Thursday, February 02, 2023

Protestant Modern: The Collapse of Protestantism

As mentioned in my previous post, it is important to be precise when defining Modernity. For the purposes of this post, Modernity can be considered along two dimensions:

1) In one dimension there is material/tecnological modernity which I defined as the material conditions that make up the modern world and which are responsible for the qualitative change from agrarian life. Things, like the  telephone,  the various types of engines, railroads, refrigeration etc are material entities which profoundly altered the way we live regardless of any change in morality or philosophy.  

These devices also led to profound social and institutional changes which would have been impossible without their presence. For example, it's hard to think of the possibility of the modern multinational corporation without the easy availability of telecommunications, which forms the bedrock of the organisation's ability co-ordinate actions.

2) The second dimension is cultural or philosophical modernity.  It's distinguishing feature is the rejection of the Christian vision which, until the mid 20th C, had cultural hegemony over the West. The key modes of rejection was either explicit rejection of Christianity as in atheism or a "functional" rejection of traditional Christianity through negation of traditional interpretations of biblical texts.

This division is important to emphasise since it is commonly assumed that agrarian type societies are by their nature "traditional". This I believe is a mistake since the lack of technological sophistication is no obstacle to moral innovation.  The French Revolution, for instance,  implemented many modern ideas well before the age of steam.  Rome's later stage sexual morality was similar to our own despite the lack of refrigeration.

This is why it's important to distinguish between technological modernity and philosophical and not conflate the two.

It's also this blog's contention that the modern world was Christian until the mid 20th C. and that much of the modern material/technological development occurred within a Christian, predominantly Protestant context.  Sure, some of the foundational ideas arose within the Catholic world, but it's not enough to originate an idea, it also needs to be effectively implemented. And it was the Protestant world which provided the superior cultural infrastructure in which technological modernity thrived. Not only did Protestantism encourage the development of material/technological modernity, it also modulated its expression through its moral principles.

Take a trivial example. Quite soon after photography was developed it's potential to capture the erotic image was realised. The printing press and the surrounding newspaper infrastructure would have made the widespread dissemination of porn quite feasible--and it's fascinating to speculate what a 19th C version of Playboy or Hustler would of been like-- yet it did not happen due to a cultural environment which saw it as a threat and thereby severe limited its expression. Contraception and abortion were also technologically feasible yet severely restricted due to the prevailing moral norms.  Even in the area of cryptography, moral issues modulated the extent of its implementation.

Furthermore, the civic institutions that these societies built were models of trust, efficiency and honesty, at least when compared to the rest of the world. Leaders were held accountable and were meant to be honorable. Now, of course there were exceptions to the rule, sometimes widespread, but compared to the rest, the Protestant world was in a different league. Good governance, wealth and technological advancement were the markers of it. Contemporary writers were also aware of it and the unique position the  Protestant world had found itself in in the late 19th C.  Much of the opposition to immigrant migration at that time was a based up a fear of corruption of the system by cultures which did not share its values.

One of the distinguishing features of modernity is the rise of the bourgeoisie. They were the managerial class which bought the practical skills which enabled modernity. Much is made of the elite, but it is the middle, particularly the upper middle where the cultural "center of gravity" lies. It's the senior lawyers, doctors, economists, journalists, bankers, engineers, etc, that set the moral tone of the professions. The Protestant world was able to produce a large, well qualified, honest and technically able group of senior bourgoisie who were the "managers" of modernity, and it was their cultural values which shaped it. In the U.S. this bourgeois group by and large belonged to the "Mainline" religions but similar "mainline" faiths were in operation in other parts of the Protestant world. These mainline faiths provided moral instruction particularly to the bourgeois who ensured that the commence, law, science, medicine,etc operated with their moral limits. 

The "health" of modernity is in many ways then a reflection of the health of Protestantism and this is why the collapse of " traditional" Protestantism has been the greatest western calamity of the 20th Century. The bottom line is that that Christian guardians of Modernity are no longer there.  It is the corruption of these particularly Mainline strands of Protestantism--to which the senior bourgeois belonged-- which is the mechanism by which the modern world became de-Christianised: Christianity meaning Christianity in a "traditional" sense. As Mainline Protestantism de-Christianised so did the upper managerial classes, who took their moral instruction from it.

It's beyond the scope of this post to elaborate on the mechanics of de-Christianisation, but as Buckley noted at his time in Yale the process was in full swing. Chesterton noted similar changes in England in the 1920's . And what do I mean by de-Christianised? Most of the readers of this blog will intuitively grasp at what I'm getting at but to formally define it is much more difficult as one of the core problems of Protestantism  is inability to self-police its limits. Protestant expression is protean. However if one take the position of sola scriptura, then readings of scripture which broadly deny its everyday textual meaning can be taken as being unsound.  A Christianity which can theologically align Christian approval with the concept of "Gay Marriage" or other modern "innovations" is a false Christianity.

If anyone wants to understand why our institutions are becoming more corrupt and left leaning it is because the space occupied by "sound Protestantism" in the governing  and administrative bourgeois class has been filled by either it's pseudo-Christian variants or by outright atheism. The number of "sound Protestants" in the appropriate administrative positions simply aren't there to push back. 

I don't want to talk about the Catholic relationship to modernity here, except to say that Catholicism could not, and still cannot engage modernity effectively despite being an originator of it's founding principles.  The institutional changes bought about by the Reformation, in my mind, crippled it's ability to engage modernity in a commanding manner. While Eastern Orthodoxy is incapable of engaging modernity at all.

P.S. These are two pictures I took on my trip to the U.S. several years ago.