Thursday, October 30, 2008

Reformation Day - Why Is It Important?

Well, Reformation Day is this weekend. Unfortunately, many Christians are unaware of the importance of the Reformation.

Why is that important? Well, the answer to that question involves Mr. Henry M.
Never heard of him either?


Almost everyone who takes an introductory psychology course reads a passing reference to Henry M. in the textbook. However, I finally read his entire story and was spellbound by it.
In the early 1950’s, Henry M. was struggling with some sort of emotional difficulty that seemed resistant to all conventional treatment. So, incredibly to us today, his doctors decided to lobotomize him. They removed his hippocampus, a small organ inside the human brain whose purpose was unknown at the time. Then, for the rest of his life, the psychologists studied him.
After surgery, Mr. M. could do almost everything normally. He could speak without difficulty. He could read and write. He could take care of his basic needs. He had no problem with eating, dressing, hygiene and performing daily tasks. He only had one problem: he had no past. He didn’t know who he was or what he had experienced. On any given day he could not remember the events that took place. He couldn’t remember the people whom he had met, or things he had read, from the day before. He could listen to the same jokes again and again with fresh delight. Day after day he met the doctors and nurses, who cared for him at M.I.T, as though he were meeting them for the first time. He had become a prisoner of an eternal present.

Think about what “life” became for Henry M. Although he survived, although he could have fun, was capable of reproducing, could function in all the functions necessary for human existence, he did not really experience “human” life. The human being that Henry M had been, died in 1953, the year he lost his past. A person without a past doesn’t know who he is, does not know how he connects with the rest of the world, and does not know what any of his actions, even the pleasurable ones, actually mean. He experiences every event in life as disconnected from all previous and future events. He experiences events one at a time, isolated from any frame of reference or explanation that would link them together. In other words, the events of his life may provoke emotions, but never meaning. He becomes an intelligent animal. He lives, but he doesn’t know why.

Some years ago, I came to the conclusion that the spiritual life of most modern American Evangelicals and Charismatics has become like the world of Henry M. We like our joyful services. We experience the presence of God. We have learned to market ourselves. We carry on our church business. We continue to exist. However, we have largely lost our spiritual past and this has left us woefully unprepared to meet the spiritual challenges ahead. It leaves us incapable of growing quality lives and of reaching for maturity in all areas of life. We move heaven and earth to convince people to begin the spiritual journey, but have lost the map of where to direct them afterwards. Our interconnection with the culture around us has become almost entirely reactionary. We rage at cultural change but we offer no alternatives. We do not read. We do not create. We do not offer solutions. We seem only capable of critiquing the secular culture. And, while meaningful critique is important, it is not enough. Our spiritual ancestors did not just rage at other cultures and religions. They created an alternative civilization. They developed and refined their gifts and talents based on their Christian worldview. Now, the surrounding culture views us as perpetually angry and defensive. The unbelievers know we do not like what they are saying and doing but they do not see us as having any developed ideology or culture of our own.

In my opinion, the reason for this state of affairs is that we have forgotten who we are. For well over a generation we ridiculed and abandoned all the tradition, ceremony, doctrine, spiritual wisdom and artistic heritage of our Christian past. Instead of blaming our sense of inadequacy and spiritual dissatisfaction on our lack of prayer, study and creativity, we blamed our ancestors and their contributions. In other words, because we were unhappy with the present state of the church, we lobotomized it. Now, instead of connecting our lives and churches to the Christian community of the ages, we seem only interested in the feelings of today. The future frightens us because we are not sure of who we are. So, we don’t prepare for the future either. We have learned to be content with good services and a growing crowd. We watch our church budget and try not to make waves. We seem neither to notice nor care that the quality of our people’s lives seems not to change from month to month or from year to year – not to even mention from generation to generation. We have become content with just existing.

I believe that we have tried to address some of these issues at Christ Church, but doing that is going against the tide of both the American secular culture and the church culture. Nonetheless, I believe that we must keep moving against that tide. American Christians are in danger of becoming unbearably superficial, simply because we no longer take the time or energy to learn and draw from the richness of our heritage. That means that it becomes more and more difficult to win thinking pagans to the faith. It also means that it becomes more and more difficult to give our children the tools they need to grow into mature and well-equipped Christians. At best, they tend to become pagans who go to church on Sundays.

