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Reformation 500 Syllabus

Deluge. That’s the only word I can think of to describe the recent outpouring of articles, essays, videos, events, and books on the Reformation. The floodgates (yes, now I’m just trying to keep the theme going) opened in 2016, with everyone gesturing toward the upcoming quincentennial. Americans seemed especially impressed, perhaps because our own history doesn’t reach into quince territory. The current swelled throughout the year, and by the time October came around, a tidal wive of commentary smashed into the mostly unaware public. Now I’m here as the (aspiring) professional to help you sort flotsam from jetsam. The following is a round-up of the more interesting and intelligent commentary, with some annotation on my part. Then I close with a few personal reflections.

Joan Acocella combines wit and gravity in her The New Yorker piece, How Martin Luther Changed the World. It’s easy to overlook just how multifaceted a thinker and influencer Luther was, so Acocella’s reminder is welcome.

The team of historians at the Patheos channel The Anxious Bench has put out a lot of good articles over the last month or so. The one I want to highlight is by Philip Jenkins on the Reformation’s connection to the scientific revolution narrowly and modernity generally. This is actually something of an anti-essay. Jenkins displays his breadth of learning to explore everything about the Reformation era other than the theological views of Protestants that might account for modernity.

On the opposite end of things comes an essay by Samuel Loncar, editor of the Marginalia Review of Books. His assertion that the Reformation was a metaphysical revolution makes the case the Luther himself was an epochal figure, a rare kind of person who irreversibly alters the course of history and stamps something of himself on it. Luther “textualized” the world, leading to both modern mass literacy and higher criticism. His theology of the cross also subverted the entire metaphysical tradition up to that point. Loncar’s claims are bold and worthy of serious discussion.

Atlantic writer Emma Green puts the Reformation in the context of contemporary ecumenism. Despite her solid reporting, I’m not a fan of this piece. I think the Reformation gets lost in the report on the contemporary situation. In other words, it doesn’t do very much to answer it’s leading question: Why Can’t Christians Get Along, 500 Years After the Reformation? Yet perhaps that is its hidden virtue. It raises the question whether the dividing lines that emerged in the post-Reformation era are still the most important fault lines. They very well may not be. Thomas Reese, in the RNS opinion column, advances the bold opinion that Luther “could be comfortable in the Catholic Church of today.”

Lastly, I’ll offer a few comments of my own. My preliminary observation is that the primary way authors try to generate interest in the Reformation is to persuade people that they stand in a genealogical relationship to it. This is a broad trend in writing and publishing; go count how many titles in your local Barnes & Noble contain some variation of the phrase “Origin of the Modern World.” This is a pretty easy task to pull off in history, because the present necessarily stands in some sort of relationship to the past. Ultimately, though, I think this trend is less a sober historical conclusion than a concession to the narcissism of the reading public. Authors and publishers are convinced, probably rightly so, that people won’t read a piece of history unless they think that it is in some very direct way their history. History in this form is really just an indirect form of psychology or self-help; people read just to understand themselves better.

I do believe that history is an inquiry into the human condition; thus, understanding it does help us understand ourselves. But it is crucial to remember that the human condition is so very open-ended; history, like anthropology, helps us understand humanity primarily by teaching us about people different from us. A responsible historical look at the Reformation, if written by and for Westerners in a culturally Christian environment, must explain both how we continually stand in a debt to it and why much of it seems so unfamiliar to us.

My short take on this is that the Reformation established many of the institutions and practices that we recognize as modern. But these very institutions and practices led us, or some of us, away from the ability to empathize easily with the Reformers’ values and objectives. Samuel Loncar’s essay mentioned mass literacy, and to that I would add the reform of higher education to concentrate more heavily on the humanities (literature, history). A twenty-first century student who receives a Bachelor of Arts in English or History or Liberal Studies or even Classics will follow a program not terribly dissimilar from that at a post-Reformation Lutheran university, but far different from what was available in the Middle Ages. However, it was these very disciplines, rather than the natural sciences or philosophy proper, that birthed the deepest challenges to Protestant orthodoxy. A combination of historical and literary investigation led to the discovery of irreconcilable differences between sacred and profane history and geography. Later, the internal harmony of the Bible itself came under question. With the rise of historicism in the nineteenth century, it became plausible, even compelling, to view the doctrine of the Apostles as simply another stage in the development of culture rather than the cornerstone of an unchanging faith.

Another example is church and state relations, particularly in regards to religious toleration. A constant theme among the early reformers is that the institutional church had too much control over politics. Many princes and town councils were wooed toward the Reformation by the argument that they had the authority and the responsibility to supervise religious observance in their own lands. Most of the earliest reformers did not think about toleration in the sense of pluralism, intentionally permitting (much less valuing!) multiple religious confessions within the same geo-political unit. They made a theoretical and functional separation between church and state, but the idea was that both would operate based on the same religious understanding and cooperate to further the same ends.

Circumstances dictated otherwise. First in the cosmopolitan ports of the Netherlands and then in many other locales, it became impossible to convince everyone to follow the same religion. Before the Reformation, there was no question of choice in religion. After the Reformation, in many places, there was no removing choice, only containing it as much as possible. This situation is called an “establishment” church; several religions might be permitted, but one is clearly favored by the government. Thus, the Reformation has been credited with creating the conditions necessary for religious tolerance.

Later generations of reformers did in fact come to see toleration as preferable to incessant warfare or brutal repression. But over a period of centuries, grudging establishment toleration turned into confident pluralism, the conviction that since every religion can produce good citizens, the State has no business favoring one or the other. In much of the West, however, pluralism has given way to religious eclecticism or even secularism. How can religion be that important if everyone is simply allowed to choose their own path? In fact, bold proselytization and declarations of religious superiority might seem to be the greater threat to society than a theoretically laissez-faire approach.

These two examples, the intentional creation of a humanities curriculum in higher education and the quasi-intentional establishment of religious toleration, lead me toward a conclusion about the Reformation and the present historical moment. The reformers claimed that since the institutional church had failed to guide people properly toward God, it was necessary to mobilize secular fields of society to correct the situation. They successfully retooled education and government, among other areas, to realize their aims. “We,” whoever we contemporary Westerners are, thanked them for their gifts and told them we’d figure out our own purposes for them. So far, we’ve come up with, “not leading people toward God.” We are shaped not only by our embrace of Reformation, but by our rejection of it.

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