Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Luther's Time Outside Time: An Interview with Andrew Wilson Part II

The hill town of Bobbio near La Spezia. All photos are © Andrew Wilson and Sarah Hinlicky Wilson. Please write to them for permission if you want to reproduce these photographs.

Happy Easter! Today, I am very pleased to continue my interview with Andrew Wilson about his book, Here I Walk: A Thousand Miles on Foot to Rome with Martin Luther. The first part of the interview is here.

This post and related articles are published here to observe the 500th anniversary of 31 October 1517, when Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. See other posts on this topic, here and here.

Andrew and his wife Sarah retraced Luther’s journey on foot from Erfurt to Rome. Luther's Roman trip occurred six or seven years before the famous events in Wittenberg. By following Luther's footsteps, the Wilsons attempted to trace his experiences prior to his involvement in the Reformation.

While the first part of the interview deals with the Wilsons’ journey on foot in Germany, this interview covers the second half of the book and Andrew’s travels with his wife in Italy.

Note: All quotations are from the paperback edition: Andrew L. Wilson, Here I Walk: A Thousand Miles on Foot to Rome with Martin Luther. Afterword by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2016.

Away from it all, scrambling up a boulder field near Lake Como.

LCD: To continue our discussion, I wanted to ask about the pilgrimage as escapism, and potentially faith as escapism. As you entered Italy, you observed the hectic urban life and the impact of cities on people and the landscape. Milan, with its “quadrilateral rationality,” stands out in your narrative in terms of its urban sprawl, chaos (p. 127), and hectic traffic: “[t]he monotony that is so convenient for machines is brutal on the body” (p. 134).

In your time on the Via Francigena, you stated that people feel something is missing from modern life (p. 132), and that they want to slough off technology and automobiles and the Internet (p. 143). In Luther’s time, people went on pilgrimages to reaffirm faith, to see a relic or confirm their salvation. Surely these people in the past wanted to escape from the daily grind as well?

Milan and its traffic.

Andrew Wilson: I think that escape is the wrong way to think about it. If we imagine medieval piety, which was in so many ways monastic and apocalyptic, based on the constant presence of the ritualized outsider (the celibate priesthood and the professionally religious monks and mendicants), and the nearby, not infinite firmament above, it could perhaps be better said that pilgrims set out not to escape but to encounter true reality. This is a bit of sleight of hand, I’m well aware—for Westerners since Plato have sought to ‘escape’ from their respective caves—but it’s a distinction worth maintaining.

For all the pressures weighing on our life as modern people, there are very few who look around and think that the daily grind is not, somehow, real. I still like the image of medieval spirituality as a lofty stained-glass-window Gothic cathedral—God’s light filtered through the revelation of Scripture to read, interpret, and inspire the dimly lit earth below. Regular life was dark and brown; gold and jewels were the only bright things outside of the heavens. To go on a pilgrimage was to head out toward the light, to see and touch material things that had touched God.

For the poor to go on pilgrimage, moreover, often meant to beg, to rely upon the generosity of hospices and passersby, who hoped in turn to win some merit by their charitable donations. This is more than escaping the grind—it is entering into a space of vulnerable dependence on others. Those with more means set out with a very real possibility of death; most wrote wills, and many intended to extinguish their resources along the way—very early on in Christian history this was the case. The one thing former pilgrims seem to have had to their advantage was a world made for walking.

LCD: Your parents accompanied you and your wife on this pilgrimage, meeting you regularly through Germany with your son, and then following your path with a camper van through Italy. I was struck by this underlying story of family. Several people opened their homes to you and talked to you about their lives, your pilgrimage, music, faith and religion. It’s a very different picture from the one with which we are constantly bombarded in the media: a hostile, turbulent world full of hatred, suspicion, and conflict, where religion is irrational or even murderous. Looking back, is there anything about family or people’s private worlds that stands out? Did the pilgrimage bring home that contrast to you, between the way people really are and the way they are depicted by mass media?

Andrew Wilson: It is the perpetual witness of the traveler that the world is both less hostile and more accessible than our tribal brains would think. Two scenes from my American adolescence stand out to illustrate the point. One, being in the football stands, surrounded by my teachers, fellow students, dentists, doctors, car-mechanics, and burghers of all walks of life exclaiming at the height of ecstasy as our high school’s team, the mighty Cadets, stripped victory from the foul enemy Pirates and their fans from all the way across our town of 50,000. Second, in the same high school’s gym, me and several hundred others rapt as Steven Newman recounted his five-year World Walk—a trek around the globe from Ohio to Ohio. The first excited; the second inspired. As a species we are capable of both the most deadly xenophobia and the heights of understanding.

