You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. Matthew ch5 v13
It’s impossible to overestimate either the awfulness of the Black Death in the late fourteenth century or its impact on European life. At least a third of the European population died in a few short years, and died quickly, within days of contracting an illness that was entirely mysterious. The disaster transformed the economy of Europe and, in time, its art and its politics, but what troubled religious people was that the desperate prayers of faithful Mother Church to a loving Father God had failed to avert the disaster. This proved to many of them that the church’s effectiveness was crippled by its corruption and that society had developed in ways that deserved God’s punishment; they felt that both church and society had to be changed radically. It took more than a century for the implications to fully sink in, but when they did, religious revolution was all but inevitable: we call it ‘the Reformation’.
The western church of the middle ages was not in fact as hopeless as the reformers thought. There was indeed corruption, idleness and greed, but priests, monks and nuns had sometimes selflessly ministered to the victims of the Black Death, and there was plenty of theological creativity. Reform was needed, but what came was revolution which tried to sweep away even the most positive aspects of the medieval church. There are always those who are suspicious of theological creativity, and indeed it often takes some questionable forms, but without it theology has less and less to say to a constantly changing society, and eventually it serves no purpose at all. Whatever one thinks of for example the ideas of Peter Abelard or Thomas Aquinas, or the development of the cult of the Virgin Mary, it has to be said that these witnessed to a confident, even daring, liveliness in medieval church thinking. But this creativity as much as the corruption, idleness and greed were aspects of the church that had failed to avert the Black Death. The reformers therefore sought to go back to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity as found in the New Testament in St Paul’s writings – writings, remember, that owed nothing directly to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth and a quite a lot to Old Testament ideas that Jesus had overtaken. Moreover, they saw politics as the way to ensure that people could be saved from the errors that came with change, and indeed saved from change itself. Seizing the political levers meant displacing the monarchs and aristocrats who had hitherto pulled them, and replacing them with ‘new men’. Consequently, the Reformation, like all fundamentalist revolutions, was simultaneously reactionary in theology but revolutionary in politics. The
, Cromwell’s Protectorate in Province of Massachusetts Bay and the Islamic Republic of Iran have much in common. England
The legacy of this fundamentalist revolution in western Christianity is still with us, which is one reason it’s important as well as interesting to understand it. The Reformation heritage of the
continues to inform its domestic and foreign policies. The Catholic Church still struggles to get over the Counter-Reformation that was its inevitable reactionary response to the Reformation. Closer to home, the contribution of church people to British political debate about social issues frequently invokes religious doctrines that are two thousand or more years old and were developed in conditions that were unimaginably different from those of today. Perhaps what was most disastrous about the Reformation was not that it split the western church and in doing so started half a millennium of social and military strife, but rather that it stopped theological creativity and development and progress in their tracks. It’s an intriguing thought: if the Black Death had never happened, maybe we’d have long ago accepted that abortion, same-sex marriage and voluntary euthanasia could be accommodated within religious thinking as proper responses to changing understanding and circumstances – though of course the understanding and circumstances might have been very different from what they are. USA
Over the last century or so great efforts have been made to promote the reunification of churches. I’m not sure that these efforts have not missed the point. Engineering institutional reunification, showing respect for each other’s differing histories and points-of-view and working together on social projects are neither the most necessary nor the most difficult things that need doing to correct the calamity of five hundred years ago. If the most valuable thing that the sixteenth century split put an end to was a theological creativity that placed theology in the vanguard of intellectual life and held open the possibility that the rise of science and the growth of European empires might inform and be informed by theological reflection, then clearly what we should be doing is to reintegrate theology into the wider cultural life, not now just of Europe, but of the planet. That means being as bold as some of the most theologically daring personalities of the medieval western church. And we have a great deal of lost time to make up for – almost five hundred years during which catholic and reformed branches of the western church have found themselves permanently dragging along the dead weight of Pauline or medieval theology through the mire of sixteenth century controversies.
It’s not that the church has nothing useful to say to the world; it is that so long as the church’s core thinking has not progressed beyond the sixteenth century anything useful is permanently compromised in the minds of the general public. Maybe the worry is that a church that abandoned positions taken up five hundred years ago in favour of ‘modernisation’ would then not be distinctive, would be just like everyone else of good will. It’s worth remembering that that’s very much like the thinking of the Jewish authorities who had Jesus executed. Followers of Jesus are not supposed to be in the business of being distinctive, any more than they are in the business of taking over the world; they are supposed to be in the business of being useful to the world. Like salt.