Monthly Archives: July 2013

Erasmus vs. Luther, intellect vs. faith

From James Anthony Froude’s lectures on Erasmus and Luther, in Short Studies on Great Subjects:

Erasmus considered that, for the vulgar, a lie might be as good as truth, and often better. A lie, ascertained to be a lie, to Luther was deadly poison — poison to him, and poison to all who meddled with it. In his own genuine greatness, he was too humble to draw insolent distinctions in his own favour; or to believe that any one class on earth is of more importance than another in the eyes of the Great Maker of them all.

Well, then, you know what I mean by faith, and what I mean by intellect. It was not that Luther was without intellect. He was less subtle, less learned, than Erasmus; but in mother wit, in elasticity, in force, and imaginative power, he was as able a man as ever lived. Luther created the German language as an instrument of literature. His translation of the Bible is as rich and grand as our own, and his table talk as full of matter as Shakespeare’s plays.

Again; you will mistake me if you think I represent Erasmus as a man without conscience, or belief in God and goodness. But in Luther that belief was a certainty; in Erasmus it was only a high probability — and the difference between the two is not merely great, it is infinite. In Luther, it was the root; in Erasmus, it was the flower. In Luther, it was the first principle of life; in Erasmus, it was an inference which might be taken away, and yet leave the world a very tolerable and habitable place after all.

There can be little doubt that Froude considered Luther to be the greater of the two men, and Luther’s relation to God and goodness to be the better one — and equally little doubt that Froude himself was much more akin to Erasmus in this regard.

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As for myself, “belief in God and goodness” is not with me a single belief, but two more-or-less independent beliefs — and I am Erasmian with respect to the one but Lutheran with respect to the other.

Nothing can be more certain than the reality of good and evil. That some things ought to be and other ought not, is as undeniable as that some things are and others are not.. While the specifics of what precisely is, and what precisely ought to be, are often matters of uncertainty, the validity of the concepts of existence and goodness — as fundamental aspects reality, irreducible to anything else —  is a matter of absolute certainty. Through 12 years of atheism, I never doubted that, nor have I ever been able to take seriously the joke-philosophy of “moral relativism” which so often accompanies irreligion.

The existence of God, on the other hand, has never been more than a probability — estimated at various times in my life, based on the available evidence and my interpretation of it, as a very high probability or as a very low one — but always infinitely distant from Luther’s absolute certainty. Even at the height of my religious belief, I always thought of myself as someone who was fundamentally more akin to so-called “freethinkers” than to most religious people; it was just that I happened to have had certain experiences, providing me with evidence to which most freethinkers were not privy, and had therefore reached different conclusions. Given the ease with which I transitioned to atheism when exposed to new evidence, I think I was correct in this analysis of myself.

Recently, philosophical reflection has led me once again to reevaluate the probability of God’s existence to the extent that theist is probably now a more accurate label than atheist (just barely more accurate), but I remain about as far from certainty as it is possible to be.  To borrow the tagline from Seijio Arakawa’s blog, “The fool says in his heart, ‘and why not?'” I suppose I believe in God to about the same degree that I “believe” that there is life on other planets. That is, if I had to guess, I’d probably guess “yes” — but I’d still be absolutely astonished to discover firsthand that my guess had been right!

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People tell me — have told me repeatedly — that if I would only follow my belief in goodness to its logical conclusion I would find that it entails belief in God. Apparently I’m just not smart enough to understand that particular chain of reasoning, though God knows I’ve tried.

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