The Demise of Christendom, 5

“The concept of a united Christendom with a secular and a religious head (the Emperor and the Pope), which Charles V had briefly tried to revive, had been dying for centuries and suffered a death-blow with the Reformation and the fragmentation of Christianity.  It was now finally buried after [the Peace of] Westphalia [1648] and was only to re-emerge in a rather different form with Napoleon and his ‘new order’.”

Derek McKay & H.M. Scott, The Rise of the Great Powers, 1648-1815. (Longman Group Limited, 1983), p. 6.

Our story of the demise of Christendom has now brought us to the end of its ‘formal’ existence.  In the mid-17th Century, the nations of Europe would still have identified themselves as ‘Christian’, but common allegiance to a spiritual head claiming the earthly mantle of Jesus Christ had ended.  The majority of Europe’s peoples west of Russia (called ‘Muscovy’ in the early 17th Century) still recognized the Pope and adhered to the Roman Catholic Church, but large segments had become Protestant – Lutheran or Reformed for the most part.

As our citation above states, wars of religion in Europe became a thing of the past after the Peace of Westphalia (1648).  However, because rulers were still deemed to have the right to dictate what religion their subjects should adhere to, wars still sometimes carried a substratum of ‘Catholic versus Protestant’, depending on the combatants.  But Catholics often fought Catholics, and Protestants fought Protestants, and all made opportunistic alliances with powers of the ‘other’ religion to support their national interest[i].

Behind the scenes of all the religious and political upheaval from 1528 to 1648, with its marching armies and their rapine and slaughter done in the name of ‘true Christianity’, another sort of ‘Quiet Revolution’ (to borrow a phrase from Canada’s history in the 1960s) had been under way.  We sometimes call this the ‘Renaissance’ and ‘the Scientific Revolution’.  The way we study, speak, and write about such things after the fact always leaves our perception of them segmented and incomplete. 

We can perhaps relate more holistically to it by thinking of how people a hundred years from now will try to make sense of all the diverse currents, trends, and influences converging in the early 21st Century.  We relate to it all as a continuous stream full of mingling currents.  Future historians will probably have to break the era up into ‘areas’ of study – the media (establishment mass media, social, and other), art and culture, economic issues, international affairs, social trends and developments, religious and spiritual concerns, etc.  But these things are never separate from one another.  They always flow together, inextricably intermixed, impinging on one another.  An economic decision always has social and political aspects, and could well carry over into the moral and spiritual and even artistic realms.

Since the early 16th Century, new developments in scholarship and inquiries into the natural world had been awakening interest in science, in knowing more about history, in learning more about the roots of culture and the study of the world and the universe.  For Europeans, whole new continents had been discovered and were under intense exploration and colonization with a host of possibilities, including commercial and religious expansion.  Telescopes were opening up the universe and opening minds and eyes to see it in a new way that, for some, threatened their paradigm of ‘God’s’ order.  Anatomical discoveries were revealing how the body works.

Thus, at the same time as the religious and political order of ‘Christendom’ had been shattered, to many it appeared as if the theological and philosophical order that underpinned the old ideas of ‘God’s appointed order’ was also being torn apart.  Perhaps the whole basis of ‘Christendom’ was open to challenge, and there needed to be a radical reconception of Creation and Divine Order?  Not many would then go so far as to suggest that God’s existence was open to question, but deep questions of God and Science and Revelation and Faith began to resonate.

 In the 17th Century, around the time that the Peace of Westphalia restored a structure of relative peace and order to Central and Western Europe, or shortly before, the first generation of ‘Philosophes’ portending the burgeoning of the ‘Enlightenment’ burst upon the scene like an intellectual and scientific fireworks display.  There had been earlier forerunners (e.g. Copernicus, Bacon, Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo), particularly in the field of astronomy, but within a short time a whole host of even greater ‘new lights’ appeared in the intellectual firmament.  There were advances in medicine, optics, and a host of areas, as well as astronomy.

Some of the most significant thinkers and scientists of the time include René Descartes, Blaise Pascal, Hugo Grotius, Samuel Rutherford, Isaac Newton, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume, and John Locke.  We could add many more to the list.

These early ‘philosophes’ are the initial stage of what became known as the Enlightenment.[ii]  They represent a gathering sea-change in thought, and thus in the dominant worldview in Western culture.  For more than a thousand years Christianity (or at least the Roman Catholic version of it) had provided the foundational understanding of what is, who humans are, how the world works, and what is to become of it all.  By the 17th Century, certainties were fracturing, just as Christendom had fractured.  New science offered a new understanding of the universe.  New continents meant exposure to many new cultures and influences, including spiritual and philosophical challenges, bringing many of even the most basic views up for re-examination.  No amount of censorship by nervous ecclesiastical authorities would prevent this process.  This is the air the thinkers on our list breathed and the current of ideas they swam in.

