Eric Metaxas, author of Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, greets me over the phone with Yiasou Patritha (“health to your homeland”). We Greeks carry our “homeland” on our shoulders.
“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.
I also say that Metaxas’ biography 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. It unfolds like a compelling epic historical drama. He opens it about 430 years after Luther’s death by retelling how an African-American pastor from Georgia, Michael King (1899-1984), made a “trip of a lifetime across the Atlantic Ocean to the Holy Land,” then to Berlin. The young pastor was so inspired by Luther’s struggle against Rome’s injustices that he adopted his name. The newly named Martin Luther King, Sr., re-named his son, Michael, Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968).
Just as Luther took on Rome, the younger Dr. King peacefully sought to dismantle racial segregation under the Jim Crow laws of the American south. It was the cause for which he ultimately paid with his life.
Metaxas’ also shows us Luther as an irritating young priest 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 responded by nailing his Ninety-five Theses on the wall of the Wittenberg Castle.
“He had no idea what he unleashed,” Metaxas told me. “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 that 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,’’ Metaxas says. “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 — the spark that began the separation of church and state. But, adds Metaxas, “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. 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: “[He] didn’t like that Aristotle implies that truth is something we can reach through reason alone. Luther’s view of the bible is that the truth of God stands behind reason, reason only takes you so far.”
So 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 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 who were 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 once worked (or still works now in some non-Western nations). In Catholic Europe of the 1500s, a non-mediated expression of free will could see one burned on a stake. Yet, as the book points out, Luther’s followers had authoritarian tendencies, too. 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 travel over miles on foot, as well as the beer and the food, the gender roles, the sexual mores and the 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 hemorrhoids and constipation had on Luther when he faced the Catholic inquisition at the Diet at Worms.
We end our discussion going back to my argument for secularism and whether we need 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 atheists like me. He developed a new contract between God and citizen, which fostered a great secularism and ushered in the modern world.
This article was first published on Daily Review, the CFR’s Australian partner.