Exactly 500 years ago, the world witnessed the beginnings of a transformation that changed religious thinking and practice forever: the Protestant Reformation. The impact the set of events brought forth by Martin Luther in 1517 Germany had in this world is hard to grasp for those of us who are only acquainted with the freedoms modern societies in developed countries enjoy today. We take for granted our ability to analyze biblical passages and to reach conclusions on our own, to read scripture in the language we prefer, to gather freely in assembly to discuss it, and to worship how and when we see fit. Whether we know it or not, in one way or another, these achievements are a result of the Reformation. That we do as we please when it comes to religious thinking and practice is largely because of the work Luther and his predecessors trail-blazed centuries ago. Five hundred years later, we would do well to remember the progress we have made as we celebrate the Reformation’s 500th anniversary.
Yet, as we face this momentous milestone for humanity, we are also fully cognizant that more remains to be done in the arenas of religious thinking and tolerance. If many enjoy the liberties to worship their Creator as they prefer through rights granted by law, in other places, others are still not afforded the freedom to express their beliefs in ways that suit them best – even to their next‑door neighbors. Worse: even in lands where freedom of religion is a guaranteed constitutional right, we now witness the rise of social intolerance and ideological persecution. The messages we hear often today are that those who do not look like us, think like us, or worship like us do not belong. It is ironic that in our abundance and comfort, we have become restrictive.
It is ironic that in our abundance and comfort, we have become restrictive.
Yes, ideological tolerance is on the decline. Everywhere on the globe today, we find large personalities seeking to impose their perspectives on the masses, as did the papacy of yesteryears. These voices are magnified and echoed by the reach of social media and the Information Age. We choose to listen to and associate ourselves only with those who think like us and often only accept facts that fit our worldview — the rest we hail as false, as a manipulation of reality. With that in mind, it may not be a stretch of the imagination to argue that the oppressive mindsets and circumstances Luther fought to overcome are making a comeback — this time not by institutional mandate alone but also by popular choice. How the world has changed: in a curious role reversal, it is the Pope of today who champions interfaith tolerance and dialogue amidst a rich but hardened world while a group of lay people clamors for religious non-tolerance.
These are troubling times for faith in particular and spirituality in general. They leave us to ask: what would Luther think of our times? And it beckons us to question also: what will the next 500 years bring in the field of religious thinking?
Lessons from Luther
Amidst a world of growing intolerance and division, there is hope for us if we are willing to return to the spirit of the Reformation and learn from its lessons. At its heart, the Reformation was a movement of human empowerment, an effort seeking to allow individual choice and control over religious perspective and one’s learning – and thus, one’s own spiritual life. No small matter. These are values to which we can still subscribe today.
The first lesson we take to heart is perhaps the most important: like ours, those were difficult times too. Harsher, even – with less freedom and more dangerous consequences. Yet, in its search for the Creator, the human spirit cannot be contained. Against all odds and all foes, reason, hope, and faith found a way. They always do. It is the essence of what makes us human. We ought to believe that reason, hope, and faith will prevail yet again.
The second lesson is no less important: consequential change is built little by little, over time, and by many people acting in alignment. Even if our simplistic perception of history often leads us to believe it all happened in one October day of 1517 when Luther submitted his Ninety-Five Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz, the truth is always more nuanced. While we credit Luther for his great work (as we ought to), it should not be lost on us that there were those who preceded him and laid the foundation of what was to come; those without which we may not have the Reformation as we understand it today. It is hard for us to conceive of a Martin Luther in Wittenberg, for example, without first having a John Wycliffe in Oxford and a Jan Hus in Prague. If Luther is credited today as the father of the Reformation, a century earlier Wycliffe was the theorist of ecclesiastical change and Hus its first Reformer, courageous enough to pay for it with his life. The lesson from history? It takes slow, incremental change and many aligned agents to fully achieve even the noblest of goals. And it takes time. The takeaway for us today? It will take more than one charismatic leader to deliver us into a new era of tolerance and religious acceptance – or doom and despair. We must not wait, we must do our part today and, as Gandhi suggested, be the change we wish to see in the world — even if the ultimate results may not come through us or even in our lifetimes. We honor Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, and Jan Hus by remembering that.
