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Schuon, Luther, And The Eternal Calvinist

Let us approach the question of Protestantism with a mindfulness of its differentiation, an understanding of its gravity in history, and an open mind to what merits it may conceal behind a disposition that has been rightly recognized as a challenge by most Reactionary thinkers.

Frithjof Schuon, a sage of the last century whose understanding of world religions was surpassed by a scarce few, wrote on The Question of Protestantism as part of a larger work: Christianity/Islam: Perspectives on Esoteric Ecumenism, with most of the text devoted to untangling the beliefs of Martin Luther, why they emerged, and what their significance was.

“The Germanic soul—treated by Rome in too Latin a manner, though this is another question—which is neither Greek nor Roman, felt the need of a simpler and more inward religious archetype, one less formalistic and therefore more “popular” in the best sense of the word; this in certain respects is the archetype of Islam, a religion based on a Book and conferring priesthood upon every believer.”

Highly interesting about Schuon’s analysis is his comparative statements. He draws comparisons between Martin Luther himself and two religious reformers, Shinran and Al-Ash’ari (of Buddhism and Islam respectively) who also focused heavily on the primacy of faith at the expense of intelligence or indeed any kind of mysticism. Aside from these personal comparisons, however, Protestantism is perceived to be an expression of the Germanic soul which has much commonality with a certain archetype prevalent in the Middle East. We should stress at this time that there is the oft-mentioned gulf of racial disposition to spiritual matters existing between these two, certainly in the intensity of a mitigated dualism, but that does not prohibit us from seeing familiar tendencies between them in respect to man’s relationship to the Divine. Schuon also lays blame for the attraction of Arianism at the foot of such tendencies, and has said as much in recognizing Islam as a kind of sequel to Arianism.

Presumably, Schuon’s diagnosis would not only apply to the Germanic peoples but also the Nordics. We won’t here mention the English, who vacillate on that borderland between spiritual orientations, uncertain and bewildering. However, Schuon does not take account of certain exceptions to this rule, the enduring faith of Austria right up until the end of WWII for example. What was it about these particular Germans which lent itself to Roman Catholicism with arguably more zeal than the Italian peninsula embraced. And what of the French, who share a common lineage? Perhaps what Schuon is really describing is Prussianism, but we cannot say for certain.

In any case, Schuon decries the failure of trying to force peculiarly Roman methods onto the northern Europeans, with whom it did not stick. The souls of these people were not ignited by legalism, but by a popular, folkish faith. More attention given to the vast differences between pagan Rome and pagan Germany may have provided a blueprint in this regard.

“It is not difficult to argue—against the Reformation—that the traditional authorities and Councils, by definition inspired by the Holy Spirit, could not have been mistaken; this is true, but it does not exclude paradoxes that mitigate an otherwise virtually self-evident claim. First of all—and this is what gave wings to the Reformers, starting with Wycliffe and Huss—Christ himself repudiated many “traditional” elements supported by the “authorities” in calling them “commandments of men”; furthermore, the excesses of “papism” at the time of Luther and well before prove at the very least that the papacy contains certain excesses, which the Byzantine Church is the first to note and stigmatize, if not that the papacy in itself is illegitimate. What we mean is that the Pope, instead of being primus interpares as Saint Peter had been, has the exorbitant privilege of being at once prophet and emperor: as prophet he places himself above the Councils, and as emperor he possesses a temporal power surpassing that of all the princes, including the emperor himself; and it is precisely these unheard-of prerogatives that permitted the entry of modernism into the Church in our time, in the fashion of a Trojan horse and despite the warnings of preceding Popes; that Popes may personally have been saints does not at all weaken the valid arguments of the Eastern Church. In a word, if the Western Church had been such as to avoid casting the Eastern Church into the “outer darkness”—and with what a manifestation of barbarism!—it would not have had to undergo the counterblow of the Reformation.”

There is much to unpack here. First of all is Schuon’s glaring misunderstanding of Jesus’ words concerning tradition, and this must be addressed because it is a foundational failure of Protestantism. R. Thomas Zell handles the issue well here, pointing out that this interpretation rests upon a less-than-full reading of the text, and broadening out what was originally a contextually specific condemnation. Schuon is also needlessly vague about the connection between the Great Schism and Protestantism. I do believe he is correct that Protestantism would never have come about if not for the Schism, but it requires an argument beyond pointing out the excesses of Rome under the Medici Popes. I would say that had the Church remained in the state it had been for the first 1000 years after Christ, that it may have been able to address the racial needs of the Germans and Nordics more effectively, but this is speculation. What might an authentically Norwegian Christianity have looked like, and could it have been conceived in a way that would not have led it into such errors in rebellion against the Roman Catholic Church, such as the rejection of tradition itself? In any case, Schuon is correct in my view to criticize the admittedly “brilliant” Maistre on his blindness to this issue.

