A simplified version of the Reformation that many people hold in their heads typically goes something like this: Disgusted by the corrupt sale of indulgences, Martin Luther rose up against the practices of the Roman Catholic Church. And thanks to Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, he was able to get his message out quickly and widely. In this way, the historical anniversary we observe this week is as much about a communications revolution as it is about a phase shift in Christian theology.
All that is true. But study the process by which Luther developed, refined and published his ideas, and you stumble on another, overlapping truth. While Luther was indeed able to leverage a communications technology unavailable to his reform-minded predecessors, he did the vast bulk of his work in isolation at the friary of the Hermits of St. Augustine. And even once he’d gone public, it took years for religious authorities to fully digest the importance of his ideas.
There’s a lesson here that transcends religious doctrine. Modern professional culture encourages collaboration through instant communication and globalized networks. But Luther’s legacy as one of history’s most influential thinkers shows us that there are certain epic projects — such as the systematic rethinking of foundational dogmas — that require time to mature and space to germinate before they are safe for universal exposure. Without that window, they die.
Luther’s struggle against the Vatican began as a struggle against himself. He started his career as a tortured German academic whose spiritual neuroses were tangled up with biblical exegesis — a state of constant agitation that members of the religious classes then referred to as the “bath of hell” — according to Craig Harline’s outstanding new history, “A World Ablaze: The Rise of Martin Luther and the Birth of the Reformation.”
Harline lingers on details of archeology, food and hygiene that allow the reader to imagine cloistered life in the 16th century. Even in a relatively well-funded monastery, such an existence was hard, filthy and, in the winters, freezing. As a scholar, Luther found a measure of comfort and privacy in his friary’s unglamorous nooks — including a third-floor tower room that once had been part of Wittenberg’s outer battlements, the visitors’ chambers and even the cloaca (cesspit).
Luther’s first set of theses — not the famous 95 titled “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” but a more plodding 99 denouncing Aristotle’s influence on Christian theology — was almost completely ignored. Luther waited, pathetically, for many weeks, expecting some form of appreciation or critique from fellow scholars. Even when he produced his more provocative set of theses in October 1517, it took more than a month for any feedback to roll in — despite Luther’s efforts to move things along by sending personal copies to local bishops.
Today, we take it for granted that people everywhere have access to the same information simultaneously. Even in the 19th century, the telegraph made it possible for readers across continents and oceans to follow world events on a next-day basis. But news still traveled by horse and cart in the 16th century, and this fact was critical for Luther. Indeed, it probably saved his life and his ideas — because it meant that he could win over the town before the district, his fellow monks before strangers, Germans before Italians.
Even within the Roman Catholic Church, the faith was then divided between feuding orders: Carthusians, Augustinians, Dominicans, Franciscans. Luther had no hope of taking on all of these at once. What sympathy he attracted in his early days was owed, in part, to the intellectual and social capital he’d earned from those who knew him personally and had heard him preach. Many of these friends and admirers took extraordinary risks to defend him, which in turn gave others courage do the same — a cycle that gradually expanded his sphere of support outward from Wittenberg.
It wasn’t until early 1518 that Pope Leo X looked at the 95 theses. Having limited access to timely German news, he seriously underestimated their significance and passed off the matter to the Augustinians for resolution at their next annual meeting. Even after Luther finally received a summons from the pope, it took months for anything to come of it. Following a complex series of long-distance negotiations involving Prince Frederick III and the pontiff, papal legate Cardinal Cajetan formally examined Luther at Augsburg. But that was not done until mid-October, more than a year after Luther published his theses.
These delays and dilatory tactics proved crucial. Throughout it all, one of Prince Frederick’s protective strategies was to ensure that Luther got his hearings on German soil, where his ideas could be better understood in the context of local complaints about Rome’s arrogance. Luther took the standing-room-only crowd by surprise, for instance, when he lapsed into common German during his debate with theologian Johann Eck — a tactic then seen as taboo among doctrinaire church officials.
Luther’s rise followed the creation of the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in 1478. The Catholic Church was very much alive to the threats from heretics and schisms, and had procedures in place for dealing with them ruthlessly. But the apparatus could work only as fast as the reports that fed it. And where Luther was concerned, the problem of communication was compounded by the political and religious cross-purposes within the Holy Roman Empire and the Christian world more broadly. Every new wrinkle and subplot bought Luther more precious time. It wasn’t until early 1521 that he was formally excommunicated — more than three years after he composed his 95 theses. And by then, as we now know, it was too late to snuff out his influence.
Saul Bellow, in his introduction to Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” makes the memorable point that great and important writing is possible only when one is able to shut out “the noise of history.” This is what Luther managed to do when he created his 95 theses, his translations and the other texts that became part of the Reformation’s early canon. As a writer (not a religious one), I deeply admire his dedication to the craft.
I envy him, too. Five hundred years later, there are few writers, artists, designers or intellectuals who do not feel impelled to deliver regular updates on their work online, or at weekly grad seminars, shareholder meetings or workshops with colleagues. And all of us, whatever our professional subculture, imagine ourselves as plugged into some larger intellectual “community” that sits in judgment of an idea’s worth.
These networks make us more professionally productive and accountable. But they also can make us more cautious, since we know that any new idea can expose us to instant censure from complete strangers in other parts of the world who know nothing of our local circumstances. This phenomenon goes by different names — groupthink, political correctness, herd mentality. But in every form, it serves the interest of the orthodox and frustrates the heretic.
This may help explain, for instance, why the path of religious reform has been halting in so many parts of the Muslim world in recent decades: The same miraculous technology that allows would-be reformers to communicate their modern, pluralistic interpretations of Islamic liturgy also allows hard-liners to brutally suppress them.
In Bangladesh, for example, Islamists have engaged in a systematic campaign of extermination against bloggers who express even moderate critiques of their religion. In Pakistan, a man recently was sentenced to death for posting criticism of the prophet Muhammad on his Facebook page. Even in my Toronto neighborhood, in the heart of one of the most liberal and tolerant nations on Earth, a friend of mine who leads a group of ex-Muslims takes pains not to reveal the location of her monthly meetings, lest such information attract the attention of extremists on the other side of the planet. If modern Islam had its Luther, we might never know, because he could be silenced, or worse, before his ideas could take root.
Luther lived in that historical sweet spot between the invention of the printing press and the invention of the telegraph, when communication was not quite too fast nor quite too slow. As such, he was able to tune out the noise of history — not to mention the threat of death at the stake — and transform his demons into an idea that set the world ablaze. Since then, there has not been a religious revolutionary like him. My guess is there never will be again.