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To celebrate or perhaps just to mark 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his '95 theses' to a church door in Wittenberg and set in motion the Protestant Revolution, the Australian Broadcasting Commission has been running a number of programs discussing the legacy of this complex man featuring leading thinkers and historians in the field. 

Much of the ABC debate has centred on Luther's impact on the modern world.  Was he responsible for today or might the world still be stuck in the 'middle ages' with each generation doing more or less what the previous one did, largely within the same medieval social structures?  In that case could those inhabitants, obviously not us, still live in a world of less than a billion people, most of them working the land as their great grandparents had done, protected and governed by an hereditary aristocracy, their mundane lives punctuated only by variations in the weather and occasional wars between those princes?

Yet a quick look the history of the renaissance and a moment's thought puts paid to that scenario.  Well before Luther, European traders were discovering there was another, in many ways more advanced and sophisticated, world called China.  One of them, Marco Polo, recited his adventures there with profound history-changing affects.  Not the least of these was Chinese technology. Soon products as diverse as pasta and gunpowder and even printing would have their impact, as would the realisation that there were other lands that offered the potential to make a fortune and create a new class of wealthy traders outside of the traditional hereditary class structures.

By the time Luther came along the world had already changed irretrievably.  The middle ages were already doomed.  Many renaissance thinkers were already doubting past certainties. Among the realities explorers had uncovered was that there are many religions.  If these other religions were not true, because Christianity is the only true religion, then they must be the imaginative concoctions and fabrications of their priests or ancient writers.  Yet there seemed to be no adverse consequence of these erroneous beliefs and fabrications.  There were other, perhaps greater civilisations, like China in which people had no belief in the Abrahamic God and yet they had survived and prospered for thousands of years, as indeed had the rediscovered ancient Greek, Roman, Egyptian and other civilisations preceding Christianity that had also prospered, notwithstanding seemingly ridiculous polytheistic religions in which gods and men and even animals seemed to mix. So how could we be sure that 'our' religion was 'true' and not just the imaginative retelling of such inherited myths?  

Luther was born into turbulent times. Whatever might be the correct balance of nurture and nature, genetic things like: gender and height and environmental things like: birth order; parenting education and the beliefs of the times; all count to make a person who we become. As we shall see random accidents such as lightning strikes, jousting accidents or perhaps childhood disease can also profoundly influence a person's future development and beliefs. 

Thus Luther was both the unique genetic product of his parents and a creature of the unique circumstances of his time. All those circumstances contributed to make Martin Luther both committed to his Christian beliefs and profoundly reactionary in his thinking. For him the Christian Bible was the one true source of divine inspiration, overruling any contribution new or evolving thoughts might have made to the faith since the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea. If from time to time there was a nagging stain or rent in the perfectly smooth fabric of his reality it was obviously the work of the Devil tempting him away from his faith.  Far from being a forward thinker, much of Luther's thinking derived directly from the collection of ancient texts chosen by the founders of Christianity that he knew as the Holy Bible. His initial arguments with the Church were with its deviations from these texts, that he believed were the actual word of the one true God. 

That he was also a profoundly superstitious man, haunted by the devil and the anti-Christ, was brought home to me when we were in Rothenburg in Germany in 2016 and I visited the Medieval Crime and Justice Museum where there was an exhibition about Luther and the Witches.  

I have to confess that at the time I was writing a fiction involving witches and had more interest in the witches than in Luther. 

Of course I was aware of Luther.  Who couldn't be?  I'd been into Lutheran churches in Australia and Germany and Denmark and Romania, even in Jerusalem, lots of places.  But this 'witches thing' was new to me.  Could he really have been so superstitious?

 


Luther and the Witches  - Click on this picture to see more of Rothenburg's Museum of Medieval Crime
 

 

So in this exhibition I learnt quite a bit that was new to me about this man who would by a collision of events, become a unique man in a unique place at a unique time. 

Luther was born into a moderately wealthy and upwardly mobile family during the renaissance, his family already breaking ancient class and opportunity barriers.  His mine owning father had ambitions for his son to become a lawyer and saw to it that he got a good education by the standards of the day.  But one day, when he was 22, young Martin was out and about on his horse when he was almost hit by lightning. Obviously it was a sign from God. 

To his father's despair he promptly joined an Augustinian monastery and for a time became excessively fervent, in his words devoted to: 'fasting, long hours in prayer, pilgrimage, and frequent confession'.  An older friar grew concerned about his mental health and successfully 'turned his mind to Christ', resulting in Martin's new devotion to theological studies.  He was very dedicated and within seven years he'd attained the Chair of Theology at the University of Wittenberg and was becoming recognised as a leading theologian. 

