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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A Sermon for Proper 25, Year A, 2017

Our readings from the Hebrew Bible this season after Pentecost have been dominated by a promise. When God called Abram and Sarai to follow him, God promised them that he would give them the land that God would show them, and that God would make of their descendants a mighty nation. As we have read the story this summer and fall, we have seen that the fulfillment of those promises has been deferred. At Abraham’s death, he had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, and the only land he legally owned was the burial plot he had purchased for his wife Sarai.

The promises remained just that, promises, for generations. Jacob and his sons and families ended their lives in Egypt, having fled famine and found refuge in that foreign land. Later, the Israelites fled Egypt, making their way to Sinai, where the received the 10 Commandments. But the hopes of that generation to enter and possess the promised land, the land flowing with milk and honey were also dashed, as they were condemned, because of their unfaithfulness, what the text likes to call their “stiff-necked-ness” to die in the desert.

Now forty years have past and the Israelites are camped on the banks of the Jordan River, all that separates them from receiving the promise God had made them. Of that first generation only Moses, their leader since Egypt, survives. Even the words God uses here remind us of God’s words to Abram in Genesis 12—“Go from your country to the land that I will show you,” God said to Abram. Now, God shows Moses the whole land and tells him that this is the land that had been promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Still, just as the book of Genesis ended with Jacob and his descendants in Egypt, not in the promised land, so Deuteronomy, the Pentateuch, the first five books of Hebrew Scripture, ends with the Israelites still awaiting the fulfillment of the promise.

For us as Americans, this story evokes another prophet, another promise unfulfilled. For it was this story that Martin Luther King Jr referenced in his last speech, given the night before he was assassinated. We will commemorate that speech, we will remember the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination in a little over five months. He may have been to the mountaintop, he may have seen the promised land, but it seems we are no closer to reaching it now than we were fifty years ago, and perhaps further away now than ever from that hope of a nation where racism no longer reigns, where African-Americans can find the same level of success and achievement as whites.

That’s an important, perhaps the most important way this story connects with our lives and world. But it’s not the only one. I would like to draw your attention to another theme in the story and that is the relationship between Moses and God. Here, we are told that God knew Moses face to face. We have seen details of the intimate relationship the two shared. We have seen Moses appeal to God on behalf of the Israelites, we have seen him ask to see God’s glory, and instead to be seen God’s backside from the cleft of a rock, while his face was shielded by God’s hand. We have seen his face transformed by his encounter with God, shining.

Now we see something else, although it is obscured by the translation we use. In the report of Moses’ death, our text reads, “He was buried in a valley in the Land of Moab…” The Hebrew actually reads, “he buried him” that is, God buried him. That tender, intimate act, the image of God taking up a shovel and burying God’s beloved and devoted servant is evidence of the intimacy the two shared. It points to God’s care and concern for God’s people.

It also calls to mind other stories. At the very beginning of the Pentateuch, in Genesis, we are shown God’s tender actions in creating human beings, the man out of the dust of the earth, and the woman from the man’s rib. We also see God’s tenderness, care, and protection of the first humans, when after they sinned, God made clothes for them out of animal skins.

We might be turned off by the intimacy and earthiness of this imagery, of the notion that God might create out of the dust of the earth, that God might take up needle and thread, or that God might bury Moses. Such language might seem overly mythological or anthropomorphic, a far cry from the God of the philosophers or of contemporary theology.

But such language can offer us comfort and strengthen our faith. To imagine a God so intimately involved in the lives of those God loves, a God whose concern and care extends to the clothes on our back or the disposition of our final remains, a God who knows us face to face, can be a source of strength when we struggle or stumble.

And it also, I think, helps us reflect in a new way on the story from the gospel, in which a lawyer asks Jesus to prioritize the commandments. Jesus’ response is hardly revolutionary. His words are quotations from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, straight out of Moses’ law. Moreover a contemporary of his, Rabbi Hillel, is remembered to have said in response to a similar question, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary; go and learn it.”

