By: Mathhew Parris - The Times.
I belong to an excellent institution called the London Library. To mark the 500th anniversary this week of the publication of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, the library has had on display its copy of one of the books produced by Luther in 1517 after (it’s said) the young monk nailed his propositions to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. The furore then was immediate. The books reproducing his theses appeared within weeks.
A stone had been thrown into the lake and five hundred years later the ripples are still spreading. We oversimplify but do not traduce history to say that 1517 was the birth of the Reformation and (though Luther never intended it) the birth of Protestant Christianity. It also (as Luther did intend) spurred the reform of Roman Catholic thinking, though at the time he was greeted with a persecuting fury.
I look at that philosophical atom bomb of a book: at pages, his hand may have touched. I look at the coarse, pudgy, disobliging features of the man who wrote it. And I reflect — an atheist myself — that Martin Luther lifted Christianity to a higher place but failed, as Christianity is still failing, to make the final leap.
As (one hopes) every schoolchild learns, close to the centre of the German theologian’s objections was his complaint against the sale of indulgences by the Church. An indulgence was a get-out-of-Hell-free card, explained by one contemporary in the verse: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings/ The soul from purgatory springs.”
I say “close” to the centre because the patently corrupt practice of selling indulgences for the living and the dead was really only a caricature of a perfectly defensible doctrine. Many Christians still subscribe to it: the hope that we may improve our chances of eternal life by doing good. Giving money to the Church was, after all, doing good. Luther was not against doing good. But he held that for personal salvation, deep, inner faith in God was what counted, and all that counted. Without faith in your heart, no amount of good works, no amount of money given to the Church, the poor, or other worthy causes, could rescue you from Hell. “Good works” might be a consequence of that personal faith, but the faith alone, not the good works, was the key to Heaven.
This, Luther’s great, central inspiration to succeeding ages, was therefore not really about reform of Church corruptions: it was the doctrine that, in the end, it’s between you and God, and a private affair. The nonconformist conscience to which his ideas led holds that God knows you directly, and you must know him. There are only two of you in this relationship and no intermediaries. No rites, no priests, no practices, no incense, no images, no tithes, no blessings, cursings, permissions or prohibitions by other human beings, can bring you to salvation or lock you from it.
This, of course, represented a direct challenge to the authority, worldly as well as spiritual, of the Catholic Church: hence the fury Luther provoked.
The philosophical and theological step Luther made has been of untold benefit to modern civilization. It frees people from fear. It elevates the individual as against the herd, the private conscience as against official or conventional morality.
In Africa, in particular, I can testify to the work of missionaries in releasing people, particularly in traditionalist rural areas, from feeling cowed by the shades of the dead and the hierarchies of the living; and by the imagined powers of inanimate objects, of witch-doctors, and the pronouncement of curses.
Even as a confirmed non-believer I can sense the liberating effect for modern western civilization of a God who is your private friend, and to whom, in the end, you are finally and only responsible. It gives each person an autonomy, and in their eyes disempowers the mob. It can inspire acts of great courage. And — Luther was right here — it is far closer to any idea of Jesus’s teaching that we gain from actual study (which Luther advocated) of the New Testament than was the development after Christ of Roman Catholic teaching. So as an atheist I’m a Protestant atheist.
However, the leap Luther made points to, and cries out for, a second leap. “Why bring good works into it?” he asked. Maybe so. But why bring salvation into it, either? Why the need for any reward at all? Is virtue not its own reward?
In asking this question may I put to one side the issue of whether God, or Heaven, or Hell, exist? I don’t think so but let’s assume they do: it makes no difference to my argument. What Luther failed to question was the need for any selfish reason to lead a moral life or to love God. God, if there is a God, is surely intrinsically and overwhelmingly loveable? Reward, if such reward exists, is surely unnecessary as a reason to be good. If we have a moral sense at all, and we do, being good feels good. Even if this life were all, what further incentive is needed?
Religion should elevate and priests should leave deterrence to the police
On Monday morning I listened on BBC radio to the Rev Dr Michael Banner: a clear and intelligent Thought for the Day in which the dean of Trinity College, Cambridge, came close to saying that salvation cannot be sought, but may arrive (he said) as an “unmerited” gift of God. Twenty minutes later I listened to the always-thoughtful Dr. Rowan Williams. The former Archbishop of Canterbury didn’t mention Heaven or Hell, reward or punishment, at all.
Compare these two theologians to the vicar who wrote to me after I’d questioned the role of damnation in the Christian life. How (he protested) could he discourage his parishioners from shoplifting if Heaven and Hell were absent from the furniture of their imaginations? What a low view this man took of his congregation.
Of course, punishment deters vice. Of course, reward may encourage virtue. But both appeal to the lower side of human nature. Religion should elevate, and priests should leave deterrence to the police. The epistemology of salvation and damnation degrades the moral life, cheapens what motivates us, and ignores what stares any sociologist in the face: that from infancy mankind is imbued with a strong grasp of moral reasoning and an instinctive desire to find and cleave to what is right.
It is good to be alive and people, mostly, live to be good. Enough of original sin. If Christianity is to live another 500 years, how about original virtue?
I always find what Matthew Parris interesting - whether I read his newspaper articles or hear him speaking on radio and TV.
He is a very bright man.
Obviously, I do not agree with everything he says. He is an atheist and I am a believing Christian.
I think he makes a very good point in the contribution above.
He is basically saying that we should love for the sake of loving - and refrain from doing wrong - not for the sake of reward or lack of reward - but for the sake of love and goodness itself.
Like many others, I learned this at school when the Christian Brothers and nuns taught me the difference between PERFECT CONTRITION and IMPERFECT CONTRITION.
Perfect contrition was when you were sorry for your sins because you were so upset at hurting God - who is love.
Imperfect contrition was when you were sorry for your sins because you might go to Hell.
As Christians, we believe in the teachings of Jesus and that means that we must accept the ideas of Hell and Heaven because Jesus clearly spoke of both states/places.
Personally, I believe that human WEAKNESS will not bring someone to hell. God understands and forgives WEAKNESS.
That which has the capacity to take someone to hell is EVIL.
Most of us are weak, very weak. Hopefully, not too many of us are EVIL.
I summed out my ideas about goodness, badness, weakness and evil in a PERSONAL CREDO I composed in 1994:
A PERSONAL CREED
Bishop Pat Buckley
I believe that in this world it is impossible to understand God.
I believe that God made this wonderful universe and all that exists.
I can find God in nature, in animals, in birds and the environment.
I believe that God made all men and women,
That He made them all equal,
And that He loves and cherishes them all equally.
I believe that the whole human race is the family of God.
I believe that there may be intelligent life on other planets
And if so, they too are part of God’s family.
I hold that religion and faith are two different things,
That religion can be both good and bad
And that it is spirituality that counts.
For me your religion is an accident of your birth
Or a gift of God’s great providential diversity.
There is no one true church.
All churches and all religions contain aspects of the truth.
But only God is truth.
No man is infallible.
A Buddhist or a good atheist is as acceptable to God as a good Catholic.
I believe that sex is good and so is the body.
The only sexual act that is sinful is the one that uses or abuses.
I believe in people, especially suffering people.
I believe in the power of weakness.
I believe that all men and women will be saved.
I believe in a packed Heaven and an empty Hell.
And even Satan might get another chance.
I believe in the freedom of God’s sons and daughters.
I believe that dogma is often evil.
I believe that life is a journey towards God
And that no one has the right to insist that you go a certain road.
I believe that God and reality are too big for my poor words.
I believe therefore that I am only at a beginning.
Only knocking at a door.
And I believe that the best is yet to come.