WAS THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION A GOOD OR BAD THING?
James R. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D.
© April 24, 2009
“Every living thing shall be meat for you. The fear of you and dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth into your hands they are delivered. Have dominion over the earth and subdue it.”
Genesis, The Bible
“Whatever definitions men have given of religion, I find none so accurately descriptive of it as this: that it is such a belief of the Bible as maintains a living influence on the heart and life.”
Richard Cecil (1743 – 1777), English clergyman
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A WRITER WRITES:
Your Luddite beliefs fly in the face of scientific research. I wish I had time this morning to address all of your points in that last missive (below). In reading it, I found myself agreeing passionately with you about half of the time, railing silently against you the other half - hey, at least you provoke thought, if not always agreement!
More on this later - I took your writing with me all day (in my mind) and chewed it over as I went about my day. Thank you for that.
One question, to clarify: do you think the Protestant Reformation, fueled by Guttenberg's printing press, was a bad thing? It wasn't clear.
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DR. FISHER RESPONDS:
I decided to answer this in a separate offering. The Protestant Reformation has fascinated me for years, and I've written extensively on it. Recently, I wrote a piece on my blog (which I distributed to my E-mailing list) where I claimed Martin Luther confirmed the power of the individual against incredible odds, taking on Pope Leo X, and the mighty Roman Catholic Church.
WAS THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION A GOOD OR BAD THING?
I don't view historical events in the context of good or bad. It happened and proved, once again, that an individual stepping forth against all odds to show leadership in the face of catastrophe to save the church by exposing its corruption and evil.
Constantine did it in the fourth century when he ended persecution of Christians and adopted the faith, but I think that was more a strategic move rather than persuasion of the heart as was the case with Luther. Kings and emperors throughout history have used religion to justify their bellicose ways and quest for land and plunder. It gave Constantine a way to solidify his empire.
Constantine saved Christianity with his head, and you could say Luther saved it again with his heart. The question is moot whether either of these developments was good or bad. They were. Religion after Luther, however, was to become increasingly secular as Nietzsche declared. God wasn’t dead. God took on a materialistic form.
There were schisms in the church before Luther. There was the "Babylonian Captivity" of the Avignon Papacy, where a separate Catholic Church was set up in France. BB and I visited that site with all the popes in their splendid gowns pictured across the main hall.
The 14th and 15th century were writhe with schisms as precursors to Luther. Corruption in the Church remained unabated. Equally important, peasants were increasingly restless to unshackle themselves from their feudal lords and economic dependence on regional princes. The seeds of nationalism were being sowed.
The times were fertile for someone to step out of the shadows and say, "enough already!"
It had to be an individual, someone who was past the point of tolerance for things as they were -- remember Luther had gone to Rome and had seen church corruption up close and personal with the blatant selling of indulgences.
To foster real change it had to be someone who could give words and voice to society's collective frustration. In psychological terms of reaction formation, Luther overcame his anxiety, self-preservation, doubt, and the fear of the consequences of his actions to post his theses on the Wittenberg door of the "All Saints' Church" in Saxony.
It takes an accumulation of things to move a person off the dime, but it also takes that rare individual, indeed, who does so at great personal risk. Luther was a simple monk as Voltaire has said, but he was also a trained theologian.
Luther knew his religion, his church, and what it purported to believe and stand for. So, when he saw corruption of the church’s tenets of faith, he had the wherewithal to give voice to his protest with meaning that would touch and reverberate to the heartstrings of his people. In the process, he also departed from church doctrine to his theology of faith alone, cutting out the clergy and the Sacrament of Confession as intercessors to God.
Most of us, despite all, go along to get along. Passivity is not only endemic to our times but is a matter of human history.
I sat here in my study and imagined what that must have felt like for Luther to overcome his inertia. In a very minor way, I felt that way when I gave my October 30, 1984 speech against the corruption of ethics that participative management had become. I knew it was dangerous to give voice to my concerns, but I knew I had to do it. I remember how nervous I was; how uptight, how I stuttered when I talked to that crowd of executives, which I do when I am nervous, but I had to do it to live with myself.
Ratchet that up one hundred times or more and you have some idea of how Luther must have felt the day he finally posted his theses. He had reached the point where he didn't think whether it was a good thing or a bad thing to do, but something he had to do unless he might go mad.
The many biographies of Luther I have read often point out the matter of his emotional stability, but where would Protestantism be without his madness? Calvin and Zwingli, along with many others, were to follow in his dust, but they all had to have Luther as the pathfinder.
We have the perspective of 500 years, and there has been no man in the Christian church to rival him in all that time. It says something about the human community. Was that good or bad? For me, it simply was a confirmation of the power of individualism.
Gutenberg invented the printing press but it would have been for naught if Luther could not write. We sometimes forget what a beautiful writer he was, how he purified and gave eloquence to his native German. He lifted up an entire society of people who were anxious for someone to give meaning and weight to their anxiety and thereby bring about some resolution.
He translated the Bible into German and gave roots to the German people, which in turn gave a people identity, pride and provided the catalyst to German nationalism. Peoples across Europe translated the Bible into their respective languages and had similar outcomes.
THE AGGRESSIVENESS OF THE JUDAIC CHRISTIAN CULTURE
The more fundamental question, one which I write about in "NOWHERE MAN IN NOWHERE LAND" (unpublished), is that James Burke and Robert Ornstein were on to something with their book, THE AXEMAKER’S GIFT: A DOUBLE-EDGED HISTORY OF HUMAN CULTURE (1995).
Burke and Ornstein are referring to the double-edged blade of human history in which we cut away “what was” for a new reality. Each time we do we attain something we desire at the expense of something we lose forever never to be retrieved.
My reference is more specific and that is to the aggressiveness of our Judaic Christian culture, which keeps cutting away with reckless abandon.
