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At 500, Protestant Reformation still influencing our world

ASU professor discusses how Protestant Reformation shaped our world today.
October 16, 2017

ASU Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict to host panel looking at lasting reverberations of Luther's actions

It is hard to imagine that something that happened 500 years ago could still influence world events today, but that is exactly what many historians, political scientists and religious studies scholars argue when it comes to the Protestant Reformation.

And that is the question at the heart of a panel discussion that Arizona State University’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict will host from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Thursday in Katzin Concert Hall on the Tempe campus.

The Protestant Reformation was set off by Martin Luther, a monk and scholar who wrote a document in 1517 attacking the Catholic Church’s practice of selling “indulgences” as a way to absolve sin.

The popular telling is that he dramatically nailed the document, known as the “95 Theses,” to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church. But reality is much more mundane. Luther hung the document on the door to announce an academic discussion, much like the fliers one sees around campus announcing events such as Thursday’s.

When Luther hung that flier on Oct. 31, 1517, he had no way of knowing that his writings about church doctrine would alter the course of religious and cultural history, setting off civil strife, rebellions and wars in Europe and England that would last more than 130 years and culminate in the establishment of the nation-state system that we know today.

Nor could he have known that his ideas about salvation and the authority of the church would ultimately lead a small group known as the Pilgrims to set sail on the Mayflower in 1619 to establish a religious colony in Massachusetts.

Nor could he have known that the reverberations from this event would still be felt today, in everything from the way religion is practiced to the development of secular governance and modern capitalism.

To address the impact of the Protestant Reformation on the world today, the center has assembled a panel of renowned scholars that includes Susan Schreiner, a historian from the University of Chicago; Daniel Philpott, a political theorist from the University of Notre Dame; Tracy Fessenden, a religious studies professor from ASU; and John Carlson, interim director of the center.

Fessenden, an associate professor in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, spoke with ASU Now in advance of the event to share more about why the Protestant Reformation was so important and what we can understand about religion and conflict in the world today from learning more about it.

Question: Why is the Protestant Reformation important to talk about, 500 years later?

Answer: In a sense, the history of the individual in the West begins with the Protestant Reformation.

In a nutshell, the Reformation moved the focus of religious authority from the church — the institution — to the Bible. That made one’s experience of reading of the Bible the path to knowing the divine will.

The hope of the original reformers was that this would put an end to religious corruption and disputes over authority by settling the question of where truth resides: sola scriptura, only in the word of God. But the outcome could not have been further from what they hoped. Lodging religious authority in the individual’s encounter with scripture ultimately unleashed a hyperpluralism of opinion, of interpretation, of the concept of the good and the options for pursuing it.

A momentous consequence of shifting the locus of religious authority from the church to the Bible was that it empowered the reading subject, the individual, to discern the divine will and the answers to the big questions — and to do so with or against institutional guidance. 

The legacy of the Reformation is massive, complicated and mixed — not all good or all bad, but very powerfully formative. It has affected all parts of our society, religious or not.

Q: What did a religious revolution have to do with political and social change?

A: For most of Christian history the church was the temporal authority as well as the spiritual one. The church was the government, basically.

The reason we have church-state separation in modern liberal states has to do with the way that bloody disputes between Christian factions over doctrinal and theological differences came to be settled. If the divine will was to be known sola scriptura, through Bible reading only, still the Bible needed to be interpreted. Rival interpretations matter when these drive the actions of states. But if the state takes itself out of the religion business to focus on politics, law and trade, then rival interpretations essentially come down to individual differences of belief, and these are manageable in civil society. Religion came to be centered on belief, which could vary from person to person, and which no government or other power could compel or enforce. You could believe as you wanted to believe. The state could make laws about behavior but not about belief, which would be left to the individual, and to churches.

