Book Write-Up: Young Man Luther, by Erik H. Erikson

Erik H. Erikson.  Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History.  United States of America: W.W. Norton and Company, 1958 and 1962.

Erik Erikson was a psychologist, and this book is his psychological profile of Martin Luther.  There were a couple of reasons that I decided to read this book.  For one, I remembered a professor of mine saying in her Christianity class years ago that Luther may have been a manic-depressant.  I don’t recall if she mentioned Erikson’s study, but her statement stayed with me for many years, especially when I read Luther’s writings.  Luther in his writings vacillates between inner peace and spiritual depression, and he seems to be trying to reassure himself on a continual basis that God loves him, and that his standing with God is secure.  I doubt that I fit the category of manic-depressant, but I could identify with Luther’s struggle with his negative emotions, such as religious obsessive-compulsiveness, self-doubt, and a belief that his flaws kept God from loving him.

Second, I will be preaching at my church on Reformation Sunday, and the topic of my sermon will be Martin Luther’s life and legacy.  Erikson’s book was on my shelf, and so I figured that reading it could help me in terms of my preparation of my sermon.

Martin Luther, in Erikson’s depiction (and probably in most depictions), was a man who was on a quest for spiritual inner peace.  Luther was spiritually insecure as a monk, for he felt that God was wrathful, but he found more peace when he concluded that people are justified by faith in Christ, apart from works; at that point, he believed more in God’s love.

Erikson believes that important aspects of Martin Luther’s life had their roots in his childhood.  Luther as a monk believed that God was wrathful, and Erikson traces this mindset back to Luther’s experiences with his harsh father, Hans, as if Luther projected onto his heavenly father the characteristics of his earthly father.  Luther’s mother was superstitious and rather mystical, and Erikson seems to believe that Luther’s quest for a close relationship with God, as well as his alleged sightings of Satan, have their roots in that.  According to Erikson, Luther had more peace back when he was a really small child, under the care of his mother, and his life would become an attempt to recapture that peace.  Erikson states that the Bible would become Luther’s mother: a nurturer, if you will.

Erikson discusses Luther’s study of philosophy, which did not help Luther because of its uncertainties.  But Erikson notes that there were Catholics in the monastery and in Luther’s study who encouraged Luther to trust in a God of love.  Luther would recognize his debt to them, and yet Luther did not always find convincing some of the Catholic attempts to help him feel better.  Luther was told, for example, that he shouldn’t be so preoccupied with feeling bad about his venial sins, since mortal sins were the serious ones.  Luther was puzzled by this, however, for is not a sin a sin before the just and holy God?  Some of the things that Catholics told him would move him towards greater assurance, and yet there were elements of Catholicism that clearly did not assuage his troubled conscience.

Erikson states Luther was helped on his journey by two factors.  First, Luther in the monastery was able to talk with Johann von Staupitz, his mentor, a Catholic who was encouraging Luther to believe in a God of love and forgiveness.  Johann von Staupitz would remain a Catholic even after Luther launched the Reformation, although Luther acknowledged his debt to him in terms of his journey towards peace.  Johann von Staupitz was someone Luther could talk to.  Second, Luther would become a teacher of the Bible at a college, and, according to Erikson, that provided Luther with an opportunity to work through, develop, articulate, and confidently accept his own beliefs.

Luther’s father was disappointed with his son for becoming a monk, for Luther’s father wanted for Martin to become a lawyer, a husband, and a father.  Erikson makes the point that Luther eventually achieved his father’s dreams for him, for Luther (while he did not become a lawyer) became a prominent figure who debated issues, as well as a husband and a father.  But Erikson notes that Luther was not satisfied, for Luther looked back and wondered if he had done the right thing in terms of launching the Protestant Reformation.  Erikson also may have been arguing that Luther had highs and lows in his life, periods of great productivity, but also times of little or no productivity.

The book was not always easy for me to understand, and I can tell from wikipedia’s article about it that I missed some points, and that I did not always see the forest of which some of the trees were part.  But I found the book to be helpful to me in terms of exposing me to key aspects of Martin Luther’s life, as well as reinforcing my knowledge of them.

Two issues that I was thinking about when reading this book were the impact of our earlier experiences on our later life, and the role of writing or teaching in the shaping of a person’s identify.

The first issue overlaps with my reading of Fawn Brodie’s Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character, for Brodie argues that events in Nixon’s earlier life would shape his character.   I do believe that events in our earlier life influence our views and our outlooks, but I shudder to think how fragile human beings are, such that events outside of their control could have an influence on how they turn out.  What parents do or do not do, or say or do not say, can arguably have dramatic repercussions on their children’s outlooks, decisions, and lives.  That puts a lot of pressure on parents, doesn’t it?  I wouldn’t go so far as to be a complete determinist on this issue, however, for people still can make their own decisions, regardless of what their upbringing was, plus there have been people who have had less-than-ideal upbringings, yet they turned out all right.  Perhaps they are able to cope with their issues, or they can bracket them out when they need to function in society.

The second issue inspired me to think about my blogging and how that has shaped my identity.  Before I blogged, I had my doubts, my resentments, and my beliefs, but blogging was what enabled me to step forward and to establish and articulate an identity in terms of my beliefs.  Before I blogged, I had my disdain and my resentment about certain features of Christian evangelicalism, but they became more a part of me after I started blogging about them.  Erikson seems to make a similar point about Luther: that teaching the Bible enabled Luther to become firmer about his beliefs and his identity.  Speaking for myself personally, I’m not sure if that was a good thing, in my case.  Before I blogged, I could actually dialogue with conservative evangelicals, and I was open to asking them questions about their beliefs, and maybe even to learning from them.  I was on a quest, looking to them for answers.  After I started blogging, however, I was putting myself out there as one who had problems with evangelicalism, as I articulated why I had those problems, and dialogue with evangelicals became more difficult for me.  I also think that, around the time that I started blogging, I was beginning to become firmer in certain convictions: that God can work with people outside of a Christian context, that biblical inerrancy is grossly problematic, that universalism has a fairly decent case, and the list goes on.  I lost something when I started to blog, and blogging, incidentally, has made me lonelier.  But my beliefs are my beliefs, whether people like them or not.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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