Reformation Yesterday and Today
(Giving context to Matthew Fox’s protest at Wittenberg)
(excerpted from Chapter 1 of A New Reformation: Creation Spirituality and the Transformation of Christianity, which was written and distributed at the time of the protest. For a deeper examination of Vatican corruption, and a vision for renewal and rebirth, see Matthew Fox’s meticulously documented expose,The Pope’s War, released in paperback on 10/2/12.)
Approximately five hundred years ago, a religious renewal was launched on German soil in the town of Wittenberg by an Augustinian monk and theologian named Martin Luther. This Reformation, as it came to be called, was a revolution heard around the European world. Its result was a split between the Roman Catholic version of Christianity and what we have come to know as Protestant Christianity. Like any great historical event, the Reformation was the product of many combined forces. Among the most significant were the following:
- The invention of the printing press. This technological achievement effectively democratized knowledge and the power that results from knowledge and information. The Reformation was the religious response to the invention of the printing press – after all, the first book printed was the Bible, which was disseminated in the vernacular and became available to national groups and individuals as never before….
- The rise of the nation-state. European nation-states eagerly accepted Martin Luther’s break with the Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Church, which had legitimized that empire and held it together….
- The corruption of the Roman Catholic Church in the highest places. Leading up to the time of the Reformation, defective theology, the selling of indulgences, simony, nepotism, and greed ruled the popes and their fiefdoms…It was difficult to see any resemblance between a corrupt papacy and Jesus the founder of Christianity…
- The rise of an educated elite. Martin Luther owed much to the humanist scholarship of his day and was among those who could read and translate Biblical languages. In fact, he translated the entire Bible into German. This made for an intellectual empowerment that could not be satisfied by mere repetition of dogmatic shibboleths that doctrinaire churchmen repeated ad nauseam.
Today, in 2005, we find ourselves in a situation analogous to that esxperienced by Luther in his time, but with added dimensions of seriousness. Human beings, along with thousands of other species on the planet, face a peril of potential extinction that has not been witnessed on the earth in 65 million years. Ironically, human knowledge and technology are the most significant causes of this potential extinction. Isn’t this another sign that religion is not accomplishing its task, that religion is powerful in the wrong ways and powerless to effect change in the right ways?
Among today’s forces that parallel those at the time of the Reformation are:
- The electronic revolution that began in the 1960s. Analogous to the wave of information that spread after the launch of the printing press, this revolution launched what we now call the postmodern era in which the computer chip, Internet, e-mail, portable phones, and instant global communications have profound political and religious implications.
- The waning of nation-states and the rise of multi-national, global corporations. Such “multinationals” are the sole rival of the United Nations, which they effectively skewer, ignore and malign….Globalization is introducing new forces and relationships among nations and economies. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet empire left only one empire standing – the United States, whose growth in power exacerbates worldwide the hatred and resentment directed toward it, as expressed by, for example, the events on 9/11.
The sharp contrast between rich nations (having one third of the world’s population) and poor nations (having two thirds of the world’s population) also characterizes the state of affairs today. Studies show that we would need four planets to sustain human life if everyone practiced the lifestyles of North Americans and Europeans. Clearly the American and European lifestyles are not sustainable as they are.
- The corruption and ineffectiveness of Western religion.…One aspect of the corruption of religion in the West is the political involvement of rabid fundamentalists and the role of those evangelical leaders who preach a contemporary apocalypse….In America, these people are determined to obscure the long-held law of separation of church and state, and politicians willing to sell their souls to get elected are busy obliging.
Meanwhile…Roman Catholicism has hit a new low in its spotty history one matched only by the corrupt papacies of the Borgias in Martin Luther’s time. [To list a few of the scandals in which the Church hierarchy has been embroiled:]
- Coddling of pedophile clergy
- Expelling prophetic priests and theologians who led liberation movements of the poor and the oppressed
- Shutting down theological inquiry and institutions of learning
- Canonizing a man who praised Hitler – namely Father Josemaria Escriva, the fascist priest and founder of Opus Dei
- An awakened scholarship. Just as five hundred years ago new scholarship was unleashed to buttress a deeper understanding of scripture and early Church history, so today significant scholarship – including archeological findings, the rediscovery of ancient texts, progress in the two-hundred-year-old quest for the “historical Jesus,” and the development of women’s theology and history – has gifted us with new and substantive information about the words, the people, and the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and individuals in the early Christian community…
Likewise contributing to an awakened intellectual life are the discoveries about the history, size, and unfolding of our universe; the consequent birthing of a new creation story, with all the wonder it arouses; the insights and methodologies derived from the psychological and sociological sciences; the rise of mystical science; the discovery of chaos theory; and so much more.
What is the good news in all this? It is that we can start anew, that a New Reformation for a new millennium is upon us. The current papacy can run the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica, but we can let go of religion and begin to get serious about spiritual practice. Protestantism can shed its apathy and ask not “What did Luther or Calvin say five hundred years ago?” but rather “What would Luther and Calvin say and do in today’s global ecological and ecclesial crisis?” We can draw on, rather than neglect, the riches of the Roman Church’s mystics and prophets of past and present and work on interfaith activism and spiritual practice with those of other faith traditions.
It is time to get on with many tasks that await us today. At stake is the sustainability of our species and the planet as we know it. Issues such as resisting the spread of empire, advocacy of the use of condoms in a time of AIDS, birth control advocacy in a time of population explosion, equitable distribution of the world’s goods, the use of clean and renewable energy, the importance of community life, the elimination of poverty, the creation of good work, the defense of minorities including gays and lesbians – all these call to us. Deep ecumenism and interfaith movements allow Christians and others to renew their spiritual roots. But the primary obstacle to reaching an interfaith identity, as the Dalai Lama has observed, is “a bad relationship with one’s own faith tradition.” Those espousing the theology of the Punitive Father who seeks obedience at all costs harbor a bad relationship with their own faith tradition. They know Original Sin but not Original Blessing. They cannot participate in the interfaith movement. And very often, as in the case of Pope Benedict XVI, who has criticized Buddhism, Hinduism, Protestantism, Native traditions, and goddess religions, they do not want to participate. Yet the Divine Wisdom and Original Blessing tradition has always been about an interfaith perspective.
What, then, is the good news in all this? That we can start anew. That a New Reformation for a New Millennium is upon us.