What do Facebook and Twitter have in common with the Protestant Reformation? Nothing and everything.
Six days from now, October 31, is the 500 year anniversary of the German monk and professor Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church. It was a list of grievances against the Catholic Church, of which Luther and just about all of Europe was a part. Luther was especially critical of the sale of indulgences. These had devolved into a fundraising mechanism as the church leveraged people’s fear of eternal punishment to solicit money donations, promising soul benefits. Cha-ching.
Luther’s post of his theses in 1517 was later seen as Day 1 of the Protestant Reformation. Along with redrawing the political map of Europe, the Reformation signaled radical shifts we still feel today. It elevated the role of personal conscience over unquestioned institutional authority. It is Luther from whom we get the idea of the priesthood of all believers.
Posting arguments publicly wasn’t particularly unique. What made these theses so influential was a technological invention from the previous century. The printing press was a new device that, for the first time, enabled documents, pamphlets, and whole Bibles, to be printed and shared on a massive scale. Essentially, Luther’s 95 Theses went viral, to his own surprise.
Thus the connection with present day Facebook and Twitter. One could argue that in regards to the free sharing of ideas, the 21st century is the 16th century on steroids. Or on the internet.
So the free sharing of ideas is a good thing. The church, and political powers that backed it were corrupt. The Reformation, which includes Mennonites among its children, sought to offer much needed correctives.
But the Reformation was also a violent splintering, as are some of the currents of the 21st century. Much has been written recently about how our own perception of reality gets reinforced by the kind of company we keep in the viral world of memes and idea sharing.
Rather than celebrating the Protestant Reformation, and the countless sects it has spawned, it’s perhaps better that we simply observe it. We can observe this 500 year anniversary with gratitude, and also with caution. Because we are observing its consequences around us, and they are not all pretty.
We can observe our own tendencies toward sectarianism and tribal thinking, and look for the universal that can get lost in it all. Catholic, with a little “c”, catholic, means “universal.” It holds out the firm hope that underneath stark divides, ideological battles, and persistent abuses of power, there is a universal thread connecting us all at the soul level. I hope it holds.
For a more detailed article comparing the communication technologies of these two eras see this 2011 article in the Economist: “How Luther went viral.”