For Martin Luther, it was a life changing moment. For Europe, at the time, it was the prelude to a tortuous process of change. But, for us, five hundred years later, the anniversary of the Protestant Reformation passed like a damp squib with church leaders engaging in predictable conversations about church unity.
Am I alone in thinking that we should mark this anniversary with something altogether more courageous, like a new Reformation? We live in days when the church worldwide is in a parlous condition, with its function reduced to being an agent of comfort, having lost touch with the society in which it is placed and unable to address the most pressing issues of our time. This is a tragedy.
Tom Wright, one of the most distinguished and influential theologians of our time, has dared to restate that the church’s authentic mission is to transform society in accordance with the vision of God given to us in Christ. His book ‘The Day the Revolution Began’ shows how the ‘gospel’ has been terribly misinterpreted by those churches that would most pride themselves on their relationship to the Bible and to Martin Luther. He calls Christians to rediscover their vocation as agents of change in society.
Why is this important? It is important, not just for the church, but for the wider culture. We have lost our way, big time. The neo-liberal economic dream is in tatters. We have organised society around ever more efficient production of goods and services, without due regard for our well-being or our relationship with the natural world. We have plundered and polluted our way through the earth, disrupted our cultures through the individualism implicit in marketisation, so that we are now so weak we cannot respond to the most serious challenges we have ever faced as human beings.
In this process we have attempted to replace moral aspects of religion with a new rationalism. Most notable were the utilitarians, like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill who would encourage us to embrace the pursuit of the greatest happiness of the greatest number; then there was Kierkegaard, Rawls’ theory of justice, Alasdair MacIntyre and others, who have all explored the realm of morality, apart from religious commitment. And the conclusion has to be that we have failed to provide good reason for morality. Morality exists in a different sphere, the realm of empathy and narrative. It appeals to people rather than commands and it naturally works with religious commitments.
The other notable feature about these rational attempts to tell us what to do is that they have almost universally failed to engage with our nature as creatures and our responsibilities to the natural world. They are constructs focused only on human society and thereby tragically deficient.
So, is it time for a restatement of the Christian faith, a new search to uncover the authentic good news as meant for this day, a good news that will radically change the church’s relationship with the cultures in which it is situated? I believe it might be.
Instead of 95 theses, I think that today we need just two.
- The Church should understand itself as a transformative agent in society
- The Church should accept a new commandment to live in harmony with the earth.
These two theses alone could produce a radical transformation of both church and society.
Chris Sunderland Nov 6th 2017
 See Rise up with wings like eagles by Chris Sunderland, Earth Books 2016