Our secular, sceptical times have taken their toll on Martin Luther. Try Googling him. Luther does come up as the one who started the Reformation in Wittenberg 500 years ago by issuing the 95 Theses. But before you get to the bottom of the first page of available links, he is overwhelmed by references to Martin Luther King, whose contemporary relevance is so more much readily recognised than that of the man after whom he was named.
And what of “justification by faith”, Luther’s great theological insight that became one of the red lines in the Reformation disputes? It is a long way down the list on Google, buried beneath references to DCI John Luther, the TV detective played by Idris Elba. For a modern audience, “justification by faith” is one of those impenetrable technical phrases — the religious equivalent of quantitative easing — that simply confirm their prejudice that they can’t “do” God.
When he preached and wrote about “justification by faith” half a millennium ago, Luther found a ready audience — first in his native Germany and then far beyond — because he was talking about what was the most important issue for many in the late medieval age: how to get to heaven. Life was seen as hanging by a thread, especially if you were on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. Flood or famine destroyed livelihoods apparently on a devilish whim. The Black Death had swept across the continent in the 14th century, and marauding armies would appear from nowhere, intent only on plunder and murder. Such a backdrop to daily life naturally turned thoughts to salvation.
In 21st-century Europe, there is still plenty of anxiety, for example about the threats, real or imagined, posed by immigration, terrorism or globalisation. Yet the net result of our fears seems to be to turn many away from institutional religion rather than towards it.
But eternal life still retains its appeal. Some polls put the figure for those who believe in heaven as high as 70 per cent. Perhaps Luther’s talk of salvation and how to earn it isn’t quite so irrelevant after all.
Part of the problem seems to be that, as an individual, Martin Luther isn’t an easy man to like. The best-known of his obsessions — his terrible constipation and his obsessive fear of the devil — invite repulsion and derision rather than engagement, while his anti-Semitic remarks, made towards the end of his life and later taken up with gusto by the Nazis, risk turning him into a ghoul. Of late, Luther’s life and achievements have become something of a minority pursuit, restricted to those 70 million worldwide who call themselves Lutherans, and in literature to an army of academics. It is sometimes said that more books and papers have been written about Luther than anyone else except Jesus, but most have failed in recent times to distil his life for a general audience. Except in Germany, where 30 per cent of the population is Lutheran. There, in the run-up to the 500th anniversary, a Playmobil model of the friar from Wittenberg has become the fastest-selling toy its makers have ever put on the market, with 34,000 sold in its first 72 hours on the shelf.
Beyond his homeland, though, those familiar with Luther’s name hold him up, if at all, as a classic example of the modern preoccupation that all religion does is cause wars. A century of “religious wars” did follow Luther’s death in 1546, but they were as much a battle over territory and big power rivalries as anything concerning a vision of God.
Once the fighting came to an end, the borders between Catholic and Lutheran territories were every bit as excluding as the theological divisions that had been erected. It took until 1962 and Catholicism’s reforming Second Vatican Council for a meaningful dialogue to begin between the Church of Luther’s birth and the one of his creation. In 1999 that led to a “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”, issued by both Churches, stating that “a common understanding” had been reached, 453 years after Luther’s death. Such a laying-to-rest of the ghosts of the Reformation, however belated, should not be lightly dismissed as too little, too late. It sends out a different message in an epoch more troubled by religious antagonism than any in living memory, a hopeful sign that divisions apparently set in stone can, eventually, be overcome.
To mark the anniversary of Luther’s 1517 attack on papal authority and Catholic practice, the Lutheran World Federation and the Rome-based Pontifical Council for Christian Unity are organising a “joint fest for Jesus Christ” to show the world that “despite the Reformation period, [we] have more in common today that what divides [us]”. It is an opportunity to mend fences, but the symbolism surely also offers a chance for a wider re-evaluation of Luther. Much has been claimed for him: that he invented human rights and freedom of conscience by his insistence that no institution could come between the individual believer who read the Bible and their God; that the Protestant work ethic his teachings gave rise to precipitated the birth of capitalism; and that his ground-breaking translation of the Bible into the everyday vernacular shaped the German language and made the Germans the world’s most bookish nation. All are open to dispute, but at least offer a starting point to evaluate Luther’s status as one of the makers of modern Europe. That tendency to see him only as part of something bigger, though, is another factor in losing sight of the man himself.
Putting the spotlight back on Luther’s own life has revealed for me one quality that gives him a three-dimensional relevance for any age. For sheer human courage, he is hard to outdo. For a thousand years, the Catholic Church had been one of the great powers on earth, so powerful it even fixed the calendar the world still uses. In the process, it had grown bloated, corrupt and complacent. Until Martin Luther. “This petty monk,” as Pope Hadrian VI dismissed him, took on this monolith, the first truly universal religion, with an extraordinary passion, intensity and energy. And he survived to tell the tale. Other “protest-ants” before him had tried to break Rome’s stranglehold, but either recanted or were put to death for their trouble. Luther didn’t retreat an inch, yet he lived. Now there’s a story.