Reformation and Secularity


Recently, I was invited to give a paper to the University of Divinity’s Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy. The event was billed as ‘Luther, Protestantism and Society’, and was a low-key way to mark Reformation Day. There was, however, no beer to be found, and so the event was always going to struggle to be true to character.

There were, however, four speakers. Monica Melanchthon (Pilgrim College) spoke on ‘Luther, Bible, and Gender’, focusing especially on Luther’s exegesis of Genesis 38. Gordon Preece (Director of RASP) spoke on ‘Luther, Vocation, and Precarious Work’, and Andreas Loewe (Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral) spoke about ‘Luther, Music, and Bach’.

I offered some reflections also, abbreviating parts of a larger project that I’ve been working on. For those who may be interested, here’s a version of what I said (minus all the technical apparatus).

Reformation and Secularity

Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy, 31 October 2017

Taking Some Bearings

Debates about personal and religious liberties can get ugly, even in so-called liberal democracies. They can also be instructive. For some, such debates expose the lamentable erosion of a grander and shared communal story – an account of how we came to be where and who we are, and so a way to answer the question, ‘How then shall we live?’ For some others, such debates expose the myth that such a story ever existed, and that adjectives like ‘traditional’ – as in ‘traditional values’ – are considerably more novel than their Galahads would have us believe.

Ecclesial communions are not disinterested bystanders to such debates. Nor are they newcomers to the game. (By comparison, liberal democracy has only just turned up.) God-botherers have been playing this one for a very long time. In fact, we even wrote lots of the rules. Today, I want to offer four little reflections on what I judge to be live challenges for those religious communities committed to staying in the game, and for whom the various reformations of the sixteenth century remain critical for the formation of their identities.

One particular misjudgement I have in my scope is that social vision that places the church at the centre of things, a misjudgement that sponsors modes of being in the world that are at odds with some of Protestantism’s most remarkable instincts. Of course, not everyone shares my enthusiasm for such instincts.

Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation

Brad Gregory’s ambitious, provocative, and polemical book The Unintended Reformation (published in 2012) sits among a growing body of scholarship concerned with the geneses, definitions, and assessments of what many God-botherers often misrefer to as ‘secularism’. Epigrammatically, his thesis (which is neither new nor without serious historical misjudgements) is that liberal modernity is the progeny of the Protestant reformations of the sixteenth century. Continuing the destructive work begun by Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, these religious and intellectual upheavals, Gregory argues, are to be lamented because they are unwittingly responsible for ending over a millennia of Christianity as ‘a framework for shared intellectual life in the Latin West’, and because they created the conditions out of which grew some of the greatest maladies of the modern world, among which Gregory names individualism, pluralism, scepticism, capitalism, secularism, and consumerism – a smorgasbord of isms that have, he believes, left the world disenchanted. The Protestant response to ‘the failure of medieval Christendom’ was, in Gregory’s assessment, to squeeze transcendence out of intellectual and public discourse, and, consequently, to discard any meaning from the world that cannot be justified by an insipid and existentially-disquiet form of revisionism.

I am not entirely unsympathetic to the charge of disenchantment that Gregory lays at Protestantism’s door, especially because behind that door lies a musty room filled with very sober second- and third-generation Calvinists in whose work certain ‘metaphysical assumptions … probably did contribute to an eventual conception of a disenchanted natural world’. But a towering Manichaean saga that blames Protestants for dismantling some imagined and monolithic medieval synthesis represents a classic case of drawing up an indictment against the past, and then refusing to let it testify on its own behalf. ‘Such attention as we give to it is usually vindictive and incurious and therefore’, as Marilynne Robinson has argued, ‘incompetent’.

Contra Gregory, I would argue that the liberalising consequences of the reformers’ intentional efforts made those who welcomed them to be more at ease with secularity not in spite of their theological convictions but precisely because of them. While those who hanker for some near-Edenic past in medieval Christendom will lament that the genie has gotten out of the bottle, those who take their energies from the spirit of the reformations will not grieve that there is no way of getting him back in.

Protestant commitments to the doctrine of providence, expressed, for example, in Calvin’s positive assessment of creation as God’s ‘dazzling theater’ (Inst., 1.5.8), or as ‘a sort of mirror in which we can contemplate God, who is otherwise invisible’ (Inst., 1.5.1), and in Luther and Calvin’s enthusiastic appraisal of non-ecclesial vocations, undermine the old dualisms between so-called ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ space. Both quoted fondly the psalmists words: ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof’ (Ps 24.1). Luther’s political theology therefore has little qualms about stripping the church of jurisdiction and property, and about empowering worldly rulers to exercise their vocation of caritas towards the state’s citizens, and beyond. It did not, in other words, ever cast the world to the dogs …. Unless, of course, you happened to be an Anabaptist, or some German peasant demanding agrarian rights and freedom from oppression by wealthy aristocrats.

