These days — in an increasingly secular world where the church has less and less influence (as fewer people and a smaller percentage of the population are involved in congregational life) — it’s easy to wonder if faith makes a difference. A good part of my ministry is encouraging people to come up with their own answers to that question. Ok, I confess: I try to get them to answer in the positive!
How much easier is it then to wonder in such a time as ours if the Reformation matters any more? It’s been 495 years, and ours is such a different world… wherein the church seems to matter less.
Last month, for his Adult Forum session on the occasion of the church’s 285th anniversary, Bob Schneider cited Henry Ford: “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.”
Bob went on to clarify: most around Old First wouldn’t be comfortable being so vehemently ahistorical. And, for the church’s anniversary, Bob challenged us: (Shouldn’t we) “see if there are at least some parts of our past that aren’t just bunk –- things we can’t escape from that would be wise to try to understand rather than ignore?”
It’s curious to think about who lived where we are now, and how their lives were different. And it’s efficient not to inadvertently relive past mistakes. But, I believe, history matters more than that.
For me one’s personal history is one of the most powerful examples of why and how the past is important. It helps us know not only know where we’ve come from. But it’s needed in order to see how we’ve changed… hopefully, developed or evolved! It also enables us to see where we still need some work. History helps us recognize where we are, on the way to where we’re headed…
Wednesday was Halloween, but also the Anniversary of the start of the Reformation, October 31, 1517, when an unknown priest, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg. Luther considered his theses an academic disputation. They turned out to plant the seed of a cultural revolution. His unwitting social manifesto unleashed the Protestant Reformation that was to play such a major role in shaping our modern world.
As another way of asking you to consider how faith makes a difference in your life — albeit often indirectly or even unrecognized — I want to suggest ways the Reformation has made a difference in our world.
The Renaissance looked back to the ancient world to find a humanism to bridge the middle ages to the modern world. Likewise, the Reformation also turned back a page in order to create a new road ahead. The Reformers sought a spiritual purity in the early church they hoped to recover, a state of innocence before ‘the fall,’ what they felt was lost in the rise of a powerful clergy and dogmatic theology. Our culture today still bears a similar “faith in beginnings:” original intent and primary sources are often believed to have a redemptive power or credentialing status of their own.
The Reformation began a complicated movement toward sharing and democratization of power in the West. First, it divided European Christendom into Catholic and Protestant, and down the line, into all the variety of Protestant communions. Destroying the religious hegemony and ecclesiastical domination of Europe, the Reformation unwittingly contributed to the rise of secular governing powers and eventually the development of modern, secular and centralized nation states.
Absolute monarchies were the immediate, political beneficiaries of the Reformation’s unseating of ecclesial power. But the Reformers began down the road towards the multiplications and acceptance of the realities of diversity.
And once absolute institutional power could be questioned, there was greater respect and appreciation of the individual. Think “the ministry of all believers” instead of the unified and centralized authority of the Catholic church. Likewise, the reform movement began to recognize and cite the sacred in the world beyond the church’s walls, where people lived the rest of their lives. Inadvertently, that commitment may well have been a precursor of western secularism.
Reform thinking developed into a much more individualistic ethic and anthropology. Protestantism tends to recognize individuals as sacred in their own right, rather than through membership in the community of faith. Protestant piety, therefore, leans toward personal professions of faith and personal relationships with Christ. The church no longer plays a necessary mediating role. Here again, one could argue that this tack was also a step towards secular modernity in which many people see no need for the church.
The outcome of the reformers’ more individualistic emphasis or outlook was, eventually, that Protestants insisted on the individual’s right and responsibility to interpret Scripture according to the dictates of his or her conscience. It was not long before “autonomous individuals” became the basic unit in secular political theory as well. Likewise, the Reformation’s stress on the individual, over the community, became an important cultural precondition for the rise of democracy and capitalism too.
Reformation ideas of equality — for instance, Luther discounted the ontological and spiritual difference between clergy and laity — translated over time into “inalienable rights” and civil liberties.
Consider how your views of the world and commitments trace back to your faith. I’m no historian, but there’s an important case for the role the Reformation played in shaping the modern world. And how it continues to inform our culture and people in it today. Yes, people of all faiths can give thanks for what our religious tradition has added to the world. Just as we also are left to struggle with some of the challenges our tradition places before us.
How is your worldview reformed?
How does your faith rely on this tradition?
How does that faith contribute to who you are today?
Come to church this Sunday at Old First REFORMED United Church of Christ for some help with questions like these…
See you there (where we are sure to be joined by that “cloud of witnesses,” because it’s All Saints Sunday),