This dualistic vocation is perfectly repeated in religion, too, which as a social structure glues, binds, ties an otherwise unruly crew into a unity around rituals and texts and cultivated states of mind; and at the same time asserts against tribal minds the universality of humanity and the sacredness of all things. It’s not happenstance that religion is so often scapegoat for our worldly ills—that’s a story written into the script of modernity from the genesis of the nation-state; hardened with each terrorist attack; set over against rationality as the frightening feeder of the passions. That such a universal phenomenon as religion evinces both the apogee and nadir of humanity should come as no surprise. To claim that it is worse than other universalizing ideologies in this regard is an empirical question—one which the twentieth century, at least, answered quite differently.

Our current intellectual tide fixates upon cultural diversity with a fervor that comes from both colonial guilt and cultural trauma. Understandable enough, but universals stand out from our experiences: the care and concern for children—and heartbreak at their wanderings—the quest for meaningful work, loving care for home and garden, a general curiosity about the world. The distant other is very useful for exciting ire; the proximate one more apt to rouse compassion and hospitality. By expressly moving through so many borders—both physical and cultural—the traveler and the pilgrim both serve to keep our many borders porous, as they should be.

St Augustine's Sepulcher, San Pietro Ciel d'Oro (St. Peter in the Golden Sky Basilica), Pavia.

LCD: You mention a continuity from St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) to Luther (1483-1546), who was an Augustinian monk:
“To claim for Luther the mantle of St. Augustine is nothing special. The bishop of Hippo was and is the single most important theologian in Western Christianity. Medieval thinkers of all stripes claimed Augustine as an authority. So broad was his influence, so diffuse his patronage, and so reliant were all medieval theologians upon his corpus and looming holiness that it is an exceedingly delicate matter even to know what may have qualified as ‘Augustinian’ in the late Middle Ages. Historian David Steinmetz claims at least five valences to the label ‘Augustinian,’ the broadest being ‘the theology of the Latin West in general.’ …

Just as there are now many historical Luthers, there are as well many Augustines. There’s Augustine the anti-Manichaean, arguing against those who would damn all things physical; Augustine the Neoplatonist, filtering his reflection on God through a mystical renewal of Classical philosophy; Augustine the anti-Pelagian, resolute against those who claim the perfectibility of human desire; Augustine the churchman, opposed to Donatist schismatics; Augustine the architect of the Western collaboration of church and state. Within this panoply lies the evangelical Augustine, the theologian of grace. Luther’s Augustinian order certainly had no monopoly on its patron.”(p. 136)
One friar you met in Florence, Friar Ivan, confirmed this continuity:
“‘Luther was’ he tells us with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, ‘a good Augustinian.’” (p. 163)
Would you comment a bit more on how Luther’s contribution to the Reformation was Augustinian in character? For example, you mention that St. Augustine was a Neoplatonist, yet would you say that the Reformation conveyed a thread of Neoplatonism? In 2010, William Wright argued that Luther drew from Neoplatonic ideas but in the end repudiated them.

The Augustinian Santo Spiritu Church, Florence, where the Wilsons met Friar Ivan.

Andrew Wilson: I’m tempted to say “no comment,” as Neo-Platonism is just as slippery a thing as Augustinianism. In so many ways we Westerners are all Neo-Platonists, whether we like it or not—we believe in the existence of some truth or at least justice, that said truth is outside of both ourselves and our community, and that we are somehow subject to its judgment. This is particularly true for most multiculturalists, who never cease appealing to big ideas. I think it would be hard to say that Luther—or anybody else—‘repudiated’ this kind of general Neoplatonism.

There was—and is ongoing—another, more subtle critique of what we may label as the Dionysian tradition, that is, the whole spirituality of ascent embodied in the Celestial Hierarchies of Pseudo-Dionysius. Until the fifteenth century he was thought to be a direct convert of Paul, and thus the most ancient Church Father, and so was immensely influential (Thomas Aquinas cites only the Bible more often). Lutherans and other reformers, both inside and outside of Catholicism, have been escaping, reworking, and trying with more and less success to untangle Christian doctrine from dualist philosophy for several hundred years. Luther and company would be part of this ongoing conversation.

