The Protestant desacralization of the West
May 4, 2015
“The Protestant Reformation was a major rupture in Western history, rather than some murky transitional era,” according to Yale professor, Carlos Eire. “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.”
In the following lecture (embedded below) at Gordon College, Professor Eire argues that “in the sixteenth century, something very odd happened, which was that suddenly some Christians started to argue that miracles, such as the ones that are told about in the New Testament, could no longer happen, but in fact that they had ceased to happen when the last apostle died.” That was a theological novum in the history of the church. By contrast, the Roman Catholic world experienced a boom in miraculous accounts, in continuity with the early and medieval church.
Professor Eire wants to extend and modify Max Weber’s thesis that Protestantism desacralized the world, resulting in the secularization of the West. Weber was limited to “magic and superstition.” He did not account for the radical way in which reality was reconceived in theological terms by Protestants, where the divine-world relationship was given an altered metaphysical landscape in contrast to the Christian past. A continuing emphasis in Eire’s academic work is that historians have underestimated the role of theology and belief, in favor of political and social forces (e.g., “class struggle”). He does not discount the latter, of course, but he is taking seriously the theological commitments and their ramifications for social change, which is in fact closer to the self-perception of the major players who were initiating the changes (e.g., Calvin).
Carlos Eire is the Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University. He is the author of War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge University Press, 1989), From Madrid to Purgatory: The Art and Craft of Dying in Sixteenth-Century Spain (Cambridge University Press, 2002), and A Brief History of Eternity (Princeton University Press, 2011). His most popular book is his award-winning memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana (Free Press, 2003).
The image above, of St. Bernard of Clairvaux receiving milk from the breast of Mary, is referenced by Professor Eire in the lecture. Image source: Taylor Marshall