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Sound thinking

Once there was no “secular”

Carlos Eire on the metaphysical assumptions championed in the sixteenth century

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

Once there was no “secular”

In 2016, historians Thomas Albert Howard and Mark Nolll edited an anthology titled Protestantism after 500 Years (Oxford University Press). Carlos Eire’s essay in this book is called “Redefining the Sacred and the Spiritual: How the Protestant Reformation Really Did Disenchant the World.” The following paragraphs summarize one of the main themes frequently addressed by MARS HILL AUDIO.

“If one turns to the metaphysical concepts championed by Protestants — concepts that were philosophical and theological, but had immense practical ramifications — the Protestant Reformation can be seen as a major cultural shift, and a crucial step in the secularization of the world, as long as the term ‘secularization’ is not understood too narrowly, along lines that confuse it with the current state of church/state relations in the twenty-first-century Western world. Instead, ‘secularization’ should be understood as a process whereby the realm of the sacred was redefined and contained within a more constricted sphere, both privately and publicly. These conceptual shifts just mentioned point more directly to ‘desesacralization’ than what we common understand as ‘secularization’ in our own day — that is they manifest a reinterpretation of the sacred and its place in human life rather than a redefinition of the magic/religion dialectic or the relation between church and state. These conceptual shifts redefine one of the crucial elements of every civilization: the way in which ontological categories are sorted and reality is conceived.

“The fact that these abstract concepts were perceived by Reformation era Catholics and Protestants as essential markers of the difference between each other is telling. So is the fact that this perceived difference referred to the divine and supernatural, not the demonic and preternatural, or the ‘religio-magical.’ As Catholics and Protestants understood it, what divided them was a different understanding of the sacred, not the demonic or magical.

“But how, exactly, did this paradigm shift take shape?

“First and foremost, the great ontological difference between the physical and spiritual realms upheld by Protestants, especially in the Reformed tradition, drove a wedge between matter and spirit. Iconoclasm was its initial manifestation, but it extended much further than religious imagery, to other symbols: shrines, relics, the Eucharist, and all rituals. The most extreme version of this reinterpretation of matter and spirit found voice in the Reformed Protestant tradition, and in two of its guiding principles: finitum non est infiniti (the finite cannot contain the infinite), and quantum sensui tribueris tantum spiritui dextraxeris (the physical detracts from the spiritual).

“Second, despite the differences among them, Protestants redrew the boundaries between natural and supernatural, and rejected the commonplace irruptions of the sacred favored in medieval religion. In other words, Protestants largely rejected post-biblical miracles, and especially those practically-oriented supernatural events that historians now classify as thaumaturgy. God could work miracles, certainly, and the Bible was full of them, but as Protestants saw it, the age of miracles had passed and God’s direct supernatural interventions were a thing of the past, strictly limited to biblical times. What is more, with just a few exceptions among more radical sixteenth-century movements, Protestants denied the possibility of mystical ecstasies, visions, apparitions, revelations, levitations, bilocations, and all other supernatural phenomena associated with intimate encounters between the human and the divine.

“Relying on the original meaning of the word secular (Latin: saeculum = ‘this age’ or ‘earthly time’), one can argue that these changes contributed substantially to the secularization of the West by creating societies that were more this-worldly than ever before — societies that rejected the medieval sub specie aeternitatis worldview in which human existence in all history had an eternal and supernatural backdrop. In essence, then, this ‘secularizing’ is much more than just a circumscribing of the role of religion in the public sphere. It is a circumscribing of the sacred, and the emergence of a new understanding of reality itself.

“These paradigm shifts were much more than a mere change in thinking or in worldview. They also had a profound and immediate impact on the cultural, social, economic, and political structure of Protestant communities — and on Western Europe as a whole.

“The Protestant Reformation was a metaphysical and epistemic revolution, a new way of interpreting reality and of approaching the ultimate. To put it in the simplest terms, it re-drew the boundaries between heaven and earth, the sacred and the profane.”