There are moments in history when much hinges on decisions made by leaders and visionaries (and those who dutifully follow them). Inevitably, we all live with the consequences, for good or ill, of those who have preceded us. The early decades of the 16th century was a crossroads period in Western history in which decisions were made that have shaped and defined the West.
The clash that took place in the early decades of the 16th century had much to do with the Roman Catholic Church and the rise of Protestant Christianity: Erasmus and Luther, in many ways, stand at the crossroads of such a clash, and western history is merely a playing out of their decisions at, initially, a theological and ecclesial level, then at economic, political and military levels. What is the essence of the confrontation between Luther and Erasmus and why is western history a child of Luther rather than Erasmus? And, can such a position be reversed? These were some of the questions I pondered as my wife and I headed to Germany-Switzerland in June 2012.
Luther took the position that the Roman Catholic Church could not be substantively reformed, hence he would use his liberty as a Christian man to break from the Roman Catholic tradition and initiate a new form of Christianity. Most Protestants have the DNA and genetic code of Luther in them. The argument is simple and has serious consequences. The multiple Protestant fragments and denominations are merely the predictable outcome of individuals using their liberty to create their own version of some sort of pure, remnant or true Christianity. The problem is this; most Protestants can never agree on just what the genuine church should be like, hence the splintering in all directions. Luther took the rabbit out of the hat, and since Luther the rabbits have proliferated into many clans, warren clusters and families--such is the protesting protestant way.
The path taken at the crossroads by protestants merely splits off and off into narrower and narrower paths, each claiming their version of the way is the truest and best one.
Erasmus, like Luther, took the position that the Roman Catholic Church had to be reformed (Erasmus went deeper and further than Luther in his commitment to reform), but Erasmus also held to the position that the church was meant to be one. Unity and protest was the tension Erasmus lived with. There are those that protest against the gap between ideals and reality but are not loyal too much, and there are those that are loyal but often fail to critique the institutions they are loyal to------Erasmus was loyal and committed to the unity of the church but, prophetic like, rigorously critical of the aberrations and failings of the Roman Catholic Church. Both Protestants and Roman Catholics were offended by Erasmus for different reasons. Erasmus was put on the Index in the 16th century, and was not removed until the 20th century at Vatican II. Luther and followers could never quite forgive Erasmus for not leaving the Roman Catholic Church. Erasmus would have seen such a move as short sighted and letting the genii of fragmentation out of the bottle. Most of western culture today (religious or secular) is merely acting out the script Luther prepared for them---rights of the individual to choose in good conscience their own way inevitably leads to the loss of a centre and multiple fragments and divisions.
Our journey to Europe took us, initially, to Basel and Freiburg where Erasmus spent the last 15 years of his life. Protestants took over Basel in 1529, and Erasmus fled to Freiburg where he lived, for the most part, from 1529-1535. I spent a significant amount of time at the Cathedral in Basel where Erasmus is buried pondering the two different paths taken by Luther and Erasmus and the consequences of western history of such decisions: protest and fragmentation or protest within a commitment to unity?---the consequences are momentous. Many westerners are either religious or secular protestants---protest and splintering dominates the day---it’s all very liberal and culturally trendy. It is the Erasmian tradition that is more counter-cultural. There are few who have internalized the Erasmian approach to the inner life, church life and public life.
My European pilgrimage began, consciously so, at the beginning of the multiple splintering and fragmentation in the West. Can such a protestant tradition be reversed? Such was my meditation as I sat at the graveside in the Cathedral in Basel where Erasmus lies at rest, still waiting for those to hear what he has yet to say. I did my best to turn my ear and soul to what still needed to be heard---a divided church is certainly a weaker church than a united one, and a united church is what those of faith are meant to embody in thought, word and deed rather than the denominational tribalism we live with these days.
It did not take much time (ideas have consequences) for the protesting spirit to go in a variety of directions. Why not protest against protestant Christianity? This was the direction of certain forms of science, but there were also those who took the positions that protestant Christianity and Tridentine Catholicism had lost and forfeited a greater spiritual and intellectual depth. The search was on by the honest seekers for what was lost in the clash between Protestant and Roman Catholics that Erasmus attempted to challenge. It is significant that when Nietzesche taught at Basel, he had a painting of Holbein’s Erasmus in his office. What did Nietzsche see by looking into Erasmus’ eyes and soul?
