Reformation and Character

You probably remember the pivotal moment in the Wizard of Oz when Toto – Dorothy’s little dog – pulls back a curtain to reveal an elderly man furiously working some complicated controls. The man turns out to be the very regular and human being behind the special effects known as “the great wizard of Oz.” 

Let me take you behind the curtain here at the Newington Green Unitarian congregation for just a moment. While we are not faking it like the Wizard was, behind the scenes here at Newington Green – especially on the Committee – you will find committed people feverishly struggling to make this place work. Perhaps their greatest challenge is a shortage of funds. I tell you this after the collection especially because it is not meant to be a plea to throw in a bit more cash. Nonetheless, the means by which we can hope to finance this community we love is something we should all understand. 

Congregational life costs money. It costs to keep up an old building. It costs to pay me. It costs for postage, for fees to the Unitarian national and district organisation, and so on. And this is before we even talk about improvements – the kind of space we would like to worship, socialize and meet in; the access we would like to provide for people with special needs; facilities we would like to make available to the community; and so on. 

This issue is not just one that affects Unitarians, of course. 

In the Middle Ages, the Catholic church came up with a particular clever and now completely notorious way of raising funds – the Church sold what were called “indulgences.” This practice was one of the major causes of the event that is celebrated today in many Protestant denominations – the Reformation. Today – the Sunday before the 31st of October - is the somewhat obscure Christian holiday known as Reformation Sunday. Happy Reformation Sunday! 

What are indulgences? First, we need to know a bit about Catholic theology. Remember that the major focus of Catholic dogma is on what happens not in this life, but after we die. If you do the right things, you get an eternal heavenly existence. If you do the wrong things, you could be in for punishment – perhaps eternal punishment. 

If you subscribe to this system – and many do – you will naturally want adjust your life to follow the rules. A Catholic true believer aims to do everything they can to gain the eternal reward and avoid the punishment. Of course, we are all fallible – including Catholics. Thus, every Catholic will inevitably do, or think something proscribed or fail to do something we should. Bang – they’re in trouble. What can they do about it? We’re getting to the crux of this soon – please indulge me for just a moment more. 

A sinful Catholic’s first recourse is to confess to a priest and gain absolution. I don’t know if they charged money for that service, but I don’t think so. Gaining absolution is essential in this theology, but there’s a wrinkle: There are two different kinds of punishment in the afterlife. Absolution gains you relief from “eternal punishment” but not from what is known as “temporal punishment.” To get out of temporal punishment, good works, prayer, and penance are required. 

This is where the money-making scheme comes in. The Catholic establishment determined that donations to the church could earn relief from temporal punishment. The system of indulgences was born. A saying taken from that period was "As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to help with the finances here though… 

If you want to get back on God’s good side then, you simply need to make a sizable contribution to the Church’s important project – which might be the building of a cathedral, a charitable institution, or – in our case – might be pew cushions. (Only £400 to go!) 

In the Protestant Reformation, the period of religious revolution that is considered to have begun in 1517 when Martin Luther’s posted a blog – sorry… the early 16th Century equivalent - nailing his 95 theses to the door at All Saints Church in Wittenberg in what is now Germany. 

Luther raised a number of issues with Catholic doctrine and dogma – 95 theses after all - but he was most troubled about the sale of indulgences – and particularly the notion that earthly church leaders would have the audacity to present themselves as capable of doling out God’s favour like so many overpriced decaf grande cappuccinos. 

So, the Reformation was sparked by Luther’s arguments against this system. Reformation… To most of us, it is probably a word with positive connotations. Reform is good. It implies correcting the errors and abuses of the past. 

Of course, the Christian religion has lived through many different reforms. There were reformist movements before “The Reformation” and it was followed by reforms of the reformers, reforms of the reformers of those reformers and so on. I recently read that new Christian denomination are started at the rate of one a week! So, the reform and differentiation continues unabated. 

Now, the Reformation’s leaders were not entirely the good guys in this screen play. You may recall that it was reformation superstar John Calvin who had our hero Michael Servetus burned at the stake for questioning the doctrine of the Trinity. 

After the disputes over practises and power, a key question that separated the establishment and the reformers, such as Luther, was about salvation. What is it that earns us salvation? 

I recognise that most of you probably don’t relate very fondly to the term salvation. Neither do I. But, if we strip away some of the more difficult doctrines about salvation, what we are actually asking is “what should we do in our lives?”, “how should we act?” and “what does it mean to be a moral person?” 

I am not usually a great defender of the Catholics against reformers, but there was something very positive in their indulgences – aside from the financial side of it. They were saying that what is most important is our actions – charity, service, and so on. Luther, on the other hand, opposed this notion. He wanted to say that we are judged by faith alone – not by our actions. 

Right faith or right actions? Which is the best way to live a life? 

The 19th Century Unitarians had a third answer – one that may bring another important dimension into our thinking. In a formulation credited to Unitarian minister James Freeman Clarke, they spoke of “salvation by character.” 

Character is an interesting word. Your character is what makes you who you are. It is a combination of your abilities, your perspectives, your beliefs, your inclinations… and it also includes your moral or ethical nature. Is it fixed? Unalterable? 

Remember that the Unitarians of the 19th century were up against a dominant Calvinist view that presents humankind as innately evil and depraved – in need of saving from our impure and sinful state. These Unitarians raised the hopeful vision that we can actually be or become good rather than just trying to make up for our innate badness. They imagined a way of being in which we strive for goodness – not simply by holding the “right” beliefs or even by performing the “right” actions. 

Unitarianism offered a hope that was an antidote to the dismal view of Calvinism – that we can cultivate ourselves toward goodness and thereby become whole. 

This notion is no less important today, where the dominant opposing ethos is no longer Calvinism, but what might be called “salvation by the material.” We are told - and millions find it easy to believe - that we will be made whole – we will be saved – by having more money, great physical beauty, a beautiful new car, the right clothes, the perfect partner, and so on. 

These things do not bring wholeness or salvation. Despite the advertising, they don’t even bring lasting happiness. Neither does it come from right belief or even right action aone. 

If there is one single answer, it can be summarized as engagement: Engagement alone with our convictions, examining our thoughts, our biases, our assumptions, and our actions – and then reforming and trying again. And more importantly and powerfully, it comes through engagement together – in community – working out together how to be whole in our selves. 

In fact, we will be saved – we will be made whole – by striving to becoming the people we know we should be – compassionate, loving, generous, grateful, and present. 

Ours is a hopeful faith that tells us that this salvation is possible. 

So may it be with you. So may it be with us all.