Has It All Been Said?

I’m making my way through Wolf Hall, an amazing and complex novel based in England during the reign of Henry VIII. Many of the characters — all Catholic so far — are wringing their hands in consternation over the writings of Martin Luther. Those writings are making it into the hands of some of the young theological scholars in Henry’s court, and are, of course, having an influence.

Which got me to thinking about how earth-shattering were Luther’s writings in his day. His writings were outrageous, but not in a crazy way. In a way that made complete sense to an entire swath of Christendom.

And further got me wondering if anything today could have such a profound impact on how millions of people understand God.

I don’t think so. With millions of megabytes of data being added to the internet everyday — much of it outrageous — I think that we may be beyond the outrageous, at least theologically. Also, there is no one, monolithic theological institution to be outraged, as there was in Luther’s day.

It did occur to me that some breakthrough in science could turn everything upside down, as Luther did.

What say you? Is there anything new to be said about God?

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  • http://www.peterrollins.net Peter Rollins

    Hey Tony. I am not so sure. I would argue that there is one monolithic theological institution hidden beneath the seeming difference. Just as, behind the vast choice we have in what we consume, lies the value of that consumption. I would argue (indeed I do argue in my next book) that what almost all churches hold in common in an ontological position in which God is viewed as the garniture of certainty and the promise of satisfaction. As the most recent political theorists coming out of France show, ideological uniformity is as rife now as it ever was. Now the (symbolic) sameness is simply masked in the (imaginary) difference we encounter in daily life.

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      Pete, I hear you. And I buy it.

      However, I don’t know that it’s possible to get a critical mass of people to see the underlying metanarrative into which they’ve all bought. Luther challenged things that were on the surface; you’re talking about things that are well below the surface.

      • http://www.peterrollins.net Peter Rollins

        I think there is a slight difference, but not between what is known (in Luther’s day) and what is not know (supposedly ours), but between what was not known and what is known, but that we don’t know that we know (here the work of Zizek is important). I would argue that repressed knowledge of the sameness exists and what we have to do is confront people with it. The next Luther will do that!

    • ME

      What in the ideological uniformity is it that needs to be changed?

  • Michael Rich

    I believe that part of the issue is that the world population in the 1500’s was probably less than 500 million people and Europe was a small percentage of that. I think that writing with that kind of significance is highly unlikely given the scope of the population. Also, I am not convinced, given that we have a different kind of theological literacy than in 16th century England, that we will see that kind of dominant literature coming from a 21st century reformer.

  • ME

    It all probably has been said. I don’t expect any scientific findings will be more of a shock than what the Church has already confronted in the past 500 years. And I think Aquinas largely settled the science issue.

    God can do what he wants and I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of him doing something, or sending someone or something to shake things up quite a bit.

  • Luke Allison

    The perfect storm of the printing press (the internet of the 1500s) a growing desire for literacy, and an already-percolating murmur of individualism was a pretty unique concoction during that day. I just don’t know how anything similar could happen now, at least in the 1st world.

  • http://mpzrd.blogspot.com Marshall

    It seems to me that the “scientific breakthrough” occurred several hundred years ago and the church … that is, the Christian tradition … has been keeping it at arm’s length ever since, thereby forcing anyone who wants to join the club to choose between living in the world God created, which is accessible to our observation, and some other world about which Responsible Authority will tell us what we need to know when we need to know it. I think the problem is the “joining the club” part, where influence and wisdom are “measured” by page views. As we know, with what measure you measure out, it will be measured to you. The central point of the Reformation is that salvation comes from God alone, and if somebody says they can get it for you … go with him two miles. These days the Authority that claims Hegemony wants to squeeze God into the gaps and then out of the picture altogether, but the individual still needs to remember, or relearn, that they stand alone before God whatever anybody says, and turn towards investing in the Kingdom of Right Here, Right Now. It seems to me that the reign of Progress, as measured by GNP and pageviews is ready to collapse of its own contradictions, and Christ’s Church is ready for some people who can see with their own eyes God at work for healing and prosperity in their personal private lives. And that will make a difference.

  • X-Xian

    There is. And that is the realization that we no longer need a god, and that he doesn’t exist, anyway.

    • ME

      That position predates Christianity.

  • http://wrekklesia.com/ Patrick Marshall

    Tony, I wonder how close Rob Bell came to this with Love Wins. That’s the closest comparison I can think of right now. While I don’t think Rob was necessarily saying anything *new* about God, he was challenging a fairly monolithic theological institution (and maybe the word “challenging” gives the book a bit too much credit there). He was pointing out, as Luther did, the water we’re swimming in, the air we’re breathing, the way things *are* and saying, “Maybe it shouldn’t be that way.” That challenge, though, and the “turning things upside down” that you are talking about, I believe only comes when people accept the argument and allow it to shape a new way of being. Obviously that hasn’t happened. Rob’s book only served to entrench most people further in their present beliefs. If that theological monolith were to be *successfully* challenged and consented to (on a massive scale), wouldn’t it have a similar effect to what Luther did?

