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Listening from the Distance of Centuries
Our turbulent times echo the Reformation.
The title of this essay is taken from a famous quote by the great 19th Century historian, Thomas Carlyle:
“Listening from a distance of two Centuries, across the Death-chasms and howling kingdoms of Decay, it is not easy to catch everything.”
Carlyle was referring to events that he considered to be catalytic in the emergence of modern Europe: the European Reformation of the 16-17th Centuries. In this assessment, most historians would agree; few periods in history have erupted and set in motion events, and calamities, that have defined entire continents, migrated across the world, and repeated over centuries, more than the Reformation.
From the distance of five centuries now, it remains just as difficult a task to understand how the convulsions of the past echo in our present. “History repeats itself” is a common trope often deployed to explain current issues. Yet it is falsified by its own definition; the events of the past never truly repeat themselves. Rather, the trappings of society and civilisation change over time, and we call this ‘progress’. But we don’t progress; our hulking mass of tribal, violent, hate-filled apes lurches from one generation to the next, locked in the holding pattern of humanity’s hubris. This reality is the true meaning of “history repeats itself”; we make the same mistakes, only the setting of the stage has changed.
If history doesn’t quite repeat itself, it is that the ghosts of the past lurk in the shadows of our imagined progress, apparitions of ourselves in the costumes of another era. These ghosts carry messages of the dangers residing in our collective capacities; paths not to tread, directions not to take. They also offer the wisdom of the ages, if the pride and vanity of the illusions of our progress would allow us to listen. They carry into the present the dichotomy of the human condition; our folly and imprudence, as well as our humanity and conscience.
History can be a powerful tool to inform the present, provide indications for the trends of today, and predictions for what may arise tomorrow. While never repeating, given the unique circumstances and conditions of each age, there may be parallels. One such parallel to our contemporary fractured world, struggling with its sense of meaning, is indeed the Reformation. This thought-seed was planted by a segment from historian Niall Ferguson, in a video presentation where he suggested that the most appropriate contrast to the issues in society today is not the 1930’s (as many a journalist would like to convey), but the Reformation.
Ferguson identified a number of themes that are more appropriately analogous, in particular the “massive interruption of the public sphere” caused in both eras by quantum leaps in communications technologies: the printing press for the Reformation, and the internet for our current Technological Age. These new technologies respectively allowed for the rapid dissemination of ideas and information that altered the face of society during each period. In this respect, both periods could be defined primarily as revolutions in communications, because the communications facilitate the revolution in ideas (whether those ideas are good or bad is a different story). To quote the foremost scholar on the topic, Diarmuid MacCulloch in ‘Reformation: Europe’s House Divided’ on the controversy caused by Martin Luther's ninety-five theses:
“...what the Luther furore now demonstrated was that there was an independent public opinion, and the printing presses which fuelled it could not be controlled by the existing hierarchies in Church and Commonwealth.”
This led to me dust off some books from my undergrad days, MacCulloch in particular, to think about more potential similarities and themes. It turns out they run deep. Perhaps none more striking, beyond the role of communications revolution, is the power of words. Both ages may be characterised by disputes over words and language; the disputes of the Reformation were intensely concentrated on words, and whether their meaning was literal or allegorical. Per MacCulloch:
“Reformation disputes were passionate about words because words were myriad refractions of a God one of whose names was Word: a God encountered in a library of books itself simply called ‘Book’: the Bible.”
Our contemporary cultural conflict is similarly defined by an obsession with words, and their potential meaning and power. Primarily driven by the Left, words are now ascribed transcendent powers: words are “harm”; words are “violence”. Somewhat paradoxically, this is a movement that has also stripped any stable meaning from language and words. The meaning of words is ephemeral, constantly being interpreted in new ways in accordance with the new orthodoxy. It is unsurprising, given this dramatic power ascribed to words, that this movement seeks to exert total control over words, policing language and rewriting books, because to control words is to control ideas and thought. This is distinctly echoing of the Reformation, and the relationship between words and ideas. MacCulloch again:
“Ideas mattered profoundly; they had an independent power of their own, and they could be corrosive and destructive.”
Our contemporary age is similarly defined by a corrosive and destructive power of ideas, whether the noxious conspiratorial beliefs and revanchist nationalism on the Right, or the absurd and incoherent ideologies of race, gender, and sexuality, on the Left. In the Reformation, the ideas were distinctly religious. The ideas in our contemporary cultural moment comprise a secular religion; faith-based premises about the nature of reality are held as unfalsifiable, self-evident ‘Truths’, possessed with zeal.
