Religion: (Mis)Interpretations and Reformations

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Last year (2017) marked exactly 500 ago since the Reformation took place in Germany, which gave birth to the Protestant Church. The Reformation in the church started after German Monk, Martin Luther tried to challenge certain things in the Catholic Church, which he believed were contrary to the doctrine and original message of Christianity.

It all began after Luther criticised what he considered the misinterpretation of the Church doctrine and what he perceived as the corruption within the Church and the increasing power of the Pope. The highly profitable sale of Indulgences, which the Pope – and the Catholic church for that matter – promoted in the church as a one–way ticket to heaven, was to Luther, the last drop. By definition, the doctrine of Indulgence is a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins. The Catholic Church promoted this doctrine, which encouraged individuals to pay money to the Church so that they might be prayed for by the Pope to receive salvation. One could compare the Indulgences with the present tithe, which many priests and self-proclaimed men (women?) of God, have greedily used today to shrewdly milk money from their gullible followers.

The huge income from the indulgences practice was used by the Pope and the Catholic Church to fund the Church’s numerous activities and projects – including the building of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It was this belief and propaganda that when you paid money, your sins would be forgiven, that encouraged Martin Luther to angrily publish his 95 theses, which he hammered on the door of the Church. Unexpectedly and unintentionally, the Reformation, which is the biggest event in the church’s history, and which subsequently shaped Europe as a whole, started to take hold.

Specifically, Martin Luther’s stand was that the question of going to heaven or hell was a direct issue between an individual and God; neither the Church nor the Pope could act as a mediator or an intermediary between God and an individual. To Luther, salvation was a matter between God and an individual. Basically, what Luther did was a fundamental challenge to not only the authority of the Church or the Pope but equally to the basic assumption that this Church authority, has been good for the human community. It was believed that the authority of the Church (believed to be from God) brought some coherence to the human existence.

As expected, the Catholic Church in Rome strongly criticised Martin Luther and labelled him a heretic. They did not stop there; they excommunicate him by removing him from the priesthood. They banned his writings. The action of the Church did more or less confirm Luther’s perception of the Church and the Pope as autocratic and intolerant. He responded by burning the papal edict and stubbornly refused to denounce his 95 theses and condemnation of the Church. Soon, many others strongly supported Luther’s idea and his followers began to grow tremendously.

To resist the challenge of their authority and reformation, the Church responded harshly – an action which was met with a stiff resistance and confrontation by the Reformers, causing bloodshed and terrible destruction of religious heritage and art. Despite all the destructions, Reformation ironically gave birth to new forms of art, music, and literature.

There was no place where the influence of the Reformation was so evident than in the (German) language. Coincidentally, Reformation started when printing was being introduced in Europe, hence Martin Luther smartly used media to promote his ideas by printing millions of the Bible in different languages. With the Bibles translated from Latin to different languages to enable individual to understand and interpret the religious text, individuals did no more rely solely on the Pope for the interpretation of the Bible. Furthermore, the era of communicating with God through an intermediary was replaced with individual direct communication with God. Basically, therefore, while accepting that Reformation resulted in the challenge of the authority of the Church and the Pope, it equally brought about some degree of democracy and ultimately the recognition of individual creative power.

Other reasons why the Church could not stop the spread of Luther’s ideas in Germany was that the country at that time was divided into many small States, with a king in each of the States under an overall Emperor, who was appointed by the Pope. Many of these ambitious kings wanted independence from both the Emperor and the Pope. So, they saw Martin Luther as an ideological weapon to disobey the Catholic Church and Emperor, and achieve their personal aggrandisement and ambitions. So, to those kings, the Reformation could not have come at a better time.

The influence of the Ottoman Empire (Turkish Empire) was ironically another helping hand in the success and spread of the Reformation in Germany. While the Turkish wanted to conquer Europe during the Reformation period, the German Emperor could not afford to have a divided kingdom. The Emperor needed the support of his kings to fight against the Muslim Ottoman Empire, who basically was a threat to his power and authority. Knowing that many of his kings supported Martin Luther, the Emperor had to choose rather not to be too harsh on the rebellious kings, whose support he definitely needed against the enemy Ottoman empire.

