The Protestant Reformation is having its 500th anniversary this weekend. Most people have a vague sense of why. They know that a renegade Catholic, Martin Luther, started what was more a revolution than a reformation. Before his divisive and effective leadership, Christendom was Catholic and the “one” holy Roman Catholic Church prevailed. Since then, we have as many varieties of religion as Baskin Robbins’ has flavors.
Protestants were born in “protest” against the condensation of religious authority in one institution. They believed in things like the priesthood of all believers, the ability to read and interpret the bible your own way, without mediation, and in a renewed appreciation of grace instead of “works.” Their protest method was to reform, make new, improve. They ended up splitting.
“Works” were indulgences widely indulged. To get the priest to assure you of heaven, you bought things from the church, called indulgence, as if they were doing you a favor. That monetary relationship kept you saved. Surely, people didn’t really believe that so much as they believed in the church’s power to save you. The Protestants put individualism at the heart of salvation and many say that has led to a great dilution of religion. I don’t claim to know. I do know that religious practice is an endangered species and that most people don’t even know what a Protestant is, much less what a Protestant does.
A resident of Newburgh, New York told me recently that there are 50 or so religious buildings there. She said her estimate was that only 2000 people worshipped on Sundays. Why, asked this community organizer, don’t they all get together in one of the big barns and worship together? Or one worship at 8, the other at 9 and ongoing through Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays? They could all study on a different night and have their potlucks then too. Or, with that characteristic gleam in a young idealist’s eye, she said, “Maybe they’d even worship together every now and then.” She declines to be named.
But her idea is worthy in this first year of the next Reformation. What do bricks have to do with mortals in the first place? In the second, why should all those spiritual barns be off the tax roles? Or what if they were affordable housing or community centers, or senior centers or day cares? Many, by the way, are. Whether they become restaurants or condos (so mission inconsistent because of gentrification) is less the point than the fact that they are empty. Empty is stale energy becoming staler. Empty is un-green. Empty is moldy. Multi-use, adaptive reuse of these buildings - - no matter what you think about he Reformation -- is useful to the human body and the human spirit.
Religious institutions have what is known as a “Halo” affect. They do a lot to keep communities going, whether it is AA or NA meetings or food pantries or more. The Halo effect involves a metric of how much it would cost the public to do what is actually being done parochially.
The Protestant Reformation grew up along side of the Enlightenment and the economic system of capitalism. Many historians argue it could never have happened without the printing press, which opened the bible to individual interpretation. A similar set of cultural and economic changes are happening now. Call it the “digital” or call it the Internet or the World. Wide. Web. Call it history happening in the same way that it happened before. Culture and economy shake hands with technological change, which impacts religious observance. We believers actually think God works this way – through humans and our powerful capacities.
So will the next Reformation involve us all in removing our pews and putting up screens? Or will we all worship on line, at a time more convenient to us? Many already do. Will our pastor email us the baptism preparation or the wedding liturgy or the funeral service? Most already do. Most marriages actually happen as blended marriages. Two out of three Jews marry “out.” I rarely perform a wedding between two Christians. The offspring of these unions are likely to not even be able to spell the word “Reformation.”
God, the one whose name is not revealed to any one historical period, or to any one flavor of religion, is not in trouble. God – who is beyond the God called Allah or Jesus or Christ or Elohim or Ruach or force or creator or breath – is still beyond human capacity to understand. That won’t stop people from trying.
I can’t wait to see what’s next.