The historian John Julius Norwich describes himself as an “agnostic Protestant”.
Having read that, I wrote to a close friend, a brilliant theologian, wondering whether that self-description was a tautology or an oxymoron. Now one doesn’t ask such questions, even facetiously, if one doesn’t already know, or at least can predict, the answer.
It duly arrived: “Surely, since Schleiermacher, Baur and Strauss – and arguably Luther – all Protestants have been agnostic. So I would say tautology.”
Now the first three men my learned friend mentioned were Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment Protestant thinkers with liberal leanings. In religion, liberal more or less equals agnostic, so few would take exception to those gentlemen finding themselves on that list.
But putting Luther in that company is more contentious. It’s tantamount to saying that Protestantism has been ab initio a form of agnosticism. Since most of us like to have our views confirmed, that brought a self-satisfied smile on my face.
Indeed, by declaring that “every man is his own priest”, Luther was echoing the humanist noises resonating through Europe since the Renaissance and reaching him via Erasmus. As the anonymous wit correctly put it, “Erasmus laid an egg that Luther hatched”.
Protestantism jammed the square peg of man into the round hole vacated first by the Church and then eventually by God. Man was becoming not just his own priest, but also effectively his own God.
The Church steadfastly resisted that development. Hence it was increasingly seen as a dead weight holding man down in his quest for elevation.
As any reader of Renaissance writers from Boccaccio to Machiavelli will confirm, anticlericalism was already common currency then. The Church was doubted as the depository and teacher of the Revelation because implicitly so was the Revelation.
Depending on one’s presuppositions, the Church is a human institution either wholly or at least partly. As such, it’s fallible. Thus there were many practices that laid the Church open to criticism, and many popes who were weak or corrupt.
Yet criticism can proceed from either love or hate, and it was the latter emotion that animated humanists and Reformers. They focused on things like indulgences, choosing to ignore that the Church was so fused with Western civilisation that the two were well-nigh synonymous. And when it came to popes, they talked about John XII and the Borgias, not Leo the Great or Gregory the Great.
Luther had a knack, shared by all heretics, for refuting himself. On the one hand, he insisted that man was so irreversibly corrupted by original sin that nothing he did during his lifetime could possibly affect his salvation one way or the other. On the other hand, he trusted man to be self-sufficient enough to understand, and communicate with, God.
In other words, what he regarded as a vile, irredeemably corrupt puppet, whose free will was either non-existent or irrelevant, was deemed capable of working out the immensely involved subtleties that had for 1,500 years been confounding some of history’s greatest minds.
Boundless contempt and equally boundless respect for man thus came together within one self-refuting heresy. Luther first brought man down then patted him on the head, and it swelled.
Rather than relying on the aforementioned great minds to guide him, man was invited to tread every spiritual path on his own. The most inviting one led straight to agnosticism.
Cartesian solipsism beckoned at the end: an invitation to self-sufficiency was an invitation to doubt. Descartes was expressing an exceedingly prevalent mood when he urged people to doubt everything – except their own existence manifested through (caused by?) their own thinking.
Just as the Church united Jerusalem and Athens to create Western civilisation, modernity united Luther, Descartes and Rousseau to create history’s only atheist civilisation. Max Weber correctly identified Protestantism as the driving force of capitalism, but it was more than that. Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism could have benefited from the broader title of Protestantism and the Spirit of Modernity.
Starting from Luther and proceeding via two gentlemen of Geneva, Calvin and Rousseau, Protestantism exerted a formative influence on the Enlightenment and thus on pan-European agnosticism. The Enlightenment absorbed the Protestant notion of man’s self-sufficiency bordering on self-deification and translated it into every political, social and cultural aspect of modernity.
For example, if every man is equally capable of communicating with God without outside help, then why not assume that every man is equally capable of governing a state by passing judgement on things he knows nothing about? Our politics of universal suffrage democracy is based on this counterintuitive assumption, which explains the abysmally low grade of human material observable in our elected officials.
The profound concept of free choice between good and evil has been replaced by the vulgar notion of free choice between one consumer product and another. Consumer products are all on the table equally, and they include not just deodorants and watches, but also religions and cultures.
I choose Islam, you choose Christianity, he chooses Buddhism, they choose atheism – who’s to say which choice is right? I choose Puccini, you choose Bach, he chooses the Beatles, they choose rap – who’s to say one choice is better than another? In such equations, all things are always equal.
Humanism left man to his own judgement; Protestantism left him to his own devices; post-Enlightenment modernity left him to his own perdition: all these links clasped together to make an unbreakable chain.
Many historical developments have gone into forming what’s these days accurately called ‘post-truth society’. Of these, agnosticism inspired by Protestantism may just claim pride of place.