We have compartmentalized so much of ourselves, so much of our lives. We place our faith in God in one small sphere of our lives, for Sunday mornings, for example, or for those quiet moments of prayer and meditation. We think of love as an emotion, we talk of falling in or out of love, or we say, we love this or that food, or activity. We are commanded, in Deuteronomy, here in Jesus’ words, to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, and mind—we might say “with all of our selves, with our whole being.” I’m not sure I can even fathom what that might look like for me, what that would be like to love God with all of myself. And then, on top of that, we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourself. Is that even possible?

Here’s where I think the earthy, intimate image of God burying Moses might be of help. For in that very human, incredibly intimate action—I bet most of us are turned off by it, by the idea of the transcendent, immortal, invisible, omniscient, omnipotent, being though of performing that very intimate even offensive act, who of us could imagine, in this day and age, actually burying a loved one with our own hands—in that incredibly intimate action, we see a parable of God’s love for us. Imagine God lowering Godself to care for us so intimately. Imagine that love. If God can love us so powerfully and intimately, how can we not love God with the same intensity, with our whole selves, hearts, minds, and souls. And if God can love us, how can we not love our selves? And how can we not love our neighbors, and the stranger with our whole being, loved, as it is, by God?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bearing God’s Image and Likeness: A Sermon for Proper 24, Year A

Picture the scene. It’s the week before Passover in Jerusalem. Tensions are running high, as they always do in this season. It’s Roman practice to bring additional troops down to Jerusalem to help with crowd control and to be close at hand in case the usual disturbances break into open revolt. Continue reading

Rejoice in the Lord–In spite of it all: A Sermon for Proper 23, Year A, 2017

It’s all so overwhelming, isn’t it? I don’t know about you, but I’ve had to limit my exposure to the news and to social media. I started that practice last fall, but over the last few weeks, I’ve noticed that my avoidance of the news has become even more pronounced. The hurricanes, the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the wildfires in Northern California, the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and the blathering of politicians about these things. When I do turn to the news or my facebook or twitter feed, I feel my blood pressure, anxiety, fear, anger, and sadness mount second by second. And traditional distractions like NFL football no longer provide a respite. It’s not just the rancor over the anthem protests. I can’t watch human beings do things to each other that cause the brain damage we know will result.

As I said, it’s overwhelming. It’s easy to lose hope. And I know that on top of all of this, a number of you have shared with me personal situations that are overwhelming, of great concern. We wonder about our personal futures, the future of the nation, the future of the planet. We aren’t sure whether our faith in God can sustain us through these dark times, and we doubt whether my words, or our coming together in worship can drive away our doubts and fears, even for an hour on Sunday morning.

I’m with you in all of this. I share your fears, your doubts, the emotional roller coaster we all seem to be on these days, although on this ride, there seem to be no highs, only a series of breathtaking descents that never seem to end.

This week I had a couple of experiences that gave me new insight into where I’m at and reminded me that in spite of everything, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, God is present with us and our faith in God can sustain us and give us hope.

The first was yesterday—diocesan convention. Now, I’ll make a confession to you. There is nowhere I would less likely choose to spend an October Saturday than in diocesan convention. This year’s promised to be particularly boring, little more than an exercise in going through the motions of taking counsel with lay people and clergy throughout the diocese. But something happened. It may have been the opening Eucharist—transformed by lovely and moving music. It may have been the stories that were shared of God at work in ministries and people across the diocese, and through us across the world, in the Diocese of Newala in Tanzania, and the Haiti Project. It may have been conversations I had with others around our table or across the convention hall. Whatever it was, and it was likely a combination of these things, I came away inspired and full of hope.

The other, even more dramatic experience came as I attended the ribbon cutting for the Beacon, Madison’s new daytime resource center on E. Wash. I had the opportunity to tour the facility a few weeks ago and was overwhelmed by the care that had been taken in design and buildout. It’s an amazing facility, attractive, inviting. It will provide basic services like laundry and showers but will also provide space for a whole range of services that will help homeless people improve their lives. I’m looking forward to spending Tuesday afternoon there, to see first hand, on the second day of its operation, how it’s going, and in my own small way to offer pastoral care to those who might be interested.

