Martin Luther, My Kind of Guy

The Protestant Reformation brought about a fundamental revolution in how individuals saw themselves in relation to the God the Creator. For thousands of years the Catholic Church had taught that individuals could relate to God only through the medium of the church and its priesthood. Otherwise, the poor wretches were doomed to burn in Hell.


Then along came Martin Luther to denounce this teaching. Luther claimed that the Bible — God’s Word — was the medium through which individuals could relate to the Creator. They needed neither the church nor its priests.

Revolutions don’t get any more fundamental than that, do they?

I’m fond of comparing the environmental revolution I helped organize with the Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther organized. Sounds far-fetched? Self-serving? Vain? Well, mind your manners, it’s not at all. It’s a quest for historical understanding.

The Reformation and environmentalism both show how powerful new ideas and the social movements that appear in support of them combine to change the world in profound ways, not just politically but philosophically, religiously, and spiritually.

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a German monk and Catholic priest who was the principal organizer of the reform movement in 16th century Christianity we call the Protestant Reformation. Luther changed the course of Western history for the better. He’s my kind of guy.[1]

In 1517, Luther famously posted 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church that denied some basic teachings of Catholicism. He attacked the belief that the Church and only the Church was the route to salvation. The Church claimed to be the intermediary between God and the individual. Faith could be experienced and redemption granted only through the medium of priests. (This is how, by the way, the sale of “indulgences” – a parishioner’s payment of money to the church in exchange for the forgiveness of sins – had become by Luther’s time both a massive industry and a massive scandal. Luther argued that only God could forgive sins.)

Luther turned the Church’s teaching on its ear. He taught instead that faith was a personal matter that could be developed and practiced without the medium of the Church. The Bible, Luther argued, is the supreme religious authority, not the Pope. Through the Bible, each individual can find a path to salvation on his or her own.

Millions of people would be drawn to Luther’s radical new ideas. Soon after they were posted The 95 Theses were translated from Latin into German and, thanks to a revolutionary new technology, the printing press,[2] they were spread throughout Germany in two weeks and throughout Europe within two months. This was an early demonstration of the immense influence of communications technology on social change, a force that has become a whirlwind in our time.

The liberating force of Luther’s ideas on the people of his time can scarcely be imagined. For a thousand years, they’d been taught that God was off-limits to ordinary mortals. Now Luther’s translation of the Bible into German (from Hebrew and ancient Greek) enabled his countrymen to seek salvation on their own.

Both Church and State struck back at Luther harshly. He was declared “a notorious heretic,” his writings were banned, and his arrest was ordered. An imperial edict was issued making it a crime for anyone in Germany to give Luther food or shelter. It permitted anyone to kill Luther without legal consequence. As I read history, any reformer who is condemned as viciously as this must be doing something right.

To sum it up, the Protestant Reformation fundamentally altered the view that people had of themselves in relation to the Creator. What I argue here is that environmentalism fundamentally altered the view that people have of themselves in relation to Natural Creation.

The vanity of humans viewing themselves as the pinnacle of natural creation is compounded by the assumption that the rest of creation exists primarily for human use and exploitation. This conflicts, of course, with the First Law of Ecology which declares that everything is connected to everything else. There is no pinnacle. Instead, there are infinite numbers of complex webs in which all life forms are interconnected.

This ecological worldview arouses fierce opposition from those holding traditional religious beliefs. Most notably, the ecological vision runs counter to the Judeo-Christian teaching that the earth was created by God and is not a god itself, and that it is neither equal to nor superior to humanity, but is God’s gift to humans. The significance of this conflict can scarcely be overstated.

The “deep ecology” vision of reality goes far beyond what we think of as environmental protection – a concern with more efficient control and management of natural systems for the benefit of humans. This vision recognizes that ecological balance requires profound changes in our perception of the place of human beings in the planetary ecosystem.

This ecological vision connects the individual to the cosmos as a whole, a connection that is spiritual in the deepest sense of the word. By preaching ecology, we early environmentalists set in motion a profound moral reformation. (Doesn’t this make me a teensy-weensy little bit like Martin Luther?)

Okay, it’s true, we Earth Day organizers thought of ourselves much more as political reformers rather than moral reformers. We may have been dopey about it but we did at least let the ecological cat out of the philosophical bag. In all earnestness, we proclaimed the sacredness of nature and the moral responsibility of the individual to take direct personal action to protect it.

Occasionally new truths are released into the world to supplant ancient errors. As I see it, Martin Luther did this and so did Earth Day organizers. What do the traditionalists have to back up their view of humanity squatting on the tip of a pyramid? Only its’ hoary age and spurious venerability. What do environmentalists have to back their view? We have discernible reality of natural creation – that which we can see with our own eyes, smell with our own noses, and touch with our own hands. It is the earth beneath our feet. So, move over, Professor Luther! Make some room for the greenies in the history of moral reform.




[1] In his later years, Luther became intensely anti-Semitic – not my kind of guy.

[2] The printing press with moveable metal type was invented by Johannes Gutenberg around 1439.