IV. Protestantism.

From: New Views . . . (1836)
Author: O. A. Brownson
Published: James Munroe and Company 1836 Boston



  THAT Protestantism is the insurrection of Matter against Spirit, of the material against the spiritual order, is susceptible of very satisfactory historical verification.

  One of the most immediate and efficient causes of Protestantism was the Revival of Greek and Roman Literature. Constantinople was taken by the Turks, and its scholars and the remains of Classical Learning which it had preserved were dispersed over Western Europe. The Classics took possession of the Universities and the Learned, were studied, commented on, appealed to as an authority paramount to that of the Church and—Protestantism was born.

  By means of the Classics, the scholars of the Fifteenth Century were introduced to a world altogether unlike and much superior to that in which they lived—to an order of ideas wholly diverse from those avowed or tolerated by the Church. They were enchanted. They had found the Ideal of their dreams. They became disgusted with the present; they repelled the civilization effected by the Church, looked with contempt on its Fathers, Saints, Martyrs, Schoolmen, Troubadours, Knights and Minstrels, and sighed and yearned and labored to reproduce Athens or Rome.

  And what was that Athens and that Rome which seemed to them to realize the very Ideal of the Perfect? We know very well to-day what they were. They were material; through the whole period of their historical existence, it is well known that the material or temporal order predominated over the spiritual. They are not that old spiritual world of the East which reigned in the Church. In that old world—in India for instance—where Spiritualism has its throne, Man sinks before God, Matter fades away before the presence of Spirit, and Time is swallowed up in Eternity. Industry is in its incipient stages, and the state scarcely appears. There is no history, no chronology. All is dateless and unregistered. An inflexible and changeless tyranny weighs down the human race and paralyzes its energies. Ages on ages roll away and bring no melioration. Every thing remains as it was, monotonous and immovable as the Spirit it contemplates and adores.

  In Athens and Rome all this is reversed. Human interests, the interests of mankind in time and space, predominate. Man is the most conspicuous figure in the group. He is every where, and his imprint is upon every thing. Industry flourishes; commerce is encouraged; the state is constituted, and tends to democracy; citizens assemble to discuss their common interests; the orator harangues them; the aspirant courts them; the warrior and the statesman render them an account of their doings and await their award. The PEOPLE—not the Gods—will, decree, make, unmake or modify the laws. Divinity does not become incarnate, as in the Asiatic world, but men are deified. History is not Theogony, but a record of human events and transactions. Poetry sings heroes, the great and renowned of earth, or chants at the festal board and the couch of voluptuousness. Art models its creations after human forms, for human pleasure or human convenience. They are human faces we see; human voices we hear; human dwellings in which we lodge and dream of human growth and human melioration.

  There are Gods and temples, and priests and oracles, and augurs and auguries, it is true; but they are not like those we meet where Spiritualism reigns. The Gods are all anthropomorphous. Their forms are the perfection of the human. The allegorical beasts, the strange beasts, compounded of parts of many known and unknown beasts which meet us in Indian, Egyptian and Persian Mythology, as symbols of the Gods, are extinct. Priests are not a caste as they are under Spiritualism, springing from the head of Brama and claiming superior sanctity and power as their birth-right, but simple police officers. Religion is merely a function of the state. Socrates dies because he breaks the laws of Athens—not, as Jesus did—for blaspheming the Gods. Numa introduces or organizes Polytheism at Rome for the purpose of governing the people by means of appeals to their sentiment of the Holy; and the Roman “Pontifex Maximus” was never any thing more than a master of police.

  This in its generality is equally a description of Protestantism, as might indeed have been asserted beforehand. The epoch of the Revival of Classical Literature must have been predisposed to Material­ ism or else it could not have been pleased with the Classics, and the influence of the Classics must have been to increase that predisposition, and as Protestantism was a result of both, it could be nothing but Materialism.

  In classical antiquity religion is a function of the state. It is the same under Protestantism. Henry the Eighth of England declares himself supreme Head of the Church, not by virtue of his spiritual character; but by virtue of his character as a temporal prince. The Protestant princes of Germany are protectors of the Church; and all over Europe, there is an implied contract between the State and the Ecclesiastical Authorities. The State pledges itself to support the Church on condition that the Church support the State. Ask the kings, nobility, or even church dignitaries, why they support religion, and they will answer with one voice, “Because the people cannot be preserved in order, cannot be made to submit to their rulers, and because civil society cannot exist, without it.” The same or a similar answer will be returned by almost every political man in this country; and truly may it be said that religion is valued by the protestant world as a subsidiary to the state, as a mere matter of police.

