Writing a headline that calls for celebration of Reformation might cause some consternation. This might especially be true if I capitalize “Reformation,” as I just did. If I left the word, reformation, in lower case, it might appear I wanted merely to describe a process. But Reformation suggests Martin Luther, John Calvin, and all the other reformers---some of who were radical. In fact, my own Quaker tradition has its origins in the Radical Reformation, as my mentor, George Williams, helped me learn.
I capitalized the word, Reformation, because we have entered a season where this movement will be much discussed. I have already been solicited to write an article for a British Jesuit journal, which plans on dealing with the 500th anniversary of Luther’s nailing the famous 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. As I ponder this, I am aware of what feels like a thousand ways to approach the story.
Many folks are tempted to read that historical period with a win-loss mentality. If one happens to grow up on the Protestant side of the equation, it can well feel like a win. Smugly, Protestants can tell a story of Catholic degradation, abuse and the like that left the poor Old Testament professor at Wittenberg no alternative except to begin a Reformation. However, if you grow up Catholic, it is fairly easy to admit things were not perfect with the sixteenth century Catholic Church, but people like Luther went too far and was rightly excommunicated. And so much of the half-millennium story since has been told.
I had my own version (inarticulate, to be sure) of the story growing up in pre-Vatican II Indiana. I knew where the Catholic Church was, but it never occurred to me to visit it. When Vatican II happened (1962-65), I don’t even remember being aware of it. Little did I know how profoundly it would affect my life. It is too much to tell the Vatican II story, but I will say how grateful I am that Pope John XXIII had the vision and courage to move ahead with it. I celebrate him and, now, I celebrate the Reformation.
When I say I am celebrating the Reformation, I am not cheering the victory of Luther, Calvin and the rest. I am cheering the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. In this sense I am on the side of every person and institution that is open to and co-operates with the work of the Spirit. I caution this does not mean I think the Spirit was at work in the Reformers alone. I don’t suggest for a minute that the Catholic Church was devoid of the Spirit and its own sense of needing to be reformed. One only has to look at a figure like Erasmus to know this would not be true.
I will make one theological claim. While I certainly hold that the Spirit can work in all people and, indeed, in all institutions, I don’t think any person or institution can alone claim to possess the Spirit. The Spirit is God’s Presence and that is not possessed. It might possess, but it is never possessed---as in captured.
A characteristic feature of the Spirit, as I understand it, is the Spirit moves and causes movement. The Spirit always brings life; it is not static. And so where there is decay and death, the Spirit has gone. A second characteristic of the Spirit is its movement causes evolution. This is what the Spirit was doing in the sixteenth century and, I believe, is still doing in our own twenty-first century. Because the Spirit is causing evolution, there should always be cause for celebration. Another way of saying it, is to recognize the work of the Spirit is always renewing. It brings new life.
This is the angle I prefer to look from when I hear about the 500th anniversary of the Reformation period. Looking at it this way, prevents a win-loss reading of that history. And more to the point, it helps us see our own time and where we can be led---if we are open to and heed the evolving, reforming work of the Spirit. This is the exciting potential of remembering. To remember reading history in order to learn from history in order to make a more meaningful history.
I want to read sixteenth century history---Protestant, Catholic and all others---from the perspective of the Spirit’s work. I am convinced the Spirit is present and at work in all times and in all places. But not all of us are attentive and open to this work. And certainly, not all institutions are attentive and at work.
What worries me about celebrating the Reformation is the temptation to read it as history alone. It will be easy to make fun of the win-loss perspective and miss that we are in the same throes as those sixteenth century religious folks. I am convinced the same Spirit is in our midst reforming and asking us to evolve. To miss this is surely to opt for decay and, just as surely, death. Our story may be so unremarkable no one will remember it.
That’s why I want to celebrate Reformation and reformation. My life and our times are at stake.