Where Luther stands out as an Augustinian is in his theology of grace and in his political theology. In neither of these, moreover, is Luther particularly innovative. The universe, in this construction, is a gift from the beginning—and God is its unending giver. That there is something and not nothing is a sign of God’s intention—the material world is not a recapitulation of primeval strife between the forces of light and darkness, not an eternal battle between good vs. evil. This fundamental good is not without its challenges, for just as not all was well in paradise, so the world is filled with evil things—a pervasive reality by the way, rather upheld than refuted by the disturbing prehistorical evidence of mass graves. God is not put off by humanity’s intransigence or thick-headedness: prophets come aplenty, and finally God sends his Son, who does not set things straight in the manner of a king, but overcomes humanity’s evil by succumbing to it. This, by the way, is what so angered Nietzsche. God suffers humanity, it could be said…

This is a strange message, and the community that formed around it likewise is uncanny. As an embattled cadre of believers in a foreign, dead, and resurrected God, they are of little consequence. But once come to the majority, and as the church inherits the remains of the Roman Empire, different outlines are set. Augustine’s church, and Thomas Aquinas’s, and Luther’s, was not a body of the pure but a corpus permixtum, where God’s ongoing grace is ever poured by means of words and sacraments over people undeserving of these gifts, but who need it all the more because of their shortcomings. Luther’s political theology depended upon robust belief in human intransigency, that force was needed to maintain order, and that perfection in this life is illusory, particularly for society as a whole. Where the church had erred in Pelagius, and where it erred in Luther’s day, according to the Augustinian tradition, was in setting itself apart as particularly holy by its inheritance, rather than as the place where perduring sinners go for repeated healing.

I’ll make a brief comment about sin, as well, since our post-Freudian world is particularly intolerant of Augustine’s development, some even claim invention, of the idea original sin. Steven Greenblatt’s recent book on Adam and Eve lifts up and concentrates both the troubling and misunderstood genealogy of the idea. It’s true enough that the particularly gendered reading of the Garden of Eden narrative by the fifth-century bishop of Hippo carried forward with unfortunate inertia into a millennium and more of monastic Christianity. That Augustine and his celibate ecclesiastical heirs were particularly troubled by human sexuality and the animal passions it evinced is no new insight.

While inheriting this framework generally, Luther certainly sidelines the preference for celibacy over marriage, and neither does he fixate on sin’s origins in or transmission through sex—as did one branch of Augustine and his heirs. Luther is much more interested in addressing realistically sin’s ubiquity as a phenomenon and in its death with Christ. To come gently to Augustine’s defense, however, I would add that our own post-modern culture’s foolishly consistent affirmation of desire is shockingly naïve, and that we as moral thinkers have much to learn from those who were willing to question the deity of fleeting human passions.

When Friar Ivan winked his eye at us in Florence’s Santo Sprito, this is what he affirmed, I think.

Luther claims to have been healed form a fever by eating pomegranates, which we saw ripening across Italy.

LCD: As you were walking through Italy, you saw a lot of local farms. You describe history, measured in terms of agricultural crops. The Italian peninsula of Luther’s time was a land without tomatoes. Impossible for us to imagine! A lot of your book is anchored in how you ate while traveling. Did you discover recipes or crops which still survive or persist from Luther’s time – the Lutheran palate? (p. 143)

Andrew Wilson: Bread and beer of course! And eggs, and cheese, and white wine—which Luther preferred to beer, by the way. Game and mushrooms, I am sure, and herbs of exponentially various kinds. Perhaps he partook of the marmot stew we declined in Bivio Stalla, at the passage over the Alps. I’m by no means an expert in food history, but so much of what we find in the stores today is very distant from what Luther would have eaten, and not just New World items or the prepared foods aisle. Medieval cuisine was highly varied, seasonal, and intensely regional. Spices and lemons were exotic things; salt an expensive import, not a bulk commodity.

One thing we forget quite easily is how infrequently people ate raw produce. A moment’s reflection on hygiene explains it—how many are the sicknesses picked up from uncooked foods while travelling? Luther’s was a dirty age. Parasites of sundry sort did frequent and unpleasant work on bodies of all kind. Cooking was what kept food clean.

