Happy belated New Year everyone! I’m back from my three week hiatus, so welcome to my first proper post of 2017.
While I was on holiday, for a variety of logistical reasons, I ended up spending an afternoon in Geneva. It was probably the best (and cheapest) way to see the city: an 8 minute train ride from the airport into the city centre, a focused walk to take in the Jet d’Eau and the Flower Clock, a quick climb up the towers at St Pierre’s Cathedral, a late afternoon lunch, and exit stage left without having to pay for a single night’s accommodation.
But in between the Cathedral and a (very delicious) (and very expensive) lunch, rather than shooting across the city to see all the UN headquarters, I instead visited the International Museum of the Reformation.
It’s one of my favourite things about visiting European cities: you just stumble upon history in carefully-curated bricks and mortar. And I found myself realising that Geneva was the Calvinistic heart of the Reformation – and that the neatly-packaged intellectual exposition of said heart was forcing me to think about Today slightly differently.
The Heart of the Protestant Reformation
So here is a list of things that I knew as facts, but hadn’t really thought about before:
- The cornerstone of the Protestant Reformation was not Martin Luther. Or the printing press (although it was part of it). Rather, it was the translation of Biblical text out of Latin and into common speech.
- By translating the Bible, the reformers could shun the traditional ‘experts’: the latin-speaking, educated hierarchy of clergy, who acted as the conduit for God’s word to the congregation in weekly homilies from the pulpit.
- This ease of access to Biblical knowledge completely overturned the old institutional order. No longer would the Pope and his theologically-trained synods interpret Scripture for the bishops, who would then pass that interpretation on to the priests in their dioceses, who would then pass that on to the laity. Instead, anyone literate could read and interpret for himself.
- At this point, we can talk about the printing press: which allowed for mass distribution of these translations.
- And the Reformers were sticklers for literacy. For example, a 1686 law in the (Lutheran) Kingdom of Sweden (which also included modern-day Finland, Latvia and Estonia) enforced literacy on everyone.
But this idea of individual autonomy in the realm of religion didn’t stop there. It went on to overturn the old imperialistic political order: and we got democracy (individual autonomy in the realm of politics).
Of course, this overturning of the old world order wasn’t all a resounding success. It also got us into trouble: religious wars and World Wars and inquisitions.
But nonetheless, a few short centuries later, here we find ourselves today: children of the Reformation. And with that same sense of evangelism, we are still pressing forward with our gospel of individual rights and self-determination.
The New Reformation
To simplify it, the Protestant Reformation went:
- Increased access to Biblical knowledge; led to
- a new Religious World Order; which led to
- a new Political World Order; which led to
But doesn’t this story feel strangely familiar?
In some ways, our own ‘old order’ of experts are lawyers and technocrats. This modern-day clergy of Capitalism are educated and trained in their fields – but they’re being outwitted by the Twitterati who are neither trained nor educated. And social media platforms are the new and immediate printing press.
Instead of lawyers, we have armchair judges, with no knowledge of legislation or case law, passing judgments on media-covered cases in 140 characters or less.
Instead of technocrats and experienced politicians, we have abrasive television personalities riding roughshod over everything and everyone in a pepper-spray of social media outbursts.
And Zuckerberg is the new Gutenberg.