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Worldcrunch

And What About God? In Martin Luther's Homeland, Doubts About Modern Protestantism

Article illustrative image Partner logo Lutheran church: crisis of faith?

- Analysis -

BERLIN - The invitation came from the top ranks -- Council Chairman Nikolaus Schneider and Synod President Katrin Göring-Eckardt -- of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), which is comprised of 22 Lutheran, Reformed and United regional churches.

Most of the regional bishops, former Council chairs Margot Käßmann and Wolfgang Huber, along with many members of the High Consistory, turned up on Sunday evening at Berlin’s St. Elisabeth Church-turned-events-venue to hear prominent guests talk about their expectations for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. Martin Luther’s letter and disputation date back to 1517.

Social Democratic Party (SPD) whip Frank-Walter Steinmeier, theater director Jürgen Flimm and constitutional judge Gertrude Lübbe-Wolf were among those attending.

It was an evening with a lot going on at many levels, although not once did Luther’s core premise come up – that man is saved by faith and grace alone, and that the pious acts that Catholics thought could help played no role in salvation. The word “God” was seldom used during the evening, and if memory serves, the name “Jesus Christ” wasn’t mentioned a single time.

The question that remained unanswered at the end was: what is the 500th Anniversary celebration in 2017 actually going to be about? Revisiting and strengthening evangelical faith? Or a festive and soon-forgotten occasion with colloquia, ceremonies, entertainment?

Which is not to say that what the nine distinguished “outsiders” told EKD representatives was stupid. On the contrary: it was a sum of what a broad spectrum of society feels towards religion. And God didn’t come into it.

Faith, the euro zone and music

Politician Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned that if the euro zone falls apart it could lead to a split between Orthodox Greeks and Catholic southern Europe and the Protestant churches of the north. Faith can be political.

Jürgen Flimm, who has also had an international career as an opera director, praised the magic of stories in the Bible, and spoke of his feelings when he listened to religious music by Heinrich Schütz (1585-1672) or Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Faith can be stirring.

Judge Gertrude Lübbe-Wolf paid tribute to Protestantism’s contribution to the juridification of institutions and now prevalent ideal of self-reliance through hard work. Faith can be modern.

Journalist Carolin Emcke highlighted the reformers’ "ability to doubt, and sense of responsibility in giving the reasons why. Faith can be elucidating." Emcke, who left the church, also said that she had inherited a "form of freedom from fear" from her grandmother and her mother’s Christian beliefs. Faith can have a positive impact on children.

Where is God?

Which is all fine and well. But couldn’t you have all of those things without God? Or put another, more evangelical way: if you’re tying all that to religion, shouldn’t you also be giving God and Christ a mention?

And yet it would be very wrong to be reproachful with regard to what came out of the EKD’s Luther evening. The endeavor initiated by Göring-Eckardt was certainly courageous: here were men and women of the church listening to what people on the outside thought about the Reformation. And those people were right: what is popularly considered positive about Protestantism are things like politics and music, the ethos of self-reliance and law, the willingness to doubt, and sometimes childhood memories.

One thing that is disturbing, though, is that this kind of “feedback” by “outsiders,” such as was sought at the gathering on Sunday, has started to play a big role in general for the EKD. It manifests frequently during homilies, when increasingly ministers appear to find it necessary to cater to the expectations and various religious orientations of their listeners instead of drawing on the core messages of Christian theology. Viewed from that perspective, what the church may have gained from Sunday’s exercise is that it needs to draw more on its own strengths and put itself out there with more confidence – because “outsiders” aren’t ultimately going to be a lot of help: Particularly as they may bring in ideas that go against fundamental principles.

When Jochen Sandig, the Berlin cultural entrepreneur who co-founded the Tacheles Art Center and Radialsystem V – New Space for the Arts, complained that "the church is too much spirit and too little body" it was really nothing more than a statement of prevailing reality – since physical spiritual techniques, from meditation to pilgrimages, are extraneous to the evangelical church. Furthermore, Protestantism is a religion of the Biblical word and hence a faith in which spirituality must by definition play a prominent role.

In another example: Muslim writer Navid Kermani made a case for more ritual and mysticism -- and one can only say: the whole point of the Reformation was to bring Christianity back to its core and to protect that core from aimless rituals and idolatry. That can of course be criticized, but to recommend coming away from it for a major Reformation anniversary is inappropriate.

It was distressing during the discussion to hear someone say: "what I’m missing here is the issue of faith." Architect Hilde Léon made the comment. She is Catholic.

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