Weekend Edition: Beginnings and Transformation
Is there a modern equivalent of the 95 Theses? Does it matter? Perhaps we don't need the permission of history to begin.
If what society is craving — but can’t always clearly articulate as a need — is a broad cultural transformation that spans meaning, community, and systems, then we are talking about altering the basic assumptions we make about life, relationships, and expectations. Altering the basis of what we are safe to assume about ourselves and each other, our responsibilities, how we expect to be treated, how we expect systems to default. If we look at systems, at companies, at the behavior of the winners in our society, at our political institutions and their habits, and in each case we cringe, there is something deep, fundamental, and shared amongst each of these systems that are no longer working for us. There have been other moments in human history where this kind of change has occurred. What might those moments have to teach us about how these transformations occur?
Let’s consider The Reformation as a clear moment in time that began with the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517. When we look back at history we tend to put eras into tight time bounds with clear beginnings and ends. But we know this kind of tight packaging couldn’t possibly have been true. And yet I find myself often asking the question, what would a modern 95 Theses moment look like? The truth is that when, on Halloween 1517, Martin Luther sent his 95 Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz and then (possibly) posted them on the All Saints Church door, nothing at the scale of society as a whole was different on November 1st. No one outside of Martin Luther himself and a small group of his first circle of connections knew anything had happened. But what was started in that moment? What did that letter touch on? Ignite? If The Reformation began in 1517 (regardless of when the thoughts, the ideas, the feelings that became those principles began in Martin Luther and others is a different important question), when did it “complete”?
If we use England (which we know eventually would wholly embrace Protestantism) for our exploration, how did the church, the monarchy, that state, and the people shift after 1517? Protestants were widely prosecuted for more than a decade in England before Henry VIII appointed a Protestant Bishop of Canterbury in 1533. In 1536, the first true doctrinal statement of the Church of England called the Ten Articles was published as an awkward combination of both Catholic traditions and Protestant principles. After years of continued conflict and reconciliation and pendulum swinging shifts in church dogma, King Edwards reign, in 1553, brought a new set of doctrines that fully Protestantized the Church of England called the Forty-two Articles. But then, only three weeks later, Edward was dead, and his Roman Catholic half-sister took the throne. Mary completely reversed Edward's reforms in a five-year span of persecutions that gave rise to the historical epithet of Bloody Mary.
In 1558, it was Queen Elizabeth I who finally settled this pendulum swinging transformation and also codified the monarchy’s supremacy over the church. The final doctrinal statements called the Thirty-Nine Articles (a slight rewrite of Edward’s 1553 Forty-Two) were approved by parliament in 1571 and represent both the complete adoption of Reformation principles in the Protestanization of the Church of England and also a fundamental shift between church and state.
This is clearly a very surface-level survey of only one piece of a complex 60-year period in only one country. Essential questions are missing here: how people worshiped differently as these institutions wrestled with their direction? What experiences motivated people to look for different paths? To accept new ones?
But if we just look at the institutional changes, 60 years is roughly the time between JFK and Donald Trump. In America, that period includes the Civil Rights Act and the unwinding of The Voting Rights Act and HAVA, both Roe v Wade and Dobbs, the conservative revolution of Reagan, the destruction of Glass-Steagall, and the technocratic neoliberal post-racial ascendancy of Obama. Pendulum swings are how this transformation feels as opposing forces reconcile with losing traction in culture, but the pendulum does not necessarily swing in a single plane — it’s not a binary gradient despite our left-right obsession in American civic culture. Even with real efforts at expanding civil and political rights and participation, we can also see a consistently rising inequality of experience, freedom, and wealth, and the corresponding frustrated populism spanning nearly every dimension of whatever ideological pendulums we find ourselves wrestling with and wrestling for continued relevance and power in American cultural and civic life.
If the last decade has revealed anything about information systems and our engines of culture, it is the dramatically increased pressure their velocity put on cultural change. But systems changes lag culture because the institutions that manage systems change more slowly than the cultures they create and support. So much more slowly that if we don’t sustain arcs of the swing — if the re-swing happens too quickly like the reign of Bloody Mary — systems can’t catch up to culture and culture moves on — in some new direction, or a new version of an old one.
What we need is the decade-ish of sustained pressure of the Elizabethean era from 1558-1571 to move us onto a new path toward the more generative society we are craving, that humanity needs, and that puts humans back into healthy relationship with each other, with the natural world, with the universe where humans can grow and thrive in vibrant communities and live lives of meaning and joy. What is our 95 Theses moment? Maybe it doesn't matter. As we learned from Martin Luther, it’s not the moment we need, it's what comes after. In the moment, there is just work to do. Our desire to define the moment is just our habit of historical storytelling oversimplifying the power of individuals and individual texts shaping our thinking. But it has us looking backwards and forwards, examining things we may have missed or that have yet to occur and missing the work of the present. What we need is for all the people and all the texts in all the communities, industries, and institutions to start pushing against the faulty left-right spectrum in search of that orthogonal path now. All of them.
So for a new year — perhaps one near the beginning of one of those historically defined eras — how will we begin the decade-long push against the left-right pendulum gradient toward something new, something better, something human, kind, and creative?
It's a new year. Let us just decide it's a new beginning to a new era. We don’t have to wait for history to tell us when it began, when the moment happened. We feel the craving and the roiling uncertainty from the knowledge that our current path cannot lead us to the future we want. Any time we want, we can turn our heads, look for a different horizon, and begin. Or perhaps the transformation starts with the craving, and we have already begun. Either way, we decide, so let's keep going.
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