In the middle ages, when life was often nasty brutish and short, reducing your time in Purgatory and guaranteeing a spot in heaven was one of the few aspects of your existence that you could control - provided you had cash. For the right sum of money you could buy an Indulgence. With this certified document - the Pope promised you a reduction, or even the elimination, of eternal punishment. Very large sums of money were raised by this process. The basilica of St Peters was built from proceeds of the sale of indulgences. The sale of Indulgences became a centre piece in the challenge by Luther to the authority of the papacy.
What on earth is Rob talking about today you might ask?
I think that we have come full circle back again to a situation where we have given up our personal power to institutions.
As I watched a wonderful documentary last night on PBS about Martin Luther, I was struck by the idea that Indulgences are alive and well in our own time and that the issues that surrounded Luther's revolt against the Church as the essential intermediary for human salvation remain.
We "know" that most aspects of our being healthy are in the domain of the personal and the community. If we have the right mindset, eat and do the best things, have healthy relationships we will be healthy. Our health is a personal matter within us and amongst our immediate community. But we mainly absolve our own personal responsibility for our own health and buy indulgences from the healthcare system. We prefer to buy a drug from a health priest than change our behaviour.
Until the age of 6, we learn to walk, talk, socialize and to understand our world. There is no time after where we learn so much. Our teachers are our parents and our community. Yet from the age of 6 onwards, we give up our personal responsibility to learn and we buy indulgences from the education system. We prefer to buy a certificate from an education priest than take responsibility for our own learning.
Our great aim to support ourselves economically in life is to get a job. Jobs are so fixed in our minds that we forget that until 150 years ago they hardly existed. Instead of learning real skills that have value and instead of forming associations with others that have value based on the relationships themselves, we become priests ourselves in a vast indulgence world where we sell the promise of happiness in the hope that if people consume enough they will find salvation.
As a student of history back in the early 1970's I could not understand firstly how religion had so gripped the world in the middle ages and the 17th century. Nor could I understand the passion raised by reform and its opponents. Now I think I do as I too start to see that we are indeed gripped by a religion. Our religion, as religion then, has great orders and institutions. Instead of monasteries we have institutions such as healthcare or education. At the centre of our religion is the belief that if only I had enough stuff, I would be happy. In this religion, a perversion of protestantism, you can tell who the saved are by their stuff.
As in the 1500's every important aspect of life is now intermediated by an institution. Even parenting is being given up to daycare. We as individuals have given up all responsibility for our own lives and for our communities.
So the murder issue in Toronto is seen as being about guns and policing and not about family and community. Health is seen to be the issue of more money and better access and not about self esteem, skills, family and community. Education is all about a credential and not about knowledge and experience. Work is a paycheck and not about creating value. The environment is a thing to be exploited and is not what supports us.
People will look back at us, if there there are people, in 500 years and wonder how we could be so blind.
Time my friends to see again the simple but terrible truth that Luther saw in his own time. No institution can intermediate the real needs of man either in life or after life. Our only hope is to understand how to meet ourselves and our God face to face.