Oct. 31, 2014
For the world, which is to say, for Google, today is a day about witches and ghosts, and not much more. Witchy Wanda is stirring her kettle on today’s webpage. That’s the way the world sees things.
With the headlines this fall, though, the world does seem to be full of devils. ISIS, Ebola, Russian submarines lurking menacingly under Swedish home waters. Obamacare forcing us all to pay for the slaughter of innocents. It’s all enough to give one a real scare.
I recall the story of a young Augustinian monk named Martin Luther in the early Sixteenth Century. He was being urged not to go to that high-level conference chaired by the Emperor. All the leading Electors, princes, and nobility of Germany and the higher clergy would be in attendance. It was called the Diet of Worms.
(When they used to teach world history, we kids in ninth grade got quite a chuckle out of that “Diet of Worms.” I recall one of my classmates saying it would at least be better than what we get in the school cafeteria!)
Young Luther was being summoned before the Holy Roman Emperor to recant his writings. They had been found heretical by church authorities. Luther was warned by his friends not to go to the City of Worms.
They won’t keep their word. They won’t give you protection. Now that they’ve branded your writings heretical, they’ll excommunicate you. Then they’ll hand you over to the temporal rulers and you will be burned at the stake—just as Jan Hus was burned at the stake in Bohemia. That was in 1415.
But Martin Luther would not be deterred. He told his friends he was going to appear before the Emperor Charles V and all the assembled movers and shakers in Germany.
“I would go if there were a devil on every roof tile,” the young scholar said.
We don’t often associate scholars with such courage. To be sure, today there are all too many scholars unwilling to take risks. But that bold stand of a Bible teacher inspired me thirty years ago. And it inspires me now. Luther had a Doctorate in Theology when such academic degrees were rarer than Nobel Peace Prizes are today (and more justly awarded, too.)
We continue to debate and wrestle over the doctrines of the Reformation that began this day in 1517. Dr. Timothy George has summarized some of the best thinking on this day in his First Things column here.
Today, I especially want to pay tribute to young Dr. Luther’s courage. And in the spirit of ecumenism, let me also salute my good friend, Hadley Arkes. Hadley is a great academic who has never hesitated to speak out on the most controversial topics of the day, on human life, on same-sex rituals, on the real meaning of our Constitution.
But when he was asked by a Catholic priest why he had not converted to Catholicism yet, Hadley did not respond with a learned citation from the early Church Fathers, or from Wise Rabbis of old. Instead, Hadley quoted the Cowardly Lion in Wizard of Oz.
It’s what puts the Ape in Apricot
It’s what I haven’t got.
Obviously, Hadley did summon the courage to follow his conscience and enter into communion in the Roman Catholic Church.
It may seem odd to describe the conversion of a Jew to Catholicism in the same column with today’s observance of the Reformation. But in both instances, what was required was the courage of conviction.
Another friend has been bidding me to join him in his Catholic faith. I am happy to attend Mass with this friend when we meet. But the last time we went to his church together, the hymn we sang on this day was Luther’s own most famous song: “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
And this powerful verse from that five hundred year-old Reformation hymn is a fitting one for today:
Though devils all the world should fill,
All eager to devour us.
We tremble not, we fear no ill,
They shall not overpower us.
This world's prince may still
Scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none,
He's judged; the deed is done;
One little word can fell him.