Saturday, 26 April 2014

Nordrhein-Westfalen - Learning about Protestantism

Having been brought up in the Catholic faith in Donegal, in the north of Ireland, Protestantism and Protestant culture is a topic that was totally verboten to me as a child and teenager.  Protestants were 'other', not part of our community and, as a result, I grew up knowing very little about the Protestant faith(s) or, indeed, Protestant people.  Although I have some Protestant ancestry, through a great-grandmother, it's not something that was widely acknowledged in my family, or celebrated as part of our identity.

Naturally, I'm really curious to learn more about Protestantism and I've used this period of blogging about Nordrhein-Westfalen as an excuse to find out more about the origins of the various Protestant faiths.  It's fair to say that Protestantism originated in Germany with the Reformation and Martin Luther, so I thought that Germany would be a good place to set off on my learning journey on Protestantism and those 'others' I know so little about.

I started by reading Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction by Mark A. Noll, published by Oxford University Press.  I love this series of books and can't recommend them highly enough - I've use the OUP Very Short Introduction series before, for example, when I was blogging about dinosaurs back in June 2012.  Protestantism is a fascinating subject area and I could write many blog posts on the theme, but I'll try to pick out a few key points that I learned as a result of reading this little book.

Diversity of belief

Whilst I was brought up believing that Catholicism was the one and only true faith, as an adult, it looks rather monolithic and monotonous, with not a lot of room for different opinions or perspectives - Catholicism is a faith to be followed, rather than one where the average person can lead.
Figures at Cologne cathedral by me

Compared to other major world faiths, such as Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism, Catholicism is rather unusual, in that there is only one main faith and one leader of the church, currently Pope Francis.

In that sense, Protestantism is much more like the other major world faiths, in that there are many different variations on religious truth.  There are different 'schools of thought', like the madhab of Islam and a much greater diversity in terms of belief than I have experienced, coming from a Catholic background.  I'm not particularly religious, but diversity appeals to me and I sense the more democratic nature of Protestantism, where ordinary believers can have a greater role in the church and a more direct relationship with God.

The origins of Protestant schools of thought

The vast number of Protestant churches that are in existence means that any categorisation of Protestant belief can only ever be simplistic, however, Noll puts forward the following origins of Protestantism that I found very useful:

1. Martin Luther.  The 'protest' that Luther made, which kicked off the Reformation, was basically a protest against the sale of 'indulgences' and general corruption in the Catholic church.  The popes in Rome were so out-of-touch with ordinary people that they had no idea how to set an example and lead a faith that would still be relevant in the changing world of 16th century Europe.  Lutheranism is still the pre-dominant form of Protestantism in Germany and other northern European countries like Denmark, Norway and Sweden.

2. Ulrich Zwingli. Zwingli was an important contemporary of Martin Luther and had a lot of influence on the origins of the Protestant faith, in terms of interpreting religious practice and electrifying 16th-century Zurich with his radical preaching.  He disagreed with Luther over the issue of transubstantiation, i.e. whether or not the consumption of the body and blood of Christ during the Christian mass was real or symbolic.  Zwingli argued that it was merely symbolic, which seems like a no-brainer in the 21st century, but was a very contentious issue back then.  Zwinglism didn't really spread beyond the borders of Switzerland and mostly exists in the 21st century in the form of the Swiss Reformed Church.

Votive candles at Cologne cathedral by me
3. The Anabaptists.  Perhaps my favourite branch of early Protestantism, the Anabaptists were radical Protestants who believed in complete freedom of speech and were fervently anti-war.  They were called Anabaptists because they believed that people should only be baptised as adults, when you can make a conscious choice about faith, rather than being baptised as a baby.  I guess in 21st century terms, they were quite 'left-wing', although that concept didn't exist in the 16th century.

Many Anabaptists ended up moving to newly-colonised places like the Volga region of Russia or, much later, newly-independent countries like Mexico and Paraguay, where they could live in peace and practice their own version of Protestantism. Nowadays we mostly hear about the Mennonites, or related churches, such as the Amish of Pennsylvania, who supposedly reject all modern technology in favour of a more traditional way of life.

Cologne cathedral interior by me
4. John Calvin.  Whilst Zurich had Zwingli, 16th-century Geneva got caught up in the Calvinist revolution. In modern terms, it was a very right-wing approach to Protestantism that emphasised predestination (i.e. the chosen ones being marked out for salvation at the end of the world).  Calvinism went even further than the ideas of the original Reformation and didn't just aim to free Protestants from the tyranny of the Catholic church, but aimed to build the first-ever society founded on Protestant principles.

Calvinist ideas really caught on in the new colonies of North America and Calvinist doctrine lives on in the 21st century through subsequent movements such as Presbyterianism.  Ironically, Geneva - the 'Protestant Rome' - is now a mainly Catholic city.

5. Anglicanism.  The 16th and 17th centuries were incredibly tumultuous times for England and Protestantism here was initially much more 'top-down' in the form of Henry VIII's Church of England (a.k.a. the Anglican church).  Grassroots Protestantism also flourished in England and took on many shapes and forms over the coming centuries that led to new churches being formed by well-known groups such as the Puritans, Quakers, Methodists and Baptists, as well as lesser known groups such as the Ranters, Diggers, Behmenists and Muggletonians! Protestant movements originating in England spread throughout the world with the establishment of the British Empire and this gives 21st century Protestantism a distinctly 'global' identity.

Protestantism in Nordrhein-Westfalen

Nordrhein-Westfalen is predominantly Catholic.  Whilst, I knew that Bavaria and southern Germany were mostly Catholic, I thought the Rhineland was most definitely Protestant, so this came as a bit of a surprise to me.  As you can see on the map, the southern and western parts of Germany are mostly Catholic, whereas the northern and eastern parts are generally Protestant or (after many years of communism) non-religious.  In fact, both Germany and the Netherlands - countries I've always thought of as Protestant - have more people professing the Catholic faith than Protestant ones!

Of course, one of the reasons for this is because Germany and the Netherlands, like many other European countries have become increasingly secularised and many people no longer profess any faith.  Perhaps, the true outcome of the Reformation was to move in the direction of secularisation and I can't help thinking that the Anabaptists' radical 16th-century ideas on freedom of speech and heresy were not only important steps in the direction of greater religious freedom, but the first steps towards freedom from religion itself?

Image credits:

All photos were taken by me at Cologne cathedral which, despite the topic of this blog post, is a Roman Catholic church.  Feel free to reuse these images with attribution to this blog post.

The map of religious belief in Germany was taken from Wikipedia and you can see more information about this image on its information page there.
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