Walking Through Church History 4: Contemporary Church

On October 31, 1517, a young Augustinian monk posted a list of topics on the door of the chapel of German university town he wanted to debate. Debating was a main activity of his order: the German Augustinians traveled around taking opposite sides of disputed questions in public debates to entertain and educate the people, and this monk had been part of those events. The 95 Theses at Wittenburg were intended to be conversation starters, and Martin Luther was ready to argue. There was one thing he didn’t get at the time that changed the whole situation: since he was attacking the Church’s money stream, they wanted to shut him up quickly without debating his issues. The Pope at the time told the local bishops to silence the quarrelsome monks, since the indulgence money coming to Rome was paying for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica and funding Papal Armies.

Thanks to the invention of the printing press, Martin Luther was able to master the new art of public relations, and soon had a following among nobles and people alike to succeed where previous reformers of the past three centuries generally failed: he survived because he found enough powerful friends to protect him. His broad popular support and the fragmenting politics of the Holy Roman Empire made it possible for him to do what Jan Huss and John Wycliff couldn’t. Protestantism arose from the corruption of the Church that distorted its purpose; the desire for reformation had existed for centuries before that. Popular movements that led groups of people away from the Church because those that could be reconciled were inevitably repressed by secular powers that saw them as threat as well. Protestantism succeeded because secular powers strong enough to resist the Holy Roman Empire and the French and Spanish crowns gave them a safe place to develop and grow.

Luther didn’t intend to form a new church; I don’t think any founder of a new denomination ever did. Every reformer wanted to call the Church back to the Christianity of the Apostles, even though their visions of what that was differed greatly. Rising nationalism diminished the vision of a universal community of any kind, as did the competition for the economic development of new lands and new commodities. The role of Evangelization changed as well. Over the 500 years previously, there had been no great need to convert anyone since almost everyone was theoretically Christian. As the explorers went to the Americas, Africa and Asia, they took their faith with them, partly thinking if they preached the Gospel throughout the world, Christ would return. Now, preaching the Gospel to new audiences has become a major focus of almost every Church.

The subtext of Evangelization from the 16th century through the 20th was conversion to Western culture and integration into the Western economic system. Enterprises to spread the faith, such as the Spanish missions of California, worked to help indigenous people, but also they were a means of control. In the conversion of Northern Europe, local customs and culture because part of Christianity, for better or worse; in the conversions of the 16th century onward, local customs and culture were intentionally destroyed and excluded from Christianity. It was assumed that an Englishman, a Frenchman, a Dutchman, or other European was a perfect Christian, and so one could not be a Christian without being like the European in every way, conveniently forgetting Christianity didn’t begin in a Western or European culture. Protestant missionaries and countries were more generally thorough in this cultural assimilation than Catholic ones.

Orthodox Christianity responded to the fall of Byzantine power in 1453 by living as second class citizens under Muslim regimes and resisting connection with Western Christianity. The cultural memory of the Crusades, especially the Fourth Crusade (1204) that sacked Constantinople, led them to think they would be better off on their own in the midst of a largely benign foreign power than make common cause with Western Christianity. Eastern Christians in Muslim lands generally endured and thrived in spite of second class citizenship until the past decade, when they’ve been labeled as American sympathizers and targeted for persecution.

Reconciliation between dissenting Christians in general became an alien concept, which has lasted to this day. Ultimately, Luther’s original objections to cash indulgences and other corruptions of the Church he saw on a trip to Rome in 1510 were resolved, some as soon as the Council of Trent (1545-1570) and most by the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Once the break was made, the unfettered discussions led people away from one another in search of Truth, and hardened positions as resolution seemed impossible. Protestantism itself fragmented almost immediately, with the fractures continuing to the present time. Perhaps the greatest loss was the loss of Charity and the judgement Christians, Catholic and Protestants alike, grew quicker to pass on one another.

The political power struggles that resulted from the Reformation ultimately brought freedom of religion to the princes and noble with enough authority to enforce their will on their state. Every country officially patronized the Church of its rules and suppressed dissent of that Church within its boundaries. The great Catholic country of France tolerated Calvinism for a time, repealing it when they felt it was against its interests. The Spanish Monarchs formed their Inquisition both to rigorously suppress religious dissent and to seize the assets of the wealthy (poor people were never accused of heresy and confiscation of property was part of the penalty). England suppressed Catholicism in Ireland as they suppressed Irish national identity. Germans officially followed the denomination of its local ruler, mostly Protestant in the North and Catholic in the South. Only the Netherlands permitted people from different faiths and religions to live side by side in peace, provided they participated in the Dutch state and Dutch commerce.

There is more open diversity of Christianity thought today than perhaps any period of history.  It’s always existed, in one way or another, humanity has always been a diverse species.  Refusing to accept diversity is a violation of Charity, at least, it’s a refusal to accept reality.  Blindly encouraging diversity is dangerous when diversity pushes people apart to the extent is generates and promotes conflict.  Discussing opposing opinions freely with mutual respect is a high mark of civilization and Christian Charity; encouraging people to set up opposing war camps for having different views is a promotion of evil in my book, and not Christian work.

The great hubris of almost every Christian denomination is the attitude that their Church is the natural culmination of Christianity, the perfect Church Christ would have wanted and the Apostles preached, the summit of 2,000 years evolution. Both Catholics and Protestants alike are guilty of this, although not universally within every denomination.  The cost of this viewpoint is we assume there is nothing more we need do to come closer to Christ, no way we need to grow.  The other side of a summit is a downward slope.  I hope none of us find ourselves on one in this life.

Christianity today has accepted final fracture as the normal state of being, forgetting in many ways the unity Christ desired for his Disciples. There is no ideal Church to reconcile Christianity to, no ideal past we can return to when all were one in perfect peace and harmony. Just as the human race has a tough time imagining the entire world as one planet, one people traveling through space together, Christianity seems incapable of any movement to undo the estrangements of the past. Reconciliation now is as elusive as it was in 1524.  Yet I think the great challenge of history, the great dream Christianity has had through the ages is that all who follow Christ is one family, coming together in Christ, living together for Christ.  Paul lamented the growing division in Christianity in the first chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians.  Even though this may not happen in our lifetimes, this is a quest we should all be interested in.  The desire to be One should be a guiding principle as we reflect on our Faith, in how it affects us personally and how we try to live together in larger Christian community.


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