October's Lesser-Known Holiday (The Most Important of Them All)

Fifteen minutes from my home and workplace, the city of Salem in Massachusetts has pulsed steadily with tourism and traffic for the past month. Living just across the bridge from the American cultural epicenter for all things spooky, it would be hard to miss the arrival each fall of the Halloween season.

Yet October 31 also marks another milestone that this region is specially positioned to reflect upon. Reformation Day -- commemorating the posting of Martin Luther's "Ninety-five Theses" to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg on All Hallows Eve, 1517 -- while not as harrowing or sugar-saturated a holiday, is worthy of our consideration in Boston. We are, after all, "the cradle of American Protestantism," as Mark Noll has put it. Indeed, from its earliest Puritan colonies to Harvard University, and marred along the way by the tragic witch trials that have imbued Salem with its predilection for the paranormal, Greater Boston's Protestant heritage is complicated and indelible.

As we approach the 500th anniversary of this catalytic spark, which initiated the most significant split in the Christian Church since the Great Schism separated Rome and Constantinople nearly 500 years before, it is appropriate for us to wonder how we should remember this event in our pluralist present. Holding in mind this question and with a keen awareness of New England's Protestant milieu, Gordon College will host a conference this November, in partnership with the University of Notre Dame, the Boston Theological Institute and Refo500: "Protestantism? Reflections in Advance of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, 1517-2017."

While we are jumpstarting the commemoration a few years early, it is my hope that this conference will bring into greater focus the many ways that the Reformation shaped our world. Our event partner Refo500 delineates six distinct spheres of its impact: historical, theological, religious, political, social, and cultural -- all of which we will explore in depth over three days together on Gordon's Wenham campus. As a sociologist, I was struck years ago by Robert Wuthnow's trenchant observations in Communities of Discourse that the Protestant Reformation laid the groundwork for a number of fundamental developments in modernity. He argues that the Reformation precipitated the rise of the modern university in Germany, the flourishing of urban centers across Europe, and the triumph of centralized political power (seen most obviously through the English Reformation). Indeed, the Protestant Reformation transformed not just our economic and religious spheres, but virtually every domain of public life.

Even as we work together to unpack where we've come from, it's just as important that we look toward where Christianity is going. How should the Christian community as a whole proceed into the coming centuries, in light of where it's been? I would suggest, and I certainly dare to hope, that we are entering into an era of invigorated ecumenism. The landscape of Christianity is vastly different now than in the 16th century. The Church -- be it Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox--no longer holds the same sway it once did in the West. Certainly, given this shift, it has become easier to identify a shared faith across denominational lines that once divided the church, and to look with goodwill and generosity toward our partners in the Christian mission, even those with whom we may have significant doctrinal disagreement. The famous quote from Philipp Melanchthon, a Luther contemporary -- "In essentials unity; in differences, liberty; in all things, charity"--has become something of a rallying cry for many of us who lead Christian institutions.

It is under this banner that Pope Francis has had such great success in his first year as Bishop of Rome. As I recently commented to the Washington Post, the Pope's incredibly strategic, profoundly symbolic actions over the past several months have marked a shift in how Christianity as a whole is perceived. By washing the feet of prisoners, refusing the papal apartment, sending letters to aggrieved parishioners and speaking at length about how Catholics have become infamous for their beliefs on a narrow set of issues rather than the fullness of the Christian message -- all the while holding personally to the specific tenets of his Catholic faith -- the Pope shows that Christianity still has something important to contribute to the wider world.

Yet, certainly, our differences persist. Professor Tal Howard, who directs Gordon's Center for Faith and Inquiry and will be co-leading the conference alongside Notre Dame's Mark Noll, wrote a short, thoughtful piece on his own reflections leading up to the event in which he suggested that "as the Reformation quincentennial approaches, Catholics ought to try to think about why so many, then and now, felt the necessity of the Reformation. Conversely, Protestants ought to consider why Catholics, then and now, have perceived it as tragic. That might not answer all questions, nor mend all divisions. But it might not be a bad place to start."

So, as traffic in Salem snarls through the end of October, as neighborhood yards clutter with cotton cobwebs and plastic skeletons, as bowls of sweets are filled and ransacked over the next week, I encourage you to remember with me the world-shaping impact of a very different All Hallows Eve nearly 500 years ago, and to ponder a question with great portent: What comes next?