Of course, the modes of secularity with which the magisterial reformers made their home also assumed the kind of Constantinian arrangements that made their programs of reform possible in the first place, and which kept the church at or near the centres of power. While Protestants have not left such arrangements go entirely unchallenged, there remains a pressing summons to rigorously reassess them.  Any tradition that finds itself in a situation where many of the underlying commitments and assumptions upon which its identity were forged are now crumbling, has to do some hard thinking about its ongoing character. So it is to this that I now turn by way of four brief reflections.

Belief beyond medievalism

A more compelling account of the story of western modernity than that offered by Gregory is that made by another Roman Catholic, the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. In his essays Sources of the Self and A Secular Age, Taylor is concerned with what he calls ‘the conditions of belief’: ‘How’, he writes, ‘did we move from a condition where, in Christendom, people lived naïvely within a theistic construal, to one in which we all shunt between two stances …; and in which … unbelief has become for many the major default option?’ Taylor tells the story of why in a so-called post-secular age ‘the hegemony of the mainstream master narrative of secularisation’ is increasingly being challenged, and of how in our ‘secular’ age, transcendence and immanence coalesce into one dis-connected whole in which ‘believers are beset by doubt and doubters, every once in a while, find themselves tempted by belief’ (Smith).

The work of many of our best novelists, musicians, poets, filmmakers, artists and other endangered species attests to the belief that our age is haunted. We no longer need the church to perform this role for us. Jamie Smith describes it well: ‘On the one hand, … [w]e live in the twilight of both gods and idols. But their ghosts have refused to depart, and every once in a while we might be surprised to find ourselves tempted by belief, by intimations of transcendence  …. On the other hand, even as faith endures in our secular age, believing doesn’t come easy. Faith is fraught; confession is haunted by an inescapable sense of its contestability. We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now’. Paul Elie also describes well the character of belief in our time:

We are all skeptics now, believer and unbeliever alike. There is no one true faith, evident at all times and places. Every religion is one among many. The clear lines of any orthodoxy are made crooked by our experience, are complicated by our lives. Believer and unbeliever are in the same predicament, thrown back onto themselves in complex circumstances, looking for a sign. As ever, religious belief makes its claim somewhere between revelation and projection, between holiness and human frailty; but the burden of proof, indeed the burden of belief, for so long upheld by society, is now back on the believer, where it belongs.

This makes religious belief less stable than those who confuse faith with certainties condone. I am not suggesting for a moment that sixteenth-century Europeans could have imagined the world that Taylor is seeking to understand and to map. They couldn’t have. But some of the instincts they fostered, birthed against the background of their own turbulent time, remain serviceable for us today. The Reformed project’s instincts, if rarely its practice, have been to appraise belief in terms unconstrained by the ‘protective guardianship’ (Sarah Coakley) of the status quo. Its instinct, if rarely its routine, has been to lose faith in settled arrangements, and to learn instead the habits ‘of dispossession, the constant rediscovery and critique of the myth of the self [or of the institution] as owner of its perceptions and positions’. This is the kind of thinking that ‘unsettles all claims to a final resolution of how we define and speak of our interest’ (Rowan Williams), and of belief. When it comes to believing – or to not believing – in anything we are now on our own, and responsible for ourselves. ‘Belief in God is no longer axiomatic. There are alternatives’ (Taylor). The medieval social space and intellectual imaginary after which Gregory hankers no longer exists, if it ever did.

Taylor is right to observe that the social imaginary in which moderns live is one in which ‘the fate of belief depends much more than before on [the] powerful intuitions of individuals, radiating out to others’ (Taylor) than it does on the unchallengeable status that a single orthodoxy once enjoyed, or on what he calls ‘the church’s good magic’ – an orthodoxy and magic which Gregory argues are a precondition for making the world intelligible. In my judgement, there is both loss and gain to be named here. On the one hand, it requires a more deliberate effort for belief to find the requisite shape in communal life. On the other hand, as Taylor observes, ‘other facets of our predicament in relation to God come to the fore; for instance what Isaiah meant when he talked of a “hidden God”. In the seventeenth century, you had to be a Pascal to appreciate that. Now we live it daily’. Or, as Abraham Heschel once put it: ‘While stripped of pretension and conceit we sense the tragic insufficiency of human faith’.

