Friedrich Nietzsche explained Luther’s Reformation as a dramatic spiritual revolution within Europe of the northern sentiment and character, which demanded simplicity, with the southern, liberal sentiment that allowed for unending complication under the simple structure of the Church. Whatever can be said of Nietzsche, he was a fabulous writer. His imagery viscerally cast light on the spiritual facts going on around him, that cleared the clutter of culture to allow the simplicity of “modern science” but eventually pushed Europe into the maw of gore and madness that reigned there in the first half of the 20th century.
Nietzsche explains, with at least a bit of lament, the ruins of the Church as he saw it in Europe in the 1880s:
. . . were there ever finer ruins? Overgrown with weeds, large and small. It is the Church which is this city of decay: we see the religious organisation of Christianity shaken to its deepest foundations. The belief in God is overthrown, the belief in the Christian ascetic ideal is now fighting its last fight. Such a long and solidly built work as Christianity it was the last construction of the Romans! It could not of course be demolished all at once; every sort of earthquake had to shake it, every sort of spirit which perforates, digs, gnaws and moulders had to assist in the work of destruction. But that which is strangest is that those who have exerted themselves most to retain and preserve Christianity, have been precisely those who did most to destroy it, the Germans. . . The Lutheran Reformation in all its length and breadth was the indignation of the simple against something “complicated”.
He describes Luther’s revolution as that of the thinking of simple, good-natured folk over the complexities of culture that shone in the Church because the church retained “the luxury of skepticism and toleration which every victorious, self-confident power permits.” While Nietzsche acknowledged the fact that Luther spiritually revived Christianity as a worldview, and his simplicity allowed for modern thinking, but to him, Luther’s German reasoning meant an unraveling:
“[H]e tore asunder with honest rage, where the old spider had woven longest and most carefully. He gave the sacred books into the hands of everyone, they thereby got at last into the hands of the philologists, that is to say, the annihilators of every belief based upon books. He demolished the conception of “the Church” in that he repudiated the belief in the inspiration of the Councils: for only under the supposition that the inspiring spirit which had founded the Church still lives in it, still builds it, still goes on building its house, does the conception of ” the Church ” retain its power.”
Nietzsche also puts his finger on the simple fact that the Reformation made the Church, which had enforced its superiority since Theodosius, the vassel of the state rather than its rightful superior. Christianity became “good-natured” in its simplicity, and cleared the way for infecting law with modern thinking in the form of modern science.
The consequences of Luther’s simplification of Christianity
In proclaiming “Every man his own priest”, Luther brought about a “peasant revolt” in the ecclesiastical social order of the church, which sapped the priesthood of its cultural moral superiority. He took the scriptures from the priests and told everybody to read, thereby putting the scripture into the hands of those scholars who showed that the way people talk about them as deeply confused. He gave the priests wives and said everyone could have a family, thereby removing from the priesthood its popular sanctity. This led to the rightful abandonment of auricular confession, which took away an outlet to lay to rest the terrible secrets that complicate the soul.
What were the consequences? In making things simple, Nietzsche observes that “there grew out of [the Reformation] the mobility and disquietude of the spirit, its thirst for independence, its belief in the right to freedom, and its ‘naturalness’.” We acknowledge that this sort of sentiment led to “modern science” and modern ideas, but in simplifying things, we make things shallow and ignore the deep chaos and magic, allowing “naive candour and plain-dealing in matters of knowledge” and removed the “shame” and “profundity” necessary for good scholarship, which requires the scholar to take into account of the world, i.e. all of the complexities of facts.
To understand why Nietzsche reviled Luther and his Christianity it is important to keep in mind the thrust of his project. Nietzsche, like Einstein, believed that the individual was a simple fact more basic than morality. Why? because he saw that greatness of humans that most people acknowledge cannot be formed through law, morality, theology, science – or any other description of the facts. He reached this conclusion by trust in the simplicity of will, spirit, and reason, and observation of his own brilliance and the brilliance of other great artists, such as Richard Wagner. Nietzsche saw that the simplicity of Christianity crushed the individual. He rejected all of the simplicities that Christians saw in morality and sought to re-assert the democratic imperative in the Greeks. He rejected simple morality as “slave” morality.
Setting aside our condemnation of Nietzsche’s obstinate rebellion against all that most hold dear, it seems that Nietzsche’s insight can help to orient us in the LDS/Evangelical conversation. I think that Nietzsche was in simple terms, correct to say that Luther’s theological moves simplified Christianity, at the expense of the complexities of the individual, and of morality.
Joseph Smith’s counter-revolt of the Spirit.
Joseph Smith’s life, viewed most plainly, is the story of a radical assertion of the power of the individual’s relationship to God and the Holy Spirit. Joseph saw that God’s commandments do not contain rhyme or reason. The realities of God that he could see through the Spirit obliterated the complexities that theologians see with reason. To this good-natured simple country boy, all of that talk led you to think was that God was not a thing at all (i.e. nothing) and if people could just see the face of God, they would understand that he was an absolute individual like they themselves were. Thus all of the creeds were an abomination to God because they denied that God could reassert Himself through a new personality, i.e. a new prophet. Whether this is heresy or true dogma, it is powerful doctrine.
With it Joseph and his successors deconstructed all allegiances except those of the family and the Church. They abandoned all of Christian orthodoxy and theology, they rejected philosophy, they rejected Christian marriage, they rejected the United States (an any earthly authority), and sought to set up a new order in the world based on revelation, a new Church to replace the ruins of the Church bulldozed by Luther. They sent messengers to all of the world saying that Zion was established and to gather together. Later, they decided that Zion was not a place but a sort of order (a priesthood order) and sought to spread that order. That is what the LDS Church is about.
Put in Nietzsche’s terms, to Mormons, the Great Apostasy was the building of the Church without properly taking into account the “founding spirit” of the Church. Luther helped correct the Apostasy by shredding the Church and making the way for science and freedom. Joseph restored the Church by founding it on principles of actual communication with God rather than rehashing scripture with reason. Whether you see the facts as being this simple determines whether you are a Mormon or not.
I think where most Mormons become confused is that they believe that they are required to ignore simple facts if the complexities of the words of prophecy, revelation, or authority tell them to. This is not true, if any church is to ever be the Church, it must absorb the facts according to the direction of its founding spirit. In the 175 years after the LDS Church was formed, the church has changed in almost every possible way. Institutionally it is unrecognizable compared to how it was in 1830. Mormons seem to have recognized, with Nietzsche, that “for only under the supposition that the inspiring spirit which had founded the Church still lives in it, still builds it, still goes on building its house, does the conception of ” the Church ” retain its power.”
Also with Nietzsche, Mormons assert that Luther’s position is too simple. By making the Cross absolutely simple, it leaves all of the complex facts of Church, the Law, freedom and the world unrevealed. Unfortunately, as Nietzsche and those post-moderns that followed conclusively determined, reason alone should not be your only guide to these complex facts. The orthodox made the Church simple. Luther made the Cross and salvation simple. Joseph added complexities to both in an effort to make the communication between God and humans simple (basic). But Nietzsche said, and the history of Germany and German thought has proved, is that simplicity in thought, institution, or relationship comes at the expense of the dampening influence of depth and acknowledgement of deep complexity and may not be the only standard of beauty (i.e. what is desirable) in the art of religion.