Monday, 23 October 2017

95 THESES - So What?

One of the multitudinous uses to which people put the internet is to remind us of significant anniversaries - births, deaths, battles, treaties, etc., etc. Fine - but that word 'significant' does need unpacking. It might reflect the passion of the person who posts it. So, for example, someone emotionally engaged with the tragic life of Anne Boleyn might want to flag up 19 May every year so that we don't forget her death. Someone else - a devotee of Richard III or the Tudor regime - might want us to reflect on 22 August, when (in 1485) the Battle of Bosworth change England's royal dynasty. A campaigner for press freedom might want us never to forget that 1 January marks the birth of The Times newspaper (1785). We can all use dates as pegs on which to hang our own pet historical subjects. What no serious history buff would do, I hope, is to claim that all the anniversaries we mark are equally significant. One factor that influences our assessment of significance is the extent to which the events we choose to mark in the calendar resonate with our own contemporary culture. One anniversary almost upon us is Reformation 500. On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther openly declared his opposition to certain doctrines held by the Roman Catholic church. Well, how yawn-provoking is that? Who nowadays, in our secular age, cares a jot about Luther's protest against indulgences - assuming that he/she even knows what indulgences were?

Well, my argument for remembering 31 October 1517 arises immediately from that last sentence: the very fact that we are free to believe or not believe derives directly from Luther's challenge. Or to be more precise it stems from his identifying of a scepticism that was widespread but which no-one else had the courage (or effrontery) to express. Europe, in both its political and religious aspects, was government by autocrats working through hierarchies of power. In practical, everyday terms there was little difference between the rulers of church and state. The pope through his supporting cast of cardinals, bishops and abbots laid down Christendom's moral and theological rules and maintained ecclesiastical courts to enforce them. The Holy Roman Emperor and Europe's kings, princes and nobles controlled the civic lives of their subjects. By and large, it paid for the spiritual and temporal authorities to work in tandem. Cardinals' hats were distributed to members of prominent families. Kings negotiated such issues as the right to appoint bishops. All men in positions of authority shared a common fear - rebellion. 

When established powerful elites maintain themselves by controlling people's minds and crushing dissidents, they can get away with it for so long. In the late medieval period the Catholic machine dealt pretty effectively with Waldensians, Hussites, Wycliffites and other heretical groups who presumed to challenge official doctrine. Ordinary folk tempted to question the Church's lexis or praxis were held in check, not only by the temporal power of the papal hierarchy, but by its spiritual authority: step out of line and you would pay, in the next world, a horrible price for your presumption. But, ultimately, totalitarian regimes collapse under the weight of their own inconsistencies.

In Rome corruption had become an art form. The man wearing the shoes of the fisherman presided over a regime marked by territorial ambition and the pursuit of power and wealth, which employed intrigue, simony, nepotism, bribery, war and murder as its modi operandi. But you didn't have to go to Italy to be aware of the mismatch between the message of the Christian gospel and the lives of many who were supposed to represent it. The forthright Yorkshire shearman who asserted that he would not confess to a priest his seduction of a fair woman, 'for the priest would be as ready within two or three days to use her in the same manner', struck a common chord with many. Scepticism and cynicism were rife at all levels of society by the turn of the 16th century, from the outspoken villager, to the writers of such exposés as The Ship of Fools (Sebastian Brant) and In Praise of Folly (Desiderius Erasmus), to genuinely concerned churchmen like John Colet, Dean of St Paul's, who castigated his fellow clergy for being 'drowned in the delights of this world'. Yet, few men dared to challenge the pope and his minions as long as they were believed to hold the keys of heaven and hell.

On 31 October 1517 Martin Luther proclaimed, 'They don't'. His 95 Theses yanked the rug from under Catholic penitential ritual. He exposed the system of 'indulgences' for the money-making fraud that it was. Gullible people, he pointed out, could not improve their chances of reaching heaven by buying certificates offering reduction of the time their souls must spend in purgatory. What God had on offer, he declared, was free forgiveness to those who expressed their love for him by real repentance - i.e. a change of heart. He was soon backing this up with a new German translation of the Bible. Within a decade other vernacular versions of the Christian basic text were available all over Europe. Now people could read for themselves what the Church had on offer and decide whether or not to buy into it.

If freedom of choice in such a vital matter as eternal destiny was available, why might not such liberty be exercised in relation to lesser decisions in the mere here-and-now? The door was open, admittedly only ajar but open nevertheless, for the exercise of freedom in other areas of life - politics, social relationships, art, literature, morality. Martin Luther didn't invent individualism but, on 31 October 1517 it may be said to have come of age. That's why, whether we are 'religious' or not, this date is worth celebrating.
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