You might think I’m here to mess with Christians, but I’m really not. Organized religion has a lot of benefits, and many of the most morally upright and friendly people I have known have been subscribers. Just because I choose a more solitary path in fulfilling that part of me doesn’t mean I don’t see the value in other people having that option. Most religions have practical day to day applications that can definitely lead some folks to a better place.
Religion in general is totally fine with me, and Christianity in specific is all good as well. Whatever. We’re not here to talk about what good or evil religion hath wrought in the world.
I just want to make sure we’re clear on something.
Christianity used to be the only choice folks had in the western world, when it came to religion. The whole thing was started by a bunch of Jewish people; they laid the foundations for everything, only to be a little disappointed by the structure that got erected on top of it. So they started their own religion, which was really just their way of keeping the old ways intact. They thought Jesus was a pretty cool guy, all in all; but they weren’t exactly convinced he was the messiah. So they stuck to their spiritual guns, and threw a whole bunch of people into confusion as to whether being Jewish was a reference to race or religion.
Back in the early days, Christianity was quite a bit different than it is now. Not many people could read, and even those who could were not allowed access to the books that would later be compiled into the Bible. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. These books were collected, translated from several different languages, then edited for content and to suit the needs of the current regime. The regime has changed, but that very specific version has remained largely intact. We can argue all day about who may or may not have written the Bible; but we definitely know who edited it.
But we’re also not here to talk about Constantine, or King James; or any of the other folks who had a hand in changing the original text to what we have today. We’re here to talk about Martin Luther. He’s the one that came up with the idea most Christians subscribe to today, that Jesus came to Earth to die for their sins. It’s a lofty claim, and one that is a lot more modern than most modern Christians believe.
Back then the church was just called ‘the church’. We call it the Roman Catholic Church today, and it still exists; but in those days there weren’t a whole lot of other options. You went to church, and you let the clergy tell you what the holy books said. A lot of the rules are still the same, and many Catholic congregations still read verses and sing songs in a language most of them don’t understand; but translations are available to the common folk now, and each of them gets to decide what was meant by those passages for themselves. At least, the edited version.
In those days, though…you were in the church. That’s where you got your community, and guidance, and an intermediary to put you one degree closer to God. Most people just accepted it as the way things were, since the church ran pretty much everything and everyone.
Martin Luther was a bit of a rebel, though. He thought the church was taking undue advantage of its power over the people, and their interpretations of the holy texts were slanted to push that advantage. As a religious scholar, Martin Luther had his own ideas about what those old books were trying to say. He thought it was silly to put an intermediary between God and his creation; but if we were going to, he thought that person should be Jesus.
Well, Jesus was long since dead at this point; by about fifteen hundred years, if the dates on all this stuff is at all accurate. For over a thousand years after the death of their messiah, no Christian ever postulated that Jesus lived to die for anyone’s sins; then Martin Luther comes up with the idea, and everyone acts like they’ve been saying it all along. You can ask a Christian where in the Bible Jesus is quoted as saying he came here to die for our sins; or you can save them some time flipping through all those pages, and just tell them it isn’t in there.
Even the passage often referred to when people want to do some quoting doesn’t come anywhere close to saying that; you can interpret it that way if you want, but you can interpret it a whole lot of other ways too. When we take translations and edits into account, and remember that last big edit came after all this…we might find ourselves wondering if it even originally said what it does now.
The church used confession to cleanse the souls of its congregation, just like the Roman Catholic Church does now. We can point out how weird it is to share our deepest darkest secrets with a stranger, but then we have to ask ourselves how talk therapy got so popular. It turns out the church was really onto something, with all this; since they were kind of in charge of everything back then, it only makes sense that they would address psychology within the context of religion.
Also, confession works. You don’t have to call it that, but ignoring the benefits of simple sharing is just silly. In a world where everyone is isolated to some degree, due to the spread out nature of things back then or the strangely compressed nature of cities today, a lot of people simply don’t have someone to talk to. Church can fulfill that individual’s need for community, and confession can satisfy the need to share more deeply. When you spend a little time learning about both psychology and religion, this practice starts to make an elegant sort of sense.
However, our old pal Martin Luther was not a fan of the way the church encouraged folks to share a laundry list of their transgressions with a church official. He knew confessions often led to social and political situations where one man knew another’s secrets, and took full advantage of that knowledge to further the church’s agenda or his own.
