Why Luther still matters: religious conscience and individual liberty

Sunday 29 October, 12:0013:15, Cinema 1Keynote controversies

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Whether or not Martin Luther actually nailed his 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, as a disputed tradition claims, he certainly started a process that would change Europe and the world. It is an oft-noted irony that the Reformation initiated by this devout monk paved the way for secular modernity and a progressive belief in freedom of conscience.

What we now call the Protestant Reformation began as a series of disputes within the Catholic church, at first about corruption, but increasingly about the true source of religious authority. These disputes ultimately led to schism and to the founding of Protestant denominations, including Lutheranism itself and, in England, Anglicanism, the so-called Reformed traditions that survive to this day. But Luther’s subversive doctrines had wider implications. Having presented Europe with the fact of religious differences that could not be resolved, the Reformation led many thinkers to conclude that toleration was the only hope for peace. Luther would not compromise on matters of conscience, but since neither he nor his opponents could persuade everyone, in time it became clear that everyone would have to be allowed a conscience of his or her own. Implacable religious conviction gave birth to individual conscience.

Does the Reformation still matter? Roman Catholicism remains by far the biggest Christian denomination in the world, and while attendance at churches of all varieties is falling throughout Europe, less-traditional Protestant denominations like Pentecostalism are growing globally. But there is little debate among Christians about the questions that were at the heart of the Reformation. If anything, Christians are more likely to find common cause with one another on social issues than argue over their differences. Conservative Christians, in particular, appear to have more in common with orthodox Muslims than with mainstream secular culture, at least when it comes to issues such as abortion and homosexuality.

In another contemporary irony, the question of freedom of conscience has once again become controversial. Whereas in the past it was the church that clamped down on heretics, today it seems that Christians find themselves on the defensive against a secular clerisy. Devout Christians have found themselves in court over their refusal to remove religious emblems at work, to bake cakes in support of gay marriage or to conduct same-sex civil partnership ceremonies. Is the progressive belief in freedom of conscience, a perhaps unintended consequence of the Reformation, losing its force?

Is the Reformation better understood as a stepping stone to modernity, as a precursor to the Enlightenment, rather than as a movement for reform within the Catholic church? Should we remember it as a moment of intense religious revival, a rebellion against the decadence of the medieval church? Indeed, does today’s Catholic church have more in common with the radicals of the Reformation than with the prevailing ideology of the modern West, or even its earlier self? Would Martin Luther himself recognise those Protestants who claim his legacy today?