There is no time more appropriate than the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther (which passed last month), nailing his complaint to the Wittenberg Cathedral door to admit that this Catholic is a bit of a Protestant. Or “Protestant,” rather. You see, I’m surprised to have acquired this self-designation because I was not raised in any Protestant denomination. Not to mention that when it comes to the theological postulates of the Reformation, such as salvation through faith alone or a reliance on scripture over tradition, that I am entirely emotionally unmoved.
This piece will not be a conversion narrative; I have no road to Damascus moment, no account of being “born again” while holding hands aloft at some revival. I don’t subscribe to any of the multitude of Protestant theologies, from Calvinism to Arminianism, and I’m not an adherent of any of those confessions named after places like Augsburg and Westminster. By no standard definition could I be considered a literal Protestant (save for perhaps according to some of the most liberal flavors). So, in what sense can a guy who was nominally raised as a Catholic, and who now considers himself to be culturally Catholic, or Post-Christian (or whatever), claim to also be Protestant?
Well, it’s easy. Because I’m a “Protestant,” you’re a Protestant, Barack Obama and Donald Trump are Protestants, and maybe even Pope Francis is a “Protestant.” Some traditionalist Catholics might enthusiastically assent to my last example, but don’t misconstrue my snark. I’m not condemning, merely observing. Because in 2017 everyone, regardless of denomination, or even whether or not they consider themselves to be a Christian (or a theist for that matter) is now a “Protestant” of a sort. There are Catholic Protestants, Jewish Protestants, Muslim Protestants, atheist Protestants, sometimes even Protestant Protestants – Protestants all.
Luther’s redefinition of religion was so complete and total, that we’re all basically working from his template. In privileging faith over ritual and practice, Luther made creeds paramount, and in the process religion inadvertently became something separate from the rest of culture. For better and for worse, modernity is in large part the result of the Reformation, and as children of modernity, divergent though we may be in theology and perspective, we can’t help but also be children of Luther.
This is not a position that I arrive at lightly, and I should confess that as an uneasy child of modernity I wear this mantle of counterfeit Protestantism uncomfortably as well. Growing up in Pittsburgh, one of the most Catholic cities in the United States, it certainly didn’t feel like I was Protestant, particularly because until I was an adolescent I’m not even entirely sure if I knew what one was. The vast majority of my friends were Catholic or Jewish, the smattering of Protestants tended towards High Church affectations and thus the difference didn’t register.
But although I didn’t become a Protestant, during my academic training I still caught the Reformation-bug as it were, and since then I have become a particularly unlikely specialist in Puritanism. Telling people who sit next to you on a plane that you spend your time reading and writing about the hell-fire sermons of Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards has proven to be an effective way to enjoy a quiet flight. But in addition to discovering a handy way of silencing chatty seat-mates, I also developed my contention that Luther, John Calvin, and the other reformers so indelibly altered how we think about religion, that they initiated a veritable revolution in belief, and that as the result of that aftermath we can’t help but all be Protestantism’s heirs.
We often approach texts in light of Luther’s rallying cry of “Scripture alone” and we celebrate a cult of individualism derived from his “Priesthood of all Believers.” Especially in the United States, we prioritize belief as the most important element in religion – echoing his call for “Faith alone” – while minimizing the significance of tradition, ritual, and even ethics. In everyday life, people may be religious or not, but the definition of religion that they’re working from is often Luther’s.
The questions of reformers’ settled at Augsburg, Speyer, and Dort, or by their opponents at Trent, matter much less now than they did in an era where people were willing to go to war over how to interpret the Eucharist. That we mostly no longer kill each other over questions concerning salvation is unequivocally good. And though few men were as certain of their theological positions as was Luther, it was arguably the radical potential at the core of a “Priesthood of all Believers” which ultimately made strict enforcement of religious conformity impossible.
If Luther made “faith alone,” sola Fide, the center of his theology, then in some ways we’ve moved beyond faith to prioritizing how religion makes us feel. Ours is the era of “feeling alone,” of a sola Affectus. Arriving at this point has been part of a long process, inadvertently initiated by Luther. On this 500th anniversary he would be loath to see what the Reformation inadvertently wrought, after all one of the criticisms of Luther during the Counter-Reformation was that his theology would lead to a type of spiritual anarchism, with every person a religion unto themselves.
But, they were correct in that, if wrong about the disastrous repercussions. In separating religion from culture, Luther made the former a matter of private conscience, so in truth everyone can be the prophet of their own religion, author of their own gospel, priest of their own church. A spiritual anarchism I zestfully embrace; for though I remain unmoved by virtually all of the details of his theology, it is by being a priest in Luther’s church of all believers that it is possible for me to reject the rest of him, as I see fit. And so on this 500th Reformation Day I give thanks to Luther, as a faithful “Protestant.”
Ed Simon is a senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion will be released in 2018.