Recently, I was invited to give a paper to the University of Divinity’s Centre for Research in Religion and Social Policy. The event was billed as ‘Luther, Protestantism and Society’, and was a low-key way to mark Reformation Day. There was, however, no beer to be found, and so the event was always going to struggle to be true to character.
There were, however, four speakers. Monica Melanchthon (Pilgrim College) spoke on ‘Luther, Bible, and Gender’, focusing especially on Luther’s exegesis of Genesis 38. Gordon Preece (Director of RASP) spoke on ‘Luther, Vocation, and Precarious Work’, and Andreas Loewe (Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral) spoke about ‘Luther, Music, and Bach’.
I offered some reflections also, abbreviating parts of a larger project that I’ve been working on. A published version of the paper will appear soon, but here’s a little section:
For most of its life, Western forms of Christianity have not heeded the words of the Hebrew prophets to be a sanctuary unescorted by borders or bullets. Nor have they placed much store in the warning carried in the words ‘… crucified under Pontius Pilate’. Instead, they have been made inebriate by drinking from the same wells of imperialism that created the empires of Egypt, Assyria, and the United States.
Signs that the keg may be running a little low occasions another opportunity for Protestant communions to dissent from all ‘stupid allegiance to political authority as if that were service to the church and, a fortiori, to God’ (William Stringfellow), and to embrace instead what Davis McCaughey called a ‘transitory character’. Without minimizing Christendom’s remarkable achievements, it seems judicious, imperative, and overdue for those traditions forged under its assumptions, atmosphere, and protection to undergo appraisal. This, as John de Gruchy rightly reminds us, does not mean ‘adopting a politically neutral stance or eschewing the responsible use of power’. Indeed, a project like the Reformed’s is, after all, essentially public and acutely concerned for the public commons. ‘The question is not’, therefore, ‘whether the church is going to use political influence, but how, on behalf of whom, and from what perspective it is going to do so. Is [such influence] going to be used “to preserve the social prestige which comes from its ties to the groups in power or to free itself from the prestige with a break from these groups and with genuine service to the oppressed”?’
For those who hanker after a secure life, a kind of invulnerable area in the world, the Word of God holds out no promise, no escape, no counterfeit security, no withdrawal from the actualities, ambiguities, uncertainties, and instabilities of human life. The idolatry of certainty – whether cultural, political, or intellectual – signals ‘a withdrawal from accepting the peril and the promise of the Incarnation’; namely, the call to live ‘an exposed life’ before God, one ‘stripped of the kind of security that tradition, whether ecclesiological or institutional, easily bestows’ (Donald MacKinnon). This is the church’s atypical and baffling existence. It also goes by another word – ‘discipleship’. It was this direction towards which a young Lutheran by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was looking when in London in the early 1930s he preached that:
Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its apologia for the weak … Christendom has adjusted itself much too easily to the worship of power. It should give much more offence, more shock to the world, than it is doing. Christianity should … take a stronger much more definite stand for the weak than to consider the potential moral right of the strong.
During his first American tour, Bonhoeffer spoke also of a church ‘beyond religion’. While his now-famous wrestlings with the question of a ‘religionless Christianity’ and of ‘interpreting biblical concepts nonreligiously’ seem to have had their main geneses in Karl Barth’s theological critique of religion, it is clear that Bonhoeffer was pressing beyond Barth towards something more as-yet unknown. Neither an ‘extra’ to the normalities of human existence nor a ‘stopgap’ for when we have reached ‘the limits of our possibilities’, Bonhoeffer’s God is fully present in all of life’s ‘polyphonic’ dimensions. ‘We cannot, like the Roman Catholics’, Bonhoeffer said, ‘simply identify ourselves with the church’. For ‘Jesus calls not to a new religion but to life’, the content of which is a participation in God’s powerlessness in and suffering ‘at the hands of a godless world’.
Bonhoeffer’s is a call to reject the claim that ecclesiocentricity and its institutional permanence are necessary in order to make the world coherent. He rejects, in other words, the myth that the church is the telos of world history wherein ‘the whole space at one’s disposal is filled with ecclesiology’, and where ‘the world has disappeared from the horizon’ (J. C. Hoekendijk). He rejects, therefore, a church turned in upon itself (ecclesia in se incurvata) and so the reduction of mission to proselytism into particular cultural forms.
Here we come to modern Protestantism’s failure to know why it exists anymore. As a commentator noted in The Washington Post just last week, ‘Protestantism has become an end in itself … The result is denominationalism in which each Protestant church tries to be just different enough from other Protestant churches to attract an increasingly diminishing market share’. Bonhoeffer did not make this misjudgement. Firstly, because he had no problem with saying the third article of any ecumenical creed. He refused, in other words, to not hope for and work towards the genuine and international unity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. And secondly, because in his terms: ‘The church is church only when it is there for others … The church’, he wrote, ‘must participate in the worldly tasks of life in the community – not dominating but helping and serving’. This refrain found echo in the World Council of Churches’ report, published in 1967 as The Church for Others and the Church for the World. The report grappled with the perception of a growing secularization in the West, pleading that the Church not discern in its ‘change of social function’ a ‘loss or emigration from society’ lest it understand mission to be ‘a counter-attack to restore’ Christendom. It argued also that we might be wisest to consider the possibility that secularisation might in fact be ‘a fruit of the gospel’, and a much-welcomed invitation to seek traces of Christ’s transforming work ‘outside the walls of the Church’ and among those ‘who may have little or no connexion with the churches as they are today’.
Brad Gregory’s long threnody for medieval Christianity masks an unwillingness to consider that, however unintended they may have been, the liberalising consequences of the reformers’ congeniality with what we today might call ‘secularity’ was a deliberate theological move. It was a move birthed of the instinct that the hegemony of the ecclesia meets its counter story in the truly catholic authority of the free and freeing Word who ‘came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him’ (Jn 1.13).