According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Church Which Restores - Spiritual Reformation in Action




In the category of "I hadn't thought of that before" has been a recent Reformation class I've been taking on the lives of the four "Major Reformers" of old Europe: Martin Luther (Germany), Huldrych Zwingli (Bern, Switzerland), and John Calvin (refugee from France fled to Geneva, Switzerland). Up next, John Knox, after which we will study some of the "Minor Reformers" in the Fall of 2018 next year. Significantly, under these major figures was born the Protestant Reformation of 500 years ago from the Catholic Church. Not ironically, during the intervening 500 years of "Reform," Protestantism has spawned multitudes of church divisions, schisms and sectarian splinter groups, marking it with its formative history of "dissent" within its own ranks for one reason or another. But in historical context, the Church of the reformer's day was more a state-church than a local body of believers; one whose spiritual practises were deeply intertwined with state politics making each corruptible for their own reasons as each bound community life and business into their coffers of economic gain and power. In reaction, the spiritual reforms occurring 500 years ago were as much about political agitation as they were about unworthy spiritual teachings and practises.


Conversely, 500 years later, it seems both Catholics and Protestants have more in common with one another than apart as each religious branch leads the way back into their communities (or parishes) of Christian service to the poor, hungry, homeless, and overlooked. But still, the political dagger of Damocles hangs thinly in the air above the church's head as an ever-ready earthly temptation made the more difficult in releasing when suckling at the tits of political office and its representatives. The harsh reality is that the church continually struggles with the strong temptation to recreate Christianity into irreligious forms of statism based upon particular beliefs and practises which has risen yet again under the auspices of a body of church doctrines collectively known as conservative evangelicalism diversely spread across both the Catholic and Protestant faiths.


Is it any wonder then we see the church splintering once again under major spiritual reforms of faith affiliations (or "non-faith affiliations," as example, consider the spiritual refugees of the "nones and dones" having left the church) as each faith, or non-faith group, protests their agitations across America and the World against self-serving nationalistic campaigns of propaganda, economic rape, and loss of personal liberties? Each emphasizing some overlooked, or under-appreciated, aspect of worship and service, but mostly in "protest" to the actions of the "politically-ensnared" evangelical church seeking to incorporate non-Christian state policies and actions across non-evangelical communities resisting and speaking out against them. Communities of protest-and-resistance wishing to safeguard a political constitution and federacy of democracy built upon life, liberty and freedom, rather than be robbed of their heritage in the bright daylight of state and corporate thievery!


In the much needed world of revival it usually comes down to the awful truth that oppression in any form - be it spiritual, political, or economic - is unwanted. Its tyranny demands its overthrow. Its self-enrichment demands its impoverishment. Once there were the Martin Luther's of the German/Catholic reformation; more recently, the Martin Luther Kings of Civil Rights; and now, there awaits the voices of today's church to arise and break off the chains which would bind its heart and people. Let us not be naive... each generation is accountable for its own spiritual reforms against the disfigurements of corruptible churches preaching another gospel not representative of the gospel of Christ. And unless this is done we more willingly seem to choose our own oppressions not realizing the harm it is creating more broadly across a constitutionally-freed, but politically-ensnared, federal democracy. In the end, we remember the Reformation for all the good it can potentially do but weigh it in its balances for all the harm it can produce when reforming for the wrong reasons back to its own ends.

R.E. Slater
November 2, 2017

*As a side note, I've included the article below not as a criticism to postmodernism's important rigors placed upon modernism; nor for a capitulation to more fundamental bible teachings; but to warn that for every good intention there may arise a poorer result than intended. If secularization is a bad thing than its converse arises in a new awareness of God in all things rather than in none, as is held here by myself and the author. But the result of secularization is certainly from the foundation stones of modernism which has stripped us of God  and left any yearning for the spiritual abandoned unless we rethink our academics, philosophies, and intentions, which, as you know, this website here intends to re-balance with its sense-and-sensibilities approach to both the secular and divine. - res


* * * * * * * * * * *


Author: Brad S. Gregory
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012 574 pages
ISBN: 978-0-674-04563-7

The Unintended Reformation:
How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society

Reviewed by Thomas M. McCoog, SJ
August 20, 2012

Time magazine’s ‘Is God Dead?’ issue of 8 April 1966 shocked me. It was not the message – any undergraduate could discuss Nietzsche’s madman’s proclamation that we had killed God – but the medium. Time articulated the views of the educated middle-class, read by the man on the Clapham omnibus and by the woman in the pew. That they would even consider the question, especially, if I may place the issue within Roman Catholicism, during Vatican II exhilaration, was indeed noteworthy.

