The era of belief, not just belonging

Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, Carlos Eire, Yale University Press

You don’t want to drop this massive book on your foot, but you might like to lug it back home from the bookshop, as it is a history of the period that is wide-ranging and careful. It seems ridiculous to say this about a 700-plus page book, but its author, Carlos Eire, also has a knack for summary, enlivened by anecdotes and well-chosen woodcut illustrations, meaning the narrative never gets bogged down.

Eire speaks of reformations plural because, as scholar Eamon Duffy says in his recent book on the English Reformation, the progress of reform was anything but linear. There were many conflicting movements happening at once, pushing and pulling.

Additionally, historians no longer point to Luther’s 95 Theses as the start of the Reformation. Luther merely lit the bonfire compiled by others. Eire’s book is so large partly because – to switch metaphors – he carefully points out all of the features of the medieval edifice as it stood before the Reformation knocked it down.

There were cracks in the structure as a result of Renaissance humanism, which promoted a ‘return to the sources’, a more scholarly analysis of scripture (and other texts) in the original languages. Though the Church was often enthusiastic about this, it did undermine claims for the inerrancy of the Latin Vulgate, not to mention various non-biblical doctrines and practices that had built up over centuries.

Although it is hard to judge the extent of belief in the period because religion was so intertwined with society as to make it almost meaningless to speak of religion as a separate entity, there was an enthusiasm amongst laity for spiritual revival (as is evident from the case of Savoranola), coupled with rising literacy and a distaste for the excesses of the Church’s hierarchy. What is also clear is that a renewal of piety and theological controversy ushered in an era of belief, not merely belonging.

Eire eventually narrows down to monastic practice, and Luther’s eventual rejection of the elitism of monastic practice. He shows how mysticism, Augustine, the Renaissance, faith over reason and conciliarism (the movement within the Catholic Church that questioned the centralisation of power in the figure of the pope) all contributed to Luther’s particular brand of dissent. Eire deals with Luther in only a couple of chapters, moving briskly on to how Luther’s Reformation quickly ran away from him. He battled left and right, both the intransigence of the Pope and a host of radicals, from hair-splitting theologians to violent peasants who, Luther said, misinterpreted him.

Fragmentation seems, in hindsight, to be inevitable once Luther and his fellow Reformers were understood to be advocating for the freedom to interpret Scripture in the light of conscience. Except that people weren’t free – Protestants persecuted heretics as much as Catholics. It could be argued the Reformed branch was the most zealous. Luther emphasised the spiritual, and contrary to his fiery image, was reasonably relaxed about everyday life. The Reformation of Zwingli, Calvin and the like was all-encompassing, and, says Eire, considering the US, probably more influential globally than Luther.

On the Catholic side, there were much-needed reforms, especially in education, and also a renewal of practices Calvin and company deemed superstitious. Calvin, much more than Luther, dismantled the world famously described by Max Weber as ‘enchanted’, and Peter Brown as ‘porous’. Ironically, considering his puritanical reputation, here Calvin sowed not only the seeds of the ‘Protestant work ethic’ but also the seeds of modern doubt.

We can see how the focus on the individual and a splintering of views made room for those who doubted or who were openly hostile. This situation, says Eire, led to the need for new modes of unifying peoples, leading in turn to our secular society and the marginalisation of religion as merely one aspect of life, and a private one at that.

(Originally reviewed for the Uniting Church)

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Reminiscence and legend

Timothy Lull

‘Tis the season for Martin Luther biographies. With the 500th anniversary of the nailing of the 95 theses this year, the floodgates have opened. Timothy Lull’s is an early entry,  from last year, a standard, comprehensive, readable ‘life’ that places Luther within the context of his circle of friends, colleagues and patrons, without whom he may have met a quick, smoky end. Unfortunately it is not helped by Fortress Press’s rather lacklustre printing job, which looks like a bad photocopy.

