In watching a series of lectures about the development of western civilization, I find much of the experience colored by a comment read elsewhere. The writer had taken the position that the European wars fought in the late and post Renaissance periods, the so-called wars of religion, were actually the birth-pangs of the modern nation-state.
In reviewing this time period, there is no denying that religious language was used to justify most of these wars. It is, of course, incredible to think that that religious ethics weren’t something of a factor in their occurrence. Still, it is very hard to believe that such vast wars were fought simply over doctrines that were frequently abandoned or adopted for the sake of political convenience.
The image that begins to become clear, as I study, is that this time saw the height of the monarchy. Kings of the middle ages had not been nearly so strong. They were clearly the most powerful men in their territories, but had two very serious checks on that power.
The first of these was the nobles. The king relied on these men in order to maintain control, and was therefore obligated to hear their grievances.
Second, of course, was the church. As the only major international organization, the church limited each ruler in various ways.
The wars of religion were, in one sense, the wars against religion. When princes realized that the reformation offered a perfect opportunity to wrest power from the church. By the end of the end of these conflicts, religion had been, for the most part, reduced to an office of the state.
From this arose legitimate and illegitimate fears. The early modern period surpassed previous centuries in belief in magic and witchcraft. The formerly secure foundations of the church no longer protected against outrageous claims.
More legitimate, however, was the fear that the nation-state was becoming too powerful. Kings came to wield control which had once been diffused, and another series of wars was needed to wrest that power from the elite. Even so, the height of government power was not seen until the twentieth century, and the rise of communism.
And there seems to be our options: to put our trust either in this life or the next. To demand that life center more thoroughly around religious belief, risking the corruption of those who teach those beliefs – or to belief that this life, and those who have power in it, is the sum total of all authority.
Either way runs the risk of tyranny, and (while I consider myself deeply religious) I am strongly opposed to state churches. Still, the focus we have on politics, the degree to which we fight over policies, should stand as a reminder that we have not somehow transcended the old doctrinal debates, or the tendency to trust power to the undeserving, but have merely shifted the battleground from Heaven to Earth.
I, for one, feel that both Heaven and Earth are battlegrounds. We must not capitulate the former, simply because we have seen it is fraught with dangers. We see that, too, in earthly power, and in all of life.
Rather, we must forget neither the body nor the soul, and never embrace on to the exclusion of the other. To do so would be to lose half of what we are.