Thursday, November 08, 2007

High church & low, reflection and reflex   posted by Razib @ 11/08/2007 01:10:00 AM

I've been reading a bit of the literature of the cognitive science of religion, as well as a good deal of material on the Reformation (for the former, see In Gods We Trust and Religion Explained). Trying to make heads or tails of the dynamics which we see in the world around us isn't easy (at least for me). One of the major issues which crops up when psychologists explore how individuals model their gods is a dichotomy between a reflective conception and a reflexive intuition. People can give rough sketches of their theology of choice, but when prompted with little warning to narrate their god acting upon the world the implied characteristics tend to differ sharply from the formula which they earlier provided. The implication is that in parallel with a conscious god-model adhered to for the purposes of group identity most humans have an implicit subconscious model which they use in day to day cognitive processes. Some workers posit that this dual nature of god-concepts explains the tension between elite religion and folk religion, the high church and the low. The process of sect formation and religious revivalism may be the natural byproduct of this tension, as the masses attempt to draw away from elite attempts to shoe-horn theism into a hyper-rational and abstract system which doesn't satisfy their psychological needs and intuitions (in the American context this would be the switch from liberal Protestantism to evangelical Protestantism; though the latter is more orthodox in its theology, it is still considerably more penetrable than some of the abstruse material generated by modernist icons such as Paul Tillich).

With that, I was interested in some of the facts relayed in The Protestant Reformation: Beliefs and Practices:

The Reformation may eventually have become a popular movement, but it had its origins in the intellectual developments associated with Humanism and the Renaissance. The early reformers were virtually all of them university-educated men. Most of them were trained theologians, but they had also had a solid grounding in classical scholarship and in the techniques of logic and rhetoric....

The "university-educated" portion really jumped out at me. Remember that this was a period when most of the populace was not functionally literate! The Reformation was a world-shaking event. Luther and Calvin and their fellow travelers ushered in a period of communal bloodshed which culminated in the international Thirty Years' War, which many take to be a turning in point Europe's love affair with state sponsored religion (the discontinuity is not so sharp, note the revocation of the Edict of Nantes which postdates the Peace of Westphalia by a generation).

Obviously there were other contingent factors which played a role in the Reformation besides the intellectual firepower of men such as Martin Luther. Most people can probably agree that the printing press was a critical catalyst in the emergence of a robust republic of letters which served as the vehicle for a rapid sweep of new ideas across populations. But that catalyst needed a substrate to operate upon, so ideas in and of themselves did matter. I was interested to discover that John Calvin, the hero of the Reformed movement and the god-father of many Christian conservatives, was not a literalist. For example, believed that Genesis was a simplified narrative aimed toward a particular audience. In fact many of the reformers were taken aback by the simplistic reception of their message among the masses; some radicals took to sola scriptura and began to use the Bible as proof text for all elements of their lives. Many of these were the precursors of the Anabaptists, who were persecuted by Lutherans and Calvinists as well as Catholics. Additionally, the sophisticated arguments exposited by the intellectuals were not well understood by the typical enthusiastic convert. At one point one of Luther's followers, Andreas Karlstadt, preached against the Catholic interpretation of the eucharist to a sympathetic crowd, but was expelled a few days later by the same people for not celebrating the eucharist in the "proper" (i.e., Catholic) manner.

But to me iconoclasm is the most interesting phenomenon. The destruction of images, sculptures and art-work in general as "idolatry" is very familiar. In both Korea and Brazil radical Protestants have engaged in the destruction of religious imagery of their "idolatrous" opposition within the past few years, and we don't even need to talk about the Bamiyan Buddhas. The reformer Huldrych Zwingli of Zurich was disturbed by the more enthusiastic iconoclasts who were destroying works in his name, and tried to salvage some of the stained glass in his church in vain. His followers were no longer under his control when it came to some questions whose correctness they needed no scholarly guidance on. The most extreme case of iconoclasm in the modern or early modern era is clearly manifest in Islam; Wahhabi radicals have been engaging in the destruction of sacred architecture and sites for several centuries. Though Islam is ostensibly an unadorned monotheism, as a practical matter there is a fair amount of veneration of saints and holy men, particularly around their burial sites. John Calvin was buried in an unmarked grave because his followers were worried about the likelihood that such a site would become one of pilgrimage for those who venerated him. It seems clear that these recurrent manifestations of iconoclasm are natural implicit inversions of the tendency to imbue in objects and places a sacred importance. The rage of iconoclasm and the passion that it elicits issues from the fact that the destroyers understand very well the natural impulse to venerate particular persons and the objects and places which are imbued with their charisma.

