What Does the Reformation Mean for Us?
A Roundtable Discussion
Loving the Unlovely
Ronald K. Rittgers   |   all discussants

The Protestant Reformation was an event of world historical significance that has shaped modern society in profound ways. Many of the defining characteristics of contemporary economic, political, social, and religious life may be traced back to the seismic shifts that occurred in sixteenth-century Europe as a result of the Protestant revolution. The Reformation has also shaped our university in profound ways, a fact that is evidenced by the inscription on the cornerstone of our chapel. This inscription reads: “Valparaiso Memorial Chapel, in the Year of Christ 1959, the Four Hundred and Forty Second Reformation Year, Jesus Christ Himself the Chief Cornerstone.” Here we see a direct link between the Reformation and our chapel, which is intended to be the spiritual center of our campus.

But what exactly was the Reformation? What was it fundamentally about? What lay at the heart of the Reformation? And what does this heart have to do with us today at Valpo, 500 years later? Why should we care? Why should you care? I want to try answer these questions in a way that I hope will make sense to you.

Let’s take up the final question first, why should you care about the Reformation? I’d like to suggest the following intentionally provocative answer: you should care about the Reformation because it has the potential to significantly improve your love life!

So, let’s talk about your love life a bit. What do you do if you want someone to be attracted to you? Doesn’t it work pretty much like this? You see someone in class or on campus and you say to yourself, that’s the one for me! He is so handsome, so smart, so interesting, and so cool. I want to be his and I want him to be mine! Or, she is so beautiful, and so intelligent, and so funny. I want to be hers and I want her to be mine! And so what do you do? You try to make yourself attractive to that person because that’s the way human love works, right? We are attracted to people we find attractive. You go to the gym, study more diligently, comb your hair, brush your teeth, and pray that he or she might just notice you, for there is nothing greater in life than loving and being loved by the beloved.

The heart of the Reformation is the simple but life-changing belief that God’s love does not operate this way. God’s love does not require or allow the kind of strenuous effort we exert when we seek to persuade another human being to love us. There is no such persuading involved in one’s love relationship with God. It is in this way that the Reformation can improve your love life, by which I mean, your life of loving and being loved by God, in the first place, and then of loving and being loved by others.

Listen to how Martin Luther compared human and divine love at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518, which took place just a few months after the 95 Theses appeared in 1517 and a few years before The Freedom of the Christian in 1520:

“The love of God does not find, but creates that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.” A pithy if somewhat obscure statement, wouldn’t you agree? Here is how Luther sought to clarify it: “Rather than seeking its own good, the love of God flows forth and bestows good. Therefore sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive” (LW 31: 57). According to Luther, fallen human love is always at root self-seeking, whereas God’s love is always self-giving, always seeking the good of the beloved regardless of the beloved’s moral condition. In other words, we do not have to make ourselves attractive to God in order for God to love us. We are not able to do so, and God does not require this of us, in any case. God loves us precisely in our unloveliness—our habitual moral failure—and God’s love makes us lovely in God’s eyes.

You see, Luther had worked extremely hard to make himself attractive to God. He had sacrificed a career in the law to become a monk and had then engaged in all manner of religious exercises as he sought to persuade God to love him. But he failed and became extremely frustrated with God. In fact, he tells us that he came to hate God. That’s right, the father of the Protestant Reformation, the guy whose Reformation inspired the founding of our university and the construction of our chapel, once hated God. Why? Because he thought that God expected him to become perfectly lovable in order to earn divine love. This belief drove Luther to rage and to despair, for he knew he could never achieve this goal. But then, through intense study of the Bible, the reading of some good books, and the wise counsel of some good friends, Luther was rescued from his anger and despair. It was the insight that he did not have to persuade God to love him—that God had in fact first loved him long ago—that changed everything. Luther tells us that he felt born again when he arrived at this realization.