According to Martin Luther, this practice needed to be seriously modified. He felt absolution came from hearing the word of God, not citing every sin. In his view, a faithful person just needed to confess that they were indeed a sinner; the details didn’t help anyone, and they actually kind of hurt some people. Even if confessors didn’t have to worry about their secrets not being secret any more, they had to wonder if they had forgotten to confess some particular sin or other.
Imagine, walking out of the confession booth and realizing you had not brought up one of the sins you had committed since your last confession. You may have received absolution for all the stuff you listed, but that was not included in said absolution. If death were to befall you before you could get back into the booth and get it off your chest, you were going to hell by way of omission. This weighed heavy on many minds, and Martin Luther’s was one of them.
At this point, I have a confession to make myself. This whole topic came up because of something I read way back when I was playing the role of the classic seeker, looking for answers in the darkness instead of just learning to turn on the light. Reading about Martin Luther was a part of my self-imposed education, since he played a big part in challenging the old church in the west and paving the way for all these new ones. In one of those books, I read something that really stuck with me.
I was sure I could find the book, or at least dig up the quote from it online somewhere; but I couldn’t, so I can’t illustrate this point exactly the way I intended. What I’ll do instead is sum up, and leave off the word for word quotation I was planning on lifting from the aforementioned resource. If I can get close enough in capturing it, you may see why it hit me so hard and stayed with me so long.
According to this book, Martin Luther had another problem with confession. He claimed that when he went to confess, he had the typical long list of sins in his head that he intended to share; however, upon arriving at confession, he found a strange thing happened. Invariably, the items on his sin list would slip his mind as soon as he had opportunity to share. Instead of confessing his sins one by one, his only confession was that his memory failed him every time he got in the situation. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to confess them; he just couldn’t remember them in the moment.
This may have led him to conclude that God was clouding his mind, so Martin Luther could see how this practice could be made more perfect; or it may have caused him the same distress as everyone else, and made him worry that his absolution came with an asterisk. Either way, Martin Luther is well known for challenging the church’s view on confession. Whether he did it for personal or spiritual reasons, or a mixture of the two, we can never really know. All we have are his writings on the matter, the edited thoughts of a man who had secrets he didn’t want to share with the church.
I’m a big fan of Martin Luther, by the way; and the author of the book I referenced earlier was as well. But the guy was human, and subject to his own brand of flaws. He may have pointed away from the clergy, when he directed people on the path to God; but he still didn’t point directly to the heavens. Instead he made Jesus Christ the path by which people could find God and absolution, and put a whole lot of responsibility on a dead guy that spent his life telling folks the kingdom of heaven was within them. Even if the two views seem contradictory, the more modern one stuck; and from there Christianity branched out into countless directions.
Before Martin Luther, there was just the one church. He was the first respected religious figure that said each person should be allowed direct access to sacred writings, and should be allowed to interpret them on their own. His particular set of beliefs may have resulted in the Lutheran Church, but his impact on the politics of religion paved the way for all those other offshoots. Anyone who calls themselves Christian and isn’t Catholic is following the doctrine of Martin Luther in some way.
I used to work with a guy who was a Lutheran; after finding this out and getting to know him well enough to call him a friend, I got all excited to tell him my view on this one day. Like any good presentation, I set the stage to start out with what would have been a headline if I hadn’t been speaking it.
“Hey,” I said. “You’re a Lutheran, right?”
My coworker nodded.
I puffed up my chest, and delivered the headline.
“Did you know all Christians are Lutheran?” I said.
He nodded again, just as calmly as he had the first time.
“Yeah,” he said. “I know.”
His response didn’t really sink in, and I began to go off about Martin Luther and his impact on early Christianity. A few sentences in, he interrupted.
“I know all this stuff,” he said. “I’m a Lutheran, remember?”
It turns out most of this is pretty common knowledge for a Lutheran, and I probably shouldn’t have been surprised at that. I must admit my philosophical interests drifted east after I had read about all this, and I guess I followed a Christian mystic’s advice all the way to the other side of the world. Although I don’t consider myself a Christian, and thus a Lutheran, I am a pretty big fan of the set of beliefs I have cobbled together for myself over the years. So…I guess in my way, I’m a bit of a Lutheran. I’m just doing what he did, and making it up as I go along.
Since we’re cool enough at this point to talk about God, we might as well get real heavy next week and talk about death. Not death, in and of itself; that’s a whole different thought that hurts to think than the one I have in mind. Next I want to have a look at one of those places where death is a visible part of life, and where macabre reminders dot the deadly landscape so many people can’t stay away from. We’ll call it…
Mount Everest is an open graveyard!
I hope you come back for it!
Thanks for reading!
All the best,