“If we are told that the papacy—such as it was throughout the centuries—represents the only possible solution for the West, we readily agree, but the risks this unavoidable adaptation so unavoidably included should, therefore, have been foreseen, and everything should have been done to diminish, not increase, them; if a strongly marked hierarchy was indispensable, the priestly aspect of every Christian should have been insisted upon all the more.”

Here Schuon agrees on the importance of the Papacy in the Western tradition, but once again stresses a lack of foresight into the German mentality, its restlessness, and its decidedly barbarian origins that had only recently begun to fade, where they had disappeared in Rome centuries upon centuries prior. He expounds on these racial characteristics in this passage:

“There is also a fundamental tendency in the Gospel that responds with particular force to the needs of the Germanic soul: namely, a tendency toward simplicity and inwardness, hence away from theological and liturgical complication, formalism, dispersion of worship, and the too often comfortable tyranny of the clergy. On the other hand the Germans were sensitive to the nobly and robustly popular appeal of the Bible; this has no relationship with democracy, for Luther was a supporter of a theocratic regime upheld by the emperor and the princes.”

Above all, Schuon has huge appreciation for the focus on faith found in Protestantism, and posits that the primacy of faith or love (devotion) is at the heart of many religious cleavings, not just those within Christianity, with movements like Protestantism arising in part as a reaction to a perceived lack of focus on faith. He emphasizes that these two poles are not contradictory, but are implied and contained within one another, and only become divisive when outward forms are malpracticed. The entire piece rings with a sympathy for Luther, believing him to be misunderstood, but after a well-formulated criticism of priestly chastity that is not unfamiliar to the Orthodox, he speaks about Luther’s inability to be realistic.

“Luther in turn lacked realism: he was astonished that during his absence from Wittenberg, the promoters of the Reformation gave themselves up to all kinds of excesses; at the end of his life he even went so far as to regret that the mediocre masses had not remained under the rod of the Pope. Not much concerned with collective psychology, he believed the simple principle of piety could replace the material supports that contribute so powerfully to regulate the behavior of the crowds; it not only keeps this behavior in equilibrium in space but stabilizes it in time. In his mystical subjectivism he did not realize that a religion needs symbolism in order to survive, that the inward cannot live within a collective consciousness without outward signs; but as a prophet of inwardness he scarcely had a choice.”

Indeed, Luther’s ignorance of the masses and their nature belies, in fact, the childish nature of the German understanding of caste. Why was it that in his quest for a spiritual warrior elite, Heinrich Himmler modeled his SS on the Teutonic Knights? Precisely because no such thing existed in Germany’s pagan past. It was a Roman import taken up with stunning efficiency by the martial Prussian character but was not itself German in its metaphysical origins. Because Northern Europe was late in emerging from barbarism, it lacked a sophisticated understanding of the superior and inferior. Such a problem was only remedied in Russia by the comparative cruelty and uncompromising nature of Russian rulers once they got full control over what was essentially a frontier backwater.

Luther is praised for his artistic abilities, showed in amusing irony through the Catholic appreciation of the hymns he wrote, as well as his asceticism and personal piety. In addition, his views on the sacraments did not fall nearly as far from their full glory as they did with other reform figures. Schuon even muses that he sensed a Lutheran devotion to Mary which he had to keep hidden, though I am not familiar enough with Luther to comment. The sacramental issue is however incredibly important, and Schuon wastes no time in condemning its detractors.

“One of the most absurd arguments with which Zwingli, Karlstadt, Oekolampad, and others opposed both the Catholic Church and Luther was the following: if the bread is really the body of Christ, do we not eat human flesh when communing? To this there are four responses. First, Christ said what he said, and one must take it or leave it; there is nothing to change in it, unless one wishes to leave the Christian religion. Second, Christ in fact offers neither flesh nor blood, but bread and wine, so why the complaint? Third, the crucial point is the question of knowing what is signified by this body that one must eat and by this blood that one must drink; now this meaning or content is the remission of sins, Redemption, the restitution of man’s glorious nature, innocence at once primordial and celestial; man eats and drinks what he must become because this is what he is in his immortal essence; and to eat is to become united. Fourth, the fact that bread is not flesh and that wine is not blood can be seen without difficulty; why then ask in what manner bread is the body and wine is the blood? This does not concern us and has no interest for us; it is God’s concern. What alone is important for us is the transforming and deifying power of the sacrament”

Zwingli BTFO puts it mildly and coming from a Muslim no less. The denial of the sacramental power contained within the consumption of the bread and wine is truly among Protestantism’s gravest errors, but as Schuon says, this is not really attributable to Luther. The following, on the other hand, is perhaps the most astute criticism of the Lutheran worldview.

“Be that as it may, Luther does not seem to know what to do with a good conscience, the one Catholics obtain through confession and works; he confuses it with self-satisfaction and laziness, whereas it is the normal and healthy basis for the requirements of loving God and neighbor.”