We do not know our Jewish heritage. Hence, we no longer memorize or recite the Ten Commandments. Therefore, our children do not know or revere them.

We do not know our Christian heritage. Hence, we do not know the creeds or the stories of good and evil that the church has participated in throughout the centuries (and may do again)! Therefore, we have no defense against heresy or mental sloth.

We do not know our reformation heritage. Hence, we do not know the deeds or words of Luther, Calvin or even Wesley. Indeed, we do not even know why these people are important to us. In many cases, we do not even know who they were.

We do not know our artistic heritage. Hence, we have lost our appreciation for centuries of hymns, painting, stained glass, architecture and other artistic treasures that were the results of gifted Christians creatively using materials to give witness to the story of redemption. Like science and mathematics, art is a continual conversation with the present and the past. Art builds upon or reacts to, what has come before. Without a Christian past, our modern Christian artists can only borrow from the secular world for their artistic ideas, or, if not, they remain trapped in perpetual artistic adolescence because they have no mentors, colleagues or adversaries.

We do not know our spiritual heritage. Hence, we have lost the lessons of the church fathers, the medieval mystics, the reformers, and the thousands of Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox people of prayer and spiritual disciplines who wrote of the dangers and delights of their spiritual journey. Therefore, we too easily fall prey to charlatans, self-appointed gurus and con artists. We also tend to remain superficial and juvenile in our own individual spiritual journey.

We do not know our literary heritage. Hence, we have lost Dante, Milton, Bunyon, and Augustine. Much more seriously, in an age when the English Bible is available in a thousand versions and supported by thousands of commentaries, serious Bible study has become the dinosaur of American church life. Therefore, we cannot draw on our own heritage when we attempt to explain and defend our reasons for disagreeing with the non-believing culture around us. As we face a world that is increasingly hostile or apathetic about out faith, we have neither a light for our feet nor a lamp for our pathway. Indeed, we have no pathway. We insist on making up the journey as we go along.

In such a climate, it is no wonder that we provide few great leaders or thinkers for the various fields of society. Those Christians who do make it into places of leadership often keep their faith reserved for the “spiritual” part of their lives. It seems not to influence their decisions as bankers, governors, scientists or educators. Even more ominously, the faith increasingly seems not to influence the various aspects of the individual Christian’s private life. Many Christians seem amazed to hear anyone think that their faith should influence anything about their lives outside of that emotional part they call their “spirituality”.

Our definition of “spirituality” is much too narrow. Our happy church life is simply not enough. Likely, Mr. M was happy enough when he was well fed, sheltered and clothed. He was no doubt happy that his immediate needs were fulfilled. Happy or not, he had lost his ability to think about long range issues. In his lobotomized state, he had no future difficulties to face, or future opportunities to meet. That very illusion helped him to be happy. However, it was a shallow happiness that was the result of being incapable of realizing his true situation. That, I believe, is the state of American Evangelicalism, and certainly the state of the Charismatic Movement.

Like Mr. M, we too are locked into seeking only what appeals now, at the moment. Or, worse still, we are locked into defending and perpetrating the secular culture of a generation ago, believing that to be our Christian heritage. The lobotomy has affected both the right and the left: Christian liberals want us to adopt the present secular culture, the conservatives want us to adopt the secular culture of the 1950’s. In both cases, our Christian roots have been largely lost.

Remembering the events and issues of the Reformation would go a long way toward helping us recover our heritage and our minds!

Well, I’ve certainly written enough for now. I didn’t even get around to talking about the history of the Reformation! I promise to write that information next. At least then you will be prepared to know why it is important.

1 comment:

Philip farley said...

My frustration with so much of the church's response to today's troubles is to pull out a flamethrower and burn everything to the ground. Instead of a new covenant approach where God's people start from the humble position of saved by grace we tend to respond to everything with fear. it's as though we have forgotten what we are for and can only scream about what we are against. How can this church be effective in spreading a gospel know as "The Good News" when we have lost the faith to believe in God's ability to control this crazy world we live in? I miss the old Christians who knew what keeping their peace was all about and didn't get bent out of shape at every time something didn't fit into their God "box."