It was in this position that he was to later to translate the Bible into German, thus becoming the father of the German language.  He would also write a number of hymns, introducing singing to Protestant services.  But it was also from Wittenberg that he would become a nagging critic of Rome's corrupt practices, rail against the devil and witches and Jews and help feed the future Nazi Holocaust, a little over four centuries later.

Augustinians have a special commitment to corporate poverty in addition to the poverty professed by the individual friar. As a result of a visit to Rome he'd become indignant at the money spent rebuilding St Peter's Basilica, that was then by far the largest and most magnificent building in the world, ten times larger than the next biggest church, Seville Cathedral. 

Rather than drawing on the Church's existing great wealth it was being paid for 'with the money of poor believers' by means of the sale of indulgences.  Returning to Wittenberg he launched his attack on the indulgences that were paying for this extravagance. 

Indulgences, to accelerate ones path to heaven, had first developed as a means of recruiting Crusaders, but over time their sale had become an important source of the Church's wealth.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

The granting of indulgences was predicated on two beliefs. First, in the sacrament of penance it did not suffice to have the guilt (culpa) of sin forgiven through absolution alone; one also needed to undergo temporal punishment (penance) because one had offended Almighty God. Second, indulgences rested on belief in purgatory, a place in the next life where one could continue to cancel the accumulated debt of one’s sins...

The debt of forgiven sin could be reduced through the performance of good works in this life (pilgrimages, charitable acts, and the like) or through suffering in purgatory. Indulgences could be granted only by popes or, to a lesser extent, archbishops and bishops as ways of helping ordinary people measure and amortize their remaining debt. “Plenary,” or full, indulgences cancelled all the existing obligation, while “partial” indulgences remitted only a portion of it...

 

Luther took an interesting indirect approach to this attack.  Rather than assert that purgatory is a money raising invention of a corrupt Church, as many Protestants believe, he made 95 statements on the basis of his authority as a Catholic theologian and invited others to debate these 'theses' with him. 

Using the new invention of the printing press he made many copies and in addition to nailing them to the usual noticeboard, the church door, sent them out to other thinkers around Christendom as follows:

Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter.
In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.


Among these statements were:

  1. The Pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons.
  2. The Pope cannot remit any guilt, except by declaring and showing that it has been remitted by God; or, to be sure, by remitting guilt in cases reserved to his judgment. If his right to grant remission in these cases were disregarded, the guilt would certainly remain unforgiven.
  1. Furthermore, it does not seem proved, either by reason or by Scripture, that souls in purgatory are outside the state of merit, that is, unable to grow in love.
  2. Nor does it seem proved that souls in purgatory, at least not all of them, are certain and assured of their own salvation, even if we ourselves may be entirely certain of it.
  1. The Pope does very well when he grants remission to souls in purgatory, not by the power of the keys, which he does not have, but by way of intercession for them.
  2. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.
  3. It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.
  1. Christians are to be taught that they buying of indulgences is a matter of free choice, not commanded.
  2. Christians are to be taught that the Pope, in granting indulgences, needs and thus desires their devout prayer more than their money.
  3. Christians are to be taught that papal indulgences are useful only if they do not put their trust in them, but very harmful if they lose their fear of God because of them.
  4. Christians are to be taught that if the Pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the basilica of St. Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.
  5. Christians are to be taught that the Pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.
  6. It is vain to trust in salvation by indulgence letters, even though the indulgence commissary, or even the Pope, were to offer his soul as security.
  1. Again, ``Why does not the Pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?''

 

The statements were so confronting, confounding and scripturally erudite that within weeks they had been translated into every European language and the proposed debates had begun. 

At first Rome ignored these debates among concerned Christians. Not until the money river began to run dry was the alarm raised.  But by then the debates had moved far and wide and into much more risky territory: was the Church necessary for salvation at all?

An ever increasing group of protesting Christians would soon share Luther's outrage at Rome's extravagance and its cynical exploitation of the faithful.  They were scouring their recently printed Bibles for evidence and calling themselves Protestants.  In England they would soon be asserting that:.

"Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation."

"The Church hath power to decree Rites or Ceremonies, and authority in Controversies of Faith: and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's Word written, neither may it so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another. Wherefore, although the Church be a witness and a keeper of Holy Writ, yet, as it ought not to decree any thing against the same, so besides the same ought it not to enforce any thing to be believed for necessity of Salvation."

Repugnant things ordained by the Church but not supported by Scripture included:

"The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God."

From the '39 Articles'
 

 

A contemporary of Luther's who also changed the world in his own way was Henry VIII of England. 

