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Erasmus and the Value of Unity

Joy and Matthew Steem

“How could protestors claim to be true to the Bible, Jesus and the Holy Spirit yet violate and ignore the Bible’s, Jesus’ and the Spirit’s call to unity and concord.”

Recently I’ve been reading a smallish but most assuredly meaty book on Erasmus. It’s timely –wise people generally are always that – and it has me thinking about the trouble of protest and criticism and resulting schisms. And how bad a schism is if it happens.

Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) doesn’t get talked about too much anymore, despite the fact that he was quite well known a couple centuries ago, required reading, in fact, for many English children. Generally, if Erasmus gets much notice now it’s alongside Luther or Calvin or the Reformation in the context of the history of that time. Erasmus himself might not mind being forgotten, but it would assuredly bug the veritable tar out of him to always be linked with Luther. Because while he might have “laid the egg” which Luther hatched, he was absolutely against the ultimate split in Christendom which Luther facilitated.

Here is where it gets tricky, though, for me: where does the ultimate good lie? Is it in protesting and being right, or is it in being together? Obviously, something of this magnitude isn’t going to be answered in a mere 600 words. But I am really curious. It seems like polarity is becoming increasingly common. I.e., it is totally cool for there to be a stink raised by protest, but nobody seems to care about the resulting schism.

Do we as a people – whichever tribe or brand we adhere to – actually carefully think about the consequences of being “right”? And what are the consequences of simply saying, “we will be right, even if we have to separate, and damn the consequence.”

The author of the aforementioned book, Ron Dart, asserts:

Nietzsche’s father was a Lutheran minister, and Nietzsche grew up in a pietistic Lutheran family. The Protestant spirit lived in Nietzsche, but he carried the protesting tendencies a step further than Luther. Luther remained committed to his version of Lutheran Christianity. Nietzsche merely protested against Lutheranism and Christianity. Why be loyal to anything beyond protest? … The point to note here, though, is that Nietzsche carried the idea of protest to the point where he opposed and left behind Christianity. Loyalty was trumped by critical questioning and the lone and isolated critic came to dominate the day. …There remains, in the interpretation of Nietzsche, questions about his relationship to Christendom, Christianity and Christ. Nietzsche was, in many ways, faithful to the underlying principles of both Luther and Protestantism.”

Talk about ideas having consequences.

But also, I am tweaked by this idea of the divide between being loyal and critical. As Dart has brought out in this and other books, there must be a balance of both if we are to be thoughtful and decent humans. Of course, there is “truth,” and we all should want to be close to it. At the same time there is unity. How often does the demand to be right create fragmentation? And at what point is that fragmentation, not “right.” Maybe even a better phrase would be “it’s not holy.” Because in part, in the word holy is the meaning wholeness.

And so back to wanting to be either right or to be together. I’ll leave the final word to Thomas Merton: “the struggle for holiness is also primarily a struggle for unity. What the Christian does for unity in Christ is then the most decisive factor in his own sanctification.”