Letter from Europe: Knocking on Heaven’s Door

By Stan Persky | April 17, 2007


is still a big deal in Europe. Unlike the mere long weekend observed in
North America, in Germany the Easter holiday that falls during the
first weeks of April stretches into a two-week early spring sabbattical
that runs to mid-month: the schools close; those who are able
to, get out of town for a few days; and the work pace agreeably slows,
especially when, as this year, the temperatures reach the 20s.

you’re of a mind to indulge in an appropriately theological long
weekend, the obvious place to go is Wittenberg. That’s where I spent
Good Friday, the religious holy day that commemorates the Crucifixion
of Christ. While Germany is Catholic in the southern province of
Bavaria and along the Rhine in western Germany, it is predominantly and
famously the heartland of Protestantism and Wittenberg is its source.
It’s a perfectly charming town of 50,000 or so about an hour’s train
ride southwest of Berlin. Wittenberg is where Martin Luther, a
half-millennium ago, give or take a few years, nailed his “95 Theses”
manifesto to the church door, and ignited a Reformation that split the
Roman Catholic Church.

the maps, it’s officially known as Lutherstadt-Wittenberg (not to be
confused with Lutherstadt-Eisleben, another nearby town where Luther
was born in 1483). A 15-20 minute walk from the train station brings
you to Martin Luther House, the theologian’s residence, which has now
been turned into a well-designed, modern museum that provides an
informative history of Luther and his movement. It contains everything
from Lucas Cranach portraits of the great reformer to 500-year-old
marginal notes in Biblical texts in Luther’s own hand, plus the usual
array of computer visuals. An unpretentious if kitschy gift shop sells
such things as bottles of Luther beer, Luther mugs, and even Luther
computer mousepads—the latter sports a picture of the theologian’s
forlorn writing desk when he was holed up in Wartburg castle in 1522,
and a quote from Luther that will appeal to aspiring scribes: “I write
without interruption.” Luther may have suffered from constipation, as
John Osborne emphasized in his eponymous 1961 play, Luther, but
he was remarkably free of writer’s block. My computer mouse is
currently resting on its rubberized Luther mat (price: 3.50 Euros), and
no doubt drawing inspiration from the reformer’s diligent writing
habits. The American edition of his collected writings, Luther’s Works, runs to 55 volumes.

addition to Luther’s house, the dwelling of his theological successor
Philip Melancthon is also preserved, and beyond that, there’s
Wittenberg University, founded at the beginning of the 16th century,
where Luther was a professor for most of his career. A nicely laid out
town square offers statues, cafes, and restaurants, and at the north
end of town, there’s the castle church where Luther posted his
criticisms in 1517, preached, and is now buried. The place is small
enough and easy enough to find your way around that the only guide book
you might need is one to Luther’s life and mind. That’s available in
the most recent of the Luther biographies, University of Lancaster
religious history professor Michael Mullett’s brisk and reasonably
brief Martin Luther (London: Routledge, 2004).

were several things on my own mind as I dutifully meandered through
Wittenberg’s streets, and in the subsequent days while reading
Mullett’s biography. First, what did Luther believe about God and why
did those reforming beliefs leave Christianity permanently riven?
Second, Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Pope Leo
X in 1520, but how did he manage to avoid execution, the usual fate of
heretics? Finally, and a bit more diffusely, I was thinking of literary
scholar Terry Eagleton’s recent stinging criticisms of Richard Dawkins
and his current best-selling atheist manifesto, The God Delusion,
for being theologically illiterate. Does more attention to theology, I
wondered, enhance one’s views about theism? The unobviousness of the
answers is worth some meditation, if not a full-fledged spiritual tract.

