Martin Luther's post-modern legacy: reason refuting reason

If ever you wanted proof of Faulkner’s dictum that “History is not ‘was’; it’s ‘is’” look no further than Martin Luther’s enormous role in shaping the modern world. Often in problematic ways.

In MercatorNet Martin Fitzgerald recently indicted Luther’s doctrine of total human depravity, and the consequent futility of our efforts to do good or think clearly, for many of modernity’s discontents, including its increasingly bewildered contempt for virtue. Here I would like to add to his critique that Luther’s reasoned attack on reason should have been shut down immediately by the same “tu quoque” that ought to be invoked at every appearance of the relativism it helped spawn in the modern world.

I must confess that Martin Luther, a modern hero for defying authority and convention, has always worried me. Including what can only be called his potty mouth. It may seem a small point and his defenders have even tried to make it a virtue, the common touch of a man of the people. But his relish for scatological jokes with friends and often coarse invective for enemies suggest that the doctrine of total depravity had relieved him from the obligation to mind his manners. Which is one habit the modern world could use less of, from popular movies to the White House.

By this point I think defying authority is also a convention that has been taken too far. As Chesterton said, morality like art consists in drawing the line somewhere. And, whether he meant it to be or not, modernity’s trouble with the very concept of drawing lines is a logical consequence of Luther’s disdain for our thoughts as well as our deeds.

Which brings me to the thing Fitzgerald pointed to without dwelling upon. Namely the inherent contradiction in using reasoning to condemn reason. In one famous and characteristic passage, Luther declared that

"Reason is the devil's greatest whore, by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the devil's appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom... Throw dung in her face to make her ugly. She is, and she ought to be, drowned in baptism...She would deserve, the wretch, to be banished to the filthiest place in the house, to the closets." (cited by Jacques Maritain, Three Reformers, p. 33).”

This passage quite literally makes no sense. For if reason is useless, he has no way of figuring out that it’s useless or of convincing others of it. Or indeed any motive for doing so.

Employing reason to refute reason is also a very modern habit. We see all sorts of people nowadays climbing up a logical ladder then kicking it away, from academic deconstructionists writing that writing is meaningless to feminist politicians preaching radical multiculturalism that shrinks from calling female genital mutilation barbaric. I would even accuse John Maynard Keynes of doing it in economics, using neoclassical tools to refute neoclassicism without therefore renouncing those tools. Keynes was not coincidentally a nihilist on the subject of truth, moral and otherwise. And a very modern man.

Luther also said “Reason is the greatest enemy that faith has” which, if true, should have lead a man of faith to stop thinking immediately, rather than devoting his life to polemics and analysis. Except, of course, that if reason is rubbish we have no obligation to be rational, even to the extent of avoiding obvious self-contradiction.

It is too little appreciated that even Fascism was not reactionary but postmodern in its metaphysics, with despair at the possibility of reason leading to a desperate effort to create truth by force of will instead. The only options for defending any opinion are reason and intimidation. And if the opinion is that reason is useless, using reason is self-contradictory and a swift resort to intimidation the only logical option. Which proves that you can’t stop thinking even if you try; the paradox cannot sustain itself.

The strange thing here is that everyone who has ever watched a Bugs Bunny or Roadrunner cartoon knows what happens when the character looks down and realizes he is standing on air. That reason is defective is beyond doubt. And it’s hugely frustrating, never more so than when we attempt to examine our flawed reason using our flawed reason. But as C.S. Lewis says, there must be something not flawed to which we have some kind of access or we could not even know there’s a problem. If you measure a bent ruler with a bent ruler you’ll necessarily conclude that it’s straight.

It is old news that reason is flawed. St. Paul said we see through a glass darkly nearly 2000 years ago. What is novel is forgetting that it is nevertheless serviceable. Indeed it is impossible to understand how, if our reason is utterly worthless, we could figure out that our works are useless. Or, to close the vicious circle, that our reason is.

In advancing this idea Luther contradicted himself fatally. Yet the idea has caught on, helping spawn the Age of Fatuity. To defend the existence of Truth today, about history, gender, or anything else, is to invite sneers not rebuttals. Having climbed boastfully out onto the limb of reason, we blithely sawed through it. From Kant and Hume to Logical Positivism and out into the postmodern void, as Lewis put it in That Hideous Strength, we have convinced ourselves with elaborate sophistry that we cannot think. But much that now passes for the latest wisdom is conspicuously neither.

Behind this confusion stands the imposing figure of Martin Luther, who demolished reason using reason and was not immediately called to account for having destroyed the pedestal on which he stood.

One wonders whether a tenured professor of deconstructionism asking “What is truth?” would be embarrassed to realize he is channelling a 500-year-old critique by a devout Christian, however he feels about Pontius Pilate. Or that he is living the ancient Greek paradox about the Cretan saying “All Cretans are liars” without recognizing that it is a paradox. What would he say if the retort to his claim that “All texts are meaningless” was “Including the article you just submitted” or, better yet, “Including your employment contract”?

As Chesterton said “What we call the new ideas are generally broken fragments of the old ideas.”

I do not think many Catholics today, on the eve of the quincentennial Reformation Day, would deny that Luther made some legitimate criticisms of the institutions and practices of their Church in the Renaissance. Or that his doctrines have been a source of piety, charity and spiritual comfort to millions. But someone should have blown the whistle on his reasoned attacks on reason the moment he opened his mouth.

Many people will be celebrating Martin Luther’s role in ushering in modernity. But his elaborately rational irrationality, like ours, makes no sense. Literally.

John Robson is a crowdfunded documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist in Ottawa, Canada. See his work and support him at


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