The Gutenberg Bible changed the trajectory of Christianity forever. Before its creation in the 1450’s, the Bible had been painstakingly written by hand. Jerome’s Vulgate edition was the official translation for many years and the one Johannes Gutenberg used for the first printed edition.
Before the Gutenberg Bible, because Bibles were handwritten, they were rare. Most people heard the Bible read during worship. While Christianity had spread throughout most of Europe by the 1400’s, the Bible remained in one language, Latin; a language that worshipers did not know. They would hear the Latin translation spoken in worship, but were dependent on an interpreter (a local priest) to translate the text into a native language.
When Martin Luther publicly declared his Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, questioning and debating beliefs of the Catholic Church (and subsequently launching what would become known as the Lutheran Church), he took advantage of the printing press. He began making the Bible available in the vernacular of his day, German. The Bible became an accessible book that everyone could understand. A human mediator was no longer necessary.
Divine Revelation and Thinking for Self
For Luther, the individual did not require an intermediator between themselves and God. In catholic thinking, clergy played a central role in offering prayers on behalf of the people, hearing confessions, offering forgiveness, and instructing individuals in having a right relationship with God through actions like penance and indulgences.
I’m not a Lutheran scholar by any stretch of the imagination, but I do know that this fundamental shift away from an intermediator set the stage for subsequent church splits. Individualism would become a driving force in the diversification of the church. And by individualism, I don’t mean the rugged idea that most American’s have. I mean the way an individual reacts and rebels against the natural tendencies of the human to be in community with others.
When congregations or denominations disagreed about belief and practice, it often results in some form of a split. All Protestant denominations have their roots in a church split. The narrative is always the same: one group of people, believing they have a divine revelation, stands up and against another group. This first group will argue and debate their point. If the two groups become polarized, one group will leave. They will base the decision to leave on their personal relationship with God. They will blame the other and accuse the other of being irrational, mean, judgmental, intolerant, and wrong. The problem is in the narrative. It's misleading. While it makes sense to those who are leaving, it misses something much more powerful: any church split is the result of a relationship process, what Dr. Murray Bowen called an emotional process.
The Role of an Emotional Process
One of the goals in faith formation is aligning behavior with belief. This is the role of clergy: teaching people how belief influences practice and how practice influences belief. But clergy are no different than anyone else. They too struggle with this process of lining up what they say and what they do.
For example, some Protestant clergy believe that one way to develop a relationship with God is simply to take a Bible and read it (an idea that has its roots in the reformation). By merely reading the Bible, God’s presence can become known, and one can have a personal experience of God. Makes sense. But what happens if the experience of God is outside the accepted theological framework of one’s particular expression of faith? In most cases, clergy are quick to accuse someone of heresy. This, then, is the history of Christianity since Luther. We encourage individuals to discover and explore faith, but only if it is within the confines of a particular faith tradition.
Congregations and denominations fall on a continuum between two polarizing positions. At one end of the continuum are congregations or denominations who stand firm in a traditional view of the scriptures. How far back one goes to determine this traditional view will vary from group to group. Any beliefs that are outside of this view are labeled heretical. There was a time in our history when heretical views would get you killed. Today’s church has taken a more civilized tone. Heretical beliefs will simply land you in hell for all of eternity.
On the other end of this continuum are individuals who challenge traditional views and eventually leave the church to practice their beliefs. But we are social creatures. So, it is difficult to tolerate being alone in one’s beliefs for any extended length of time. People who leave a church will eventually find like-minded individuals to join or form a congregation. And, of course, these congregations develop their own traditional views of scriptures, setting the stage for future generations to repeat the process.
What remains to be seen is whether humans have the capacity to stay connected with a congregation while maintaining different beliefs and practices. It’s easy to be caught up in the effort of beliefs and practices and miss the emotional process. This is the classic content vs. process problem. The threshold for developing this capacity is not in the variety of beliefs and practices that exist in a congregation or denomination but on the quality of the relationships of the people. You can have a group whose beliefs and practices are identical but have a tense and anxious relationship system. You can also have a group with a wide variety of beliefs and practices who also are tense and anxious as a group. For example, in a congregation, people may be free to believe and practice as they wish but huge fights break out over the leadership ability and style of the pastor, or the way the finances are being managed.
These same struggles begin in the family. Those who struggle to work out differences in a congregation, more than likely have a difficult time working out differences in their families. So, you can have families where everyone agrees but only because disagreement creates too much tension and unease in the family. You can also have families were everyone disagrees, but the disagreement serves as a way to keep others at a distance.
Establishing Opportunities for Thinking for Self
First confession. I’m a United Methodist pastor who believes in and practices the core beliefs of the church. I, like everyone else, experience times of doubt where I question and reconsider what I believe. There are days ("momma said there'll be days like this") when I doubt the Methodist Way. Even now, our denomination is on the verge of a split over our beliefs and practices. It seems unlikely that we will continue to stay connected amid our differences. Each side wants the other side to change. It’s an indicator of our denomination’s level of functioning.
My second confession (there are only two). What I’ve articulated in this post is theoretical. I have yet to find a congregation who is completely diverse in beliefs and practices, and respects each other. I’ve read articles about congregations who have developed interfaith sites. These congregations remain separate, but the effort is there. If you know of a place, please share it in the comment section below. Most congregations vary in their ability to do this, but currently it is always within an established boundary of beliefs. The forces for togetherness still outweigh the forces for individuality.
The test of any congregation is, theoretically, the ability of leaders to tell the difference between thinking that is based on well thought out principles and thinking that is based on relationship needs. Dr. Murray Bowen categorized these two ways of thinking as solid self and pseudo self. Solid self comes out of one’s effort to intentionally sit down (lets say with paper and pen) and work on gaining clarity about what one “knows” about life based on facts. Most people (if they put in the time) have the capacity to articulate three or four core beliefs, which they can use at any moment and in any situation, to help them navigate an anxious situation. Pseudo self is based on thinking that is borrowed from someone else, typically other family members. We may blindly accept what someone else believes and latch onto it. But in the words of Rev. Robert Williamson, these beliefs are more “brittle.” When anxiety goes up, they do not provide a solid place to stand.
The solution is simple, but the implementation is a challenge. Theoretically, what’s needed are opportunities for individuals to work on establishing their core beliefs. These core beliefs are the bedrock for functioning because they help one not only navigate difficult situations but also help one stay connected in important relationships, even if others hold different beliefs and practices. It's counterintuitive: working on self helps one be better connected to important others. Working on differentiation of self helps one do a better job of balancing individuality and togetherness.
This raises lots of questions which still need to be answered. What is a community? What are the markers? How much can a faith community tolerate regarding different beliefs and practices? How do you define community if individuals have different beliefs and practices? Is this even a possibility? If not, in what ways can communities that have different beliefs and practices stay connected? What is lost and gained by this process? I hope you will add your thinking in the comment section below.