The Reformation's Dark Shadow

by francis russo | 12.15.17

 Martin Luther nails his ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, 1517.

Martin Luther nails his ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, 1517.


xactly 500 years ago today Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, setting in motion the irrevocable fracture of Christendom and the subsequent changes to European society known as the Reformation, events that would lead, depending on who you ask, to nothing short of the birth of individualism, of secularism, of the entire modernity we now inhabit.

Luther was not alone. A confluence of forces laid the groundwork for contesting the monopoly on truth the Catholic Church enjoyed in the Middle Ages. The Renaissance humanist Erasmus ‘laid the egg that Luther hatched,’ doing his part in the European rediscovery of classical antiquity, a body of knowledge safeguarded by the Muslim world in the thousand-year interim between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance. Overseas empire brought to European shores the knowledge of radically new and sophisticated systems of belief and society that made existing accounts of truth and the authority on which they were based manifestly suspect: how could God have missed an entire continent? The printing press and the spread of vernacular editions of the Bible made a singular hold on the public mind all but impossible. Anyone could now read and negotiate the Bible for themselves, sola scriptura. The genie was out of the bottle.

There is no doubt that the Reformation was a good thing. Among much else, it ushered in a new preoccupation and valuation of individual thought and expression -- that vast, sacred interiority of each human being -- from which human rights to some of the greatest works of art and literature have sprung.

But today we are also stranded in the dark, deep end of the logic of "reformation." Long after Luther, individuality has become the unbridled panacea that drowns us in the false salvation of the “self” and leaves us perpetually unfulfilled in the quest for its illusory grace. We live today as atomized individuals with supersized, supermarket values, chained to the deceitful imperative of our age: “Just be yourself.” Dizzying arrays of options – and thus choices – accompany everything from clothes to cars to careers through which we are expected to express our fetishized authenticity. If it is true that we are free to choose, we are also obliged to be free – forced to cull and exhibit from the depths of our inner selves our ever-unfolding destinies, whether we know them or not.

Any exercise in self-reflection will reveal that the self is no rosy utopia, no sure source of guidance and revelation. The deeper one looks “inward” the more one finds demons and as well as angles, contradiction as well as confidence. Navigating such a wilderness is best done not in individual isolation but through the support systems of outward society. We forget that our cherished individuality is possible only by way of the very community we neglect. Human beings are no more than the narratives spun of their surrounding material. My grandmother would have put it like this: tell me who you go with, and I’ll tell you who you are.

It is hard to seek community today. Obsessive individuality is a poison that rots the soul of society. We believe ourselves attached by iDevices that stroke the worst impulses of individual nature and offer only a shallow, phantom sense of digital community. We demand individual rights but leave unfulfilled communal duties. Today the only system of values in our lives is that of the market -- a poor, dehumanizing set of principles that saps the most precious domains of life. Religion and civic community – where true guidance comes – have deteriorated almost to the point of forgetting they ever existed. The quest for selfhood governed only by values of the market comprise our last (dys)utopia.

Rather than unduly prizing the search and exposition of inwardness, we should revalue those forms of outwardness that serve to enrich the community from which all individuality is based. Go to a church service, or start your own. Get involved in local politics, or run for office yourself. In looking to community, we necessarily also find ourselves.

The individual is a mighty fine thing, but it is by no means individual. 500 years after its supposed birth we should peer less into the mirror, and instead find a better reflection in one another.


About the Author

Francis Russo is a Ph.D. Student in History at the University of Pennsylvania and a founding editor of Refraction.