Luther: Destroy the World for Truth

In Section 18 of On the Bondage of the Will, Luther responds to a point Erasmus makes about keeping the peace. Here, as basically all throughout the rest of this text, Luther tells Erasmus to fuck off. The debate over free will is so important, Luther says, that even if the whole world was hurled into chaos and reduced to nothing, it’d still be worth the truth. I mean it’s a bit dramatic, but alright, let’s hear it.

So Erasmus is talking about how the Bible can be a bit obscure – we covered that last week. He goes on to say that even if the meaning of the Bible was always plain, sometimes it’s not always appropriate to be telling everyone what’s actually being said. “It is lawful to speak the truth; it is not expedient to speak the truth to everybody at every time and in every way.” As mentioned above, Luther’s response is that telling the truth about free will is worth burning the world down over. In fact, he goes further than that and accuses Erasmus of being too comfortable, of compromising the faith because he’s too scared of discomfort: “You would have us, for the sake of the Popes, the heads, and the peace of the community, to put off… and depart from the all-certain word of God.” 

Luther then articulates an interesting little principle, ascribing it to Erasmus. “Some diseases may be borne with less evil than they can be cured [with].” It’s a pretty fair principle. If someone cuts you off in traffic, the proper cure might be to run them off the road so that they’ll never do it again. But in that instance, the cure is causing more problems than the actual problem. It’s better to do nothing, and let this cutter-offer continue on their merry way. The disease may be borne with less evil than the cure. We can imagine some Catholics who sympathised with Luther thinking the same sort of thing – Luther might have some legitimate criticisms of Catholicism, but the ‘cure’ of splitting off into a new church is causing more problems than the ‘disease’ of indulgences or whatever. But Luther turns the whole thing around. He says, well, if there’s discord resulting from these truths, then that’s the disease in this metaphor. But the disease is better borne than the cure – it’s better to suffer for the truth than to lie about the Word of God. It’s better to cause wars and destroy the whole world over the truth than to lie about the Word of God.

As an attitude, it’s the sort of thing I’ve heard from Christians before. A few years back I was arguing about abortion with another Christian, and I made the point that if it was illegal, we’d go back to the back-alley stuff with women dying from infection and so on. He responded, well, let that be the consequence. It’s the same basic attitude: the ‘disease’ of back-alley abortions (with all its attendant ills) is better than the ‘cure’ of making it legal. It’s a pretty awful point of view – but it’s basically in line with Luther’s approach. It’s better to suffer for the right reasons than to be comfortable for the wrong ones. Now, I have some sympathy with that idea as a general principle, at least in some situations. If I could either cheat on a test or fail it, I’d probably choose to fail it. I wouldn’t want to be comfortable (ie pass the test) by doing something wrong. That said, when it comes to these life and death situations, my instinct would be more towards the pragmatic. Regardless of what anybody thinks about the morality or immorality of it, let’s keep it as safe and clean as possible.

So the tension between those two positions is pretty clear. On the one hand, you’ve got people advocating for unity and safety as top priority. On the other, you’ve got people advocating for something that they see as a dangerous but necessary truth or goodness. It might be risky to have these debates about free will, but it’s good to be explicit about the truth. Personally, I don’t think that one side is always better than the other. Obviously the Catholic hierarchy were leveraging the importance of unity to try and keep Luther and other critics in line, and that’s shitty. We can understand Luther’s insistence on ‘dangerous truth’ given that context. At the same time, that guy I was talking to wanted women to die for a so-called moral rule. That’s astounding. Even if you think abortion is immoral, banning it just pushes it underground, making it even more dangerous for the women involved. Now, you might argue that people who do illegal things implicitly accept a level of risk, but that’s a little like the things we’ve been criticising around God and evil.

You might remember Aquinas saying that God doesn’t directly cause evil; instead He allows humans to choose evil things of their own free will. It feels like an insufficient argument, because it seems like God could have put more of a safety net in place. According to this argument, we’re totally responsible for all our own mistakes, and the omnipotent Creator doesn’t have any responsibility to make us stronger or smarter or less prone to sin in the first place. It feels like a bit of a sick game, where God has the power to be more helpful, but arbitrarily chooses to make things hard. We could say similar things about this ‘implicitly accept the risk’ argument. The people who disapprove of abortion have the opportunity to make it safe (relatively speaking), but choose to leave women seeking abortion with a heavily increased burden of risk. Again, it seems unnecessarily shitty. There are plenty of other instances in society where we let people do things that we might think are harmful or negative, and still provide safety nets for when it goes wrong. There are supports in place for smokers, gamblers, drug addicts, all the rest of it. We keep people safe, even when they’re doing things that we might disagree with on principle. And to be clear, I’m not personally coming down on one side or the other in this debate. I’m more just pointing out that if you’re against abortion on moral grounds, there’s still perfectly good social and political reasons to keep it legal – to keep it regulated. When people disagree with that position, and look to ban abortion, they’re following in the footsteps of Martin Luther. It’s the same approach: they think the ban is morally right, and they’re going to burn down women’s health and safety over it. Food for thought.

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