In honour of the Reformation’s 500th birthday, here is an excerpt from Clinton C. Gardner’s book Letters to the Third Millennium describing the Reformation’s influence on the western world….
Before the Reformation we had assumed that either the church or state was ultimately responsible, and therefore we need not be excessively concerned with creating the future. Now we sensed that “I am responsible, not only for myself but also for the outcome of history.” We could no longer “let George do it.” Ultimate authority, we perceived, was not in institutions but in individuals. Only we give validity to the organizations or nations which we create and uphold. The revolutionary implications of this perception are still being worked out in the 20th century. Many of us relapse into the pre-Reformation belief in the sanctity of such institutions as churches or nations. Examples are hardly needed.
As conscientious laymen living under the imperative of personal responsibility, we began to speak a language never heard before: the purely lay and secular. Until this moment, throughout history, all government and art — indeed, every human institution — had been inextricably connected with institutional religion. As followers of Luther we began to break the connection. Actually, the Papal Revolution had initiated this separation of religious and secular power but only by setting the religious on top. Now we heirs of the bold monk appropriated “religion” inside each lay person. Quite logically this led to the translation of everything “religious” into lay and secular terms, from government to science, education, and the arts.
Let us start with the last. Giotto had already painted us as real individuals, but he and even the artists of the Italian Renaissance — Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo — still showed us acting out salvation history. Now, some fifty years after Luther’s death, the thoroughly “reformed” Dutch painters suddenly plunked us down in our kitchens and living rooms. From Franz Hals to Rembrandt to Vermeer, we became increasingly visible as just lay people going about our daily work.
About a century after Luther, One of the most marvellous “translations” occurred in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Why is it that we listen to German music with more “reverence” than to any other? Because it transforms the resounding Reformation church hymns — say Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is our God” — into a universal language. In Bach the religious origins are clear, but even as German music became increasingly secular, with Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, it has always remained true to its origins. It strikes the deepest chords. It carries the breath of the spirit through us, quickening our sense of belonging to the human enterprise. An eloquent testimony to the staying power of this new Reformation “speech” comes from a later revolutionary. In a conversation with Gorky, after listening to Beethoven’s Appasionata, Lenin said, “I know nothing the is greater than the Appasionata; I’d like to listen to it everyday. It is marvellous superhuman music.” And it’s not only “Westerners” that are so moved One of the first things that happened in China after “the Gand of Four” had fallen was the playing of Beethoven again in Peking.
Of course there was no point in having “freedom of conscience” if we were illiterate, as over 95% of us were before the Reformation. Fortunately Gutenberg’s newly invented printing presses gave Luther a vital weapon: a Bible for each of us to read and interpret for ourselves. Along with the Bible thousands of books poured into our hands as we all began to read on any subject. Public school systems, education for everybody, and a global campaign for literacy, were born out of the Reformers imperative that each of us work out our own salvation.
With the new theological doors that Luther had opened, universities “became” the church, the secular institution to nourish both our science and our con-science. The first American college, Harvard, was started in 1636 for the education of Protestant ministers. Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth followed in the next century, all founded by devout Protestants, as were most private U.S. colleges.
But we miss the full import of the Reformation’s new language if we concentrate only on Luther. The Czech Jan Has had been a martyr for the “Reformation” faith before it burst out in Germany. And the Reformation’s most creative “scientist” was probably the alchemist and doctor Paracelsus, who opposed the new “bookish” humanism of his century but also opposed Protestant and Papal parties. In many ways he was a loner, but in retrospect he seems to have been, as much as anyone, the founder of “contemporary” science. He was certainly the first biochemist. Rosenstock-Huessy hailed him as the man whose turbulent life and vision embodied the transition from medieval to “modern” times.
Until Paracelsus, not only medicine but all “science” was largely theoretical, based on the “logic” of abstract ideas derived from Greek and Latin sources. Now the eccentric Swiss doctor rejected this scholastic approach. He trusted his own personal observations and experiments, asking us to read the book of nature in much the same way Luther had asked us to read the Bible. Among those who shared Rosenstock-Huessy’s enthusiasm for him is J. Brinowski, who wrote that Paracelsus marked that “instant in the ascent of man when he steps out of the shadowland of secret and anonymous knowledge into a new system of open and personal discovery…..”
Finally, the Reformation created a vital new government institution: an incorruptible civil service. You may laugh but you are wrong. The exceptions prove the rule. Watergate and the Lockheed bribery are as good as examples as any. You can’t launder your money through Mexico and remain in government service. A Japanese premier, or any other, will fall if they betray the public trust. Teddy White called his book on Watergate Breach of Faith. It was a breach of our Reformation faith in the public servant. As Rosenstock-Huessy puts it:
Civil Service as a purely mechanical organization will never work efficiently. To understand the real inner justification for the strict discipline of a civil service, we must turn to the German revolution; for it alone gave the civil servant a religious position in his country. In the German revolution the drab, grey life of the average bureaucrat was suddenly transformed, as if by great volcanic eruption. Graft, bribery, the spoils-system, stain the character of the civil servant in every country which has not been touched by this great revolution. (ERH, Out of Revolution, page 362)
To sum up, the secular city created by the Reformation doesn’t mean a city where people have lost all interest in the purposes once expressed by religion. Just the opposite: it means the effective incorporation of those purposes into changed persons and new institutions capable of maintaining the standards once set by the church.
However, in replacing church by state, Luther went to unfortunate extremes. He positively exalted the power of the princes and the state as he depreciated the role of the visible church. He was anything but a populist. When his revolution’s left wing, the Anabaptists, inspired the Peasant’s Revolt of 1525, he urged the princes to crush it. In Ideology and Utopia Karl Mannheim calls that revolt “the decisive turning point in modern history.” He says it began contemporary “politics” because it was a “more or less conscious participation of all strata of society in the achievement of some mundane purpose, as contrasted with a fatalistic acceptance of events as they are, or of control from ‘above.'”
Reading his Bible, particularly St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, Luther didn’t mind control from above, but he saw it as exercised by many princes rather than a church hierarchy. Thus the Reformation set the mold of German national character, with both its virtues and its most outstanding defect, what Rosenstock-Huessy called its “lust for obedience.”
~taken from Letters to the Third Millennium, by Clinton C. Gardner, pages 35-38
Related reading: German Reforvolution by Peter Leithart