Unknowingly perhaps, Schuon stumbled upon the holiness spiralling issue within Protestantism, which is at its root an unwillingness to accept something as simple as a clean conscience, a certainty that something immoral is afoot and a need to get to the bottom of it, even if it requires (as it later did) accusations of immorality against God Himself. While Luther did not envision this being the result of what he created, he still bears responsibility in this regard. Schuon outdoes himself with the next paragraph which perfectly sums up how Luther completely missed the theomorphism of man, and his ability to actually have a relationship with God through his actions, even while these actions don’t in and of themselves provide any redemption.

“The mystic of Wittenberg is “more Catholic than the Pope” in feeling that it is pretension on the part of man to believe in the quasitheurgical virtue of certain actions—to believe a good act can ipso facto precipitate a concordant grace, as if man had the power to determine the divine Will; and this feeling furnishes Luther with a reason, perhaps the main one, for rejecting the Mass. In fact to believe we can determine the divine Will by our comportment—Deo juvante—is in no way pretentious, given that God created us for precisely this; it is a normal or “supernaturally natural” consequence of our theomorphism; thus there is no harm in the idea that our actions can be meritorious before God, and no one obliges us to become proud of them. A good conscience is a normal phenomenon; it is the normal climate within which a man runs toward God; there is nothing in a good conscience that attracts us to the world, it being perfectly neutral in this respect, unless we are hypocrites. On the contrary, it draws us toward Heaven since by its very nature it is a taste of Heaven.”

Calvin is mentioned only once in the piece, but when he is mentioned, it is to deliberately separate the Lutheran legacy from his work. Ultimately, Calvin is cast as the dark side of the Reformation, with Luther being the light side. I would say this is too apologetic to Luther’s case, but concerning Calvin it is correct. He took the worst aspects of the Renaissance and channeled them into a pure intrinsic heresy, more akin to Montanism than Arianism in its complete divorce from mystical experience and descent into the realm of charlatanism.

“Viewed in its totality, Protestantism has something ambiguous about it: on the one hand it is inspired sincerely and concretely by the Bible, but on the other hand it is bound up with humanism and the Renaissance. Luther incarnates the first aspect: his perspective is medieval and so to speak retrospective, and it gives rise to a conservative and at times esoterizing pietism. In Calvin, on the contrary, the tendencies of humanism, hence of the Renaissance, mingle with the movement rather strongly, if indeed they do not determine it; no doubt he is greatly inspired in his doctrine by Luther and the Swiss Reformers, but he is a republican in his own way—on a theocratic basis, of course—and not a monarchist like the German Reformer; and it can be said on the whole that in a certain manner he was more opposed to Catholicism than Luther was.”

In The Calvinist Roots of the Modern Era, it is written:

“Both Calivinism and modernism emphasize an alienation of self from God and nature, whether through the Calvinist’s apprehension of a fearsome, punishing deity or through the post-Darwinian skeptic’s sense that God is distant or absent.”

We can say with some certainty that it is the radicalism of Calvin, playing upon existent Germanic tendencies that swim beneath the surface in the French people (owing to their origins) such as those in Geneva, that moved many from intimate experiences of the Divine captured in liturgy, to a distant and almost slave-like experience, and finally to no experience at all. If you put enough distance between mankind and God, he will doubt the existence of God. This never struck Islam because of the Sharia, but it is evident in Judaism once the Civil Law was no longer deemed necessary for them, for reasons that defy logic. Calvin, of course, ran his own proto-Puritan dictatorship in Geneva, but the city itself is unimportant when compared to the theological and political movements he set into motion which were to have far more deleterious effects outside of Switzerland than within it, since they bled over into a litany of other practices. In France, they manifested in bloody anti-clericalism, in Germany the eventual birth of nihilism, and elsewhere a quiet and slow decay of traditional values.

To conclude then, despite Schuon’s misconceptions in some areas, he is correct to draw a distinction between the Protestantism of Luther and that of Calvin, Zwingli, etc. While Luther’s activities mirror (at least in theological archetype) the emergence of Buddhism vis-à-vis Hinduism, his contemporaries set about with no ‘reform’ in mind, but only destruction in the name of an increasingly profane pseudo-purity. While the people of Southeast Asia were incapable of making the jump from the archetypes of ‘Lutheranism’ to ‘Calvinism’, Europeans were, and this is why Luther, despite noble motives obscured by the desolation he later regretted, errored in his crusade against Roman Catholicism, for he gave license to those who would set the wheels of Modernity spinning. I do not see an ounce of Luther in what Protestantism I have witnessed in the contemporary era, but I do see a great amount of Calvin. In the future, when I speak of Protestantism as one of the forerunners of Liberalism, I will specifically be referring to the Calvinist mutant. Lutheranism (and I completely exclude, as Schuon would, its modern incarnation which is nothing but a hollow joke) I simply lay in the grave as the stillborn child it was, reverent of what it was trying to do in its immaturity, but recognizing that it was a means to an end for the purposes of the evil one, who quickly went from leaps to bounds in developing what would become Liberalism.

Editor's note: this article orgininally appeared on the author's blog.