But as I listened to the speakers at the ribbon cutting, and looked around the room, I thought back to the long, difficult, and frustrating process that had concluded successfully. I had first mentioned the need for such a facility in a sermon almost exactly six years ago, and for several years, I was actively involved in efforts to make this dream a reality—only to give up in exhaustion and frustration several years ago when efforts to find a suitable location collapsed.

It’s been a lesson to me that God continues to work, even when I lose hope, strength, and give up. It’s also been a lesson that our wildest dreams can become reality, that in the midst of difficult and despairing situations, it’s ok to continue to hope.

Paul is writing the letter to the Philippians from a prison cell. He’s in a difficult situation, facing an uncertain future but even so he writes a letter that is full of hope. He expresses his deep affection for this congregation; he is full of encouragement. And the last words of our reading seem to elevate us to another level—away from the mundane concerns of our lives and world to the presence of God where we can be at peace.

But he doesn’t begin there. Even as he writes these words of encouragement, even as he appeals to his readers to stand firm, to rejoice, he takes time to mention a conflict in the midst of the community—Euodia and Syntoche seem to be at odds over something and he urges the whole community to work on resolving the conflict and making peace between the two.

Paul writes these words at a time of difficult in his own life, and in a time of difficulty for the congregation to whom he is writing. In that context, these words, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again, I say rejoice.” We may think that Paul means this for us as individuals but he is writing to a community, not to individuals. The verbs here are in the plural, not the singular. Joy is incomplete unless it is shared. Perhaps joy only reaches its fullness when it is shared. But joy is not the point of it; it’s not the reason we gather to worship, joy is a sign of the presence of the risen Christ among us. Joy is comes from our experience of the risen Christ.

And it’s not just worship. We have so much for which we should rejoice, so many signs of the risen Christ among us—we will be blessing and commissioning to of our members as the depart on a mission trip to Haiti. Next week, we will dedicate a Little Free Library, the Creating More Just Community is moving forward with plans to engage our neighbors in the legislature. We are blessed with children running joyfully through Vilas Hall during coffee hour, and there’s so much more.

So I encourage you in these dark times, to look for signs of God at work, to look for signs of the presence of the risen Christ in the world around us and in your lives. Paul said it so much better than I ever could:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

 

 

 

 

The Beacon, Madison’s new daytime resource center will open! Finally!

Yesterday was the press conference and ribbon-cutting for The Beacon, Madison’s new daytime resource center for the homeless that will open on October 16 on East Washington Ave. It is a wonderful facility that will offer basic necessities like showers and laundry, separate areas for families and single adults, and space for a wide range of services on the second floor.

I toured the facility a couple of weeks ago with members of Downtown Madison Inc.’s Quality of Life and Safety Committee, where discussion of such a facility has been on the agenda for at least six years. As the tour ended and we chatted about our reaction to the facility, I was overwhelmed with emotion as I recalled the years, all of the hard work and advocacy that were part of this process. I had occasion earlier in the work to go back through this blog and re-read some of my pieces advocating for a permanent day center, as well as my expressions of concern as we seemed to scramble every year with the onset of cold weather to provide somewhere for homeless people to stay warm during the day.

I became involved in efforts to establish a daytime resource center in 2011 when two events focused attention on the problem. The Central Library was scheduled to close for renovation and the State Capitol, which had traditionally served as informal daytime shelter for homeless people continued to restrict access in the wake of the protests in early 2011. Temporary facilities were provided in the winters of 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, but an effort began especially on the part of County government to locate and fund space for a permanent day center. I worked with people who had operated the temporary shelter during one of those winters to create a non-profit that would operate a new facility under contract from the County and over the next several years, several attempts were made to purchase property and begin the process of establishing a day center. Our group finally gave up out of frustration and sheer exhaustion and I turned my attention to other matters.

I was excited and more than a little skeptical when I learned that the County had acquired the property at 615 E. Wash for a permanent daytime resource center. It had purchased another property a few blocks away some time earlier but problems had arisen and given what had happened on past occasions, I suspected that a combination of neighborhood opposition, continued wrangling between the county and city, and the lack of an outside agency with a track record and adequate resources would probably result in failure at this location as well.