Nietzsche’s home in Sils Maria
Nietzsche’s father was a Lutheran, and Nietzsche grew up in a pietistic Lutheran family (his father was a Lutheran minister). The protestant spirit lived in Nietzsche, but he carried the protesting tendencies a step further than Luther. Luther remained committed to his version of Lutheran Christianity. Nietzsche merely protested against Lutheranism and Christianity. Why be loyal to anything beyond protest? My wife and I spent many a day at Sils Maria in the Engadine region of Switzerland where Nietzsche spent many a happy month in the 1880s. Some of Nietzsche’s finest books were written in his room at Sils near the spacious rock fortresses in the area. My wife and I walked the Fex Valley where Nietzsche often walked and did the Nietzsche trek from the back of his flat at Sils. The point to note here, though, is that Nietzsche carried the idea of protest to the point where he opposed and left behind Christianity---loyalty was trumped by critical questioning and the lone and isolated critic came to dominate the day. Did Nietzsche see in Holbein’s Erasmus the path he would take by following Luther yet further down the protestant path? Nietzsche or Erasmus? I spent many an hour in the home where Nietzsche wrote some of his finest books and pondered the relationship between Erasmus- Luther, Luther-Nietzsche and Erasmus-Luther. History was unfolding before my eyes in the very places where decisions were made to move the West further down the protesting path. There remains, in the interpretation of Nietzsche, questions about his relationship to Christendom, Christianity and Christ. Nietzsche was, in many ways, faithful to the underlying principles of both Luther and Protestantism.
Martin Heidegger wrote four books on Nietzsche, and although he taught most of his life in Freiburg, his real philosophic and contemplative home was his hut in Todtnauberg in the Black Forest in Southern Germany. My wife and I took the journey to Heidegger’s Hut in Todtnauberg, and we did the Heidegger tour (rundweg) when in Todtnauberg. I slipped down to Heidegger’s Hut where he wrote most of his books that shook and challenged most of western rationalist philosophy and theology. There is no doubt that Heidegger was a mystic in search of a deeper, more contemplative, more receptive way of knowing and being. His interest in the Orient (Nietzsche also had this interest), Pre-Socratic philosophy and poetry speak much about an alternate way of doing philosophy, and the hut at Todtnauberg was certainly Heidegger’s shrine and Delphic oracle.
Luther protested against the Roman Catholic tradition and started (like most protestants) his own version and brand of Christianity. Nietzsche protested against Luther and Christianity and found in the Greeks and aspects of the East something that could slake his deeper thirst. Heidegger was more the mystic and contemplative than Nietzsche, but he protested against both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism and turned to the East, German poetry and the pre-Socratics for wisdom and insight. In short, the sensitive seekers of the post-catholic and post protestant protesting tradition used the very protestant notion of protest to distance themselves from Christendom, Christianity and Christ. The notion of protest-loyalty that Erasmus had held so high had been replaced by the simpler commitment to protest and rejection of the thing protested against. This did not mean, though, that the longing for something deeper would disappear and dissipate.
My final destination when in Europe was to visit Herman Hesse’s home in Montagnola near Lugano. Hesse had spent time in Basel, and he had a great deal of affinity with some of Nietzsche’s writings, but he was more conscious of being on an explicit spiritual search. Hesse, like Nietzsche, grew up in a pietistic protestant family, and he protested against such an upbringing. The turn against institutional religion by Hesse had much in common with Nietzsche and Heidegger. All three had thoroughly imbibed and internalized the protesting spirit of Luther (and those who followed him further down the protestant path). It does not take a great deal of reflection to watch the unravelling of Christianity with the coming to be of Protestantism. Nietzsche, Heidegger and Hesse stand very much in the tradition of Luther, but they carry the notion of protest further than Luther would have gone. But, it was Luther and lesser Protestants that opened the floodgate for protest contra loyalty.
Hesse lived in a conscious tension between a rejection of his protestant tradition, a passionate exploration of the East and yet a sentimental attachment to western Christianity. He died, in his early 80s, with a copy of Augustine’s Confessions on his chest. It is 50 years this year since Hesse died (1962-2012), and many is the event in Europe that is being held to ponder the relevance of Hesse. There can be no doubt, though, that Hesse internalized the protesting tendencies of his family but used such a protest tradition to protest and reject his protestant and missionary upbringing.
The protestant irony reaches its climax in those like Nietzsche, Heidegger and Hesse. Erasmus saw most clearly that once protest came to trump loyalty, loyalty to protest would be all that was left. The very tradition that Protestantism initiated eventually negated Protestantism: Nietzsche, Heidegger and Hesse make this abundantly clear. This does not mean the deeper spiritual search for meaning has ended. Hesse, Heidegger and Nietzsche, in many ways, embody the end of Christianity and the turn to some combination of East and West for deeper wells to slake their soul thirst.
Most Protestants of the 16th century never could have imagined that the seeds they sowed in the field of history would have choked and destroyed the faith they held so near and dear. The clear eyes Erasmus saw this all so well, hence his opposition to Luther and followers. My trip to the Black Forest in Germany and Switzerland brought yet great clarity to why we need to turn to Erasmus and hear and heed what he has yet to say---this will be a real countercultural act---the modern and postmodern is just a matter is just a matter of acting out a pro-ordained script of more and more splintering and fragmentation. In short, there is nothing prophetic or countercultural about holding high the flag of protest and further divisiveness-this all quite trendy and the naïve will dutifully follow such a lead. But, Erasmus calls us to a more demanding way. Did Nietzsche see that back of Luther Erasmus had much yet to say? It is by turning to this more classical and ancient way that a real turn can be made that goes much deeper in the culture wars that so beset us these days. Erasmus, indeed, has much to teach Nietzsche, Heidegger and Hesse about such a time tried path and way.