Lutheran hagiography makes much of the reformer’s peasant antecendents,
and Luther himself insisted, “I am the son of a peasant,” in fact he
was born in 1483 into an upwardly mobile urban professional family. His
father Hans’ farming roots were quickly subsumed into his mother
Margarethe’s solidly burgher social class, where Luther’s father became
a mining industrialist and town councillor who had his portrait painted
late in life in one of those typical 16th century business pictures “as
an opulently fur-clad citizen” who “left a large sum of money in his

In psychologist Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther (1958),
in addition to conjectures about Luther’s potty training that
fascinated playwright John Osborne, the pioneering psychoanalytical
historian contributed to the Luther myth “a controversial hypothesis to
the effect that what emerged as young Luther’s difficulties with a
harsh and judgmental God were anchored in his clash with a violent and
censorious father.” The data is “teasingly scanty,” Mullett remarks,
but however dubious the sources, Luther’s mature image of humanity is
of beings rooted in indelible sin who can only be saved or “justified”
through a faith centered on the “grace” that Christ attained in his
Crucifixion. (By the by, for those obsessed with cloacal matters, a bit
of internet rummaging produces the news that Luther’s toilet was
discovered by a team of archeologists in 2004, attached to the Luther
House. I somehow missed it in my tour of the premises.)

we do know is that despite his father’s ambitions for Luther to pursue
a career in law, after taking a degree at Erfurt University, a
spiritually distraught Luther entered the severe Augustinian monastery
in Erfurt in 1505, was ordained as a priest two years later, and by the
second decade of the 1500s had been posted to Wittenberg University as
a theology professor. Despite an otherwise stormy career, he maintained
tenure there to the end of his life, lecturing on such Biblical works
as the Psalms and the letters of St. Paul, and taking advantage of that
relatively new-fangled technology known as printing to become one of
the first profs who literally saved himself from perishing by
publishing widely-distributed, best-selling manifestos, tracts,
lectures and translations, most notably that of the Bible into German.

theology is where things begin to get tricky. Whether rooted in his
extreme spiritual anxiety as a young man or in his bowel movements (or
both), the intellectual sources of Luther’s ideas are found in
Augustine, Paul, and the late-medieval anti-rationalist school within
the Catholic Church known as “nominalism.” Nominalism tended to reject
the rationalist theology of Thomas Aquinas and was in part what led to
Luther’s “championing of Scripture as the sole reliable source of
truth… arising from Nominalist suspicion of the efficacy of human
reason,” as Mullett puts it. “In place of Aristotle and the deductive
rationalising approaches that classic Scholastics such as St. Thomas
Aquinas built… Luther put Scripture in sole place as our guide to the
wisdom of God, and the whole Church should be ‘captive’ to it.” But
scripture, Mullett points out, is “itself subject to interpretation.”

interpretive emphasis that Luther developed is based on the concerns he
found in Augustine and Paul. Mullett describes Luther’s theological
touchstones as “the pervasiveness of sin, the weakness of the human
will and intellect and the utter need of sinners for God’s grace.” In
the texts of St. Paul, especially in Paul’s “Letter to the Romans,”
which Luther lectured on extensively at Wittenberg University and which
he treated as a “gospel,” Luther found “the basic lineaments of what
was to become the Reformation doctrine of salvation. This was that
justification comes to us solely by means of God’s grace without ‘good
works’, for the reason that our justification was won by Christ
crucified, making redundant any attempt on our part to secure our
justification by our own good deeds.” More would be added to that
doctrine, “drawing out some of the fuller logical consequences of
justification by faith, including divine predestination and the denial
of human free will.”

our intellectual and temporal distance from this sort of thinking,
especially if we’re secular humanists, part of what distressed Luther
about his own Catholic Church is thoroughly comprehensible to us,
namely, its corruption. One form that that corruption took was the
papally-authorized selling of “indulgences,” and the buying of them as
an act of “good works.” The purchased indulgences apparently
accelerated your trip to heaven’s gates, but more practically the
proceeds from the sale of these crass instruments of salvation produced
a monetary cut for peddler-monks, local bishops and princes, and
ultimately the Pope, as well as financing a variety of church projects,
including the building of the lavish St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. It
was the indulgence scandal that impelled Luther to write and post his
“95 Theses,” which were presented as an agenda for a university debate
that ultimately was about the state of the Roman Catholic Church.

