This week marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, which—arguably—is the single most important event in modern history. But aside from some Facebook memes and perhaps a few brief comments in the news, we will watch this anniversary pass with little fanfare, if any, which disappoints me. Not because I care about the historical event so much, but because we are not taking the time to reconcile ourselves to the impact the Reformation continues to have on our lives, spiritually, economically, and environmentally.
I certainly agree with the idea that the medieval church needed reform. The corruption and demands of submission by the priests and bishops were absolutely abusive and corrosive to the spiritual journey into God. And Luther’s insistence that we do not need a priest to mediate between us and God was liberating and gave way to the spiritual worldview I now hold (and treasure). The belief that each of us is responsible for our spiritual condition and that no institution manages my access to God is a worldview I cherish. Within this system, awe and encounter become deeply intimate and personal.
But in the shift towards this unmediated relationship something was lost as well.
The Renaissance introduced us to the humanist values of agency and a morality governed by concepts of reason. And it elevated the position of the individual within this sacred matrix, both for good and bad. One step led to the next, as it does on every journey, and we eventually arrived to our present day liberal society—that is, a society defined by inviolable, inalienable rights. Today the social contract we have with one another is grounded in the premise that each and every person possesses rights granted to them simply because they exists.
Philosopher John Rawls perhaps best articulated this social agreement in his book Theory of Justice, which views a society as good when it grants the greatest possible liberty to its members limited only by the idea that the liberty of one person does not infringe on the liberty of another. That is, society is good when you are free to do what you want, provided you don’t hurt someone else. And it is within this tension between of what is good for the individual and what is good for society that our political and even sacred discourse occurs.
We are constantly arguing and fighting over what it means to have inviolable rights as a human being and what it means to hurt someone else. People have been very successful in arguing that abortion violates the rights of the unborn child, but nevertheless we have legal abortion in this nation because the rights of the woman remain (for the moment) primary. Her liberties would be violated were she not allowed to have control over her body.
Now, there are all sorts of mitigating factors that impact such a complicated question (misogyny and patriarchy being two of the major ones). And, in many respects, the question is still always framed within the modern liberal dynamic—that is, who is the “individual” who has inviolable rights, the woman or the fetus? But we might also try to ask another question—What is best for society? Is it better for society if women are able to decide what to do with their bodies or is it better for society to restrict their freedoms because society values the protection of life?
How does this same perspective relate to contemporary environmentalism? Within the liberal political and legal framework everything is reduced to the fundamental building block of “the individual.” The individual has inviolable rights, like the right to a free and unrestricted life, hence murder and violence are crimes. But the individual also has the right to ownership. This is my computer I am writing on, but the chair I am siting in belongs to Harvard. They grant me use of it, but I do not have the right to take it home with me. They own it.
Nestle has been able to purchase the water rights to tracts of land (just as I am) and use this water however it sees fit. These are the liberties we grant, but what is best for society? Can the water or the oil or the forest or the oceans be owned? Or more accurately, should they be?
What about the internet? Should corporations be allowed to charge people more for faster access because they own the portals or is access to the internet something that is communally owned?
Within Luther’s reforming act, God is encountered in the personal relationship instead of the communal relationship and salvation also becomes personal. My salvation is not dependent on your salvation. You being damned does not impact the prospect or possibility of me being damned. But this is simply not true.
But we are not just individuals, even if our egos and actions are expressed this way. We are also a common life force. We all come from a common source and share a common destiny. We arise out of one another. Together we share in an experience called Creation, that is ever evolving, every changing, with the revelation of God occurring in every moment.
I don’t want to overextend and suggest that the medieval church taught this position exactly, but there was an understanding of identity fashioned within community. Understanding faith meant understanding it within a person’s relationship to family and place. Today, we are marked by rights and choice. If we don’t like something we deny its power over us and we reject it, denounce it, whatever. And there are some very healthy reasons for wanting to be able to do this, but what has been lost?
Marcus Aurelius famously said, “That which is not good for the beehive cannot be good for the bees.” (Sometimes this is rephrased as, “What is good for the bee is good for the hive,” which is not at all what Aurelius was saying but not a surprising reduction within the cultural dynamic that wants to put the individual first.) Human beings are relational, not because of our behavior or our programming, but because we all share the same source. In our overvaluation of the individual we must reject the commonality of our source. And it is this rejection of shared source that has brought us to the brink of environmental collapse. By splintering Creation into tiny, owned fragments we lose the ability to witness the whole.
In this crisis moment, and on this historic anniversary of Luther (allegedly) nailing his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church, we are in need of another reformation of our relationship to the sacred. The beehive is in terrible shape because we have chosen to live by the idea that whatever the bee wants to do is what is most important. And that is simply not true.