One particularly common food that is now lacking in kind and volume across much of Europe’s landscape is fish—and I’m not talking about Norwegian salmon. Without cargo airliners from Alaska, all of it had to be raised locally, salt cod or dried stockfish being the exception. Luther’s wife Katie had fish ponds near the Elbe and sold fish to make ends meet. With a proliferation of Fridays and fast days, the market for fish was huge, and fish meals were very common. There is still extensive European pisciculture where topography and tradition allows, but it is a pale shadow of what it used to be.

I have not had that pleasure, but my wife and co-pilgrim Sarah has several times partaken of a Luthermahl in Wittenberg. Farmer’s dark bread smeared with lard to start, then heavy on the roasted meats and sauerkraut, with sides of pea porridge and root vegetables. What one might suspect of hearty northern fare.

Layers, confusion, the pilgrim path marked near Piacenza: “Amid this visual chaos near Piacenza is the sign for the Via Francigena, our route through Italy.” ((p. 144)

LCD: As you walked through Italy’s Apennine Mountains, you saw so many towns, each hill and valley decked by secluded villages. One of the most beautiful images described was near Fornovo di Taro (pp. 145):
“[W]e climb again into the clouds. Just before we stop for the night, we see in the gloaming a thousand gentle lights, dim glimmers glowing in a hillside mausoleum. Here as in Milan, Italians prefer to inter their dead above the ground.”
Since this book is partly a meditation on faith as reflected through the environment, was it your hope that your readers would follow your photos on social media in a semi-interactive experience, during and after the pilgrimage? Would this extend to a certain public meditation on faith into the world? I ask because virtual travel opens up people’s lives and perspectives in previously impossible ways.

Glowing lights from a hillside mausoleum.

Andrew Wilson: I certainly intended it that way. While we were walking most of what I did was to take pictures. To crack the door upon our couple’s journey, I was a bit of a nagging male for the first few weeks, always urging Sarah to hurry up. Until one day in particular, I don’t even remember when exactly, or how, it became abundantly clear that it was I who slowed us down with constant pauses with my camera. I took about two hundred shots every day, and each evening sorted, edited, annotated, and posted a selection online. I wanted to draw people in, of course, and I certainly wanted to share the close-ups and panoramas of our experience.

I haven’t reflected too much on this, actually. I think that Christian faith is in one respect a way of seeing the world—belief that what we see has been created by the mind of God, that it is good, and if much is tainted, that, too, it is in the process being redeemed. There is a luminous character to this vision, and I suppose I hoped to put that forward.

I also wanted, in apposition to our quest to follow Luther’s steps, to give evidence to what we were seeing—what Luther would have seen, and much of what he didn’t. It was in studying my own images that the theme for the entire book became clear. At the outset I was infected with the bug of authenticity; my own images recalled me to the present.

Reading Dante among the fields of Tuscany.

LCD: At one point you summarize Luther’s doctrine in a nutshell, and it really is the central problem of Protestantism.
“Luther’s airy gospel seems such a wispy thing: that Christ himself came down to earth, that faith in him alone will save, that our actions here count less than an eternal calling. Though Luther insisted that Christians carry out God’s deeds on earth by fulfilling the necessities of life, there’s an abstraction in this stance that elides the overt goodness of a saint.” (p. 160)
And again:
“The most important point for Luther – one he draws from Augustine and from Paul – is that it is not our sinlessness and virtue that permit Christ’s presence with us, but it is rather our need precisely as sinners for his redeeming presence that summons him to our midst.

But with a distant and always beckoning Christ, Dante’s God – and that of much of the medieval tradition – no longer made his special way down to earth but calls up through refinement, burning off our dross, shaping us to Christlike dimensions. This stairway to salvation so fatigued Thérèse of Lisieux that she longed for a holy elevator. In many details, especially the acuity of insight into the human condition, there’s little difference between Dante and Luther. But in orientation and direction, the two systems could hardly be more opposed. As Dante’s Christian climbs up to heaven, Luther’s Christ hurtle’s down to earth.” (p. 174)
This is the crux of Protestantism. Lutheranism made a remote Catholic Christ accessible again, but not through worship of the saints and their relics. Yet that Protestant accessibility poses the challenge of bringing faith down into one’s calling in daily life by becoming a monument of living faith, saintlike through action in the world, without becoming materialistic. Did your pilgrimage grant insight into how to embody that higher purpose in the physical realm without confusing that experience with worshiping the self (the ego as agent in this world) and physical objects?

