What can reformations teach us about the future?


As Zhou Enlai supposedly said about the French Revolution, we can’t assess the legacy of the Reformation because it is too soon to tell. In fact, it is still going on.

The biggest religious stories of our times—the stories of retreat and resurgence—are both outworkings of the Reformation.


The industrialised, liberal West is living through an epochal, unprecedented wave of secularization.

We’ve had several centuries of increasingly nominal religious adherence, punctuated by revivals, but our modern phenomenon—of rapidly growing swathes of society claiming that they have no religion—is new.

This isn’t because religion has collapsed intellectually: the purely intellectual case against Christianity looked considerably stronger in 1900 than it does now, and in any case, we’ve surely learned by now that intellectual arguments don’t have much purchase on how we actually live our lives.

Instead, it has collapsed morally.

In the wake of World War II, our culture has become deeply committed to humanist ethics, to the point where it neither needs nor especially values religious ones any more.

Once the most potent moral figure in the Western imagination was Jesus. Now it is Hitler, who taught our age what absolute evil is.

But that humanist ethic is built on the moral bedrock of Christian and Jewish ethics, which assume—unlike, say, ancient Rome—that slavery and cruelty are bad, and that compassion and human equality are good.

So we are abandoning our inherited religious culture because it doesn’t live up to its own values, and we’re doing so using the tools that that culture itself has taught us.

That is, in effect, a re-run of the Reformation.

And like the original Reformation, the outcome hangs in the balance.

Is this a case of a revolution eating itself, a self-destructive pursuit of impossible purity?

Or is it a re-formation, an authentic attempt to lay hold of what was truest about the faith we’ve always held?

Or both?

Then there is resurgence

For half a century, two very different religious forces have been sweeping across the globe.

Jihadist Islam might look like the Reformation’s heir: public, attention-grabbing, focused on political power, male-dominated, ready to use violence and to celebrate martyrdom.

But we cannot map Christianity’s conflicts easily onto Islam, with its own distinct deep logic and culture.

But Pentecostal, renewalist Christianity—chiefly but not entirely Protestant—is something else: usually apolitical, shunning a public role, unstructured and informal, often spreading through family networks and women’s influence.

While jihadism has been transfixing the world, Pentecostalism has quietly become the religion of half of Africa, a quarter of Latin America, and rapidly growing populations in East Asia before outsiders have really noticed.

It has done it by offering, not revolution tomorrow, but salvation and spiritual transformation for individuals here and now.

So a new religious movement is preaching a radically simplified and democratized gospel of salvation, promising to restore Christianity to its ancient origins and in the process creating something new.

That, too, is a re-run of the Reformation.  Continue reading

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