Halloween and a Half Millenium Earlier — Luther’s Reformation
It was Halloween, 2017, around 5:30 pm. Stores had been full of costumes, plastic masks and candy for a month. Tens of thousand of pumpkins still lay in fields after Michiganders had purchased or poached their limit for the year. My wife had earlier made our sole concession to the now major U.S. holiday by laying a dozen candy bars on a table near our porch door. Now it was dark outside and the children were likely indoors for the evening. Not one costumed child had come to the door. She took the candy bars back into the kitchen.
Since it was Tuesday, I had spent half the day volunteering at the gradeschool library in a nearby town. Then I had lunch, got a haircut, and sat in the bookstore drinking coffee and attempting to write. In the evening, I watched a little TV with my wife, read the latest depressing news in the online newspapers, and caught up with dozens of emails, Facebook posts and Tweets.
On the very same day, October 31, but five hundred years earlier, the greatest religious revolution in the second millenium began. The Roman Catholic priest Martin Luther sent his “Ninety-Five Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” to the Archbishop of Mainz. Not long after, the distribution of tens of thousands of pamphlets and the eventual printing of Bibles in German allowed any citizen in Germany who could read to learn of Luther’s ideas and to personally read the Bible. The power of the established church over individual Christians would be forever diminished. For the next 500 years, the Protestant Reformation would powerfully effect the religion, politics and social philosophy of the West.
It now seems almost accidental that Halloween was originally “All Hallows Eve,” the first evening of a very old three day Roman Catholic holiday celebrating the memory of the dead, especially saints and martyrs.
A Week Later and a Century Earlier — The Communist Revolution
One week after Halloween, I again spent half the day at the grade school library. Then I had lunch, and—no longer needing a haircut—spent most of the afternoon drinking coffee and attempting to write. (The extra hour didn’t seem to benefit my creativity very much.) In the evening, I watched a little TV with my wife, read the latest depressing news in the online newspapers, and caught up with dozens of emails, Facebook posts and Tweets. (I literally copied and pasted the last sentence from the earlier paragraph—an act that was a bit depressing in itself!)
On this same day and month, but one hundred years earlier, November 7, 1917, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolschevik party overthrew the provisional government of Russia which had been established after the abdication of Emperor Nicholas II. In rapid order, Lenin and the Bolsheviks established a federal government, ended Russia’s participation in World War One and created their own police department, the Cheka, to eliminate interference from “enemies of the people.” By 1922 The Bolsheviks had defeated all rivals in a civil war, reconstituted themselves as the Communist Party and established the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics—the USSR. The threat that Soviet Totalitarianism posed to the world’s democracies would shape much of the history of the twentieth century.
As I write this, it is well past Thanksgiving Day. For me, the Thanksgiving holiday consisted of a wonderful visit with family and the over-eating of a lot of food. The day of course has historical roots of its own—the memory of which now includes the suffering of the natives of “America” under the encroachment of the European settlers.
Why, you may be wondering, am I juxtaposing my personal experiences over recent days with important historical events?
One reason is that the events commemorated on October 31 and November 7 live in a fixed niche in my mind, and so they readily came to the fore as these major anniversaries turned up on the calendar. (For Thanksgiving Day I have no such personal trigger.)
Why Luther’s Protestant Reformation Owns a Piece of My Mind
I lived the first half of my life—some thirty-five years—as a child of the Calvinist branch of the Reformation and a member of one of its churches. I learned that God was the source and final purpose of all things: “Soli Deo Gloria,” i.e.: “To God alone be the Glory.” I learned I was conceived and born in sin. I learned that the Bible (not the Church—as in “Roman Catholic Church”) was our final source of truth. And when there was a conflict between what was taught by science and what was learned by faith, faith was always right.
But in later decades I learned that Luther, upon witnessing the German Peasant Revolt, condemned the peasants and supported the aristocracy who killed at least 100,000 of them—victims whose main crime was wanting a decent life. I learned of Calvin’s support for the burning at the stake of Servitus, forward thinking physician and humanist, for contradicting the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. I learned that the the Bible, which the Reformation claimed as ultimate authority, was a collection of writings compiled long after the origianl books and letters were written. And that the new testament writings were all created well after Jesus’s death. Add to that the mumerous internal contradictions I found when reading the Bible for myself.
Thinking about the religious and social teachings of my church—and its many outright crimes against human beings—I became agnostic regarding all things religious. The most critical change in my thinking was when I determined that faith in the end had little say over ultimate reality. Science seemed always to finally win where religious belief and science gave different descriptions of reality.
