Faith, Reform, and the Needs of the Living

Margaret A. Farley ’70 M.Phil., ’73 Ph.D.

Five hundred years ago Martin Luther made public 95 Theses against abuses which he believed had become life-threatening to the Christian church. Today almost everyone recognizes that Luther’s protest, insofar as it initiated the whole of the Protestant Reformation, contributed to the saving of the life of the whole church – the life of faith among Christians, both those who joined him in the protest and those whom he protested against.

There had been major reforms in the church prior to Luther, prior to the 16th century, but perhaps never before had the need for reform been so widely recognized. Surely never before had the call to reform been so radical, so disruptive, so far-reaching in relation to the tradition as a whole. Such an act, such a project, deserves remembering – for what it meant in its own time and for what it can teach us today.

Modern Translation

Perhaps the best way to remember this event is to recall and translate into our own lives Luther’s fundamental insight into what we have come to know as “justification by faith.” Yet here I want to do something else. I want to reflect, however briefly, on the general need for reform in all traditions of living faith – on the directions reform may take and the ways in which we may be responsible for it today.

In a way which was not possible in the 16th century, we take for granted the need for change in a viable, living religious tradition. We know that religious traditions do change – for better or for worse. When they change for the worse, we speak of them as dying, or becoming corrupt, or dissipating their central inspiration. When they change for the better, we recognize their possibilities of growth, of correction, of adaptation. We perhaps do not recognize that every change is inevitably disruptive – that everything truly new inevitably dislodges or transforms what was previously in place. We may not see that change almost always involves “protest” and “reform” – and not just a simple unleashing of what was always most deeply there.

Forms and Reforms of Love

Yves Congar, the French Roman Catholic theologian, identified three kinds of reform that are needed again and again in the life of the church:

1) reforms that correct abuses, challenging falsifications, distortions, corruptions in belief and practice;

2) reforms that restore life to practices, structures, and beliefs, tapping again the sources of life in a tradition, reviving what has become tedious, apathetic, formalistic;

3) reforms that open the life of the church to something truly new, moving beyond the correction of abuses and the re-quickening of old forms to new adaptations, new insights, new forms for faith and love in newly understood and experienced conditions of life.1 Traditions remain alive insofar as they change – insofar as they are capable of reform – in these ways.

The reformations of the 16th century (both in the Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions) included all three of these kinds of reform. But how would we know whether and what reforms are needed in the church today? It seems to me there are at least three signs:

1) if we see others being oppressed by the ways the church incorporates them into its life, or by the failures of the church to help them address the wider situations of their life in the world;

2) if we ourselves experience serious dissonance in our life with the church – serious contradiction, even, between the promise of life which the church professes and the life it actually embodies;

3) if our own and others’ hunger for life is perhaps not denied or refused but is not yet filled because of failure in the church’s attention or imagination.

What Can Awaken Us?

In any of these instances, we must ask ourselves and one another: Where is the injury, and what are its causes? Where is the apathy, and what can awaken us? Where are the old and the new springs of life, and how shall they be released? If hearts long for the nourishment that God has promised, can they be more satisfied? For whom are the pipes played and the dirges sung who will neither dance nor mourn?

Insofar as we discern our own responsibility for movements of reform, what can we know of the “way”of reform? Shall it be the way of reminder or the way of resistance? the way of collaboration or the way of protest? the way of direct critique or the way of subversion? The answers require their own discernment, but again let me only point to some clues – two, to be exact.

The first is suggested by a passage in Mark’s second chapter: In answer to the question of why John’s disciples should have fasted and his own not be fasting, Jesus responds that the situations are different. I know there is a mysterious meaning to this answer – a meaning that may have to do with a distinction between stages in the fulfillment of God’s covenant. But it seems to me that there is also a non-mysterious meaning, an obvious meaning, that has to do with actions being appropriate to the moment. At a party, when those you have awaited arrive, you do not fast. When you await them, or when they depart again, you may fast. The way of reform in the church is context-relative. If we are ignorant of real-life circumstances, we may tear the cloth or break the vessels of the lives of those whom the church touches. That is the cry of liberation theologians: What may be needed for new life in the church in its struggle with the problems of modernity – with unbelief and meaninglessness, with new forms of rationality and new tangles of confusion – is not always what is needed when the church’s struggles are with destitution and oppression, poverty and death.

