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Martin Luther in Our World: Pt I

Part I: Doubt

"The world is coming to its senses as if waking from an ancient dream.”

-Erasmus, 1519

Five hundred years ago this week an obscure German monk nailed on the door of his city's church some improvements that he thought ought to be made to prevailing Catholic practices. The time and place was such that he and his words were catapulted into mythic stature for ever. And he was personally shrewd, honest, lucky, and quarrelsome enough to survive this engagement which history had set. Or God had set it maybe. Or the Devil.

Martin Luther studied law and disappointed his father deeply when he abandoned it to become a monk. Why precisely he did this is unclear. Some believe it was directly related to the death of a couple of his friends as a young man. A psychoanalytical take on Luther suggests, unsurprisingly enough, that his was an act of rebellion from his parents, only to be expanded later into an act of rebellion against his Church. In any event, he appears to have loathed the study of law and drawn to religious life quite naturally. Luther himself credits a single moment as the impetus for attempting the monastic life. Coming home one night on horseback a thunderstorm overtook him on the road, and a great thunderclap and bolt of lightning struck overhead, knocking him over. “Help, Saint Anne!,” he cried, “I will become a monk!” There was some romantic aspect of his character that took this spontaneous exclamation to be a solemn oath. And soon after he joined the St. Augustine Monastery in the city of Erfurt.


I happened along an article the other day that offered to tell me “Why the trial by ordeal was actually an effective test of guilt.” “Judicial ordeals,” Peter Leeson reminds us, “took several forms, from dunking the defendant in a pool of holy water to walking him barefoot across burning plowshares. Among the most popular, however, was the ordeal of boiling water and the ordeal of burning iron. In the former, the defendant plunged his hand into a cauldron of boiling water and fished out a ring. In the latter, he carried a piece of burning iron several paces. A few days later, the defendant’s hand was inspected: if it was burned, he was guilty; if not, he was innocent.” This is an old familiar tune. For one reason or another, one of the few lessons of history that American education has managed to lodge in everyone's memory is that we spent a hell of lot of our time burning and drowning witches, and only after they were dead did we know if they were innocent. Killing witches was in reality a relatively rare thing in the New World, and in famous cases like Salem no one was burned or drowned (they were hanged, although one unfortunate man was the only one in American or colonial history to be “pressed” to death). But Europe indeed had a grand old tradition of burning witches and non-witches alike, and burning wasn't the only form of torturous death authorities relied on, as we will see in a later episode of history. But in some cases of trial by ordeal Professor Leeson shows us another more interesting development: “Suppose you’re a medieval European who’s been accused of stealing your neighbour’s cat. The court thinks you might have committed the theft, but it’s not sure, so it orders you to undergo the ordeal of boiling water. Like other medieval Europeans, you believe in iudicium Dei– that a priest, through the appropriate rituals, can call on God to reveal the truth by performing a miracle that prevents the water from burning you if you’re innocent, letting you burn if you’re not.

If you undergo the ordeal and God says you’re guilty, you have to pay a large fine. If He says you’re innocent, you’re cleared of the charge and pay nothing. Alternatively, you can avoid undergoing the ordeal by confessing to having stolen the cat, in which case you pay the fine, a bit reduced for having admitted your guilt.

What will you do?” Assuming your faith in this process is strong, says Leeson, a guilty person would agree to confess and pay a fine, while an innocent one may well believe he or she would be protected by God and submit to the test. This, we would assume would lead to the maiming – yet again! - of another innocent person unlucky enough to live in olden times.

But what if the miracle actually did take place? “For example, in the early 13th century, 208 defendants in Várad in Hungary underwent hot-iron ordeals. Amazingly, nearly two-thirds of defendants were unscathed by the ‘red-hot’ irons they carried and hence exonerated.”

Wait, what? Two thirds of people who carried hot irons did not end up getting burned in Hungary? Hungarians are a hearty people, true enough, but this seems unlikely. Leeson gives away the trick: “How could an ordeal-administering priest make boiling water innocuous to an innocent defendant’s flesh? By making sure that it wasn’t actually boiling.

