Honestly, I am not very religious these days. I wouldn’t define myself as an atheist at all — I still wince when someone categorically says that, “There is no God.” I’m much closer to the spiritual side of agnosticism. I think it’s a little too wimpy to not make a choice at all, and if pressed, I’ll fall back on Pascal’s Wager (disproved as it may be), and just agree that there probably is a larger pattern, and thus a creator, out there. Makes sense, and would the world be that different if there wasn’t?

But I don’t go to church much anymore, partly because it’s early on Sunday morning, and partly because I don’t feel motivated enough to stand and sing with everyone else there. If those people really do believe all of that stuff, who am I to invade their beliefs with my half-realized ideas about God and how it works? I’m sure any priest would tell me that’s not valid, but it’s how I feel.

At any rate, I say “much anymore” about going to church, because I used to go every week. In fact, I used to go a few times a week — up until the seventh grade, I went to a parochial elementary school in St. Louis, MO. The school was Lutheran, and my family is very much enmeshed in the Lutheran faith. My parents are religious, and I have cousins and uncles who serve as pastors and bishops. My maternal grandfather was himself a preacher, and my paternal grandfather and grandmother worked for a church and school and lived on church grounds in a small town. My background is very much in the German Lutheran tradition — I was baptized and confirmed at the same Lutheran church in St. Louis, and I’ve been to dozens of family weddings, reunions, baptisms, and even good old potlucks. I’ve recited Luke 2 with my family every Christmas, sung “A Mighty Fortress is our God” every Easter, and sung hymns along with the rest of the congregation in both English and German verses.

So no — these days, I’m not all that religious. But religion, especially the Lutheran religion, is pretty core to who I am anyway. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve heard these liturgies, these hymns, these stories, these names, these expressions, all straight out of the Lutheran church. The pastor who both baptized and confirmed me was so influential to me growing up, more than even he knew: I loved listening to him speak every Sunday, and soaked in his ability to keep a congregation interested and rapt for 15, 20, 30 minutes straight. It’s those skills, I think, that I try to use in my writing and speaking these days, and I have traced the origin of those right back to all of those mornings spent in the Lutheran church.

And today, here in Germany, I went and visited Wittenberg. Lutherans, of course, are named after a German man named Martin Luther himself. And Wittenberg, about an hour outside of Berlin by train, is where he became a monk, put together all of the writings that came to define the Lutheran (and to a larger extent, the Protestant) tradition, and then eventually died and was buried.

“Died and was buried” — that’s another phrase that comes to me out of the Lutheran service, by the way. It’s part of the Apostles’ Creed, which I could probably recite to you from memory right now. That’s how ingrained in me this church still is. So traveling to Wittenberg is probably the closest thing to a spiritual pilgrimage I’ll ever really undertake in my lifetime. When the ticket price of 60 euros came up on the screen at the train station, it was higher than I thought, but I paid it and boarded the train to go and see where this church that has defined me so much actually came from.

Wittenberg these days is just a small college town, essentially, and as I walked from the train station into the main part of town, I definitely got that vibe. But of course this place is very different from your standard American small town. Not only did most of its history with Luther happen in the mid 1500s (that’s five HUNDRED years ago), but it’s also been through two World Wars, and then was part of East Germany under the Communists for nearly 50 years. It was quieter than most towns in mid-America — these people have survived, but they’ve also been beaten down more than I think anyone in America has quite yet.

I made my way over to the Lutherhaus, which of course is where Luther lived for most of his life in Wittenberg. He wasn’t too beaten down at all — he was the son of a fairly well to-do businessman, and was studying to be a lawyer for the earliest part of his life. At the age of 22, just months after he’d gotten his Master’s Degree, he was caught in a thunderstorm on horseback, and, scared for his life, he yelled out that if the Lord saved him, he would become a monk. Of course he survived, and he considered that vow sacred (two of his friends had also died recently, so obviously he’d been thinking a lot about life and death and what it means). A week later, he enrolled in a Catholic monastery, put his head down, and started studying.

