Sunday, October 29, 2017

How slowness helped Martin Luther change the world

Modern professional culture encourages collaboration through instant communication and globalized networks. But [Martin] Luther’s legacy as one of history’s most influential thinkers shows us that there are certain epic projects — such as the systematic rethinking of foundational dogmas — that require time to mature and space to germinate before they are safe for universal exposure. Without that window, they die. ...

...when he produced his more provocative set of theses in October 1517, it took more than a month for any feedback to roll in — despite Luther’s efforts to move things along by sending personal copies to local bishops. ...

...news still traveled by horse and cart in the 16th century, and this fact was critical for Luther. Indeed, it probably saved his life and his ideas — because it meant that he could win over the town before the district, his fellow monks before strangers, Germans before Italians. ...

What sympathy he attracted in his early days was owed, in part, to the intellectual and social capital he’d earned from those who knew him personally and had heard him preach. Many of these friends and admirers took extraordinary risks to defend him, which in turn gave others courage do the same — a cycle that gradually expanded his sphere of support outward from Wittenberg. ...

It wasn’t until early 1518 that Pope Leo X looked at the 95 theses. Having limited access to timely German news, he seriously underestimated their significance and passed off the matter to the Augustinians for resolution at their next annual meeting. ...

It wasn’t until early 1521 that he was formally excommunicated — more than three years after he composed his 95 theses. And by then, as we now know, it was too late to snuff out his influence.

Saul Bellow, in his introduction to Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” makes the memorable point that great and important writing is possible only when one is able to shut out “the noise of history.” This is what Luther managed to do when he created his 95 theses, his translations and the other texts that became part of the Reformation’s early canon. ...

Five hundred years later, there are few writers, artists, designers or intellectuals who do not feel impelled to deliver regular updates on their work online, or at weekly grad seminars, shareholder meetings or workshops with colleagues. ...

These networks make us more professionally productive and accountable. But they also can make us more cautious, since we know that any new idea can expose us to instant censure from complete strangers in other parts of the world who know nothing of our local circumstances. This phenomenon goes by different names — groupthink, political correctness, herd mentality. But in every form, it serves the interest of the orthodox and frustrates the heretic.
--Jonathan Kay, Washington Post, on taking time