Protestantism, the Reformation, Luther

(from "Revolt Against The Modern World")




[…] The ancient world had witnessed the degeneration of symbolism into a mythology that became increasingly opaque and mute and that eventually became the object of artistic fantasy. When the experience of the sacred was reduced to faith, sentiment, and moralism, and when the intuitio intellectualis was reduced to a mere concept of Scholastic philosophy, the unrealism of the spirit entirely took over the domain of the supernatural. This course underwent a further development with Protestantism, the contemporaneity of which with humanism and with the Renaissance is significant.


Prescinding from its final meaning in the history of civilization, its antagonistic role during the Middle Ages, and its lack of an initiatic and esoteric dimension, we nevertheless must acknowledge a certain traditional character to the Church that lifted it above what had been mere Christianity, because it established a system of dogmas, symbols, myths, rituals, and sacred institutions in which, though often indirectly, elements of a superior knowledge were sometimes preserved. By rigidly upholding the principle of authority and dogma, by defending the transcendent and superrational character of "revelation" in the domain of knowledge and the principle of the transcendence of grace in the domain of action, the Church defended from any heresy - almost desperately - the nonhuman character of its deposit. This extreme effort of Catholicism (which explains much of whatever is crude and violent in its history), however, encountered a limit. The "dam" could not hold and some forms that could be justified in a merely religious context could not retain the character of absoluteness that is proper to what is nonhuman; this was especially true not only because a superior knowledge was lacking, but also considering that the secularization of the Church, the corruption, and the unworthiness of a great number of its representatives and the increasing importance that political and contingent interests acquired within it became increasingly visible. Thus, the stage was set for a reaction destined to inflict a serious blow to the traditional element that was added to Christianity, to exasperate the unrealist subjectivism, and to uphold individualism in a religious context. For this is what the Reformation accomplished.


It is not a coincidence that Luther's invectives against the "papacy, the devil's creature in Rome" and against Rome as the "kingdom of Babylon" and as a radically pagan reality totally inimical to the Christian spirit were very similar to those invectives employed by the early Christians and by the Jewish apocalyptic texts against the city of the eagle and of the battle-axe. By rejecting everything in Catholicism that was Tradition and opposed to the simple Gospels, Luther demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding of that superior content that cannot be reduced either to the Jewish-Southern substratum, or to the world of mere devotion, which in the Church had developed through secret influences from above. (1) The Ghibelline emperors rose up against papal Rome in the name of Rome, thus upholding again the superior idea of the Sacrum Imperium against both the merely religious spirituality of the Church and her hegemonic claims. Instead, Luther rose up against papal Rome out of an intense dislike for what was a positive aspect, that is, the traditional, hierarchical, and ritual component that existed within the Catholic compromise.


(1) Naturally, this lack of understanding was typical of the representatives of Catholicism as well. Paracelsus was right when he said: "What is this commotion about Luther's and Zwingli's writings? It truly reminds me of a shallow bacchanalia. If I had to make a recommendation about this controversy I would have these gentlemen and the pope himself go back to school."


In many regards Luther facilitated a mutilating emancipation, even in the domain of politics. By supporting the Reformation the Germanic princes, instead of assuming the legacy of Frederick II, went over to the anti-imperial coalition. In the author of the Warnung an seine lieben Deutschen, who presented himself as the "prophet of the German people," these princes saw one who legitimated their revolt against the imperial principle of authority with his doctrines and who allowed them to disguise their insubordination in the form of an anti-Roman crusade waged in the name of the Gospel, according to which they had no other goal than to be free German rulers and to be emancipated from any supernational hierarchical bond. Luther also contributed to an involutive process in another way; his doctrine subordinated religion to the state in all of its concrete manifestations. Because the government of the states was the responsibility of mere secular rulers; because Luther foreshadowed a democratic theme that was later on perfected by Calvin (the rulers do not govern by virtue of their nature, but because they are the representatives of the community); because a characteristic of the Reformation was the radical negation of the "Olympian" or "heroic" ideal, or any possibility on man's part to go beyond his limitations either through asceticism or consecration and so to be qualified to exercise even the right from above, which is typical of true leaders - because of all these reasons, Luther's views concerning "secular authority" (die weltiche Obrigkeit) practically amounted to an inversion of the traditional doctrine concerning the regal primacy and thus left the doors open for the usurpation of spiritual authority on the part of the temporal power. When defining the theme of the Leviathan, or of the "absolute state," Hobbes similarly proclaimed: "civitatem et ecclesiam eadem rem esse."


From the point of view of the metaphysics of history, the positive and objective contribution of Protestantism consists in having emphasized that in mankind living in recent times a truly spiritual principle was no longer immediately present and that, therefore, mankind had to portray this principle as something transcendent. On this basis, Catholicism itself had already assumed the myth of original sin. Protestantism exasperated this myth by proclaiming the fundamental powerlessness of man to achieve salvation through his own efforts; generally speaking, it regarded the whole of humankind as a damned mass, condemned to automatically commit evil. To the truth obscurely foreshadowed by that myth, Protestantism added tints typical of an authentic Syrian masochism that were expressed in rather revolting images. Over and against the ancient ideal of spiritual virility Luther did not hesitate to call a "royal wedding" one in which the soul, portrayed as a "prostitute" and as "the most wretched and sinful creature," plays the role of the woman (see Luther's De libertate christiana); and to compare man to a beast of burden on which either God or the devil ride at will, without his being able to do anything about it (see Luther's De servo arbitrio).


