Monday, November 3, 2008

Readings: Fatal Irony

I have finished reading Erik H. Erikson’s excellent study, Young Man Luther, of which I wrote previously here.

As a developmental psychologist, Erikson’s primary interest in researching and writing this book was to explore the influence of Luther’s formative years in shaping his personality and lending energy and direction to the development of his innate genius. Erikson’s primary focus is on the apparent conflation in Luther’s emotional universe of his strict and ambitious biological father with God the Father, and Luther’s perceived inability to find justification in the eyes of either. This conflict led, according to Erikson’s Freudian interpretation, to Luther’s subsequent disobedience and rebellion against both his father’s society and his God’s Church.

In considering Luther the son, Luther the Monk, Luther the Professor, and Luther the Priestly Prophet and Protestant progenitor, Erikson does an outstanding job of placing each of these Luthers within his proper historical, societal, ecclesiastical and ideological context. There is not a boring paragraph in the entire text.

But, in these ideologically charged times, the thing which particularly held my attention in reading Young Man Luther was Erikson’s consideration of Christian doctrine and dogma as political ideology. What interested me in this regard was not any critique of Catholic or later Protestant doctrine, per se, but rather the inevitable “bureaucratization” of the institutions embodying these doctrines, which may be a fatal flaw inherent to all organized religion.

Erikson writes that:

Christianity…had started as a spiritual revolution with the idea of freeing an earthly proletariat for victory in another world after the impending withering of this one. But as always, the withering comes to be postponed; and in the meantime, bureaucracies must keep the world in a state of preparedness.

He later notes that:

The Roman Church, more than any other church or political organization, succeeded in making an ideological dogma—formulated, defended, and imposed by a central governing body—the exclusive condition for any identity on earth. It made this total claim totalitarian by using terror. In this case (as in others) the terror was not always directly applied to quivering bodies; it was predicted for a future world, typically in such a way that nobody could quite know whom it would hit, or when.

As I have written previously on Luther’s Theology of the Cross here, I will not recapitulate such theological considerations in the current post. In Young Man Luther, Erikson writes of Luther that once he found that he could not come to terms with the Pope and his Church and had become a rebel, he eventually came up against the following paradox:

In his own support [Luther] quoted Galatians 1:8: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” …The justified thus becomes judge: whatever the theological rationale, it is obvious that the positive conscience, the good conscience of true indignation, without which there can be no true leadership or effective education, becomes the negative conscience for others, and in its self-increasing wrath must again become a bad, an “unjustified” conscience.

Later, Erikson notes that:

Luther, at the beginning of ruthless mercantilism in Church and commerce, counterpoised praying man to the philosophy and practice of meritorious works. Subsequently, his justification by faith was absorbed into the patterns of mercantilism, and eventually turned into a justification of commercialism by faith.

Once this has occurred, the very elements of society that have been formed and empowered within the crucible of the Reformation become themselves the forces of Reaction:

The trouble comes, first, from the mortal fear that instinctual forces would run wild if they were not dominated by a negative conscience; and second, from trying to formulate man’s optimum as negative morality, to be reinforced by rigid institutions.

Thus we see Luther finally condemning the revolt, and calling for the extermination of the peasants whose demands for freedom and equality had been engendered in them by Luther’s own preaching that:

... [O]ur knowledge of God [is limited] to our individual experience of temptation and our identification in prayer with the passion of God’s son. In this, all men are free and equal.


In Christendom...all things are in common and each man’s goods are the other’s, and nothing is simply a man’s own.

If you want to understand the mechanism by which Marxism has failed wherever it has been tried, or why ideological Conservatism is in the terminal stages of a morbid decadence in American society today, look no further.

In my next post, I will discuss briefly how Erikson demonstrates this paradoxical effect on both organized religion and society at large to be mirrored, or foreshadowed in the personality of Luther himself, in so much as he represents a type which Erikson calls the “homo religiosus.”