Dominic Erdozain’s book, The Soul of Doubt: The Religious Roots of Unbelief from Luther to Marx, was a fascinating and often times humorous read. The latter I did not expect from a book on this topic. A few things stood out to me as I read: The fact that the Christian’s conscience is highlighted as central yet somewhat ill-defined; Feuerbach’s idea of the “egoism of faith”; the arrogance of negotiating with God; the selling of salvation; and Luther thinking the pope was the antichrist. Let us explore these…
I found myself somewhat confused by the discussion of the conscience’s role in our unbelief and individualism and felt this needed more defining for me. Then I discovered that Vincent Pecora agreed with me when he stated, “But because the meaning of the term “conscience” is never explored philosophically or psychologically—after all, does the authentic Christian conscience really demand individualism, and would sixteenth-century Catholics and Protestants have agreed on how much individualism was needed?—the normative force of Erdozain’s preference always seems smuggled into the discussion. In fact, Luther’s early rebellion was hardly the result of his private conscience alone.” The psychological aspect of conscience is fascinating to me because it can be shaped by so many external forces, often traumatic ones. I also believe a person’s individual personality and the significant influencers in their life can be driving forces for their level of individualism and skepticism as well.
The reality that humans want to create their own image of God goes all the way back to the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt when they melted down gold to create an image of God to worship. This is why we have the first and second commandments folks. In fact, Feuerback feels that this “springs from an essentially moral critique of the “egoism” of faith…how this moral, even theological, critique lays the foundation of the Marxist analysis of religion as “ideology,” oiling the wheels of power and privilege.” This isn’t the first time I have heard of Christians being criticized for their “saved” egos giving them permission to exercise power and privilege over their fellow neighbors. This has been an eyesore on Christianity for centuries and much damage has been done “in the name of Christ”. Jesus’ example was the opposite, the last will be first and power over people never demanded.
The next item that caught my attention was this idea of negotiating with God in order to get to heaven. Erdozain states that “Luther began to fear that the nominalist theologians, who trained him, were guilty of the same urge to negotiate terms with the deity, to build stairways to heaven. He sensed arrogance in the injunction to do your best and trust God for the rest.” This idea that we can work our way or negotiate our way to heaven is not an uncommonly held belief. People often attempt to work out deals with God in order to get what they want from Him. For instance, if I come back to church, will you save my child. There is a type of arrogance in the notion that doing your best can be a negotiating tool with God. It is also interesting how common it is for variations of that phrase, “do your best and trust God for the rest”, are used by Christians today.
Another area where Christians have gotten in trouble is with money. There is a reason why many non-church-going people are wary of the church asking for money. “Selling salvation was not a new idea, but the latest scheme, designed to finance the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, promote the interests of an unusually ambitious archbishop, and release souls from purgatory, by the simple mechanism of cash payment, was a reckless provocation. “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings,” went the infamous marketing couplet, “the soul from purgatory springs.”” I read this and went…Wow, the church has been manipulating people out of their money for a long time. The fact that people trusted the church and the church would play on their emotions and heartstrings in order to raise the money for a new cathedral is preposterous. It seems like the Catholic church still does this when they encourage their members to purchase beads, statues or candles, etc. in order to get right with God. Many people will point to the mishandling of the topic of money as the primary reason for their exit from the church.
I close with this humorous story of Luther and the pope, that obviously wasn’t so humorous at the time. “Luther may have been half-joking the first time he suggested the pope was an imposter, put in place by the devil. By the summer of 1520, he was coldly certain that the pope was indeed “the Antichrist,” waging war on Christendom. The nervous monk had become a warrior of faith.” Luther definitely became enraged by what the Catholic church was doing and decided to draw his battle lines. Some people share his sentiments today and feel convicted to come out against other churches that do not share their beliefs or methods. As Erdozain so beautifully outlines, if the religious and the secular can realize they are closer than they would like to admit, maybe we can build bridges to reach more who are doubting the faith.