Luther’s criticisms led to a series of public “disputations” over the
next three or four years, and his eventual excommunication is
historically understandable, even if the triangular political relations
between the Church, the Holy Roman Empire, and local German princes,
such as Luther’s protector, Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, are a
complex tangle. When you throw in the Turkish military threat to Europe
in the 1500s, and how that limited the maneuvering room of both Pope
and Emperor in dealing with doctrinal rebellions such as Luther’s, the
politics become fascinating and offer a key to understanding the
development of modern Europe. What remains puzzling for us is the

make sense of the debate between “works” and “grace” through “faith,”
one has to buy into a host of spiritual presuppositions, starting with
belief in God and acceptance of the Biblical New Testament as
intellectually authoritative. To make matters worse, attempts to
investigate those suppositions by means of reason are met by resistance
to epistemological notions most of us take for granted, such as
evidence, contradiction, and sound arguments. In the end I don’t think
we can bracket off such insurmountable obstacles, and that’s why
theological arguments so often go nowhere. Still, if we want to say
something about issues like indulgences, relics, and the rest, it might
go something like this.

one wants to say: okay, the indulgences are blatantly corrupt and
buying special masses and other rituals on behalf of the dead to speed
them on their way from purgatory to paradise seems unlikely to be
effective, to say nothing of their being preposterous. But how about a
more moderate program of good works in one’s lifetime? Shouldn’t one’s
faith have some connection to how one behaves during one’s life? Why
insist that it’s all a matter of faith, and that good works have
nothing to do with it? Of course, that was a question that occurred to
other 16th century theologians, such as Luther’s successor, Melancthon,
who by 1530 was offering compromise formulas on doctrine in an effort
to effect ecumenical peace.

take another example that touches on philosophical issues, the debate
about free will between Luther and Europe’s leading humanist scholar,
Erasmus, that took place in the mid-to-late 1520s. Erasmus, a Catholic
reformer himself, cited various Biblical and Church Father sources
suggesting that God gives humans a measure of choice that helps
determine their post-worldly fates. “Luther’s position,” Mullett
explains, “was the direct opposite: men and women have no
free will and their ultimate fates are decided by predestination.” You
can see Luther’s logic: if humans have free will, then God’s
omniscience is imperfect, and since the conception of God includes
absolute foreknowledge, power and beneficence among his prime
attributes, free will would imply human independence and a less than
perfect God. But on the other hand: if God knows and prejudges all,
what’s the point of the whole game, why bother to have created humans
in the first place, especially the sort of humans who are able to argue
about whether or not they have free will?

course, all of this looks nutty to us postmoderns. But perhaps one
reason for not dismissing that now obscure debate out of hand is that
it has some connection to questions that still interest us about the
nature of human beings, and the issue of free will, now stripped of its
theological trappings. We still want to know what human beings are like
and whether we can affect both our lives and the evolution of human
consciousness, which we now understand in Darwinian terms. What’s more,
the notion of humans tainted by a kind of Original Sin continues to
enjoy widespread popular acceptance, whether the nature of that “sin”
is spiritual or “hardwired” into the evolutionary nature of the human
beast in terms of aggression, greed, and selfishness.

century before Luther’s challenge to the Church, the Czech reformer Jan
Hus advanced similar doctrinal views, only to be executed as a heretic.
The question of how Luther escaped Hus’s fate is an easier question to
answer than the theological puzzles. Certainly, Luther’s survival
wasn’t for lack of effort on the Church’s part to permanently silence
the German cleric. One of the factors that made it hard to shut him up
was the emergence of printing press technology which ensured that the
latest blast from Luther’s trumpet, whether in German or Latin,
depending on his intended audience, would soon be heard everywhere in
Europe. Luther is sometimes called “the first media heretic,” and it’s
clear that his access to the press was a vital factor in his survival.

more immediate determining factor was political protection. What
followed Luther’s “95 Theses,” whose dissemination in printed form
turned them into a European sensation, was a series of debates and de facto
court trials—at Heidelberg, Augsburg, and Leipzig—that resulted in Pope
Leo X’s excommunication of Luther by papal order, and Luther’s
spectacular public burning of Leo’s Papal Bull in Wittenberg in 1520.
The next year Luther appeared before Emperor Charles V in the Rhineland
city of Worms and refused to recant, allegedly and famously declaring,
“Here I stand. I can do no other.” Luther was condemned, and his arrest
ordered, which, if it had been carried out, would have inexorably led
to a trial in Rome and execution.

