Five hundred years after his first bold act of defiance, Martin Luther remains a figure of epochal importance.
When I wrote the novel Mad Jones, Heretic (available now at Amazon) about a modern-day Martin Luther posting religious theses on church doors, I was largely trying to answer my own longtime internal musings. What would it take, I wondered, for even a portion of the modern pop-culture world to be rocked by questions of faith the way the early 16th century was rocked – religiously, culturally, and politically – by the challenge the real Luther posed to the existing Catholic Church?
The only way I could do it, I ended up deciding, was with satire, because our modern culture seems to value ironic detachment over seriousness. And in the end, my fictional character, despite all the cyber-communication tools available, certainly does fail to remake the world.
By contrast, the accomplishments of the original Luther, a deadly serious man, are all the more remarkable the more we analyze them.
This coming Tuesday, Oct. 31, the quincentennial of Luther posting his famous “95 Theses” on a church door in Wittenberg, provides occasion for us to marvel. It remains mind-boggling that a monk far from the cultural center of Christendom, at a time when mass communication was almost nonexistent and much of the population was illiterate, could so quickly catalyze such massive upheavals in Western Culture.
Granted, there was a relative explosion of literacy after Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the 1440s, and the Renaissance that had begun a century earlier in Italy was by 1517 beginning to reach full flower in the rest of Europe. Still, there was no “mass media,” no tradition of “news” organizations, and obviously no Internet, social media, or even rapid mail service. Yet within seven short years, what Luther had begun as a limited intellectual revolt against various church corruptions had, amazingly, become a nearly continent-wide conflagration not just of religious disputes but of socio-political upheaval as well.
As Luther more and more broadly challenged various theological positions and practices of the existing church, he also insisted ever more strongly that individuals should study Scripture without the mediations of church authorities. Soon enough, the spin-offs from Luther’s spiritual egalitarianism (of a sort) led to a new assertion of individual dignity and liberty (again, of a sort) that contributed in turn to the later political philosophy of John Locke and, derivatively, some of the American founders.
What set Luther apart were three pronounced aspects of his character: remarkably potent intellect, moral courage, and a fierce and unyielding will. (I make no judgment here as to whether most of his theological stances were correct, except that his pronounced anti-Semitism late in life was abominable.) The intellect shines through in his assorted, prolonged, furious debates with other thought leaders of the time such as Erasmus, Zwingli, and Karlstadt.
To the kindly Erasmus, who strove mightily to be a mediator, ever trying to calm the waters, Luther scolded:
That prudence of yours makes you veer about, determined not to commit yourself to either side, but to pass safely between Scylla and Charybdis; with the result that, finding yourself battered and buffeted by the waves in the midst of the sea, you assert everything you deny and deny everything you assert….[Would-be Christians who follow Erasmus’ example] will not know what they should do [in relation to God]; and being ignorant of what they should do, they cannot repent if they do wrong; and impenitence is the unforgivable sin. This is what your moderate Skeptical Theology leads us to.
This is tough stuff. But his clarity and his certitude shine through, and help explain how this German cleric so upended his culture that we commemorate him half a millennium later.
Luther was right to fight church corruption. He is now almost universally acclaimed as correct in at least some of his then-disputed theology and was admirably devoted to an honest and rigorous pursuit of (what he saw as) God’s truth. Alas, he shattered Christendom’s unity into hundreds of shards; and he unintentionally inspired actual political revolutions that saw tens of thousands (or more) slaughtered, largely for naught.
So Luther was far from saintly. Yet if we avoid his excesses, adopt a humility greater than his, and accept at least a modicum of Erasmus’s reasonableness as a complement to Luther’s fierce reason, we still can and probably should emulate his devotional integrity and dedication to a cause not just greater than self but greater than any other cause at all.
The 21st century needs less ironic detachment, and more of the soul-attention for means of the salvation whose imperatives haunted the 16th century’s great revolutionary reformer.
Quin Hillyer is a veteran conservative columnist with a Theology degree from Georgetown University. His novel, Mad Jones, Heretic, is available at Amazon.com.