Martin Luther and the advent of the self
by Carolyn Moynihan | August 25, 2017
Luther Before the Diet of Worms by Anton von Werner (1843–1915) via Wikipedia
The anniversary observed by many Protestants as Reformation Day (October 31st) has a special significance this year, since it will be 500 years since Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation in Germany by sending his famous 95 theses to the Archbishop of Mainz.
Luther may also have posted his manifesto, following academic tradition, on the door of All Saints Church near the University of Wittenberg where he taught (that he “nailed” it seems to be a myth), but in any case he did publish his ideas on the subject of indulgences in a stand against Catholic teaching on salvation, and started the second great schism in Christendom.
Five centuries later, what is the legacy of Martin Luther – to Christianity? To the world?
Luther opened up the Bible to the ordinary Christian, reminded them of the gratuitous, forgiving love of God and championed the individual conscience. These developments would have happened anyway, and are affirmed in a general way by all denominations, but differences over the details are so critical that churches continue to divide and multiply, giving a negative witness to the Gospel in which Christ prays that “they all might be one”. The rapprochement of the last half century leaves seemingly unbridgeable gaps between Protestantism and Catholicism.
As for society in general – Western society anyway – it is marked by trends that would surely shock Luther himself. Certainly he was very sex positive, but what would he think of no-fault divorce, cohabitation and pre-marital sex, contraception, abortion, euthanasia, the normalisation of homosexuality, same-sex marriage and transgenderism? And of churches which accept all or most of these things?
Would Luther recognise his doctrine of the individual conscience in a contemporary individualism (acting collectively where necessary) that constantly claims new rights on the basis of “what I feel is right for me” – and wants to force other consciences to affirm its claims, no matter how irrational?
Well, perhaps he would, or should. Nearly a century ago the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain identified Luther as the man who “discovered the self”, thus preparing the way for modern individualism and the trends it has spawned.
Maritain’s study of Luther appears alongside two others in his book, Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau, published in 1928. These three – “a reformer of religion, a reformer of philosophy, and a reformer of morality” – as “begetters of the modern conscience” preside over modernity and “all the problems which torment it,” he states at the beginning.
Luther's personal spiritual crisis
In “Luther, or The Advent of the Self” Maritain argues that the Reformation sprang from a personal spiritual crisis -- Brother Luther’s uncertainty whether, despite all his efforts and receiving the sacraments, he was in a state of grace. He resolved the tension between the struggle for holiness and his sensual urges with his doctrine that original sin is always in us, so that we are radically corrupt and God’s grace cannot change us. Rather, our justification consists in Christ, who is justified in our place, covering us as with a cloak. There is nothing for us to do, spiritually, but “clutch at his cloak” and trust in Christ.
“The unhappy man thinks he no longer trusts in himself, but in God alone. Yet, by refusing to admit that man can share really and within himself in the justice of Jesus Christ and in His grace … he shuts himself up for ever in his self, he withdraws from himself all support but his self, … he places the centre of his religious life not in God but in man.”
After doing away with the assurances of the Church and her sacraments, the salvation of man still comes from God and his Christ; but this assurance now has to come from within the individual. And this comes “by driving himself to a desperate trust in Christ.” Personal salvation has become a matter of subjective conviction.
Luther has been seen by many as the model of a free human being, of the greatness that man can achieve without the crippling effects of disciplines like those “imposed” by the Church.
Freeing the individual, not the person
But Maritain questions this model of greatness and its contribution to human dignity. What Luther freed, he says, was not human personality, which is a spiritual concept, but human individuality -- the animal man who takes his place alongside the rest of the material world. He explains the difference between individuality and personality in a discursus based on Thomistic philosophy, but his basic point is clear enough when applied to the figure of Luther.
He is indeed a towering figure, but because of his individuality rather than personality in the philosophical (spiritual) sense; an individuality Maritain describes as,
“Driven by great desires and vehement longings which fed on instinct and feeling, not on intelligence; possessed by the passions, loosing the tempest around him, breaking every obstacle and all ‘external’ discipline; but having within him a heart full of discordant cries; seeing life, before Nietzsche, as essentially tragic…”
Wonderful as it may appear in some people, this individualism is actually poisonous to persons. The relevance of this to the twentieth century – and even more to our own – is indicated by Maritain thus:
“See with what religious pomp the modern world has proclaimed the sacred rights of the individual, and what a price it has paid for that proclamation [a reference to the French Revolution, among others, perhaps?]. Yet, was there ever a time when the individual was more completely ruled by the great anonymous powers of the State, of Money, of Opinion?”
“In the social order, the modern city sacrifices the person to the individual; it gives universal suffrage, equal rights, liberty of opinion [not so much any more!], to the individual, and delivers the person, isolated, naked, with no social framework to support and protect it, to all the devouring powers that threaten the soul’s life… And it says to all the poor children of men set in the midst of this turmoil: ‘You are a free individual; defend yourself, save yourself, all by yourself.’ It is a homicidal civilisation.”
And we wonder why young men form gangs and violence is on the rise in our cities.
A man of will
There is another aspect of Luther that Maritain highlights as relevant to modernity: he is a man of will, ruled by his affections and appetites.
He is larger than life, a fascinating figure: an enchanting speaker, poetic, jovial and kind (as well as truculent and dominating), with a strong natural religious instinct, a wonder to hear praying aloud “with a great flow of words”, deeply moved by the details of nature, and with all that, “obsessed by a deep melancholy”. In short, “the first great Romantic.”
The reverse side of Luther's will, however, is anti-intellectualism. He is an “enemy of philosophy” and even reason itself except in a pragmatic sense. He excoriated the Church’s use of Aristotle and said Aquinas “never understood a chapter of the Gospel or Aristotle.” He maintained that “logic is nowhere necessary in theology because Christ does not need human inventions,” and “Reason is directly opposed to faith … in believers it should be killed and buried.” That is a sentiment that might resonate with those of the Islamic faith.
Then again, Luther’s intellectual pragmatism, and exaltation of the will driven by individual desires and passions, must resonate strongly with today’s sexual rights lobbies and their opposition to philosophical reasoning – particularly if it happens to support a Christian view of human dignity.
Of course, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a strong will, when it is governed by virtue and reason (in that order), but when “I want” (the right to choose) takes precedence over those things it will end in rampant subjectivism and disaster for the person and society – or, more likely, an authoritarian reaction.
This is not the whole of Maritain’s critique of Luther’s Reformation, but it is enough to suggest that the cultural trends which shape today’s debates have had a very long genesis and are not likely to disappear any time soon. Quite apart from Lutheranism as one might encounter it, for example, in Wittenberg’s commemoration, there may be a legacy that we have yet to confront.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.