Martin Luther’s presentation of his 95 Theses at the end of October 1517 is traditionally understood as the dawn of the Protestant Reformation. Five hundred years later, what have we learned, and what might the future hold?
The Rev. Evan Keely, Interim Minister
On or around October 31, 1517, a thirtysomething monk in the German university town of Wittenberg presented a protest against what he viewed as abuses of Christian practice regarding repentance; there is the familiar image of Luther nailing these Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Schlosskirche, the Castle Church in Wittenberg, though there is no definitive evidence that this ever actually happened. It seems unlikely in retrospect that his goal at that time was to begin a revolution in the spiritual life and in the religious institutions of Western Europe, but it would not be oversimplification to say that what he did changed the world.
The mere fact that we use the word Reformation (with a capital R, no less) says a great deal about how these events are perceived. Reformation implies cleansing, improving, removing flaws, redeeming virtues. Yet what Luther and other Reformers accomplished is a multifaceted and highly complex series of phenomena in which we see the growth of democracy and the emergence of the modern nation-state intertwining with passionate and even fanatical sectarianism that all too frequently degenerated into brutal violence. “Reformation” is also a very broad term for a highly diverse set of different ideas, impulses and institutions; even though the sheer numerical quantity of movements may have been smaller at the outset, Protestantism was no less monolithic in the sixteenth century than it is in its virtually innumerable manifestations today. “Protestantism” became a very wide-ranging umbrella-term for nearly any Christian tradition or institution that isn’t Catholic or Orthodox. Nevertheless, there are patterns that appear across denominational lines. They are significant for us because, even though our religious ancestry is fairly far removed from him, ultimately, Unitarian Universalism would not exist were it not for Martin Luther. On this five hundredth anniversary of an event of profound cultural, religious and even political significance for the history of humankind, we do well to remember that Unitarian Universalism, institutionally speaking, ceased to be Christian some time ago, but paradoxically, in many ways we are still very Protestant.
Our heritage as Unitarian Universalists is less Lutheran than it is Calvinist, though it isn’t unfair to suggest that Calvin’s thought might never have gained the traction it did had it not been for the success and longevity of Luther’s protest. And while the liturgical, theological and organizational differences between Calvinism and Lutheranism are not inconsequential, there are similarities as well, one of the most significant of which is an emphasis on what we might call a ministry of the Word. I use the term Word in more than one sense: certainly to mean what Luther or Calvin meant by it, namely the capital-W Word as scripture, which itself constitutes divine revelation in those traditions. Obviously, the Roman Catholicism from which both Calvin and Luther emerged had a ministry of the Word, but a significant change Luther and Calvin (and other Reformers) made was to de-emphasize and/or remove altogether the sacraments that are at the core of Roman Catholic theology and praxis. I am no expert on sacramentalism, but a rudimentary understanding of the role of sacraments in religious practice is that they are (among other things) ritual acts. Luther and Calvin were among those who sought to create a Christianity that was centered primarily not upon those ritual acts, but upon the Word. Roman Catholics — both clergy and laity — read and interpreted scripture. But in many Protestant traditions, the central focus of communal worship is on the Word, and that shifted the focus of worship away from the primacy of sacraments — of ritual — as had been (and continues to be) the Catholic practice, and makes the primary event of corporate worship the text — the text of scripture, and the interpretation of scripture, which is to say, the sermon. In many Protestant traditions, the sermon is the central event of worship. There are undoubtedly exceptions to this, but my experience of Unitarian Universalism is that we are absolutely and unambiguously the heirs to this way of thinking about communal spirituality and religious life, focusing secondarily upon ritual and primarily upon the didactic. I don’t think I am saying anything wildly controversial in suggesting that we are a very verbal people. In my experience, a lot of UUs pride themselves on this characteristic. I am not saying we should or that we shouldn’t take pride in it; I am simply observing that our emphasis on words — and on the words of sermons in particular — is very Protestant.
Luther understood the power of what we nowadays call messaging, which is to say the message is as important as the media whereby the message is conveyed. Martin Luther did not have YouTube or Twitter, but he did have something the Waldensians and the Lollards and the Hussites did not have: the printing press. Moveable-type printing was not a new phenomenon by the time Luther came to prominence: Gutenberg printed his now-famous Bible in the 1450s — and by the way, the Chinese were printing with moveable type in the eleventh century, but that’s another story. Luther knew how to make effective use of the lower cost and mass production that moveable type made possible, and he used printing to gain the support of the populace — including, significantly, of wealthy and powerful persons who were able to protect him and support his work. This principle of decentralization of power and wealth is familiar to us: Calvin was among those who embraced similar notions, and of course Calvinism spread to England in the form of Puritanism, which was then exported to America in the Great Migration of the early seventeenth century, which laid the cultural foundations for New England Protestantism which was the cradle of American Unitarianism — and, to a lesser extent, American Universalism. We UUs today cherish this principle of decentralization. One could argue that we fetishize it; it is arguably so sacred to us that we don’t even question it: we can scarcely even imagine an institutional religious life in which some external authority would be able to impose its will upon one of our congregations. In my meanderings among Unitarian Universalists over the decades, I have not infrequently heard grumblings among my co-religionists which can be translated as, “Those denominational high muckety-mucks have got some nerve trying to tell us what to do!” Yes, I even hear things like that in this church. There are many reasons why we ended up this way, and the way we are has its virtues and its vices. One thing we should remember: the pedigree of this tradition includes Martin Luther as a prominent ancestor.
Some see Luther as a pivotal figure between Europe’s Middle Ages and that phenomenon we call the Renaissance. One could argue he does represent a bridge. He believed in demons and devils like many a medieval European Christian might have, but he also believed in individual autonomy in a way that may seem more familiar to us than it might have been to the likes of Charlemagne. It is impossible for me to imagine the evolution of Western democracy and of the modern nation-state without Luther. In many ways he represents so many of the complexities and paradoxes of western European civilization itself. He stands for much of the best and the worst of it: he was a rigorous intellectual and a fearless iconoclast, but he was also chauvinistically partisan in much of his thinking. He is remembered as a champion of individual liberty of thought and conscience, and rightly so, yet he equally deserves to be remembered in infamy for his contemptible ignorance of Judaism and his venomous disdain for Jews. It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that both Thomas Jefferson and Adolf Hitler could claim Luther as a spiritual and intellectual ancestor.
Martin Luther was a skilled writer of both prose and verse, and he had a keen musical sensibility, evident not only in his admiration for the phenomenally ingenious French composer Josquin des Prez, but in his own ability as a composer. He is credited for both the text and the music of a number of hymns, the most famous of which, of course, is “Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott,” Luther’s poetic paraphrase of Psalm 46. In the final verse we find the words: “Er ist bei uns wohl auf dem Plan / mit seinem Geist und Gaben” — God is with us indeed with his Spirt and gifts. One of the most popular English translations of this hymn is by Unitarian minister Frederick Henry Hedge. I suspect that in Unitarian Universalist congregations today, we don’t sing this hymn very often; if that’s so, I wonder if we do ourselves a disservice. There is no great wisdom in willfully forgetting where we came from, especially when we recognize that our cultural and religious heritage includes terror as well as beauty. In acknowledging the wrongs of the past and how our own work of justice and righteousness remains unfinished, and being grateful for those who came before us who, in their flawed, human way, paved the way of progress — it is in these that the spirit and the gifts are ours.