  Under the reign of Spiritualism all questions are decided by authority. The Church prohibited reasoning. It commanded, and men were to obey or be counted rebels against God. Materialism, by raising up man and the state, makes the reason of man, or the reason of the state, paramount to the commands of the Church. Under Protestantism, the state in most cases, the individual reason in a few, imposes the creed upon the Church. The King and Parliament in England determine the faith which the clergy must profess and maintain; the Protestant princes in Germany have the supreme control of the symbols of the Church, the right to enact what creed they please.

  Indeed the authority of the Church in matters of belief was regarded by the Reformers as one of the greatest evils, against which they had to con­ tend. It was particularly against this authority that Luther protested. What he and his coadjutors demanded, was the right to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. This was the right they wrested from the Church. To have been consequent they should have retained it in their hands as individuals; it would then have been the right of private judgment and, if it .meant any thing, the right of the reason to sit in judgment on all propositions to be believed. To this extent, however, they were not prepared to go. Between the absolute authority of the Church, and the absolute authority of the individual reason, intervened the authority of the state. But as the state was material, the substitution of its authority for the authority of the Church was still to substitute the Material for the Spiritual.

  But the tendency, however arrested by the state, has been steadily towards the most unlimited freedom of thought and conscience. Our fathers rebelled against the authority of the state in religious matters as well as against the authority of the Pope. In political and industrial speculations, the English and Americans give the fullest freedom to the individual reason; Germany has done it to the greatest extent in historical, literary and philosophical, and to a very great extent, in theological matters, and France does it in every thing. All modern philosophy is built on the absolute freedom and independence of the individual reason; that is, the reason of humanity, in opposition to the reason of the church or the state. Des Cartes refused to believe in his own existence hut upon the authority of his reason; Bacon allows no authority but observation and induction; Berkeley finds no ground for admitting an external world, and therefore denies it; and Hume finding no certain evidence of any thing outward or inward, doubted—philosophically—of all things.

  Philosophy is a human creation; it is the pro­ duct of man, as the universe is of God. Under Spiritualism, then, which—in theory—demolishes man, there can be no philosophy; yet as man, though denied, exists, there is a philosophical tendency. But this philosophical tendency is always either to Skepticism, Mysticism, or Idealism. Skepticism, that philosophy which denies all certainty, made its first appearance in modern times in the Church. The Church declared the reason unworthy of confidence, and in doing that gave birth to the whole skeptical philosophy. When the authority of the Church was questioned and she was compelled to defend it, she did it on the ground that the reason could not be trusted as a criterion of truth, and that there could be no certainty for man, if he did not admit an authority independent of his reason,—not perceiving that if the reason were struck with impotence there would be no means of substantiating the legitimacy of the authority.

  On the other hand, the Church having its point of view in Spirit, consulted the soul before the body, became introspective, fixed on the Inward to the exclusion of the Outward. It overlooked the Out­ ward; and when that is overlooked it is hardly possible that it should not be denied. Hence Idealism or Mysticism.

  Under the reign of Materialism all this is changed. There is full confidence in the reason. The method of philosophizing is the experimental. But as the point of view is the Outward—Matter—Spirit is overlooked; Matter alone admitted. Hence philosophical Materialism. And philosophical Materialism, in germ or developed, has been commensurate with Protestantism. When the mind becomes fixed on the external world, inasmuch as we become acquainted with that world only by means of our senses, we naturally conclude that our senses are our only source of knowledge. Hence SENSUALISM, the philosophy supported by Locke, Condillac, and even by Bacon, so far as it concerns his own application of his method. And from the hypothesis ‘that our senses are our only inlets of knowledge, we are compelled to admit that nothing can be known which is not cognizable by some one or all of them. Our senses take cognizance only of Matter; then we can know nothing but Matter. We can know nothing of the spirit or soul. The body is all that we know of man. That dies, and there ends man—at least all we know of him. Hence no immortality, no future state. If nothing can be known but by means of our senses, God, then, inasmuch as we do not see him, hear him, taste him, smell him, touch him, cannot be known; then he does not exist for us. Hence Atheism. Hence Modern Infidelity, in all its forms, so prevalent in the last century, and so far from being extinct even in this.