The third lesson is that the education of the people is of the utmost importance to the successful birthing of nobler ideals and the progress of civilizations. In this case, we may argue that one of the differentiating aspects of the earlier efforts of Wycliffe and Hus and the successful expansion of Luther’s ideas was a factor outside of their control: the development of the printing press in the 15th century. Johannes Gutenberg’s movable type was a game-changer: this technological marvel of the time allowed for the mass production of books and made information more readily accessible to those who before could not afford the manual transcription of books by monks – the prevailing method for the diffusion of knowledge until then. As the cost of knowledge went down, literacy rates went up. Suddenly, a whole new layer of society had access to information and ideas beyond their regional spheres and developed greater agency in religious and social matters. The ideas of the Reformation made their way into the middle-class more readily, and the monopoly of the Church on knowledge and influence over the common man diminished. One of Gutenberg’s greatest successes? The Gutenberg Bible: holy scripture made accessible to the people not in Latin but in the vernacular — in perfect alignment with Luther’s arguments for personal empowerment regarding religious interpretations. People began to digest information on their own, and thus the world changed. The lesson from history? New ideas cannot take hold or thrive if they are not shared and consumed. While Wycliffe and Hus had to brave the winds of change head-on, Luther benefited from having them at his back. Without the advent of Gutenberg’s printing press, one is left to wonder if Luther would have met the same fate of Hus, betrayed and killed by the religious establishment more than half a century before. The take-way for our times? More important than access to information nowadays is its own consumption. In our times, we are not challenged by the lack of access to information: the Digital Age and the World Wide Web bring millions of articles, comments, and perspectives about any topic to our eyes in less than a full second. That we have conquered. The challenge of our times is finding good information amidst the vast sea of content at our disposal; it is developing a critical sense of the world and discernment to know how to choose amongst our options. To that, education is the key — and not just mere instruction, as Frenchman Allan Kardec would argue three centuries later, including moral and spiritual education into the context. Are we educating the new generation in such a manner as to empower them to discern on their own? To think critically, beyond 140 characters? To converse rather than argue? If the answer is no, then we are likely to continue to witness the polarization of opinions, the growth of self-righteousness, an uptake in ideological intolerance, the vilification of others who are different than us, and, ultimately, an increase in segregation and violence to validate our thinking. In short, everything Luther and the Reformation worked to undo.
The Next 500 Years
As we stand at this important milestone and reflect on the past and stare down the challenges of our present, we cannot help but try to peer into the future. What will the next 500 years of religious thinking look like? What progress or regress will take place? Will we be able to overcome these pockets of intolerance we see festering today on our way to a more equitable society, tolerant of different religious practices? What would Luther, Wycliffe, and Hus urge us to do?
The most important lesson we take from the Reformation assures that, indeed, we will make headway into better times in the future. Conditions in the late 15th and early 16th century weren’t necessarily better than the ones we have today and, still, the Reformation took place. Although we agree there is cause for concern today, there’s also reason for optimism. History shows humanity in an upward-bound, spiral-like movement even if our gut asks us to believe otherwise. Human life has never been worth so much to us – even if we still do not give it its proper value. We go to great lengths to prevent death. Never in the history of mankind have we had so many people dedicating so much of their time or resources to the betterment of others. New non-profit organizations, neither political nor profit-driven, sprout every day to add to the roll of people who are starting to find personal meaning and fulfillment for the lives in the idea of helping others. If we are shocked by the darkness and intolerance we find in the globe right now, that is because there is more light in the world today. Before, we were unaware the darkness was there. Now we see better. The act of shining a light on our common human problems is itself an indication of the progress we have achieved. While it may be uncomfortable, it still is progress.
The next 500 years of human history will see progress in the field of religion and of ideas, continuing the remarkable legacy of the Reformation. Progress will be slow and hard but will be progress nevertheless. We will continue to break old paradigms that insist in enslaving minds to a particular position or disposition. We will continue to build a bias towards the individual over the institution as the focus shifts from maintaining organizations and organized creeds to fulfilling individual needs. We have already begun to see the first phase: more and more people leave “religion”, mistaking that individual connection to the Divine with “organized religion”, the human institutions we put together to try to reach that personal connection. As we reject institutions that sometimes are more bent on having us fit their structure and modus operandi than answer our most fundamental questions, we may experience a period of confusion as we deny the Divine because organized religion was our only point of reference as to how such connection could take place. But because the desire to trek towards God is ingrained in the human soul and unstoppable, we will again try – but look elsewhere. No longer satisfied with insufficient explanations, we will look to Reason to find the answers we long for. As a consequence, Science will play a bigger role in our search for God.
Science will transform again into a method for searching for meaning instead of insisting on being the religion of anti-religion.
