Protestant Minimalism

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The Protestant understanding of the nature of religion continues to exercise an overwhelming influence on how our culture generally understands religion. This is becoming increasingly apparent as this site develops. On this page, we examine this Protestant understanding.

Protestant Minimalism

Protestantism is based on a minimalist approach to religion: it wants as little of it as possible. In fact the very word religion may be used pejoratively by Protestant thinkers.

For what Protestantism rejected in Catholicism was precisely its religion, the ideological and institutional barriers it seemed to have erected between the individual believer and God: what this site refers to as mediation.

Thus, you might say that in core Protestantism true religion is personal religion, which is minimal religion. All the rest, organised religion and its theoretical underpinnings are at best secondary.

This has certainly been the general attitude of some significant Protestant thinkers in the c20th, starting with the two featured on this site, William James and Rudolf Otto. It is easy to see these two as direct descendants of the original Protestants from 400 years earlier.

The Problem with Personal Religion

A problem with this emphasis on personal religion turned out to be that, in practice, most people were incapable of it. This is something that James acknowledged at the start of The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), with his dismissive reference to the second-hand religious life [p 6] of most people, though some more recent notable Protestant intellectuals seemed to overlook the whole matter.

In a sense, the problem had already been recognised in England in the c19th. The Anglo-Catholics had introduced Catholic style religious theatre into the Anglican Church, aiming to provide a path to God that people outside the spiritual elite could relate to.

In fact, the pattern of Protestant religious history generally may be understood in terms of minimalism and its weakness. For the emphasis on unmediated contact between the individual believer and God on the one hand and the inability of the vast majority of people to achieve that kind of religious experience on the other hand has led to a distinctive type of religious history: one in which personalities dominated rather than ideas and institutions.

Personal Mediation

In Protestantism, most people needed still needed some sort of mediation to replace that which Catholicism had given their forebears, something to substitute for their inability to encounter God directly. To the extent that ecclesiastical mediation was denied them through the minimalisation of religion, they could find mediation only through personal mediation, through the testimony and leadership of members of the spiritual elite, the few who claimed to experience the divine face to face. [1]

It is this that explains the proliferation of sects within Protestantism. In so far as Protestantism has rejected religion, it has been a religion driven by spiritual leaders, by prophets rather than by priests, by religious entrepreneurs rather than by organisation men.

Protestant Religious History

Given this history of Protestantism, along with the minimalist understanding of religion that gave rise to it, we should not be surprised if Protestants interpret religious history generally in terms of prophet figures, minimising the importance of other considerations.

This was certainly the case with Otto, whose evolutionism had overall religious history progressing step by step towards a culmination in his own Lutheranism, each advance attributable to a prophet of some kind, anonymous or known.

Religious experiences, religious life

Just as Otto understood religion diachronically in terms of prophets, James understood it synchronically that way. Thus, we find him not only dismissing out of hand those whose religion is second hand but also judging by their fruits those who claim personal experience of God. He condemns St Teresa of Avila because her mystical union with God generated no practical results, i.e. she did not become a religious leader.

But more importantly in James, there is the distinction between prophetic type experience, the exceptional religious experiences of the kind of people he calls religious geniuses, and the everyday religious life of ordinary believers. Religious experiences are contrasted with religious life: the former are made central to religion, the latter is made peripheral.

So the understanding of religion to be derived from James is this. Religion is essentially about what we might today call extreme religious highs - and not about living a life in the presence of the supernatural, a life in accord with a particular set of religious beliefs and practices.

Extreme religious experience, a common factor

Let's note next that understanding religion as personal religion, as extreme religious experience, reveals what different religions of the supernatural have in common with each other and ignores their differences, which are a matter rather of religious life. Indeed, one of James's findings in The Varieties of Religious Experience is that, whatever the religion, extreme religious experience turns out to be very much the same.

In fact, it seems easy to see in particular why James's book is still studied so widely today, a century after its publication. It concentrates on a common factor, an aspect of religion that students from different religious backgrounds can examine together without controversy.

More generally, we can appreciate that understanding religion as primarily a question of extreme personal experience of the supernatural by gifted souls enables it to be argued that the different faiths or traditions are merely different ways in which a single supernatural is approached by the ordinary believers.

Anglicans and Catholics

Clearly, any particular religion that does not understand religion that way, but rather assigns a vital role to the religious life of the ordinary believer, emphasising the importance of specific beliefs and practices, is going to be more aware of the differences between faiths than their similarities.

Thus, looking at Britain today, we may speculate that the Anglican Church is able to embrace a certain religious diversity because its members, as Protestants, do not attach ultimate importance to beliefs and practices. The Catholic Church, by contrast, does not support such religious diversity: because its members certainly do see specific beliefs and practices as central to religion.

Protestant thinking generally

Finally with regard to Protestant minimalism, we may note that seeking to understand things in personal terms is characteristic of Protestant thinking not just about religion but about the world generally. For example, creationism represents an insistence on seeing the creation of our world in personal terms, as the hands on work of a very personal God, rather than as an impersonal process driven by the hidden forces of evolution. The creationist understanding clearly rejects the alternative Christian idea of God setting evolution in motion eons ago and then stepping back to let things take their course: such a God must surely seem unacceptably remote and depersonalised.

Or consider in British politics the dictum of Margaret Thatcher:

There is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families.

And again from her:

The economic success of the Western world is a product of its moral philosophy ... [which is] superior because it starts with the individual.


1 Celebrity mediation

Most people's need for mediation, for leaders of some kind to preprocess experience for them, is a fact of human psychology that our culture refuses to acknowledge but which is observable all around us. Most obviously, it is seen in today's cult of the celebrity.

For example, a regular feature of factual TV shows that offer viewers experiences of one kind or another is show biz presenters to mediate what is going on. Thus all travel shows are a matter of minor celebrities visiting places, talking to people and saying how it feels. That way, the viewer doesn't get shown the Alhambra as such, but some celebrity visiting the Alhambra.

It is to be supposed that if average tourists to Spain actually get to visit the Alhambra or wherever for themselves, they do not know what to make of it, not having a celebrity to predigest the experience for them. In fact, most British visitors to Spain minimise raw, unmediated experience by staying at the seaside, lounging in the sun or consuming alcohol.

Significantly, when non-celebrities are featured on TV shows, as in fly on the wall TV, they actually become celebrities. This is because viewers come to understand them as mediators, preprocessing experience on their behalf.

The phenomenon of ordinary people becoming celebrities through reality TV is only a version of the process by which TV and film actors become celebrities. The function of drama, as in the TV soaps, is to present raw human experience in a digestible way for the general public. Actors come to be identified instinctively by the public as the mediators of the preprocessed experience it needs.

What is more, with the identification happening at a subconscious level, we should not be surprised that it spills over into the real lives of actors, with the public looking to soak up their every move at second hand, as passed on by the media.

Overall, we need to see celebrity and the personal mediation of experience for the public as two sides of the same coin. Celebrity is about experiencing things in public on behalf of the public.

Bible mediation

Clearly, an extremely important aspect of Protestantism has been to regard the reading of the Bible as a sort of face to face encounter with God that is available to every believer, not just to a spiritual elite. However, for most believers the Bible needs interpretation, as in preaching, so here also personal mediation is needed on behalf of the ordinary believer. [Back to Article]


(c) John C Durham, 2004