Henry VIII had ascended to the throne of England in 1509 at the age of 17.  Henry had good genes. He was very tall, handsome and intellectually gifted. He spoke and wrote in several languages and, in addition to jousting and other militaristic sports, took an active role in matters theological and political in Europe. 

In 1517 Luther had posted his famous '95 theses'.  Three years later Luther was under investigation for heresy.  At 29 years of age Henry was also making his mark in European politics. Luther had turned his attention to sacraments that had no support in scripture.

Against Luther’s theses on the sacraments, Henry wrote a treatise entitled Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (Defence of the Seven Sacraments) for which he earned the title Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) in a bull promulgated by Pope Leo X.  It's a title retained by the British Monarch to this day.

Henry's treatise ends, referring to Luther as 'this one little Monk':

Do not listen to the Insults and Detractions against the Vicar of Christ which the Fury of the little Monk spews up against the Pope; nor contaminate Breasts sacred to Christ with impious Heresies, for if one sews these he has no Charity, swells with vain Glory, loses his Reason, and burns with Envy.
Finally with what Feelings they would stand together against the Turks, against the Saracens, against anything Infidel anywhere, with the same Feelings they should stand together against this one little Monk weak in Strength, but in Temper more harmful than all Turks, all Saracens, all Infidels anywhere.

 



Henry's support of the Pope would not last.  Leo X died the following year and when Henry wanted to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici, now Pope Clement VII, was unhelpful for very political reasons.

The Spanish Empire was the superpower of the day and the first to be described as 'the Empire on which the sun never sets'. 

The King of Spain, Charles I, was also the Holy Roman Emperor (as Charles V). Henry's wife, Catherine, was his aunt and her marriage to Henry's brother had been diplomatic to strengthen the Empire's influence over England.  So upon ascending to the throne Henry had taken Catherine as his own wife.  To this end he'd sought a special dispensation for the Church to disregard her earlier marriage to his brother, on the grounds of non-consummation. Henry saw the possible consummation to be his 'get out of jail card' to have his marriage to Catherine annulled.

But Pope Clement VII had recently been imprisoned by Charles and was himself out of jail 'on good behaviour'.  So when Henry wanted to have his potentially illegitimate, yet politically important, marriage annulled, Clement was not inclined to agree. 

Henry was not to be dissuaded. He 'had the hots' for a very attractive young woman, who he was later to claim had bewitched him.  In typical style Henry went ahead and ignoring the Pope did as he wanted anyway.  As a result, in 1533, probably under pressure from Charles, Clement VII excommunicated both Henry and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, who had facilitated Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Henry's life was then unexpectedly altered by an accident.  On the 24th January 1536, Henry then 44 years old, was thrown from his horse while jousting. He was unconscious for a long time and at first it seemed he'd been killed.  But, although he recovered, he had injured both his legs. The wounds became ulcerated and no doctor could cure them. The accident or the infection may also have caused a brain injury. In any case both his personality and his presence changed that day. He became famously tyrannical; his ulcerated legs stank and he began to put on weight.  He ceased to be the romantic figure both the Boleyn girls had admired. In any case Anne's opinion was no longer of any moment - four months hence she was to part with her vital organs below her neck.

The last time the Church had excommunicated someone was in 1521 when Leo X had excommunicated Martin Luther, with Henry cheering from the sidelines.  The final straw with the 'Little Monk' had come when he refused to recant on the proposition that: "Matthew 16:18 does not confer on popes the exclusive right to interpret scripture, and thus neither popes nor church councils are infallible."

While searching this on-line I found  this interesting Blog  and was intrigued to discover that between 1520 and 1525 Martin Luther and Henry VIII corresponded with each other on several occasions (Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII)

The effect of his own excommunication on Henry was for him to reconsider Luther's heretical proposition regarding the Pope's authority and to conclude that, on this point at least, Luther was perfectly correct.  Maybe Henry had also read Matthew 16:28 and decided that this put a rather big question over Christians continuing to wait for the second coming at all. Had that visit already come and gone some time ago?

Like other self-serving Princes of his day Henry's familiarity with the Bible and the politics of the Reformation and Protestantism allowed his conscience to reject an obviously corrupt and politicised Papacy and adopt Luther's assertion that everyone has direct access to God through the Bible (the Sufficiency of the holy Scriptures for salvation), making Papal Authority anathema. Thus he was able to consider himself a faithful Christian after the break with Rome and excommunication.  So the World was changed forever.