Into such spaces, Christian communities can recover the shared vocation of being unstable and vulnerable bearers of the live question that brought them to birth in the first place – ‘Who do you say that I am?’ To so proceed is to welcome one of the genius insights of that first generation of Protestants regarding the freedom of the Word unharnessed from but at home among the particularities of any one culture or form, including ecclesial ones, a subject to which we now turn.

Church beyond Constantinianism

For most of its life, Western forms of Christianity have not heeded the words of the Hebrew prophets to be a sanctuary unescorted by borders or bullets. Nor have they placed much store in the warning carried in the words ‘… crucified under Pontius Pilate’. Instead, they have been made inebriate by drinking from the same wells of imperialism that created the empires of Egypt, Assyria, and the United States.

Signs that the keg may be running a little low occasions another opportunity for Protestant communions to dissent from all ‘stupid allegiance to political authority as if that were service to the church and, a fortiori, to God’ (William Stringfellow), and to embrace instead what Davis McCaughey called a ‘transitory character’. Without minimizing Christendom’s remarkable achievements, it seems judicious, imperative, and overdue for those traditions forged under its assumptions, atmosphere, and protection to undergo appraisal. This, as John de Gruchy rightly reminds us, does not mean ‘adopting a politically neutral stance or eschewing the responsible use of power’. Indeed, a project like the Reformed’s is, after all, essentially public and acutely concerned for the public commons. ‘The question is not’, therefore, ‘whether the church is going to use political influence, but how, on behalf of whom, and from what perspective it is going to do so. Is [such influence] going to be used “to preserve the social prestige which comes from its ties to the groups in power or to free itself from the prestige with a break from these groups and with genuine service to the oppressed”?’

For those who hanker after a secure life, a kind of invulnerable area in the world, the Word of God holds out no promise, no escape, no counterfeit security, no withdrawal from the actualities, ambiguities, uncertainties, and instabilities of human life. The idolatry of certainty – whether cultural, political, or intellectual – signals ‘a withdrawal from accepting the peril and the promise of the Incarnation’; namely, the call to live ‘an exposed life’ before God, one ‘stripped of the kind of security that tradition, whether ecclesiological or institutional, easily bestows’ (Donald MacKinnon). This is the church’s atypical and baffling existence. It also goes by another word – ‘discipleship’. It was this direction towards which a young Lutheran by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was looking when in London in the early 1930s he preached that:

Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its apologia for the weak … Christendom has adjusted itself much too easily to the worship of power. It should give much more offence, more shock to the world, than it is doing. Christianity should … take a stronger much more definite stand for the weak than to consider the potential moral right of the strong.

The worldliness of the church

During his first American tour, Bonhoeffer spoke also of a church ‘beyond religion’. While his now-famous wrestlings with the question of a ‘religionless Christianity’ and of ‘interpreting biblical concepts nonreligiously’ seem to have had their main geneses in Karl Barth’s theological critique of religion, it is clear that Bonhoeffer was pressing beyond Barth towards something more as-yet unknown. Neither an ‘extra’ to the normalities of human existence nor a ‘stopgap’ for when we have reached ‘the limits of our possibilities’, Bonhoeffer’s God is fully present in all of life’s ‘polyphonic’ dimensions. ‘We cannot, like the Roman Catholics’, Bonhoeffer said, ‘simply identify ourselves with the church’. For ‘Jesus calls not to a new religion but to life’, the content of which is a participation in God’s powerlessness in and suffering ‘at the hands of a godless world’.

Bonhoeffer’s is a call to reject the claim that ecclesiocentricity and its institutional permanence are necessary in order to make the world coherent. He rejects, in other words, the myth that the church is the telos of world history wherein ‘the whole space at one’s disposal is filled with ecclesiology’, and where ‘the world has disappeared from the horizon’ (J. C. Hoekendijk). He rejects, therefore, a church turned in upon itself (ecclesia in se incurvata) and so the reduction of mission to proselytism into particular cultural forms.

Here we come to modern Protestantism’s failure to know why it exists anymore. As a commentator noted in The Washington Post just last week, ‘Protestantism has become an end in itself … The result is denominationalism in which each Protestant church tries to be just different enough from other Protestant churches to attract an increasingly diminishing market share’. Bonhoeffer did not make this misjudgement. Firstly, because he had no problem with saying the third article of any ecumenical creed. He refused, in other words, to not hope for and work towards the genuine and international unity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. And secondly, because in his terms: ‘The church is church only when it is there for others … The church’, he wrote, ‘must participate in the worldly tasks of life in the community – not dominating but helping and serving’. This refrain found echo in the World Council of Churches’ report, published in 1967 as The Church for Others and the Church for the World. The report grappled with the perception of a growing secularization in the West, pleading that the Church not discern in its ‘change of social function’ a ‘loss or emigration from society’ lest it understand mission to be ‘a counter-attack to restore’ Christendom. It argued also that we might be wisest to consider the possibility that secularisation might in fact be ‘a fruit of the gospel’, and a much-welcomed invitation to seek traces of Christ’s transforming work ‘outside the walls of the Church’ and among those ‘who may have little or no connexion with the churches as they are today’.

