Several years ago I was one of a group of writers who contributed to a project in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, that thing that Martin Luther kicked off in 1517.
The idea was to dust off some of big ideas of that explosive movement to see if they still mattered. Things like “the sovereignty of God,” “salvation by grace through faith,” “the priesthood of all believers,” and the paradox of being simultaneously both saints and sinners. In Latin, simul justus et peccator, meaning we are, at the one and same time both, both redeemed and yet sinful.
The last of our short (500 word) essays was written by a friend, Matt Fitzgerald, on “the Protestant Principle.” It is a kind of congenital suspicion of the claim of any person, be they pope or priest or president, or institution, be it church, corporation or state, to know the mind of God.
It’s almost more a feeling than a concept. We just sort of rise up and say “no” whenever a person, institution or movement claims that its values are God’s values, its truth God’s truth, its action, God’s action.
Those of you who have been reading me for a time, here or elsewhere, know this to be a part of my schtick, so to speak. I am skeptical of most all orthodoxies, ideologies, movements that claim they have the truth, whole and unimpaired.
Here’s my buddy, Matt, on “the Protestant Principle,” which I might call “faithful skepticism.”
“Disgust at another believer’s claim to know the mind of God is a Protestant feeling. It runs through our tradition like electricity through wire: uncomfortable, but essential. You might not want to touch it, but you wouldn’t want to live without it.
“Paul Tillich saw it as our ground rule, and called it ‘the divine and human protest against any absolute claim made for a relative reality.”
“Let’s break this definition down. First, ‘divine and human protest.’ Tillich is saying that the revulsion you feel when someone claims to speak for God is spiritual. God is wrapped up in it. God’s majesty is offended by our presumption to understand it.
“Second, ‘absolute claim.’ Any time a person or a church says something like, ‘Marriage is a gift from God. It occurs between a man and a woman and that cannot be changed’ they are making an absolute claim. They are invoking the absolute, the ultimate, the mind of God.
“Finally, ‘relative reality.’ That’s what we’re living in. The day-to-day. Our laws, rules, customs, habits, opinions, prejudices, ideologies, political convictions, preaching, prayers, hymnals and churches, are all dependent and historically conditioned. Everything in existence is a product of its time and place.
“Nothing we know is ultimate, permanent or infallible. Nothing we know is God. So to claim that anything, including Protestantism itself, is perfectly aligned with the Divine is to worship a false god.”
One of the odd, paradoxical, things about this is that it is a sort of religious protest against religion. In faith, we are skeptical. “Whenever,” writes Matt, “a person, institution, or movement claims that its values are God’s values, its truth God’s truth, its action, God’s action” something in us becomes uneasy, something rises up to say, “Not so fast.”
There are always people and institutions who are way too sure of themselves. None of us are exempt from this temptation. So this a good cautionary reminder. But I also bring it up because (in line with yesterday’s blog) many seem to think this is exactly what religion is, knowing the mind of God, speaking for God with absolute certainty. To me, that’s not faith, it’s arrogance. It’s not piety, it’s blasphemy. Faith is knowing there is a distance, a gap, between us and God — and refusing (in faith) to pretend we’ve closed the gap. Welcome to the human condition!
Here are Matt’s closing words:
“Jesus could not be contained by the grave. He certainly cannot be trapped inside the confines of our minds, creeds or religions. The Reformation is ancient. Protestantism is certainly feeling its age. But the principle that launched our protest is alive, electric, and as necessary as ever.” Amen.