A Necessary Tragedy

This year (2017), and this month (October) marks the 500th anniversary, ‘officially’ of the Protestant Reformation. I was at a theological forum that commemorated this event, and looked at the original break event 1517 and subsequent years from a traditional Protestant viewpoint, a post-Vatican II Catholic viewpoint, and a Separatist viewpoint. A term that came up a few times was that the Reformation was a “Necessary Tragedy.” It was further noted, that Catholics have tended to look at it as a tragedy but not all that necessary, while Protestants tended to see it as necessary, but not all that tragic.

For me, I see it as necessary because the church lutherof the West sought not only spiritual unity, but ecclesiastical unity, and they did not simply seek unity, but sought uniformity. Such an undesirable state needed to change. To ignore regional cultures and language, and have a governance that is not empowered locally certainly needed to go away. In the East, that happened much earlier (with 1054 AD being thought of as the pivotal year, although they could mark back time as far as they want). In Northern Europe, it started in 1517 with the “magisterial reformers” with separatist reformers both before and after. For the Philippines, one has to go to the American Occupation, as well as the Aglipayan movement. With the rest of the Catholic Church, Vatican II seems to be the pivotal time frame. Yes it was necessary, sooner or later. And it still is.

As far as tragic, I don’t see tragedy in Ecclesiastical disunity. Centralization of power— perhaps even more so Ecclesiastical Power— creates deep problems. So one religious governance seems to me to be something of which to be horrified. And it wasn’t tragedy for lack of uniformity. It seems like diversity was identified as a good thing in the first century church… but its goodness became more deeply questioned over time. There is no tragedy in diversity.

Where there is tragedy was that people on all sides of the unity/disunity, uniformity/diversity divides saw that it was appropriate to fight and kill each other over it. It is hard to appreciate diversity. At an ecumenical gathering recently to which I was invited, it began to be clear to me that even those who theoretically should embrace unity with diversity, struggle with appreciating some forms of diversity. Some forms of diversity are embraced, while others are squelched or castigated. The tragedy is that we identify people within our own ecclesiastical neighborhood as US, and those from other ecclesiastical neighborhoods as THEM… and we tend to see diversity as a problem to overcome, rather than something to embrace.

Centuries of fighting with words, laws and guns was needless. While it is easy to blame the Catholic church for this, as one from a Separatist tradition, I know that the Protestants also had blood on their hands.  And, in fact, the Separatists have had their moments of shame as well. But it was not necessary. I am reminded of Paul and Barnabas having different visions for ministry. They could have supported each other and gone their separate ways in peace… but instead had to fight with each other, wound each other, and be an embarrassment to the church. And still they ended up going their separate ways anyway. I have come across people almost 2000 years later still arguing about who was right.  They truly miss the point. BOTH WERE RIGHT— AND NEITHER.

So I guess the answer is that it may be correct that the Protestant Reformation was a Necessary Tragedy. It was indeed necessary, but it was not necessary that it was a tragedy.

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The Lutheran Church invited the Pope to join in the celebration of the 500th anniversary year of the Protestant reformation on October 31st, 2016. The Catholic church asked if the term could be changed from “celebration” to “commemoration.” The Lutheran Church actually agreed to it, and they joined together to mark this important year. Perhaps commemoration is the better term. Letter us all remember this together. A necessary date. A date that did not have to be tragic… and yet in some ways did become tragic. But an important day of embracing  Unity with Disunity and Diversity. Prayerfully, we will figure out how to actually do that.

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Quote of Myth, Meaning, and Ministry

One of my students put a great quote in one of his papers for our Cultural Anthropology class.

“Myth is a perceived truth which is immeasurably bersgreater than concept. It is high time that we stop identifying myth with invention or simply human imagination, with the illusions of primitive mentality. The creation of mythis among peoples denotes a real spiritual life, more real than any concepts and of rational thought. Myth is always concrete and expresses life better than abstract thought can do; its nature is bound up with that of symbol. Myth is the concrete recital of events and original phenomena of the spiritual life symbolized in the natural world, which has engraved itself on the language, memory, and creative energy of the people… it brings tow worlds together symbolically.”

<Stated by Nicolas Berdaev in “Freedom and the Spirit.” Quoted by Samantha Lichtenberg in “Experiencing Samoa Through Stories: Myths and Legends of a People and Place.”>

I found that this particular quote has been used in a number of books and articles– and deservedly so. I appreciate the value of myth. Of course, when I say that, I invariably have to add the note, that the term myth makes no assumptions as to historicity or “truth,” An accurately described historical event can be a myth as much a work of imaginative fiction. To see this, though, one has to understand that the term “myth’ has many meanings. In common parlance, it often means “old stories about things that we know ain’t so.” Berdyaev here is using the term more as a literary or theological term.

