The Europeanization of the World by Headley John M.;

The Europeanization of the World by Headley John M.;

Author:Headley, John M.;
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Published: 2016-11-14T16:00:00+00:00

The Initial Constituting of Political Dissent: Thomas More’s Horrific Vision

The actions of Luther’s friends, the accusations of his enemies, and succeeding ages have understood his expression of conscience—his Great Witness at Worms—in the context of the triumph of private judgment. Such was not Luther’s understanding at all. He did not conceive of conscience as freefloating and autonomous but claimed his own to be bound to the objective authority of the Word of God. He never gave conscience any autonomous authority in determining the meaning of Christian faith.7 In other words, he constructed a new, different framework for it from that of the medieval church and its broad consensus. He claimed for this new authority that it was objective and immediately perceptive to all. The difficulty arose from the fact that his own interpretation of scripture was neither objective nor absolute—there proved to be many others. Luther’s own special linking of conscience with the Word of God—no matter how splendidly understood and laid bare by him—gave rise almost immediately to divergent interpretations. In the process, however, Luther had created the critical and prophetic principle of Protestantism, derived and recovered from the Hebrew prophets, that nothing in this world can claim for itself an inherently divine sanction.

After the Edict of Worms in 1521, the story of the Reformation became one of continuous dissent, from which the West has never turned back. Later perceptions of Luther’s Witness increasingly dissociated the act of defiance from its specifically religious or doctrinal commitment. And though there is no direct path from Luther’s captive conscience to modern private judgment, the subsequent fragmentation of religious life and interpretation, the rationalizing and secularizing forces, all brought the apparent authority and sanctity of private judgment into being in a way Luther would neither recognize nor sanction. Within a decade a number of exotic sects had proliferated, including two new major expressions of Christianity: Lutheranism and Zwinglianism.

But how and where do we encounter the effort to construct the coexistence of dissenting groups? Consider a statement from one who had earlier established his credentials as a leading Christian humanist. For ten years he had been embroiled in savage polemic and theological controversy in the service of Catholic prosecution of heretics, and within less than three years of this statement he suffered martyrdom for his traditional Christian faith:

And yet, son Roper, I pray God, that some of us, high as we seem to sit upon the mountains treading heretics under our feet like ants, live not in the day that we gladly would wish to be at a league and composition with them to let them have their churches quietly to themselves, so that they would be content to let us have ours quietly to ourselves.8

Thomas More’s statement, as reported by his son-in-law, William Roper, throws into relief the unraveling of a hierarchically organized unity into a community founded upon the coexistence of differing churches, apparently defanged by religious pluralism, doctrinal indifference, disestablishment, and tolerance. More’s terrible vision bespoke the total subversion of


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