books book reviews

Books on religious history

reviewed by T. Nelson

book review Score+4

The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy
Peter H. Wilson
Belknap, 2009, 997 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

In this one, Peter H. Wilson takes a people-oriented approach. There's little information here on the ideas, many of which trace back to Martin Luther, that created the religious divisions. For the history of ideas in the Reformation, a better book is The Age of Reform 1250–1550 by Steven Ozment.

Wilson's emphasis on people leads him to conclude that the Thirty Years War (1618–1648) was not a war over religion, but the culmination of endless conniving and jockeying for power among the European royalty. He writes [p.270]: “Politics polarized along confessional lines, since religion was the only ground on which to attack royal policy.” About the Uskok War (1615–1617), he says: “The main threat to peace was not confessional tension in the Empire, but the continued uncertainty surrounding the Habsburg succession.” [p.255]

The emphasis on politics may strike many readers as not seeing the forest for the trees, since the Thirty Years War had, after all, the Protestants on one side and the Catholics on the other. It also creates the impression that the war started, as many wars do, from a series of individual blunders rather than civilizational currents, and that no one wanted it and few saw it coming. But describing the war as people scheming and betraying each other makes sense because allegiance in those days was to individuals more than to impersonal nations, though it also creates an impression of Byzantine complexity.

And it was complex, not least because many of the people have the same name, many being referred to by place names, as with Francisco Goméz de Sandoval y Rojas, Duke of Lerma, thereafter known as ‘Lerma’. There are seven Fredericks, two Francis IIs, a freightload of Friedrichs, four Phillips, and a phalanx of Pfalz-Neuburgs, Pfalz-Birkenfelds, and Pfalz-Zweibrückens. In those days, it seems, if your name didn't start with an ‘F’, you were nobody.

The war was complex politically as well as militarily. Wilson portrays Ferdinand, the Catholic emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (one of eight Ferdinands in the book), as a leader who unintentionally radicalized the Protestants by heavy-handed actions. It might have been called the Twelve Years War if not for the ill-fated invasion of Germany by the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus, another guy with an ‘F’-sound in his name, and thus an important person.

The War ended with the famous Peace of Westphalia, which political scientists praise as creating the modern international order based on nation-states, while many historians give it a ‘meh’: European wars continued before and after, and religious hatred continued for centuries afterward. But, Wilson says, its significance was that it signaled a movement away from religion and toward a secular order. Whether that was really much of an improvement remains to be seen. Like the War itself, the Peace was complicated.

sep 09, 2018; edited sep 10, 2018

book review Score+4

Requiem for Marx
Yuri N. Maltsev
Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1993, 301 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

Karl Marx, the prophet of unbelief, might not be the first person to come to mind when we talk about the history of religion. According to Yuri Maltsev, even in the Soviet Union few actually believed in the official ideology—not, he says, the state managers, not the professors, not even the journalists. “It was not necessary that they did so,” he writes, “for Marxism was a means of political rent seeking and of coercive control, not a body of ideas held to by honest men.”

That being the case, you might not be surprised that none of the scholars in this collection of articles, which includes David Gordon, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Gary North, David Osterfeld, Ralph Raico, and Murray N. Rothbard, have much of anything nice to say about Karl Marx. What these followers of the Austrian school say is, however, true.

What makes this book exceptional is not the Marx-bashing, as interesting as it may be, but the 74-page essay by Murray Rothbard titled “Karl Marx: Communist as Religious Eschatologist.” Murray Rothbard reveals that he is not just your typical dishwater-dull economist, but a first-rate historian. His thesis is that communism is an atheized version of religious eschatology and that its doctrine of alienation is “an atheistic version of religion's metaphysical grievance at the entire created universe.”

To make this case, Rothbard discusses reabsorption theology, which was a splinter doctrine in 13th to 17th century Christianity that believed that the end point of history would be reunion with God.

The shenanigans of these religious fanatics, such as the Calabrian abbot Joachim of Fiore, the Free Spirit cultists, and the Taborites, who eliminated first private property, then eliminated their enemies, and finally worked up to eliminating many of their followers, demonstrate how the impulse to eradicate sin could lead to eradicating the sinner. The 15th century Adamites, who emulated Adam by going around naked, believed, as did the radical Taborites, that it was their sacred mission to exterminate the unbelievers. They all created tiny totalitarian enclaves reminiscent of the Jim Jones movement of the 1970s.

