Hidden underneath the increasing focus on Halloween celebrations lies the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation - one of the most significant events in the landscape of church and human history. The reformation arguably marks the shift into the modern era, laying the foundations for pluralist and multi-cultural society, and giving irresistible momentum to forces away from totalitarian regimes.
We owe a great debt to Martin Luther, the Catholic Priest who set in train the Protestant Reformation. It is a debt, however, for which there are times I would like to say “Thanks a lot!” One of Luther’s key theological achievements was to bring back into perspective a sense and place of grace in our relationship with God – a direct challenge to those who thought that “favour with the Almighty” rested on their wealth, position or power. Luther’s strong emphasis on God’s love and forgiveness as something that could not be earned went a long way towards diminishing the power of the institutional church. But a lamentable legacy of Luther’s stance - an unwitting one - was that the measure of a good christian life moved away from the way in which a person lived to the way in which they thought. Good faith became more about the theology one held than the life one lived. The nailing of his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral began a shift which moved faith from being primarily a way of life to being a way of thinking. In the intervening years we have seen endless unedifying arguments about what it means to be a christian, often at the expense of a lived and shared grace, and at the expense of engagement with and involvement in the human struggles of the times.
The pattern of faith in the early church was a lived faith which lead to understanding, a practice which formed the groundwork out of which an explanation grew. It is a model of spirituality which maintains vitality to this day. It is possible to live a life of faith without being able to adequately explain the theology or rationale behind it, to live out the love of Jesus without sermonising in words on the nature of love. For all the theological learning which has marked the church in the last centuries, we have continued to find a dearth of christians who are prepared to live the sort of love which Jesus lived, to serve as Jesus served, and to sacrifice as Jesus sacrificed. In marked contrast to the ideal “see how these christians love one another” we find the church riven with relative trivialities.
When Jesus challenged the Jewish leaders it was not primarily about their theology – it was their practice that came under intense scrutiny. The lived faith of Jesus was a tremendous threat to the status quo. His willingness to enter the life and space of those at the margins of society – to see humanity where others could only see the inhuman – challenged the value systems and power structures of the times. Similarly as we look back on a century filled with great thinkers, we find the most powerful messages of faith emerging from the great livers: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, Gandhi, because they have presented their message in word and in deed.
For centuries we have based spirituality on the premise that if you change people’s thinking, you will change the way they act. But centuries of theological debate and christian education has proved the ineffectiveness of this precept. Jesus’ call to discipleship seemed predicated on the notion that to change the way a person acted would lead to a change in their way of thinking. Understanding flows from experience more readily than the other way around.
Jesus likened the call of faith to an invitation to dance (Matthew 11:17) – to be a part of an experience which involved the whole being, learning to attune oneself to a rhythm, to move according to a beat. Authentic spirituality is an in-body experience, an embodied experience. A new reformation of spirituality needs to reconnect the head with the heart, the hands and the feet, to build a new lifestyle which meets the environmental, political, social and economic challenges of our time.
October 31, 2002