Is celebrating 500 years since Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church the celebration of an irrelevant reformation? While those with a vested interest in Luther and/or Protestantism will offer a quick and bold, “Of course it’s not irrelevant!” and will most likely add, “The Gospel is never irrelevant!” the lack of conversation I’m hearing about the anniversary in the broader culture makes me wonder if such a response lacks adequate reflection.
Below is an edited version of the opening section of my 2016 dissertation, Re-Storying God: Re-Imagining the God of the Bible and Re-Enchanting our Neo-Secular Selves. Hopefully, it will add some food for thought as we consider what might be an irrelevant Reformation.
A Reformation Celebration
On October 31, 2017, the Western world will celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation as it remembers a then unknown and irrelevant Martin Luther posting his Ninety-Five Theses Against Indulgences on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Based on the preparatory work this author witnessed during two trips to Wittenberg in the fifteen years prior to the anniversary, it will be an impressive celebration.
Simultaneously, it is doubtful the event will hold anything beyond historical significance to those in the once East German city or the post-Christian West. In other words, a night that changed the global landscape and transformed the faith of millions over the coming centuries is now predominantly a significant historical event with a religious sidebar.
Changing Social Imaginaries
The journey of how the West made the rapid transition from a society where life without God was incomprehensible to one where some find the very idea of faith in God untenable is the subject of philosopher Charles Taylor’s tome, A Secular Age. The exploration, which won Taylor both the Templeton and Kyoto awards for affirming and bettering life’s spiritual dimension, uses the concept of the “social imaginary,” a blend of images, stories, and ideas that define a society’s understanding of human flourishing and create the expectations that allow people to move through life and make sense of existence. Elsewhere, James Smith describes social imaginaries as worldviews for the heart instead of the mind.
Briefly, Taylor demonstrates how, in the premodern age, people perceived themselves as captives of the world. This earth was a place of mystery and enchantment. Natural and spiritual forces were active and threatening. Humans were passive agents seeking to survive in a dynamic world. Hope came from a distant deity who—depending on one’s relationship—might offer protection and blessing in the midst of the chaos.
It was from this pre-modern social imaginary that Luther penned the theses that launched the Reformation. But the West’s vision of the good life has dramatically changed.
An Irrelevant Reformation
Nine hundred years ago, the European Renaissance planted ideas suggesting this view of the world was inaccurate. These ideas began to take root four hundred years later and continued to grow until they bloomed and created the secular West.
The transition began as humanity’s self-perception moved from one of captivity to control, with people both recognizing and demonstrating their ability to assert authority over creation. Scientists and philosophers began to study and understand things that once seemed a mystery, stripping away at the creation’s enchantment.
With increasing disenchantment, these social leaders started wondering if creation was the appropriate word; a move one step away from concluding that because transcendent gods only served to defend people from an enchanted world, the Divine is unnecessary in a land of immanence.
Five-hundred years from “transcendent-enchantment” to “disenchanted-immanence”—from revolutionary Reformer to spiritual sidebar—Martin Luther going full circle, with his teaching as unknown and irrelevant today as the day it was nailed to the Wittenberg Door.
Some Further Thoughts and Questions
Please note, I do not see Jesus, the Gospel of the Kingdom, or the Bible as irrelevant. So please don’t read that into what I’ve said.
Moreover, personally, I find Luther and much of his teaching incredible relevant to my life. But I’m also well aware that how I view life and my exposure to Luther and his work are anything but common. And that’s really the point.
If the core of the Reformation is Jesus and the Gospel (as Luther would argue if he were here today), then how effective has the Reformation been through the West’s social imaginary transition?
Perhaps most importantly, what needs to happen for an irrelevant Reformation to become relevant again?