Some of these early philosophes were devout Christians, or would have considered themselves so.  Others were doubters and perhaps agnostics, and at least one was an out-and-out atheist.  Descartes (1596-1650) discarded revelation and the Bible in trying to explain what a human is and who or what God is.  He considered himself a good Catholic, but his famous series of Meditations offered the Enlightenment thinkers a road to accept a Creator but leave behind the Bible, Church, and ‘superstition’.  He gave us the famous one-liner, “I think; therefore, I am,” turning the focus on the individual’s supremacy in judging what is real and exists.  Logic and reason became the supreme tools for assessing such questions, as they also were for discovering truth about the universe through ‘Science’, which could now stand independently as an authority in opposition to Scripture, revelation, and dogma. It must be said that most of the early modern scientists were still practising Christians and did not see reason and science as opposed to faith. Rather, they were complementary ways of finding truth, for God is the God of Creation.

Pascal (1623-1662) rejected Descartes’ logic, writing many notes on why logic and science must fail to lead one to truth unless submitted to God, who stands above and beyond all such methods and can still intervene directly in the universe He created.  Yet Pascal, possibly even more brilliant than Descartes, still used incisive, brilliant logic to argue against those who would deny God by using those same tools.  Pascal was a pioneer mathematician and physicist, but is most remembered for his Pensées, a collection of notes he intended to turn into a great apologetic treatise in defence of Christianity. Unfortunately, he died before he could carry out his project.

Grotius (1583-1645) was a Dutch legal scholar who wrote enormously important work on the foundations for what we now call ‘human rights’ and ‘international law’.  He was a devout Christian and argued that there were no ‘human rights’ or law without God as guarantor, and that no sovereign or state could escape giving an account (to God, ultimately) for their treatment of subjects and actions towards other states.  Grotius wrote of ‘natural law’ – the law written in nature, in the order God created.  As with so many things, the later Enlightenment ‘lights’ would readily adopt his conclusions, minus God.  Logic and science approved them, so God need not be included.

So too with Rutherford (1600-1661) who gave us Lex Rex, (Law Is King in English), arguing for the supremacy of law, even over absolutist sovereigns.  The Supremacy of Law is a pillar of modern constitutional thought, but Rutherford argued that only a system of law rooted in God’s law could stand.  Laws not rooted in the Supreme Law must fail to be truly just and become mere tools for human rulers to impose their will.  On the other hand, even rulers must give an account to God and can be held accountable in this world for breaking the law.  Subjects need not obey rulers who are clearly violating God’s express law.  Once more, the later philosophes loved the principle of making sovereigns accountable to law (and thus to the courts at some level), but saw no need to keep God involved.

Newton (1642-1727) was one of the greatest scientists and mathematicians of all time.  Many volumes have dealt with him.  One of the lesser known aspects of this polymath and extreme eccentric was his obsession with understanding the Bible, especially its apocalyptic side.  Newton was at least a Theist, believing there is a personal God who not only created an amazing universe according to a set of ‘laws’ which science seeks to discover, but that this God could (and did) intervene in His creation – although He normally stood aside.  The later Enlightenment ‘lights’ thanked Newton for his amazing work in physics and for giving them the intellectual and scientific machinery to leave God aside in understanding things as they are.  However, they emphatically rejected his ‘superstition’ as completely irrelevant and inconsistent with ‘the greatest mind of the age’.

The last three on our ‘short list’ will be discussed in the next post.  They proceeded to dispense with the need for ‘superstitious fear-mongering’ in order to bring authority into an argument.  They thus signal the entry of the next stage of dismantling Christendom.  For the Enlightenment militants, this was nothing less than deconstructing the moral, cultural, and social legacy of Christendom (and the influence of Christianity).  This became the scarcely disguised aim of the Enlightenment program as the 18th Century moved forward.

Our tale will continue in Part 6.


[i] Then as now, the ruling classes or monarchs, usually together, determined what ‘national interest’ meant.  Some of the greatest wars of this period were focused on dynastic issues as much as questions of territory and trade.  Then as now, there was no such thing as a ‘disinterested’ or ‘pure’ casus belli [reason for war] to uphold a noble principle of right and justice, or to relieve oppression.  Rulers respected the right of fellow rulers to treat their subjects within their borders as they saw fit without maintaining a ‘right of intervention’ to end persecution or oppression.  There were no ‘armies of liberation’.  Armies were composed of mercenaries and conscripts, usually of the meanest class of men.  The officers were usually nobles seeking fame, fortune, and influence.  Then as now, woe to the civilians caught in the battle zone.

[ii] François Marie Arouet (1694-1778) of France, better known as Voltaire, is often credited with inventing the term (in French, ‘Illumination’) ‘Enlightenment’ for what was taking place all across Europe.  The ‘heyday’ of the Enlightenment was from 1740-1788, but what was then launched carries forward to this day in the West, and has rippled across the world.

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