A Child in the Cold War
As to the Communist Revolution, in the first half of my life I knew nothing of the Czars, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin or the creation of the Soviet Union. But do I remember as a small child hearing my mother speak fearfully about the “Cold War” and the possibility of nuclear bombs killing all of us and destroying our country. And I can still see the scene in a movie in science class showing an actual thermonuclear bomb explosion, how it erased everything for tens of miles with a pure, bright hemisphere that was as horrifying as it was amazing.
In recent decades of my life, the Communist Revolution took on more complex contours in my mind. I read enough to see that the revolution sprung from a Russia with deep economic and political problems. I learned that our government often acted in immoral and—in the long term—self-damaging ways to confront the danger of totalitarianism. I discovered that Ronald Reagan—a president I admired—lied about money received illegally from Iran in order support the Contra rebels (our presumed friends) in Nicaragua in the fight against the Sandinista (our presumed enemies). The story of US support for the Contra rebels seemed to me typical of many of our battles against the scourge of communism, battles that brought death to thousands in conflicts we really did not understand.
I also learned that at the peak of Cold War tension, we probably escaped nuclear war by a whisker.
Does anyone care?
The second reason my words turn from recent everyday experiences to historical moments and back again is that I wonder if anyone is paying attention. Does the average Joe or Jean remember or even care about such things? I suspect that if it weren’t for my personal predisposition to be interested in these revolutions, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to care.
It seems to me that most of us don’t much remember or care. Except for brief mention of these two momentous past events in news sources, I have witnessed no public comment on the Reformation or the Communist Revolution. As to personal conversation, unless I brought the subject up, I have not had one acquaintance say a word about either of the anniversaries of these upheavals of Western civilization.
And I must admit—I have no great knowledge of these turning points in history. I had to do a little research at Wikipedia before writing even the above modest paragraphs. And as to “paying attention,” I am as absorbed as anyone in the normal clutter of twenty-first century life, including ample doses of television news, newspapers, and—oh yes—Facebook and Twitter. (See the above!) All of which continually focus on the imploring and dramatic events of the present, be they wars and terrorism, or sexual abuse and outrageous Tweets.
George Santayana on the Danger of Forgetting the Past
I ask, “Does anyone care?” because something else is stuck in my mind: the familiar words of George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
The obvious meaning of Santayana’s words is that remembering the past might help us avoid revisiting past disasters in new iterations. If more of us could remember that Luther and Calvin committed terrible crimes in the name of God, would we be more skeptical of anyone who claims to speak for God? What if we studied the conflict between the anabaptists and the primary protestant reformers? Would we better understand why mainline and liberal churches are fading even as fundamentalism seems on the rise?
What about the role of science in the church after the Reformation—at some times being honored, at others being denigrated? Might remembering that history help us defeat the current forces disparaging science? On the positive side, what if we better understood the Reformation’s press for change from Feudal serfdom to a greater respect of the worker. Would that help us think more clearly about the growing gap between rich and poor in the twenty-first century?
And what about our understanding of the Revolution in Russia in 1917? If we understood how the the “People’s Republic” quickly became an authoritarian regime, could we better assess the troubling desire of many Western leaders for more power? What if we recalled how simplistic sayings and slick propaganda became the new truth? And what if we could vividly recount how tens of millions of innocents died under the rule of Stalin in the USSR and under Mao in China—all for the sake of a bright new future? Might that help us discern warnings of some future bloodbath before it’s too late?
I am not suggesting that knowing the past will provide easy fixes for present problems or an easily defined path to a better future. But if we do not know the past, will we ever really know the present? And if we do not really know the present, how can we think about present problems critically?
Here is the earlier mentioned Santayana quote with more context:
“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Bold mine)
In the current political storm, it is reassuring that many people who care are asserting that “Facts Matter.” No matter the present confusing flurry of words and supposed solutions to supposed problems—reality has a way of asserting itself in the end. Knowing the facts, past and present, is the only starting place for intelligent action in the real world.
It might be wise for us all to spend less of our time on the treadmill of fervent activity and social media and more of it on getting an accurate view of reality by knowing our past. It seems to me that the future is a stake. For Santayana also said,
“…the past and the future, which in our anxious life are so differently interesting and so differently dark, are one seamless garment for the truth, shining like the sun.”
Perhaps, at least on anniversaries and holidays, we would be wise to take a little time to study how we got to where we are.
You might enjoy reading these:
“Rod’s Five Step Cure for the Fake News Blues” a short essay
“Winning in the Fifties” a short essay
“Can We Still Find the Sacred?” an essay
“Magical Thinking” a short essay