Religion Today

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

From the Reformation to Brexit: Divorcing Europe

In 1517, five hundred years ago this month, Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral. Six years later, the Catholic Church excommunicated Luther and by 1526 he began organizing a new church. This was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.
            From its beginning, the reformation was both religious and political. Where reformers had political backing, it succeeded. Where Catholicism had political backing, it failed. Many German dukes and princes supported Luther, while other dukes and the Holy Roman emperor, who was nominally superior to them, stayed with Catholicism.
            In England, King Henry VIII remained without a male heir. When the pope refused to annul his marriage, Henry had himself appointed the head of the Church of England in 1534. Henry was not a reformer and English church goers experienced little change in their weekly worship. Henry’s move was really a political rejection of the pope’s authority over England, and his actions emphasized the English refusal to be governed by Europe.
            That was just as well, for back on the continent matters deteriorated. New Protestant champions, John Calvin and his fellow Reformers, gained ground in Switzerland.
            Meanwhile the conflict between Luther’s church and Catholicism grew worse and had to be settled by the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which stated that the duke of a region could determine its religion, Lutheran or Catholic. Calvinism was not an option.
            Conflict continued nonetheless. The Calvinist Dutch Republic fought for independence from Catholic Spain in the Eighty Years War. In Germany, the Thirty Years War began as a fight between Lutherans and Catholics. By the time these conflicts were settled by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, millions of Europeans had died through war, famine and disease.
            The Westphalia treaty finally included Calvinists as well as Lutherans and Catholics.
            The religious wars on the continent had little direct impact on the British Isles. England experienced neither the frequent battles nor the widespread deaths; although it occasionally sent troops to support one side or the other.
            The English and ultimately British religious conflicts took a complete different shape. Henry’s son, King Edward VI, brought in protestant reforms after 1547. Drawing mostly from Calvinist ideas, these included the rejection of images (stained glass and statues) and worship reforms carried out through the Book of Common Prayer. Lutheranism never got a foothold in Britain.
            When Queen Mary came to the throne in 1558, she reversed these religious changes, working to make England once again subordinate to the papacy. Ultimately, this resulted in heresy trials and executions.
            Her successor, Queen Elizabeth I, established a set of religious compromises that provided the foundation for the Anglican Church, combining a largely Calvinist-Protestant foundation with Catholic elements.
            The political struggle between the Anglican Parliament and the sometimes Catholic monarchy in the 1600s was ultimately drawn along religious lines, with Anglicans and (Calvinist) Puritans supporting the Parliament and Catholics supporting the Royals.
            The ensuing English Civil War lasted from 1643 to 1651 and established England under the rule of Parliament, even though it also brought back the monarchy. Conflicts in Ireland and Scotland took longer to settle. The 1648 Peace of Westphalia essentially went unnoticed in the British Isles.
            Britain took another half-century to work out a stable solution to the Protestant-Catholic divide, but problems continued. Many Puritan members of the Anglican Church came to the Americas to escape religious discrimination. Ireland remained unsettled, divided by both religion and politics until the southern part gained independence in 1922; conflict continued in the north until recent times.
            What does the Reformation reveal about Brexit, the current plan of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union? 
            As with Henry VIII, large parts of England want to divorce the country from Europe, to rid itself of European control over Britain. This time it is solely political, not religious at all. Immigration control constitutes one of several disputes.
            The claim is that what happens in Europe is largely irrelevant in Britain. If it were not for the laws of the European Union, there would be little need for a deep connection to Europe. 
            That claim is of course widely and hotly disputed. Both Scotland and London voted against Brexit by a wide margin, seeing their futures irrevocably tied to Europe.
            But the myth of an England free from continental authority, promoted by Henry VIII during the Reformation, beats in many English breasts. And they can point to 150 years of separate courses of the Protestant Reformation, one on the continent and one in the British Isles, as providing historical backing for separation. Is that historical example still valid in modern times? We will see.

Note: On October 15 and 16, the Religious Studies Department at the University of Wyoming will host a mini-conference Protestant Reformations: 500 Years and Counting. There will be a public lecture on Monday the 16th at 4:10, by Philip Cary, “How Luther Became Protestant” in Berry Center 138. For more information, visit

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Divine Ammunition: The Art of Al Farrow

