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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
If clerics dominated the scriptoria, lay men worked the printing
presses. The rebirth of classical architecture reflected rationality,
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
Freed 500 years ago to believe in anything; now there is
nothing left to believe in.
Everyone preaches something, but no one
The only correct response to religion now allowed is
to shrug your shoulders.