Andrew Wilson: I’m very pleased you picked up on the centrality of this passage. In this ecumenical era, I’d like just to emphasize at the outset that this directionality is not some foundational distinction between Protestantism and Catholicism, which are exceedingly broad and varied traditions that both contain diverse teachings, the great majority of which are remarkably compatible. I was very particular in pointing out that this was Luther’s problem with his own church—and it was a happy surprise, as we wandered through Tuscany reading the Divine Comedy, to find that Dante sets up a useful foil. Most of what you’ll find in American Evangelicalism is more Dante than Luther in this regard—all forming the self through refining practices; and there is much of Luther’s downward hurtling Christ among Catholics, too—Bernard of Clairvaux, and Therèse of Lisieux, mentioned above, among many others.

Luther himself is very clear that holiness is not made from pilgrimages or religious observance of any kind, but that it is a bestowed by God through his Son. Luther, and others of his order, by the way, were deeply troubled at how much effort and money went into the religion business while the poor went on suffering. Reading the Scriptures through his own mendicant tradition, Luther sought to turn the religious “work” of the faithful from the realm of ‘religion’ toward neighbor service.

Here we must be careful not to uproot Luther too quickly from his actual life, during which he preached and lectured from Scripture nearly every day and spent his life constantly in church. Even well after the Reformation movement had begun, and he had been excommunicated, he maintained the practice of praying the canonical hours. And so while he urged the faithful toward their neighbor, these were practices fed by a robust life of study, prayer, and the rich sacramental practices of the church. Later Protestants have read much of their own minimalism and repristination back into Luther, but inaccurately.

The exile of the specially religious from Protestantism had its consequences down the line. Without a community of set-apart monastics living as a proximate example of the holy life over against ordinary life, the burghers of the towns themselves became the bearers of the church. Work itself—daily bread—became the locus of God’s ubiquitous maintenance of creation. There’s health in this, and danger, too. It became traditional in Protestant churches to place epitaphs of local notables upon the walls—signs of upright life, but also prestigious rewards for hefty financial upkeep for the building and the pastors. It was never easy preaching before those who pay your salary.

Arrival in Rome: “Rome’s sewers are still stamped with the imperial emblem.” (p. 197)

The Scala Santa, supposed steps to Pilate's Palace, brought to Rome by Emperor Constantine's mother, Helen, now installed opposite St. John Lateran.

LCD: You described yourself and your wife Sarah as “ecumenical ambassadors of Luther, linking Germany to Rome with our steps.” (p. 163) I have seen this polarity between northern and southern Europe often repeated elsewhere; it is a historical shorthand which possibly began with the Roman Empire pitted against the Germanic tribes. Part of that ‘rise and fall’ story describes how the barbarians invaded Rome and usurped Rome’s legacy in the Holy Roman Empire. Do you think that the Reformation merely continued an old story of geography and power that reappears in many guises for each new era?

The authors at the 1000 mile mark, above the Tiber in Rome. (p. 199)

Andrew Wilson: The curious part about that story of so-called eternal struggle is just how recent it really is. Scholarship of late antiquity after Peter Brown has chipped away at Gibbon’s thesis bit by bit until there’s little left but memorable rhetoric—the ‘barbarians’ were heavily Romanized allies on the other side of the limes; the ‘fall’ of Rome was basically a long-drawn out civil war, with factions hiring mercenaries of all kinds to fight their battles. Already in the fourth century, Trier up on the Moselle was one of the official capitals of the empire, and one of its biggest cities. Charlemagne claiming legitimacy from Aachen is no big stretch. And remember, until well after Luther northern Italy still remained a part of the Holy Roman Empire.

On our historical end, Italy and Germany did not even exist as nation-states until the mid-nineteenth century, more than three centuries after Luther’s death. Much of what we imagine to be eternal struggles date from Romantic infusion of the land and peasant culture with numinous significance. Unfortunately, our friend Luther was particularly mined for this quest—for as the codifier of the language, and standing at the font in many ways of the Teutonic intellectual and linguistic tradition, his religion and person were infused with a significance that he himself would have found disturbing and idolatrous. Luther considered himself to be in most ways still a ‘Roman.’ Much of what he had to say about ‘we Germans’ by the way, is not flattering.

