Carolyn currently Maclaurin Chaplain at the University of Auckland, where she heads a team of part-time and bi-vocational chaplains exploring ministry together in a large, diverse and rapidly changing campus. A former MA graduate of UoA, she later completed a BD at the University of Otago and a PhD from the University of Aberdeen, before becoming ordained through the PCANZ. She is married to Mark Johnston and the parent of three young-adult offspring, with whom she enjoys wrestling with the ways and words of gospel-shaped living. She lives in inner-city Auckland.
Imagine a world:
…in which technology brings unprecedented change in rural areas; the young and the landless seek better lives in great, bustling cities – but end up homeless and jobless, as urban poor;
…where new means of communication enables the mass-transit of ideas, in forms and at a speed never before imagined… aiding the spread of radical ideas that unsettle existing communal bonds and undermine trust;
…that sees unprecedented violence and uprisings, new forms of harm-doing that engender fear and uncertainty;
…where marginal groups and newcomers become scapegoats, the target of blame for the scale and severity of unsettling changes;
…where natural catastrophes are shared as news like never before, and frightening, highly contagious diseases are spread by new rapid transport of people across the globe;
… in which new practices of finance and marketing breed new classes of wealthy…and where it is said: ‘the big fish eat the little fish’.
Imagine a church in this world…
… unsure of its place in wider society – renegotiating its social contract and its responsibility to the poor;
…facing the buffeting of certainties about Christian identity and individuals’ relation to God;
… where the trustworthiness of Church leaders is publicly debated, and unease about its hierarchical arrangements is setting in;
…that resists the groundswell of social change and resorts to its historic claims of authority and adherence to ‘God’s will’;
… which, in the face of unprecedented challenges to people’s sense of well-being – disease, violence, natural disasters – offers packaged versions of salvation and promises of eternity with God.
That might all sound eerily familiar.
But such a world – and such a church, was Europe in the 1400’s, the period before Luther nailed his 95 Disputations to the door of the Schlosskirche, Wittenberg in 1517. Luther’s actions are rightly commemorated this year as a point from which the powers and preoccupations of the established church would never be seen quite the same. Other monks, reformers and renewal movements had called for faithfulness and holiness in the Church; lay and religious communities had explored deepening life together in the Spirit. But looking back, Luther’s was a moment when his particular words and radical action ignited something already smouldering …fanning the flames of reform so the world would forever be changed.
For Luther’s Theses pertained not only to the realm of the spiritual life or to matters of doctrine or theology (‘justification by faith’, ‘sola scriptura’), or ecclesial reform – although they impacted upon all of these. Certainly their impact would usher new forms of church leadership, fresh expressions of Christian learning and discoveries of God’s ways with people. But Luther was also part of a much wider movement, the concerns of which impacted the whole of society and spoke into deep cultural uncertainties. His was a rapidly changing world, already volatile, in which big questions were circulating: does God notice human suffering, and untimely death? Is the gospel of Jesus Christ indeed ‘good news’ for the poor? How, indeed, are we to live in this world?
Luther himself was reared in this context and noticed the cares of the people. He brought to bear on those concerns his scholarship – the translation of biblical languages and textual exegesis. As a University lecturer of the Bible and moral theology he was informed by the great thinkers of his time, and trained in the disputation methods of Aristotle – skills deployed in his great Theses. Luther also drew from a well of Augustinian monasticism, inscribed by the habits of prayer and fed by scripture, nurtured in a region enriched by the deep layers of spirituality of earlier women and men leaders. He lived within a new wave of north European humanism bringing fresh insight and artistic expression to embodied, lived experience – because God became human. Schools and universities were founded in which innovative forms of education explored human flourishing, and technology was developed that spread new ideas in the language and images of the people. And Luther was a man who loved his land and his people; who enjoyed good food, and good tunes with a craft beer in hand…
Surely we can celebrate that Luther too? Thus may we reclaim that great humanist impulse of the reformers, and dare to hear Christ speak afresh to the uncertainties and deep troubles of our time.