The life of the church, of course, cannot be divided this way. These contexts are mutually implicated and bound together. Something new is called for when the voice of the poor is raised in the church. New wine and new wineskins must be produced if long-neglected vines are to be restored. What is called for by way of “reform” is what will truly serve life, what will be true to the needs of the living.

Today surely most of us are called somehow to movements of reform – both in response to the need for meaning and to the need for justice. It is surely not possible for the church to ignore either one. The harsh experience of people’s everyday lives challenges the church to break with its past and yet find anew its everlasting source, to bring from its storehouse both old and new, to move forward with both continuity and discontinuity of life, while inevitably facing radical change as it does so.

A Time to Complexify

That brings me to my second clue: Reform is always characterized by complexity. We are tempted to think of renewal, of correction of abuses, in terms of a “simplifying”process: Return to the core of the gospel, act according to the clear requirements of justice, clear away the inessentials that accrue in a tradition and be faithful to its simple and accessible essence. In a sense, of course, this is right – we must find again the center in its simplicity, and suffering asks for justice that cannot afford nuances and complexities. But there are times when a tradition’s life and power demand that we complexify, that we hold in our minds and our hearts and in relation to others the great complexities that mark the fullness of human experience.

Purity and Protest

I am reminded here of Annie Dillard’s observation that “purity of practice” in art guarantees that an artist will not make mistakes, and superficial critics will find no flaw in such a “pure” work – but nothing will have been ventured.2 “Purity” seeks to remove all inessentials. But, she insists, even if we could agree on the essentials, it is hard to see how anyone could think that a purging of inessentials is good in itself. Symbols – whether as the powerful source and consequence of great art or the conveyors of life in a religious tradition – arise from “material messes.” In a time when reform in the Christian churches calls for new or transformed symbols, we should not be daunted by the complexity of the project or by our seeming inability to control it at every turn. Profound reform is always a complex matter. Unless our hearts and minds can hold complexities, we risk great harm to individuals and groups, and our reform risks flattening the very life we desire to unleash.

Similarly, in theological education, we surely can find both an anchor and new freedom in a return to the sources and resources of our individual traditions. Yet there is a danger in not taking as a central task the complex project of ecumenical dialogue and learning. If we simplify our educational commitments in a way that once again isolates us in separate strands of the Christian tradition, we shall never see that the very diversity and complexity of Christian belief and practices come not only from various historical developments but from Christianity’s source itself.3 We shall have missed understanding and experiencing the fullness of Christianity – so rich as a Tradition that no one tradition has been able to hold all of its life.

But let me end where I began. If the church is to live, it must continually be reformed. If we are to be alive within the church, our call to faithfulness includes the call to be reformed and to reform. But reform begins in our daily circumstances – where persons live and die, where they are fed or denied the food they need, where they are confused and in search of meaning, where they are oppressed or freed, empty or full, alone or in community. If we abandon these, then we despair of the possibility of hope in them – and the possibility of the church’s response to them.

Why must we ultimately attend to, and find the ways of faithfulness appropriate to, the situations of our world? Not merely so the church’s life may be preserved, but because that is what its life requires, that is what its life is.

Margaret A. Farley ’70 M.Phil., ’73 Ph.D., Gilbert L. Stark Professor Emerita of Christian Ethics, has been a mentor and advisor to generations of students at YDS, where she taught from 1971-2007. Her books include Changing the Questions: Explorations in Christian Ethics, edited by Jamie Manson (Orbis, 2015) and Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (Continuum, 2006). She is a member of the Sisters of Mercy and a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America. This essay is newly adapted from an address she gave at YDS in October 1989.


1 Yves Congar, Vraie et fausse reforme dans l’Eglise (Les Editions du Cerf, 1950), Part I.

2 Annie Dillard, Living By Fiction (Harper Colophon, 1983), pp. 170-171.

3 Congar, Fifty Years of Catholic Theology: Conversations with Yves Congar, edited by Bernard Lauret (Fortress Press, 1988), p. 78.