About ten years ago reading The English Civil War: A People’s History, I came to the realization that I was ‘against’ radical Protestantism, whatever that meant. Raised as a child in upstate New York there are certain Truths which are imparted by the educational system which you take for granted. For example, in the American Civil War you knew very well who the good guys and bad guys were. Though less stark and explicit, it was also rather obvious that the American revolutionaries were on the side of right and the British were wrong. Finally, though more subtextual, it was clear that Protestants and Puritans were on the right side of history, while the Roman Catholic church was a somewhat antiquated institution which had had to adapt to modernity.
By the values which I hold to at this age I think that my childhood views, shaped by teachers, curriculum, and frankly the milieu of upstate New York, I think I learned the sides which were right and wrong correctly, even if there are shades of gray to reality. When it comes to the American revolution I am more ambivalent, and honestly have a difficult time saying that the British were wrong by the values which I hold to today. Internally it’s still a process and I can see both sides.
But when it comes to Protestantism I have no doubts now; in the age of the Reformation my head tells me that I hope that I’d have the courage to stand with Erasmus. I qualify that it my head thinks this because for some reason my heart still sides with the Protestants, whether it be joy when reading about Elizabeth’s fleet defeating that of Phillip or the sadness over the travails of the Winter King.
When I say I am against the Reformation does that mean that I’m in favor the corruption that was the Church of the early 16th century? Clearly not. And when I say I’m against the Reformation, does that mean that I accept the metaphysical claims of a particular religion? Not at all. My concerns are both material and ideological in relation to the chaos that the Reformation wrought.
As most of us know Erasmus of Rotterdman was a catalyst for many of the ideas and impulses of the Reformation, even if he was neither necessary nor sufficient. His accomplishments are well known enough that I won’t rehash them here, while his criticism of the Church of his period are also rather famous. Erasmus clearly favored a reform of the practice of the religion of the Western Christian church, but at the end he never left the Church.
Though agreeing, even anticipating, many of the critiques of Protestants, ultimately he did not wish to see a rupture in Western Christianity. But there was also the scandalous cultural barbarism unleashed. One could critique priests for their corruption, but should the response be to beat them? One could suggest that relics were false, and that excessive attention to artistry within churches were a burden to the community, but should one burden the churches down? Perhaps the frivolity of feasts days were a bit much, but should peasants be denied their joy because they should tremble in the hands of an angry God?
Arguably the Reformation was critical in allowing for the space to develop so that the scientific rationalism which we appreciate today, though I don’t think it was necessary. And curiously, in Reformations, the author points out that John Calvin’s conception of false religion is rather like that of atheists in relation to all religion. But it also unleashed savage antinomian energies, most evident in what happened at Munster. When Erasmus critiqued the Church of his period he did not wish as a response barbaric iconoclasm which enforced its truth at the point of the sword. But that is what the Reformation became by and large (the later Anabaptist sectarians had a quite different view, but it is notable that they emerge in the failures of the violent Anabaptists).
Of course in the real world people like Erasmus were caught between fanatics in both campus. As a realist one might have to choose a side, even if one preferred that the conflict not occur. So when I say I’m against the Reformation, I’m pointing to the reality that often you create more problems by attempting to fix things too quickly and radically. Some parts of the Church, such as in Spain, had already reformed, and so were surprisingly immune to the emergence of dissent (what did emerge in Spain and Italy were often theological innovators of a Unitarian stripe). In our age the same impulse of the early Reformers exists: banish injustice and corruption. But that’s easier said than done, and sometimes the medicine of justice is worse than the disease of injustice.