As a result, the individual comes to matter more and more, because a tremendous burden of interpretation, of figuring out the will of the divine or the meaning of life or the answers to life’s pressing questions, comes to center on the self. Roman Catholicism did not go away once Protestants began asserting independence from the Roman Catholic Church, just as Judaism didn’t go away when Christians decided that a part of Jewish scripture would be their Old Testament and Christian revelation a New Testament. Both Judaism and Roman Catholicism became modern phenomena alongside Protestantism, and both share in the modern sense that our interior lives are constitutive of who we truly are. But the idea that we have an interior life that matters that much is very much a Reformation product. 

Q: What can we understand about religion and conflict in the world today from studying the Protestant Reformation?

A: As Americans, the Protestant understanding that religion is primarily a matter of belief, and that we are free to believe or not as we wish, is something a majority agree on and take for granted. And that’s traced to the Reformation. Most of us, if we thought about it, might say that leaving religious belief up to the individual acknowledges the equality of individuals and protects us equally in our choice of whether and how to practice religion. 

But not all religions center on belief, and not all religious practice involves solitary reading and reflection. When we understand religion to be about belief, often we’re making Christianity the implicit norm. For example, in France, there’s still controversy over whether Muslim women can wear headscarves in public. The thinking behind the ban on headscarves is that religious difference is a private matter, and so markers of religious difference don’t belong in public. You can do whatever you want in private, but in the public square we’re all equal. But the Muslim woman would argue that she doesn’t wear a headscarf at home but only in public. There’s a built-in conflict.

Q: How can the Reformation help us think about peace?

A: (laughs) I wish I knew! I think the Reformation is an essential part of our history, and understanding it helps us understand our history. It helps us to see how some things we simply take for granted were bitterly contested and fought over. It helps us to see how technology can change our ideas of what it means to be human: for example, the shift in the locus of religious authority from the church to the Bible and from there to the inner drama of the reading subject would never have happened without the invention of the printing press. 

That one could presumably know the divine will without recourse to institutions, that one could decide on the nature and intensity of one’s own religious life — these were answers that were supplied over centuries of fighting over the questions and sorting through other possible answers. We can look at that history and think about where we have room to move if some of the answers we live with now seem wanting. 

Carolyn Forbes contributed to this story. Top photo: The tower of the church where Martin Luther most likely posted his 95 Theses is seen in Wittenberg, Germany. Photo courtesy of neufal54/Pixabay

ASU wildlifers turn heads with top 4 finish in national competition

October 17, 2017

An undergraduate team of applied biological sciences students from Arizona State University's Polytechnic campus, in their rookie outing at the national Quiz Bowl of The Wildlife Society (TWS), proved to be a powerhouse, finishing fourth among the 19 schools from across the United States and Canada who competed at the 24th annual meeting of TWS in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Sept. 23–27.

The ASU team consisted of seniors Katie Hansford (captain), Kari Herbstreit, Lindsey Meder, Michael Mullins and junior Aaron Prince. Hansford, who also serves as president of the university’s student chapter of the Wildlife Restoration Student Association, organized the team with the assistance of faculty coach Stan Cunningham, lecturer in wildlife biology in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. ASU Quiz Bowl team with Professor Heather Bateman at TWS 2017 in Albuquerque ASU Quiz Bowl 2017 team members Katie Hansford, Aaron Prince, Lindsey Meder, and Michael Mullins pose with ASU associate professor Heather Bateman at The Wildlife Society annual meeting in Albuquerque. Not pictured: Kari Herbstreit, alternate. Photo courtesy Heather Bateman. Download Full Image

Over the two days of the Quiz Bowl, the squad competed in eight matches, answering wildlife science trivia that ran the gamut from statistics, current events, and conservation policies to the biology, taxonomy and ecology of mammals, fish, birds, herps, invertebrates, and plants.

Michael Mullins said he’ll never forget buzzing in for their first correct response to a toss-up question in the opening round, putting ASU on the board with 10 points and putting his nerves to rest. 

"The reproductive strategy characterized by a single reproductive episode before death is known as?" 

He rang in, waited to be called on, and said semelparous into the mic.

