When Calvin and Qutb Went Smashing

Story Stream
recent articles

As if Islamist terrorist threats had not already inspired enough fear and loathing in Western audiences, we now hear regularly of threats to the world's cultural heritage.

The Taliban destroyed the Buddha statues of Bamiyan, extremists are uprooting the Islamic tombs and shrines of West Africa, and some Egyptians call for the leveling of the Pyramids. Less celebrated, the Saudis have spent decades destroying the ancient shrines associated with the prophet Muhammad, with his family and followers. In various ways, then, iconoclasm -- the smashing of images -- is in the news.

But it would be absolutely wrong to see such acts as symptoms of Islamic fanaticism. Not only have such movements flourished repeatedly in the West, but Western Christian civilization is itself built upon a mountain of vandalized statues and shrines. Arguably, iconoclasm may even be a necessary precondition for Enlightenment.

I was recently traveling in the Netherlands, where monuments in every town recall that country's great war of independence, the Dutch Revolt -- Europe's greatest cultural and political transformation between the Renaissance and the French Revolution. Although the war against Spanish Catholic rule lasted for decades, the bloodiest and most crucial period followed the mighty popular upsurge of 1566, when the Dutch people rose en masse against oppression. Besides targeting royal authority, the Protestant movement was directed against any and all Catholic material symbols -- against stained glass windows, statues of the Virgin and saints, holy medals and tokens. One Calvinist lord sat happily on a desecrated church altar, feeding plundered Hosts to his parrot.

In Dutch, this nationwide explosion was called the Beeldenstorm, the Storm of Images, and it marked the foundation of a nation and a faith. Politically, it meant that the rebel provinces could stop at nothing short of total independence, as the Spanish would not rest until every heretic was killed or purged. The emerging nation of the Netherlands would be at the cutting edge of all the key developments that shaped the modern West -- of capitalism and global trade, banking and international law, political liberty and Enlightenment.

But the Storm was also a religious declaration of independence against ideas rooted in the oldest human cultures: it reflected a whole new religious consciousness. Going much further than Luther had ever done, Calvinists proclaimed a stark new vision of Christianity, rejecting any suggestions that divinity might take a material form other than Jesus Christ himself.

Beyond smashing images, the insurgents had other ideas that look strikingly familiar to anyone familiar with radical Islam today, with thinkers like Sayyid Qutb and Maulana Mawdudi.

The Calvinists of the 1560s sought to remodel society on the basis of theocratic Old Testament law strictly interpreted, with the role of the sovereign measured by how far he or she submitted to God's will. Some thinkers devised a pioneering theory of tyrannicide, justifying the removal of any allegedly Christian ruler who betrayed Christ's true church. Protestant radicals pursued a harsh policy of reading rival believers out of the faith, defining the followers of images as utterly anti-Christian, deadly enemies of God.

Far more than the events of 1517 -- remember those Theses nailed to the church door? -- the tumult of 1566 is the crucial moment of the European Reformation, and it set the agendas that reformers would pursue for over a century. In the English-speaking world, the heirs of 1566 were the Puritans, the radicals who dreamed of an austere New England. When Puritans seized power in England itself in the 1640s, their agents toured the country, smashing statues and windows in every parish church they could find. By the 1640s, at the height of Europe's death struggle between Protestants and Catholics, Calvinist ideas that to us seem intolerably theocratic dominated not just the Netherlands, but also New England, Switzerland and Scotland, and were struggling for ascendancy in the whole British Isles. Religious zeal often expressed itself through witchcraft persecutions.

But that same Calvinist geography should give us pause, because that is also a map of the major centers of Enlightenment thought in the later eighteenth century, the safe havens where thinkers from more backwards lands could go to explore daring ideas. In later years, the old Calvinist societies also became bastions of secularism. New England's Calvinism gave way to Unitarian and universalist creeds, to searching skepticism. The Netherlands' ancient churches today are commonly secularized as museums or community centers -- places where God was, but remains no longer.

Several reasons suggest themselves for this odd transition, for how the world turned itself upside down. In condemning images, the reformers were cutting faith loose from its assumed connections with the old social structures, the old world of social hierarchy and the cycles of the rural year. God was too absolute to need any such reinforcement, and his followers had an equally unlimited confidence in their own immediate relationship to him. They had equal certainty in their own salvation, which came through reason, the mind, and a world of knowledge founded in scripture. At first, access to these scriptures was available only to learned and literate clerical elites, but the logic of faith demanded that equal access be given to every man -- and eventually, to every woman. This meant a deep devotion to spreading universal literacy and, through new forms of technology, to easily available printed books. Wherever Calvinism spread, so great universities were born -- Leiden in 1575, Edinburgh in 1582, Harvard in 1636.

The problem is, of course, that training people to think and read for themselves doesn't prevent them from drawing their own conclusions, and boldly going where earlier generations might have feared to tread. If you have absolute assurance of salvation, and you despise the inferior standards of the secular world, why should you not freely explore the implications of your continuing interior revolution of the mind and spirit? After all, the old images and idols were no longer there to prevent you. If Amsterdam invented commercial modernity, Leiden was the birthplace of Europe's Enlightenment, and Edinburgh was its nursery.

My heart breaks when I hear of ancient monuments being vandalized beyond repair, in Africa or anywhere. My one consolation is that the image-breakers are creating the potential for a world utterly different from anything they expect or want. Sometimes, amazingly, the darkest storm gives way to the clearest skies.

Show comments Hide Comments