We also forget to what degree the recalcitrance of the Roman party to Luther’s concerns created its own opposing tradition—and snuffed out voices similar to Luther’s by way of inquisitions or just plain ordinary careerism. Just as a former geography has focused on mountains and seas as barriers, a new geography is exploring how wide border zones create a particular and fertilizing culture of their own. Our own political structures, still founded on the nation-state and its ethno-linguistic (usually) or ideological (more rarely) grounds find this reality difficult to comprehend. I think the struggle is mostly in our own capacity to imagine political alternatives.

The Roman Forum, was "two heights of men beneath the ground" when Luther walked by. It was excavated and preserved starting with Napoleon, with an eye to uplifting Rome's classical, not ecclesiastical weight.

LCD: Just after you passed the 1,000 mile mark on a bridge over the Tiber River, you visited the tombs of both St. Peter (pp. 206-207) and St. Paul (p. 200). The two apostles provide another shorthand for the distinction between Catholicism and Protestantism:
“It is our intuition that the estrangement between Lutherans and Catholics is latent in the stories of these two apostles. Peter is the rock, the holder of the keys, the first among apostolic equals, the material bridge to Christ’s incarnation, the sign of continuity. Paul’s is the path of conversion, of disruption, of the startling discontinuity of Israel’s election extended to the gentiles, of the rupture of the old ways. Despite his persecution of early Christians, Paul became the one who carried Christ to the world at large. It is a conflict not only repeated throughout church history but evident already in the New Testament. But both Peter and Paul are pillars of the church. Neither is to be jettisoned in preference for the other. So we choose to end our ecumenical journey with both.” (p. 199)
Especially for readers who may be unfamiliar with the founding of the Christian churches and apostolic succession, would you elaborate on this distinction between St. Peter and St. Paul?

Martial likeness of St. Paul, St. Paul's Outside the Walls, Rome.

Andrew Wilson: ‘Apostolicity’ has come to have two basic senses, one missionary and the other of authority—which, if you read the Acts of the Apostles carefully, are not separate things. The missionary or ‘sentness’ character is well embodied by Paul, who never knew Jesus as did the disciples, but after an encounter with the risen Christ on the Damascus road became the ‘least of the apostles’—though through his mission to the gentiles, perhaps the greatest. Paul was also probably the best and most traditionally educated of the earliest Christians. He says he studied “at the feet of Gamaliel,” and his profound knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and their commentaries made him in many ways the church’s first theologian. It is dishonest to distinguish strongly, as have many, between the various Gospels and what they have to say about Jesus, and Paul’s writings. Paul’s letters are the very first Christian writings, and pre-date, often by many decades, the Gospels (even more so the later gnostic ones), which integrate much of what he has to say in a very different literary genre.

For better or worse, rock-like Peter has come to be the stand-in for a really rockish cornerstone, the foundational figure for the physical handing over of authority. In principle this not as naïve or conspiratorial a thing as one might imagine, as traditions, even about spiritual things, have their texts written by people, and actual humans talking about them from the beginning. Tradition is an emergent phenomenon, and much as many repristinating idealists of all sorts (lots of Protestants here) want to, we cannot ever go back to the sources purely. We might forget or let wither unfruitful branches, but we are always building on a succession of people and their ideas. When churches ordain by the laying-on of hands—even if it is not required—this is the reality they’re embodying (even if they articulate it quite clumsily).

Where this becomes strange and problematic is when, as happened when Christianity was ascendant in Roman society, regal patterns were married with one brief passage from Matthew (16:18-19):
“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
This came to mean (unactualized) sovereignty over the entire planet. But that’s not the only way to go with the notion of succession. Mark in Alexandria (then later in Venice), James in Compostela, Thomas in India—these are other paths and other apostles.

LCD: There is a problem at the heart of Luther’s view – and in this book – about veneration of the divine in the physical world. At the tombs of St. Paul and St. Peter, you instinctively doubted the historical authenticity of preserved relics (p. 200-201; 206-207).