In contrast, Yale have done a nice job on Scott Hendrix’s Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer. Diarmaid MacCulloch recently asked rhetorically whether we need more books on Luther. His answer was ‘yes’. He notes recent scholarship that suggests Luther’s status as a friar, rather than a monk secluded away from society, might have contributed to his attitude towards the common people and the worthiness of their everyday pursuits. Hendrix offers the example of glosses in Luther’s handwriting in humanist books discovered as recently as 2013. Hendrix revisits the argument that Luther may have been contemplating the entry into monasticism, and the thunderstorm might have merely been the catalyst. Hendrix also places Luther into a network of supporters, against the image of him as a lone hero. Additionally, he traces a gradual theological development, rather than the thunderbolts of inspiration that go with the Luther of later reminiscence and of legend.

 

Did it happen?

Martin E Marty

Some historians question whether the nailing of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses actually happened. (The story seems to be somewhat apocryphal, even if it is likely.) Whether it did or not (the theses’ content is more important than the means of their being brought to the public’s attention), the celebrations for next year’s (2017) 500 year Reformation anniversary centre on this event. Lutheran scholar Martin Marty (above) hones in on this date in his appropriately titled October 31, 1517 (Paraclete Press).

The book is a short summary, something like the style of Yale’s Little History series, of Luther’s grievances and in it Marty writes, surprisingly, that the main theme of the Reformation was repentance – rather than grace, freedom, sola scriptura, papal corruption, heresy or whatever else we might imagine. And rather than searching through Luther’s voluminous works, he suggests an easy way to understand Luther’s theology, and that is to study the seal Luther chose for himself, the Luther Rose. Against the image of Lutheranism as self-berating (‘miserable sinners’ and all that), the Rose demonstrates the overall positive nature of Lutheran theology. Although repentance is somewhat out of fashion generally, Marty notes that it is, appropriately for the anniversary, a celebratory response to whatever God has done for us, rather than what we have done for ourselves. It is realistic about human beings’ tendency to mess up relationships, but tuned to the future, as God has liberated us, once and for all. And there is possibly the hint of, from Luther the Augustinian, a recognition that God makes complete what we are incapable of completing ourselves.

Marty also argues that there is nothing in Luther’s emphasis on grace over sin that is contradictory to (uncorrupted) Catholic theology. In that vein, the book then (again, surprisingly) takes us down a side track to argue for the benefits of Lutheran-Catholic dialogue and the significance of the 1999 Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (which perhaps explains why it was published by the good people at Paraclete Press, a Benedictine organisation that undertakes ecumenical publishing).

Makes sense from inside

Soren Kierkegaard

Kierkegaard: Exposition and Critique, Daphne Hampson, Oxford University Press

If all the books about Kierkegaard were laid end to end they would probably reach across Denmark. And still they come, though Daphne Hampson’s book claims to be the first to go into Kierkegaard’s Lutheran heritage with such depth. Kierkegaard’s famous concept of the “leap of faith” can be traced to Luther, yet there is, for example, no mention of Luther in the index of Stephen Evans’ recent, otherwise terrific introduction. More astonishingly, the same goes for Joakim Garff’s massive 2005 biography. Yet students of philosophy need to understand Luther to understand Kierkegaard. And for Lutherans, an understanding of Kierkegaard can deepen our understanding of Lutheranism. Immersion in Hampson’s sometimes conceptually dense material is, therefore, a worthy exercise.

Christians have been wary of Kierkegaard. He attacked the Danish Lutheran Church of his day, and greatly influenced (atheist) existentialist followers such as Sartre and Camus (who focused more on his methods – Kierkegaard would be horrified to see their abandonment of much of his content). On the other hand, secular critics, such as literary theorist James Wood, describe him as dangerous because of his elevation of passion over reason.

Kierkegaard was not exactly against reason; he just felt it shouldn’t be the ultimate authority. He actually encouraged deep thinking, and criticised Enlightenment philosophers for wasting time on inconsequential thinking and for coming to conclusions too easily. He cautioned against thinking that reason would lead us to God, or that it could replace God. He knew that when one claims to grasp God through thought alone, it is not really God. With Luther, he was sceptical of the value of speculation about God. Although the leap of faith is beyond, not against, reason, Kierkegaard nevertheless recognised the logical absurdity of Christianity and the difficulty of fitting it, as the Enlightenment philosophers tried to, into the natural progression of history.