A sliver of white is lifted above a platform below a small dome surmounted by a tiny cupola. The dome is supported by four columns. At least that is what I think I see from across the museum gallery. A closer look brings a sudden shock: the white sliver is bone, a human finger. The finger’s platform is constructed out of bullets and shells, the dome and cupola covered with shotgun pellets and the columns are pistol barrels, with the pistols still attached.
            According to the label, the finger belongs to “Santo Guerro”, a purposeful misnaming of an imaginary “Saint of War.” (Or does it mean Saint Blondie?) But the odd name is less important than my reaction upon viewing the image.
            Questions race through my brain. Is it sacrilege to surround a saint with weaponry? Is there a message here, something beyond the observation that most saints died through violence? Why do I feel my gut turn?
            Not answering my questions, I move on…and immediately run into the reliquary of Santo Guerro’s skull, lying in a glass box on top of a pile of empty 30-06 rifle shells. The skull’s unhinged grin mocks the serious character of its bed.
            Before the two reliquaries stands a model of a large Gothic cathedral. It is made mostly from ammunition, intricately put together. The child in me who loved models is attracted like a magnet; without thinking I spend 5 fascinated minutes examining the doors and walls of shells, the soaring towers framed by rifle barrels, and the flying buttresses made from gun stocks.
            I check the museum guide, expecting a name like Trinity Cathedral or some other name of a cathedral city. Instead it says, “The Spine and the Tooth of Santo Guerro.” Spine? What spine? I haven’t seen a spine, let alone a tooth. Wait, there it is. In the shadows within the cathedral. The model too is a reliquary.
            I start looking at the other models of sacred structures: synagogues, churches, mosques and mausoleums. I find a Bible open to the book of Revelation in a church, a Torah scroll cover in a synagogue model. The Muslim mausoleums contain tombs. They are all reliquaries.
            It is often difficult to interpret art, to find its meaning. But one point is clear, the images are of the sacred and holy (saints’ remains, sacred texts and accoutrements) contained within the symbols of violence, ammunition and weapons of death.
            Even the models of Muslim mausoleums fit the pattern, for mausoleums usually contain the remains of holy men (sort of like Christian saints). Some forms of Islam, like the Saudi’s Wahhabism, vehemently deny that Muslims can be saints, be holy men, and that they can be revered after death. Indeed, they frequently enforce that denial at the point of a gun.
            Al Farrow’s artworks clearly juxtapose violence and the sacred. But what is the message?  He won’t say, so its remains unclear.
            What is clear, however, is that the exhibit grabs your attention. It may not provide answers, but the viewers certainly raise the question and discuss it among themselves. I often found myself across a piece from a stranger, pointing out features and debating with each other.
            Are religions violent? Are they victims of violence?
            The exhibit also contains three full-size doors (constructed of ammunition and gun parts) of religious structures: a mosque, a church and a synagogue. Each one is presented with graffiti and other violence enacted upon it. Perhaps the message is that religions visit violence upon each other. Hmmm.
            Al Farrow’s exhibit, Divine Ammunition, will be at the UW Art Museum in Laramie, WY until December 16, 2017.

Artist Al Farrow’s “The Skull of Santo Guerro II,” a reliquary of an imagined saint, evokes both violence and the sacred. The skull rests on a bed of spent rifle shells. Farrow’s “Divine Ammunition” exhibition is on view at the UW Art Museum through Dec. 16. (Paul Flesher Photo)

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Liberty, Equality and the Meaning of Religious Freedom

The Declaration of Independence placed the Enlightenment ideal of “liberty” at the heart of the American soul. It cites liberty among the reasons for creating our new country. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
            The basic meaning of liberty is the ability to do what one wants. Of course even school children know that unbridled liberty is impossible. If one person decides they want to kill another, an extreme example, the second person’s liberty is violated, to say nothing of their life.
            Liberty as a political or governing policy thus consists of balancing of each individual’s ability to behave as they wish against others’ freedom to do the same. The goal is to achieve an equality of liberty for everyone, with everyone attaining as much freedom as possible.
            Another widely used definition of liberty is one of freedom from oppression; as the Merriam-Webster dictionary puts it, “freedom from arbitrary or despotic control.” This notion of liberty inspired the Puritans to leave England and come to the New World. They wanted the freedom to believe and worship as they were convinced that God wanted them to.
            If America’s notion of liberty began with this bid for religious liberty, the result was initially disappointing. True, in 1620 the Puritans established a colony at Plymouth where they followed their faith freely.
            But the Puritan notion of religious freedom was limited to themselves and their own beliefs and practices. It did not extend to anyone who believed different from them. In that they were no different from the Church of England, which had developed its discriminatory policies under King James (d. 1625).
            When Roger Williams and then Anne Hutchinson developed theological positions that differed from those of the Puritans, they were banished. Roger Williams fled to Rhode Island where in 1636 he founded Providence as the first community run on the basis of religious freedom. Anne and her followers later settled there.
            Although we often call Roger Williams the founder of religious liberty, what he really created was religious equality. The practical effect of bringing together several groups with different religious beliefs in Rhode Island set up an ironic conundrum: religious freedom had to be restricted to achieve the highest level of religious liberty.
            Each group in Rhode Island was free under the second definition of liberty, that of freedom from oppression and control. But they were not free under the first one, that of the unlimited ability to do as they wished. Where one group’s free expression of belief and practice impinged upon another’s, they had to work out a comprise to prevent that. These compromises usually limited both sides’ freedom, although ideally with as little limitation as possible.
            America’s great reputation for religious freedom is therefore the reputation for religious equality. Every religion and every version of a religion is free to worship and believe as each one chooses, as long as it does not impinge upon the rights of others. The clarion call we still sound for religious liberty is a call for equal rights of all religions.
            That is what makes America the standard bearer for religious freedom. Religious refugees from around the world flock to our country because they know they can worship without persecution here.
            What is opposite of equal rights for all religions? Despotism.
            If a country allows one religion to worship and act in accordance with its beliefs at the expense of other religions, then that country no longer has freedom of religion but the religious equivalent of political dictatorship.
            This is the situation for many countries around the world. They have a political system that favors one religion or even one version of a religion. That preference permits the members of the favored religion rights and privileges others do not have.
            This is true whether the religion is Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and even Christianity. The difference in rights between the religion in favor and those out of favor range from mild to extreme, from England’s support of Anglicanism with public taxes, to Israel’s allowing Judaism’s Orthodox wing of Judaism to control marriage law, to frequent persecution of Christians for blasphemy in Islamic countries.
            Only equal rights for all religions and all religious people, as well as non-religious beliefs and people, ensures the most religious freedom possible. Any other position penalizes those who do not follow the privileged faith.

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