REFORMED, ALWAYS REFORMING
Byron C. Bangert
Isaiah 29:13-14; Mark 7:1-13
Today is Presbyterian Heritage Sunday, a day "set aside by the General
Assembly [of the Presbyterian Church] . . . for its congregations to celebrate,
reflect upon, and learn more about their rich and diverse heritage" [bulletin
insert]. The materials prepared by the General Assembly for this particular
Sunday in 1998 highlight the strong emphasis on education that has
characterized Presbyterianism from the beginning. As the first paragraph on
the back of the bulletin notes:
The Protestant Reformation began in the schools of Europe. Amost all
of the leaders of the movement were university educated, and drew
support from those who looked to the New Learning to help free them
from superstition and an uncritical appropriation of past traditions.
Piety and education, faith and reason were assumed to be allies in a
common fight against ignorance and fear. Schools, then, were natural
collaborators with the churches in a common calling to liberate
humanity--heart, mind, and spirit--for life before God.
The relationship between the churches that call themselves "reformed" and
most universities and schools is quite different today. At times it seems that
the university and the church, far from being natural collaborators, are natural
adversaries. The university has become a decidedly secular institution in the
minds of most observers. Social research even documents that the more
education people acquire, the less likely they are to be active members of a
church. That does not bode well for Presbyterians, who continue to place great
emphasis upon education. I have seen enough of universities to know that they
are not entirely benevolent, nor even entirely benign, institutions. There is
significant hostility and widespread indifference toward religion in academic
life. At least some of the indifference and hostility, however, is due to failings
within our churches. This is not a sermon about the failings of our educational
institutions, as real and widespread as they may be. It is a sermon about how
churches have contributed to our present spiritual crisis by resisting the sort of
revolution in thinking--a clearly theological reformation--that has marked our
life from the beginning.
In this morning's text from Mark, some of the religious authorities who are
keeping an eye on Jesus and his disciples note that they do not wash their
hands before eating. This is not a concern about germs, it is a concern about
observance of religious ritual. According to the tradition of the elders, purity
required a ritual cleansing before eating. This is one way that good Jews set
themselves apart from others. By his response, Jesus makes it clear that this
tradition, and others like it, are of little importance. More than that, he takes
on the religious leaders, pointing out how their preoccupations with certain
traditions come at the cost of much weightier matters of the law. "You have a
way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition,"
says Jesus. The one commandment that Jesus mentions has to do with the
honoring of parents, in particular providing for their support. The tradition
apparently allows a religious person to make a religious offering to God, and
thereby to become free of the obligation to use this offering for parental
support--"thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you
have handed on. And," Jesus concludes, "you do many things like this."
The contrast between "human tradition" and "the commandment of God" could
hardly be put more boldly. Usually we assume that our religious traditions are
ways of fulfilling the commandments of God. We assume that the particular
forms of our worship service are the particular ways in which God wants us to
render our devotion. We assume that the teaching of the tradition is a way of
teaching the Word of God as revealed in Jesus Christ and through the
scriptures. But this text from scripture clearly suggests that sometimes our
traditions can become substitutes for the real thing.
One of the bywords of Presbyterianism is that we are "reformed, and always
being reformed." The Reformation of the Church that took place back in the
16th century with Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Knox, and many others,
did not just happen once and for all. It needs to continue to happen again and
again--"always being reformed." The problem as I see it today is that our
churches and their members have become much more interested in trying to
reclaim and be true to the theology and faith of the reformers of three and four
and five centuries ago than we are in continuing to be theologically reformed.
We are more concerned to honor the tradition than we are to engage in the
intellectual and spiritual challenge of reformulating the faith in language and
concepts that will carry us across the threshold and into the third millenium. If
many people in the university typically regard religion as uncritical, ignorant,
even superstitious, unfortunately there is ample evidence to support their claim.
Thinking in terms of our Presbyterian heritage, with its emphasis upon
education and its traditional challenge to ignorance, superstition, and uncritical
appropriation of tradition, how may we best honor and live out of that
heritage? The Danish Christian philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, wrote a
meditation called "The Tame Geese" that begins like this:
Suppose it was so that the geese could talk--then they had so arranged
it that they also could have their religious worship, their divine service.
May 17, 1998
Every Sunday they came together, and one of the ganders preached.
The essential content of the sermon was: what a lofty destiny the
geese had, what a high goal the Creator (and every time this word was
mentioned the geese curtsied and the ganders bowed the head) had set
before the geese; by the aid of wings they could fly away to distant
regions, blessed climes, where properly they were at home, for here
they were only strangers.
So it was every Sunday. And as soon as the assembly broke up each
waddled home to his own affairs. And then the next Sunday again to
divine worship and then again home--and that was the end of it, they
throve and were well-liking, became plump and delicate--and then were
eaten on Martinmas Eve--and that was the end of it. [THE
Kierkegaard does not say so, but it is obvious, that the geese only talk about
flying, they never fly. They talk about true goosehood, but they never practice
it. They do talk among themselves about one who had claimed his true
goosehood, according to Kierkegaard, but that goose came to a bad end. These
geese just get fat, and lose their ability to fly, and become somebody's dinner.
