What if the Reformation Had Been Different?

On this day marking the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, I’ve found myself asking some questions about what the Church today could be like, had things happened differently. What we know for certain is that the Catholic Church in 1517 was in many ways corrupt and was in need of economic justice reform, and was suffering a case of institutional overreach in areas. I applaud how Martin Luther was willing and courageous enough to speak up against these abuses, and was willing to hold his position even when threatened and excommunicated.

I also think it’s important to point out that Martin Luther isn’t a lone reformer, nor was he the first, nor has he been the last. Though we mark this day as a pivotal shift, as perhaps a domino that pushed over the next, the Church in 1517 was headed for reform. The printing press would inevitably change the landscape. Theology would, as always, mutate along with the cultural milieu. What I mean to say is that change was in the air.

So I find myself asking what it would be like today had someone else been the one to push over that domino.

What if it had been someone who wasn’t an Augustinian friar with a pessimistic view of human nature?

What if it had been someone who though the problem was that we had gotten too far removed from the spirit of Judaism, rather than seeing our Jewish brothers and sisters as enemies (or worse)?

What if the Reformation had resulted not in a divestment from the Catholic Church but a re-investment in the life and faith of the Eastern Church, from which it had split in 1054?

What if, instead of sola scripture (which is a logical fallacy), the advent of the printing press had encouraged a holistic connection between the written scriptures, the living and changing traditions of the Church, and the pursuit of contemplative wisdom?

What if it those who held the Bible in their hands had been able to hold onto the gift of its mystery, as much as the mystery of the Table, or the symbolic nature of the cathedrals and icons and stained glass windows, rather than slowly devolving into proof-texting and biblical idolatry?

What if, instead of sola fide, the Reformers decided to reject the heresy of original sin and return to the nature of original blessing? What if Luther and Calvin had realized that all of the frustrations about indulgences and purgatory, all of the anxiety and fear about salvation, could be solved, not by doubling down on original sin, but by returning to original blessing?

What if, instead of excommunicating Luther, the Catholic Church had held a Council to hear all grievances, and then entered into a long period of prayer and contemplation to discern how to move forward?

What if those who reformed with bluster and bravado had led with the unshakable confidence of those who need not raise their voice to make their point?

What if the reformers had been women, or the poor, or those who were most affected by the errors and injustices of the Church?

What if everyone involved in the life of the Church in 1517 had taken a moment to breathe, settle down, accept that change was happening and also inevitable, and decided to be intentional and wise and kind about the way that change played out for everyone?

500 years later, our American church overall is not particularly healthy. It is dying, it is calcifying, and it is suffering both from retrenchment and entrenchment. And, just as assuredly as was true in 1517, it also is growing, learning, redirecting, edifying, serving, worshipping, loving. Change is once again in the air and also inevitable, as it always is. So for me, for us, on this anniversary of the Reformation, the question I find most pressing is this: what kind of reformers will we be? Will we be reactionary and brash? Will we be rigid and rushed? Will we defend old systems and traditions rather than listen openly to critiques? Will we have the courage to look at the ways our own church structures promote economic injustice, or preach anxiety-producing theology, or prevent full inclusion of those on the margins? Or will we take the time, this time, to trust our God and trust ourselves enough to settle in, center ourselves, and lead from unhurried integrity?

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