That monastery was eventually disbanded (thanks to his work at reforming the church), and it was eventually sold to Luther himself, who turned it into a household for his wife, children, and students. These days, it’s a museum, and an archaeological site, both for Luther and his life, and the reformations he pushed for in the Catholic church.

As I walked through the museum, I was struck at just how heroic Luther really was (especially in comparison to all of the injustice I’ve seen in museums over the last few days). He was very studious as a monk, and was almost obsessed with the original meaning of the scriptures. He learned Latin and Hebrew, and did everything he could to try to read and take meaning from the original scriptural text of the Bible.

At the time, the Renaissance was booming, and the Catholic Church was running on all cylinders. They had come up with a scheme called indulgences, wherein if you wanted to be absolved of all of your sins, but didn’t actually have time to come into the church and confess them, you could instead pay a donation to the church for a little piece of paper. That piece of paper granted you full and complete absolution of all of your sins for the week, and since the Pope talked directly to God, he could do that sort of thing. Indulgences didn’t cost much, but they sold a lot, and bishops and cardinals were building up nice little fortunes from them.

Luther saw all of this, and he decided it was wrong. He decided that bishops and cardinals, men supposed to work for the glory of God, were instead working for the glory of themselves, and couldn’t be trusted to dole out and describe God’s will to the people. He published a few pieces about this, and also wrote a sermon all about it, but of course the act everyone remembers is the one he carried out on Reformation Day, October 31. He walked over to the university church in the town of Wittenberg, and hammered a list of 95 theses, beliefs in Latin, on to the church’s door. The grace of God doesn’t come from indulgences, said Luther (or Martinus Lutherus, as he called himself in Latin), or from the Pope, or from any human creation. The grace of God, he claimed, comes only by believing in God himself.

This was quite an issue back then — people went to Catholic church all the time, and they were used to the long rituals and sacraments and all of the other hooah and Hail Marys and incense burning that was required to deal with God. Only priests knew Latin, and only priests could read the Bible, so it was up to them to bring the word of God to the people. But Luther said no to all of that: The most important thing in religion, he claimed, is the relationship between God and the man who follows him. All men are priests, Luther claimed. All men should have access to the church, and to the Bible, and directly to the grace of God himself. Anyone who stands in the way of that (specifically, the Pope) isn’t working for God — he’s working against Him, claimed Luther.

As you can see, a pretty big deal. And it also put him in hot water with the Vatican, and government officials and other professors who allied with the Vatican. But Luther’s message rang true to a lot of people (both other Biblical scholars who knew there was no actual mention of the Pope in the Bible, and poor laymen, who were starting to realize that yeah, if God’s love and forgiveness were free, why were they paying for these indulgences?), and so the Pope couldn’t really do a lot to him.

Eventually, Luther was called down to testify at a Catholic meeting called the Diet of Worms (heh) in Worms, Germany, and was publicly asked to recant what he’d said about the Pope, on account of the Pope didn’t like it very much. Luther stood before the meeting (I supposedly saw the actual monk’s robe that he wore when he did it, though I don’t know about the veracity of that), and politely said no. His opinions were based directly on the scripture, he said. “With Christian willingness,” he later wrote, “I offered, if refuted and convicted of error, to recant everything, and be the first to throw my books in the fire and trample them underfoot.” But everything he’d said was true, based on his own direct reading of the Bible.

“Well, it was worth a try,” I imagined the Pope said, and the Vatican then issued a papal bull to have Luther arrested, excommunicated, and have all of his writings burned and ignored completely.