 

Henry's picture depicting the Pope being stoned to death by the Gospels
Each rock is marked with the name of a Gospel in Latin
As Luther pointed out the Church teaching had drifted from the Biblical teaching in a number of areas
and Rome was not prepared to concede these, sometimes lucrative or power enhancing, errors  

 

As it turned out Henry's excommunication was not generally put about and was not promulgated until 1538, by the new Pope Paul III, no doubt with a bit of prompting from Charles. 

At first sight this new Pope, arising from the Borgia court, with a public mistress and five acknowledged children, would seem to be a possible ally to Henry and possibly even to Luther.  Like many men the lives of all three were driven by their libido.  But alas the new Pope still had The Holy Roman Emperor to worry about. 

In his correspondence with Henry Luther tried to blame Cardinal Wolsey for Henry's earlier theological support for Pope Leo X.

But Henry was not seduced into forsaking Wolsey until it suited him politically.  Like his second daughter he knew that these supposed momentous issues concerning 'the souls of men' were really just mortal creatures playing politics.  Heaven had nothing to do with it. 

Martin Luther on the other hand knew no such thing.  He'd had a lightning revelation leading to mastery of the scriptures and now divined the true word of God.  He had supreme confidence in his own interpretation of those scriptures. 

But a contemporary Freud, had such a person existed, might have offered a different interpretation. After all those hours spent in frequent confession of which he wrote: 'I lost touch with Christ the Saviour and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul', Luther had decided there was no sin in his repressed libido. If not on that issue on what else was a young man's confession so urgent and so frequent? 

His excommunication set Luther's libido free.  He soon helped several 'barrel loads' of Cistercian nuns escape from a convent. They were actually smuggled out hidden in herring barrels. Now freed from his earlier celibacy he promptly formed a relationship with one of them, Katharina von Bora.  A little later he married her. He was 41 and she 26.

From that time onwards he recommended marital sex and opposed priestly celibacy.  In one case, when a friend got married, he wrote to him that he and Katharina would be thinking of them on their wedding night and 'celebrating' along with them.  So when Henry VIII consulted him concerning his marital issues, Luther advised him, probably tongue in cheek, to keep his old wife and take Anne Boleyn as well. And that's more or less what Henry did.

All this sounds very modern but as I have already said Luther was not a Renaissance man like Henry or indeed Pope Paul III.  He had no capacity for conscious self-serving cynicism or 'grey areas' and believed in his crystalline 'truth', resting on the scriptures. Even if his 'truth' did lead to mortal fears for his 'soul' and putting supposed 'witches' and Jews to death. 

Luther died in 1546 and Henry outlived him by just 11 months. Both had profoundly changed the future.

In the 16th century most people died early. Neither Luther nor Henry attained the biblical three-score-and-ten.  Yet they did quite well for their time.  This was a time of medical ignorance, long before organ transplants or PET scans, and the educated still believed that emotions and even thoughts were seated in the heart or expressed in bile.

In a time of short and brutal lives very few had experienced an aging person 'fading away' over months or years, as that person's brain functions progressively failed and when this did happen they attributed it to the wrong cause such as an imbalance in the 'humours' or even possession by a malignant force or being. Perhaps they had been bewitched?

Today most of us know, often through our own direct experience, that damaging a person's brain by trauma or disease destroys thoughts, memories, abilities and beliefs. Many of us have seen firsthand an elderly person 'fading away' as their brain function failed.  We know that these essential characteristics of our personality are properties of our brain, interacting with other nerve cells in our bodies.  When something goes wrong with our thoughts, memories or abilities we seek out a brain specialist not a heart surgeon or an exorcist.

So a person in 2017 can be certain that our brain is the centre of our identity. And an informed person knows that it is the relationships between cells in our brain that are responsible for, among other things: our memories and knowledge; our learned skills; and our ability to communicate.  It is our brain that interprets the signals from the nerves structures that we call our five senses and thus it is structures in our brain that are responsible for our awareness of the world in general.  It is now possible to deliberately interfere with these structures to cause some areas to stop functioning, as under a total anaesthetic, resulting in the loss of one or more of the patient's mental attributes.  For example their awareness.

500 years ago Martin and Henry had none of this information. Instead they had a great deal of misinformation passed down by 'wise men' from the ancients. So it was perfectly understandable that they could believe in a person continuing to be aware of what was happening to them, or to look down on others still alive, after death.  When they chopped someone's head off they thought of the 'person' losing their head, not the 'person' losing their body.  Their bitter debates over heaven and purgatory and hell seemed to have meaning.

Today ecclesiastical debates over heaven and purgatory and hell seem as pointless as debating the number of angels that can fit on the head of a pin; or whether Narnia can really be reached through the back of a wardrobe.  

