Churches and communities on both sides of the Atlantic have begun preparations to mark "Reformation Year," the quincentennial of the day that Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and priest, a Professor of Sacred Scripture, sent a list of questions in Latin for debate to the Archbishop of Mainz, within whose archdiocese lay Saxony. Luther subsequently translated those questions into the spoken German of the time and had them printed, so that they might be spread to those who were not a part of the hierarchy of the medieval Church.
As we approach the five hundredth anniversary, we shall be hearing stories of the fearless and brilliant monk, the Doctor of Sacred Scripture, the Saxon preacher. We shall be hearing stories of resistance and of founding "new" Churches. There are also ecumenical events planned, but those events, too, are rooted to a moment that they take as historically definitive, whether as the founding of a modern Church or as the irreparable rupture of medieval Christendom.
I hope this period will also offer us the time to reconsider the stories we have told and the ways they shape us to this day. The stories that were told in the sixteenth century, in the midst of preachers claiming mutually exclusive truths, took as their model Scripture--that is, a divine unfolding of eternal truth in human time. In every story, one Church was "true," not for the people of the time or in a particular place, but eternally and absolute true. In every story, other Churches were all "false," not wrong for the author, but absolutely and eternally false.
The Pilgrims--their name chosen to reflect their sacred destiny--carried those stories across the Atlantic, stories of divine design and one true Church. That sense of one true Church, revealed in human history, in turn shaped the stories of the "foundation" of the United States. They haunt us still. They haunt us in the ways we speak about other traditions--Judaism, Islam, perhaps foremost, but also the very sense that any "people of faith" are themselves a unity, a single voice.
What if we take this opportunity to rethink how "Protestant" and "Catholic" were constructed as oppositions in the sixteenth century, the very names reflecting the polemics of the time? What if we take the opportunity to consider how very many different understandings of "true Christianity" were preached and printed in the sixteenth century? What if we tell a story of human difference rather than divine instrument? It might help us to envision ourselves today as encompassing different visions rather than pursuing a unity.