Richard Sale author of Clinton’s Secret Wars
Certain qualities of mind are irksome. When we encounter a writer and hear the careless approximation of a complicated array of facts, and the speaker portrays it as the product of considered thought and persevering application when it is only empty and glib -- that is irksome. When an interpretation of intricate events is put forward on the pretense of being authoritative when it only embodies inadequate hearsay or defects of knowledge -- that too is irksome. But when certain smug, sweeping prouncements are made with a presiding, complacent air, aimed at self-display that clearly show a disdain of solid knowledge -- that is not only irksome, it is deeply nettling.
Recently I did a posting about the Arab-Israeli dispute. It likened it to Wars of Religion. In response, the reader quickly contradicted my thesis:
“I'm afraid I do not agree with Mr. Sale that religious wars exist. Wars are about power. Religion is merely the excuse.” My critic follows: “As for the bestiality, Sir Isaiah Berlin paraphrased Bakunin: ‘Religion allows people to commit unspeakable cruelties against other people, then sleep well at night, safe in the knowledge they are doing the Lords work.’”
This is curious. It is also facile. My critic claims that historically, the unspeakable cruelties, mass slaughters, and dispossession of huge populations can be solely attributed to power using religion. I would ask how such atrocities which use religion as a pretext are different from the unspeakable horrors committed by the Nazi’s, the Stalinist purges or the stolid, remorseless murder programs of a Serb like Mladic, is not addressed. According to this writer, the chief difference between secular and religious murders is that the latter slept soundly at night.
Marx and Religion
The paraphrased quote from Isaiah Berlin, used by my critic, is odd. Bakunin was a Russian nihilist, the founder of the Anarchist movement. In his God and State, Bakunin early reveals that his outlook on spiritual matters was decisively shaped by Marx, which should alert us to the fact that Marx is no more a competent guide to explaining spiritual life than Huge Hefner.
As a good Marxist, Bakunin plainly does not believe in religion. The idea of young Iranians, who, time after time, charged well-trained Iraqi troops and died by the millions in the Iran-Iraq War, has no relevance for him. Bakunin says of religion: “Who is right, the idealists or the materialists? The question, once stated in this way, hesitation becomes impossible. Undoubtedly the idealists are wrong and the materialists right. Yes, facts are before ideas; yes, the ideal, as Proudhon said, is but a flower, whose root lies in the material conditions of existence. Yes, the whole history of humanity, intellectual and moral, political and social, is but a reflection of its economic history.”
In E.H. Carr’s biography of Bakunin, he remarks that the Russian had a lot of energy but no common sense. Perhaps this is why Bakunin calmly asserts that we have no ideas except those that reflect economic conditions, making the religious belief not only absurd but stupid. Bakunin, the anarchist, asks us: “How comes an intelligent and well-informed man ever to feel the need of believing in this mystery?”( Bakunin ‘s italics.)
Yet history has proved that it was not the “idealists” who were wrong but Bakunin and Marx. Bakunin ‘s thought was related in kind to that of Ludwig Fuerbach, a German critic of religion, who once said that human beings had to eat before they could think. Marx’s doctrine of the pitiless struggle between classes as the agent of progressive development in life, his conviction that somehow the vilest conflicts would spew up a harmonious future with human beings living in cooperative and undisturbed peace has been proved to be irreclaimably wrong.
I admire Marx (I mean his character) and always will, but Marx had no religious sensibility, no capacity to reflect quietly about the transcendent elements of life. Marx was a poor psychologist and, outside of economics, never asked key questions about what in history had acted to make human beings what they were. Marx seemed deaf to the ability of human beings to use their beliefs to develop imaginative sympathy, or expand their field of human obligation, or even to refine their compassion. He was deaf to the sensibility that has led all kinds of people in all stages and conditions of life to feel a yearning for a faith where they could cherish, safeguard or be faithful to their gods or Gods.
Reinhold Niebuhr once said that the basis of all religion is worship. The Egyptians worshiped. The Hittites worshiped, the Greeks and Etruscans and Babylonians and the Carthaginians worshiped. They worshipped the stars, or the religion of Baael or the fires of Vesta or the cults of Gaul or the Zoroastrians and even Christianity. The historian Christopher Dawson said that worship makes clear that there is bond between God and man. It therefore is fatuous to assert that religions in history have been the most brutal, violent, and murderously homicidal of human associations. Of course, one has to take into account that every religion is held hostage by its most crass, gross. Ignoble followers, the loud or most self-satisfied believers, but that doesn’t impugn the existence of religion itself and never has.
How to separate power from religion? You can’t. The existence of religious feeling can be far from noble or selfless in its followers. The mixture of personal ruthless and a belief in the power of faith can be seen in any study of early history. Constantine the Great, for example, used religion as a way to organize the Roman military at a time when it was increasingly menaced by enemies to the north and east of Rome. Constantine became a Christian mainly because of his hunger for military glory, yet in his character there still remained an urge to believe in religion’s healing powers. Constantine had murdered his son and smothered his wife in a steam bath, and when he went to pagan priest and asked for forgiveness, he was refused. By becoming a Christian, Constantine got the forgiveness that he craved because even he believed in religion as an agent of forgiveness.
I would certainly agree that all religions seem to have a life span. The great human systems have all begun with radiant prospects which were slowly dragged and degraded by some ineradicable flaw in human nature so that the current version of their faith hardly bears any semblance to the original. One can see that today in the Christian Right in America.
What blew the doors off the Vatican were) the corruption, venality and abuse of power that even their own clergy could no longer ignore (Luther et al)
So says my critic. Wonderful. How can we account for so many errors in such a brief statement ?