During the subsequent forty years, Christendom morphed into post-Christian (Western) Europe. Politicians denied any connection between Christianity and the new millennium. Signs on London buses announced ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’ as if theism were life’s sole irritant. The Oxford philosopher, Richard Dawkins, a major backer of the Atheist Bus Campaign, characterised theists as delusional and dismissed the God hypothesis in his bestseller, The God Delusion (2006). The late journalist Christopher Hitchens asserted, as expressed in the subtitle of the American edition of his attack, God is not Great (2007) that ‘religion poisons everything.’ Cambridge physicist and mathematician Stephen Hawking dismissed God, or at least his God-of-the-gaps, as unnecessary in A Brief History of Time (1988). There have of course been counter-arguments, for example Roman Catholic theologian John F. Haught’s reply to the new atheists in God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, [Sam] Harris and Hitchens (2008), but overall God has taken a beating. Reason apparently has finally completed the promise first displayed during the Enlightenment and dispelled the fading shadows of medieval faith. Some indeed now wonder whether any questions will remain if the ‘God particle’ has in fact been discovered. In bookstores, serious religious and theological works are currently stored cheek-by-jowl with books on astrology, tarot cards, New Age and neo-paganism. In today’s multicultural cafeterias, one may mix and match religious beliefs and moral principles to conform to one’s palate. The culture of ‘whatever’ has reduced claims to objective truth to subjective comfort. Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, commenting on recent financial scandals and the prominence of a Gordon Gecko, ‘greed is good’ mentality, notes: ‘We are reaching the endgame of a failed experiment: society’s attempt to live without a shared moral code. The 1960s applied this to private life. The 1980s applied it to the market’.[1] But how can we regain a common code of ethics, especially in a society that has defined diversity as its fundamental guiding principle? ‘How did we get here from there?’ if I may paraphrase a Stephen Sondheim song from Merrily We Roll Along. The book under review provides an answer.

Brad S. Gregory completed his doctorate in history at Princeton University in 1996. Currently he is the Dorothy G. Griffin Associate Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame. His doctoral thesis served as the basis for Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), a justly praised, comparative study of Protestant and Catholic martyrs with a distinct thesis. Repudiating contemporary, secular, ‘reductionist’ analyses of martyrdom, Gregory argued cogently for the re-introduction of religion:

‘The act of martyrdom makes no sense whatsoever unless we take religion seriously, on the terms of people who were willing to die for their convictions. When we do, the intelligibility of martyrdom hits us like a hammer’ (p. 350).

Subsequently Gregory was more concerned with secularisation and its effect on the study of religion than martyrs and martyrologies. Shorter lectures and articles[2] explore the mentality behind the deplored reductionist approach to religious phenomena; this monograph sets the origins of this mentality in the Reformation itself, the religious phenomenon par excellence later vitiated by social, economic, cultural and gender historians.

Gregory cites William Faulkner’s insight that the past is never really past but continues to be alive. The past in this case is the Reformation: the ‘ideological and institutional shifts that occurred five or more centuries ago remain substantively necessary to an explanation of why the Western world today is as it is’ (p. 7). Beginning with the phenomenological observation of the modern Western spectrum of contradictory truth claims, the author seeks their origin. Six subsequent chapters focus on specific subjects:


  • exclusion of God from the natural world;
  • loss of objective truth;
  • privatisation of religion;
  • subjectification of morality;
  • the ascendancy of consumerism; and,
  • the departmentalisation of knowledge.


Each chapter traces trajectories from the Reformation Ursprung to the contemporary world and in so doing conducts the reader on a crash course on a history of philosophy, of theology, of economic theory, etc., each rooted in the author’s firm grasp and appreciation of Reformation history.

The Six Solas

Gregory summarises the position of the above-cited ‘Neo-Atheists’ thus: ‘the findings of science either prescribe atheism as a matter of intellectual integrity or requite a schizophrenic separation of scientific findings from religious faith’ (p. 29). Faith then is about ‘ineffable feelings’ (p. 65). The multiplicity of religious options demonstrates religion’s subjective character. One generally practises (or lapses from) the religion in which one was born and raised, but does that commitment mean that one’s acceptance of the truth claims of that religion to life’s serious questions suggests the invalidity of rival truth claims? Certainly it should. The fundamental Protestant principle sola Scriptura demanded that Scripture alone be the criterion in the formulation of true answers to the ‘Life Questions.’ Ironically the principle, intended to galvanize Christians around their book, resulted in the proliferation of Protestant confessions as they disagreed over the interpretation of Scripture. Appeals to private revelation and reason failed to halt the centrifugal motion. The result:

‘in principle truth is whatever is true to you, values are whatever you value, priorities whatever you prioritize, and what you should live for is whatever you decide you should live for. In short: whatever’ (p. 77).