  The same tendency to exalt the terms depressed by the Church is to be observed in the religious aspect of Protestantism. Properly speaking, Protestantism has no religious character. As Protestants, people are not religious, but co-existing with their Protestantism, they may indeed retain something of religion. Men often act from mixed motives. They bear in their bosoms sometimes two antagonist principles, now obeying the one, and now the other, without being aware that both are not one and the same principle. With Protestants, religion has existed; but as a, reminiscence, a tradition. Sometimes, indeed, the remembrance has been very lively, and seemed very much like reality. The old soldier warms up with the recollections of his early feats, and lives over his life as he relates its events to his grandchild,—

“Shoulders his crutch and shows how fields are won.”

  If the religion of the Protestant world be a reminiscence, it must be the religion of the Church. It is, in fact, only Catholicism continued. The same principle lies at the bottom of all Protestant churches, in so far as they are churches, which was at the bottom of the Church of the middle ages. But Materialism modifies their rites and dogmas. In the practice of all, there is an effort to make them appear reasonable. Hence Commentaries, Expositions, and Defences without number. Even where the authority of the reason is denied, there is an instinctive sense of its authority and a desire to enlist it. In mere forms, pomp and splendor have gradually disappeared, and dry utility and even baldness have been consulted. In doctrines, those which exalt man and give him some share in the work of salvation have gained in credit and influence. Pelagianism, under some thin disguises or undisguised, has become almost universal. The doctrine of man’s inherent Total Depravity, in the few cases in which it is asserted, is asserted, more as a matter of duty than of conviction. No­ body, who can help it, preaches the old-fashioned doctrine of God’s Sovereignty, expressed in the dogma of unconditional Election and Reprobation. The Vicarious Atonement has hardly a friend left. The Deity of Jesus is questioned, his simple Humanity is asserted and is gaining credence. Orthodox is a term which implies as much reproach as commendation; people are beginning to laugh at the claims of councils and synods, and to be quite merry at the idea of excommunication.

  In Literature and Art there is the same tendency. Poetry in the last century hardly existed, and was, so far as it did exist, mainly ethical or descriptive. It had no revelations of the Infinite. Prose writers under Protestantism have been historians, critics, essayists, or controversalists; they have aimed almost exclusively at the elevation or adornment of the material order, and in scarcely an instance has a widely popular writer exalted God at the expense of Man, the Church at the expense of the State, Faith at the expense of Reason, or Eternity at the expense of Time. Art is finite, and gives us busts and portraits, or copies of Greek and Roman models. The Physical sciences take precedence of the Metaphysical, and faith in Rail-roads and Steam boats is much stronger than in Ideas.

  In governments, the tendency is the same. Nothing is more characteristic of Protestantism, than its influence in promoting civil and political liberty. Under its reign all forms of governments verge towards the Democratic. “The King and the Church” are exchanged for the “Constitution and the People.” Liberty, not Order, is the word that wakes the dead, and electrifies the masses. A social science is created, and the physical well­ being of the humblest laborer 1s cared for, and made a subject of deliberation m the councils of nations.

  Industry has received m Protestant countries its grandest developments. Since the time of Luther, it has been performing one continued series of miracles. Every corner of the globe is explored; the most distant and perilous seas are navigated; the most miserly soil is laid under contribution; manufactures, villages and cities spring up and increase as by enchantment; canals and rail-roads are crossing the country in every direction; the means of production, the comforts, conveniences and luxuries of life are multiplied to an extent hardly safe to relate.

  Such, in its most general aspect, in its dominant tendency, is Protestantism. It is a new and much improved edition of the Classics. Its civilization belongs to the same order as that of Greece and Rome. It is in advance, greatly in advance, of Greece and Rome, but it is the same in its groundwork. The Material predominates over the Spiritual. Men labor six days for this world and at most but one for the world to come. The great strife is for temporal goods, fame or pleasure. God, the Soul, Heaven, and Eternity, are thrown into the back ground, and almost entirely disappear in the distance. Right yields to Expediency, and Duty is measured by Utility. The real character of protestantism, the result to which it must come, wherever it can have its full development, may be best seen in France, at the close of the last century. The Church was converted into the Pantheon, and made a resting place for the bodies of the great and renowned of earth; God was converted into a symbol of the human reason, and man into the Man-Machine; Spiritualism fell, and the Revolution marked the complete triumph of Materialism,

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