Monday, February 14, 2011

The Immoral Reformer

All this talk about grace and license and morality has turned my mind to the guy who started it all. While Calvin was both a far more rigorous thinker and offered a view of Divine love and the Christian love that, in many ways, I find far more appealing. Furthermore, Calvin's view of the relationship between the Christian and the state is more attractive than the Lutheran doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. As people, however, Calvin is distinctly unattractive. His decision to support the execution of Servetus for blasphemy - he denied the Trinity - is loathsome. He was largely apathetic to his wife and family, dedicated far more to writing his books, preparing his sermons, and the governance of Geneva.

Luther, on the other hand, once he had his breakthrough - which occurred not, as Erik Erikson claimed, on the john, but after a session with his ocnfessor in the monastery - Luther reveled in all the joys life had to offer. Garrulous, earthy, he was called a drunkard and glutton by his enemies (and a few of his friends as well). He was an attentive husband and father, and spoke of the joys of marital bliss with the tone of the convert from self-imposed asceticism. He and his wife, a former nun from the same monastery, grieved for the rest of their days the loss of one of their children.

In his history of the rise of Renaissance thinking, A World Lit Only By Fire, William Manchester is scathing in his appraisal of Luther. He notes, correctly, that one of Luther's favorite words was "shit". Historian Heiko Obermann, whose Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, is a marvelous account of Luther's life and thought, places Luther within the context of medieval life and thought. For Luther, the earth was the battlefield between God and the Devil, with the human race merely the most important playing piece in this supernatural game. The story of the Devil appearing to Luther in his monk's cell concludes not with the soon-to-be-Reformer tossing his ink well at old Splitfoot; he hurls feces.

The final volume of the English edition of Luther's Collected Works is Table Talk. Once he left the monastery, and living under the protection of the Elector of Saxony, he would spend his evenings in inns, surrounded by friends and sycophants. His tongue loosened by copious amounts of Saxon ale, those around him would scribble down his words on beer napkins, table cloths, whatever was handy, as if the words were continuing evidence of his wisdom and sagacity. In these deeply personal moments, we get a glimpse of Luther the man, the loving father and husband. We hear him revel in the sensual delights of the marriage bed, castigating the Catholic practice of castrati, insisting he would rather have three "balls" (he uses the word) than none. He proclaims the joys of living in word and deed, freed from the burden under which he had lived prior to his revelation, with help from his confessor, that God loved him, Martin Luther, no matter what he did.

Prior to his conversion, Luther was a dedicated flagellant. He would spend hours in the quiet of his cell, shipping his back bloody, the wounds never being given a chance to heal. Yet, he never felt it was enough to earn the love of God. He had asked, specifically, if he should add nails or some other thing to the whip, to score his flesh even deeper. His confessor, horrified at what he was hearing, was clear - God's love and forgiveness were not won, not through moral rectitude, nor its opposite, the guilt-ridden self-punishment that is still practiced. God's love meant that he, Martin Luther, was forgiven. Not because he deserved it, or merited it for any act he did.

Luther was far from perfect. Siding with the powers-that-be during the Peasant's Revolt, which was led by a former disciple of Luther's named Thomas Muntzer who took the Wittenberg doctor's teaching on the freedom of the will to a logical extreme, Luther might have mitigated the slaughter that followed; estimates place the number of dead around 100,000. He was a man of extremes, in his life and loves, but also in his hates. The Roman Catholic Church, which had nurtured and given him the opportunity for his insight, became the focal point of his rage. In particular, the Papacy of the time, while certainly needing someone to point out it was a sinkhole of depravity (this was the era of the Medici and Borgia Popes, after all), became the very personification of evil on earth, the Whore of Babylon about which St. John the Divine writes in Revelation.

I wonder what Art would make of Martin Luther, the man?

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