Martin Luther, from Bible to Babel

This weekend marks the 450th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther. Peter Mullen argues that this religious reformer laid the foundations of the modern secular world.
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The Independent Online
It is 450 years since Martin Luther, the most influential of all the Protestant reformers, died at Eisleben.

Hark, Hark, the dogs do bark and the beggars are

coming to town;

Some in rags, some in tags, but one in a velvet gown.

The beggar in the velvet was the object of Luther's indignation, for he was the official who travelled around Europe and sold indulgences, personalised certificates which offered remission from purgatory at a price payable to the Pope. Luther's claim was revolutionary. He said that no one needed the Pope's indulgence in order to receive the forgiveness of sins. Redemption could be obtained by each man at his prayers in the privacy of his own bedchamber - for "Every man is his own priest".

This was more than a slogan; it was a Copernican revolution in religious sensibility and psychology. The medieval mind did not set much store by the concept of the individual but instead regarded society as the important unit of human expression. The respublica was all. The prevailing social theory was derived from Augustine and Aquinas and it declared that the kingdoms of this world are types - albeit flawed types - of the Kingdom of God. So power and authority were located in the collective.

Luther's revolutionary individualism succeeded against the entrenched might of the papacy because he had technology on his side. This was the age of the first printing presses which made available the earliest vernacular bibles in which the story of God's redeeming love might be read at leisure.

These facts taken together make Martin Luther our intellectual contemporary. He would have understood very well Marshall McLuhan's famous saying, "The medium is the message." The 16th- century vernacular bibles were a new medium and they carried a new message. That message was, as Rome understood only too well, "You don't need the Pope and the priests. Read the Scriptures and they will tell you how to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling."

This was the beginning of a cultural shift that turned upside-down Western civilisation's understanding of itself. It happened right across the cultural spectrum. In philosophy, the hierarchical "top down" medieval metaphysics which proceeded from God and the Principalities and Powers down to Man, the mundane creature, was challenged by Descartes in the Cogito ergo sum: I think, therefore I am.

The individualism of Luther is reflected in his near contemporary Shakespeare's agonised soliloquies in which Hamlet wrings his hands over his personal destiny. It was consolidated by Rousseau and the Romantic movement which centred all metaphysical, moral and aesthetic authority in personal feelings. It was given religious expression in Wesley's criterion for redemption which was to have one's heart "strangely warmed".

In 400 years we have come a long way. We have so far exceeded Luther's promise to make every man his own priest as to make everyone his own god. We have invented new sacred texts of which the most authoritative is "Everyone has a right to his own opinion". This means not just that any fool can think what he likes, but that all opinions are equally "valid" - and the purgatory reserved for those who would deny this new doctrine is the charge of elitism.

We have so far extended Luther's doctrine about the fundamental connection between the individual and reality as to allow the individual to create his own reality. And, as in Luther's day, it is technology which has made this possible. Two score television channels, but more significantly the video and the computer - the personal computer, of course - guarantee that everyone can see and hear whatever he desires whenever he desires it. After the personal computer the video is the most radical of metaphysical scene-changers, for it allows me to time-shift. And if I hold on for a couple of years I might own a virtual reality machine with which to construct my personal milieu ex nihilo. Now that will be purgatory.

No doubt Luther's cry against a corrupt collectivism was justified, but it begins to appear that we now inhabit an equal and opposite tyranny: a multiplicity of omniscient egos who are all in competition. We have been here before as well, only last time round it was called Babel.