History, Religion, Reviews.

The origins of modern society

Book Book Review, Title Protestantism and Progress, Author Ernst Troeltsch, Rating 3.5, The Origins of Modern Society

Ernst Troeltsch was a fin de siècle Protestant theologian who wrote Protestantism and Progress: A Historical Study of Protestantism and the Modern World. This work, along with his friend Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, both written just before World War I, are reasoned historical treatments of the influence of Protestantism on the perceived and potential progress of Western society. They provide effective contrast to the often simplistic and one-sided efforts by contemporary Protestant Evangelicals to do the same, such as Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live?

Troeltsch defended the faith in this matter of Protestantism and modern society, but in a way much more subtle and interesting than expected. For Troeltsch, the argument that Luther’s embrace of the individual conscience was the driving force for all things modern was too simplistic and somewhat misdirected; he noted that Luther and Calvin, the two largest influencers of the Reformation, and their subsequent sects during the 16th and 17th centuries, had no intention of supporting individual rights, secular politics or laws that promoted individual rights, secular education, nor the rationalistic ascendence of the scientific method. For these reformers and their followers, individual freedom stopped at interpreting the Bible individually, and in fact even that was, ironically, in practice limited to following the newly priestly caste of Protestant sects. (In Calvin’s Geneva, woe betide the person who acted at odds with the Calvinistic interpretation of the Bible, similarly in Lutheran territories.) Nonetheless, this more indirect influence by burgeoning Protestantism was still a critical antecedent to later religious and secular development of individual liberties that form the basis of modern Western nations.

-PD-US,

Ernst Troeltsch. PD-US.

In a nod to Weber, Troeltsch acknowledged the deep influence of Calvinistic Protestantism on the embrace of capitalism and its necessary work ethic. But Troeltsch argued that Protestantism in no way sought to glorify work for profit’s sake, nor supported naked greed and its great distortion both upon individual and collective consciences, the great sin of market-driven capitalism.

All in all, it is somewhat dated, just missing the disastrous world wars and their deeply ironical effects on the philosophical perception of progress, but even with that, it gives a reasonable account of Protestantism’s and Christianity’s influence on modern secular culture. Troeltsch’s treatment of the subject was balanced, emphasizing that that you can’t have it both ways: Insist on the devaluation of earthly goals and desires for spiritual purity and heavenly focus explicit in the Protestant worldview, while arguing that all that is good about modern secular life, with its distinct separation of church and state and its focus on the earthly progress of human culture, comes directly out of the same religious creed.

Troeltsch described history as a flow of events connected in a network of interacting elements; he did not ignore events or elements that were counter to his arguments. So much change comes about in spite of, or in reaction to, cultural ideas and trends. History is a mix of the purposeful and the chaotic, or to use Arthur Koestler’s term, a sleepwalk, a blend of intended and unintended consequences; Troeltsch made an honest effort to point out both in his history of Protestant influence on the modern world.

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