The Protestant Reformation and freedom of conscience

This year we celebrate 500 years of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, the then Augustinian monk, priest, and teacher Martin Luther nailed at the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, a document with 95 theses on salvation, that is, basically the way people are led by the Christian God to Heaven. Luther was scandalized by the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church, believing that this practice did not correspond to the biblical teaching. Luther understood that salvation was given only by faith. The Catholic Church understood that salvation was a combination of faith and works.

The practice of nailing a document at the door of the church was not uncommon, and Luther’s intention was to hold an academic debate on the subject. However, Luther’s ideas found many sympathizers and a wide-spread protestant movement within the Roman Catholic Church was quickly initiated. Over the years, other leaders such as Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin joined Luther. However, the main leaders of the Roman Catholic Church did not agree with the Reformers’ point of view, and so the Christian church in the West was divided into several groups: Lutherans, Anglicans, Reformed, Anabaptists, later followed by Methodists, Pentecostals and many others. In short, the Christian church in the West has never been the same.

The Protestant Reformation was obviously a movement of great importance in world religious history. I also believe that few would disagree with its importance in the broader context of history, especially Western history. To mention just one example, Max Weber’s thesis that Protestantism (especially Calvinism, and more precisely Puritanism) was a key factor in the development of what he called modern capitalism is very accepted, or at least enthusiastically debated. But I would like to briefly address here another impact of the Protestant Reformation on world history: the development of freedom of conscience.

Simply put, but I believe that not oversimplifying, after the fall of the Roman Empire and until the 16th century, Europe knew only one religion – Christianity – in only one variety – Roman Catholic Christianity. It is true that much of the paganism of the barbarians survived through the centuries, that Muslims occupied parts of Europe (mainly the Iberian Peninsula) and that other varieties of Christianity were practiced in parts of Europe (mainly Russia and Greece). But besides that, the history of Christianity was a tale of an ever-increasing concentration of political and ecclesiastical power in Rome, as well as an ever-widening intersection of priests, bishops, kings, and nobles. In short, Rome became increasingly central and the distinction between church and state increasingly difficult to observe in practice. One of the legacies of the Protestant Reformation was precisely the debate about the relationship between church and state. With a multiplicity of churches and strengthening nationalisms, the model of a unified Christianity was never possible again.

Of course, this loss of unity in Christendom can cause melancholy and nostalgia among some, especially Roman Catholics. But one of its gains was the growth of the individual’s space in the world. This was not a sudden process, but slowly but surely it became clear that religious convictions could no longer be imposed on individuals. Especially in England, where the Anglican Church stood midway between Rome and Wittenberg (or Rome and Geneva), many groups emerged on the margins of the state church: Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers, and so on. These groups accepted the challenge of being treated as second-class citizens, but maintaining their personal convictions. Something similar can be said about Roman Catholics in England, who began to live on the fringes of society. The new relationship between church and state in England was a point of discussion for many of the most important political philosophers of modernity: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Edmund Burke, and others. To disregard this aspect is to lose sight of one of the most important points of the debate in which these thinkers were involved.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, one of the most important documents produced in the period of the Protestant Reformation, has a chapter entitled “Of Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience.” Of course there are issues in this chapter that may sound very strange to those who are not Christians or who are not involved in Christian churches. However, one point is immediately understandable to all: being a Christian is a matter of intimate forum. No one can be compelled to be a Christian. At best this obligation would produce only external adhesion. Intimate adherence could never be satisfactorily verified.

Sometime after the classical Reformation period, a new renewal religious movement occurred in England with the birth of Methodism. But its leading leaders, John Wesley and George Whitefield, disagreed about salvation in a way not so different from what had previously occurred between Luther and the Roman Catholic Church. However, this time there was no excommunication, inquisition or wars. Wesley simply told Whitefield, “Let’s agree to disagree.”

Agreeing to disagree is one of the great legacies of the Protestant Reformation. May we always try to convince each other by force of argument, not by force of arms. And that each one has the right to decide for themselves, with freedom of conscience, which seems the best way forward.

