1700 essays after the first one in the old Dark Age Blog. Am I getting tired? You bet. You may have returned just in time for my swan song.

      Anyway, some of the old crew will be pleased to see you rise from the dead — from the “whatever happened to what’s-her-name?” underworld — even if momentarily. They’ve inquired on a couple of occasions into whatever happened to star poster InfiniteWarrior, who disappeared into reality. Or, into the “Underverse”.

      • LittleBigMan says :

        “Am I getting tired? You bet.”

        The Dark Age Blog (TDAB – which won “the best blog in Canada” award) and The Chrysalis have been forever itched in the minds and souls of anyone who has been fortunate enough to come across them. The benefits to my own soul of your work have been immeasurable; not to mention the over 450 books and other reading assignments so far 🙂

        The symbolic representation of your work in my mind has always been “The Lighthouse.” And how apt it is that solar flares adorn the top of the page in The Chrysalis.

        • Scott Preston says :

          Ah, LittleBigMan, you really are TOO kind! TDAB was only one of the nominees for the “best blog in Canada”. But the winner was something else.

          • LittleBigMan says :

            In that case, that only means that “politics” played a role in how the final winner was chosen. It happens all the time. Just take a look at the scandal with FIFA awarding World Cup venues.

            But, “The proof of the pudding,” as the say, “is in the eating.” 🙂

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        Yes! You’re still here. (The voice crying in the wilderness is a dead giveaway.) Hopefully, not the worse for wear. Praying you’re on the mend, if not completely your healthy, hearty self.

        “Here” in my earlier comment is in reference to the still point of the old see-saw of opposite extremes ruling the day: fundamentalism and reductionism. Entropy might be a good term for it.

        As abdulmonem reminds us, however, our lively world continues to thrive, mature and change despite, when not, in spite of it. 🙂

  2. abdulmonem says :

    I am one of the old crew who want to express his joy to the return of the brilliant female voice to our midst. We are living in a lively world despite the apparent numbness and wake-up calls never go in vain, there are always those who pick up the light. Welcome back and await your light.
    On the post I like to express my thank for Scott for keeping me busy in this continual search for clarity toward understanding the depth of my internal structure as a basic step in the way of understanding the outside. Life is nothing but a process of deciphering the visible in order to intuit the invisible prior to our departure to the ceremony of the invisible.

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      “We are living in a lively world despite the apparent numbness.”

      Indeed. An enduring truth that never changes despite everything else. Renews my hope for the future.

      Our institutions may have exhausted their usefulness to us and even become dangerously detrimental to our well-being, though even they appear to be undergoing a renaissance…at base. Whether those breaths (or is it, gasps?) of fresh air ever break the encrusted surface of them remains to be seen. My guess is “probably not” because while…

      “there are always those who pick up the light”

      …those lights are generally snuffed out as quickly as they appear. Their legacy nonetheless endures “forever”. As in the myth of the Phoenix, it’s just a matter of fanning the dying embers back into a flame.

      • Scott Preston says :

        “We are living in a lively world despite the apparent numbness.”

        The “numbness” is, indeed, the inhuman. This is one reason why I recommend Hannah Arendt’s portrait of Eichmann in Jerusalem and to understand what she means by “banality of evil” or even “holes of oblivion”. Eichmann was only a servo-mechanism. Arendt doesn’t use that term. She says only a “bundle of conditioned reflexes” – his speech, his deportment. He only spoke platitudes, slogans, cliches, formulas, along with a lot of self-pity. Eichmann (and I think this is the key issue here) was numb, meaning — he was “inhuman” simply because he had never learned what it was to BE human.

        Eichmann (and he’s certainly not unique in this respect) simply had no feeling for the meaning of “human”. So, how could he then be expected to be “humane”? He was a function — a functionary, and he knew nothing beyond that — the perfect “organisation man”.

        That “numbness” is the evil, and the numbness is banality, and of course “numb” and “number” (quantification) are closely connected words. There are a lot of implications in the phrase “banality of evil”.

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    Another profoundly deep, insightful, and enlightening essay. Too many gems to mention.

    “…….whether religion is simply a mask for something else altogether.”

    Yes, it is. Religion, in its popular and historical context, is the most effective mask to hide the intentions of the infinitely wicked as they (the agents of Shadow) embark on fooling and taking advantage of the vast majority ignorant people.

    Religion…..this source of the most amusing jokes ever…….has instead turned into a license to commit the most horrid crimes.

    Will the ever-present good remain unresponsive forever? I don’t think so. Even Seth has given us clues that that patience will run out in the second half of the 21st century. I can hardly wait!

    By the way, I totally forgot, but yes, Happy New Year!!

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