For the past few weeks, I have thoroughly enjoyed teaching a class on Martin Luther and his vast influence upon Western history. There have been more than a few moments of fantastic discussion which have triggered some deep contemplations on my part including the following:
This past Sunday, one of the folks attending class asked, "How was it that the popes of that time were able to get away with all the extravagance and abuse?"
The answers were quite simple:
1. Folks were biblically illiterate. They had no access to the Scriptures in their own languages and had no way of seeing that such abuses were contrary to the commands of Jesus.
2. The Church at the time controlled most of the means of communication and could shut things down pretty quickly. If someone started raising complaints of abuse, the Church could and would put folks to death to silence them. There was no such thing as paparazzi to record everything that was going on and let the masses know.
3. There was a particular theology at play which said that such wealth and extravagance was a blessing of God. If I have arisen to such a position, then I am entitled to such luxury. Couple this theology with the fact that most Church positions were not given to those who exhibited great faithfulness or were steadfast in study and discipline but were rather awarded to the highest bidder, and you had a recipe for abuse.
Of course, this prompted comparisons to today where some "pastors" revel in such gross interpretations of theology. I mean, what pastor in his right mind says that they need a $60 million dollar jet?
However, this also points to a much larger problem in our society--one that I pointed out in class.
In Luther's day, people were highly, biblically illiterate because they did not have access to the Bible in their own language. They couldn't call out such behavior because they were ignorant. Today, people are highly, biblically illiterate even though they have unfettered access to the Bible, and even though there are those willing to call out such behavior, such calls fall upon deaf ears and make little difference.
This brings us to the conundrum:
In our technological age, everyone has a voice. Everyone has the opportunity to expound upon and interpret whatever text they choose. From Tolkein to Plato to the Bible, anyone can expound and give input to what is written and said.
Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. It is good to have free interchange of ideas. We certainly do not want to return to the days when you could be killed for offering up an interpretation outside the mainstream. Orthodoxy needs heresy to keep it on the right path, but heresy does not need to be met with destruction.
But neither does it need to be met with acceptance. And we are far too accepting of heresy today.
In this manner:
Someone decides they would like to learn more about Christianity and the person of Jesus. They pick up a Bible and begin reading. Before long, they stumble upon Jesus' teachings:
If you are angry with a brother, you are committing murder.
If you look at a woman with lust, you are committing adultery.
If you divorce and get remarried, you are committing adultery.
If you want to be a disciple, you have to hate family and life itself.
If you want to be a disciple, you must give up all possessions.
Many might quit right here. They might see the impossibility of such actions and throw in the towel, but others might just want some clarification. Others might want to understand why such teachings are given. They seek out advice from a pastor or a learned individual. They ask, "Did Jesus really mean what He said here?"
Of course, most pastors will try to soften Jesus' teachings. "No, you don't have to give up your possessions or hate your family or life itself. Jesus means, you must love Him more than you love your possessions and family and life. You can have possessions and be a disciple. No, you are not committing adultery if you look at a woman--that's a natural human instinct. God created you that way, so it isn't sinful. Getting angry is just a part of life. As long as you don't act on it, you are fine."
Do you see how in each of these cases there is an actual departure from the teachings' of Jesus? Do you see how in each of these cases, Jesus' actual words are disregarded and replaced with a different teaching?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleship, would have said, and it's a great quote, we are trying to justify the sin instead of proclaim the justification of the sinner.
And yet, Bonhoeffer, (and I) are simply regarded as one more voice out there; one more interpretation to consider; one more option to think about that may or may not work out for whoever is striving to understand.
With so many voices speaking and interpreting, it is nearly impossible to make any headway in discovering the Truth. With the ability to go and find someone who gives me comfort and lets me continue on in my merry way with no change or transformation; with so many interpretations at the click of a mouse; I can weed out anything that challenges me or calls me to reevaluate my own worldview.
How can the Gospel be proclaimed without sounding like simply "one more voice in a cacophony of voices?" How can someone stand and say, "This is the Truth," when the prevailing view is "what is true for you is true for you, but it's not true for me."? How can any true form of debate take place if that trump card is played? There cannot be any striving for truth if truth is that relative.
Hence the conundrum. Hence the struggle of the Christian Church.
Is it possible for the Church to proclaim to others, "Listen for God's voice" when we are drowning in a cacophony of voices?