Saturday, 5 November 2011

Diagnosing Martin Luther

 Monday, as a commenter on this blog pointed out, was not just Halloween but also Reformation Day- the anniversary of the day that Martin Luther nailed his  articles on the door of Wittenberg church, an act which would have far reaching consequences bringing a level of schism and division not seen before or since and in the light of which our current divisions and conflicts will (I hope) appear  more as a blip on the graph of religious history than a seismic shift. I first studied the Reformation properly during A level History and it was  fascinating to see not only the far reaching consequences that ideas can have but also  the journey that individuals go on before those ideas are realised. Luther, for example, was reportedly a very tortured soul who punished himself excessively over his shortcomings ; it was arguably the physical, mental and spiritual exhaustion this caused that brought him to a place where, reading scripture, he rediscovered and articulated more fully to others the idea of salvation through grace rather than works.
While reading through various blog posts this week, my attention was caught by this article called Beating myself up over religion from the BBC "Ouch! (disability) blog. In it the author, who is a Jew, but also describes his Roman Catholic mother experiencing the same reaction, writes,

"While the thread uniting every religion is the belief in revering the deity, improving yourself, and behaving in a proper manner, the dogma and doctrine can easily lead a person with an anxiety disorder to believe that anything less than perfection makes you an utter failure."

The author describes suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and finding that religious belief simply imposed more rituals, as well as the fear that he had to do everything "exactly right" and that the effect of religious faith was intense "worry and anguish".  I immediately thought of Martin Luther and wondered if he too suffered from OCD or something similar?  How many saints and mystics could be described as completely sane and balanced? I once read that many periods  of mystical and extreme behaviour were then followed by periods of practical work and service. How far was this because those individuals, having wrestled their spiritual angels and demons, then found themselves free? I do not want to be too reverential about  mental illness. I have suffered from it myself and would not wish a mental health condition, or even the dark night of the soul, upon anyone. And yet sometimes to struggle spiritually leads us to insight. William Blake said that "The road of excess leads to the palace of Wisdom, and Luther's early spiritual obssessions were a form of excess that led to wisdom.
 I suspect that Luther might in this day and age be prescribed medication, counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy, no doubt enormously alleviating his problems, but perhaps preventing that journey that led him to rearticulate so powerfully something that  was always there in scripture - that we are not perfect, just forgiven.


  1. Great post, Sue. Luther's mental health has often been speculated about & even his toilet habits have been probed.(Not forensically!) The constipated Luther theory is shibboleth of German historical study.(His first participation in the ceremonial aspects of liturgy was a disaster probably because of his obesssive personality but he is hardly alone in this, take it from me!) Luther's character was, like all of us, very changeable & I think if we look beyond the "great" events of his life we see a man of obsessive worry but also a man who loved life. He genuinely loved his wife & to paraphrase him, he told students that the way to tell if a college was suitable to read theology in was the quality of its beer! It is a shame that he cannot be regarded as a hero due to his vile antisemiticism & decision to side with the nobility against uprisings from the peasants.

  2. Thanks for that DWW. We are all rather a hotchpotch aren't we? I remember being rather shocked by the tenor of some of the letters exchanged between Luther and Thomas Moore. I am a big fan of Luther just on the basis that he liked dogs, an indication of innate potential for good in my opinion:)

  3. It was revealed unto Luther that dogs have souls, so he was right on every other subject. Obviously.

    Iffy Vicar

  4. I guess you might also approve of the concept that the way to tell if a college is suitable to read theology is in the quality of its beer? (Perhaps his second best revelation - after the dogs one.)

  5. I agree. People often speculate on the link between genius and madness - but it shouldn't be surprising that the brain is capable of great heights and depths. Perhaps it's also part of how God redeems suffering - as you say, struggle can lead to insight - and dependence upon Him.

  6. Ah, but the misery and suffering of his spiritual quest were perhaps well worth it when you consider the treasures of grace, acceptance and forgiveness "that we are home before we started" that it unearthed. He was rightly dissatisfied in a narrow, confining and untrue religion, and could not but be unhappy. I am glad he found broader pastures for himself and us.

    I have blogged on Luther too, if you have a minute or so.