“After that, our squad kept the answers coming round after round,” Mullins said. “At the end of the night, we learned we’d made it to the semifinals. The next night, the four remaining teams played each other round-robin-style,” he explained, “where the total points accumulated determined who would compete for first and second, and who would compete for third and fourth.” 

The questions got harder as the Quiz Bowl progressed, and the ASU team gave it everything they had while retaining a spirit of fun, he said.

“Our last round was one of the most enjoyable,” Prince said. “The other team did so well and we both respected each other heavily, which led to a lot of laughs and a good final round.”

The competition itself provided some exciting learning opportunities.

“Some of the bonus questions involved live specimens on stage for us to look at, including a Swainson's Hawk, Arizona Mountain Kingsnake, and a Tailless Whip Scorpion,” Meder said. “These are all awesome animals and it was a blast to be able to see them up close.”

Cunningham said he couldn’t be more proud of the team as a group and for their individual efforts in the months leading up to the competition.

“Katie was an excellent captain, motivating her team to work hard. They did this this work on all on their own, there was no one feeding them,” he said. “It was rewarding to watch students from our small program compete nationally against mega programs. I told the kids, you’re helping students you haven’t even met by putting our program on the map.”

The five spent months learning bird calls and identifying animals from audio recordings. They put together Google docs with the common names, scientific names, and families of nearly all the native animals in Arizona and New Mexico. There were a lot of early-mornings spent studying animal and plant specimens in the lab. The self-motivated team scrimmaged with Northern Arizona University in May, and every Sunday over the last few months they held practice rounds at each others’ homes.  

Hansford said the best part of studying for Quiz Bowl was bonding with her friends.

“We were all decent friends going into this venture, but this definitely helped us build better friendships,” she said, and even she was impressed by how her teammates poured their hearts into it.

The team members were quick to acknowledge the part that faculty members Cunningham, Heather Bateman, Jesse Lewis and Eddie Alford played in their preparation and success.

“Not only their curriculum and courses,” said Mullins, summarizing their impact, “but also the hands-on field experiences they make possible and opportunities to work with professionals in various wildlife agencies.”

In addition to the confidence gained from competition, student participants enjoyed many opportunities to learn more about their special interests and make professional connections.

The Wildlife Society has nearly 10,000 members around the world, one-fourth of them students, and its annual conference includes about 900 educational presentations and more than 40 networking events. 

Meder took in more than 20 talks on reptiles and amphibians over the week and said one of the highlights for her was having the chance to meet and talk with Dan Levitt, the lead herpetologist for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. 

The Wildlife Society’s mission is: “To inspire, empower, and enable wildlife professionals to sustain wildlife populations and habitats through science-based management and conservation.” 

Helping to prepare the next generation of wildlife professionals is a big part of that, and the 2017 conference included career panels with practitioners from the U.S. Forest Service, U.S.D.A. Wildlife Services, and the Bureau of Land Management.

Hansford, who will graduate in December, appreciated the chance to get advice from practitioners about her impending decision to either go on to graduate school immediately or to work in the field first.

“I have been on the fence and numerous professionals guided me into working for a while,” she said. 

In addition to the Quiz Bowl team, three other ASU applied biological sciences students and four faculty members attended the conference.

“This was the largest student contingent we’ve fielded at the national TWS meeting,” said Bateman, an associate professor in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts. Bateman was an invited plenary presenter in a session on long-term studies on amphibians and reptiles in the Southwest, in which she highlighted research from three Arizona streams. 

“Many of the students talked about how much the conference helped them to connect their coursework and projects to what professionals do and communicate to the broader scientific community,” she noted.

For Prince, one of the biggest takeaways of the week was to never miss a chance to be social and collegial.

“It doesn't matter if you just shake the speaker’s hand, as long as they can put a face to your name later it will take you far,” said Prince, who found that just saying hello to professionals whose sessions he attended led to hour-long conversations. “I got to see their passion and how they got to where they are today.”  

Maureen Roen

Director of Communications, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts