Monday, November 1, 2010

Reformation Day

Yesterday was Reformation Day.   I bet you didn't know that, you trick-or-treating heathens!  October 31 commemorates that fateful moment in history, namely 1517, when a German Augustinian friar named Martin Luther posted ninety-five academic propositions addressing indulgences and other curious church practices to the Schlosskirche door in Wittenberg.  This act, historians and pastors tell us, marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.  For what it's worth, I would argue that Luther's defense of his writings at the Diet of Worms in 1521 was a more momentous and historically-charged occasion; in fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that his appearance before the potentates and prelates of Latin Christendom at this imperial assembly, as well as his famous (alleged) last words, was one of the most dramatic scenes and definitive episodes in European history.  Things would never be the same.

At its core the Reformation was a religious movement that sought to reform Christian doctrine and liturgical practice in accordance with the Bible and early church, but the rock of spiritual renewal sent out ripples across the economic, social, and political waters of late medieval culture.  Professional historians are always looking for a new approach to old paradigms.  They seek to revise conventional interpretations and periodizations of history as new source material or theoretical frameworks become available.  So nowadays we talk about Reformations, in the plural, for Luther and his acolytes were not the sole religious reformers in this period.  To be sure, elements in the Roman Curia, if not the papacy, had sought to clean up corruption; specifically, some reform-minded bishops and spiritual leaders, like Luther's mentor Johann von Staupitz, wonderfully depicted in a mediocre movie about Luther by the excellent German actor Bruno Ganz, were unhappy with the Renaissance papacy and a dearth of moral discipline among the clergy.  Whether these reform-minded Catholic leaders were trying to counter the nascent Protestant movement or were operating independently of it is still a source for rich debate.  Beyond impulses for reform emanating from Catholic clergy, other groups emerged, such as the Anabaptists, who wanted a more radical break from the medieval church.

Why did the Protestant Reformation come about, you ask?  That's a fair question, but it's also highly complex.  Moreover, though we're increasingly becoming a post-Christian culture here in the United States, there are still enough Catholics and Protestants around who would vehemently disagree on the origins.  I won't jump into the minutiae of theology and history with you, let alone the polemics that have been around since the early 16th century.  After all, you surely didn't stumble across this blog for such inane historical analysis.  I'll point to one part of the puzzle, however, and it's a big one: the Black Death, or outbreak of bubonic plague that wiped out a third of Europe back in the 14th century.  Such a demographical loss affected the medieval church, depriving bishoprics and parishes of their spiritual leaders.  What do you do when you suddenly lack personnel to fill positions?  I'm in the military, so even I know this one: you lower the standards and take whomever you can get.  Consequently, corruption and immorality among the clergy skyrocketed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centures, an era sometimes referred to as the Age of Adversity.  The call for religious reform in head and members of the Roman Curia had preceded Luther.

In the past Reformation Day had more meaning for me.  I recall a Reformation Sunday back in the Nineties, for instance, when I put together a detailed liturgy, replete with hymns and credal statements from the 16th century, for the Reformed Church I attended at the time.  For many years the Protestant tradition had shaped my ethical and moral consciousness.  My heroes were Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli.  I read countless books and articles on the subject.  I ransacked a number of archives and special collections libraries in Germany and Switzerland to consult the original manuscripts.  Although I haven't picked up a book on the Reformation in recent years, I probably still possess an intimate familiarity with this era of history. I have residual affection for these men and the key events of the sixteenth century, but my intellectual interests and spiritual yearnings have shifted into different directions perhaps.  I recognize that these men had their flaws.  When the Jews did not convert to his brand of Christianity en masse, Luther took vengeance with the pen, writing two rabidly antisemitic treatises that Hitler would resurrect centuries later for his own purposes.  (The first Protestant's namesake, Martin Luther King Jr., a man otherwise devoted to God, was likewise not without serious moral defects.)  Calvin, the melancholy legal scholar pressed into the service for God, infamously signed off on the burning of Michael Servetus at the stake.  Let us not be too hasty, though, in yanking historical figures out of their historical context and judging them from our 21st-century sensibility.  I still identify myself as a Protestant, but what I mean by this appellation is not clear even to myself.

For those of you taking notes (and there will be a test afterwards), the term "Protestant" didn't come around until sometime after 1529 when the imperial princes of Germany issued a Protestation to the Habsburg Emperor at the Diet of Speyer.  Until this epithet stuck, adherents to Luther's ideas were known as evangelicals (Evanglische).  If memory serves, the root word comes from the Greek, which in its English translation is rendered Evangelion, meaning "Gospel."  The evangelicals, in other words, sought a return to the Bible as a guide for Christian living.  Like most monumental historical figures, you might love him or you might hate him, but Luther, whose inner spiritual turmoil my wife depicts in her 1990 engraving of the man (above), changed the course of history and influenced for good or ill a strange boy from Southern California.