500 Years of Reformation

It’s been 500 years since Martin Luther inspired the Protestant Reformation by nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg (you can read them online here). The world endured centuries of violence and persecution, but for the past several years it seems as though there have been more calls for unity and reconciliation. (My prediction: both of those are unlikely. Highly unlikely.)

I read about the reformation in grad school, and as someone who was raised in a mixed-religious household I was intensely aware of the ramifications of the theological split. Holidays are REALLY awkward when one parent is Protestant and the other is not (you kids wanna hear about the origins of the Coptic Church, aka the original and best church?). Most of us these days really can’t relate and it all sounds like so much squabbling over details that don’t matter as much as the core gospels. And in an era of Mega-churches and Feel-Good-Nondenominationalism, who even remembers why the churches were arguing anyway? For me, as a kid, it came down to churches that had snacks during the service, and churches that didn’t. As I got older, Luther’s arguments became more important to me on a personal level – why should I only pray to God for wealth? Why should I look for grace in the mundane world? Why should I put my faith in imperfect people who claim that they alone can grant me entrance to heaven?

But does this really mean anything for us now? WaPo has an intriguing article – more of a brief set of interviews, really – on the reformation and what it means for us today. Most of the responses have a similar undercurrent – return to a love of neighbor, to forgiveness, to opening up our hearts rather than closing off. The statement by Cardinal Blase Cupich seemed particularly salient: “Authentic Christianity never closes in on itself. It always leaves its comfort zone to listen to others, especially those shunted to the margins of society.” And yet all we have to do is look at the latest headlines (or Twitter, or the comment section of literally any news article on the internet) to see that people would rather burrow in to their comfort zones in a kind of self-marginalization and closing off from new and different ideas that would pose challenges to ingrained beliefs. People don’t want to be challenged – it’s natural to resist challenges to the status quo and to resist change, because what’s known is comfortable, reassuring, and consistent. But change is inevitable, with or without wholesale reformation.

500 years later, we haven’t come up with any sort of unity, the Catholic Church hasn’t fallen to give way to a glorious age of Protestant theology, the Orthodox Churches still haven’t united with the other Churches, and Christianity as a whole seems even more divided than ever. But we do still feel the very real impact of the Reformation in the form of having access to our own Bibles, taking charge of our own spirituality, and, for better or worse, being able to choose where and how we worship (even if we choose to worship in the same arena that used to host Iron Maiden and basketball games).

Luther’s arguments against the Medieval Catholic Church were probably (definitely) valid – buying your way into Heaven with papal favors defeats the purpose of having God send His Divine Son down from Heaven to act as a final sacrifice for our sins. Certainly murdering heretics wasn’t the ideal response from either camp, but religious sects are still murdering each other, and they will likely continue to do so for as long as religion continues to exist. Likewise, political sects argue about the same kind of trivial details, arguing which details matter more or less and whether one detail is significant or not, and who gets to be in or out of the sect based on their belief pattern. Political thought, then, seems more like religious thought when you look at it. Perhaps we should start demanding more by nailing political theses to the doors of Congress or the State Legislature. Seems like we could use some political reformation these days.

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