My critic’s portrait of the Catholic Church before the Reformation has the crudity of a cartoon. In fact, the Catholic Church was not a monster of corruption as he asserts. The Church before Luther was in fact easy-going. It was accommodating. It did not try to suppress novel ideas from being circulated, not even “atheist” blasphemy. The Church had even allowed reformist elements to emerge without persecution. (The Inquisition was a Spanish institution, not a Roman one.) If anything put the Catholic Church on the defensive, it was the behavior of certain of the Popes, not its own dogmas and beliefs. In other words the Church was not inflexibly dogmatic but many sided.
The revolt of Luther was single-minded and uncomplicated – his mission was to eradicate Catholicism. He abominated the Church. Church property was already lying under the covetous eye secular rulers long before those rulers would prove to be Luther’s key supporters, and they used Luther’s revolt to gain power and riches for themselves. But the key fact remains that Luther’s hatred of the Church was visceral, intolerant, one-sided, and it unfortunately would turn loose the worst instincts of human nature.
The corrupt indulgence industry of Leo X was used to pay for many magnificent buildings and startling, wondrous works of art in Rome, including some which, to this day, represent the imperishable glories of our civilization. Before Luther, most ordinary Catholics used penance as a way of recognizing and atoning for their sins, and some cases, imposing asceticism as payment for their transgressions. But to Luther, in Germany, the idea of a sinner buying his way out of his sins to shorten his or her time in Purgatory incensed him. The very vulgarity of the concept incensed him. And it should have.
But it was not simply indulgences that caused Luther to rage. Burkhardt, echoing historian R.L. Woltmann, asserts that Luther was driven by an implacable determination not to simply bring about the reform of the Church but to bring about “the complete demotion and eradication of everything old.” His conscience was absolutely clear in trying to ruin the Church as one who feels satisfaction in ending an unpatrolled injustice and acting from the certain conviction that he was the stronger power. But in his campaign to destroy the Church, Luther unfortunately abolished the church’s doctrine of good works. In fact, he abhorred good works in the widest sense. The great force that carried the Reformation forward was a general defection from good works – alms, tithes, indulgences, fasting. The “reformers” not only rejected any sense of obligation to good works, but embraced a new principle of action. “The Reformation is the faith of all those who do not have to do something anymore,” said Burkhardt.
I am in no way ignoring the revolution caused in the Printing Press as part of this upheaval. The eloquence of Erasmus, More, PIco della Mirandola and other Renaissance authors, had gained them thousand of readers. And there is no doubt that there existed a growing, gnawing impatience among thoughtful Christians who viewed the doctrines, the hierarchy, and Church traditions as standing in the way of the individual’s direct acquaintance with the Faith. It was clear to many that the Bible was a higher authority than the Church. In Spain, before Luther, under the reformer Cardinal Ximenes, a polyglot Bible was printed in Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. And clearly there is little doubt that the Printing Press especially in the hands master debater like Luther, proved to be his secret weapon in his war against the Church.
But as ordinary people enjoyed their new freedom, there was a break in Church traditions, and the worst and socially most dangerous elements surged into the foreground. (It’s worth nothing that the age, like ours, was under the sway of “the spirit of rhetoric.”) When the storm of the Peasant’s War was over, the general licentiousness and egotism had spread from Germany even into the areas that had remained Catholic. People took their own discontents and biases for the Wrath of God, and in Germany and elsewhere, higher education did not advance, thought stood still, and the era produced no great art or literature. The Renaissance Humanists fell silent.
As the years passed, both parties, the Catholics and the Protestants, became more rigid, intolerant and murderous. Persecution was the new rage, and the idea that human freedom was advanced dramatically by Luther’s revolt was a romantic notion, put in after the fact. The age was miserable. Burckhardt notes how from the beginning the reformers “conceived of (their) own dogmatism as the condition of the soul’s survival,” thus replacing an old despotism with a new one. And in any age, human intelligence is just like water -- it cannot rise above its own level. The freedom of reading the Scriptures produced in some new converts irresponsible self assertion. You had the unlettered parading around pretending they were self appointed prophets able to proclaim to anyone the meaning of practically everything. One historian, Glapion, said that the Bible was like a soft wax which anyone could pull or stretch at will. Anyone who read a Bible passage could attribute any meaning anyone wanted with the utmost self assurance no matter how stupid it was. It pays to remember that while today Protestantism is commonly regarded a liberal, it became that only after it was no longer regarded as Protestantism.
I have worn out my welcome. There is an old saying that if you try and speak exhaustively about any subject the only thing you will exhaust is your reader’s attention. But by talking a bit about the Reformation I simply am trying to get rid of the simplistic myth that the Luthers and the John Calvins were the “battering rams” of a new freedom, as is often maintained.
My critic’s other sweeping statements strike me as grotesque: When he asserts that in the War Religious war
“what occurred was a contest to remove the filthy, rotten, fat, bejeweled, bloodstained hands of a bunch of corrupt pederasts from the levers of power and their replacement with something hopefully less inimical to ordinary people that was based on truth as revealed by scientific experiment, not mysticism - what we call today Humanism, of which I am a devotee, etc.” This sounds to me much like an old Marxist pamphlet.
In closing, I would only say that in writing this, I do not think myself infallibly right in such grave matters or that my critic is infallibly wrong. I don’t think that, deep down, either of us pretends to be infallible, I have simply tried to use my reading to be less wrong than I believe him to be. But in any case, authoritative irresponsibility, such as his, is not only very irksome, it is nettling.