And Science, too, will go through a profound change. It will transform again into a method for searching for meaning in the universe instead of insisting on being the religion of anti-religion. Scientists who do not believe in the Creator will stop claiming the Divine does not exist and move from their position of manifest atheists to open agnostics — because Science will return to having no implicit bias. In due time, the scientific method will become the greatest ally to faith, because more and more we will gather evidence of the incredible orderliness of the cosmos when we should expect chaos with a God. Our studies into the core of matter will lead us more and more to energies at the quantum level. In a matter of speaking, Science will run out of matter and ultimately arrive at the discovery of the Spirit — and thus meet with religion in a long-expected embrace. Our human paradigm will pivot completely and we will begin to the see the same world through new, more encompassing eyes. If we look back, that prognostication should not really surprise us as we see people of science throughout history tackling the problems and questions of faith. In fact, if we look at Wycliffe, Hus, and Luther themselves, we will find learned scholars of the highest academic order. In due time, the apparent opposition of Science to Religion (and vice‑versa) will register in history as nothing more than a small glitch in the matrix.
To get there, we will have to overcome both the biases of Science and those of Religion. In short, we will have to overcome ourselves. We, on a personal level, will have to agree to challenge our own assumptions and perceptions to see whether they meet the standards of Truth a new world deserves – and not our current individual quality standards, which tell us something is good because we like it, or right because we want it. We will shake our own personal foundations in our search for self but will emerge whole in due time. In short, we will no longer experience an external Reformation but will be live Reformations ourselves; walking, talking, reevaluating beings understanding that change is a constant in our evolution — and that of everyone else. As a result, we will become more tolerant of others and will begin to understand God to a degree we have been unable to yet as a society. Thus, we will fulfill the 2 basic commandments of loving God above all things and our neighbors as ourselves. Religious denominations will become less important because we will have flushed ignorance from its last hiding place: the halls of organized religion. Then, and only then, will our faith be unshakable because it will stand side-by-side with Reason. Five hundred years from now, the world will be substantially different than it has been for the past 6 thousand years.
Scientific contact with the spirit world will validate the fundamental premises of all religions in ways they themselves have not.
In the short term, we will continue to struggle with matters of faith, science, and organized religion. Confusion will prevail as we sort all of it out. However, there will be early loci of change uniting Religion and Reason before it society accepts it widely. Just like Wycliffe and Hus had to come first before Luther, these early glimpses into the future will begin to generate hope and optimism in those who spot them. We have begun to see them already: research grows seeking proof of the existence of life after death through the investigation of near-death experiences (NDE), spontaneous memories of past lives, memory regression into past existences and, more importantly, into mediumship. The latter, more specifically, will provide the strongest proof of the existence of the afterlife after the unfounded scientific stigma attached to it is lifted. As we use reason to better understand this phenomenon that has been present throughout our history but only since the late 19th century has been more carefully studied, prejudice will wane. As that happens, we will soon begin to witness something remarkable: the scientific contact with the spirit world will validate the fundamental premises of all religions in ways they themselves have not. We will reach the widespread conclusion there is an afterlife — and our common concept of religion will begin to change radically. From having to act a certain way because we were told to through faith, we will begin to act a different way because it makes sense from a spiritual, evolutionary perspective. Our religious focus will change from what we believe to how we must act — and in that too we will find great commonality.
As we reflect back on the 500 years that have passed since Martin Luther submitted his Ninety-Five Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz, an arbitrary date we have chosen to illustrate the beginning of the Protest Reformation, we see the incredible change we have undergone as humanity when it comes to religious freedoms and practices. We notice the slow but steady progress towards religious tolerance we have undertaken century after century, and celebrate the people who contributed to this great chain of events, like Wycliffe and Hus, whether they remain unknown or otherwise. We understand there is more progress to be made ahead of us, but we are also filled with a sense of hope and faith for our future, and taken by the certainty that Reason will be a greater player in the years ahead as we see a greater straightening of relations between Science and Religion that will deliver us into a new era of understanding and tolerance. We also sense that great personal transformation will be required as we individually honor the legacy of the Protestant Reformation by becoming our very own walking, talking Reformations. We will be fully aware then that change will come from within and not from the outside — and that will be the most remarkable common epiphany of our civilization, to be followed by a period of incredible personal and collective growth. The Era of the Spirit has already begun – it is now up to us to carry forward the Spirit of the Reformation in our everyday lives.