Voltaire claimed without Luther there would have been no America and no capitalism, both fundamental ideas of individualism, which I think are good. But even goodness gives up a great deal in its quest for goodness. We can, indeed, have too much of a good thing.
It happened with nomads becoming farmers, farmers becoming industrialists, industrialists becoming entrepreneurs establishing modernity and then post modernity. In each instance, something precious was given up for something new. It is called in modern parlance, "progress," but at what price? In my view, the price is the wreckage of the way "it was" to the way "it is," over and over again until there is little “is” left.
Western man in particular, that is, Christian man, never stops to consider change in terms of what is given up, never to be experienced again. He is instead mesmerized by what is gained until the costs confronting him are so excessive that they are unavoidable. We are at that point but yet he wavers.
Half the species once known to man are gone, many are in great jeopardy, while the coastal configuration of this small planet will obviously be much different 500 years from now due to global warming. In fact, where I live in Florida may not even exist above water in 500 years.
What has this to do with Luther? Well, I think everything.
Christianity and Judaism are aggressive faiths in terms of the planet -- read Genesis. Luther took Christianity out of its spiritual corruption and gave birth to secularism. We are currently plagued with a new iteration of secular corruption and its consequences.
We have given up one corruption for another, and the Church, whatever its claims to the contrary, is tainted with the same toxicity. The church is a human institution, which is sometimes forgotten, and catches the same cultural virus as other institutions. We suffer the paradoxical dilemma of having more tools than we need to rectify the situation but without the human will to activate them.
I have written extensively of non-thinking thinking, non-work work, non-doing doing, non-profession professions until blue in the face.
We can explore space and go to the moon, go to the depths of the ocean, decipher the great mysteries of our genome, but we can’t control the human heart.
Instead, we build complexity on complexity, and create ever more sophisticated inventions but bypass the most insolvable mystery of all, that of our human nature. We are primitives surrounded by a synthetic world of perfection. It would be blasphemy to suggest our Christian Judaic principles and our Bible as being a source of concern against the reality of nature and the limits of this planet.
THE ULTIMATE FRUITION OF THE REFORMATION, CAPITALISM
Capitalism would not have developed in the way that it has developed were it not for Luther and the subsequent theology of Calvin. That theology gave birth to the Protestant Work Ethic. Christianity, which rose out of the Old Testament, found the perfect vehicle for its cultural aggressiveness in capitalism, which I sense was the unintended consequences of Luther's doctrine. That gives me pause.
Erasmus, who was a more timid soul, more circumspect, stayed in the church and was one of the enablers of the Counterreformation while agreeing with much of what Luther espoused. We have a lot of Erasmus-types in our midst today, but no Luther.
My concern, and it is evident in all my writings, is that of the aggressiveness of our society, which is a Christian culture in the main, as if it would be insane to be content with stasis. Enough is never enough for us whether it is wealth, power, property, or influence. There must be more. We suffer from personal as well as societal hegemony. It is greed of the heart that seeks peace of the soul by filling it with ever more need.
That is why in my writings I attempt -- like an Erasmus I suppose -- to step outside the shadow of Christianity, and mainly my branch of it, Irish Roman Catholicism, not with apostasy, but with my renegade spirit attempting to describe how I see things (see my blog). You see there is certain ambivalence to my predicament because I have greatly benefited in a personal sense from the Protestant Reformation and the rise of individualism.
The cliché "timing is everything" is apropos to this discussion. The juxtaposition of the Gutenberg press, dissemination of knowledge, the corruption of the church, the bold and dramatic posting of Luther’s theses, and the thirst for ordinary men and women for liberation of their spirits as well as bodies from dependence on the church and their feudal lords was to become the world in which we now live.
Lately, I have been reading a lot about early Christianity from the works of many scholars. My interests are totally that of the curious as I have no credentials other than curiosity. But my sense is that there is an attempt of scholars to reconcile religion, per se, and Christianity specifically, with the mindset that would attempt to save the planet by destroying it.
That, in fact, is what we are doing. And I see apologists for this in superficial thinkers such as Thomas Friedman in that crowd. He is a journalist, not a scholar. Regrettably, I see many scientists with a similar superficiality when it comes to the greater question that I have crudely described here, that is, our aggressive culture. Incidentally, Einstein voiced a similar concern.
A spiritual animal we are as well as a material entity. There is no doubt. This is another reason why Luther is important. Our religion is important to us, as is our God because it gives meaning, direction, guidance, comfort, and peace to our immortal souls. Religion is as necessary for our souls as secular endeavors are necessary for our bodies. But religion has failed to provide temperance or a "brake" to our behavior.
No philosophy, I know of, has developed to put the brakes on our Christian theology of conquest and dominance that would make all plants and animals submissive to our will. That has backfired as the animal population declines or disappears, our forests become depleted, our streams polluted, the air we breathe toxic, and the soil from which we gain our sustenance becomes contaminated with chemical pesticides and fertilizers meant to enhance the yields. The gold of our times is water, which was always a delimited commodity, but now threatens to be the cause of wars.
We need a new page in the drama of human existence.
The Protestant Reformation, and the rise of individualism, which has epitomized American society, has run out of options and room as well as steam.
Luther put the individual in a direct relationship with his God, and that fact gave cause to pursue excellence and material success. That has come full circle. We have gotten all we can get out of a factory society with "progress our most important product."
We must embrace a new paradigm with natural aggressiveness taking a new form in our religion. Can capitalism survive that paradigm change? I don't know. I only know that economic aggressiveness, that India and China are now duplicating, society's with a third of the world's population, could create a level of spiritual and material corruption that would take more than 95 theses on a church door to change, and I’m not sure our planet could survive that challenge.
Be always well,