My skepticism was tempered when I had the opportunity to meet with Jackson Fonder, the Executive Director of Catholic Charities, the agency that was granted the contract to operate the facility. His competence, excitement, and commitment to the project were obvious and as our first meeting ended, I offered to help with the effort in any way I could. Eventually, Fonder put together a Community Advisory Team consisting of representatives from across the community to offer feedback as the project developed. As a member of that group, it has been a great joy to see at close hand the project’s development, and to build relationships with people from business, government, and the non-profit sector.

It is also a great joy to see what a facility designed and built out for the purpose can look like. Fonder and his associates visited similar facilities across the country, volunteering in them as they visited. This exposure to other cities and other facilities helped clarify for them best practices related to the operations of a daytime resource center and think carefully and creatively about what services such a facility should provide.

As I left the gathering yesterday, I reflected on the significance of the lengthy and difficult process, the amazing results, and what we might learn for future such efforts in our community. Personally, I am immensely grateful for all those who participated in these efforts, and especially for county staff and elected officials who didn’t give up in spite of all of the problems they encountered over the years. I’m also incredibly grateful for Catholic Charities and for Jackson Fonder’s leadership.

I’m thrilled not only that homeless people will have shelter every day throughout the day but that The Beacon will offer access to the services homeless people need to improve their situation.

There’s one other thought that has been running through my head since I first toured the facility several weeks ago. Now we have a state-of-the-art daytime resource center. What might be possible if we made the same effort to create adequate overnight housing for single adults and for families? Our emergency shelter system is woefully inadequate both in terms of the quality of the facilities and in that they cannot provide for all of those in need, especially homeless families. The Beacon shows us what a well-designed facility can look like; it demonstrates that while it may have taken almost a decade, our community can find solutions to the problems we face. And it sheds a bright light on all of the other needs in our community that we still need to address.

Here’s a video tour of The Beacon:

Here’s an article on The Beacon from today’s Cap Times

The story from WKOW.

 

 

Thinking outside the book: Re-imagining Common Prayer in the 21st Century

There’s a great deal of discussion among Episcopalians about the possibility of prayer book revision. I’ve been thinking about the English Reformation, Anglicanism, and contemporary Christianity in light of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and it occurred to me that the Book of Common Prayer is very much a product of the print culture that emerged in the 16th century and to talk about “prayer book revision” is rather odd in a context dominated by the internet, smart phones, and digital media. So here are some reflections about thinking “outside the book.”

A few weeks ago, I noticed that a visitor was holding her personal Book of Common Prayer as she greeted me after the Sunday service. I tried to think back to the last time I had seen someone with their own BCP. There’s a man his mid sixties who comes occasionally who brings with him a leather-bound 1928 BCP. I remember a few people at my former parishes in the South who did. There, I assumed it was partly an identity marker—Baptists always carried their bibles with them to church; so it would be natural for Episcopalians to distinguish themselves from other Christians by carrying their BCPs.

That got me thinking about the Book of Common Prayer as a book, and about the already much debated idea of “prayer book revision.” My primary experience of the Book of Common Prayer is no longer as a “book,” and I assume the same holds true for most Episcopalians. I use an app for the Daily Office; when I preside at worship, I either use the printed or electronic service bulletin, or an electronic book of common prayer on my ipad. My prayer book hymnal combination is used primarily as a hymnal, although I do take it with me on pastoral visits, I suspect largely because of its symbolic power both for myself and for the one I am visiting.

My copy was given me by the parish in which I became a Postulant for Holy Orders. It is well-worn, the binding is now ripped. I have worshiped with it nearly every Sunday for almost twenty years. I have prayed from it at bedsides and at gravesides. Its feel in my hands is etched in my memory. It is an old friend but also a frustrating annoyance. Liturgical forms that I use regularly but not included in the Book of Common Prayer are taped in the endpapers and constantly fall out. The post-its and tabs I’ve added to help me find my place go missing and I end up leafing through to find what I’m looking for. It is impossible for me to read the text or hymns in less than ideal lighting. For all of those reasons I have come to rely on digital versions for private devotion and presiding.