God is in the business of loving the unlovely, of loving in a totally unconditional way, because God is Himself self-giving love at His very core—that is the fundamental Reformation insight. In order to enter into a relationship of love with this God, Luther thought that one simply had to accept that one was unlovely, morally speaking, and place one’s faith in God. And Luther thought that God’s love would draw forth this confession and faith from the individual—God would make them happen.

But according to Luther, this divine love is a very costly love, and it comes to us in the last place we would expect to find it: in a man who lived 2,000 years ago and who was brutally executed on a cross. I am referring to Jesus Christ, of course, who according to Christian theology is the Son of God in human flesh, come to take death and all of its consequences upon Himself and to give life to all who live in the shadow of death, which is basically all of us. For Luther, Jesus Christ is the supreme expression of God’s self-giving love. God’s radical, unconditional love is a cruciform love, that is, it takes the shape of the cross, of Christ the God-man on the cross. That’s where we find God and His love, even though it makes little sense to our natural way of seeing things and may even offend us.

sculptureI am a Reformation scholar. That’s my job, to teach and write about the Reformation. This year I have been searching for a way to convey the radical, cruciform love of the Reformation to our campus. As I have cast my mind and eyes about, I have landed on what I think is an especially fitting symbol of this love: the Homeless Jesus sculpture, which is located on the lawn just west of the Union. In this sculpture, the crucified Christ is wrapped in the cloak of a homeless man and rests alone on a bench. I think the presence of this sculpture raises some really important questions for us as we collectively try to take stock of the Reformation and what it might mean for us today. Here are some of these questions:

The crucified God inhabits the central crossroads of our campus in what Mother Teresa would call His “distressing disguise.” He has come to us. Have we noticed Him there?

Why has the crucified God come to us in this way? Might it be to draw our attention to the marginalized in our midst and the way we frequently pass them by? Luther taught that the experience of God’s radical love for us was supposed to motivate us to share this love with others. How are we doing at passing on such love, especially to those on the fringes of society?

Or perhaps the crucified God is among us to reveal to us our own homelessness, our own alienation from our true home and source of love, which is God. Might Homeless Jesus be present among us to assure us that He has taken this homelessness on Himself as an expression of God’s deep love for us? Might He be there to tell us He understands our alienation, even from God? After all, it was He who cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46) He gets alienation from God and He has provided a solution to it.

Of what significance is it that Homeless Jesus is located at the crossroads of campus, common to all, belonging to all, yet owned by no one? He is not in the chapel. He is a Jesus that belongs to all religions on campus. Might the location of Homeless Jesus be a sign for us of how the radical love of God comes to us and seeks us wherever we are, whoever we are, and in whatever dire situation we might find ourselves?

What is the relationship between Homeless Jesus and the glorious Christus Rex of the chapel? Might we wish for the consideration of one to lead to a consideration of the other? Or must the two remain separate at Valpo? If so, why?

Finally, of what significance is it that there is space to sit next to Homeless Jesus on His bench? It seems that we have been invited to join Him on His bench and to sit next to His crucified feet. How might it change the way we all understand and experience Valpo if we would each sit on this bench next to these feet and ponder these questions for a while?

My hope and prayer is that such an act might bring the radical cruciform love of the Reformation to our campus in new ways. 

Ronald K. Rittgers holds the Erich Markel Chair in German Reformation Studies at Valparaiso University, where he teaches history and theology. He is author of The Reformation of Suffering: Pastoral Theology and Lay Piety in Late Medieval and Early Modern Germany (2012) and The Reformation of the Keys: Confession, Conscience, and Authority in Sixteenth-Century Germany (2004). Rittgers is past president of the American Society of Church History.


Read more from other Roundtable participants:

Brian T. Johnson: Setting the Stage
Alissa Kretzmann: An Encounter with Grace
David King: Freedom Under the Cross
Nura Esther Zaki: Honoring Our Heritage
David Rojas Martínez: The Chapel of the Resurrection as a Pilgrimage Site
Katie Benjamin: Screwups and Saints
Amelia Schroeder: Moving Beyond Disagreements
Thomas Albert Howard: Remembering the Reformation and the Problem of Christian Disunity 



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