Our University – Free Thinking

Halloween marks a number of occasions but none more important than the nailing of Luther’s 95 Theses on the Castle Church door at Wittenberg — the birth of a reformation that transformed the modern world on October 31, 1517.

This act changed things: not just the association of Christendom to the church; not just the relationship of Christendom to its namesake, Jesus Christ; not just the bond of a man to an organization; not just the suggestion that individuals are masters of their own fate; not just the impact of the printing press and the translation of the bible into German to make it accessible to all rather than just the few conversant in Latin; not just the concept that money could buy anything from happiness to heaven; not just the notion that a single man with a powerful idea could take on the largest multinational corporation in the world and start a revolution, a reformation; and certainly, not just the belief that concepts are important, even more so than the force of tradition and dogma, but rather that people with passion need to stand and risk.

“Here I stand.  I cannot do otherwise”, he said.  Just a man standing for what he thought right. 

The Church was rocked, and the waves created extended well beyond its walls.  The power of a thinking person changed the course of humanity.  Other potent examples we know from world history.

I hope. 

Here are ten individuals who had dramatic impact:  Albert Einstein, Johannes Gutenberg, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Cai Lun (said to have invented paper, without which poor Gutenberg would have been hopeless), St. Paul, Marie Curie, Confucius, Buddha, and Isaac Newton.  Any historian worth his salt would affirm their inarguable influence.

Life as a lightning rod took its toll on Luther.  Obsessions developed, manifested later in his life by anti-Semitism that bordered on hate and madness.  His view, before the paranoia-poisoned madness set in, was that each person should discover his own way in the world.  That the need for the insertion of any man between a person and the Creator was not only unnecessary and limited, but antithetical to Holy Writ and the exercise of free will. We must stand or not on our own actions and decisions, neither bought nor begged.  Rugged individualists were needed, not beholden to a social or ecclesiastical organization contaminated by greed, avarice, or the collection of power. Even associations with the best intentions should not compel membership or ideas against individual free will. 

Luther was a powerful free thinker who, by example, encouraged others to do likewise -to think freely – to make their own way guided by their own understanding of their place in the world, not by infringement of any kind.

This powerful thinking has little to do with candy corn and jack-o-lanterns, but much to do with the purpose of the university.  Luther’s boldness when he nailed his Theses to the church door that day in Wittenberg changed the western concept of social order. 

His idea — squeezed out of his faith and insight — to create an appropriate sense of self- determination was more basic than had been previously known. 

This is without qualification the work of the university – allowing lives to be defined by aspiration and passion rather than acquiescence and passivity. 

At a university, the power of free thought, and engaging it through scholarship and learning, faith and experience, is so central that I can say with confidence that institutions neglecting it do not fulfill their mission to their students.

I wish he had nailed his 95 Theses to the door on July 4, rather than October 31.

6 thoughts on “Our University – Free Thinking

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  4. Great post, Walter. Contrast your argument with the piece in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education “Education Dept. Takes Stand on Anti-Semitism That Could Stir Free-Speech Debates
    Some advocates consider the policy clarification long overdue, while others wonder if it could ever make campus attacks on Zionism a violation of law. ” Free thinking requires free speech — perhaps even speech considered by some to be offensive.

  5. “I can say with confidence that institutions neglecting it do not fulfill their mission to their students”

    Presumably you are implying that SIU where acquiescence to political correctness and glorification of substandard athletes is vastly more important than academic freedom or originality is a failed university?

  6. Comments on Luther in this posting are inaccurate.

    One of the inaccuracies is that Martin Luther had free will. In his writings in the Small Catechism regarding the third article of the Apostle’s Creed Luther states:

    “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true.”

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