On the one hand folk religions, whether Catholic or Protestant, Muslim or Hindu, exhibit similar tendencies and manifest the same general motifs. But this ocean of intuitive religious sensibility is periodically roiled by "reformist" tendencies from waves from on high which are able to spread quickly because of their transmission via explicit verbal creeds and arguments. Folk religion is limited in its spatial expanse because of its relationship to objects in the landscape, relics of obscure saints and sacred places of parochial importance. Its roots are deep, but its canopy is narrow. In contrast elite reformist movements are portable bits of data, memes, which are constrained only by the information technology and the necessary lubricant of mobile and literate evangelists. Ergo, the printing press combined with a standing cadre of intellectuals (generalized subsided by the Catholic Church ironically!) enabled the Reformation to explode beyond the control of monarchs bent on strangling it (remember that Henry the VIII was against it before he was for it!). Events such as St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre show the power of these emerging memeplexes to crystallize divisions and coalesce ingroup-outgroup sentiments. But as these movements spread and diffused down the social ladder the tightness and integrity of the myriad memes becomes garbled; nuanced theological arguments reduce down to intuitively tractable maxims such as the destruction of idols. The various currents and tensions working at cross-purposes likely cycle over time and produce a metastable equilibrium.

Addendum: Not only did Protestantism emerge as an idea promoted by a small group of intellectuals, its initial successes were among urban or elite segments of the populace. The French Protestants, the Huguenots, were able to hold their own in the face of Catholic persecution for several centuries because of their concentration among the higher orders of society and the critical mass in the cities of particular regions. In Poland, Austria and Hungary at one point the higher nobility seems to have turned predominantly Protestant. In Poland persistent (though weak) pressure from the monarchy combined with the historical circumstance that Protestantism became associated with traditional enemies (Prussia and Sweden) resulted in the re-Catholicization of of the nobility by the 18th century. In Austria the Hapsburgs forced a re-Catholicization through incentive and coercion. In Hungary a Protestant minority remained despite widespread defection, but this was due to the historical coincidence, as the south and east of the country was under Ottoman domination and so beyond the reach of the Counter-Reformation. I bring up these minutiae to show that even though Protestantism as an idea swept many elites, it was generally successful in sinking deep roots only where the apex of the political order favored it for a substantial period of time (England, Scandinavia, the principalities of northern Germany, Geneva, and the Netherlands). Conversely, even if the Reformation did not succeed it often left a lasting impact. The French Protestants who fled in the late 17th century from persecution and forced conversion to Catholicism left a lasting mark across the globe, from South Africa to Berlin to England. Even though the Reformation was never a mass movement in Italy, some of the most radical thinkers were Italian, and shaped the course of movements such Unitarianism in Transylvania. And remember that the most prominent Unitarian of the age, Michael Servetus, was Spanish!

Finally, I don't want to emphasize historical contingency too much. During the first decade or so of the Reformation the Hapsburg monarchy was dealing with a Turkish march deep into central Europe. The Ottomans were beaten back from Vienna only in 1529, and for a century and a half afterward they were a persistent drain on the Hapsburg treasury. Some have argued that the Ottoman offensive of the early 16th century was a necessary precondition in giving Martin Luther and other radicals respite from attempts by the center to bring them into line. This is possibly correct, but that does not mean that the Reformation of the early 16th century was a once-in-a-universe phenomenon. With the printing press, the emergence of a larger middle class and the coalescence of proto-nations during the Renaissance it seems that the likelihood for religious discord was high. The Hussite rebellion shows that many of the preconditions were already extant during the late medieval period. A convergence between the explosion of Martin Luther and the Turkish worries of the Holy Roman Emperor might have been fortuitous for the Reformation, but it seems likely that if Suleiman the Magnificent had turned all his attention to Persia in the east any success of stamping out of the heretics would only have delayed the inevitable reckoning with the pent up social pressures and the technology to unleash them.