Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Michael Burleigh's Earthly Powers: A Review

One of the only modern history classes I took in college covered the tumult of the nineteenth century in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Our main textbook was Peter Gay's Cultivation of Hatred. Rereading through its index, it is amazing to see how few pages are dedicated to religion, perhaps thirty out of five-hundred. Religion is never treated systematically. It receives cursory attention only in its relations to the author's favorite topics: racism, sexism, capital punishment. The secular academy is inexcusably blind to religion. Gay, himself a Freudian, seems typical of the modern academy: religion is epiphenomenal, a manifestation of some other system: psychological, economic, or biological.

Newer anti-essentialist theories which supposedly shun these systematic approaches nevertheless also dismiss religion as yet another overarching system. And so the study of religion even in its historical embodiment is happily left to non-academics like Michael Burleigh, whose book Earthly Powers focuses upon church-state conflicts in the wake of the French revolution.

Burleigh adroitly discusses the state of France before the revolution. Following other recent studies, he is revisionist towards the early philosophes. Voltaire's cause celebre, the blasphemy case of Francois-Jean de la Barre, became one of his favorite whipping boys in his crusade against superstition. Burleigh revises this case with exculpatory factors: "Senior clerics had actually intervened to commute La Barre's sentence; the Assembly of French clergy requested clemency, and the papal nuncio said a year in jail would have sufficed." Burleigh attributes de la Barre's torture and execution to local animosities and desires on the national level to prove national piety after French harassment of the Jesuit order.

Speaking of the Jesuits, Burleigh shows how Jansenism stirred nationalist sentiment against the supposed perfidy of the international order of the Society of Jesus. This sentiment likewise acted against papal interference in the French church, resulting in a resurgent conciliarist ecclesiology. Such Gallicanism fed into the Revolution's later attempts at instating a constitutional church. And this conciliarist impulse was not confined to churchly spheres:

"A religious dispute had become highly political; an exceptionally austere creed was on the way to becoming the religion of opposition lawyers, although there would be a mere three Jansenists in the National Assembly. Louis XIV associated Jansenism with sedition, much as his English predecessors had done with Puritanism in a Protestant context. It was no coincidence that during these conflicts leading Jansenist lawyers claimed that these parlements were actually 'parliaments', allegedly coeval with the monarchy."

Burleigh also sees the Calvinists and Jansenists as the unwitting foundation for deistic theology: "In a sense, the philosophes were the beneficiaries of those Calvinists and Jansenists who had propelled an infinitely good God further away from this corrupt world. The latter became autonomous, observable and pottentially malleable, its links with the celestial hierarchy attenuated to invisibility."

The rise of science is often taken to have been the catalyst for the decline of faith. Burleigh rightly observes that the decline can also be attributed to novel deistic theologies appearing alongside, and sometimes before, the rise of Darwinian theory:

The young theologian Hegel had written a Life of Jesus in which there was no mention of miracles. Since educated people consumed far more popular works on religion than on science, this literature was arguably more subversive of faith than learned tomes about fossils, frogs, rocks, and snails, especially when it made the ambiguous claim that the Gospels were neither fabricated nor true, but testimony to a religious reality concealed within myth and legend.
Disbelief in miracles had little or nothing to do with contemporary science, but everything to do with what was afoot among theologians in the sleepy German university town of Tubingen who in turn were influenced by the study of collective myth. The word 'German' came to be synonymous with darkness that inevitably strike us as innocent, but which were sinister by the lights of the Victorian era. "

Burleigh sympathetically treats the clericalist parties which would eventually lose the political wars. To a typical American, governmental funding of religion seems prima facie suspect. But when one's centuries-old church buildings can in no way be maintained by a small flock of parishoners, state funding seems far more reasonable, even if its dangers are recognized.

The perils of state subsidy are also evident in this work. In an ironic twist, the French government forbade French bishops from reading the Index Librorum Prohibitorum compiled by Catholic censors in Rome. During the Kulturkampf, Bismarck and his fellow travelers expelled most of the Catholic clergy and redirected funding to the Old Catholics, which Burleigh summarizes thusly:
"Simultaneously, the Prussian diet promulgated the Old Catholic Law, which allocated this anti-infallibilist sect, in which Catholic academics who thought the papacy guilty of dangerous innovations were prominent, a share of existing church resources. Government attempts to promote a professorial sect that made much noise but which had few adherents were largely attributable to its potential to divide the Roman camp."

Here there is resemblance to the old hands at work in the radical party of the Catholic Church today. I hope the National Catholic Reporter doesn't get any ideas from this precedent.

Earthly Powers as a whole shows deficient organization. Its writing order at times seems haphazard. If there is any one theme, it is that secularism did not remove religion from the public sphere, but rather made the public sphere a religious but definitely non-Christian area far more fanatical than the order it usurped. It is no accident that Burleigh is primarily a scholar of murderous twentieth-century political religions, and this lens makes patent what could otherwise remain ignored.

Burleigh's work is a factual recitation mixed with opinionated asides, snide remarks, and the occasional fleet-street barbarism like "jiggery-pokery." Much of this is salutary, a spice in the recipe of one damn thing after another. What is not salutary is generally forgivable. However, his bad grammar is not. More than a dozen key lines tempted me to write in the dread red ink of the grammarian: "AUC," "antecedent unclear." It certainly needed one more editorial run-through.

Earthly Powers is most useful as an introduction to the history neglected by popular history: the decline of Christendom in the face of liberalism and the near-fatal blow delivered to both in the Great War.

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