Wisely, Kierkegaard said that when we use reason, we always bring prejudices and presuppositions. When we think about something, we think about it from somewhere. This is why he saw as hubris the Enlightenment idea that we could get away from our bodies and history and simply be “minds”. (Not to mention the fact that most Enlightenment philosophers were wealthy, white males who had the luxury of assuming they were free to just sit and think.) He is very modern in understanding that, contrary to Descartes, it is not autonomous thinking that makes us a “self”, but relating to others, particularly God. And he knows that in this relating is another way of gaining knowledge. (He also demonstrates, in Lutheran fashion, that the self is something that is remade, or redefined, every day.)

Hampson describes Kierkegaard and Luther as “deeply Hebraic” in their understanding of God; in other words, involved in a passionate relationship. This can be seen in Kierkegaard’s treatment of the story of Abraham being called to sacrifice Isaac. In the cold light of philosophy this is an appalling story. Who could commend a God who makes this demand? It is not only beyond reason, but beyond any normal ethical standard. But according to Kierkegaard, we can only understand it in retrospect and when we have a trusting relationship with God, who we both fear and love, in the words of Luther. We cannot understand it from the outside. In Luther’s theology, Christianity is not concerned with the God, but my God. As others have observed, it’s no use talking of God in the abstract to a man who felt God’s life-changing presence with the force of a lightning bolt.

With Luther, Kierkegaard goes further: We don’t act morally from a position of neutrality. We are not free to make a choice. Rather, if God is not helping us to do good, we will naturally do wrong. (Secularists might be reminded that this is not wholly foreign to the line of thought of someone such as Freud.) In contrast to Catholic theology, which suggests God refines our nature, Lutheran theology says God reorients it 180 degrees. For both Kierkegaard and Luther, freedom is being rescued from where we don’t belong.

The dramatic way Kierkegaard describes his theology has been usually translated as “passion”, though he has sometimes been misunderstood here. He did not say that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are passionate. But passion is at the heart of his criticism of what he terms “Christendom” (essentially, the Danish state church, which he contrasts with true Christianity), a critique that is alarmingly relevant still today. The church of his day, he felt, promoted Christianity as the comfort of an old blanket, and an icing on the cake of everyday bourgeois life, rather than what it should be – something we leap into wholeheartedly, even to the point of martyrdom. Like Luther, he thought Christianity should be a seven-days-a-week affair.

For Kierkegaard the contrast is not so much works versus grace, but reason versus living. (Though Luther would agree that reasoning our way to God is just as much a “work”.) Christianity only makes sense as it is lived. Kierkegaard loved talking to all and sundry on the street, and there is a sense in his theology, as in Luther’s, that Christianity must be relevant to this, and not just an academic exercise. Which, along with his all-or-nothing approach, is why, unsurprisingly, Kierkegaard was not popular with the elite (even if he ostensibly was one of them) and why he felt so cut off when the ridicule he received from the popular press turned him into a recluse. But although he was little read in his day, he knew that his writings were for the ages. Like Luther’s, his writings would come to be appreciated for the light they shed on everyday existence (even if his nineteenth century prose takes some getting used to). And he knew he was in the right. Like Luther, he felt compelled to say, “Here I stand”.

Hampson is not uncritical of Kierkegaard, complaining that he places too much emphasis on mystery. While Christianity may not make sense for modern people who think all is ordered, for Kierkegaard there is no order at all – everything is random. Yet Hampson herself is possessed by the spirit of Kierkegaard. She sees things as either/or – science or reason. She perhaps goes too far when claiming that the traditional core of Christianity is completely against a modern understanding of the universe. The point of miracles, after-all, is not that they show proof of a random universe, but that they are rare exceptions to normality. But despite her “critiques” (see book title), she sees in Kierkegaard more than simply a throwback to medieval ways of thinking. She is full of praise for the ways in which Kierkegaard asks us to think deeply about how we experience our lives.

Makes us do other than the right things

Eve with ice cream

Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World, James Boyce, Black Inc.

