This essay was written in Fall 2014 for my International Honors 111 course, “Origins, Ideas and Encounters,” regarding Martin Luther’s famous essay, “Freedom of a Christian.” You can read this essay in its original formatting (PDF) by clicking here.
Luther’s essay recognizes that the human focus should be on the thought, not the action — in a moral sense and beyond.
Luther begins his essay with a paradox: Christians are “subject to none” and “subject to all,” possible through the twofold nature of man (596).
He explains throughout his work that, spiritually, the soul and mind are free from any oppression of man — only faith can make an individual pious, not any physical work. “It is clear that man cannot be justified, freed, or saved by any outer work or action at all” (599, emphasis mine). This means that no work or doing makes one person more holy than another. This is especially inflammatory in statements which apply directly to priesthood: “it does not help the soul if the body is adorned with the sacred robes of priests…” (597) and “good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good works” (613).
Physically (Luther uses the word “bodily”), the Christian is subject to all — “the more Christian a man is, the more evils, sufferings, and deaths he must endure, as we see in Christ…himself” (606-7).
The persecuted Christian (such as Christ himself, like Luther says) is a perfect way to illustrate this seemingly-paradoxical twofold nature of man: the Christian is spiritually and thoughtfully subject to none (that is, the Christian is not controlled by any human ruler as to what the faith or spirituality of the Christian is or is not) but is bodily subject to their persecutors.
Mental “faith” is more important than physical “work,” in the opinion of Luther. In Christianity, this means faith and trust in the Word of God is far more important than the hours of community service completed or the avoidance of sins. The spiritual over the physical. The spiritual intent, which can only be self-evaluated, is what determines the importance and goodness of a work — not the work determining spiritual intent.
Out of a religious context, does this mean the thought and intent is more important than the action and how effective it is?
What being “subject to none” philosophically led to is what German essayist Heinreich Heine calls “freedom of thought” — that is, human intelligence was given legitimacy in explaining scripture and reason was used as a spiritual decision-maker. This, paired with the revolutionary ideas that the works of the priesthood did not make anyone spiritually superior to any other Christian, had radical implications in Catholic and non-catholic (that is, secular) society and discourse.
In his 1849 essay, “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau wrote “The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any anytime what I think is right.” Thoreau argued that this was the duty of humankind in society — doing what was right, regardless of how effective this was. 200 years later, Thoreau seems to echo Luther: what one determines is “right” (whether through engaging with “the Word of God,” as Luther says, or other means of determining rightness for an individual) is what is right to do. The one doing the work, because of their moral decision to do the “right” thing, makes the work good. Regardless of how it turns out, making the decision it was good and doing it is spiritually important.
Perhaps the point of Luther and Heine goes beyond questions of morality, but reveals the value of process-oriented over results-oriented activity in any environment.
Luther’s assertion is certainly a spiritual one: works are morally beneficial only when done by those who are actively spiritually good (which is not to say they are perfect, but are rather actively seeking to be good as Christians). Perhaps this is also applied in academia — academic endeavors are beneficial to those who are actively being thoughtful.
Maybe, as a university student, researching a new question or starting a new project is a “good” thing because it was an endeavor a student actively chooses to do. Regardless of how “good” it ends up being (whether good means successful, helpful, or what have you) it is beneficial because it was inquiry chosen to do.
What does this mean about hierarchy, then? To Christians in Luther’s time, this assertion meant they were not “less holy” than their priest for not being celibate, wearing robes, etc. To the thoughtful, especially the undergraduate, does this mean they are not “less thoughtful” than their professor?
Luther’s philosophy, when applied to academia, means that what is important is not what knowledge has been gained or what abbreviation must go before one’s name, but the actual thoughtfulness and desire to inquire. The biology professor is not superior to the biology student because the professor knows more — rather, they are equal as they are both passionate about learning biology. That is, wanting to learn is more important than having already learned. Like the priests and the christians, the professor is not superior to the student because both desire to learn.
This means students must not be afraid of questioning anything and everything (sounds like Socrates), trying and inquiring about new things, and learning from everyone — losing the hierarchy of academia means collaborating more and learning more. That is what is “good.”