The ‘instruction manuals’ for administering ordeals that medieval European priests followed provided them ample opportunity to do just that. The fire used to heat the water was prepared by the priest in private, permitting him to cool the fire. The priest ‘sprinkled’ holy water over the water in the ordeal cauldron, permitting him to cool the water. The ordeal cauldron was removed from the fire at a point during the mass, and the defendant wasn’t tested until the priest was done praying, allowing him to cool the water some more by drawing out his prayers. And ordeal observers were placed at a respectable distance from the ordeal ‘stage’, enabling the priest to carry out his manipulations undetected. Did I mention that it was the priest who adjudged the ordeal’s final outcome – whether the defendant’s hand had indeed been burned?” So it was a meddlesome priest meddling in the name of good! Add this to the great endless sub-genre of history which observes people in power subverting brutal law out of a personal sense of humanity. But it does say something else, which Leeson's upbeat article did not go on to inspect. This level of goodhearted manipulation requires and almost unbelievable level of cynicism on the part of the priest. If trial by ordeal was a clever tool to determine guilt, it was certainly not – in these cases – administered by an official who had any illusions about God's role in them. In fact, it requires a kind of unconcern for the danger of blasphemy to carry such a thing out, much less systematically. One is left marveling at the thought of agnostics and zealots rubbing elbows in their halls of power, each with wildly incompatible world views. And one can marvel about it all the way up to the present day.


“So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them--because of the blasphemy--If there be God --please forgive me--When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven--there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul.--I am told God loves me--and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?”

I wonder how many that read this passage would ever guess that it was Mother (now Saint) Theresa of Calcutta who wrote it down as a confession. I quote these words that were once the sole property and secret of their author and known otherwise only to her confessors. But there they are, real, admitted freely and published in a collection of letters – called “Come Be My Light” - which has been authenticated by the Church itself. And the passage above is not atypical. The last fifty or so years of her life, it seems, Mother Theresa did not feel the presence of Christ at all except one period which lasted several weeks. “Such deep longing for God,” she writes in one confession, “and ... repulsed--empty--no faith--no love--no zeal.--[The saving of] Souls holds no attraction--Heaven means nothing--pray for me please that I keep smiling at Him in spite of everything." A more comprehensive account of her spiritual crisis can be found in the several articles published in 2007 at the appearance of this strange little book. And I find that it is only with a certain reserve that I pass it on. She had wished for these letters to be destroyed, for her intense doubt and private agonies to remain a perfect secret and pass away with her. And unlike some literary figures who request that their unpublished work be destroyed, likely enough with their tongue in their cheek and a wink at their executor, Mother Theresa may have plausibly believed her wishes would have actually been carried away. But they've been let out, although to this day very few people seem aware of this or perhaps do not care. With all the respect due to her, I give you the most recent saint of the Catholic Church.


When I was young, I was perpetually aware of something which never seemed quite able to introduce itself. I once heard it described – and immediately recognized it – as though something of imminent importance was hiding just behind the thin film of daily life, so that only a fair wind or some timely confluence of wise thoughts might rend the film away and Truth would be revealed. Some overactive part of the brain. Or some mild disorder. Or a love of unspeakable mystery. Or far more exciting: the finger of God had come to anoint my brow and not the brow of others.

I've long-realized this sort of thing is quite common, or at least common enough. Many are they with the drive to endlessly cherish philosophical paradoxes, or have an amateur interest in philosophy and religion. A strong attachment to and preoccupations of certain expressions of beauty. And living rather a lot of one's life in the clouds can lead to any number of avenues in the actual world. Professor, clergyman, artist, tradesman, destitute, atheist, zealot.

But children have no idea they are not alone in their peculiar patterns of mind. Having been raised vaguely Catholic and tiring of it, at age thirteen or so I became interested in the Protestant tradition. And I do not mean simply a church without a pope. I mean shout-and-holler, speaking in tongues, faith-in-abundance ($$), prosperity gospel word of faith soaked in the blood of the lamb kind of stuff. I was encouraged, outrageously enough, by a substitute teacher and began reading and watching the various and endless flora-framed media outfits that promised miracles, practiced prosperity (usually with great success for the preachers at least), and made no bones about the need for me to tithe in their direction.

It is impossible to know in retrospect, but I think I may have been taking all this in while keeping one small hand resting on the doorway of the exit. But I was very interested in the fact that real adults – a thing I wanted to be for as long as I could think – were actually claiming to know what happens after death, and how to get the good seats, and most importantly, what was the actual nature of God. They were in on something, and I wanted to be in on it too. And I was at any rate exasperated by 'regular' people who went about their lives without seeming to know or care about any of these things. To some extent I still feel this way, and although the bible-literalist crowd is an easy one to mock, I have mostly lost interest in doing so, filled as it is with some of the most earnest, giving and burdened people that exist (the most thoughtful film I've seen about this world is not Jesus Camp or other interesting exposés, but The Apostle, which is starring, written and directed beautifully by Robert Duvall).

