WC. Water Closet. Privy. Crapper. Must stripped-down theology sink to the level of the toilet? But this is precisely where the ‘father’ of Protestant Christianity, Martin Luther (1483-1546), claimed he had been given his most important of realizations. Luther didn’t stop at the marketplace when talking about the presence of God (and the Devil). If God is present—everywhere—then God must be present in the privy!
Medievals knew what we, in developed countries, have forgotten thanks to improvements in sanitation. Because contemporary plumbing has created a near-perfect divide between us and our excrement, if we are to inhabit Luther’s mental space (okay, scatological space), we have to turn to the closest analogy most of us have—the so-called honey-pots at state fairs and fourth of July celebrations. The state-fair WC isn’t just any old privy, but the most disgusting, degrading, and degraded places that many of us are likely to visit. The state-fair WC is that space where we have no choice but to come ‘face to face’ (or nose to nose) with s–t, both as biological product and as existential condition.
So what’s with God and the Devil in the WC? Here’s the scoop, as compactly as possible. Martin Luther, the prophet of ‘salvation by faith alone’, wanted nothing less than to overturn our genteel, conscience-oriented morality. Most of us trust our consciences to clue us in on what’s right and what’s wrong. We rely on our inner voice to tell us what to do. And then, if sacrifice is required, we struggle to satisfy that voice’s demands. This describes the conventional morality in Luther’s day—and it remains the conventional morality in ours.
Following that line of thinking, we would conclude that if the God of conventional morality wanted to make us responsible for our wrongdoings in the after-life (a reasonable proposition), such a God would be something of a gentle, accountant type of God. We would reach the pearly gates of heaven and stand quietly in front of a plain table while God checks a ledger for our name. Once God finds the entry chronicling our lives, God would carefully weigh what, if any, punishments would be the best match for our bad choices and our lapses (if we’re lucky, God overlooks the majority of these). Indeed, a liberal Unitarian Christian like William Ellery Channing taught ‘salvation through character,’ and although he believed God was too good to condemn human beings to eternal hell, he still believed that God required wrongdoers to do some kind of penance before they were admitted into God’s presence. This is an eminently rational belief—God’s punishment will fit the crime, which is why so many people hold onto it. Tenaciously.
But, for Luther, the issue was not a question of morality versus immorality, but of God versus the Devil. Luther had concluded (based on his intensive study of Scripture) that God saves us whether we’ve made right choices or not. All we need to do in order to be saved is have faith that God will save us. Period. No requirement for good behavior. God has promised to save us; we need only believe in this promise and we are saved. No ifs, ands or buts. The devil is that voice in our heads (you’re hearing it, right now, aren’t you?) that says—nope. I don’t believe God would give us such a sweet deal. Saved no matter what? Even child molesters who refuse to change? Come on. What kind of nonsense is that? Only someone who is completely irrational could believe such a thing.
You’ve got the picture though. For Luther, when we’re sitting on the loo doing our thing, God stands on one side with a promise of salvation (saying all you have to do is believe in my promise), and the Devil stands on the other side (saying, don’t you believe God’s promise, it’s too good to be true). The Devil is the one who sounds rational—he insists on what we already know–there’s some kind of hitch, some kind of small print God’s not telling us about.
A contemporary of William Ellery Channing, the Universalist minister, Hosea Ballou, challenged the view of people like us. In an article, “Salvation Irrespective of Character,” he argued that God was like a Father who loves all of His children whether they are saints or sinners: “Your child has fallen into the mire, and its body and its garments are defiled. You cleanse it and array it in clean robes. The query is, Do you love your child because you have washed it? Or, did you wash it because you loved it?
Most of us are adept at keeping our minds and hands busy but a visit to the crapper offers a chance to pause. If, in the toilet, we reflect on our lives for just a few seconds, we come face to face with the degraded choices we’re being asked to make, and with the degrading choices we’ve already made. And that’s when, if we’re honest, we call into question our ability to choose the right thing and our ability to do it. We’ll wonder whether our consciences can reliably discern what’s right from wrong. And we’ll wonder whether we have the self-discipline to do what’s right. God overlooks all these difficulties, Luther teaches. Sitting in the privy, this hard truth was revealed to him. In the privy, he realized that, more often than not, he was powerless. He also realized that, even here, in this disgusting, unsanitary place, God came to his aid.
No bull. For Luther, the crapper is a place of faith. He insisted that God is there. The devil too. And God wins (and we win) if we trust in God’s promise.
Can you? And what about that promise? Do you buy it?
Reference: Heiko A. Oberman, “The Devil and the Cloaca,” in Luther: Man between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 151-7.