Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Was Martin Luther Anti-Semitic?

Martin Luther is routinely praised by historians, liberal or conservative, American or European, as creating a positive spiritual revolution which re-vitalized European intellectual life. His Reformation sparked a fresh wave of creativity in music, painting, poetry, and architecture. Although focused on people's spiritual well-being, his work had ripple effects in politics, economics, and sociology.

But some have accused this inventive thinker of being anti-Semitic. Is Luther guilty of hating the Jews?

The question, and its answer, are not as simple as we might hope. In the 1500's, many people used the word "Jew" as a racial or ethnic category; Luther, however, saw it primarily as a theological category. So, when he spoke of "Jews", he wasn't talking about who they were, he was talking about what they believed.

A second complicating factor lies in the nature of Luther's writings. Luther wrote over one hundred short books in his life, over a time span of nearly fifty years. Over the course of those decades, his opinions changed from time to time, and so we don't always find a consistent theoretical system expressed in these texts (which is why even the Lutheran Church doesn't take Luther's writings as a definitive statement of Lutheran theory). Luther often wrote in a polemic tone, doing his best to deliberately irritate certain segments of the reading public; so often he goes out of his way to use harsh language: this can lead to misunderstandings.

So what did Luther write? In 1520, he wrote: "Damnable is the rage of some Christians (if indeed one can call them Christians) who believe they are doing God a favor by persecuting Jews in the most hateful manner, entertain wicked thoughts about them, and mock their misfortune with pride and contempt." Read that sentence again carefully.

Luther was friends with Josel von Rosheim, the chief Rabbi of Germany; Luther intervened when anti-Semites in certain provinces threatened to confiscate all Jewish books: Luther's influence allowed the Jews to keep their books.

In 1523, Luther reminded the Germans "that Jesus Christ was born a Jew," and that "we in turn ought to treat the Jews in a brotherly manner."

Why then have some accused Luther of antisemitism? In 1543, Luther wrote some rather angry things about the Jews, very different in tone than the words quoted above. In contradiction to his peaceful comments, Luther did, in that year, make some statements that could well be interpreted as anti-Semitic.

What then will we say of Luther? Perhaps that he was inconsistent.

It may help to place the matter into perspective by reading how he wrote about his own people: he wrote that the Germans were "brutal, furious savages," and that they were spiritually "deaf, blind, and obdurate of heart." If Luther describes his own nation - and therefore himself - this way, it is hardly surprising when he directs similar language at Italians, French, Poles, or Jews.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Radical Interpretaion of Martin Luther

Over the years, different historians have viewed Martin Luther very differently. Some have seen him as a spiritual think, concerned mainly with understanding God and reading the Bible. Others have seen him as a political or social revolutionary, eager to overturn an unjust system.

Professor Huston Smith (formerly of M.I.T., now at the University of California Berkeley) has his own interpretation of Luther. We should note that Professor Smith is, himself, a radical, having experimented with the famous Professor Timothy Leary in the use of hallucinogenic drugs to attempt to induce religious experiences. Anyway, Huston Smith writes that Martin Luther

allows expression to spiritual propensities that Christianity had insufficiently provided for, ones which (to pursue the matter of ethnic types) the Germanic temperament probably houses disproportionately. Centering in an extreme consciousness of human limitations, one so acute that it totally despairs of man's power to meliorate them, Luther turned directly to God. Faith in God's power to effect a change is the human access to that change, so faith, and faith alone - solo fide - is the key to the kingdom.

Professor Smith is saying that Luther was more likely, because he was German, to understand that human beings are essentially limited, and unable to help themselves. Humans need help from something beyond themselves, something they can't reach or grasp, something which must reach out to them, because they can reach out to it. That something is God.

This interpretation is radical because Smith is relying on the fact that Martin Luther is German to explain the unique and powerful impact of the Reformation. It is true that others before Luther had moved in the direction of a Reformations - Italians, Englishmen, Bohemians and Czechs - but can we say that Luther succeeded because he was German? Others will say that Luther succeeded because he had access to new technology (the printing press). Suffice it to say that there are many ways to understand the powerful impact of the Lutheran Reformation.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Adam Smith and William Blake

What can Adam Smith, a mathematical economist and coldly calculating observer of modern mechanized and industrialized urbanization, have in common with William Blake, a passionate poet and painter, whose works focus on the individual human experience?

Their thoughts and experiences intertwine with each other in a complex web. Blake was passionately religious, but adamantly anti-church. He attacked the notion of "natural religion," but embraced the notion of revealed religion, and saw God as the center of all things; yet he criticized the institutional church and organized religion as failing to address the human misery created by the Industrial Revolution. Whether, in Blake's mind, the church could not, or simply would not, help, is not clear.

Enter Adam Smith. Although writing somewhat earlier than Blake, his comments anticipate, agree with, and to a certain extent answer Blake's. In the fifth and final part of The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith addresses the social effects of urbanization, mechanization, industrialization, and the modern economy. Smith, like Blake, sees the churches of the time as inadequate to address the human needs of these new forms of life.

But Smith goes a step further: he predicts that new forms of spirituality will arise. And in the early 1800's we see these new forms of Christianity arising, in the movements that would ultimately flourish in the middle of century in the birth of three large Christian institutions: the YMCA, the Salvation Army, and the Red Cross. But even before the middle of the century, this new version of the New Testament message would make its impact felt in various reform movements to help conditions in the slums of industrialized big cities.

What Blake longed for, what Adam Smith foresaw, actually came to be.

Reacting to the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was a major change in society. It affected many different areas of life, and affected all social classes. It threatened some social institutions, and gave rise to others. It gave power and money to the middle class, took power and money from the old aristocracy, and made life miserable for many of the lower class. We can trace of number of specific reactions to the Industrial Revolution:

The Art of William Blake focused on the human misery that was created by the Industrial Revolution; he did not allow his readers to escape or forget the suffering that filled the slums of London, or that this anguish was brought about for the comfort and greed of the middle classes. The British Romanticists, in both poetry and painting, sought escape, or more accurately sold escape, to their middle class audiences, who would rather envision an idealized rustic rural life, than remember the coal smoke and child labor surrounding them. Marx, the communists, and the socialists demanded some form of revolution to overthrow this system, to destroy the political, social, and economic systems, and establish a utopia, a worker’s paradise of equality. John Stuart Mill and the Reform Liberals wanted a less radical solution; rather than destroy the system, they wanted to fix it, to adjust it, via child labor laws and the unionization of workers, among other means. Kropotkin and the anarchists also demanded a revolution, but instead of replacing the system, they wanted an end to all systems, and a return to an imagined state of nature and harmony. The Conservatives, represented by Metternich, and to a lesser extent Burke, saw the Industrial Revolution as a threat, because it emboldened the middle classes, and undermined the aristocracy; they fervently sought to maintain the old social order as it had existed before the Industrial Revolution, and realized that the threat was not from the lower classes, but rather from reform-minded individuals who naively thought that they were acting on behalf of the lower classes.

The breadth of the Industrial Revolution’s impact reminds us that, as in the case of the printing press, it is often not the lofty thoughts of academic philosophers, but the physical devices of daily life which can bring about the most sweeping changes in history.