Religious hostilities have, for the most part, ceased in the Western world. The destruction and death during the different religious wars that followed the breakdown of Christendom ended with a general, at times reluctant, acceptance of toleration and religious liberty. But there was a price for the separation of Church and State, the transition from the defender of the faith to defender of the faiths: religion’s gradual separation from other aspects of society. Gregory comments on the unintended current state of the United States: ‘freedom of religion protected society from religion and so has secularized society and religion’ [italics Gregory’s]. Protected by appeals to individual conscience with legal guarantees of religious freedom, Americans can believe whatever they wish as long as they obey the law. The age of entitlement was born.

Similarly, moral values have devolved into subjective, personal preferences. As with religious beliefs, one may hold whatever moral values one feels good about as long as one observes the law. Inevitably Western civilisation embarked on a path that resulted in the de facto identification of morality and law. Roman Catholic insistence that morality be grounded in natural law and/or metaphysical anthropology results in frequent clashes with contemporary culture. Gregory blames the ongoing disputes between Catholics and mainline (magisterial) Protestants and the consequent religious wars for the eventual distinction between the public and private spheres. Laws defined public behaviour but left unregulated private behaviour. But here too, as with religion, we are left with a question regarding the definer of the public and the private. Who decides what is God’s and what is Caesar’s? If each prepared a reply, how they would differ!

With the secularisation of society and especially the subjectification of ‘Life Questions,’ knowledge as pursued at research universities became more specialised and barren – scientific in a negative sense. One is reminded here of Chief Rabbi Sacks’s comment: ‘Science takes things apart to see how they work; religion puts things together to see what they mean’.[3] More damning is Gregory’s contention (as witnessed by the authors mentioned in the second paragraph of this review) that there is a general derision of ‘any firmly held religious belief’ (p. 356) in academia. The secular mission of (principally American) universities demands that they ‘instill enough skepticism to divest students of any substantive truth claims – especially religious ones – that could disrupt the demands of the most important social virtue, namely open-ended toleration’ (p. 359). Protestant reformers opened Pandora’s Box in their attempt to strengthen and deepen Christian life and doctrine. Instead they launched the trajectory that produced the secular ‘Kingdom of Whatever’: the unintended reformation.

Many readers will note that some ‘World We Have Lost’ sentiments seem to lurk behind Gregory’s arguments, but the author argues against mere nostalgia. For him the post-modern world is failing due to its failure to provide sufficient answers to the Life Questions. Said questions remain essential and must be re-addressed. Contemporary society speaks of rights, but can contemporary science discover them in the material substance scrutinised by the finest microscopes? Rights take for granted a natural law, a philosophical anthropology, a creature created in the image and likeness of God: the academy must be unsecularised.

The Unintended Reformation demands much from the reader. Through circa 400 pages of text and 150 more of endnotes, the author leads us through a maze of critical positions. Unfortunately the publisher’s decision to publish endnotes instead of footnotes and to omit a bibliography hinders our progress as we seek the sources of information. The author writes with passion, but not always with clarity. Occasionally the prose runs away from him as sentences and paragraphs seem endless. But is Gregory’s argument convincing? A glance at the many reviews posted on amazon.com reveals the book’s impact. The majority are favourable; some suggest that the Ursprung is a moveable point and could just as easily be placed in the Middle Ages or the Enlightenment. Perhaps. Some commentators claim they have read the book two or three times. If you are worried about the current state of society and interested in understanding it, I recommend you read it at least once perhaps in the context of a course or discussion group, so the issues raised can be pondered and debated.

---

The reviewer, Thomas M. McCoog SJ is the Archivist of the British Province of the Society of Jesus.

[1] The Times, 7 July 2012, p. 23

[2] e.g. ‘The Other Confessional History: On Secular Bias in the Study of Religion,’ History and Theory, 45(2006), pp. 132-49; ‘No Room for God? History, Science, Metaphysics, and the Study of Religion,’ History and Theory, 47 (2008), pp. 495-519; ‘Can We ‘See Things Their Way’? Should We Try?,’ in Seeing Things Their Way: Intellectual History and the Return of Religion, eds. Alister Chapman, John Coffey and Brad S. Gregory (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2009), pp. 24-45

[3] http://www.chiefrabbi.org/2012/01/12/the-limits-of-secularism-published-in-standpoint-magazine/



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