Given the power of faith-based ideas and the transcendent meaning of words, it is unsurprising that our contemporary age is also characterised by a distinctly Reformation practice: iconoclasm. The Reformation was a period in which inanimate objects held power, and inspired hysteria. Icons had to be purged. The Hussites had a practice of turning church images to face the walls, which they considered deprived the images of their power. This framing of the power of icons extends into our present where just like words, symbols have been bestowed with the powers of “harm” and “violence”, and must be purged from the public sphere, from statues to the names of buildings. In the Reformation, the destruction of images took the form of both spontaneous mob rampages as well as careful bureaucratic processes, which again is reflected in the patterns of iconoclasm in our present; spontaneous group action coupled with institutionally-sanctioned processes.
The motivations for this iconoclasm also echo from the Reformation to the present. In ‘The European Reformations’, Carter Lindberg wrote:
“The widespread destruction of the images and symbols of the old faith that accompanied the introduction of reform movements was not mere vandalism but rather a ritual action...The “ritual process” of the Reformation was a metaphysical shaping of the world according to the new convictions.”
The origins of the term “puritan” owed to the movement of iconoclasm, which went beyond the removal of colour and imagery from churches, and in Zurich under Ulrich Zwingli extended even to nailing the church organs shut. These motivations echo today; the “metaphysical shaping of the world according to the new convictions” could be a sentence that describes the march of the progressive Left through institutions, particularly universities, with their ritualistic display of moral purity. Rather than nail the church organs shut to avoid hearing their tune, today invited speakers are shut out of university campuses to prevent students being ‘harmed’ from hearing their words.
Iconoclasm contained a much darker side than burning an image or turning a painting to face the wall. The psychological underpinning of iconoclasm, a “ritual action” of reshaping the world, extended to the burning of people as heretics against the new orthodoxies. The Scottish Reformation developed a particular characteristic of public ceremonies of penance; repentance was communal, with the wrongdoer subject to public attendance at their humiliation. In our age, social media serves as the forum for public evisceration and humiliation for anyone who transgresses against the articles of identitarian faith. The psychological phenomena underpinning this reign of terror echoes today; the extension of iconoclasm to the individual as an agent of evil, who transgresses against the moral code and must be purged, publicly, to protect us from their ideas. This contemporary zeal with which perceived transgressors are eviscerated, and the very public sphere in which these acts of ritualistic purging take place, distinctly echo the Reformation.
An important characteristic in this context is the site of action, as one of the fundamental elements of the Reformation was a rejection of institutional power, i.e., the Church, and an intense focus on the individual soul as the locus of religious revolution. The inward focus on prayer, moral discipline, and personal sanctification, was collective expressed as “justification by faith”. These themes are evident today in the theories and ideologies that form the core of contemporary Left thinking; the individual is the site of political action, which is undertaken not by engaging in politics, but by “doing the work” and demonstrating rigorous ideological adherence, expressed as personal sanctity. The Reformation, at its more extreme forms in the Anabaptists, was characterised by a belief in radicalism as salvation, and of transformative action of inner spiritual renewal. The rhetoric of a Robin DiAngelo or Ibram X. Kendi illustrates these themes; one cannot repent their Original Sin, and the individual soul may only be redeemed by showing daily commitment to enacting the doctrines as ordained by the spiritual leader.
The Reformation also echoes a warning to our contemporary state of paralysed polarisation: conflict stifles diversity. MacCulloch could have been writing about today when he conveyed that the “very cutting down of options heightens the sense of difference…” At a time when both Left and Right sides of the political divide are captive to the extremes, and where viewpoint diversity both within and between movements is flattened, all that is amplified is difference and conflict. Lindberg wrote that:
“...it is difficult to build a nation when its major centres are infected by loss of moral direction, distrust, depersonalisation and social fragmentation due to competing selfish interests.”
Describing these societal challenges that faced Reformation Europe, these concepts of moral rootlessness, collective distrust, depersonalisation, and social fragmentation, could easily be analogous to our failing institutions, social media-ravaged public sphere, and loss of collective trust, connectivity, and sense-making capacities. The setting of our contemporary stage is, however, unrecognisable relative to 1500’s Europe. The ghosts of the Reformation are whispering a warning for us to heed; that while we may not burn people at the stake as they did, the fallout of our toxic war of ideas, words, and symbols, will be ugly and destructive in its own ways.
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