Eric Metaxas, author of Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (Viking) greets me over the phone with “Yiasou Patritha” (health to your homeland). We Greeks carry ‘homeland’ on our shoulders.
The New York based writer of Greek German background says, “I loved your An Atheist in Greek Easter,” about an old piece I sent him prior to our interview.
“I’m cultural Orthodox, but a non-believer,” I say.
“In Greek Orthodoxy, all become Christian at baptism and thus you’re not compelled to be a Christian anyway,” Metaxas responds.
“Yep, Greek first,” I say.
Metaxas’ biography of Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World and transformed society is indispensable reading. The activism of Luther (1483 -1546) ignited much reform in Western Europe including anti-slavery and many of the world’s social justice movements. Metaxas’ book unfolds like a compelling epic historical drama.
But he opens the book about 430 years after Luther’s death by retelling how an African-American pastor, Michael King (1899-1984) from Georgia USA, made a ‘trip of a lifetime across the Atlantic Ocean to the Holy Land’, then to Berlin. The young pastor was so inspired by Martin Luther’s struggle against Rome’s injustices that he adopted his name. The newly named Martin Luther King Sr also re-named his son Michael as Martin Luther King Jr (1929-1968).
And as had the Martin Luther taken on Rome, Dr King Jr. peacefully sought to dismantle racial segregation under the Jim Crow laws in America’s Deep South. It was the cause he ultimately paid with his life on April 4, 1968.
In Metaxas’ biography, Martin Luther is first seen as an irritating young priest. He is obsessed with denying himself. So much so, that he drives his superiors nuts as he confesses to every thought. But this theology wonk transforms into a major intellectual force, a prolific writer and a leader in the charge against a corrupt Catholic Empire.
If not for some good burghers in Germany and progressive lords, Rome would have burned Luther on the stake in 1517 when he appealed to the Pope to stop the practice of squeezing ‘indulgences’ from parishioners as down payments on heaven.
Describing Tetzel the Dominican priest selling ‘indulgences’, Metaxas writes:
‘And so Tetzel now arrived in Jüterborg, just twenty miles from Wittenberg, to set up his papally sanctioned medicine show. What he was selling now made snake oil cure-all portions seem like fresh fruits and vegetables. Indeed it was so fabulous and so extraordinary that people hauled themselves from many miles around to hear him and not just to hear him but to throw money at him, that they might get something if a what he was offering, which, to cut to the chase was heaven itself.’
Catholic officials added new indulgences by which parishioners could petition God to limit the time their dead loved ones spent in Purgatory. This was the last straw for Luther, who in response nailed his ‘Ninety-five Theses’ on the wall of the Wittenberg Castle in 1517.
“He had no idea what he unleashed,” says Metaxas. “He wanted to respectfully bring to the attention of the Pope corrupt and non-authentic practices.”
Luther’s petition written in Latin was translated into German. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, ensured pamphlets in German could be distributed to ordinary people.
“This idea that we are all equal in the eyes of God, and we are held to the same standard was the most radical idea born by Luther,’’ says Metaxas.
“No copyright protection meant Luther himself had no idea how far his polite protests to the Pope had reached, nor how they were being translated. The printing press was the social media in its time, it was a revolution in communications.”
For me, Luther’s revolution marks the beginning of secularisation. It was the spark that began the separation of church and state.
“It could be argued that once people are free to believe without needing a priest (this) can lead to secularisation. This is the price of free will,” Metaxas says. “You are now free to make the wrong choice, and you use the freedom to do the right things.”
Catholic hierarchy was locked onto Aristotelian rationalism, a hindrance for Luther.
“Luther, an expert in Greek philosophy, didn’t like that Aristotle implies that truth is something we can reach through reason alone,’ says Metaxas. “Luther’s view of the bible is that the truth of God stands behind reason, reason only takes you so far.”
The question that became evident to Luther was ‘does one need a priest to mediate between God and themselves’? This was heresy to a Catholic Church that insisted that only the Pope and his priests could interpret God’s word and the bible.
Metaxas, in our polite tit-for-tat over Aristotle, points to communism as a system that is an outcome of “extreme rationalism” that “created an ideology that wrought the deaths of millions over the last century.”
“An ideology that made all guilty, even those once leaders of what began as a social justice vision could be excommunicated from academia and media and transported to the gulag.”
It is difficult in the West to understand how theocratic rule worked once (or works now in some non-Western nations). In Catholic Europe in the 1500s, a non-mediated expression of freewill could see one burned on a stake
Not that Luther’s followers did not have authoritarian tendencies either. Thomas Müntzer, a pro-Luther Christian and a mystic, sought bloody revolution. He led the burning of Catholic churches and the murder of lords.
Metaxas writes: ‘When Müntzer was in Zwickau, his screw had become sufficiently loose that his sermons were often downright disturbing.” Müntzer saw Luther as too close to those in authority and he incited his mob of violent peasants to commit atrocities across Germany.
Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World is impressive in its detail of life in Medieval Europe. The author describes the travel over miles on foot, the beer and the food, the gender roles, sexual mores and divisions of class and faith. One of its most notable chapters is when Luther visits Rome and sees it as a sort of Las Vegas for Christian tourists.
Metaxas even details the intense effect haemorrhoids and constipation had on Luther when he faced the Catholic inquisition at the Diet at Worms.
But Luther is not a hagiography. Metaxas does highlight the man’s contradictions, especially some anti-Semitic texts later in his life, which we are told he regretted.
The apotheosis of Luther is most evident in 20th Century works of Martin Luther King Jr. and of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a priest and anti-Nazi dissident who served as a double agent during World War II. He helped Jews escape the Nazis and became part of a plot to overthrow, and later assassinate Hitler.
We end our discussion going back to the my argument for secularism and whether we need a god to achieve an open and equitable society and Metaxas’ belief that one needs god to have a moral society.
I realised in the end that you can never win against someone with such faith. But Luther did not impose faith, which is great for athiests like me. He developed a new contract between god and citizen, which fostered in a great secularism and ushered in the modern world.