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Gibbon on religious symbolism
Sep 12th, 2018 at 5:04pm
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For the most part, Gibbon does not understand religion.  He is a 'civilizationist' if there ever was one.* 

But as they say, even a blind squirrel eventually gets a nut.

One observation Gibbon makes on religion is spot on, and that is the observation that only a small minority of mankind can be content with a purely inward religion (in Gibbon's terms only 'poets and philosophers' can be content with a purely inward spiritual practice).

As for the rest of mankind, they need more or less of an outward structure to support their piety.  There is a great deal of variation in this domain, of course; for instance, in the Christian sphere the Catholic Church provides its adherents with a very densely layered religious superstructure in comparison with the Protestant churches.  It seems the Germanic peoples of Europe can get by with, and prefer, the simplified exoteric supports of Protestantism in comparison with the myriad layers of Catholic exoterism.

But back to Gibbon's statement.  While it is possible to have a more or less 'light' exoteric superstructure for a religion, one cannot expect a religion to flourish among the masses if it is deprived of all superstructure.

Thus we come to the Puritans.  The Puritans essentially tried to create this almost purely inward religion and apply it to society.  The Puritans not only did away with almost all outward religious symbolism, no, they went further.  Puritanism not only told its adherents that their salvation was out of their hands (either you were of the elect or not) it furthermore gave no outward guarantee to its adherents that they could ever know whether or not they were 'of the elect.'  A Puritan might come to the conclusion, through a life-time of self-examination, that grace was at work in himself and that he was saved, but no outside authority could guarantee this belief of the Puritan that he was elected.**

The result of attempts to create a purely inward religion for the masses?  Puritanism in England basically burned itself out in a mere century, and in America it was pretty much burned out by 1800 (though the moralizing nature of Puritanism seems to have been transferred, in New England, from the religious sphere to the promotion of leftist politics).

At any rate, as concerns the Puritans, their failure is obvious, the 'proof is in the pudding' as they say.

Here is a short clip from the movie 'Cromwell.'  I don't know whether they particular event occurred, but it is representative of the extreme spirit of the Puritans.  Here, Cromwell cannot even tolerate the presence of candles on an altar! 

(The acting here is superb.  Who acts like this today?)

*That is, he judges all human activities by how well he perceives them to contribute to the creation and maintenance of a 'polite society' such as existed among the upper classes of the Greco-Roman world during the late Republic and early Empire or among the European upper classes of his own day.
**Modern American evangelicalism is extremely sparse on outward symbols, yet it provides its adherents with the guarantee of "salvation through faith."
« Last Edit: Sep 12th, 2018 at 8:51pm by Frank1 »  

The 17th Century ~ The halfway point between the Middle Ages and Modernity
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