While what should have followed from the acknowledgment of the abovementioned existential situation was the affirmation of the need for the support proper to a ritual and hierarchical system, or the affirmation of the strictest type of asceticism, Luther denied both things. The entire system of Luther's thought was visibly conditioned by his personal equation and the gloomy character of his inner life as a failed monk and a man who was unable to overcome his own nature, influenced as it was by his passions, sensuality, and anger. This personal equation was reflected in the peculiar doctrine according to which the Ten Commandments had not been given by God to men to be implemented in this life but so that man, after acknowledging his inability to fulfill them, his nothingness, as well as concupiscence's invincibility and his inner tendency to sin, would entrust himself to a personal God and trust desperately in His free grace. This "justification by faith alone" and the ensuing condemnation of the power of "works" led Luther to attack the monastic life and the ascetical life, which he called "vain and hopeless," thus deterring Western man from pursuing those residual possibilities of reintegration available in the contemplative life that Catholicism had preserved and that had produced figures like Bernard of Clairvaux, Jan van Ruysbroeck, Bonaventure, and Meister Eckhart. (2) Secondly, the Reformation denied the principle of authority and hierarchy in the dimension of the sacred. The idea that a human being, as a pontifex, could be infallible in matters of sacred doctrine and also legitimately claim the right to an authority beyond criticism was regarded as aberrant and absurd. According to the reformers, Christ did not give to any church, not even to a Protestant church, the privilege of infallibility; (3) thus, anybody is able to reach conclusions in matters of doctrine and interpretation of the sacred text through a free and individual examination outside any control and any tradition. Not only was the distinction between laity and priesthood in the field of knowledge basically abolished, but also denied was the priestly dignity understood not as an empty attribute, but in reference to those who, unlike other people, are endowed with a supernatural chrism and who carry an indoles indelebilis that allows them to activate the rites (these being residues of the ancient notion of the "Lord of the rites"). (4) Therefore, the objective, nonhuman meaning that not only the dogma and the symbols but the system of rites and the sacraments could have as well, was denied and rejected.


(2)    This is the main difference between Buddhism and Protestantism, which confers a positive character to the former and a negative to the latter. Both movements are characterized by pessimist premises - Luther's concupiscientia invincibilis corresponds somewhat to Buddhism's "thirst for life" - and by a revolt against a corrupted priestly caste. However, Buddhism indicated a path to follow since it created a strict system of asceticism and of self-discipline, unlike Protestantism, which rejected even the mitigated forms of asceticism found in the Catholic tradition.

 (3)      De Maistre (Du pape [Lyon, 1819]) correctly remarked that this situation is paradoxical: Protestantism in fact upholds the idea that God did not bestow infallibility to man or to the Church as if it were a dogma. In Islam, infallibility (isma) is not regarded as the natural possession of an individual, but of all the legitimate interpreters of the tawil, the esoteric teaching.

 (4)    Within Catholicism, due to a confusion between what is proper to asceticism and what is proper to the priesthood, the clergy never was a real caste. Once the principle of celibacy was established, by virtue of this very principle Catholicism irremediably lost the possibility of connecting the deposit of certain spiritual influences with the deep-seated forces of a blood legacy that had been preserved from any corrupt influence. The clergy, unlike the noble class, was always affected by the promiscuity of the origins since it recruited its members from all social strata and therefore always lacked an "organic" (i.e., biological and hereditary) basis for those spiritual influences.


One might object that all this no longer existed in Catholicism or that it existed only formally or indirectly. But in that case the way leading to an authentic reformation should have been one and one alone: to act in earnest and replace the unworthy representatives of the spiritual principle and tradition with worthy ones. Instead, Protestantism has led to a destruction and a denial that were not balanced with any true constructive principle, but rather only with an illusion, namely, sheer faith. According to Protestantism, salvation consisted in the mere subjective assurance of being counted in the ranks of those who have been saved by faith in Christ, and "chosen" by divine grace. In this fashion, mankind progressed along the path of spiritual unrealism; the materialistic repercussion did not delay its appearance.


After rejecting the objective notion of spirituality as a reality ranking higher than profane existence, the Protestant doctrine allowed man to feel, in all aspects of life, as a being who was simultaneously spiritual and earthly, justified and sinner. In the end this led to a radical secularization of all higher vocations; again, not to sacralization, but to moralism and puritanism. It was in the historical development of Protestantism, especially in Anglo-Saxon Calvinism and Puritanism, that the religious idea became increasingly dissociated from any transcendent interest and thus susceptible to being used to sanctify any temporal achievement to the point of generating a kind of mysticism of social service, work, "progress," and even profit. These forms of Anglo-Saxon Protestantism were characterized by communities of believers with no leader to represent a transcendent principle of authority; thus, the ideal of the state was reduced to that of the mere "society" of "free" Christian citizens. In this type of society, profit became the sip of divine election that, once the prevalent criterion became the economic one, corresponds to wealth and to prosperity. In this we can clearly distinguish one of the aspects of the abovementioned degrading regression: this Calvinist theory was really the materialistic and lay counterfeit of the ancient mystical doctrine of victory. For quite a long time this theory has supplied an ethical and religious justification for the rise to power of the merchant class and of the Third Estate during the cycle of the modem democracies and capitalism. [...]




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