Wednesday, 22 February 2012

In Defence of Luther

I've talked about Luther before; I'm not his biggest fan. So it seems fair, for a change, to say something in his defence. The doctrine of salvation by faith alone isn't without its issues, but Christos Yannaras points out that Luther's obsession with it wasn't just theological, but was also deeply political. The medieval Roman Catholic Church argued that we could get at the truth about God through rational arguments which proved that God existed and that God was a certain sort of being. But the only people who got to study the logic and philosophy that let you understand those proofs, or offer their own proofs of God, were the people (and, let's be honest, the men) whom the Church educated. That was a double win for the Church. On the one hand, you could argue that anyone who disagreed with the Church wasn't only wrong but was culpable for their wrongness because they should have known better (you don't need to read the Bible to know that God exists, it's just obvious to anyone who can reason), so it's ok to kill them or take their land or go on a crusade against them because they're not just wrong, they're deliberately wrong. But it also meant that the Church, as the institution which controlled and owned those proofs of God's existence, got to claim the same absolute and obvious authority for themselves.

Luther's obsessive focus on faith alone as the means of salvation, then, wasn't just about the problems with thinking you can logically prove the existence of God, it was also about power. No institution could get between people and God and claim to control the truth about God, because everyone could and should know God for themselves, directly. That's why the earliest translators of the Bible were treated so harshly: if everyone gets to read the Bible, then the priests don't get to control that knowledge about God.

In that sense, it's fitting that fundamentalist Christianity in the US overlaps so much with the sort of far-right politics that wants to do away with the government. No one else gets to tell us what the Bible says: we read it for ourselves. No one else gets power over me. But actually, what happens in most fundamentalist churches is just that power is better hidden. You can't not interpret the Bible, but you can appropriate its authority for yourself by pretending (or believing) that you interpretation is just 'what the Bible says'. It's harder to argue with someone who's just telling you what the Bible says than it is to argue with someone else's
interpretation of the Bible. Truth is simply objective, obvious, accessible to everyone: it always comes to us through people, through institutions. The question of how we know the truth about God is never just a question about how we know the truth about God, it's always also a question about who in the Church gets to have power over other people.

No comments: