‘The past is a foreign country’, L. P. Hartley reminds us at the beginning of The Go-Between; ‘they do things differently there’. Put simple if we do not study the past we are not only doomed to repeat its mistakes we also do not learn what doing things differently could mean for us. Now this is the 450 year of the reformation in our wee Scotland and nearly 500 years since Luther posted his 95 articles on a door in back of beyond Germany. Yet these small acts dare I say in small places ripped Europe up more quickly than Hitler did when he invaded Poland. Since we are talking about a time when being on the wrong side, having the wrong theology or worshipping in the wrong way could mean death. Indeed, the 30 years religious war killed possibly 30% of the German population alone; German total casualties from Second World War being around 11%. The Reformation too has had a much longer effect that the political upheavals that divided Europe with a concrete wall last Century. Since its differing ideas are still a barrier to unity in the Christian church even today. Nevertheless, the 15th century of the reformation has much in common with our 21 st Century and therefore has much to say to us despite the controversies it still stirs up. So let us proceed but let us proceed gently.
Now I would not say that Erasmus was gentle but he certainly had a spirituality around him that made him try to be a peace maker. Born in Rotterdam in 1466, he lived in the years immediately preceding the Reformation and throughout it. Yet despite the violence, disorder and oppression it engendered, he remained a voice of rationality, calm and moderation. He indeed remained true to beatitudes.
And this scholar was well placed to do so. For, he was a towering intellect of his age and the key figure in the then humanist movement. Humanism back then I rush to say had little to do with today’s fig leaf term for militant atheism. Rather it was product of the renaissance when the individual citizen started to emerge from behind both the totalitarian control of the church and princes. It was the germ of every human being having the right to think for themselves. It was the embryo if little more of universal human freedom.
And Erasmus found these discoveries of human individuality in the classical works that brought back to life the thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome. He re-found in the ancient languages of Greek and Hebrew the true text of scriptures that had been less well translated many centuries before. Moreover, he pushed forward the brand new way of mass communication which was the printing press.
Since by Erasmus day, the church had both mired itself in corrupt practices and had allowed a very dry academic approach to the bible and theology reign. The latter is often typified, probably apocryphally, as theologians arguing how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Instead, Erasmus and his colleagues such as Thomas More looked to scripture having a genuine impact of ordinary people’s lives – their problems, their fears and their aspirations. That’s why in a sermon, he once preached:
I would like to hear the farmer sing scripture at the plough, a weaver keep his shuttle time to it and the traveller find his journey better by its stories.
And what was Erasmus’ line of attack. It was to offer a new and more accurate version of the New Testament in Greek which then could be translated into people’s own languages. In other words, he wanted everyone to be able to read the bible for themselves or at least hear it read in the vanacular.
However, his vision would have been hopelessly optimistic until the invention of the printing press and its use of paper some 50 years earlier. Now texts no longer needed to hand copied onto expressive animal skin parchment. Now hundreds if not thousands of copies could be produced quickly and cheaply. Now new ideas could and did spread like wildfire across Western Europe. Because, who can doubt that it is the printed word that has changed the average human lot than most other invention. Erasmus view then was if the ploughman and milk maid were going to learn to read – it should be to read something worthwhile – something that will edify their common humanity and something that will draw them nearer to a personal savior in Jesus Christ.
Well ultimately Erasmus failed in his attempt to reconcile the reformers with the then only church. In fact, he himself never broke with that church and is often seen as neither fish nor fowl. Yet his legacy to us all is immeasurable. For, he provided the tools for both the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter Reformation. More to the point, he contributed hugely to the developing sense of an individual relationship with a personal God who stands above yet in total fulfliment of the law.
However, he also leaves us with one very relevant challenge to us here and how. Since, we too are now in a highly individualistic age. But we are also in a similar age as to that of Erasmus in terms of new forms of communication. Becuase just as the printing press utterly changed human history there is little doubt that Television and the internet are doing the same. Erasmus example then asks us – how do we use them for the good of our common humanity and enjoyment of God?
Interestingly, Erasmus, although a lifelong scholar, spent less time in universities than he did the printing shops of Europe. Because as the new technology spread to places like Oxford and Venice, printing presses became like polytechnics today. Since each needed master printers, editors, reviewers and typesetters versed not just in their own language but also Latin and Greek and maybe Hebrew. Here then were the factories of communication that feed those hungry for fresh and true word of God.
Therefore let us too not reject new ways of communicating. Instead, let us embrace them with vigour, enthusiasm and gratitude. For, arguably, Christianity in Britain has made a lamentable shambles of it use of TV. But let us not make the same mistake over the web and new ideas of Christian education such as interactive learning, games and newer forms of worship. For, not to join the future is to be lost in the past.
On the other hand, if do set our hand to the presses of this age, we will be faced with a hard task yet one that is undeniably in the lord’s service. For as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who is acutely points out – the task confronting the Churches is the bearing witness to Christ in a society that wants to portray Christian faith as ‘an obstacle to human freedom and a scandal to the human intellect’. But that is precisely the great ecumenical challenge to the Christian Churches in modern Britain and to every Christian.
Let us then take up that gauntlet, reform and press on…..