The Book of Common Prayer is a product of print culture. From the beginning, it was a particularly adaptation of the liturgy to print culture. Both in its use of the vernacular and in its emphasis on “common” prayer, i.e. that the same text was used by clergy and laity, and it was used throughout England, it helped to unify the English Church and shape Anglican piety.

The unifying power of the Book of Common Prayer both in fact and symbolically, may partially explain why prayer book revision has always been a challenging project. I wonder now whether, in the twenty-first century the call for prayer book revision holds symbolic power precisely because of the lingering appeal of the symbolic power of a Book of Common Prayer. Advocates for revision point to its lack of inclusive language, the dominance of the theology of substitutionary atonement, the need for a new marriage rite, among its many other shortcomings. I agree with all of this.

But to conceive of liturgical reform and renewal as “prayer book revision” seems to me to be remarkably shortsighted when we are in the midst of a technological revolution that seems to be transforming the way human beings interact with each other, with authorities of all sorts (including textual authority) and with meaning-making.

Print culture establishes an authoritative text and tends toward uniformity and conformity. The Book of Common Prayer is appealing in part because of the appeal of a shared liturgy across space and time. In the Roman Catholic Church, the Tridentine Mass suppressed local traditions just as the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer shaped the Church of England.

By their very nature, books, being bound, create distinctions between what is included and what is excluded. If a text exists primarily in electronic form, there is a sense in which it is ephemeral, it cannot be fixed or authoritative and it invites a more organic relationship between reader and text. It also creates a different kind of community—one that is not limited geographically.

In some ways, the internet makes possible a relationship between text and reader (or in the case of liturgy, text and participant) that is rather more like the relationship of text and reader in the age of manuscripts—when a copyist could include his own notes in the margin, or change the text entirely, and a later copyist might not know that those changes had occurred, and make changes of her own.

We make such liturgical changes already. We introduce inclusive language in responses or use forms from Enriching Our Worship that are less troublesome theologically. But what might it look like to invite creative engagement with liturgical forms in an age of smartphones and interconnectivity?

Envisioning liturgical reform in a digital age seems to me to invite innovation and engagement. It encourages us to rethink our relationship to liturgical texts, and to rethink the human relationships that are created and nurtured in worshiping communities.

My fear is that “prayer book revision” will focus entirely on getting the text right and not reimagining the ways communities and human beings are created and sustained through the liturgies enacted by the texts.

The Significance of the Protestant Reformation for 21st Century Christianity, Part II

The second half of my talk on the significance of the Protestant Reformation: Musings of a historian turned parish priest. Part I is here.

To summarize all of this. What was the Protestant Reformation? I think it is important to recognize the strength of the Roman Catholic Church and the deep bonds most European Christians had to traditional religion in 1500. Traditional scholarship held the view that the Roman Catholic Church was on the verge of collapse. Fifty years of research in late medieval Christianity has put that notion to rest. Certainly there were problems and there were new ideas percolating, especially humanistic reform ideas that stressed internal piety. The rise of literacy and the printing press offered new ways of disseminating ideas and challenged traditional authority.

Martin Luther was a theological genius, probably the most important thinker in Western Christianity after Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. His genius lay not primarily in his ability to expound a convincing and compelling theological system—Calvin was much better than him at that. But rather his theological genius derived from his religious life, his sense of sin and guilt, and his encounter with a gracious and forgiving God. Putting that experience into language through which others could share accounts for much of the early success of his ideas. The second part of his genius was his uncanny ability to marshal a new technology, the printing press, to disseminate his ideas.

Luther and his theological ideas were only part of the story, and perhaps not the most important part. In the next decades, Luther’s ideas would be adapted and reshaped in other contexts; the initial break with Rome broke the sense of invincibility and unity of the Roman Catholic Church and opened up to others the possibility that they, too, could challenge the papacy. Luther’s ideas were only one of the catalysts; his example was another. In the next decades, rulers, city councils, and reformers of all varieties sought to articulate their own theological positions and to create institutions reflecting those ideas and reorienting the lives of ordinary Christians.

