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A tragic necessity? The Reformation approaches 500

Pope Francis recently visited Lund, Sweden to acknowledge with Lutherans the religious significance of the coming year leading up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation on 31 October 2017. This is the customary date given when Martin Luther placed his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door of Wittenberg, Saxony. A plethora of events across the globe are in the works to commemorate the epochal event.

But as preparations get underway, the question arises: how should one remember something as complex and contested as “the Reformation”? One might as well commemorate “the Enlightenment” or “the Industrial Revolution” or even “modernity.” The difficulty of answering the question has not dampened the desire to ask it.

Toward these ends, “REFO 500” was launched several years ago. Seated in the Netherlands but with connections worldwide, REFO 500 has emerged as a central hub networking scholars and institutions interested in reflecting on Protestantism’s far-flung influence. The project exists, according to its directors, “to make connections between items from the time of the Reformation and our time. It helps people to understand the meaning of the Reformation…, to see and experience the influence of the Reformation in several spheres.”

Of course, Germany has a special claim on the Reformation’s memory. Cities in the former “East Germany,” where many key sixteenth-century events occurred, have long been sprucing up, eager for international attention—and for tourist spending. Heavily subsidized by German taxpayers, the “Luther Decade” project was launched in 2008 with the purpose of focusing attention on the upcoming quincentenary. “The effect of the Reformation was momentous,” the project’s website reads; “in fact, it was such an important part of world history that a one-year commemoration of the 500th anniversary is not enough.” Each year building up to 2017 has been dedicated to a special topic, such as the Reformation and music, the Reformation and toleration, or the Reformation and education.

How, then, ought one to remember the Reformation?

The looming milestone poses special challenges and opportunities my home country, the United States. The United States distinguishes itself from Europe in not having a “Catholic” or “medieval” past to break from, but sprang into existence, at least in its influential New England colonies, on purely Protestant foundations. Absent the national state church environment of Anglican England or of the Lutheran Scandinavian countries, American Protestantism quickly found itself in a democratizing process, which, while empowering the laity, also fragmented churches into countless “denominations.” The Swiss-German theologian Philip Schaff, a contemporary of Alexis de Tocqueville, memorably described the American religious scene in his The Principle of Protestantism (1845):

“Tendencies, which had found no political room to unfold themselves in other lands wrought here without restraint. Thus we have come gradually to have a host of sects which is no longer easy to number…Every theological vagabond and peddler may drive here his bungling trade, without out passport of license, and sale his false ware at pleasure. What is to come of such confusion is not now to be seen.”

Unlike Europe, which has witnessed extensive secularization in recent decades, the United States retains its religious vitality, even if this had dipped in recent decades. This land of Protestant peddlers has also produced a robust Catholicism, which is now in fact the nation’s largest religious body. Confessional tensions between Protestants and Catholics have lessened significantly in recent decades. A tell-tale sign is that when JFK ran for president in 1960, many, especially evangelical Protestants, worried that his loyalties rested with a foreign despot – the Pope! By contrast, evangelicals have more recently wondered why prominent Catholic politicians are not in step with the social teachings of Rome.

How, then, ought one to remember the Reformation? One provocative possibility comes from the late dean of American church historians, Jaroslav Pelikan. For the interests of truth and conciliation to be served, Pelikan once argued, Protestants and Catholics should think of the Reformation as a “tragic necessity.” Partisans on both sides, he elaborated, will have difficulty acknowledging this: “Roman Catholics agree that it was tragic, because it separated many millions from the true church; but they cannot see that it was really necessary. Protestants agree that it was necessary, because the Roman church was so corrupt; but they cannot see that it was such a tragedy after all.” The task for 2017 then, I would hazard, is for Protestants to try to assess the tragic dimensions of the Reformation while Catholics consider why, then and now, many Protestants felt it was necessary.

Pelikan’s words might not be the final word on the Reformation. But as we look ahead to 31 October, 2017, they might not be a bad place to start.

Featured image credit: Martin Luther by andibreit. Public domain via Pixabay.

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