Breaking everything does not mean reforming the Church or changing the world. That’s the 16th thesis of my book 95 theses for the new generation.
There are people who just want to watch the world burn. That is the idea that appears recurring in the trilogy of Batman: The Dark Knight, by Christopher Nolan. Surrounded by his own existential contradictions, Batman’s moral compass is gripped by an increasingly explicit escalation of anarchy and nihilism. From Ra’s al Ghul’s method of purifying social sin, to Bane’s media cynicism, to Joker and Harvey Dent’s eroticization of social chaos, Nolan’s films probe into the maelstrom of the spirit of our times. To purge the West of its age-old vices, we have to set the world on fire, even if we burn ourselves in the process.
The desire to reform the Church was an unstoppable cry of Christianity by the time Luther appeared on the scene. One after another, institutional efforts had failed in the task of reform. The Councils of Constance (1414-1418), Basel-Ferrara-Florence (1431-1445), and the Fifth Lateran Council (which ended seven months before the publication of the Ninety-Five Theses) all tried to change things. They all failed. It is not surprising that the reformers have refused to go the way of conciliarism. To truly reform the Church, they needed to go deeper, review the structures with more commitment, carry their convictions to the ultimate consequences.
Thus began to emerge, already in the early years of the Reformation, countless movements that questioned everything: they wanted to break everything known to pursue the intangible ideal of true spirituality without ties. Some radical groups believed that the best course was to tear down the entire edifice of Christian tradition. That insight led Thomas Müntzer to incite the Peasants’ War, which left nearly 150,000 dead.
A high point of criticism from radical groups was the doctrine of the Trinity: a word that appears nowhere in the Bible and was coined by Tertullian in the early third century. More than one saw there a clear example of the deviation of the Church.
«“I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, only begotten Son, our Lord; and in the Holy Spirit. If even one of these articles is missing, all is lost », Luther explained in one of his sermons. The reformer was well aware that the doctrine of the Trinity presented a logical headache and an easy target for anyone who wanted to question it. However, he insisted on preserving its truth and importance intact. If at other points he had preached rupture, at this point he fully embraced continuity with a truth received from the past.
Luther’s attitude made him enemies on both sides of the dispute. The Catholics saw in him a diabolical destroyer of all that was sacred; the radicals denounced him for being lukewarm and even said that he was an ally of the pope. The Reformation, following his example, strove to maintain a complex balance of two parts. First: cleanse the Church of her immense sins and change the world for the better. And second, as Luther once told extremists, don’t throw the baby out with the dirty bath water.
Flirting with chaos has become a symbol of intellectual sophistication: we must de(con)construct any source of certainty and throw ourselves, in an act of adult freedom, into the arms of the mist. We live in a time that has an extraordinary ability to denounce, but very little ability to announce. In other words: we know how to recognize every nook and cranny of evil and oppression around us, but we don’t have accurate images of beauty, truth, or justice.
The evil in which we inhabit is so great that we would like everything to collapse so that a better world could emerge from the ashes of the old society and like a phoenix. Without very clear horizons, without ethical anchors, without knowing what is worth building and for what reasons, we tear down the pillars of yesteryear for the mere parricidal pleasure of defying fate.
The deconstruction of religious traditions is one of the mottos of my generation. Undertaking this task of review enables powerful responses to new challenges and, incidentally, denounces many of the false idols that have sprung up in Christian spirituality. But the problem with many of these efforts is that they have lost their inalienable link with the source of life. The process of revising him is looking, little by little, like the Joker’s nihilistic epic. The compass stops pointing to the true experience with Christ and becomes an erratic path of criticism of the institution and distrust of everything learned. They stretch the rope that holds faith to its full capacity and hope, against all odds, that it will not break.
“I don’t know why an extraordinary mental accident” —Chesterton said more than a century ago— there are people who think that progress and independence of thought are issues that go hand in hand. When the truth is that, from a totally autonomous thought, every individual “has to start at the beginning and only goes, in all probability, as far as his father. But if anything has the nature of progress, that something must be, above all things, the detailed study and acceptance of the whole past.
All innovation is based on tradition. Any act of creativity and progress has its roots deep in the past from which it draws, the one who criticizes, the one who continues and ramifies, the one who learns and unlearns, updates and imitates. Human beings do not have the grace of creation former nihilo, of nothing. What happens, rather, is that each generation molds again, in the face of new scenarios and challenges, the mud that the past left as an inheritance.
Breaking everything is not the same as reforming the Church. Waiting for everything to implode and burn to purification is also not the same as changing the world for the better. The road to the future of faith is paved by humility in the face of the proposals of a world in constant change, but also by fidelity in the face of the ancient certainties of faith. The anger and the boredom for the things that we can no longer bear cannot take away our capacity for surprise before the mysterious experience of salvation. If that happens, the League of Shadows has already won the battle.