A belief that we can continue to experience things, in the same way as we do in life, after we die makes no sense. So in spite of Hamlet's fears there can be no: 'undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns' and an informed person (even Hamlet was a trifle dubious) must consign these imaginary places to the realm of fiction.

But that does not mean that a person doesn't have a life after death of another sort. Like a message read then burnt or a symphony once over, a dead person carries on as memories in the minds of the living; usually as the love or admiration they leave behind.  William Shakespeare is a prime example.

As it happens, 2017 is a year of anniversaries. For example it's a century since the Russian Revolution.  So it's also the year Stephen McKie might have turned 100.  As he's been dead for sixteen years that was not to be. But he's still here in my 'heart' as is my mother; he's preserved on this website Read more...;  and his mark on the future now includes two great grandchildren he never got to see.  

Thus everyone who ever lived also leaves an eternal legacy.  Each made decisions that changed the future. That's what a decision is - a choice between futures. 

Some people are in a position to make more profound decisions, involving perhaps millions of people, than others. 

Today we don't have to be concerned about purgatory nor about heaven nor hell once we are dead.  We know there is nothing left to experience such supernatural places once the cells that provide our senses cease to function and our brain can no longer process their signals.

We might, nevertheless, be concerned for our descendents, because we can be certain that every day every one of us is making subtle and sometimes not so subtle changes in their soon to be present.

In the cases of Martin Luther and Henry Tudor their impact on our present would involve the premature deaths of tens of millions who would die in battle; of disease and starvation; extending even to the gas-chambers of Auschwitz.  

In the next generation they would leave it to Elizabeth I, Henry's second daughter, to mediate the bitter feuds between the Protestants and traditional Catholics that had been stirred up in England.  Perversely these would set Britain on its course to future Empire and greatness. Meanwhile, for many decades, Europe would tear itself to pieces in wars of religion triggered by an esoteric list of 95 statements about indulgences and a seemingly innocuous invitation to fellow Catholic theologians to debate them with the author.

Now that the Roman Church's money making conception of the life-after-death had caused such trouble even it realised the need for change.  At the Council of Trent (1545 to 1563), the Church reaffirmed the doctrine of purgatory, without which prayers for the dead have lost their raison d'être, but banned the further sale of indulgences.  No longer could a Catholic buy a fast-track into heaven.

If what happened to one after death was now up for debate and heaven was suddenly less accessible, a new generation of thinkers would be stimulated to dismiss it altogether and focus on the purpose of our mortal lives.  Could it be about maximising human happiness?  Could it be about advancing civil society?  Could it be about discovering the secrets of the universe?  Or could it just be about wealth accumulation off the back of exponential economic and population growth?

These debates would in turn sow the seeds of the humanist, scientific, social and political revolutions.  A not yet imagined United States of America would become a superpower causing the sun to set on those once imagined to be 'everlasting' empires.

Yet without this rich history, exactly as it happened, death chambers included, you and I and everyone alive today would not be here to contemplate it. 

Like yours, my father would have had different children or he may have been childless, had his life been one iota different. 

My parents would not have married and I would not be here but for World War 2 nor, obviously, would be my children or grandchildren. But that's not the iota of difference I mean.

Just before fertilisation many millions of variations in a child's genetics are possible.  Will the outcome be a boy or a girl and how good at various skills; how determined; how loving; how healthy; how tall; has that child the potential to become? Except for identical twins no two siblings are ever so alike. If a different cell had merged its chromosomes with those of your mother's equally unique ova, it would have been your unborn sibling, not you, who your mother gave birth to.

Which of these millions of potential children it was depended on the most subtle of things: the position and timing of the descending ova; meeting just one of as many as half a billion different spermatozoa in a healthy ejaculation; this meeting depending on such variables as the temperature and the exact timing of your father's ejaculation to the physical position of your mother, from before until well after the act.  Then you might ask how did your mother choose to 'make love' to your father in the first place and what influenced them to choose that very hour, minute and second, in that particular month of your mothers cycle?  Then, not all pregnancies go to term.  A miscarriage can caused by an infection or an accident. Your mother must have avoided such dangers.

But the accident of your birth is the least part in your existence because, for the same reasons, neither of your parents would have existed; nor would their parents before them; nor those before them; and so on had not things been exactly as they were at the moments of all those conceptions. Going back just a few hundred years you have many thousands of ancestors. And every one of their life experiences had to lead to all those exact meetings and matings, in turn to those exact genetic outcomes for you to be here at all.

That's why I believe my life's pretty special and so is yours. So I try to enjoy this 'brief candle' because, like Shakespeare, I know that when it's gone out it's gone.

Oh, and now you know the answer to the title question:  Yes.

 

 

 

 

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