I’ve mentioned before how fascinating it is to consider how religious mystics, leaders and reformers have unwittingly contributed to innovation – entire platforms, in many cases – that have transformed the world in ways that they scarcely could have imagined.
Mormon founder Joseph Smith’s idiosyncratic theological cosmology contributed directly to genealogy and to the genealogical industry that grew up around the church’s massive database in Salt Lake City and, ultimately, to the use of DNA testing as a kind of genealogical enhancer.
And long before Smith, Martin Luther’s lonely and bleak struggle with faith produced a bountiful harvest, thanks to the value he placed on believers acquiring biblical literacy and, with it, a command of sacred scripture to gain a clearer understanding of God.
The uptick in literacy that followed transformed the world in the centuries that followed. Indeed, the strong case could be made that the disproportionate influence that the Northeast wields in American culture and politics stems from the fact that the earliest settlers to the region were “people of the book” – Calvinists who placed great emphasis on debating and exegeting scripture and who, in the course of which, established what was believe to be the most concentrated area of literacy in the world by the late 17th century.
This region’s high rates of literacy, in turn, ultimately spawned three of the most influential research universities in the world – Harvard, Yale and, later, MIT – which have transformed all facets of human knowledge. And, of course, this has also contributed immensely to culture, politics and even spirituality not only in the United States but also throughout the world.
And let’s reconsider for a moment Luther’s sole mission: to strengthen each human being’s relationship with God through his emphasis on grace through faith. Yet, this simple emphasis on faith – and his insistence on the practical value of literacy to augment this faith – transformed the world in ways he could not have imagined while he was translating the Bible into German while in hiding.
And, quite ironically, this emphasis on literacy has led much of the world away from faith rather than toward it – needless to say, a prospect Luther would have found deeply troubling.
But that is the nature of innovation, even the sort of unwitting innovation that characterized Luther’s life and work.