Are people, at heart, good or bad? Many Westerners would nowadays favour the former, and believe that the Church’s insistence on the latter has distorted our view of ourselves and our potential. Historian James Boyce, though he claims to be objective, seems to hold this view, even while his main aim, he says, is to show how the doctrine of original sin, in our largely secular society, is still a powerful influence. In this history, which is much preoccupied with the fate of dead babies, he traces the doctrine of original sin to St Augustine, rather than the Genesis story of Eden, which, in his view, though it portrays the Fall of the first human beings, still emphasises that humans are made in God’s image. (It might be better to say Augustine makes explicit what the creation narratives imply.) He then follows the doctrine through medieval times to Martin Luther and the Protestants (though the theology is lite), and onto America where it becomes muddied by the emphasis on freedom. In the Enlightenment “a new language [is] found for an old tale”, as the common people’s sin becomes their barbarism. (Voltaire and Diderot believed the common folk were simply too depraved to ever change.) It resurfaces as self-interest in the science of Darwinism (and in Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene idea), says Boyce, and in Freud, who, though he dismissed religion, entrenched in the modern West the not-so-original view of a dark core that makes us do other than the right things. Freud also agreed with St Augustine on sexuality being a predominant site. It is ironic, thinks Boyce, that Freud’s theories have such Puritan roots.

Boyce claims that original sin now has “little relevance” for American Christians, because of the all-encompassing importance of the idea of freedom. But there has been, and likely will be in Christianity generally continual tension between the idea of grace being sufficient and the idea that human beings have the God-given choice to improve. But Boyce sees the influence of this doctrine continuing in a more general, negative sense, in our ongoing pessimism about human nature. The implication here is, perhaps, that free from this dubious doctrine we might be able to do better at fixing the world. Maybe. But maybe we haven’t been able to banish the idea because it still says something about us. Maybe Freud was not unconsciously misled into continuing original sin’s legacy, but, rather, his theories resonate with the doctrine because both try to explain something fundamental – that we contain both good and bad. It isn’t either/or. Christianity works best when it maintains a balance between “made in the image of God” and our heart of darkness. As the biblical scholar Claus Westermann explains about the biblical creation narratives, the story of human beings being made in God’s image and the story of their “first defection” are “inseparable”. And as Luther said, to be human is to be simultaneously saint and sinner.

 

A mistaken enterprise?

Badiou

Paul in the Grip of the Philosophers, edited by Peter Frick, (published by Fortress Press), is concerned with the perhaps surprising contemporary phenomenon of otherwise atheist philosophers’ interest in the apostle Paul. Most of these philosophers would be placed on the “left”, although Frick points out in his introduction that simple left-right polarisations are not very helpful because they can block out potential lessons to be learned on both sides. The chapters cover what may be the usual suspects – Nietzsche, Derrida, etc. – while describing how Paul’s position within his society stimulates their thinking, even if many philosophers dismiss the content of his message. A final chapter encourages us within the churches to be not so precious with Paul and to accept as prompts the alternative viewpoint these philosophers present.

To take a couple of examples, the chapter on Alain Badiou (above) begins by noting that postmodernity is characterised by both pluralism and homogenisation. We have endless choice, but there is a sameness about it all, meaning true novelty is hard to find. And truth is seen as merely a matter of opinion. Badiou’s political problem is finding truth that is not so abstract as to be meaningless, but that is grounded in something more than a particular moment that is of interest to only a select few. And he finds in Paul an example of someone, even if in Badiou’s view what Paul is preaching about is nonsense, whose method treads this middle ground – applying a particular event (the resurrection) in a wider context.

Similarly, Slavoj Zizek, that frowning giant of European philosophy, finds inspiration in Paul’s proclamation of what seems a “scandal” to reason. For Zizek, Paul proves that radical change must come not from within the “horizon” of “common sense”, but must be sparked by something analogous to Kierkegaard’s (and Luther’s) leap of faith. Zizek claims then that his radical political philosophy is a far closer descendant of Paul than the theology of the mainstream churches. In other words, it is Paul’s radical method, and not his content, that is the most important thing. Now, Zizek may be saying this tongue in cheek (it’s hard to tell with Zizek, and he might say it is beside the point), and it certainly is contrary to the mainstream views in the churches, but for Zizek we live in a different world, and the sort of continuity with the early church we seek in the contemporary churches, in theological rather than political terms, would be for him a mistaken enterprise.