Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Reformation Revisited

Martin Luther is a powerful figure for me, even with his shortcomings. The Reformation, while changing some important things, and being a major step in furtherance of a personal relationship with God, over and above the standing practices, never managed to truly break out of the "church" model of Christianity, or for that matter out of the Pauline tradition of Christianity. (Note: By clicking on the title above there is a link to a biography and a wealth of resources about Martin Luther.) I want to suggest some reflections on the true inspirations of his life, and his gift to us all.

The Course warns us of the strong tendency of our ego to meddle in the affairs of the Holy Spirit as follows:
The holy instant is the result of your determination to be holy. 2 It is the 3 The desire and the willingness to let it come precede its coming. 4 You prepare your mind for it only to the extent of recognizing that you want it above all else. 5 It is not necessary that you do more; indeed, it is necessary that you realize that you cannot do more. 6 Do not attempt to give the Holy Spirit what He does not ask, or you will add the ego to Him and confuse the two. 7 He asks but little. 8 It is He Who adds the greatness and the might. 9 He joins with you to make the holy instant far greater than you can understand. 10 It is your realization that you need do so little that enables Him to give so much.
unquote (ACIM:T18.IV.1)

And all of us who have worked with the Course know of our own experience just how hard it is to leave well enough alone. So, if Saul/Paul had a legitimate experience on the road to Damascus, the risk is too much ego interference in giving expression to that experience in his life, and that is how he could end up turning Jesus's teachings on their ear. Likewise I believe that Martin Luther also experienced the Holy Instant, and yet remained a child of his time in history, and was perhaps not ready to be radical enough, staying broadly within the church mold, even while finding it impossible not to pursue his issues which were to lead to the schism (ego!) called the Reformation. It is the same mistake all of us make a million times before we ever learn, and it merits nothing but our forgiveness, and respect and recognition for the true inspiration at the foundation of this man's thought.

In a brief bio of Martin Luther on the site referenced above, we find an interesting summary of the main theme of his life:
"But Luther himself saw the Reformation as something far more important than a revolt against ecclesiastical abuses. He believed it was a fight for the gospel. Luther even stated that he would have happily yielded every point of dispute to the Pope, if only the Pope had affirmed the gospel.

And at the heart of the gospel, in Luther's estimation, was the doctrine of justification by faith--the teaching that Christ's own righteousness is imputed to those who believe, and on that ground alone, they are accepted by God."

This is quite remarkable. In a way it would seem then that it was only ML's conditioning, misplaced loyalty to tradition, in which he kept thinking of the church as the vehicle for God's word, which made him feel the need for validation of the above by the Pope. Inner acceptance of Jesus's Good News (the name of the Greek word Euangelion, the Gospel), which in Course terms is summed up as: "Teach only love for that is what you are," (ACIM:T-6.III.2:4) would indeed suffice, no papal imprimatur needed.

Martin Luther also realized that we should go back to reading the Bible ourselves, for that the Church had gotten between a people and their God. His "Verdeutschung der Schrift" was a truly a Herculean achievement for which we must be grateful to him to this day.

However, if anything, Luther wasn't radical enough, and that is why the Reformation stayed stuck in "Christianity," for he stuck to the bad habit of misreading the Bible as the revealed word of God, rather than a collection of writings of a number of people over about 2000 years, struggling with their relationship with God, and truly ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. Had he been able to free himself from his Christian indoctrination, and step far enough back to do that, the Bible might have revealed itself as a collection of writings which does not provide the ANSWER to who or what is God, but rather poses the QUESTION of what should our relationship to God be, for it is not coherent at all, except by virtue of the theological constructs built on top of it by either Judaism or Christianity. And the answer of course is within, is experience, and there are plenty of wonderful expressions of that to be found in the Bible.

Likewise, Luther's other main beef, against the selling of indulgences, was obviously right on point, except once again not radical enough in retrospect, for he was not a critical enough reader to see that Paul's theology about Jesus was in marked contradiction to the original teachings of Jesus, as many critical readers after him have pointed out. In particular the whole sacrificial theology that goes back to Paul's concept of vicarious salvation (we get to sin, and he dies for our sins, making the world and the body real, and thus letting the ego off the hook somewhat, but still feeling guilty), is the foundation thought on which the whole notion of indulgences was based. So while Luther argued against the practice of selling indulgences, he did not recognize that the foundation was in Paul itself, and moreover that Paul turned Jesus's teachings more or less into the opposite of what he actually taught. He might have been better off to eliminate all of Paul's writing from his version of the New Testament, yet he was too much a child of the belief in sin himself, and could not make that step.

However, I believe he was instrumental in clearing the way for many to indeed undertake having their own relationship with the Bible, and work on their relationship with God quite beyond the church context more so than before. At the same time however the translation itself becomes part of the problem, because among other things all different terms for "God" in Hebrew (OT) are translated essentially the same, so for all its good intentions the translation contributes to a theological homogenization, which is increasingly harder to untangle, unless one goes back to the original.

Finally by continuing in the church model, the Protestant church, while more liberal and open in a lot of ways, reinforced the familiar old pattern of external practice of a faith, rather than seeking the internal path. The need for teachers and preachers in the church model is simply another part of the ego script. Our relationship with God post the separation is a problem to us, because we don't want him around, and our troubled mind comes up with this projection of an angry creator God, who is mad at us for messing up his plans. The extreme inconsistencies of the Biblical literature give expression to the whole range of feelings related to God, and the God concept is not at all homogeneous. We however do not want to entertain questions, we want answers, and hence we empower theologians to explain the Bible to us, and to run the church. We donate money to the church to keep God away from us, and pacify him, so we hope he won't come after us. The church becomes merely another authority figure in the dream, including the potential for abuse in many different ways. It is merely another instance of the ego's victim/victimizer script, and codependence a central implied norm.

The difference with the Course is that Jesus is very clear that this is a self-study course, and truly the lessons lead us to the experiences which will increasingly reveal deeper and deeper levels of meaning in the words of the Course. The Course itself becomes superfluous in the end, as will all teachers of the Course--if we truly study the Course that is--for we could also form a dependent relationship with a teacher, as much as many self-proclaimed teachers offer indispensable interpretations (at least in their own minds), so that instead of a help it becomes a hindrance, and a detour. In other words, the Course properly understood is a path of disintermediation, and taking responsibility for our own relationship with our Inner Teacher, and in the end with God. The path of the church is a path of intermediation, which rests on the Pauline notion that we're all sinners. This provides plentiful job opportunities for a priestly class, and theologians etc., who are all in business for the express purpose of shielding us from the responsibility for our relationship with God.

Copyright, (c) 2005, Rogier F. van Vlissingen. All rights reserved.
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