Luther’s popularity in Germany was still on the rise, and government officials there realized that attacking him in this way would lead to more problems. So they secreted him away for a while, where he decided to get started on a translation of the bible into German, so any schmuck off the street could read it and make meaning out of it. Later on, his movement would be called the Reformation, because he’d reformed the Catholic Church into something better. The various faiths his writings inspired are called Protestant faiths, because he protested what they did, and those who followed in Luther’s own traditions and beliefs (I remember reading his catechisms as a kid, which were basically Q&A style descriptions of what he thought about what the Bible said) were, of course, called Lutherans.

I learned all of this (and re-learned most of it) while going through the house there, while also seeing the room where he had dinner with his family, the university dais were he lectured from, a mug he reportedly used to drink beer from (again, this is 500 years ago — almost none of it still exists, and it’s hard to keep track of and verify what does). I was struck by his courage, by his conviction. And I was also fascinated by how insightful he was — two hundred years later, the Protestants (who’d gone their whole lives being told that their faith was in their hands, not the hands of some old authority) would travel across the ocean and create America. Even Luther realized just how lucky he was to come across these ideas at this time: The printing press, which had only seen widespread use just as Luther was finishing college, was instrumental in getting his words and thoughts out to lots of people everywhere, and creating that public opinion that he sorely needed to, you know, avoid being killed for what he said.

Luther wasn’t perfect. I did love the fact that he wrote about “drinking beer with friends in Wittenberg,” as that’s a pastime I can really identify with. And he also pushed to allow priests to marry, and eventually married a former nun, which some of his critics claimed gave him undue motive for tearing the Catholic church apart. There were parts of him I didn’t like at all, though. He was stubborn, obviously, and sometimes far past the point of reason. While he mostly decried violence, he did once call the killing of rebels in a town near him “God’s punishment” (a very Pat Robertson move, unfortunately). When attacking the Pope, he often called the Pope “the Antichrist” — if you didn’t agree with Martin Luther, you were basically the Devil.

And the thing that most disturbed me about Luther was that he was prejudiced in his time and place. Part of his goal at reforming the church was that he had hoped to finally convert Jews to Christianity, and when they still chose not to convert, he grew angry with them. 400 years before the Nazis ruled his country, Luther said about the Jews that Germany would “gladly be rid of them,” and “their synagogues be burned down.” Reading that makes you realize that Luther’s just as fallible as any other man. Fortunately, Luther never asked Lutherans to worship him. It fits in his own thinking that men are fallible and wrong — all of the glory, he’d say, should go to God anyway.

I walked down the street in Wittenberg, down to where Luther’s home church was. I went inside, sat down, and looked up at the pulpit. I’m sure it’s not original any more, but I tried to imagine him up there anyway, speaking in excited German, talking about how men should have a direct line to God, and that it’s by grace alone that we are all saved. I kept walking down historic Wittenberg’s lovely little lanes, and finally arrived at the Schlosskirche, the “Castle Church,” which was the university church where Luther first nailed his 95 Theses. It wasn’t his main church, but he did preach there occasionally, as a member of the local university.

And sure, enough, right there on the side, there were two big doors, only about a ten minute walk down the lane from Luther’s house. That’s where he nailed the writing up, where he started a revolution that led to the Lutheran church, where he began the institution that has had such a profound impact on my life.

Unfortunately, those doors aren’t the doors. The church and the doors burned down in 1760, and they’re lost to time. In fact, it’s possible Luther never really did nail any theses on the door — he had an merchant/artist friend named Lucas Cranach, who also lived in Wittenberg, and Cranach’s thousands of paintings and woodcuts of Luther and his life, in large part, were responsible for spreading the stories of who Luther was and what he did. Without Cranach, in fact, it’s hard to say if Luther would have gotten the attention he did. The nailing of the theses on the door may have just been an artist’s creation, a metaphor of Luther posting his beliefs right on the very church he helped to build.