The existentialist origins of postmodernism

In part, postmodernism has its origin in the existentialism of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) is generally regarded as the first existentialist. Kierkegaard had his life profoundly marked by the breaking of an engagement and by his discomfort with the formalities of the (Lutheran) Church of Denmark. In his understanding (as well as of others of the time, within a movement known as Pietism, influential mainly in Germany, but with strong precedence over the English Methodism of John Wesley) Lutheran theology had become overly intellectual, marked by a “Protestant scholasticism.”

Scholasticism was before this period a branch of Catholic theology, whose main representative was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Thomas Aquinas argued against the theory of the double truth, defended by Muslim theologians of his time. According to this theory, something could be true in religion and not be true in the empirical sciences. Thomas Aquinas defended a classic concept of truth, used centuries earlier by Augustine of Hippo (354-430), to affirm that the truth could not be so divided. Martin Luther (1483-1546) made many criticisms of Thomas Aquinas, but ironically the methodological precision of the medieval theologian became quite influential in Lutheran theology of the 17th and 18th centuries. In Germany and the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) Lutheranism became the state religion after the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, and being the pastor of churches in major cities became a respected and coveted public office.

It is against this intellectualism and this facility of being Christian that Kierkegaard revolts. In 19th century Denmark, all were born within the Lutheran Church, and being a Christian was the socially accepted position. Kierkegaard complained that in centuries past being a Christian was not easy, and could even involve life-threatening events. In the face of this he argued for a Christianity that involved an individual decision against all evidence. In one of his most famous texts he makes an exposition of the story in which the patriarch Abraham is asked by God to kill Isaac, his only son. Kierkegaard imagines a scenario in which Abraham does not understand the reasons of God, but ends up obeying blindly. In Kierkegaard’s words, Abraham gives “a leap of faith.”

This concept of blind faith, going against all the evidence, is central to Kierkegaard’s thinking, and became very influential in twentieth-century Christianity and even in other Western-established religions. Beyond the strictly religious aspect, Kierkegaard marked Western thought with the notion that some things might be true in some areas of knowledge but not in others. Moreover, its influence can be seen in the notion that the individual must make decisions about how he intends to exist, regardless of the rules of society or of all empirical evidence.

Another important existentialist philosopher of the 19th century was the German Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche was also raised within Lutheranism but, unlike Kierkegaard, he became an atheist in his adult life. Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche also became a critic of the social conventions of his time, especially the religious conventions. Nietzsche is particularly famous for the phrase “God is dead.” This phrase appears in one of his most famous texts, in which the Christian God attends a meeting with the other gods and affirms that he is the only god. In the face of this statement the other gods die of laughing. The Christian God effectively becomes the only god. But later, the Christian God dies of pity for seeing his followers on the earth becoming people without courage.

Nietzsche was particularly critical of how Christianity in his day valued features which he considered weak, calling them virtues, and condemned features he considered strong, calling them vices. Not just Christianity. Nietzsche also criticized the classical philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, placing himself alongside the sophists. The German philosopher affirmed that Socrates valued behaviors like kindness, humility, and generosity simply because he was ugly. More specifically, Nietzsche questioned why classical philosophers defended Apollo, considered the god of wisdom, and criticized Dionysius, considered the god of debauchery. In Greco-Roman mythology Dionysius (or Bacchus, as he was known by the Romans) was the god of festivals, wine, and insania, symbolizing everything that is chaotic, dangerous, and unexpected. Thus, Nietzsche questioned the apparent arbitrariness of the defense of Apollo’s rationality and order against the irrationality and unpredictability of Dionysius.

Nietzsche’s philosophy values courage and voluntarism, the urge to go against “herd behavior” and become a “superman,” that is, a person who goes against the dictates of society to create his own rules . Although he went in a different religious direction from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche agreed with the Danish theologian on the necessity of the individual to go against the conventions and the reason to dictate the rules of his own existence.

In the second half of the 20th century existentialism became an influential philosophical current, represented by people like Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Albert Camus (1913-1960). Like their predecessors of the 19th century, these existentialists criticized the apparent absurdity of life and valued decision-making by the individual against rational and social dictates.