Luther was spirited away into protective custody in Wartburg Castle by
his prince, Elector Frederick. In the economic and military perils
facing Church and Empire, Frederick had enough political maneuvering
room that even such superior forces were loathe to lay a hand on the
heretic under his custodial cloak. Why exactly Frederick would want to
shelter Luther and his views is not entirely clear from Mullett’s
account, but is obviously connected to the desire of the German princes
for relative political autonomy within a fractious empire.

Luther was in temporary exile in a writing room pictured on my lately
acquired mousepad, and despite his remark that “I write without
interruption,” in fact he had to break off his literary labours in
order to attend to various outbreaks of doctrinal dispute among his
followers. He slipped back into Wittenberg in 1522 to quell the
unorthodoxies of various over-zealous radical followers. Of course,
once “reforms” had begun to turn into “Reformation,” it was inevitable
that the newly established Protestants (the word first came into usage
in 1529) would themselves be fissiparous.

was soon bitterly disputing the Swiss reformer Zwingli over such arcane
matters as the presence of Christ in the Communion bread—did Jesus
literally mean “This is my body” when he broke the bread or was one
spiritually safe in treating Communion as a symbolic recollection of
the Last Supper? More immediately, Luther had to respond to the
radicalism of Father Thomas Muntzer, who was soon leading a
proto-communist Peasants’ Rebellion that threatened the order of German
princes as well as the higher orders of Empire and Church. Although
Luther initially took a moderate position on peasant unrest, he soon
vituperatively denounced the revolt against secular authority, which
was brutally put down by force of arms and Muntzer’s execution as a
heretic in 1525. Again, it’s not quite clear from Mullett’s biography
how much Luther’s conservative defense of the princely order benefited
his survival and his institutional ambitions. In any case, Luther did
survive and the rest is pretty much institutional history: the
establishment of a Lutheran Church and subsequently, a plethora of
Protestant denominations, from Calvinists to the downright doctrinally
zany Mormons.

ritual changes in Protestantism are clear enough. Lutheranism meant,
among other things, the dissolution of papal absolutism, services in
the local vernacular language (which meant, in Germany, Luther’s
translation of the Bible into German), and the end of priestly celibacy
(Luther married in 1525 and soon fathered a brood of children). It’s
often argued that one of the things Luther did was to spiritually
liberate people by proposing what amounted to an individual,
democratic, personal relationship between worshippers and God, and that
this liberation is itself one of founding themes of modernism. Well,
maybe that’s so in theory, but in 16th century everyday reality,
princes and pastors still largely determined religious belief and the
forms it took. As for Luther himself, in his later years (he died in
1546, at 62) he became increasingly dogmatic, viciously anti-semitic,
and steadfastly resistant to efforts at reconciliation with the
Catholic Church.

the Wittenberg tourist bureau and sundry other civic agencies are about
to launch a “Reformation Decade” to mark the 500th anniversary in 2017
of Luther’s posting of the “95 Theses” on the doors of the castle
church. There will be tours, services, festivals, and a series of
academic colloquia to revisit the Reformation. Maybe they’ll even
invite Oxford professor Richard Dawkins to come along and propose a New
Reformation that would discourage us from knocking on heaven’s door, on
the grounds that the whole thing is a delusion. In the meantime, I’ll
hang onto my Luther mousepad to inspire my faith that I can write
without interruption.



Berlin, April 17, 2007.





  • Stan Persky

    Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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