Chronological perspective is crucial here. As I mentioned a moment ago, looking at the religious landscape in 1500, the events of 1517 and following decades would be unimaginable and largely inexplicable. If one were to survey the religious landscape in 1550, the complete collapse of the Roman Catholic Church in the west might have seemed inevitable. France was divided, Poland, Hungary, Moravia, Bohemia all had significant Protestant presences. A century later, Catholicism was resurgent and triumphant, dominating not only Europe, but also the new world and making significant inroads in Asia.

I realize I’ve wandered a great deal already this afternoon, but I want to get back to my initial question or theme—the significance of the Protestant Reformation for 21st century Christianity.

I would like to begin with my final point, chronological perspective. Just as the religious landscape of Europe, even the world, looked very different at different times, 1500, 1550, 1650, and no one could have predicted what it would look like in 1650 from 1500 or 1550, so too, do we need to admit that we can’t predict what the religious landscape of the US or the world might look like in 2050 or 2100. Christianity continues to grow in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, while it seems to be in steep decline in the US and Europe. Those trends might continue, or there might be new historical developments that change things dramatically. We can’t know, assume we know what might happen. From a theological perspective, it’s important to remember that “the spirit blows where it wills.”

The second thing is this—to acknowledge that our definition of what it means to be Christian is a product of historical development. However we define it, by baptism, by adherence to a particular set of beliefs or doctrines, by a set of practices, all of that is conditioned by our own historical contexts. In our day, we tend to think that to be Christian is to believe certain things: the creed, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, or for many evangelical Christians, you are only Christian if you have a personal relationship with Jesus, that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. But all of these are historical developments, the products of individuals and movements, like Luther, or John Wesley, or American evangelicalism, that have defined Christianity and set limits around who are what could be regarded as Christian.

There are and there have been other ways of being Christian or of defining Christian and we need to take those seriously, to listen as people from the historical past tell us, often obliquely or unclearly, what they understood being Christian meant. People who might not have been able to recite the Ten Commandments, the Nicene Creed, or the Lord’s Prayer, very well might have understood themselves to be devout Christian because different practices mattered to them, for example the experience of seeing Christ’s presence in the elevation of the host at mass.

Perhaps the most important contributing factor to the Protestant Reformation and the transformation of the world of early modern Christianity was the printing press. Luther used this new technology in revolutionary ways. He exploited it to disseminate his ideas. We know, for example, that within three weeks of posting the 95 theses, they had been printed all across Germany and were being translated into the vernacular. Luther and other early reformers printed thousands of texts, many of which in forms that were meant to be read aloud in public, offering cues to illiterate or semi-literate people. Catholics followed suit. The Council of Trent mandated that every diocese have a printing press and produce devotional and doctrinal works. This flood of printed material washed over Europe. But being printed, and read, did not mean that the words on the page, or the ideas the books and pamphlets conveyed, were received in quite the way the authors or printers intended.

There was the problem of literacy, for example. We estimate that in the German-speaking lands, roughly 10% of the population was literate.   How did the ideas from books reach those who couldn’t read? We know many works were read publicly, but how were they understood? There are examples of the reappropriation of ideas for other purposes. In 1524, the Peasants’ War broke out in Germany. It was a revolt by serfs against the lords who controlled their labor and lives. There were preachers and reformers involved in various aspects of the Peasants’ War. One of the most famous documents produced by the peasants was the 12 articles of the Swabian peasantry. In it, they and their learned supporters appealed to Reformation concepts like the authority of scripture and Luther’s notion of the freedom of a Christian, but they used those ideas to support their hopes for freedom from unjust tithes and labor obligations, and the right of rural communes to have some independence from feudal lords. Luther himself took up his pen to oppose the revolt and urged the nobility to take military action against the revolutionaries. It is an example of how ideas can be adapted for purposes quite different than their original intent.

