Thursday, August 4, 2016

Who was the Reformation For?

I was reading an essay on the state of the Church in England in the early 18th century. One of the interesting things was the attitude of many Anglican ministers to the idea of international missions. Many parish priests were exhausted in their own task. For them England was hardly evangelized, there was no more energy to exert in the conversion of the many Nations of America. Anglican ministers complain of the vast ignorance and practice of superstition (i.e. many a parishioner had no idea Jesus was divine).

This account gave me some sympathy for the myopic state of Anglican missions throughout the 18th century, and it made me rethink the mindset of the Englishmen that would settle without the Americas and the Caribbean. But most importantly, as these ordained missionaries in England pointed out, parts of England were hardly Christian. And this was from those who were apart of the establishment, not dissenters! For these ministers, the Reformation was still continuing on.

As the above example should show, this was not a conversion away from Roman Catholicism, as if it was ingrained. Rather, it was conversion to Christ plain and simple. Yet, simultaneously, there was widespread affection for the Church of England because of its role as the center of many communities, and a certain sentimental reserve for it. I suppose a modern similarity is how many non-practicing and non-believing people still feel it's necessary to have a pastor of sorts to marry them. It's more superstition and a feeling of tradition than any concrete or tangible belief. America in this regard, like 18th century England, is a "Christian" nation, but this has to do with the ingraining of cultural signifiers without any real content. And of course, I dispute that a Christian nation is a categorical confusion, as it mistakes the nature of the Church for the many nations that come and pass as dust in the wind.

The other thing I'll bring up is a recent interview I heard that had Peter Leithart talking about his newest book. The book and its content itself is mostly irrelevant, but he made a passing comment that made me think. He was saying how, since we live in a post-Christian culture, the kinds of things the Reformation was addressing (i.e. justification by faith) don't quite make as much sense. The question of the nature of God and the nature of our sins and punishment are no longer in the forefront of our collective cultural sensibility. The Reformers' answers only fit properly in their own particular context of a heavily Christianized society, and can not be deployed as universal signifiers.

Now, both I and Leithart are on the same page as regards this. There was a cultural context to the Reformation's answers and they cannot be dropped as if they answer every question of the Human heart (at least in their most common forms). We are both believe the Reformation was a necessary good. But given the above description of England, I now have to ask: who exactly did the Reformation address?

One can examine medieval society and culture and see how many Christian practices and theologies blended with folk practices in strange ways. The Eucharist was considered a kind of fetish of white-magic that allowed the user to bring about good luck, love, success etc etc. Christ's sacramental body became a magical ornament. Given this example, what exactly were many European commoners, or even nobility without theological education, thinking? What did the Reformation mean exactly?

I won't deny the spread of a general numinous feel of being in a world of spirits and a great God over all. And I have no intention to collapse the Reformation's successes into mere socio-political realities (e.g. Dutch resentment against the Spanish, German frustration with Italian dominance vis. the tithe, the opening up of the Americas and a general quest for exploration etc etc.). But what exactly did Luther 'mean' to regular people? While I won't deny that there were a number of people who understood what Luther was responding to, I have to wonder about the majority. Did the Reformation really make sense to most people? Or was it more confined to the debating and polemical theologians?

While I have no proof one way or the another, experience tells me to be skeptical. Especially considering that Luther unleashed all sorts of social anarchic forces and lamented later in life over the current state of moral debauchery. For all its effects, Luther couldn't understand that telling people they were free from the magic of the Church meant they could return to pagan bliss, and hence German princes had to crack down on villages and towns when this spilled out of control. While Munster was not Luther's fault, it'd be hard pressed to deny he didn't have an impact, if not intellectually than culturally.

Of course, I do not look at the Reformation as some golden age of restoration. It had many pitfalls and the Reformers were not absolutely correct in every issue they broached. Most recognized this over time, hence a constant refrain to continue the Reformation. The Reformation was good, but it had much evil. Yet, if we can say that the spirit of the Reformation was to unleash the gospel, than it was distinct failure, as many Europeans were hardly Christian before and after. But perhaps it was a necessary failure, for slowly unmoored from ecclesiastical discipline, mission-minded Christians now saw, in a vast way, the blindness of many of their European brethren. Subsequent efforts were of mixed results.

We ought to consider the specific teachings of the Reformation and reanalyze them through the prism of the Scripture. And this done for the sake of mission, thinking hard about particular contexts. Again, this is the spirit of the Reformation, the recognition of the need to be always reforming, never settling for comfort.

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