So I have been enjoying reading some history for fun that has nothing to do with my dissertation topic. I am currently re-reading Peter Ackroyd's 1999 biography The Life of Thomas More, which the brilliant Fr. Michael Heintz had given me as a gift back when we were teaching at Saint Joe. I had taught Robert Bolt's play A Man For All Seasons (as well as using his Oscar-drenched film adaptation, directed by the masterful Fred Zimmerman) in my senior "Christian Thought" class at Saint Joseph's High School as a way into talking about the historical More and some of the issues involved in his life. I am forever amazed at some of the nasty reviews the film gets: I always had my students read filmmaker Kevin Smith's discussion of the flick as an "onramp" from a contemporary filmmaker who gets the drama of a film whose drama is primarily in language. For all the noise people make today about multiculturalism and tolerance, it makes my head spin when all of that is dropped at the first opportunity to attack people of another time and culture without the slightest effort to imagine that culture's and period's perspectives, much less understand them. While the film remains a favourite of mine, I thought it was time to get back to a good read through the historical sources, and Ackroyd's well-documented biography provides just that. So that's been a quiet pleasure.
While visiting the dramatic 16th century, I have also been sitting in on Markus Wriedt's undergraduate "Martin Luther" course since this week, both as a dive back into Luther himself, and also to observe Markus's teaching of the material. I was the TA for Mickey Mattox's Luther course a few years back, so I went through a lot of this material then, but it's always an opportunity to be able to go through the same material with another master of it. This last week featured his class going through Luther's Babylonian Captivity of the Church and his Letter to the German Nobility, and then his influential On Christian Freedom. In that latter, Markus's discussion with his students helped me gain a better sense of the immediate political impact of Luther's (ultimately) theological discussion of freedom. Since I'm on the other side of modernity from Luther, I just naturally take his ideas of freedom, and their political consequences, for granted: in many ways, that's what modernity is – the results of those ideas of individual and political freedom. So the historian's struggle is forever to understand ideas as they would be heard by the audience at the time, hearing such notions for perhaps the first time, and imagining how this new idea of freedom would differ from what they understood "freedom" to mean up until this time, and how that new idea would electrify and re-arrange their own vision of the world.
So that new insight into the text – or that reminder not to read "freedom" in it with the familiar eyes of a late 20th/early 21st century American – made sitting in on Markus's class worth it, just in its own right, much less everything else discussed. His students were quite impressive, in that they conjured up out of their own memories enough of the right sayings or texts from the New Testament to set up the reference points – incomplete and potentially contradictory that they may be – that would become part of the building blocks of Christian political theory, which has spanned everything from strict pacifism to Just War Theory limited endorsement of military service.
My Introduction To Theology students made me quite proud this same way during the past week as we looked at the Gospels together and started pulling out the same incomplete bits of data that would provoke the creation of Christian theologies of the Incarnation and of the Trinity. My only task was to get them to see that the questions themselves did not constitute insoluble problems, in that some of them seemed to think that difficulty in understanding initial data might be equivalent to that data having no value whatsoever. I had to help these students understand that like the basic questions of the physical sciences, the problem questions were simply the first step in complicated systems of thought necessary to explain phenomenon: like asking "Why do things fall down and not up?" is not a reason to just assume there can be no answer, since there is no obvious answer in initial observation. Instead, those questions are the beginning of all the sciences, as is the case for theology, too. Theology just has a harder time of it since the students have been slowly educated their entire lives toward answers for the physical questions, even if most of them don't know anything about how mass warps spacetime and produces the effect we call gravity. Having to try to get students up to speed to a collegiate level of philosophical and theological investigations seems to lack credibility, I suppose, just for never having been explained thus far in their education. But they do seem to understand that one is a much more credible atheist (or theist) if one understands the full complexity of the ideas being rejected or accepted.