Gerard Howlin


Today everyone preaches something but no one believes in anything

Martin Luther shattered the notion of universal or objective truth. ‘I’ was placed at the centre of the cosmos, undermining all hierarchy, writes Gerard Howlin

Today everyone preaches something but no one believes in anything

WITTENBERG is not a major tourist attraction, but it is where modernity began. Five hundred years ago, on October 31, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the parish church, still extant. He shattered the notion of universal or objective truth. ‘I’ was placed at the centre of the cosmos. Though dependent on princely power, the change in thought he unleashed ultimately undermined all hierarchy. As over-enthusiastic peasants discovered on their way to the slaughter in the Peasants Revolt, he was no Jacobin. But there could have been no French Revolution without him.

Lutheranism today is everywhere and nowhere. Nowhere, in that the state-sponsored churches he inspired are withered. Everywhere, in that the individualism he enabled is the last objective reality. Luther said we could all be our own priest. Now we are our own gods.

Wittenberg then was a town of hardly 2,000 people, in outlying Brandenburg, far from places of influence. Visiting with two friends, the remoteness and relative insignificance are still apparent. The Augustinian Friary which was his home as a priest- professor, the parish church, and the elector’s castle all remain. Many German towns are unrecognisable since the Second World War, but Luther’s is intact. The friary, afterwards his family home and home to those who thronged to study with him, can be visited. The latrines — where the man with a scatological obsession and acute constipation relieved himself — are extant.

Social media is decried for its crudity and brevity. The 16th century broadsheet, a pamphlet with a picture, was Luther’s equivalent. The image were accompanied by few words in a largely illiterate society. But enough could read aloud to amplifying the message. Artists such as Lucas Cranach collaborated with Luther. To understand the effect, think Banksy crossed with Raphael. The Fall of Constantinople 64 years before and the emergence of humanism, partially fuelled by an exodus westward of Greek learning, recovered original texts in classical and biblical scholarship.

If clerics dominated the scriptoria, lay men worked the printing presses. The rebirth of classical architecture reflected rationality, not divinity.

Luther’s reformation, founded on the written word, was an academic religion. The preacher was professor and prophet. The famous parish church at Wittenberg, cleansed of saints, boasts portraits of Luther and fellow reformers. It is a modern church, in that its chief function is as a lecture theatre.

The sacramental world was over, and the break with apostolic tradition was complete. Arguably the greatest ornament of Lutheranism, after his own bible, was the music of Bach — and that was still in the future.

The Reformation was the platform for the preacher-man, untethered by boundaries except his own. Almost instantly, and to his vehement horror, Luther’s reformation split into multiple conflicting creeds. The unmediated understanding of God he demanded for himself did not extend to others who rejected fundamentals he had newly arrived at. Nietzsche remarked how Luther, like St Paul, was a “genius of hatred”.

The mature Luther, angered by the failure of Jewish people to see the authenticity of his scriptural exegesis penned the virulently anti-Semitic On the Jews and Their Lies. It was a tract of 65,000 words and damned a people “full of the devil’s feces”. Like his bible, his anti-semitism was also culturally foundational. Ultimately, it became the open pit that consumed an entire culture.

A hundred years later, René Descartes brought Luther’s formula of only scripture, only grace, only faith to their logical fruition, while still professing God, albeit on his own terms. Descartes shifted faith from “what is true” to “what I can be certain of”. His dictum, “I think therefore I am”, replaced God with man, as the guarantor of truth. God could be found by logical processes, but it was man’s reason, not, as Luther advocated, divine revelation in scripture, and certainly not authority divinely vested in the pope or Church. Descartes thought he could guard against scepticism. But the ‘I’ Luther had circumscribed with scripture was now utterly unbound. The mindset we call modern, born at Wittenberg, was now untrammelled by higher authority.

The effect of reformation in Ireland was at the same time limited and fundamental. Limited in the extent to which it gained adherents, but fundamental in how directly and indirectly it influenced Irish thought, including Irish Catholicism. Augustine, St Paul’s greatest early disciple, fostered a dour understanding of the human person. Having enjoyed a misspent youth, he knew the difficulty of conforming the flesh with the will.

Luther was Augustinian in his sense of sin. Calvin went further, believing in the total depravity of humanity and limited atonement, meaning that Christ died only for some, not for all. Lutheranism and Catholicism differ fundamentally from Calvinism on the impact of Christ’s death, but their common Augustinian heritage, re-emphasised by the influential Flemish Catholic bishop Jansen, injected into Irish Catholic thought at the foundation of Maynooth, a sin-centered Catholicism. Institutionally and politically opposed to Presbyterianism and a Presbyterian- tinted Church of Ireland, in its theology it balefully mirrored Luther’s view that “everything we can do is sin”.

If Irish Protestantism nurtured great minds such as Archbishop James Ussher in the 17th century and Jonathan Swift, Edmund Burke, and Henry Grattan in the 18th, after the Act of Union it remained largely reactive and sometimes reactionary. Issac Butt and Charles Stewart Parnell were exceptions. Ironically, it was British non-conformism as much as the prudery of peasant proprietor Irish Catholicism that brought down the latter. Modernity, sparked in Wittenberg, did not finally catch fire in Ireland until the 1960s.

In 2017, Ireland marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, with only a limited intervening experience of the modernity it began. In James Joyce’s Ulysses... “Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying: — That is God. Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee! What? Mr Deasy asked. A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.”

Historically, Stephen’s common-place sense of an echo of the divine, was an end of an era. After Auschwitz, the divine valediction of a shout on the street would metaphorically no longer be possible. The European public space, long dominated by God, would be enclosed. The concentration camps were an open pit of what Luther might have called the feces of a culture become putrid.

The ultimate tragedy of modernity, which we live through, now unfolds. Freed 500 years ago to believe in anything; now there is nothing left to believe in. Everyone preaches something, but no one believes anything. The only correct response to religion now allowed is to shrug your shoulders.

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