This is part of the Lutheran sensibility. Luther felt he was purifying Catholic teachings by doubting the medieval veneration of supposedly historical ancient relics, while questioning the economically exploitative abuse of indulgences (p. 207). In a way, it was a plea for a rational view of history! That is, historical preservation and interpretation are dubious, contrived, inaccurate, and fake, and we must on no account worship history.

You even doubted your own 500th anniversary commemorative conception for this project, leaving as you did from Erfurt in 2010, because Luther left for Rome from Wittenberg in the fall of 1511. He did not leave from Erfurt in 1510; and he returned to Wittenberg from Rome in the spring of 1512 (p. 215).

Your questions at Peter’s tomb - and about restoration projects in general as faux historical attractions for tourists (p. 167) – express a running theme. You maintained that human history and existence of the divine cannot reliably rest in the physical because the material world is transient, constantly building up, breaking down, and evolving. In short, God’s love is eternal, but the world He created is not an eternal place. (pp. 201, 207-208, 217) Another, related Lutheran critique was a recipe for living a humble life, with spade plunged in the earth; a human being does not try to build stairways to Heaven to usurp God’s eternal role and power. (p. 212)

However, look how this reappraisal of the divine-physical relationship all turned out. Your stance contrasts sharply with the stereotypical view of Protestantism, assumed to be the source faith for capitalism, materialism, and conspicuous consumption. Do you feel this pilgrimage was an attempt to resolve that contradiction and locate Protestantism in a different modern nexus between the spiritual and the physical?

Andrew Wilson: Yikes! That’s a hefty ideological wagon to pull, even for Luther! I think it’s important to emphasize, especially in the shadow of all these Big Ideas, that Christian preaching generally—and here Luther is included—declares God’s presence in perceptible things. We don’t need a special spiritual organ to see God at work. This is part of what’s going on in the sacraments (and, in another way, in apostolicity). Particularly in light of the current scientific discourse, and also in view so much flighty talk of spirituality, it’s important to emphasize Christianity’s materiality.

“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord Endures Forever.” The last bit of this phrase from Isaiah 40, and in its Latin form, Verbum Dei manet in aeternum, actually became a semi-official slogan of the Reformation, VDMA—you’ll see it all over the heraldry and polemical paintings of the era. But another phrase from John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory…” is ever-present, too, that this person of the Godhead did not remain ineffable, but came as a child, suffered the ephemeral nature of material things, even died.

And, for Lutherans in particular, this godly flesh is not stuck in a categorically incomprehensible Empyrean realm, but ingested somehow bodily in holy communion, alive in words, passed on from teacher to student, from preacher to congregation, from generation to generation, not by continual supernatural revelation, but by the quintessentially natural and human practices of sharing, of talking, of eating and drinking.

As an ideological and cultural platform, particularly as it grew in opposition to Catholicism, World Religions, or other big constructions, Protestant culture came to embody all those things outlined above, at least in retrospect. I don’t really have much to say to this heritage, as I rather identify with Augustine, with Luther and his heirs, and, though this may sound strange, in America, with the heavily Calvinist Transcendentalists. As I was writing the book, I read Moby Dick for the first time; and if a basically eventless multi-year whaling voyage can encapsulate the universe, why not a pilgrimage? I guess I just don’t see the point in distinguishing the physical and spiritual so sharply.

LCD: Did this experience shed any light for you on Islam, which retains a strong tradition of annual pilgrimage as part of its expression of faith?

Andrew Wilson: I’m afraid I’m don’t really know enough about Muslim practice, which is different in so many ways, to comment fruitfully. But very generally, the Haj is an obligation for all Muslims who are able, and it is a pilgrimage to only one place in particular. These make it rather different from various Christian pilgrimages, which are truly voluntary, and are attached not to the founder, but to much later, locally venerated notables.

LCD: You attended Luther’s 500th anniversary celebrations last October in Germany. Did you reflect there on how we deal imperfectly with time as an eternal construction? There is a natural human yearning to retain, repair, and reconstruct physical evidence of the lost past.

Andrew Wilson: It was a strange event, as I already mentioned in the previous interview. I report in my Epilogue that Wittenberg was half-abandoned by the 17th century, and was found to be a dump by some of the first Protestant “pilgrims” to it in the mid-nineteenth century. It escaped bombing during WWII (due to protests from Protestant soldiers, apparently) but its scenery languished, as did most of East Germany, under Communism. Who knows how much money the German government spent spiffing up the town for last year’s quincentennial celebration. The Castle Church alone was under scaffolding and tarp for nearly five years.