The doors there now can’t be nailed into at all — even if you could get past the fence, they’re bronze doors, commissioned in 1858, and Luther’s theses are now engraved on there for all time. Inside the church, ironically, almost everything is dedicated to the Reformation. Luther and his fellow Reformational figures stand around in statue form, one of Cranach’s paintings hangs above the altar, and Luther himself is buried there after dying in Wittenberg in 1546. The inscription says he died in his hometown of Eisleben, but even that has changed: The official name of the town is now Lutherstadt Wittenberg.

On the very top floor of the Lutherhaus, there’s currently an exhibition going on about images of Luther over the centuries. Cranach painted quite a few pictures of Luther and his work while he was alive, but Germans have, over time, revered Luther as a folk hero of their own, and in the last five centuries since his death, they have painted and drawn and written about him over and over. He’s their guy, the guy who came from a small German town, and brought down that smarmy Pope down in Italy.

Germany’s many governments have also had to have their own relationships with Luther — the Kaisers loved him, and paid for most of the renovations in Wittenberg. After the first World War, Luther’s popularity dropped off a bit, because the Germans obviously had other things to worry about. The Nazis didn’t quite know what to do with Luther — they did attend a few anniversary events in Wittenberg, but his teachings about how God sees every man equally, and about how God’s love doesn’t require work, just faith, didn’t really vibe with their own (they didn’t jump on his comments about Jews, as far as I know — they decided it wasn’t worth all of the other questions using him as a folk hero would involve). And the communists understood the importance of Luther in terms of the German identity, but they too didn’t really know how to deal with him and his beliefs about individuals. When you combine all of that with the dropoff in religion across the world over the past few decades, Luther isn’t quite as important as he used to be. Wittenberg wasn’t dead — there were a few groups of schoolchildren being led through the museums. But it’s not as lively as it might have been a hundred years ago or so.

As for my own reactions to Luther, I definitely admire him. He was a man who saw injustice, read what to do about it in the Bible, and then stuck to his guns even in the face of persecution and excommunication. He fully believed in the power of the written word and debate. “Let the minds clash, but keep the fists down,” he wrote, and I fully agree with that sentiment. And though he took his vows and his beliefs seriously, he also knew the power of good living, and despite his stubbornness and polemicism, he knew that everyone had to come to their own conclusions, just like he did.

“I will preach, I will speak, I will write, but I will force no one ever,” he wrote, “for faith must be voluntary and unurged. Take me as an example. All the while, I was pursuing, preaching, and writing about God’s Word, nothing else. And yet while I was asleep, or drinking Wittenberg beer with my [colleagues] Philipp Melanchthon and Amsdork, the Word became so active that the papacy grew all weak. Because I cannot push anybody into heaven, not even with stick beating.”

I know Luther through his words and works — I sang his hymns to myself while walking around Wittenberg, because I still remember every note (if not quite every lyric). But it’s that sentiment above all — that each of us has to find his own way and learn his own faith — that I most agree with. In an age where the Pope charged money for forgiveness, it took strength to say that, and I appreciate that strength in Luther very much.

I visited one more site before I left Wittenberg. It’s called the Luthereiche, and it’s just an oak tree in a little park between the train station and the Lutherhaus there in town. When the Pope was getting all angry about Luther and what he was writing, he ordered that some of Luther’s work be burned (another action that echoed what the Nazis did, as I’ve learned this whole week). Luther, as a good German guy who I like to think had had a beer or two, thought that was funny. So the legend says that he walked out to this oak tree, in view of his house, and he burned some of the Pope’s work: The Papal bull that called for Luther’s arrest and silencing.

I didn’t get the exact quote here, so this is a paraphrase, but later he told friends that he did it “because I just wanted to show the Pope how easy, and how meaningless it is, to burn words. They don’t go away just because you burn them.”

I sat there at that tree for a little while, took a few pictures of it. And then I walked over to the bahnhof (train station), and rode the train back up to Berlin, watching the German countryside go by outside my window.

Posted on Wednesday, April 25th, 2012 at 7:52 am. Filed under general.
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