What better way to start your day with a little Liam Neeson? This time it wasn’t Star Wars, Taken, Schindler’s List, Rob Roy, Les Miserables, or Batman Begins. It was a film with some religious implications, and no I don’t mean Narnia. Instead of all of those wonderful films, I chose this morning to watch a PBS Documentary about Martin Luther, narrated of course, by Liam Neeson. It was well done as far as documentaries go and heck, what can go wrong when the likes of Liam Neeson narrate. It’s like March of the Penguins, nobody really cared what the penguins did or would do because Morgan Freeman was the real star anyway. But in a way this movie brought into view something for me that, at least for a time, I had failed to see.
Today wasn’t the first I had heard about the Reformation. I’ve read books, written papers, listened to lectures and seen movies all about it. By no means does this make me an expert, it simply means I have a picture of what went on. Today though, something in this documentary stood out to me about the events that gave birth to the 95 Thesis.
It’s well known that Luther’s trip to Rome left him disillusioned, as he felt less and less secure the more embraced the dogmatic thought of the day. But after his trip he was given that opportunity to teach and read the scriptures and those movements gave birth to the famously known, and often romanticized, Gospel insight. Salvation was/is a free gift from God to the sinner given through the work of the Spirit on account of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. No good work or slip of paper will secure salvation, because, salvation belongs to God. Only, upon realizing this scriptural teaching Luther didn’t immediately react, what the documentary seemed to suggest was that it was an issue of concern for people, not a matter of correcting theology, that forced his hand.
We often like to paint the picture of the Reformation as one of a great battle for a return to the orthodoxy of the early church as presented in the scriptures alone, and indeed it was. But this documentary seems to suggest, at least in part, that the Reformation was about caring for the common person whose conscience was troubled, and whose money could better be spent caring for their families than in a coffer clinging for a soul from purgatory to be springing. Indeed this is also true. Thats the problem with both presentations, one makes it an issue of theology, the other makes it an issue of community wellbeing, yet both are accurate.
In recent days it seems my email/facebook news feed has been littered with several people saying the same thing. Take for example this quote I was emailed a few days ago. In his book, If the Church were Christian, Philip Gulley writes, “This is the great irony of Christ’s Church - a significant number of its members care more about believing certain things about Jesus, than following his [as] an example of love and service. If the church were Christian, mirroring the compassion of Jesus would be more important than echoing the orthodoxy that has been built around him.” Gulley seems to be suggesting that Christians are bogged down with theology and in the end, what matters is caring for people and living the Christlike life rather than maintaining the orthodox understandings.
Facebook provided a similar experience. Tony Jones is exploring different understandings of atonement theory during Lent and every Wednesday posts one of them with some commentary. This weeks post entitled, A Better Atonement:Christus Victor, explore the notion that Christ’s death is understood through its result. Tony writes, “The crucifixion is not… cosmically necessary to reconcile God and humanity. Instead, Christ’s death is God’s victory over sin and death. God conquers death by fully entering into it. God conquers Satan by using the very means employed by the Evil One. Thus, the crucifixion is not a necessary transaction to appease a wrathful and justice-demanding deity, but an act of divine love. God entered fully into the bondage of death, turned it inside out by making it a moment of victory, and thereby liberates humanity to live lives of love without the fear of death. It’s a beautiful thing, the crucifixion, in this view. And, for those of us who are robustly trinitarian, it maintains an egalitarian view of the Trinity — one in which the Son and Spirit are not junior partners in the atonement.” The notion is explored more fully in the link above as well as Gustaf Aulen’s book which is also spoken about on the blog linked above.
While it would be easy to say that the notion is another attempt to widen orthodox thought, Tony brings up an interesting point concerning the crucifixion, “its a beautiful thing…in this view.” The question I would ask is, why does the crucifixion have to be beautiful? It seems to me that most of what passes for deep theological insight these days is nothing but an attempt to make palatable a Christianity that no longer seems to make sense. Only, the questions we should be asking, we stopped asking them a long time ago.
I attend a seminary in Lombard where in June I’ll graduate with an MA. In the fall I’ll be returning to the seminary I began my theological graduate education at to finish my M.Div. In 6 years Ill have gone from St. Louis, to Lombard, and back again. I bring this up because my journey encapsulates why I’m having such a negative reaction to what I see going on. In St. Louis I often felt as though theology was more important than the people in the pews. In Lombard, it is the exact opposite, so much so that I feel theology is sacrificed on the altar of community and service.
Right now I feel caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand there are orthodox theological standards, truth if you will. On the other, love and care for the neighbor. At each and every turn it seems as though they are at odds with one another. Good practice means we pretend we don’t have differences or that any ideas about God are true. Good theology means we hide in our ivory towers and fail to engage in the world that just doesn’t want to understand things correctly. The problem is that both extremes fail to communicate the truth in love, and this is the call of Christianity. It is both word and deed, knowledge and caring, Christ and a cross. The way, the truth, and the life are not mere words that should be used to negate all other religions, they are an invitation to walk, think, and embrace.
Christianity, whatever else it has passed itself off as, is truth and love. Theology matters as much as people matter, this is the great insight of today. For Luther it wasn’t simply that the Roman church was usurping the power of the Gospel, but that people were actually being effected by it. That this world was not being cared for through the work of the Church is sounded by the hammer on the door in Wittenberg. In a time when it is easy to forsake that which separates us the Church needs to remember the truth from her past, the creeds she confessed, and the Christ who came to save her. But this remembrance is not simply for the sake of repristination, but the care of the whole of creation. We need both aspects if we are to be salt and light, if we are to be that which we were paid for. The question we should be asking, the ones we stopped asking a long time ago, is how do we hold in tension truth and love?
Hermann Sasse once called the road Luther walked to Rome a lonely way. Others who have followed in Luther’s footsteps claim to walk that same lonely way between Rome and Protestant thought. The lonely way we walk today is between ivory towers and empty community. It is the way that calls people to repentance, and feeds them bread when they are hungry. It is the way that holds on to what it has been given, but gives freely of what it has. It is the way that led Christ to a Cross, and out of a tomb.