December 12, 2015


Rethinking the Reformation (PETER BERGER, American Interest)

Religious pluralism compels individuals, on whatever level of intellectual sophistication, to differentiate between the core of their own faith and more negotiable elements. If one regards freedom of choice as a moral good, this result of pluralism is a benefit for faith, even for someone who chooses to abide with the tradition into which he was born. Can one make this distinction between core and periphery in the economy of faith? A good example of a spontaneous distinction, coming long before detailed theological doctrines in two Christian groups, occurred during the so-called Marburg Colloquium in 1529. It was convened by Philip of Hessen, one of the early Protestant princes who wanted a united front of the followers of the Reformation in Germany and Switzerland. The conversation was focused on different understandings of the eucharist, led by Martin Luther of Wittenberg and Ulrich Zwingli of Basel. Luther, exasperated by the failure to reach agreement, exclaimed "Out of you speaks a different spirit!" I think the term "spirit" refers precisely to what I have called "core" here. Luther could certainly have used the same term to describe his Catholic opponents. "Core" or "spirit", as I understand it, does not imply that each religious tradition is a fixed, unchangeable entity. Another useful term here is that of "motif" - originally a term, used in music--a recurring signature theme, weaving in and out of variant sub-themes. Think, for instance, of Beethoven"s Ninth Symphony, with its core theme weaving in and out of variable sub-themes, until the last movement explodes in the pure core motif of the Ode to Joy. There was an interesting school called "motif research" in Swedish theology and phenomenology of religion. Its best known representatives were Anders Nygren (1890-1982), author of Agape and Eros, and Gustaf Aulen (1879--1978), author of Christus Victor.

I would say that this is a question that could be asked in the aforementioned conversation between two teenagers: "But what is your faith really about?" It is similar to the question asked of Rabbi Hillel the Elder (first century BCE)--"Could you explain the meaning of Torah while standing on one foot?" After giving his answer (the Golden Rule, quoted by Jesus some decades later), Hillel added a priceless postscript: "The rest is commentary!"

Posted by at December 12, 2015 8:44 AM