Blaming the Reformation for Secularism?

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Baylor recently hosted a splendid conference on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, with talks by Mark Noll, Bruce Gordon, Beth Allison Barr, and many more. One of the most intriguing talks I attended was by Westminster Seminary’s Carl Trueman, who addressed the work of a trio of scholars—Charles Taylor, Carlos Eire, and especially Brad Gregory—who have blamed a host of modern ills on the Reformation. (Collin Hansen and TGC have recently produced a book on Taylor’s thought, in which Trueman is one of the contributors.) These ills include radical individualism, moral relativism, and an utterly fractured church and culture.

Most profoundly, they blame the Reformation for the secularism of modernity. This is not secularism as the “absence” of religion, but a secularism that turns religion into one choice among many, as opposed to an inheritance. It is also a secularism in which the world becomes “disenchanted,” and naturalistic explanations rule in science and in everyday life.

Trueman’s talk raised a number of problems with these types of criticisms. He readily conceded that modern Western culture is characterized by most of the ills highlighted by the Reformation’s critics. But how do we know the Reformation caused the ills, when there are so many other possible causes?

Charles Taylor's A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007).
Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007).

Trueman proposed that we consider material explanations for individualism, relativism, and secularism, as much as ideological and theological explanations. Here I want to give just one example of such material explanations: the advent of the automobile, a development that Trueman says was devastating to church discipline. Sure, the Reformation helped to inaugurate the fundamentally divided nature of Christendom, but the Catholic Church itself had long since aided that process in episodes such as its break with the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054.

Trueman notes that religious “choice” remained quite limited at least until the era of disestablishment and religious liberty in the 19th century. (This is a Charles Taylor-inspired line of investigation also pursued by Lincoln Mullen in his book The Chance of Salvation, about which I interviewed Mullen recently.)

But there was perhaps no greater boost for religious choice than the advent of the mass-produced automobile in the 1910s. With an automobile, people could realistically and routinely choose to go to a church somewhat distant from their home, going across town or even to another town to attend a congregation of their liking. Trueman notes that this development made effective church discipline nearly impossible. Even if someone was disfellowshipped, they could just move on to the next church “down the road,” often one of the same denomination.

Moreover, once a church no longer suited your needs, for any reason at all, you could just pick up and find another one. With a car, you could attend multiple churches if you liked. This new source of mobility and choice had no connection to ideology, theology, or Reformation history at all, unless you subscribe to Max Weber’s thesis about the Protestant roots of capitalism.

Trueman’s argument really resonated with me. In Waco, a mid-size town, we drive about 10 minutes to church. We pass approximately eight churches along the way, including four Baptist-affiliated churches, before we get to the Baptist church of our choice. Neither my wife nor I grew up Baptist. Everything about our church practice speaks of religion as choice, and that choice is physically made possible by the technology of the automobile, at least as much as the distant history of the Reformation.

When you look at it that way, I’m at least glad to say that we’ve been at our church for the whole time during the 15 years we’ve lived in Waco. In a time of unlimited choice and religious consumption, it is good (as much as is possible) as a church member to stick and stay, rather than being ruled the whims of the day and the choices made possible by transportation.

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