Thoughts on Reformation Day, 2017

In recent days, I have seen a spate of articles and op-eds addressing the question of the ongoing value of the Protestant Reformation. There’s often a sense that the Reformation was tragic, that it brought about division within Christianity. I’ve seen terms like “heresy” and “schism” bandied about, by Anglicans and Episcopalians as well as by Roman Catholics. At the same time, Lutherans are celebrating. In an age of ecumenism, efforts of churches and denominations to work together, to come to joint agreements, even to merge, seem to be a step toward the realization of Christ’s prayer in the Gospel of John, “that we all may be one.”

I believe in the ideas of cooperation among various Christian, and interfaith bodies but I reject the notion that Christian unity is something for which we should strive, if by unity we mean unified structures. There are deep divisions among us. Some of those divisions are cultural and historical, the result of different histories and experiences. Some of those differences are theological, based in very different understandings of what it means to be Christian. In some respects, the theological divisions are more easily addressed than other differences, like devotional styles, five hundred years of historical development, or understandings of the clergy and laity, gender, sexuality.

The Reformation was probably inevitable. European society was in the midst of rapid change and as powerful and popular the Church and traditional religion were in 1500, that societal change would have required massive change in the church to accommodate a more literate, more engaged, more powerful laity (note how the Medieval Church responded to the crises of the 12th and 13th centuries). But the deep and lasting divisions of the Reformation might have been avoided if human beings had responded differently to the crises they faced.

The various ways that the Protestant Reformation has played itself out—the different cultural and religious legacies that have come about, are also evidence of the unbounding creativity of the human spirit. Would there have been a Johann Sebastian Bach if there hadn’t been a Luther? Would there have been a Rembrandt without the religious conflicts in the Netherlands, a Rubens without the same, or without the Council of Trent, or that great flowering of baroque art and architecture? Would there even have been the philosophical and political developments that led to the Declaration of Independence and the United States of America?

We may no longer condemn those who belong to religious traditions not our own, but it may be that they still have something to offer us, things from which we can learn, but learn best when it is experienced from the integrity of that tradition, and not by appropriating or adapting it for our own uses. One of my professors used to speak about the “charisms” of particular denominations or faith traditions, gifts that they brought to the larger Christian tradition. I find that a very useful way to think about those traditions, and about the Protestant Reformation itself. Even as we lament its abuses and see it as a failure of a larger goal of unity, it might be that it has offered gifts to Christianity that we might not otherwise have experienced or known. Certainly, Anglicanism is inconceivable without its history in the English Reformation.

As with so many other historical events and movements, there are things in the Protestant Reformation to celebrate and to lament. Perhaps the most important thing to take away from this anniversary celebration is a new appreciation for the complexity of the historical moment we are remembering and an appreciation for the diversity to which it gave rise.

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