How Modern Martin Luther Feels. Some Reflections on Being Called into Existence by God’s Gaze, and Gestalt Psychology

In our Tuesday group, we are still working our way through the book on Luther by Gerhardt Ebling.I am finding some very interesting aspects to the thought of Luther (as interpreted by Ebling) that I thought I would like to share with you.

The first thing that I find stimulating is that for Luther,  human beings are constituted (that is, actually called into being) by relationship. What is more, how we view ourselves depends upon what kinds of relationship we are in.

This sounds quite foreign to some ears. I remember when I was younger, I hated the idea that we were essentially ‘determined’ and could not be ‘determiners’. I was struggling with my relationship with my background, by which I had been determined, and wanted to break free of some aspects of it. I certainly did not want to hear about how I was determined by my relationships. I wanted to drive my own car!

I hear similar things from people who opt for wanting an unmediated spiritual connection to ‘god.’   These people are also mostly in a period of differentiation from their backgrounds, so to be reminded of the fact that they are still determined by something is not what they want to hear.

But like Bob Dylan, Luther says ‘You gotta serve somebody. It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.’

For Luther this ‘serving’ is in the first instance about the answer to the question ‘Before whom do you live?’ It is in this primary relationship of being ‘regarded’ by some one that our self comes into existence. What kind of a ‘self’ we are depends on how the ‘look’ treats us.
We hear a lot about women not liking the ‘male gaze’. This is straight Luther. If women are determined by how men ‘look’ (regard) them, then that is how they will be determined. But if, like many 19th century social reforming women, they were converted  so that the ‘gaze’ that is upon them is not that of men, or society, but that of God, then they were freed from the regard (look) of others, and achieved a great deal. They were accused of egotism, but they said ‘No, it is not me! It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me!’ This is exactly the same thing as Luther found when it happened to him. To be regarded by God  and then determined by that regard is to live ‘in the presence of God, or ‘before the face of God and be freed from the regard of others.’  

As teenagers, learning to be social beings, we live mostly before the face of our peers, or live very lonely teenage years. As we grow to adulthood, we learn to live before the face of other realities (family, work, partner). Luther wants to say that the King of the Universe is God. It makes sense to live our lives before the face of God, who is more loving than the worldly faces, before which we live and, in the long run, their determiner at any rate.

I remember the story of the experiment where the scientists said ‘We want you professors and you undergraduate student to discuss an issue, and choose a member of the group to summarise your results for us.’ To the professors they said  ‘If we think that your contribution is not helpful, we will flash this little hidden light.’ To the undergraduate they said ‘If we think your contribution is helpful we will flash this little hidden light.’ The discussion went on, and the experimenters flashed everyone’s lights all the time. The group of professors was so demoralised, and the student so affirmed that they chose that one to be the summariser of the results!’ Go Luther!!

This feels just so modern to me. In the 1950s the Gestalt psychologists talked about a ‘self’ as the interaction boundary between an organism and the environment. This is exactly what Luther was getting at 500 years earlier.

It is true too that not many people in our world live ‘before the face’ of God. In Church, we read the Scriptures, we listen to the sermon, but it is not often that in doing so, we are brought before the face of God in the way that John Wesley describes in his conversion story. It is not until we are gripped by the words that they become ‘Word of God’ for us. The process whereby this happens is a genuine mystery, and is in the long run the work of the Holy Spirit whose job it is to ‘remind’ us of the things about Christ and make them real for us.

What I like about this aspect of Luther’s thought is that it has the engagement with the Word of God, an event or moment of contact at its centre. God cannot be really God for me until those moments of genuine interaction that call forth a new possibility of existence for me.   

This is also the reason why adult conversion is ever more necessary for Christians, especially Anglican ones. In the days when more and more people are living before the face of economic necessity (read the god ‘Mamon’) and the Church is attracting fewer and fewer members,  just having ‘grown up in’ the Church is not a sharp enough engagement for us to know ourselves living ‘before the face’ of God. A ‘con-version’ (turning together) from one set of ‘looks at us’ toward God’s ‘look’ at us is how we can see what binds us and so start on the road to freedom. The question of how we grow in freedom is another matter (next week’s reflection) but for the moment, I like the idea of ‘an event’ as a description of how God ‘happens’ to us.

This idea of how we are constituted by ‘engagement and regard’ touches on another aspect of Luther’s thought. For Luther, the only question that is worth asking is ‘What does it mean to be a human being, as we live before the face of God.’  Having discovered this, we can turn toward our secular lives and live out that relationship to God in love for others. But for Luther, the secular world, which has turned away from God, cannot tell us anything about what it means to be human. That is why Luther was sceptical about philosophy, because it delivered ideas about humanity, which were not derived from the question of ‘humanity before God in Christ.’ That was Luther’s battle with mediaeval Christianity. He did not want God’s grace as a kind of purifier of a notion of humanity that was made up elsewhere (from Aristotle or Plato).

This enlightens our ideas about movements today. People sometimes want to have Christianity like the icing on an already cooked cake. Luther says ‘What it means to be human is to live before God in Christ. That will then give you both the freedom to engage other philosophies, and the tools to critique them! It is ok to be a ‘Christian Socialist’,  but not ok to be a ‘Socialist Christian!’

So there is some reflection on Luther. Very contemporary I find him.


About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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