It is a time, it seems, for anniversaries. Fifty years since the passing of the UK Abortion Act, with its toll of almost 9 million babies. One hundred years since the Russian Revolution – that also saw the slaughter of millions. And now, more positively, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, launched after Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg.
In his poem, The Four Quartets, T S Eliot famously said, ‘humankind cannot stand too much reality’. People have debated his meaning ever since, but perhaps most obviously the words resonate with our inability to experience, enter into, and maintain ‘truth’, carrying within that our predisposition to sin. Two of these anniversaries are surely testimony to the delusion with which we willfully deceive ourselves. For example, you can ‘legitimately’ take the life of an unborn child, because it’s not a human being till it’s born; equally, you can ‘legitimately’ tear down and destroy the beliefs and structures on which society is built, with all the human slaughter that entails, and forcibly reallocate resources … in order to impose a class system that will allow equality and fairness for all. Who are we kidding? The rationale for both testifies to the human capacity to reconstruct morality, elevating self-interest and self-justification over truth in order to avoid responsibility for what we do. As Eliot hints, if we really acknowledge the truth, how could we live with ourselves?
The third anniversary, however, is almost diametrically opposed to this delusional mindset, because it demonstrates the courage of the human spirit to reach out to truth, no matter what the cost, while confronting the evil we have allowed. Luther’s stand against the sale of indulgences – Medieval Monopoly’s Get out of Hell card – flew in the face of Catholic hegemony that asserted its right to put a price on salvation. The monk’s rediscovery of grace, coming like the unwelcome announcement of prohibition at a beer festival, was a direct challenge to the ecclesiastical power brokers of his day, who insisted that entry into heaven was entirely dependent on good works, and that the eternal and inescapable inadequacy of believers meant they had to pay.
For many, this view of the gospel had meant existential despair – at the very least death meant a long stay in limbo, at worst, eternal damnation. Whatever you paid, nothing was certain. Luther’s cry that salvation was by grace and not merit came, therefore, like the inrush of life restoring water at the end of a long and terrible drought. Yet many who eagerly embraced this ‘new’ understanding would pay the ultimate price with their lives.
Today we are once again attempting to re-define the gospel, with a whole new set of ecclesiastical ‘indulgences’ that determine who can and cannot enter heaven. According to the reframed Bible, ‘In’ are all those people who advocate non-judgmental, indiscriminate love – which is another way of saying every lifestyle and every belief system is now approved. ‘Out’ are all those who hold to what is branded a literal understanding of the Bible. Thus ‘religion’ is approved, provided only it endorse the reconfigured morality of the secular State, with any and everything else branded hatred, intolerance, and bigotry.
Yet more self-delusion, it appears, to justify behaviours that in any other age would have been branded sin and apostasy.
Disintegrating families; what seem almost daily reports of sex grooming scandals and abuse; soaring mental health problems … we see the results all around. Medieval Monopoly’s Get out of Hell card has become transmuted into what for many today is a one-way ticket to hell on earth.
We are in urgent need of another ‘reformation’.