Does Luther still matter? Religious conscience and individual liberty
On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, unwittingly starting a process that would in great parts shape Europe as we know it today. It is an oft-noted irony that the Reformation paved the way for secular modernity, despite the intentions of its leaders.
But recent developments seem to suggest a reaction against both modernity and many of the core values closely associated with the Reformation itself. For example, critics today seem more likely to assert the view that the Reformation divided Europe and caused countless religious wars than to celebrate a legacy of religious toleration. As fears over hate speech have grown and new laws have been introduced to curb what people can say, Luther’s violent language against Turks and Jews is more talked about than protecting freedom of speech for all. Some commentators have even placed battles on the football terraces of northern Europe and anti-immigrant protests by the AfD in eastern Germany in the tradition of religious sectarianism that they say is a legacy of the Reformation. Ironically, today it is often immigrants who care more about religion and, by implication, safeguarding religious conscience. Meanwhile those that we might expect to celebrate the legacy of Luther are today often found advocating bans on the burqa and controls on religious attire.
One consequence is that the official celebrations of the Reformation have been so ecumenical and open that they have been accused of verging on the banal. Are the celebrations symptomatic of a society that no longer believes in the struggle for truth and convictions? Or do they show that Europe has learnt its lesson and finally overcome religious sectarianism? Is there a message in the reformation that relates to contemporary expressions of individual faith – such as the Muslim headscarf, or even the burqa?
The reformation amounted to far more than Luther’s 95 theses, as the famous discourse on free will between Martin Luther and Erasmus of Rotterdam shows. So in our ‘multicultural’ times what can we learn by reflecting on the Reformation? What does individual conscience and free will mean today and what value should we accord to them?