From Reform to Revolution?

Michel de Certeau (The Writing of History, 126-7) quotes Alphonse Dupront on the post-Reformation situation of the church: “a first piece of raw material, as obvious as capital for the modern mind, is the progressive promotion of heresy in confession and of confession in church. . . . Such, in my opinion, is the great modern fact: the notorious heretic has become publicly and officially a minister of the Church, but of another church.”

Certeau explains that this renders the all the categories of “conformist and the nonconformist, of the orthodox” problematic. As a result, “adhesion to the religious group is progressively imposed as a substitute criterion. From the moment when principles become relative and are inverted, the membership of a church (or of a ‘body’), more than content (which has become debatable because it is partial; or common but hidden, ‘mystical’), tends to found the certitude of ‘truths’ proper to each.” Truth is subordinated to the “antinomy (indeed the aggressivity) among groups,” leading to a universal skepticism.

This in turn “prepares (and already sketches) a nonreligious type of certitude—that is, participation in civil society. Because of its fragmentation into coexisting and mutually warring churches, the values once invested in the Church appear directed toward political or national unity. A defrocked Church favors the structure over the message, and geographical unity over all forms of ‘catholicity.’ Thus the nation is born,” born, that is, from the fragmentation of the church into churches.

Each church claims victory over heresy, but these claims have the opposite of their intended effect: “intransigence carries over to the strict membership of the group. The suspicion that touches upon dogma makes more necessary the rigidity and the self-defense of the group. Whence the new meaning of education as an instrument of cohesion in a campaign to maintain or restore unity. Knowledge becomes, for a religious society, a means of self-definition in its catechisms or in its controversies. Ignorance designates an indecision or a no-man’s-land that is hereafter intolerable among the conflicting ‘bodies.’ Truth appears less as what the group defends and more as what it uses to defend itself: finally, truth is what it does, it is its style of fashioning, of diffusing, and of centralizing what the group is. A transformation inverting the reciprocal roles of the society and of the truth takes place. In the end, the former will be what will found and determine the latter. Hence a relativization of ‘truths’ is prepared. More precisely, they function in a new way. Soon, doctrines are going to be held as effects, then as ideological ‘superstructures’ or as instruments of coherence both proper and relative to the societies that have produced them.”

This is too neat, this tracing of post-Reformation division to a Marxist conception of truth. But “too neat” doesn’t mean “untrue.”

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