Marion Goldman on Martin Luther and Spiritual Virtuosity
Date: April 30th, 2017

What made Martin Luther such a critical figure in Christian (and world) history?  Prof. Marion Goldman, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Oregon and scholar-in-residence at Portland State University, explains that Luther was a unique “spiritual virtuoso.”  Reviewing her book The Spiritual Virtuoso (co-authored with Steven Pfaff), she defines a “spiritual virtuoso” as an individual who is intensely focused on sanctification, a reluctant leaders, and yet someone who still inspires others within a social movement.  Building upon the thought of Max Weber, but differentiating this concept from that famous sociologist, Mimi argues that the concept of “virtuoso” and “virtuoso activism” is different than charisma.  The virtuosi tend to be more humble in their personality and instead of building a movement centered around them are more concerned about sharing the process of transformation with others.  We turn to a synopsis of Martin Luther’s life using this conceptual framework as a guide.  Luther came from a relatively privileged family but became obsessed with the concept of sin and purification early in his life, joining an Augustinian monastery and involving himself in tortuous rituals of repentance.  Coming under the mentorship of Johann von Staupitz, Luther’s life takes a more academic turn and he begins a career as a theology professor at Wittenberg University, a lesser known school out in the “Siberia” of The Academy.  Protected and sponsored by Prince Frederick III (Elector of Saxony), Luther’s teaching and scholarship flourished.  Mimi and I discuss how virtuosos often inhabit a “fringe” space just outside the mainstream of intellectual or artistic life, different from the prevailing zeitgeist but still accepted within the normal flow of society.  We follow Luther’s career through his conflict with the Catholic Church and to the Diet of Worms and beyond, examining how Luther struggled to inspire and lead a movement he unexpectedly created.  Some of this struggle came through trying to balance the creative destruction of spiritual virtuosity and the need for orderly societal institutions.  Prof. Goldman also lists a number of historical conditions that allowed this “virtuoso activism” to succeed, including economic growth, increasing social and geographic mobility, and the printing press.  We then discuss how two other movements — the Abolitionist Movement and computer revolution — were inspired by similar virtuosi including Sarah Grimke, Theodore Weld, and Steve Jobs.  A great deal is revealed about Jobs’ own connection to the Human Potential Movement, a spiritual revival making its way around California and Oregon in the 1960s and ’70s.  Mimi ends the interview with some of her personal reflections on what she has learned through the process of studying Luther and other virtuosi.  Recorded: April 25, 2017.

Please note that during the podcast Tony refers to the forthcoming book as Spiritual Virtuosity.  The actual title appearing for pre-order is The Spiritual Virtuoso.


Prof. Marion Goldman’s bio at the Department of SociologyUniversity of Oregon.

The Spiritual Virtuoso: Seeking Sanctification, Remaking the World, by Marion Goldman and Steven Pfaff (pre-order copies available).

The American Soul Rush: Esalen and the Rise of Spiritual Privilege, by Marion Goldman.

Passionate Journeys: Why Successful Women Joined a Cult, by Marion Goldman.

Gold Diggers and Silver Miners: Prostitution and Social Life on the Comstock Lode, by Marion Goldman.


Steve Pfaff on the Protestant Reformation.

Oliver Crisp on Calvin and Reformed Theology.

Rodney Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part II.

Rodney Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part III.

Russell Kleckley on Religion, Science, and Johannes Kepler.

2 Responses to “Marion Goldman on Martin Luther and Spiritual Virtuosity”

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