Religious controversy 101

HenryVIII_wikicomEveryone knows that Henry VIII threw the Pope out of England, figuratively speaking. (He could have done it literally; Great Harry was a fit young man at the time and the Pope was a doddering old doge.) Most people know that the struggle between the reformed Church of England and the Catholic Church continued well into the next century, embroiling England and Spain in a long cold war punctuated with many hot battles. Many people forget that the other end of the religious spectrum, the radical Protestants who wanted a complete break from all things Catholic, including the vestments and the candles, was just as  troublesome during the Elizabethan period. The Puritans had no foreign power backing them up, sending armadas and whatnot, but they ended up fomenting a civil war in the middle of seventeenth century.

We know there was lots of controversy over what exactly happened inside the parish church on a Sunday morning. What we have a hard time understanding is why it mattered so much. The greatest minds of the century — and this was a century with some mighty great minds — were obliged to spend quality brain-units on religious differences we can barely perceive. What was it all about?

Contrary to Lisa Simpson’s assertion, it was not about minute distinctions in dogma, like consubstantiation vs transubstantiation. (Something to do with when or whether the bread and wine are imbued with the real divinity of Christ.) Only archbishops and doctors of divinity understood that stuff. Contrary to the repeated exhortations of those learned men, the conflict was always about adiaphora, the things indifferent: incense, vestments, chalices, candles, and hats, O Best Beloved, hats! (Whether to wear them in church or not. Seriously.)

English Catholics wanted the mystery back in their religion. They liked a sense of awe and majesty in their holyShakespeare_window_Southwark_Cathedral_wikicom spaces, the magical properties of cherished objects, a sense of luxury in the infinite beyond. They communicated with their God through mediators: priests, saints, Christ, and their beloved Virgin Mary, who really understood them. They liked solemnity and dignity and sometimes a bit of pomp.

English Puritans wanted a hot, close, personal connection to their God. They wanted inspiration, passion, the intensity of self-revelation. They loved to get together in tight little study groups and discover themselves in the Bible and in public confession. They wanted their preachers to speak extemporaneously from the depth of their own immediate religious experience. They loved fellowship. They scorned mystery. They wanted a plain scrubbed table in a plain white box with plain clear glass in the windows and no idols of any kind.

English who willingly attended the established Church of England appreciated the wisdom of their queen in matters religious. They wanted to put on their best clothes and go on Sunday to the Morris_dancing_wikicomparish church to sit among the rest of the parishioners — their neighbors, both higher and lower. The whole parish should be there together at that time and in that place as evidence of their unity. They liked a nice sermon in English, composed of many familiar elements from the Book of Common Prayer, that would inspire them for a while to try to be better people. They liked a pretty church, with flowers and candles, but weren’t too keen on the martyrdom of saints. Then they wanted the support of the church and all their neighbors in maintaining the annual round of festivals and communal observations, from Lady Day to Candlemas.

This doesn’t look like a problem to us. We say, “Fine, go for it. Everybody do what you want.” My neighborhood has about 17,000 households, making it a big city by Elizabethan standards. There are seven churches; one Catholic, the rest some variety of Protestant. I could ride my bike to a Buddhist meditation center, a mosque, or a Jewish temple. My supermarket has a whole big section of kosher foods. I don’t think many of my neighbors actually go to church, but we use the churches for things like voting and neighborhood association meetings. This is pluralism and it’s a major achievement. We should get up every morning and pat ourselves on the back for it.

Religious pluralism was not even on the horizon in the late sixteenth century, except possibly in a few isolated places. Most people believed very strongly that everyone should worship the same gods in the same way. It wasn’t about mind control. Elizabeth said, in a phrase she probably got from Francis Bacon, that she had no desire to open windows into men’s souls. She didn’t care what they thought; she cared what they did. You must attend the same church. You must publicly be part of your community. You must fill community offices, almost all of which were volunteer positions in those days. You must tithe to your parish church to help support the poor.  The Elizabethan government didn’t persecute people for their beliefs; they prosecuted them for their behavior. Noncompliance was resistance, dangerous, a form of treason. 

Conformity was important in those days, as it is today in some places. My dissertation is a grammar of ansmc_fiesta indigenous language of Mexico. Such languages are mostly spoken in the Back of Beyondia — small towns in the hinterlands. These towns used to be 100% Catholic, of that special Mexican syncretic variety. In the past half-century, however, Protestant missionaries and hometown kids returning from the cities have split off from the traditionalists. It’s a serious social problem. These new-believers don’t participate in the round of community rituals, so the beloved old traditions are disappearing. My main consultant bemoaned this sad diversity of belief. He said the people in his village ought to be like the fingers of one hand: all the same, all pulling together.

This is what the controversy was about. Nobody thought, “You go your way and I’ll go mine.” Everyone wanted everyone else to believe what they believed and behave the way they behaved, with a few rare exceptions like rational Francis Bacon, worldly Sir Walter Raleigh, and their exquisitely balanced Queen Elizabeth.

There are fundamentalists with the same all-or-nothing viewpoint today, as we all know to our sorrow. Fundamentalist Christians battle endlessly against the most well-substantiated and useful theory of all time (evolution); Fundamentalist Muslims murder cartoonists for simply doing what they do.

I’ll leave you with a quote from linguist Geoffrey Pullum, writing about the bombing of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. He explains our extraordinary achievement of true religious tolerance with his typical insight and wit.

“It is simply not negotiable for us whether people should be free to express unpopular or even offensive views, linguistically or artistically: unless very substantial arguments can be given that harm will ensue (you don’t get to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater, or threaten someone with death), you should be free to hold whatever opinions you have come to and express them in any way you wish.

No matter how offensive some publication might be in (say) its denigration of religion—possibly your religion—the act of committing violence against its authors and publishers in reaction or revenge against it is far worse. In part this is because your freedom to practice and preach whatever religion you may choose (which Western values take to be essentially unchallengeable) can only be guaranteed by a society free enough to also allow other people to mock or denigrate your religion.”

Francis Bacon couldn’t have said it better.

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