Here is a fable that could apply to almost any dimension of the religious life.
The point is that the reality of our faith is revealed in what we do, not in what
we talk about. And it is in what we claim for ourselves, not in what someone
else has claimed for us. Reformed Christians are not reformed by paying
tribute to the faith of a former generation of Christians. Reformed Christians
are reformed only if they are in the process of being themselves reformed.
Maybe we should not even use the word "reformed." It suggests an action that
is past and has been completed. AA and other twelve-step groups teach their
members that they are never reformed, they are always in the process of
reforming. They can always suffer a relapse, a return to their unreformed
condition. And the same thing is true for our churches. When we locate our
faith in the past, when we honor the tradition more than the living Word and
Presence of God in our midst, we have not only ceased reforming, we have
ceased to be reformed!
The Protestant Reformation, whose heritage we claim, was not just a
theological reformation, but it was clearly that. Protestants substituted the
authority of the Bible for the authority of the Church. They changed the
understanding of the sacraments. They abolished the veneration of the saints.
They promoted a new doctrine of salvation that spoke of justification by faith.
They taught the priesthood of all believers. They encouraged the reading of
scripture in the vernacular by the laity. They created psalters, and eventually a
new hymnody for congregational singing, some of the tunes even being tavern
songs. Now centuries removed, it is hard for us to appreciate the extent of the
dramatic changes that this Reformation helped to accomplish in the teaching
and practice of the Christian churches. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many, it
also resulted in a permament split between Protestant and Catholic Christianity
in the West. Some observers think that we are facing a similar split within
Christianity today. History never precisely repeats itself, however, so it is hard
to say where our churches are headed in the spiritual crisis of our day, but it is
not hard to see that there are major and growing lines of division.
If we are true to our heritage, a heritage that does not begin with Luther and
Calvin, but that goes back to Abraham and Isaac, to Moses and the prophets, to
Jesus and his disciples, then it seems to me that we must be engaged in the
unending task of re-formulating the faith for our time. Mainline churches have
long since stopped teaching the literal truth of the Bible, but we have only
begun to come to terms with the historical nature of this witness to God's
presence in the life of Israel and the Church, to the life and ministry of Jesus, to
the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit, and to the realities of our faith. We
have only begun to come to terms with the reality that this historical witness
does not necessarily provide us with historical fact. We have only begun to
come to terms with the reality that every attempt to formulate our faith in
words, in doctrines, in statements of belief, is conditioned by time and
circumstance. We have hardly yet begun to come to terms with the evidence
that what has often stood as orthodoxy--"right belief"--has often been
established as a matter of political expediency or compromise, a case of the
winners making and writing history and theology.
Moreover, we have only begun to come to terms with what science tells us
about the origins of our universe and the emergence of life on this planet. A
recent survey of Presbyterians throughout our denomination finds that a
significant portion of our members (almost 50%) reject the basic evolutionary
idea that human beings evolved from other forms of life [MONDAY
MORNING, April 6, 1998, p. 21]. And we are only beginning to understand
what our own technological creations and interventions mean for the future
existence of life on this planet. Genetic engineering is in its infancy, talk of
human cloning is still talk (so far as we know), but the technologies of bionic
medicine are growing, we rely increasingly on better living through chemistry,
and the prospect of full-head transplant has already been seriously raised. In all
this we are faced in radically new and profound ways with questions about
what it means to be human, and to be created in the image of God. Yet in the
face of all this, major segments of our Church are responding by struggling,
sometimes valiantly, sometimes desperately, to reassert and re-establish the
orthodoxy of the Christian faith in the terms and language of the 16th century
or even earlier than that.
Perhaps I exaggerate, but not much. Christianity faces an intellectual, moral,
and theological challenge at the close of this millenium from which we are
largely in retreat. Presbyterian ministers are generally required to study Greek
and Hebrew, but they do not have to study any history, economics, social
theory, physics, or biology. Given our heritage as Presbyterians--a heritage that
emphasizes education and reform, a heritage that understands the sovereignty
of God to mean a Divine interest and involvement in all that happens in the
world (and not just on the pages of the Bible), a heritage that is morally earnest
about the need to order all of human life in keeping with the Divine purpose--one might hope that among us, of all places, a new beginning could be made.
Not an absolutely new beginning. Not the establishment of a new religion.
Not an altogether new faith. But a profoundly new understanding of God and
the world, an intellectually compelling and spiritually sustaining new vision of
God's way with us. It has happened before that God's people have been called
to a new apprehension of the reality of God and the realities of their faith. I
believe it is happening again. AMEN.
Copyright 1998 by Byron C. Bangert