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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Tolerance and Its Opposite Number

There is often worldwide unease when centuries turn. Certainly such was the case in Europe as the fifteenth century transitioned to the sixteenth. The showdown deciding that era's conflict was dramatized in history in the persons of two very different kinds of Roman Catholic clerics, Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther. Both men saw abuses in the Church crying out to be corrected, but their personalities and their ways of addressing conflict could not have been more different. 

Erasmus, ever the humanist and conciliator, hoped for reform from within the Church. In truth, he did not interest himself overmuch with theology – certainly not with dogma – and his definition of “Christian” had more to do with a way of life than a set of beliefs. “He alone does honour to the saints who imitates their virtues,” wrote Erasmus. To be Christian, he felt, was to live as Jesus lived. “The quintessence of our religion is peace and unanimity.” Moreover, “Wherever you encounter truth, look upon it as Christianity.”

As someone raised Lutheran, I was shocked to read about the historical founder. I have long disagreed with Luther’s complete dismissal of good works, the dogma of “salvation by grace alone,” but I had no idea – we were never taught in confirmation class – that Luther believed in predestination. No wonder he put no faith (if I may so phrase it) in good works! Theology aside, I was repelled by Luther’s unprincipled pragmatism, as I found it in this book. (I am a pragmatist myself, a romantic pragmatist, but for me pragmatism does not – cannot -- demand the rejection of principles.) Here is Luther, in his own words, telling what we might expect of him in a presidential campaign and what the people of Germany did get from him in his struggle against the Church and against mild-mannered, truth-loving Erasmus: “If you want to better humanity and reform the Church, you cannot afford to fight shy of a good, thumping lie.” Lies in the service of reform. How Socratic!

I have taken these quotes from Erasmus and Luther from Erasmus of Rotterdam, by Stefan Zweig. If you’ve ever wondered how the Enlightenment was pushed offstage by the Reformation, this little book makes a clear case.

Erasmus, the tolerant peacemaker and lover of truth, had no stomach for battle. He wanted only to be left alone with his books. Twice, first at the Diet of Worms, later at the Diet of Augsburg, he stayed away, leaving the field open to Martin Luther and his revolutionary followers. Had Erasmus gone to Augsburg, Zweig believes, reformation might have begun within the Church. There were those on both sides prepared to give ground. But Erasmus did not appear, and Luther’s bombast carried the day. In fact, according to Zweig, Luther by that time had had second thoughts but had lost control of his troops.

Thus inflammatory rhetoric carried the day, and the humanistic idea of the unity of mankind gave way to newly resurgent nationalism and the power politics laid out by Machiavelli in Il Principe. Zweig saw parallels between Europe in the time of Erasmus and Martin Luther and Europe in the 1930s.

Where are we headed now? Are we ever going to be ready to give peace a chance?

It occurs to me that I should say that I don't intend to characterize modern Lutherans as being in the mold of Martin Luther, either in character or in all aspects of his theology. Pace!


Fleda Brown said...

This is a brilliant and thoughtful post, Pamela. Thanks for it, much needed right now.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks so much, Fleda. The lesson I draw from this historical period is that even those of us who love our book-lined studies must occasionally face the brouhaha of public meetings.