I attended a prayer meeting once which was not at all like the others. From start to finish there was no proper sermon, no message, no familiar musical setlist. There was only a preacher on stage working the crowd into a frenzy. There was speaking in tongues, people getting “slain in the spirit,” and a swaying mass of upraised hands in Pentecostal reception. The scene was not as amusing and terrifying as this quintessential Pentacostal Bedlam video (If you've not yet seen such a thing before, you may be dubious that it could exist in the human world), but it was some kind of milder cousin to it. At one point the preacher called all those that wished to receive Jesus to come forward and line up. I decided to go. And standing in line, I watched him jog down the line, laying hands on each eager forehead, and as I recall, in every case each person fell backwards into the able arms of the ushers. I watched him come down the line, and when he hit me with the palm of his hand, I was no exception. Down I went, and then up I came and began walking back to my seat, tingling. Wondering what on earth had just occurred. And yet, I also recall as I made my way through the crowd, I could not quite smother an inner-voice which noted that if THAT was the Holy Spirit itself, i.e. a visitation of the best thing that there was, I was somehow expecting something a little bit better, more affirming, and longer-lasting. Something to wash away my natural skepticism for good. And just like that, as in the Battle of Jericho, slowly and rather painlessly the walls of faith began a'tumbling down.


As a monk Martin Luther was plagued all the time by doubts of doctrine and especially by self-doubt and self-hatred. His ritual penitence and fasting reinforced his misery. He was obsessed with his sins and irredeemable nature. A superior encouraged him to move away from these practices and towards the contemplation of Christ himself. Focusing on something other than his own wretchedness seemed to agree with him. In 1508 Luther was asked to teach theology. Although it must have somehow been in his nature to join the monastery in the first place, this newfound intellectual work was far more edifying for Luther, and he very quickly made his presence known and respected in his institutions.

In 1511 Luther was sent by his Augustinian order to visit Rome, the center of the Catholic Church as well as the very seat of Imperial power. When first laid eyes on the city he exclaimed “Hail, Holy Rome!” but his short visit there dispersed his awe unceremoniously. He was appalled by the sale of indulgences, the cynical attitudes of the clergy, the uninhibited wealth and scandal Rome was rolling in. He did not in the least seem to be impressed with the Renaissance architecture and art that was being made. He saw iniquity, money obsession, lack of morals. “If there is a Hell,” he later said, repeating an Italian proverb, “then Rome is built over it.” This marked the beginning of his loss of faith in the Holy Roman Church, and his turning away from it and towards his German homeland, which, living under the authority of Rome, was already trembling with the prospect of independence. But Europe in general, a place already well-accustomed to violence, was in a particularly violent mood. By rejecting the quiet life of a monk, and allowing his intellectually combative nature to unfold however it was bound to unfold, he was beginning to wander across the jaws of a continent that made dead meat out of curious and inquiring minds.


Were there doubters, not only of church authority, but of God's existence in general in the age of Luther? Of course, although it eludes measurement. It's one thing to doubt, and another to express it. And while private doubt must happen, at times, to every single person who has ever lived, public denial or doubt of God, not too long ago, could result in truly intolerable penalties. So it was harder to officially doubt religious dogmas in the past. And it's certainly easier to positively deny – without even thought or effort – the existence of a god today, living as we do after Darwin did, after the events of the Enlightenment, and after any authority in the West has stopped caring. And yet it may be – almost assuredly is, really – that we see people from the past through a rather dismal lens as stupider, more humorless, and more pious than they actually were. In Diarmaid MacCulloch's book on the Reformation, we see amusing slices of cynicism agreeably similar to our own: “[R]are survivals from the books of accusations compiled by the Spanish Inquisition in the late 15th century reveal a world of casual unbelief and jokes about religion...'Peace be with you' intoned the parish priest of one Spanish village in his Latin chanting of the Gospel one day in the 1490 – 'as the ass said to the cabbages' came back the response in Spanish from the acolyte serving the Mass. He was quoting a popular song at the time.”

You'll note MacCulloch's mention of the Inquisition. 'Delighted' just isn't the word to use over anything Inquisition-related, so I'll say I'm 'interested' to learn that some of the most detailed and believable records of religious doubt exists thanks to the practices related to their zealous program. Inquisitors kept scrupulous records of what they invariably referred to as the 'atheism' that they found during investigations and confessions. MacCulloh mentions also how the efforts of the Iberian Inquisition, in their rigorous imposing of complete and total conversions, backfired. Many of the people so affected “held a profound and well-organized faith already. Among many possible outcomes of this shattering experience, one effect for some was to breed scepticism about all religious patterns.” The border dividing belief and doubt is not made of stone or brick, but something much more porous, and people and ideas pass through all the time, effecting either side with or without its blessing.


'God is dead' is a triumphant exclamation still occasionally repeated by excited young atheists who are pleased to find that they can withstand a possibility that could shatter the worlds of other people. The line is of course originally Nietzsche's. And like most famous lines, it either means much less, or much much more, than how it is typically used. We ought to see what Nietzsche went on to say: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves?”