  • http://www.dualravens.com/ravens Patrick O

    The funny thing is that what Luther said wasn’t itself very new. He said it boldly, and had political cover to keep saying and publicizing it, but it was the sort of stuff that had long been said and had been said in whispers for a while. What Luther did was open the door to be free to talk and free to do something about it.

    What was new was the season in which what Luther was saying could bring radical change to the structure of the church.

    I think is the possibility of a new change, but I think it will come from a very unexpected place and with an unexpected theme. That’s true throughout history and there’s really no reason to believe that we’ve come to the end of history (even if some predicted that was the case).

    In the early 20th century a radical new presence came onto the scene: Pentecostalism. That utterly transformed the conversation about God globally. And it came from a pretty unexpected direction.

    In our era, what if China undergoes mass conversion, such as the Roman Empire did? That would change the face of Christian thought and practice pretty quickly.

    But, honestly, I suspect it won’t be some kind of new thing at all, just a shift in accepting something that has been discussed for quite a while. I think you’re nearing the likely answer with your pointing towards relational ecclesiology — once that really takes root and starts shaping not only isolated congregations, but theological education and bigger denominations, we’ll see an entirely different sort of church. And while some folks will be saying, “That’s new!” Others will be saying, “Hey, I wrote about that a while back!”

  • marylyn ponder

    I think there are some books including Love Wins by Rob Bell, The Future of Faith by Harvey Cox, and The Great Emergence by Phylis Tickle, all of which point to a new direction of perceiving a new “new.” I also think there is an area that lies somewhat hidden, waiting to be explored. I am referring to the “spiritual and scientific” meaning of the the Bible. The literal word has been thoroughly learned, but the deeper meanings of the Bible have not been touched upon. Mary Baker Eddy started this pursuit with her book Science & Health with Key to the Scriptures written in 1875. All of her writings delve into the “spiritual and scientific” (her words) meaning of the Bible. For the Bible lover who wants to go deeper, there is much to learn!

  • Curtis

    To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, I don’t think it was Luther’s message that was so significant, it was the medium that was significant. Luther’s writings were not new material, it was largely a synthesis of theologians that had pre-dated him. What was significant about Luther was the timing of his writing. First, he wrote at a time when there was a growing schism between the political rulers of Germany and the Catholic Church, a schism that had grown large enough that these rulers were willing to shelter Luther from the execution that had been the fate of Luther’s predecessors. Second, Luther’s writings came just at the time when the medium to mass produce his writings in the local language, the printing press. was first invented.

    It was not Luther’s message that was significant. It was the cultural and technological context of his message that made it significant. I’m certain there are messages today that can resonate with today’s global culture and technology that can have a similar impact to Luther. Dr. Massouda Jalal, the Afghani Muslim running for President of Afghanistan, comes to mind as someone who might have something important to say. She has a book coming out soon that might be interesting.

    I agree that with today’s global Internet, it is unlikely that one, single voice will be heard as clearly as Luther. Instead, we will see a network of millions of voices emerging as a trend of global culture. A trend that will have many people speaking for it, some more prominently than others. I think we a already seeing that.

  • Mark Armstrong

    Hi Tony,
    This is in response to your comments about Martin Luther’s impact with the church of his day. The fact that we can feel God’s presence and enjoy him and have a deep and strong desire to do that is radical for me. Even though there is not a monolithic institution, there seems to be a monolithic biased against a relationship with God that is similar to relationships with other people. In our mechanical society we reduce God to propositions and information we know about the Bible instead of the rich and relational Hebrew yada knowing and rich and relational Greek gnosko knowing. Someone said to me that biblical obedience to them is like having sex with God………….well is he our lover and is there joy unspeakable in his presence or not? I have had a taste or two and I would say yes!!!! And no I don’t think we have to wait for the parousia for this kind of desire to be met at least partially. The Christians I hang out with now are okay as far as saying your prayers and reading or studying your Bible goes, but when it comes to applying human relational dynamics with God it seems that most Christians are clueless and I feel very alone in my efforts and struggles to relate to God in this way. Thomas a Kempis knew about it though and so did Luther, but now days I don’t think that a whole lot of Christians are filled with desire for the Shekinah Glory of the heart.


    Mark Armstrong

  • http://Colleenrossophotography@yahoo.com Colleen

    Gregor Johann Mendel.. RIP most profound scientific genius. Check out the movie “GATTACA”. It seems to be a movie ahead of it’s time.