This, of course, brought them into conflict with each other, and the Adamites were annihilated by the Hussites, a Protestant faction led by Jan Hus. These little-known millennialist religious factional disputes were by no means the last, and Marxists praised them all as forerunners and role models of their own secular brand of totalitarianism.

mar 24, 2018

book review Score+2

The Age of Religious Wars, 1559-1715, 2nd ed. (Norton History of Modern Europe Series)
Richard S. Dunn
W. W. Norton, 1979, 322 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

Only 44 pages of this book actually cover a religious war, but it's a doozy: the Thirty Years War (1618–1648), in which mercenary armies and religious conflicts managed to reduce the population in what's now modern Germany by 25%. The rest of the book is either not religious (The War of the Spanish Succession, Glorious Revolution) or not a war (the chapter on the scientific revolution, religious art, and philosophy, and the chapter on the rise of capitalism). It's part of a series of books where European history is taken one century at a time and necessarily covered, due to space restrictions, in a scattershot way, and given a title that sort of describes the general tenor. The Thirty Years War is covered in vastly more detail (albeit with 22.6 times as many pages) in the eponymous book by Peter H. Wilson (Belknap, 2009, 997 pages) (reviewed above), who says it was not primarily a religious war as commonly believed.

aug 26, 2018

book review Score+5

Visions of the end: Apocalyptic traditions in the Middle Ages
Bernard McGinn
Columbia, 1979/1988, 390 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

We usually think of apocalyptic literature as religious interpretations of great calamities, like the Black Death and the loss of the Holy Lands in the Islamic Invasions, or else linked to the calendar, like the chiliastic doctrine of the significance of the year 1000.

Often, however, Bernard McGinn informs us, they were as much political as religious: popes and kings accusing each other of heresy availing themselves of religious ideas like the Antichrist and so forth. The struggle between Gregory VII and Henry IV, for example, in which Christianity's dream of establishing a theocracy died in the Concordat of Worms in 1122, was accompanied by a great flurry of apocalyptic writing, as was the later struggle between Gregory IX and Frederick II. By contrast, hysteria over the year 1000 was scarcely worse than that over Y2K.

The most influential apocalyptic writing, of course, was the Revelation of John, whose symbolic richness and eschatological power inspires controversy even today. The doctrine of Parousia, or the Second Coming, also demanded explanations, since as time went on without the predicted event new explanations were needed for why nobody had shown up yet.

McGinn provides lengthy excerpts from a vast number of apocalyptic writings, dividing them into two historical periods: 400–1200 and 1200–1500 AD. The writings of the earlier periods were largely produced by clergy. They tended toward a more visionary style; some were vaguely reminiscent of the content of a modern-day research grant, albeit without the Alternative Strategies section:

A most mighty lion of heavenly color, spotted with gold, with three heads and fifty feet will roar from the West. He will make an attack on the beast and crush his power. He will devour the tail of the beast, but will not harm his head or feet at all. After this the lion will die and the beast will be strengthened . . . [p. 124, The Erythraen Sibyl, late 12th cent.]

In the latter period, which followed Joachim of Fiore, a Calabrian abbott, the educated laity played an increasing role. The writings of this period, which was marked by the appearance of extreme cults, though apocalyptic, expressed optimism about an ultimate utopian future. The style largely died down after the Reformation, but as McGinn tells us in this fascinating and well written book, apocalypticism—some of it creative and lurid, and some not—was almost exclusively a written phenomenon. It was much more an expression of hope and anxiety about contempor­aneous events than of religious mysticism.

The only problem with this book is that it's too short to cover all the interesting characters and stories. Savonarola, for example, is associated with so-called bonfires of the vanities, not just apocalyptic writings. Entire books can (and have) been written about the Taborites, Revelation, and the others. McGinn clearly believes in the maxim “always leave 'em wanting more.”

apr 01, 2018

book review Score+2

Philosophical religions from Plato to Spinoza: Reason, religion, and autonomy
Carlos Fraenkel
Cambridge, 2012, 328 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

In this one, Spinoza expert Carlos Fraenkel traces the idea of a “philosophical religion,” in which God is identified as Reason, from Plato through Maimonides and finally to Spinoza. Fraenkel says that early philosophers often thought of religion and philosophy in terms of class, with the philosophers having access to truth through their grasp of reason, while the masses needed the truth fed to them through myths, stories, religious rituals, and edicts. Thus religion becomes a pedagogical-political program designed for the limited intellect of the masses. Since these philosophers alone were able to deduce the truth, they alone could design a perfect society; for it to function, they would have to be at the top of it. As Gotthold Ephraim Lessing put it, such a society would evolve to a community of philosophers united in their intellectual love for God, no longer depending on the historical myths and rituals.

Fraenkel says Spinoza rejected this concept, denying that Scripture coincided with reason, and tried to provide a purely philosophical reinterpretation of Christianity. Spinoza was motivated by his need to defend the freedom to philosophize, first by being dogmatic and later, as his thinking matured, by comprehensively attacking the truth of biblical religion. In so doing, Fraenkel says, Spinoza undermined his own concept of Christianity as a philosophical religion, with profound ramifications even today.

The presentation is scholarly but technical. Today many would conclude that philosophers shouldn't be permitted anywhere near the levers of power, but echoes of this belief influence our politics even today.

mar 25, 2018