Reformation and Thinking About Human Difference

Why does it matter how anyone tells the story of the Reformation? Sixteenth-century chroniclers, contemporaries of Martin Luther and John Calvin, drew on the Bible for the structuring of their narrative; Luther and Calvin were cast as instruments of divine revelation, embedded in the playing out of divine will in human time. That model, of divine revelation realized through individual human lives, did not end with the sixteenth century. It is there in the writing of Leopold von Ranke, held to be the father of modern history. It is there in the celebration of Luther as the "cause" of the Reformation, a way of thinking Ranke brought into the modern world from those sixteenth-century chroniclers.

The Reformation is one of the great and dramatic instances of human difference: "Christians" in the sixteenth did not agree on what the word meant, what it entailed for a person trying to live it, and they killed one another over the content of the word. "Christian" might mean refusing to take oaths and being baptized as an adult; "Christian" might mean infant baptism and a collective commemoration of the Last Supper; "Christian" might mean infant baptism and the Mass as collective worship. Many images capture the emotional power of the growing distance between fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, husbands and wives: the shattering of a glass vessel, the sundering of a tree, the shredding of a tapestry. Those images point toward the emotional power of the experience of difference. But in those same years, Christians told stories in which one group was God's instrument, another, the Devil's; one position was not simply right for a group of people, it was divine and true. The power of those stories abide to this day.

This week, Holy Week, I begin telling another story, another model for how we might speak of wrenching, harrowing human difference - not the kind of difference we nod towards, but the kind of difference we feel, experience viscerally, as those Europeans did now five hundred years ago. That story begins by taking God out of it. This is a human story, not a divine story. There are no divine instruments. It is a question of perspective: God alone knows who God's instruments are. Our work is to tell a story of human beings, from our perspective.

The story revolves around the core mystery of Christianity: the Incarnation. All Christians share the belief that, in the words of the ancient Nicene Creed, Jesus Christ was "begotten, not made," the Son of God, at once divine and human. But what is it, to be "human"? In the sixteenth century, that question acquired terrible force; in the early years of the century, it was already troubling. It was an ancient question - the Greeks had asked in in many different forms - but with the proliferation of humanist texts in the fifteenth century and, at the end of that century, Columbus's landing on an island populated with persons no European had seen before, the question was no longer one of self-reflection. It was one of definition.