But what’s happened in Wittenberg is in line with what I’ve experienced all over Europe—proud towns, some more prosperous than others, some pale shadows of their former glory, vying to excite the historical imaginations of their compatriots, and of fellow Europeans. The logic is mostly tourism, and the financing usually big grants from national governments.

The question is always: what era to enshrine? In Holland it seems to be their own golden 17th century; in Oslo it’s either Vikings or Hansa; in Avignon it’s the time of papal residence; in Arles the Roman empire. In Wittenberg the choice is very easy. It was never much of a town, and Luther and the Reformation are about all that can compete upon this European scene. Luther himself was more apocalyptic. He (and many of his era) expected time to end quite soon.

I don’t have any better alternative to this tourism-centric model. There exist heights of prosperity and insight, and we’re not wrong to lift them up or to preserve some traces of their passing. But they’re not the whole story by any means. Many smaller, perhaps more interesting tales are yet to tell, lying hidden in archives or buried beneath the streets and kitchen middens. What they have to say, though, will tell as much about us as it does about them.

All of this, though, is very ‘western.’ I’ll be moving to Japan this summer, and I’m very curious to discover how traditions, including physical ones, are maintained. They have an aesthetic of decay that we simply don’t. The result is a very different experience of architectural heritage.

LCD: Your wife, Sarah, described the physical experience of the pilgrimage and how memory contributed to make the whole experience an ascetic practice. She wrote:
“It wasn’t until I reread my journals that I discovered again how often my feet ached (in the intervening years I’d convinced myself that my feet didn’t hurt even once the whole entire time), how often I got despondent at the number of miles that lay ahead, or how much trouble it cost us to manage our sleeping arrangements or find our next meal or coordinate with the [family’s] camper. What I do remember and have remembered is the beauty. The elation. The startling insights The serendipitous meetings. The gift of time outside time. And none of these would have happened or been possible without the sore feet and the pressing on just a little farther to the day’s goal. You can’t get it in hoping from city to city on a plane or roaring through the countryside in a car. You have to take each step and see what it will bring you.

This is the ancient wisdom in ascetic practice. It is not done as an end in itself or to accrue merit or to become a superior religious person – as Luther so devastatingly critiqued – but to strip away the clutter and distractions and to simplify life to something as plain as walking and sleeping. And praying. You will assuredly pray on pilgrimage, because all the conventional supports of life have been stolen from you. I know now why Luther prayed for help when caught in a thunderstorm! And I know now what Hebrews 13:2 means by ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares,’ though I think it was the angels who were showing the hospitality to us rather than the other way around.”
Did this experience make you both better able to find that face-to-face connection after the pilgrimage? Or did things revert to ‘normal,’ i.e. an overly computer-connected and humanly-disconnected world?

Andrew Wilson: We live in a distracted and distractible world. I wish I could say, for drama’s sake, and to inspire all those who need inspiration, that this pilgrimage was a watershed mid-life crisis, some cusp with a well defined before or after. Such was not the case. Because our pilgrimage was undertaken with a great deal of real work in and around it, we were constantly engaged on the phone, on the internet finding lodging, updating our websites, chatting with our Facebook fans. I had wanted to sleep outside much more—we brought the gear—but our need for a place to work, for electricity, trumped this nearly completely.

In fact, I’d blame this pilgrimage, with its intent to engage the various social media, as the source of many years of scattered inattention. It was beginning to work on the book, fortunately, that allowed me to condense and articulate the matters latent in the quest. But it was that second, written pilgrimage that was more exacting, and more formative, in the end.

In 2016 we took a four-month family trek from Tarifa, Spain—right across from Morocco—back to our home in Strasbourg. This combination of walking and city-stays more closely approximated my ideal of checking out and ressourcement, as the French say. It was still a challenge, though, to stay unplugged. We had to find and book our lodging online. We listened to a ton of books and podcasts. And we played an embarrassing amount of Candy Crush. I guess recharging sometimes still requires electricity.

I would like to thank Andrew very much for speaking to Histories of Things to Come.

Andrew Wilson’s website is here. You can follow him on Twitter here. You can buy his book at the links below.

For the whole Luther interview and all related posts, go here.

Click here to read all Interviews on this blog.

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