However, I have come across many a theologican who will say that the term “myth” does not imply ahistoricity… and yet they act in their writings as if it does. Because of this, I prefer to use the term “mythic” rather than “myth.” A story, regardless of it being true or false, accurate or inaccurate, historical or ahistorical, can serve a mythic function— resonantly explaining and justifying core cultural values.

There is a clear link here, I believe, between Berdyaev’s view of myth and Ricoer’s view of metaphor.

Ricoer sees metaphor not as figurative or imaginitive language, but as a link between two terms— one abstract and one concrete. Meaning is found in the tension between the concrete and the abstract.

Berdyaeve sees myth not as imaginative fictuion, but as a link between abstract thought and concrete narrative. Meaning is, again, found in this tension.

I have heard it said that allegory is an extended metaphor. From a syntactical standpoint, that makes sense. However, from a functional standpoint, I think the argument could be made that myth is an extended metaphor. That also clarifies things in another way. The concrete object in a metaphor can be real or non-real, much as the concrete narrative of a myth can be historical or ahistorical.

Berdaev also connects myth with spirituality. If one identifies spirituality as the overlap of power and meaning (in line with Paul Tillich) this is certainly true. Myth empowers and is empowered by the culture within which it resides, and likewise is embued with meaning from, and provides meaning to that same culture.

In Christian ministry we need to create myths, and parables. We need stories that resonate with the respondent culture– affirming and challenging the values of that culture.

More stuff on Myth and Parables in my book “Theo-Storying

The Timeless Church

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We talk of the local church, and the universal church. The local church is the community of faith, while the universal church is the Body of Christ or Bride of Christ, depending on your metaphor of choice.

Baptists, of which I am lumped, often tend to focus on the local church. I like the idea of the autonomy of the local church. Frankly, however, the local church doesn’t really matter all that much if there isn’t a spiritual unity among all communities of the Christian faith.

The unity of the church is identified in metaphors (body and bride), as well as rituals. In the Eucharist, the unity with Christ is shown through the eating and drinking of the elements. but it is also done as a group… suggesting community. Paul connects baptism with uniting with the death and resurrection of Christ. However, baptism appears to be identified with unity of all believers as well. The (Matthew version of) the Great Commission suggests this. Ephesians 4:4-5 points to baptism as linking all believers. The metaphor is taken even further in I Corinthians 12:12-14 where the spiritual unity of the church is described through the metaphors of being immersed in the spirit (like Baptism) and drinking of one spirit (like Eucharist). This passage doesn’t only describe the unity of the church, but also its diversity. Both unity and diversity are vital to the church.

But I believe it is valuable to consider the church as a unity not only in space, as described above, but in time as well. Romans 14:9 states “For this reason Christ died and returned to life, so that He might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.” The dead in Christ are seen as equal with those living, and sharing in the having the same Lord. I Thessalonians 5:10 says a similar thing, “He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.” Personally, I find it interesting that the Eucharist connects the past with the present and future.  I Corinthians 11:26 notes that “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup (PRESENT), you proclaim the Lord’s death (PAST) until he comes (FUTURE).”

Okay, that may not be compelling, but for me, I think it is better to think of Thomas Aquinas and Charles Spurgeon as part of the church rather than having once been part of the church. Here are a few thoughts related to the idea that the church exists as a unity in both time as well as space.

  1. We should study church history, not only for practical experience, but because they are family. They are as relevant to who we are as the church today.
  2. Restorational movements, and movements that ignore much of church history in preference for the “primitive church” or the recent church, has done much to ignore God’s work in the world.
  3. We should recognize that we are the bridge between the past church and the future church.

This last point is actually quite important. Far too often, Evangelical churches ignore this point, acting on the presumption that not only are we theologically in “the last days,” as we have been for almost 2000 years, but that we are in the “last minutes” of the church age. This presumption seems ill-advised, especially since Jesus seems to make it clear that trying to time Christ’s return is bad. The parables of the faithful steward and the 10 maidens point to being prepared for a long wait. Rather than assuming that the church today is spiritually childless, we should plan for spiritual children, grand-children and great-grandchildren, preparing for the church of the 22nd, 23rd, 24th, and 25th centuries (and perhaps farther still).

To fail to prepare for the church of the future is disrespectful of our spiritual forefathers who prepared and trained us. It is also unconscionable to plan NOT to disciple the next generation, and transform communities, on the presumption that Christ is returning very very soon. Further, since each of us are only a few skipped heartbeats away from seeing Christ, we should be planning for this inevitability rather than something that will happen someday, but with no certainty of happening in our lifetimes.