The result was that the Reformation could spread easily in Germany. Ironically indeed, the Protestant should be grateful to the Muslim Ottoman Empire for the success of their breakaway from the Catholic.

Later Martin Luther’s ideas were to be continued by other Protestant Reformers such as John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, in 16th century Europe. Arguably, Martin Luther was not the first to attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church; much earlier before Luther, people like Jan Hus, John Wycliffe and Peter Waldo had tried to bring some reformations to the Catholic Church, but it was Martin Luther, who made very significant attempt in 1517 to reform the Church. Little wonder why Luther is known as the father of the Reformation. It was in the process of the reformation that the Protestant (Protesters) Church broke away from the Catholic Church.

Looking back 501 years after the beginning of the Reformation, there have been so many conflicts and mistrusts between the Catholic and Protestant Churches. After 501 years of intolerance between the two Churches, it is interesting to wait and see what will become of the two churches in the future. Could it be that the ideological differences between the two churches are beginning to narrow down? Or have they chosen the path of pragmatism and liberalism rather than dwelling in their strict and rigid positions? Probably yes.

Recent events have given one more reason for optimism – not to mention the ascension of Pope Francis to the Catholic leadership seat. Before the 500th anniversary of the Reformation anniversary, leaders of both the Catholic and main Protestant churches in Germany issued a joint statement, encouraging what they called “healing of memories” of past divisions. They encouraged an “ecumenical pilgrimage to the Holy Land aimed at highlighting common roots despite the separation.” Interestingly, the Pope did not only accept the invitation of the Protestant Lutheran Church, which is the largest religion in Sweden, to participate in the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, he actually honour the invitation. His visit would mark the first papal visit to Sweden for 27 years. Delivering the sermon, Pope Francis prayed that the Holy Spirit:

help us to rejoice in the gifts that have come to the Church through the Reformation, prepare us to repent for the dividing walls that we, and our forebears, have built, and equip us for common witness and service in the world”

Was the Pope’s visit to the Lutheran country an opportunity to emphasise that the division between the two churches is in the past? Would this herald the beginning of more cooperation between the two churches? Regardless, the Pope’s attendance is a big step in the right direction despite the obvious remaining differences between the two Churches. Such a move would have been unthinkable some years ago. Although there are still many areas of differences between the churches amongst them, the position of women in the church (eg. women are not allowed to become priests in the Catholic Church), there is no doubt that there has been a major shift in the relationship between the Catholic and Protestant churches – especially since the ascension of Pope Francis as the leader of the Catholic Church.

Back to our present day religious realities, one would not be entirely wrong to wonder whether our religious leaders, the self-proclaimed men, and women of God, have actually learned anything positive from the Reformation. More than 500 years ago, the Reformation, despite its negative aspects, equally brought about social development in Europe. From the development of forms of art, music, and literature, it ushered in the knowledge of printing, writing and translation. Furthermore, it brought about democracy and ultimately the recognition of individual creative power. Hence the Reformation clearly contributed positively to the lives of individuals in Europe. Today, 500 years ago, many religious leaders – especially in the Third World Countries – have clearly turned the religious discourse into a source of personal power and economic profit. They have presented themselves to their followers as an intermediary between them and God. Furthermore, the indulgences have been systematically replaced by the tithe, which many, a fastidious religious leader today, uses to enrich themselves at the expense of their poor followers.

Clearly, neither the Church nor religious leaders can act as a mediator or an intermediary between God and an individual. The belief, whether one will go to heaven or hell is a direct issue between an individual and God.

  The level of power and authority a god has depends on the degree of reverence it enjoys amongst the followers. Once the worshippers withdraw their reverence, the god ceases to exist. Clearly, any religion that benefits its leaders only or does not bring a positive change in the lives of its followers is tyrannical, as such it must be questioned. Today, many religious leaders do misinterpret religion for their own selfish ends, however, as the saying goes, you can fool some people sometimes, but you cannot fool all the people all the times. How much have these religious leaders and their churches learned from the Reformation? Generally, human beings are naturally rebellious. They have the tendency to want to have authority over themselves. Unless institutions and individuals, including the Church and religious leaders, accept this obvious reality and try to move with time, there might be radical challenges to their authority. After all, freedom (mentally, economically, socially, politically) is the nucleus of democracy – be it in politics or religion.