We are in the midst of a technological revolution of our own. The rise of computers, the internet, and now social media have some parallels with the printing press. Both transformed society in significant ways—offering new access to knowledge and challenging traditional authorities. Both changed the way individuals related to each other and to larger groups and institutions. Like the printing press, the internet and social media seem to increase the trend toward individualism. Both also contributed in some ways to globalization and uniformity (thanks to the printing press, the Roman Catholic Church could be sure that the liturgy was celebrated in the same way and in the same language across the globe).

We don’t know how this revolution will play out in our own context, whether the challenges to traditional authority like the media, government and religion will lead not just to the undermining of those authorities and institutions, but to their complete collapse and disappearance. We would do well to remember the lesson from the sixteenth century that in the hands of a gifted user like Martin Luther, technology can be harnessed to create something new. Similarly, when the Roman Catholic Church mastered that new technology, it was well positioned to use it effectively for reform. The same may be true in our century.

Back to those statistics I cited at the beginning of my talk. There are several problems with them. First, the notion that because Protestants and Catholics no longer seem divided about the nature of salvation we can conclude that the divisions caused by the Protestant Reformation no longer matter is a misreading both of the Reformation and of contemporary relations among Protestants and Catholics. On the latter, numerous ecumenical agreements have laid out how close the Lutheran and Catholic doctrines actually are. Further, there was never agreement among Protestants about sola fide, and over the centuries, many denominations moved away from that, not least the Methodists. And, until the definition at Trent of the official Roman Catholic doctrine, there was a great deal of internal diversity in Catholicism about the nature of salvation. Finally, it’s important to ask whether doctrinal differences were ever as important as other matters; for example, allegiance to the pope, communion in one or both kinds, following the calendar of saints, marian devotion. All of these helped to create Protestant and Catholic identity and were as important, if not more so, than any underlying doctrinal differences.

The second set of data from that Pew study and other surveys on the decline in religious affiliation in Western Europe (and also the US). Scholars have long seen a direct line from Luther to the process of secularization, the disenchantment of everyday life, and the decline of Christianity. Those consequences are often perceived to be unintended, the product of Luther’s insistence on the status of the individual coram Dei before God, and the delivery of scripture to individuals to read for themselves. Another important cause is often asserted to be the removal of religion from politics in the wake of the European wars of religion, themselves caused by the 16th century religious divisions. But it’s never been clear to me whether that process was caused by the Reformation—there were other interrelated developments like the rise of capitalism and the nation state. The industrial revolution broke down traditional ways of life across Europe, including traditional religious ties.

The secularization thesis relies on an underlying assumption that people in the Middle Ages were uniformly and holistically religious. If we return for a moment to my comments about developments in the study of religion, it’s worth pointing out that such assumptions are based on a certain notion of what “religion” is. If we approach the question differently, if instead of asking people whether they are religiously affiliated, we ask about certain religious or quasi-religious practices or activities, the results might be very different.

For example, when I was planning this series, before scheduling the dates and times, I looked at the schedule for the Green Bay Packers, knowing full well that attendance might be affected if the lectures were scheduled against Packers games. People wear packers jerseys, fly Packers flags, treat a visit to Lambeau Field like a pilgrimage. In all appearances, devotion to the Packers is very like the behavior exhibited by religious devotees. No doubt for some fans, Packers victories, especially a Super Bowl victory, gives their lives meaning, and certainly attendance at a game is an experience of effervescence very like what in other circumstances would be called a spiritual experience.

Secularization, or the rise of the “nones” may not be so much a change in attitudes towards, or experience of religion, but a change in the expression of what we call religious behaviors or practices.

To conclude, what are the legacies of the Protestant Reformation? Beyond any institutional or theological traces that remain, I think the most important legacy is that studying it helps us orient ourselves in our uncertain and changing times. We need to remain open to the unexpected, to changes that we might not be able to imagine. And as Christians, even as we see the institutional legacy of the Protestant Reformation collapsing, both among the Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic, we can expect that the Holy Spirit is still moving, still working, still creating new things, and that people continue to experience the Risen Christ in their own lives and in the world in which we live. Thanks be to God.