Gregory’s long threnody for medieval Christianity masks an unwillingness to consider that, however unintended they may have been, the liberalising consequences of the reformers’ congeniality with what we today might call ‘secularity’ was a deliberate theological move. It was a move birthed of the instinct that the hegemony of the ecclesia meets its counter story in the truly catholic authority of the free and freeing Word who ‘came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (Jn 1.13). The fact is too that Gregory can lament for a past time all he likes. There can be no going back. The nostalgia for the absolute is just that – nostalgia, and nothing more.

Faithful secularity and the humanising of the public commons

The one thing that is certain in our current cultural and political climate is that things are ‘deeply uncertain and fluid’. ‘There is’, as Rowan Williams has noted, ‘widespread impatience with transnational institutions, from the EU to the UN, yet equally widespread anxiety about the dominance of a single power. We are increasingly aware of the issues that cannot be solved by single sovereign states on their own – ecological crisis, terrorism, migrancy – yet are uncomfortable with any notion of global jurisdictions’. In addition, there is the profound ‘discontent of the disenfranchised and insecure’ (Williams). The global north is increasingly conscious of facing a highly critical, if internally diverse, Islamic world and is struggling to know how best to respond to its presence both within and outwith its borders. ‘Enlightenment liberalism, the self-evident creed of reasonable people, now appears as simply one cultural and historical phenomenon among others. Its supposed right to set the agenda for the rest of the world is no longer beyond question’ (Williams). Things once seemingly reliable now feel fragile, and endangered.

At the same time, how we appraise and navigate secularity itself is also undergoing significant revision. A growing number of historians, sociologists, political theorists, cultural anthropologists, and theologians are debunking the so-called secularisation thesis and are proposing alternative accounts of secularity in which ‘religious and nonreligious commitments and practices interact over time’ (Luke Bretherton). Among these is the theological ethicist Luke Bretherton. Drawing upon insights from Aristotle, Hannah Arendt, Saul Alinsky, and others, and from his own experience with grassroots democracy in the work of Citizens UK, Bretherton’s is a vision of democratic politics and of vibrant civil society expressed in what he calls ‘broad-based community organizing’. He promotes a vision in which those who carry myriad obligations, commitments, identities, and practices – those representing varying economic, political, kinship, intellectual, and religious concerns – learn to coordinate, converge, communicate, debate, clarify, negotiate, and seek to forge a common life, a life that will inevitably call into question the kind of arrangements orchestrated to leave economic, political, and religious elites immune from accountability and responsible participation in a common social, legal, economic, and political space. Bretherton recognises that ‘whereas the medieval city offered one set of political opportunities and challenges, the modern and now world city offers an assemblage of material and social conditions for a different set’. Rather than shy away from this reality, or rail against it, however, Bretherton leans into its opportunities. He writes:

What community organizing represents is a means of reconstituting, from the ground up, a sensus communis, which can then form the basis of a practical rationality on which shared judgments can be made. It does this through assembling a ‘middle ground’ out of the existing traditions, customs, and habits that have poured into the city. The practices of community organizing create the conditions through which a shared world of meaning and action can emerge – albeit one often based on partial misunderstandings and misconceptions.

Bretherton’s is a call to the virtuous pursuit of a shared polis formed ‘through particular kinds of democratic practices rather than a single tradition, neutral procedure, or agonistic relations’. It is life that presupposes a space wherein active citizenship is organised and exercised through voluntary associations around common interests, goals, and commitments to life’s flourishing. Such a commitment need not, of course, be grounded in any consensus about what constitutes ultimate truth, or even agreement that such an oddity may exist. It requires only that citizens be dedicated to meet in such a space, and a just state that will normalise liberal democracy’s chaotically-pluralist character. Here, Bretherton seems to have in mind something like Nicholas Wolterstorff’s talk of ‘integrated existence’ – the integration that makes the public square to be truly the square of the public.

