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

The first part of this series can be found here.

Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (1466-1536 C.E.) is the first change agent under review. Born in the Netherlands towards the latter half of the fifteenth century, Erasmus was a Roman Catholic priest and Augustinian monk who was not content to live life inside the monastery walls.[1] Rather, his desire to ask questions and learn about the broader world pushed him to travel all over Europe, meeting new people and encountering new ideas. Early on in his career Erasmus collected and subsequently published a book of sayings and phrases “culled from antiquity”[2] which not only broadened his perspective of life but helped broaden the perspective of those around him.

As he processed the information and knowledge gained through his questions and travels, Erasmus began to challenge the status quo of his time. His personal moral character did not allow him to sit idly by while narrow-minded, though intelligent, people took advantage of the average person through a devotion to prescribed answers. Writing with humor and tact Erasmus tackled the abuses of the Roman Church while insisting “that righteousness was more important than orthodoxy.”[3] The wisdom of using humor and satire rather than straightforward logical arguments can be seen in that fact that it “enabled Erasmus to satirize everything and everyone in the world of his time while escaping the condemnation that would have been hurled at him had he tackled his subjects straight on.”[4]

In summary, Erasmus was a change agent who placed a high value on asking questions rather than being content with prescribed answers. In helping others navigate the changing cultural landscape, he acted with wisdom, humility, and humor, rather than seeking rather than seeking to build himself up with pride and knowledge. Throughout his life, Erasmus refused to rely solely on his intelligence; rather he constantly sought to develop his personal character by placing “ethics and spirituality at the center of [his] theology and philosophy with Christ’s teaching as the model for fruitful Christian reflection.”[5] All of this led to a broad perspective of life with friends and admirers on both sides of the primary cultural and religious divide of his time, that of the Protestant Reformation.[6]

The second change agent under review is Martin Luther (1483-1546 C.E.), the leader of the Protestant Reformation. Like Erasmus, Luther was an Augustinian monk and priest within the Roman Catholic Church. He also placed a high regard on questions, wisdom, character, and a broad perspective of life, though his personal journey with these values took him in a different direction than Erasmus. For Luther, his desire to better understand the Way of Christ led him to reject the answers traditionally given by the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.[7] The end result of Luther’s questions was the posting of the famous Ninety-five Theses in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 which led to the Protestant Reformation.[8]

Throughout his life, Martin Luther engaged in an introspective journey to know and understand himself. Despite his fame as an international religious leader, Luther “never gave off the aura of a medieval saint”; rather, he would “realistically evaluate his strengths and weaknesses”[9] while publicly confessing his personal flaws. Luther’s focus on truly knowing himself led to his theological masterpiece, mainly that salvation is a “free gift of divine mercy for which the human person can do nothing.”[10] This conclusion was in direct opposition to the predominant view that salvation could be bought and sold by the Roman Catholic Church by drawing on the “merits of Christ – and of his saints.”[11] In challenging this perspective of salvation, Luther became a major change agent who helped bring correction to the wider church of his day.

As a change agent, Martin Luther was one who was not afraid to pursue questions despite the uncertainty of where they might lead. He also demonstrated wisdom in knowing how to navigate the politically charged landscape of his day. Luther’s deep moral conviction was, as previously mentioned, a major bulwark against the pressures of fame, prescribed answers, and the narrow-mindedness of those in leadership roles above and around him. All in all, Luther was able not only to broaden his own perspectives of life, but those of others across Europe and, eventually, the world.

Around the same time that Erasmus and Luther were changing the religious landscape of Europe, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (1475-1564 C.E.) was changing the art world to the point that “no artistic education could be complete without a thorough knowledge of his work.”[12] Born in the Republic of Florence, Michelangelo loved to question the world around him in a desire to broaden his perspective of life. This desire to learn earned Michelangelo the label as the “greatest artist who had ever lived, supreme above all rivals in the fields of sculpture, painting, and architecture.”[13]

Even though he was famous during his lifetime, Michelangelo “cared not a whit for riches, nor even for food or clothing.”[14] Rather, he maintained a humble lifestyle, seeking to devote all his energy and focus to crafting works of art. Michelangelo’s desire to create items of beauty was constantly challenged by the political upheaval within the courts of Pope Julius II, his primary benefactor. The wisdom he showed in navigating the treacherous waters of artistic rivalry, political backstabbing, and full-out national war is commendable.

In summary, Michelangelo was a change agent who managed to capture the “expressive possibilities of the human form” [15] in a way that no one else had ever done before while maintaining his personal character in the midst of a city full of political upheaval. He also challenged the status quo of the art world in an effort to broaden the perspective of those who gazed upon his work. Writer and Episcopal priest Ian Cron once stated that “artists help people to see or hear beyond the immediate to the eternal.”[16] Perhaps this is why Sir Joshua Reynolds described Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel as “the language of the Gods.”[17]

Erasmus, Martin Luther, and Michelangelo all possessed the rare ability to tap into the emotions of their time and help people navigate the changing cultural landscape. Though their personalities and beliefs differed, they all valued the act of asking questions, seeking wisdom, being true to one’s personal character, and having a broad perspective of life over and above preset answers, factual knowledge, personal intelligence, and narrow-mindedness. In doing so, they changed the course of their culture and, ultimately, the world.

 

Endnotes

[1] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes: How Renaissance Artists and Reformation Priests Created Our World (New York City: Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, 2013), 135.

[2] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 132-133.

[3] 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), 11.

[4] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 136.

[5] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 315.

[6] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, 13.

[7] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 155-157.

[8] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, 22.

[9] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 164.

[10] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, 380.

[11] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 151.

[12] Ross King, Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling (New York: Walker & Company, 2003), 313.

[13] Ross King, Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, 312.

[14] Thomas Cahill, Heretics and Heroes, 109.

[15] Ross King, Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, 299.

[16] Ian Morgan Cron, Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2013), 110.

[17] Ross King, Michelangelo & the Pope’s Ceiling, 313.

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.

SSU Reading List For This Fall

EusebiusI recently received the reading list for this fall’s classes at St. Stephen’s University – and I must say I am very, very excited!

Most of the books are ones that I have not read before – and better still – they are ones that have been on my must-read-one-day list.  Life is good!  😀

 

The Early Church: Acts to Benedict’s Rule
  • Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers, trans. Maxwell Staniforth
  • Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History
  • Athanasius, The Life of Anthony and the Letter to Marcellinus, trans. Robert C. Gregg
  • The Desert Fathers, trans. Helen Waddell
  • St. Augustine, The Confessions, Books 1-9
  • St. Augustine, The City of God, Book 1: Chapters 1-14 and Book 22: Chapters 1-10
  • The Rule of St. Benedict, trans. A. C. Meisel & M. L. del Mastro
  • Tony Hendra, Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul
  • Francis S. Collins, The Language of God
  • Sandra L. Richter, The Epic of Eden
  • The Book of Genesis
  • Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology (pages: 11-277)
  • Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1& 2 (Preface to 220)
  • peter fitchGerald L. Sittser, Water from a Deep Well (Chapters 1-4)
The Pastor’s Use of Scripture
  • Colin J. Humphries, The Miracles of Exodus
  • Peter Fitch, Learning to Interpret Toward Love
  • Peter Gomes, The Good Book:Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart