The 500th anniversary of the Reformation has been on my mind for weeks now. It was a turning point in Christian history and in the history of Western Europe. What should we make of it?
It is a legacy of growing up Lutheran that I continue to admire Luther’s willingness to stand up on principle. He was willing to challenge a massive institution and religious empire – the Roman Catholic Church – on points of principle about God. He was a rebel with a cause.
But was the Reformation’s legacy all good?
What I have struggled with is the battleground on which Luther largely fought the Reformation – theology.
My sense is that the zealous pursuit of a science-like, all-encompassing theology of God and Jesus has been given too much weight in Christian history. It is deeply ironic and shameful, for example, that Luther and other Protestant leaders went from being persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church to advocating for the persecution of others, like the Anabaptists.
When people are so consumed by a zeal for theological correctness that they lose the ability to love one’s neighbor as oneself, something has gone very wrong.
This is not to say that theology is not an important and valuable tool. It is. We are called to love God with our minds. Theology is one way to do that. And the diversity of the 66 books of the Bible calls out for some unifying ideas and ethics that will translate into how we live and think.
But speaking and reading theology about God can replace actual experience of God. It can, in its very form, make the Christian life too abstract and too left-brained.
I have had one profoundly spiritual experience in my life. It was an experience without words. I cannot describe it with any degree of accuracy using words. All of the theology and preaching I heard from the pulpit throughout my life did not prepare me for that experience. In fact, all of the theology and preaching I had heard had lulled me into believing I knew God through the words about God I had been taught.
We casually use words like grace, faith, forgiveness, resurrection, and salvation like they are distinct and quantifiable elements from a periodic table. They are, in fact, ineffable phenomena.
Interestingly enough, the humility with which we should approach words and names for the actions and essence of God is exemplified in the name of God that appears in the Hebrew Scriptures. As this well-written article by Rabbi Louis Jacob explains, we actually don’t know how to correctly pronounce the four-letter Hebrew name for God. It appears in the Hebrew Scriptures 6,823 times. But Jewish tradition long discouraged the actual speaking of the name and instead substituted “Adonai”, the Hebrew word for Lord.
In extreme theologizing we have too often lost the fear and awe of God and all that God is. We make God safe through theology. In some ways, theological constructs can even become an assertion of human power over God.
So how do we know if theologies and even church practices are on the right track?
Here is one of my suggestions – we should pay attention to their fruit. Jesus spoke often about good fruit being a natural product of a living faith in Him and of a good heart. Theologies and church practices can best be judged by their fruit. How do their believers and followers live out their faith in the following four areas?
ATTITUDE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD
Do you sense God’s love for you even as you are in awe of God and aware of God’s unwillingness to accept what is wrong in this world?
Is Jesus at the center of your faith and heart?
Do you seek out knowledge and experience of God like a person in a desert seeks out water?
When you pray do you not only seek out help from God open your heart to what God desires of you?
Do you approach God and Jesus with humility and mystery?
ATTITUDE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH PEOPLE
Are you forgiving and full of loving kindness for others?
Do you make the effort with the help of God’s Spirit to see and perceive other people the way God sees them?
Do you love your neighbor as you love yourself?
Do you have strong integrity, honesty, and a clear sense of what is right and wrong?
Do you struggle against evil and people consumed with evil without losing yourself to hate and blind anger?
Do you care about justice for the poor and vulnerable around you, individually and collectively?
ATTITUDE AND RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD’S EARTH
Do you see the earth as God’s and act appropriately respectful and compassionate towards it?
Do you and your community of faith balance the use of God’s earth with enabling it to thrive and prosper even when this requires sacrifices that others around you are not wiling to make?
Do you and your church pay attention to Creation?
Is being thoughtful stewards of God’s earth part of the fabric of your faith and life, including your civic life?
In your faith and life, do pigs, oak trees, and mussels matter?
ONE’S OWN LIFE
Do you love yourself at the same time you love others?
Are you honest about and aware of your failings and seek not only forgiveness but also seek to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit every day?
Do you seek to have your heart and your will reformed on a regular basis so that how you live is an eloquent statement about your faith?
Do you listen for God’s calling for your life? Do you do hard and challenging things when you sense that is God’s call?
Do you know your talents, enjoy using them, and use them creatively and energetically for God’s Kingdom?
If these are the widespread fruits of the theology and practices of your faith community, then God is a whole and living presence there.
Of course, all of us, individually and collectively, will fall short of what God offers us and wants from us. This is why God’s forgiveness is always needed.
This is why we will always need reformation that goes beyond words.