The plea for better knowledge of and investment in local civic activism echoes that of a growing number of voices concerned to counter the bastardisation of democracy as what the Italian social scientist Vilfredo Pareto refers to as ‘the circulation of elites’ who have detached themselves from – and become disdainfully imperious towards – those they rule. In the US, for example, Richard Falk has for over two decades now championed the idea of what he calls ‘globalisation from below’. This deeply Protestant-like vision rejects the homogeneity and unity that globalisation-from-above seeks, for a vision instead that ‘tends towards heterogeneity and diversity, even tension and contradiction’. Much of this tension and contradiction is, as the Belgian sociologist Geoffrey Pleyers has suggested, the fruit of the fact that broad-based community organising is characterised by both ‘elite cosmopolitan activists’ who ‘share a top-down conception of social change’ and grassroots activists who reject such approaches as too approximating of the very social machinery they are determined to overthrow. In the sixteenth century, many Europeans committed to ecclesial and social reform felt likewise – that despite the rapid internationalisation of the movement, and however disparate in form, its productive energy was always expressed locally, with voices both from above and from below.

Lest the liberal state lose its essential liberalism it must be marked too by a continuing dialogue with religious communities, and those with each other. Viable civil societies in religiously plural contexts presuppose viable interreligious and extra-religious relations, with a high priority given to efforts at the local level where the freedom to engage in ‘convivial and cooperative relations’, however difficult and unstable, and to do so in ways that avoid ‘religious vandalism’, yields – dare I say it? – signs of the Spirit’s work in the earth.

Traversing Boundaries

The realities with which I have been concerned in this paper offer both challenges to and opportunities for theologians. We are increasingly working ‘within a re-enchanted world’ whose imagination is being fed from a smorgasbord larger than any single religious or cultural tradition can offer. Such a world moves theology from nearer the centre of things (where Gregory and many others would like it to be) towards the ‘discursive borderlands’ where interdisciplinary conversations and collaborations become normative. If theological faculties have frequently forgotten this habit, let me offer assurance that mine is not a call to novelty (Aquinas, for example, worked in such a way) but to renewed commitment to boundary-traversing discourse undertaken under new conditions of enchanted metaphysics. It is a call also to receive with gratitude what Marilynne Robinson names simply ‘the givenness of things’. The future of theology means making our way across boundaries, like a small cloud rising over the sea’s horizon, bearing hobbit-like witness to promised rains for a famished land.

When assumptions are challenged, when faith is stirred, when things once familiar become the new unknown, when we find ourselves travelling ‘too near the mountains’ in unguarded territory seldom traversed by ecclesial wayfarers, and when all we have in our kit are ‘old maps’ which are of ‘no use’ in this new terrain, it may be that at that point we have just begun, like Abraham and Sarah, and Frodo Baggins, on a quest that will leave us, and the future, different. My reference here to Mr Baggins is wholly intentional: colourful and noisy and undersized hobbits enter the quest, as J. R. R. Tolkien reminds us, not to preserve ‘this or that polity, such as the half republic half aristocracy of the Shire’, but rather to engage in ‘liberation from … evil tyranny’. Such is a reminder of the Christian calling too, that this people of God are not called to preserve that familiar life that they had known in the Shire but rather to imagine a future in which all of life’s enemies have been overcome, and to direct all their embodied efforts towards such an end. Along the way, they not only lose their reputation, but they also carry many unanswered questions, all the while knowing that there can be no going back. (Nor, as Frodo was to discover, can there be anything to be gained by going sideways.) But it is precisely in both the refusal to abandon questions and the determination to move forward nonetheless that Frodo and his strange company of friends discover that prudence is not about worldly cleverness but is rather about uncomplicated minds and wills conformed to a life of virtue, of boundless mercy, and of unbending devotion to the destruction of that which would undo their very being. In Protestant parlance, it is a simply that life which is lived under and by and toward the Word alone.

Jason Goroncy
Reformation Day 2017

6 thoughts on “Reformation and Secularity

  1. What a breath of fresh air! A thoughtful, balanced, constructively critical, immensely hopeful, and very, very timely antidote to the epidemic of Protestant failure-of-nerve and self-loathing (not to mention the odium Milbankium) currently contaminating the blogosphere. Well done, mate.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent. Really appreciate this. Couldnt we use Luther’s interest in the virtue of faith to underwrite the direction you suggest? And cant the irreducibile complexity of life be met with a chastened but robust faith in christ? Or, are you suggesting 1) that Luthers kind of faith is a by gone product of the 16th c or 2)his robust, confident, faith is only a romantic projection of modern christians or 3)perhaps Luther himself was also trading in idealisms as a kind of discourse without including the tragic and absurd in his theology?


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