Disciples Divinity House

of the University of Chicago

Reformation and Improvisation: A conference report; reflections by Virginia White & Stefan Aderhold

September 15, 2016 —  

On September 1-9, DDH hosted “Reformation and Improvisation – Then and Now,” the second conference/exchange with the Theologisches Studienhaus (TSH) at Morata-Haus at the University of Heidelberg. A group of 22 students and trustees from the two institutions met for a week of seminars, immersions, and shared reflections in Chicago. Virginia White and Stefan Aderhold offered reflections at the end of the conference.
   “The idea of travel reminds me of movement—movement across distances, across time, across cultures. It seems to me that movement is at the heart of reformation and of improvisation,” explains House Scholar Virginia White, who was one of the participants. “To reform we have to move our attention between the present and the past. We have to know where we have been, and begin to separate what worked from what didn’t. To reform we must be bold enough to move things around, to change traditions, to discard old ways. To improvise, we take this consideration of the past, and turn toward the future, ready to make meaningful changes.”
   “This necessity to let go of the old, to let some things die in order to make space for something new, is certainly a part of our Disciples of Christ heritage. We heard it loud and clear in the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery—a document which calls for the immediate end of a local and entrenched church structure—which we read with Professors Gilpin and Schweiker. And, I would say, it is right at the heart of our shared Christian identity—in the very story of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. In this sense, reform is that which helps us to clear space for that which is to come.”
   The 500th anniversary of the Reformation will be celebrated in 2017, counting from 1517, when Dr. Martin Luther posted 95 theses for debate in Wittenberg, Germany. Last year, a delegation from DDH traveled to Heidelberg for the first conference/exchange, and both DDH and TSH delegations traveled together to some places in Germany that were formative for Luther’s thought. This year’s DDH-TSH conference paired the theme of reformation with that of improvisation, finding both themes highly germane to the realities of the city of Chicago and of American Protestantism.
   One of the TSH participants, Stefan Aderhold, remained in Chicago after the exchange. He had been admitted to the Divinity School’s Master of Arts in Religious Studies program, and is now studying and living at the Disciples Divinity House. He will return to Germany for doctoral studies on Melanchthon next year.
   “Reformation was not finished in the 16th century and will hopefully never be completed,” Mr. Aderhold noted. “Melanchthon was seen as the Reformation's mastermind. He was a thinker, a thoughtful theologian. His best abilities have been his biggest weakness though. He was gripped by self-doubt, he agonized about nearly any decision and became sick. His good friend Luther sent him a letter giving him comfort by finding the right words. He wrote: ‘Be a sinner, and sin bravely, but believe more bravely still.’ We cannot live without making mistakes. We are sometimes weak; or broken. Wrong decisions are part of our everyday life. Doing nothing can be even more wrong. But what Luther tells Melanchthon can teach us at least two things: First, it’s okay to do mistakes. We cannot be perfect. Having faith in God while we are acting is the best we can do. And second, others are struggling with the exact same thing.”
   “To be a Christian means to be on the road,” he said, sounding a related theme to Ms. White’s reflections about movement. “If we understand ourselves as students instead of holding the truth in our hands, we are making space for the other and for improvisation, as Erin Brown told us yesterday. This activates some kind of fertile creativity. At the same time, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel but ground ourselves on our community’s history of more than 2000 years. We are on the road, reflecting constantly, trying out new ways, and driving still.”
   “Let us keep driving, let us exchange and learn from each other, let us be disciples more than teachers, let us not overlook cultural, social, ethnic, religious and racial issues, but let us shape all these challenges in a creative way. On the whole, let us be at the wheel together,” he concluded, speaking of TSH and DDH together.
   “Improvisation requires a lot from us,” Virginia White observed. “It requires that we be humble enough to encounter difference and be changed by it. Ultimately, I think improvisation is about letting ourselves be moved. Whether it is moved to laughter, or moved to wonder, or even moved to tears, our best improvisations come from being moved. That’s what we have done this week.”