Charles Taylor on the Reform

What I’m calling “Reform” here expressed a profound dissatisfaction with the hierarchical equilibrium between lay life and the renunciative vocations. In one way, this was quite understandable. This equilibrium involved accepting that masses of people were not going to live up to the demands of perfection. They were being “carried”, in a sense, by the perfect. And there is something in this which runs against the very spirit of Christian faith.

Charles Taylor. A Secular Age (pp. 61-62). Kindle Edition.

This is where one can ask whether the triumph of the hard line wasn’t already programmed, as it were, in the very climate of Reform in which both sides bathed at the end of the Middle Ages. If the point was to make the Church over to uniformly higher standards, so that the spread between higher and lower would be less, it would not be auspicious to start with allowing an even greater diversity of practices. And, indeed, it is clear that the Reformation was driven by the spirit of Reform in an even more uncompromising mode. One of its principal talking points from the very beginning was the refusal to accept special vocations and counsels of perfection. There were not to be any more ordinary Christians and super-Christians. The renunciative vocations were abolished. All Christians alike were to be totally dedicated.

Seen in this light, the Reformation is the ultimate fruit of the Reform spirit, producing for the first time a true uniformity of believers, a levelling up which left no further room for different speeds. If salvation by faith had been the issue of ultimate importance, co-existence might have been conceivable. But where the driving force was Reform, the split in Christendom was inevitable. It was Reform, further inflamed by a hatred of idolatry, which animated the grim-faced worshippers Erasmus saw emerging from the Church in Basel.

The Reformation as Reform is central to the story I want to tell-that of the abolition of the enchanted cosmos, and the eventual creation of a humanist alternative to faith. The first consequence seems evident enough; the Reformation is known as an engine of disenchantment. The second is less obvious, and more indirect. It passes through the attempts to re-order whole societies which emerge in the radical, Calvinist wing of Protestantism. I will take these each in turn.

Charles Taylor. A Secular Age (p. 77). Kindle Edition.

Radical Protestantism utterly rejects the multi-speed system, and in the name of this abolishes the supposedly higher, renunciative vocations; but also builds renunciation into ordinary life. It avoids the second horn, but comes close to the first danger above: loading ordinary flourishing with a burden of renunciation it cannot carry. It in fact fills out the picture of what the properly sanctified life would be with a severe set of moral demands. This seems to be unavoidable in the logic of rejecting complementarity, because if we really must hold that all vocations are equally demanding, and don’t want this to be a levelling down, then all must be at the most exigent pitch.

Images of order and disorder were important here. The justified, sanctified person son eschewed disordered conduct, put his/her life in order, made an end of drunkenness, fornication, unbridled speech, immoderate laughter, fights, violence, etc.88

Moreover, Calvinists shared with many people of the day, particularly elites, a strong sense of the scandal of social disorder, that the general behaviour was sinful in the above ways, and that society as a whole was given over to disorder, vice, injustice, blasphemy, etc. It was an important goal to remedy this, on the social and not only the personal level.

Here is where it becomes significant89 that Protestantism is in the line of continuity with mediaeval reform, attempting to raise general standards, not satisfied with a world in which only a few integrally fulfill the gospel, but trying to make certain pious practices absolutely general.

But in view of the importance now given to social order, the generalization of moral demands involved not only placing high moral demands on one’s own life, but also putting order into society. This was not seen as involving a watering down of the standards of personal morality, but as completing them. Calvin held that we have to control the vices of the whole society, lest the vicious infect the others. We are all responsible for each other, and for society as a whole.90

And indeed, getting the degree of order which Calvinist societies often aimed at-e.g., Geneva, New England-was quite exceptional in history, and was unprecedented. It involved a leap higher than what had gone before, and was understood as such.

Charles Taylor. A Secular Age (pp. 81-82). Kindle Edition.

There are certain common features running through all these attempts at reform and organization: (1) they are activist; they seek effective measures to re-order society; ety; they are highly interventionist; (2) they are uniformizing: they aim to apply a single model or schema to everything and everybody; they attempt to eliminate anomalies, exceptions, marginal populations, and all kinds of non-conformists; (3) they are homogenizing; although they still operate in societies based on differences of rank, their general tendency is to reduce differences, to educate the masses, and to make them conform more and more to the standards governing their betters. This is very clear in the church reformations; but it also is true of the attempts to order people’s lives by the “police states”; (4) they are “rationalizing” in Weber’s double sense: that is, they not only involve an increased use of instrumental reason, in the very process of activist reform, as well as in designing some of the ends of reform (e.g., in the economic sphere); but they also try to order society by a coherent set of rules (Weber’s second dimension of rationality, Wertrationalitat).

Charles Taylor. A Secular Age (p. 86). Kindle Edition.




About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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