The 500th anniversary of the commencement of the Reformation (31 October) has come and gone without much of a ripple. The latest tweet from POTUS commands far more attention. Does that matter?
Well yes it does, let me say why.
Martin Luther and the Reformation bridge two enormously influential periods of history, benefiting from one (the Renaissance) and contributing to the emergence of the other (the Enlightenment). Both periods have influenced and will continue to influence succeeding generations.
The Renaissance (14th-16th centuries). The Renaissance was a time for the re-flowering of the classics – art, literature and thought. The Latin phrase Ad Fontes (back to the sources), describes the underlying energy and motivation of the Renaissance – a greater understanding and appreciation of origins. Luther leaned heavily on this motivation and drew attention to it in the first of his five solas, sola scriptura – scripture alone, scripture being the ‘canon’ or authority of Christianity. He had many beefs with the institutional Church, but his primary concern was that the Church manipulated and abused people with ideas and practices that had no justification in the source – scripture. To hold and extort its wealth and power, the Church traded on the notion that people needed it and its sacramental practice to get to heaven. Luther asserted the scriptural verity that grace is not channelled through an institutional pipeline, but is a free gift that all can access.
Lubricated by the printing press, this was an explosive truth, that neutralised institutional power. The source, the bible, was made easily available – and in the vernacular.
Accessing sources is always important if people are to be able to live free and informed lives. Abusive situations are possible when people are kept in the dark. Power is maintained by keeping people in the dark. A feature of the digital age should be more light and less obfuscation. That this is manifestly not the case may in part be paradoxically attributable to the second great period – the Enlightenment. Let me come to that in a moment.
Luther’s influence spread well beyond theological halls and into the corridors of civil administration. If Luther was only about indulgences, or whether he or Zwingli were more or less right about divine presence in the Eucharist, then the Reformation’s impact would be of only passing interest to those involved with the Protestant/Roman Catholic divide. But it was much more than this. Luther taught that institutions, be they headed by the Pope or the Holy Roman Emperor, do not have the right to control the consciences and destinies of individuals. While people have responsibilities to one another and to civil authorities, they are answerable solely to God.
Following Luther, the overreaching power and influence of Pope and Emperor declined. While he cannot be directly blamed or praised for the rise of Europe’s nation states, there is no doubt his influence contributed to an environment in which a desire for nationhood as an empowerment of regional or local identity became an unstoppable phenomenon: one that Europe through its later colonialism inflicted (European national identity not indigenous local identity that is) upon peoples in Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
The Enlightenment (1685 -1815). The Enlightenment is strewn with many instantly recognisable names – Newton, Locke, Voltaire, Kant, Smith.... How is the age to be understood: the ‘age of reason’, or perhaps the ‘age of the individual’? In 2017 is the age’s legacy bane or blessing?
There can be no doubt that the Reformation hastened the age of the individual, an age formalised and entrenched by the Enlightenment. Luther emphasised the capacity of the individual to access the grace of God in Christ. ‘Personal salvation’ and its premier position in Protestant thought can hardly be doubted as any in my age profile can testify through memories of Billy Graham crusades, or a younger generation familiar with the prosperity gospel served up in many or most mega churches today can also testify.
The great names of the Enlightenment have bequeathed an enormous legacy to humankind. But an unintended downside now needs correction. Bane and blessing almost always travel together. I contend the Enlightenment and the Reformation have bequeathed a priority to individualism that is now in desperate need of correction. Luther and many of Enlightenment thinkers would be aghast at the manner in which ‘individualism’ holds the world captive, stymieing desperately needed climate action, preventing legislation which would curb tax evasion, and negating policy which might reduce the escalating gap between rich and poor. An exaggerated individualism destroys the notion of common good.
The Enlightenment enabled the categorising and classification of knowledge. Disciplines developed that could be understood independently of one another. Little place was left for mystery or indeed for meta narrative. One individual’s account of fact or truth was to become of equal value to that of another. Fairness in the media now assumes that space afforded one view should be provided in equal measure to a counter view, even when there is no legitimate counter view. The illegitimate is therefore legitimised. As mentioned earlier despite the availability of information 24/7 obfuscation rather than enlightenment predominates. Links between smoking and mortality are still open to question, universal vaccinations can be argued as an infringement of individual freedoms and climate change presented as a hoax or conspiracy.
As bizarre as these realities are, they have their origins in the negative side of the Enlightenment. But yet there is more! Social responsibility seeps out of every page of scripture. Yet amongst conservative Christians (politically and probably theologically), social action is nothing, personal piety and private morality is everything.
The Anglican tradition, of which I am heir, holds to a number of verities. One of these is the concept of ‘Via Media’. This does not mean some wishy washy middle way as some would interpret, no, it is a much more noble vision. It is a commitment to valuing opposites, understanding that without the correction that an opposite brings a single proposition becomes a distortion.
Luther railed against an institutional monolith that valued individuals only as cogs in its vast self-serving enterprise. However, asserting the rights of individuals as children of God is not to disassociate them from their belonging to each other in the family of God. In Christ the particular and universal are one. The universal can only be properly understood through the particular (individual) and yet the value and identity of the individual is to be found in its relationship with the universal.
If Luther and the Reformation rescued the individual from the voracious appetite of medieval institutional power: today the Church must be in the forefront of rescuing common good from the voracious appetite of individuals and a philosophy of individualism that now dominates both political and religious life.