There is a Canadian professor of psychology named Jordan Peterson who is trying to – I think it is fair to say – 'catch up' popular audiences in North America on some of the arguments that have captivated and plagued Europe since the late 19th century. His interesting commentary on Nietzsche's paradoxical view of Christianity will later try to find some resolution in the work of Carl Jung, who will make a prominent appearance here later. I set our hemisphere apart from Europe because, although we have contributed greatly to modern philosophy, science, and especially liberal democratic structures of government, we – and in particular the United States – have until recently rejected the secularizing forces that our friends over the Atlantic have long been building. We are a very peculiar country and we don't seem to realize it. Just one example of this can be found in comparing popular American and European views of creationism. In measuring our views against other democracies, we are far more credulous – or literal-minded – when it comes to the biblical stories:

Peterson reminds us that the secularizing drift of Europe occurred both earlier and differently, and back in the late 19th century Nietzsche and writers like Dostoevsky already were grappling with what might come of it.

Nietzsche, although a brutal critic of Christianity, did not declare that “God is dead” as an unmitigated achievement. He believed that the influence the Church had over Europe for nearly two millennia narrowed the focus and disciplined the habits of prince and peasant alike in a way that was indispensable for Western Civilization to reach the heights that it did. But in doing so, Christianity had sowed the seeds of its own demise. It could possibly be thought of as the chrysalis stage of development; completely necessary and just as necessary that it at some point be shed.

There was now a problem, said Nietzsche, which was looming like a cliff toward which millions of people were walking with open eyes. If modern life increases religious doubt, and shatters the once simple and straightforward faith of the average person, will society – whose rule of law, customs, and norms took for granted the divinity of God and the equality of souls – be able to remain standing? If the foundation is pulled out from under the structure can the structure hang in midair? Or can the foundation be replaced? Or, indeed, was religion ever the foundation in the first place? Peterson notes both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky both predicted that the faith the society once placed on God would have to be replaced by something else. They both intuited that the State would assume that role, and that the worship of the State would result in the violent deaths of millions of people.

And now from our own vantage point we can look up and see spread out before us the World Wars of the 20th century, and the appalling manifestation of their prophecies.


Jordan Peterson asks: Why do we put up Christmas trees? It's a question that I start to answer easily and then cannot. It's just something that we do – a tradition that brings us some continuity and joy. “There are reasons the ritual came about,” says Peterson “but the ritual lasts long after the reasons have been forgotten.”

Can a ritual last indefinitely after the reasons have been forgotten? What if the reasons have been rejected outright or revealed to be false? I am reminded of Philip Larkin's finest poem, Church Going, in which he – a thoroughly modern and curmudgeonly English agnostic – finds that he still cycles from time to time to visit England's many fine and crumbling churches. I see no better way to close this part of my meandering essay. If you like, read along and ponder it yourself. And let John Betjeman lead you (poem begins @ 1:15):

Once I am sure there's nothing going on I step inside letting the door thud shut. Another church: matting seats and stone and little books; sprawlings of flowers cut For Sunday brownish now; some brass and stuff Up at the holy end; the small neat organ; And a tense musty unignorable silence Brewed God knows how long. Hatless I take off My cyclce-clips in awkward reverence Move forward run my hand around the font. From where i stand the roof looks almost new-- Cleaned or restored? someone would know: I don't. Mounting the lectern I peruse a few hectoring large-scale verses and pronouce "Here endeth" much more loudly than I'd meant The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door I sign the book donate an Irish sixpence Reflect the place was not worth stopping for. Yet stop I did: in fact I often do And always end much at a loss like this Wondering what to look for; wondering too When churches fall completely out of use What we shall turn them into if we shall keep A few cathedrals chronically on show Their parchment plate and pyx in locked cases And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep. Shall we avoid them as unlucky places? Or after dark will dubious women come To make their children touch a particular stone; Pick simples for a cancer; or on some Advised night see walking a dead one? Power of some sort or other will go on In games in riddles seemingly at random; But superstition like belief must die And what remains when disbelief has gone? Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky. A shape less recognisable each week A purpose more obscure. I wonder who Will be the last the very last to seek This place for what it was; one of the crew That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were? Some ruin-bibber randy for antique Or Christmas-addict counting on a whiff Of grown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh? Or will he be my representative Bored uninformed knowing the ghostly silt Dispersed yet tending to this cross of ground Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt So long and equably what since is found Only in separation--marriage and birth And death and thoughts of these--for which was built This special shell? For though I've no idea What this accoutered frowsty barn is worth It pleases me to stand in silence here; A serious house on serious earth it is In whose blent air all our compulsions meet Are recognised and robed as destinies. And that much never can be obsolete Since someone will forever be surprising A hunger in himself to be more serious And gravitating with it to this ground Which he once heard was proper to grow wise in If only that so many dead lie round. *

Part II will be called Danger and Daring, and will be posted soon.

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