Cultural Change Agents: Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo (Part 1 of 2)

The world is changing. Or, at least, more people are noticing the change as the world has always been changing. Humanity, in general, prefers to experience change in small doses with time enough to process the ramifications before the next wave of change sweeps over them. Although much of human history has progressed in small steady steps, the global events of the last few decades have rendered this luxury elusive. The rapid pace of change has escalated uncertainty with people “crying for justice, honesty, and solutions” [1] while being scared and angry.

This response is not new as people throughout history tend to respond to rapid change with fear and anger. Standing strong against this tidal wave are leaders who embrace the change and help lead others through the darkness of the unknown. These leaders, or change agents, are people who are able to maintain a broad perspective on life while valuing questions, wisdom, and personal character over intelligence, knowledge, and presumed answers.

While history is brimming with amazing examples of such leaders, this paper will focus on three change agents within the pandemonium of sixteenth-century Europe who embraced the values previously mentioned. This time frame was chosen due to the parallel between it and the furor of modern culture within the United States. Both periods experienced change at a rapid pace as new concepts and ideas poured into their culture through globalization  (i.e. European colonies in the Americas and Asia vs. airplanes, global tourism, and mass immigration), increased knowledge (i.e. Gutenberg’s printing press vs. the internet), religious discord (i.e. the Protestant Reformation vs. religious pluralism), and political mayhem (i.e. the end of the feudal system vs. the rebirth of nationalism).[2] The agents themselves, Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo, were chosen due to their ability to give a voice to the emotions of their time while personally reflecting the values of questions, wisdom, character, and a broad perspective of life.

However, before looking at the lives of these change agents, it is worth pausing a moment to better understand the four values in question and how they interact with each other. The first value is that of asking questions. Though this may sound like an odd value, it is actually the protovalue from which the other three flow. The prerequisite of asking a question is the humble acknowledgment that the answer is unknown to the one asking the question. Hence to value questions is to recognizes one’s own limitations while seeking to move beyond those limitations. It a multi-layered value that carries within it humility and curiosity coupled with a boldness to receive answers that one may not like.

Wisdom, the second value, flows from the first in that one must understand the world around oneself before being able to wisely choose a course of action. The New Bible Dictionary defines wisdom as “the art of being successful, of forming the correct plan to gain the desired results”[3] whereas Webster’s New World College Dictionary defines it as the “power of judging rightly and following the soundest course of action.”[4] Both definitions carry a sense of practicality where information and knowledge is transferred from the theoretical into the best course of action for that time and place.

The third value is that of personal character development. This value can be defined as having moral strength and fortitude to embrace the uncertainty of questions while seeking the path of wisdom. Change agents who embrace this value are ones who seek to truly know themselves and learn their “strengths, weaknesses, values, and worldview”[5] rather than being content to rely on their inherent intelligence and talent. Having embraced such a journey, the change agent is then able to move forward into the unknown, forearmed with the wisdom that comes with personal reflection and a deep moral conviction.

Having a broad perspective of life is the last value under consideration. This value means having the “ability to see things in a true relationship”[6] across the broad spectrum of life. It is a value that embraces the vastness of humanity as reflected in the plethora of human culture, personalities, and behavior. One cannot, however, embrace the broadness of humanity or begin to see the interconnectivity of things if one does not ask questions or have the personal character to move beyond past assumptions and narrow-minded views of life. Hence, to value a broad perspective of life means opening oneself up to new ideas and concepts that may or may not challenge previously held ideologies.

Those who embrace the values of questions, wisdom, personal character development, and a broad perspective of life may find themselves living on the edge of the unknown. While this may sound frightening to some, it is the best place to be as it means having to trust God as one enters into the uncertainty of life. This is why these four values can be seen so clearly in the lives of change agents both in the modern era as well as in sixteenth-century Europe. A word of warning though, not everyone who embraces these values end up in the same place. As this paper will soon demonstrate, Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo all espoused similar values even though they ended up in different ideological and theological places. It is as Justo Gonzalez once commented, “in such an age of turmoil, many sincere Christians went through profound soul searching that eventually led them to conclusions and positions they themselves could not have predicted. Others, equally sincere and devout, came to opposite conclusions.”[7]

 

Endnotes

[1]  Tri Robinson, Re:Form: The Decline of American Evangelicalism and a Path for the New Generation to Re:Form Their Faith (Sweet, Idaho: Timber Butte Publishing, 2017), 92.

[2] Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2005), 4.

[3] The New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “wisdom.”

[4] Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed., s.v. “wisdom.”

[5] Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership, 95-96.

[6] Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th ed., s.v. “perspective.”

[7] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day, vol. 2, The Reformation to the Present Day (Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press, 2009), 10.

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