A Meditation for Reformation Day

It is Recycling Eve because tomorrow is the day our container of paper, plastic and glass gets picked up. Being ever the midwestern male, it’s my job to set it out. It is also Reformation Day Night, as well as the Outhouse where things can be a little contrarian. All that taken together, I thought I’d recycle this post in hopes of putting a little restraint on the modern Protestant tendency to celebrate ourselves in ways that might not be fitting those who claim the name of a man who rests eternally in an unmarked grave.

In his newest book To Change the World, James Davison Hunter begins by pointing out all the various programs and regimes of modern American religionists to bring about change in the wider culture and world. From the political theories of Neo-Anabaptists to high profile evangelical leaders like Charles Colson to Jim Wallis and Stanley Hauerwas, Hunter seriously questions the not only the tactics employed but also the underlying presuppositions which seem to animate them. One criticism is of particular interest: that certain single figures are almost solely responsible for those changes. He writes:

If there is an exemplar whose life mission touches all of these themes and strategies—and who is celebrated as such—it is William Wilberforce (1757-1833). Wilberforce was a member of the British House of Commons and spent over forty years seeking to end slavery and “reform the manners” of his society. He was a devout Christian who believed that true personal change came through salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, and his ideals were fed by his deep faith. As an activist, he led a social movement committed to the moral reform of British society and against much opposition eventually prevailed in abolishing the legalized slave trade. Wilberforce was indeed, a great man and a model of what one courageous person willing to step into the fray can do.

At the end of the day, the message is clear: even if not in the lofty realms of political life that he was called to, you too can be a Wilberforce. In your own sphere of influence, you too can be an Edwards, a Dwight, a Booth, a Lincoln, a Churchill, a Dorothy Day, a Martin Luther King, a Mandela, a Mother Teresa, a Vaclav Havel, a John Paul II, and so on. If you have the courage and hold to the right values and if you think Christianly with an adequate Christian worldview, you too can change the world.

This account is almost entirely mistaken.

Thus ends chapter two. Hunter then goes on to explain what one might hope would be quite obvious to the sane and sober mind. In a word, the real world works in a much more complicated way than certain wistful hearts might imagine. In another word, “Culture…is a knotty, difficult, complex, perhaps impossible puzzle.” If that is fundamentally understood it trends to cast a less-than-enthusiastic reception of ubiquitous calls to transform the world. In chapter four he suggests an alternative view of culture and cultural change in eleven propositions (which is actually the title of the chapter). He begins with one alternative assumption that “one cannot merely change worldviews or question one’s own very easily” and suggests that “Most of what really counts, in terms of what shapes and directs us, we are not aware of; it operates far below what most of us are capable of consciously grasping.” From there a handful of others follow, among which are: culture is a product of history (“It is better to think of culture as a thing, if you will, manufactured not by lone individuals but rather by institutions and the elites who lead them”); ideas only sometimes have consequences (“Weaver’s statement [that ideas have consequences] would be truer if it were reworded as: ‘Under specific conditions and circumstances ideas can have consequences’”); and cultures change from the top down, rarely is ever from the bottom up (“In other words, the work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites; gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management within spheres of social life…In a very crude formulation, the process begins with theorists who generate ideas and knowledge; moves to researchers who explore, revise, expand, and validate ideas; moves on to teachers and educators who pass those ideas on to others, then passes on to popularizes who simplify ideas and practitioners who apply those ideas”).

In keeping with the spirit of the others, Proposition Six is that culture is generated within networks. Here Hunter begins with what he cites as “the great man (or person) view of history.”

It is a Hegelian idea of leadership and history, popularized by the nineteenth-century Scottish historian, Thomas Carlyle…For Carlyle, heroes shaped history through the vision of their leadership, the power of their intellect, the beauty and delight of their aesthetic, and animating it all a certain inspiration from above…[from Moses to Jesus to Buddha to Aristotle to Julius Caesar to Napoleon to Aquinas to Luther to Darwin to Freud to Monet and Degas] All form an aristocracy of knowledge, talent, ability, ambition, and virtue, and so endowed have stood like switchmen on the train tracks of history; it is their genius and the genius of other heroic individuals that have guided the evolution of civilization this way or that; for better or for worse.

The only problem with this perspective is that it is mostly wrong. Against this great-man view of history and culture, I would argue (along with many others) that the key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks. And the more “dense” the network—that is, the more active and interactive the network—the more influential it could be. This is where the stuff of culture and cultural change is produced…My point is simply that charisma and genius and their cultural consequences do not exist outside of networks of similarly oriented people and similarly aligned institutions.

Hunter’s analysis thus far is relatively halting for those who would have it that culture is a fairly simple affair. But it might also have an edifying effect on those inclined to think in similar ways about their own ecclesiastical history and inheritance, as well as their future. Reformation Day is upon us. There is a host of ways to think about it. One way is as a sanctified alternative to Halloween, which seems to require the dubious prior assumption that Halloween is something more than an innocuous, secularized fright fest. Another is to take the theonomic cue and manipulate our collective western history in such a way that dressing up as goblins and spooks is really a way to mock Satan. (Sorry, Pastor Jordan, but I’d rather mock evil by God’s ordained means of grace than with a silly suit. But I’ll keep the suit for the office party.) Still another is the more romantic take, one that first cites a historical reality and then constructs the Reformation in such a way that it not only made bad people good and good people better but also suffers from the Great Man syndrome. By the way, it seems to me that Calvin may have anticipated the folly of the Great Man syndrome by being buried in an unmarked grave.

Then there’s perhaps the least popular way, (sorry, the Heidelblog link has gone the way of the earth since the first posting) which is usually the best way and one which embodies the outlook Hunter is trying to get across:

Reformation Day, as we know it, is misleading. It creates the impression that the Reformation was about “cleaning up” the church. It wasn’t. There were moral reform movements about in the late middle ages and early 16th century but the Reformation wasn’t one of them. The Reformation was a theological event that was intended to have moral consequences, but it wasn’t first of all about moral self-improvement and tidying the ecclesiastical house. Beware all the various “reform” movements in our churches today that want to turn the Reformation into moral renewal (and that’s most of them). Beware when folk invoke a “new” Reformation who don’t understand the old one. Beware when folk call for a Reformation that requires a repudiation of the first Reformation. Those movements abound.

Reformation Day, as we know it, perpetuates the pietist myth that the Reformation happened suddenly and in one-fell-swoop of religious experience (the so-called Turmerlebnis). It wasn’t and it didn’t. The Reformation doctrines developed gradually between 1513-21. In succession, and with fits and starts, Luther gradually realized the great Reformation solas. There are some Reformation solas with which we’re not all familiar. Luther’s first breakthrough happened during his lectures on the Psalms when he realized that Scripture teaches that we’re not just a little sinful but that we’re completely sinful, i.e., that the effects of sin are radical and affect every faculty. We’re not able to “do our part” or to “do what lies within us” toward justification because, as a consequence of the fall, all that lies “within us” is sin and death. Therefore the first Reformation sola was “solely unable.” This is the essential assumption behind sola gratia, the claim that justification is by grace alone.  Grace is no longer to be reckoned a sort of medicinal stuff with which we are injected, with which we cooperate toward eventual justification. Luther came to understand that grace is God’s attitude of favor toward sinners. Grace isn’t something with which we are infused. Rather, God is gracious toward us. He shows us favor. He gives to us what we do not deserve: righteousness and life.

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This entry was posted in James Davison Hunter, Quotes, Reformation Day, Reformed piety, The Protestant Reformation. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Meditation for Reformation Day

  1. Zrim says:

    Well, excuuuuuuuuuuse me.

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