Thesis 1: Let's Talk About Your Mind

This post is the second in a series of meditations on each of Luther's "95 Theses." You can view all posts in this series here.
"Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do so by letter.
In the Name our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
  1. Our Lord and Master Jesus Christ, when He said Poenitentiam agite, willed that the whole life of believers should be repentance."
Luther's preamble to the Theses is an invitation to dialogue, to conversation. A good Methodist might call this "holy conferencing." It is a different mode of conversation than the world teaches. It involves more listening than talking. How often do we think we are listening when we are actually forming a counter-argument or a response? In my case, way too often. In so doing, we cease being present and jump to the future, where our ego waits for us, all dressed up and ready to impress.

Oh, and if you can't show up for Luther's facilitated conversation, he wants to hear from you. So write him a letter.

I would imagine the form of debate might have looked a little different 500 years ago. Don't we let the polarity of our politics leak into our churches and our ways of talking about others with different theological frameworks? He's this one. She's that one.

In Richard Rohr's The Naked Now, he talks of getting mail from a friend who visited a Buddhist monastery in Tibet. When the novice monks are in training, they are given every teaching of the Buddha, one at a time over the course of three years. Mastery of each teaching involves explaining all the potential negative actions that could arise out of the teaching. After each explanation, the other monks clap and smile in approval. After all the negative actions have been exhausted, no matter how long this process takes, the student starts in on the positive actions one might take based on the same teaching. As with the negative set, the monks clap and smile in approval.

Then they move to the next teaching. There is no "conclusion" about which action or actions are best. The student is left to decide for herself. Duality, the inherent rightness or wrongness of any one idea, is implicitly shrugged aside.

The Latin phrase in the first thesis is usually translated as "repent" or "do penance." This will be important to return to later. For now, I think we should try harder with the translation. The verb "ago" ("Agite" is the second-person plural present active imperative of "ago." In other words, "All y'all need to be doing this thing right now.) can also mean things like "drive," "impel," "manage." The root of the first word goes all the way back to "penso, pensare," meaning "to think." When we speak of repenting, we quite literally are speaking of rethinking. Sounds a lot harder, doesn't it? But it comes with so much less hellfire church imagery for me than the idea of repentance. Learning to shift my mind's process certainly takes practice, but I've done it before. It's much less murky than repenting, which always makes me question things anxiously: Did I pray hard enough? Did I mean it deeply enough? This shifts the onus away from you onto the relationship between you and God. The tighter the relationship, the more complete the repentance.

So, what do you make of the introductory bit and the first thesis?


  1. I think there's danger in creating a false dualism between thought and action, which is my basic critique of Luther. To rethink is also to redo. If a re-thought isn't followed by re-doing, then I don't think the thought was actually re-thought.

    I think.

    Luther was pushing back against his perception that there was a lot of re-doing (of ritual) in the church without actually addressing the sinful thinking that was then dealt with by so-called penitent acts. Or more precisely, there was no change of thought which would have reduced sinful action.

    Therefore, we have to hold in tension both Paul (saved by faith, not works) and James (faith without works is dead). Real repentance or penance or metanoia (for a bit of Greek flavor in there) requires both mind and body--the whole person. Otherwise we end up being like Lot's wife, walking away from sin, while turning our eyes back to it, and that never ends well (spoiler: turned into a pillar of salt).

  2. the first thing i thought of when i read your comment was that, according to reza aslan, paul was obsessed with creating the divinity of christ, while james was more concerned with right living and earthly revolution. so whether thought or action is more important to you is bound to display your purpose. to add a bit more richard rohr to the conversation, the real dualist problem is the division between sensory perception of the world and thought about this perception. to these two eyes we need to add the third eye of contemplation (different than meditation), which process exists beyond the ego and, INDEED, beyond religion. i hear you about luther's focus. i wonder if the dialogue would have been more fruitful had they focused on finding a third way of BEING in the process, not a way of rearranging simply action or thought.

  3. You also have to take into consideration the audiences between Paul and James. Paul was writing mainly to Gentile converts and Hellenized Jews. James was writing to Palestinian Jewish Christians. I would expect that communicating to Jews, who have a more holistic anthropology (there's no separation of a person into mind/soul and body), would be quite a bit different than communicating the same message to Greek-thinking folks with a dualistic anthropology (mind/soul and body are distinct things and are at war with each other).

    I think Rohr's perspective is useful for us to understand the differences between thinking and doing in relationship with repentance, but I think it would be anachronistic to attribute a sensory/interpretation dualism to the writing of Paul or James. To later church fathers and mothers of the contemplative tradition reading Paul and James, yes, but not to the biblical writers themselves.

    I think both James and Paul are about Being, but their audiences change how they talk about it. In Jewish religion and thought, Being is assumed. Paul has to work against the Greek-dualist thought of his audience, though I think Paul understands the oneness of Being as a Pharisetic Jew would. Luther's distaste for James (and perhaps even his anti-semitism) indicates how much Luther didn't understand that Jewish notion of Being, but was trapped in his specialty of Augustinian scholarship which is grounded entirely in Greek dualism.


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