We could all use a little reformation

October 5th, 2017

It is a word you are going to start hearing more and more, or I suspect you will. Reformation. The word will take some abuse, as words can. It will be stretched, poked at with a stick, misprized and certainly misunderstood. It will be exploited, politicized. But it is a magnificently resilient word, one that is not easy to ignore or circumnavigate.

True reform demands clarity. Indeed, clarity is the first indicator of reform, clarity that most often comes at a cost, a clarity we have seen little evidence of in recent times. However, there are exceptions. The unity of effort, the large turnout of charitable humanity we have all witnessed and have been so moved by in response to the late disasters, natural or human, whether hurricane, flood or some monster with a gun; that is clarity. And in that clarity are the seeds of reform.

To rush to the aid of strangers? To help someone you do not know and for nothing in return? This is humanity at its highest and best, reform laboring in the midst of us. It is the gospel without the mess, without the religion and spoilage that so often contaminates it. Love thy neighbor as thyself. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But I am getting ahead of myself. This is not about religion or politics. It is about something much larger, more primal and more thoroughly human.

What history has dubbed The Protestant Reformation, had its start 31 October 1517. That was the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. On the eve of reform, culture was already showing signs of weariness. The old world was coming undone. Superstition and other tyrannies that held it together for so long were beginning to unravel and lose their teeth. We might even call it drunk culture. There is hardly another way to put it. The church was drunk with rage for the heretic, drunk on itself, drunk on the high gloss of its own image — smug, elitist and two-dimensional as that image had become — drunk with power, as it was the government among governments, drunk on the obscenity of its acquired wealth.

Monarchs were drunk for many of the same reasons. They were intoxicated with a sense of their own absolutism and entitlements, granted them by “divine right” and the custom of nations. Most early modern kings were driven by a bloated sense of self, by an overweening and reckless narcissism. In England, Henry VIII was his own religion. Henry was Henry’s own favorite deity. When Martin Luther said, “The world is like a drunken peasant,” he wasn’t just being clever. He was being precise.

The common believer, having been a pawn in the delirium, was caught in an existential bind between the old world and the slow emerging of the new, between the enchantments of middle age piety and the emerging clarity of an early modern culture under alteration, a culture straining toward sobriety. Rome would not give up control or possession without a fight — a long bloody one. But far from silencing reform, the fury of Rome only empowered it, giving reformers spine against the tyrannies and intoxications of the age. And they are fascinating for it (present tense). To this day, their words remain sober, precise, purchased at an impossible cost, seasoned, as they are, with highness. Either way, with reformation, the old world was finished.

Perhaps we are on the eve of reform even now. That is my hope. And while there are obvious differences between early modern and twenty-first century culture, there are similarities nonetheless, some of them unsettling. There are things history still has to teach. But if reform does come, it will not come from the political arena. I am convinced of that. Nor will it come from the religious right, left, center or any other compass point. Why? Because Christianity, at least as a single unit, is not yet convinced of itself. Like politics, it is too divided for the kind of clarity necessary for reform. I think it’s that simple. And if history has taught us anything — particularly the history that demanded a reformation in the first place — religion and politics are incompatible.

No, the hope I sense is from a more common source. Walt Whitman, the quintessential American poet, detected it and named it:

The genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors … but always most in the common people. —Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855 ed.)

The Luther we anticipate will not show up with a hammer, a long piece of paper and a church door. He will not occupy a seat of power, a throne, or even a pulpit. His is of a more common stock, not unlike you and me, my next-door neighbor, or the stranger tapping away at her laptop or meddling with her phone at a coffee shop. All it waits for is arousal, to be awakened.

The cost of reform is steep, and, in truth, we are already paying the cost. What we need, what we are desperate for, is a little clarity. Truth is shy. And who can blame her with the abuses she’s suffered? She hides. She recedes. Reform will first have to be reconciled to her, and to her alone. True reform, at this time in history, will have to be deeper, truer, more penetrating, founded on the conviction that the very secret of America is, indeed, her common people, the only spring from which reformation will come.

John Wycliffe (1320s-1384) is considered the “Morning Star” of the Reformation, its first light. It was Wycliffe who coined the phrase famously quoted by Abraham Lincoln, “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” When I see glimpses of our truer greatness in humanitarian efforts as I have of late, when I see our masses operating together for a common good, I think, “There it is.” It is fleeting. At times, ghostlike. But it is there when we want it bad enough. And we have to want it bad enough. We could all use a little reformation.

David Teems is the author of Godspeed: Voices of the Reformation from Abingdon Press.

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