The second chapter in Is This Not the Carpenter? is an interesting discussion by fellow Aussie Roland Boer titled “The German Pestilence: Re-assessing Feuerbach, Strauss and Bauer”. (The link is to Australia’s University of Newcastle tribute page to Roland Boer as one of their “research achievers”.) It is easy to see where Leftie Red Roland is coming from with a quick glance at his blog, Stalin’s Moustache. There he has a most informative page, Marxism and Religion: Annotated Reading List, in which readers can survey the relationship between Karl Marx and Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach — two persons at the heart of his chapter in Is This Not the Carpenter? One also learns of his penchant for “arresting titles” (beside words like “Lenin nudist” and “psychic terror”, “German pestilence” is right at home), and that he enjoys occasional sparring with Jim West, author of the first chapter of this book that I discussed in the previous post.
So what is Roland Boer’s essay about?
- Why German philosophy and public debates about human, political and economic justice were so entwined with theology and especially the Gospels in the early decades of the nineteenth century;
- What was the importance of
- Ludwig’s Feuerbach‘s theory that God and religion were “mere” projections of the best in human beings;
- David Strauss‘s demolition of the orthodox understanding of the Gospels and argument that they were really mythical stories;
- and Bruno Bauer‘s radical sceptical approach to the New Testament along with his radical politics and militant atheism.
- What messages from all of the above might be found relevant today.
So let’s begin. I outline the core of Boer’s argument as I understand it.
Context: Politics and the Bible
Germany in the early 1800’s was not a single state but a geographical amalgam of independent states like Westphalia, Prussia, Rhineland, etc. Napoleon had recently imposed revolutionary French laws and bourgeois republican hopes. After Waterloo the Prussian monarchy sought feverishly to turn back the anti-monarchic and and anti-clerical tide and reassert a “Christian state”. The devout Calvinist Friedrich Wilhelm III, moving with a tide of Pietist revival throughout Germany, united the Prussian Calvinist and Lutheran churches (the Prussian Union) with himself, Christ’s representative on earth, as the ecclesiastical head. His son, Friedrich Wilhelm IV was even more reactionary in his efforts to restore pure Christianity, with the king and aristocracy as its rightful head, and with his undoing of laws that had earlier granted some room for democratic and anti-church impulses. (The Kaisers had a direct say in university appointments. Bruno Bauer was quickly removed from his academic post and literally put out to farm.)
The political and religious debates were primarily channeled through beliefs about Jesus. And what generated the most controversy of all was that study that threatened to undermine the various beliefs about Jesus — biblical criticism.
The cutting edge of the most radical debates came from the Young Hegelians, “who met in the small Hippel Café in Berlin from 1837, drank copious amounts of alcohol, perused pornography and debated Hegel, politics and the Bible into the early hours.” The flavour of the political and philosophical debates in Germany at this time is best understood by noting that key members of the Young Hegelians were also theologians: David Strauss, Bruno Bauer and Ludwig Feuerbach.
Why was the Bible so important for these debates?
A significant branch of French socialism claimed to be a revival of the communist principles upon which the earliest Church was founded. Saint-Simon, its leading thinker, rejected all the supernatural trappings of religion and argued for a “return” to Christianity’s core founding principle of “brotherly love” and care for the poor. Moral visions of human progress towards a more compassionate society without any appeal to heaven or Jesus overflowed into Germany and raised alarm among the imperial, aristocratic and church powers.
Germany itself was a landscape of deeply contentious religious feelings: Roman Catholics and Protestants (themselves divided between Calvinists and Lutherans). The rival faiths had in their fractious relationship dug themselves into deeply conservative and mutually antagonistic positions.
Add to this the Pietistic revival of the early nineteenth century that swelled as a reaction against the rationalism of the Enlightenment and “godless” republicanism. The difference in Germany, however, was that this Pietism that valued one’s “inner walk with God” and “the priesthood of all believers” was at this time taken up by the aristocracy, too. It was no longer an exclusively bourgeois movement that could sometimes threaten the state. This deeply religious sentiment came to embrace God’s imperial regent on earth who, as pointed out above, also had the final word on university appointments.
So within this deeply conservative conglomeration of German states, the intellectual debates over politics, reason, secularism and religion were generally worked out through the Bible itself. Roland Boer thus creates a picture of biblical criticism being of keen interest and relevance to a wider audience than the theologians themselves. Biblical criticism was propelled to the status of a major study with potentially far-reaching national consequences and German theologians became world leaders in the discipline, a leadership that continued until many of its leading figures moved to the USA before the Second World War.
Feuerbach’s Divine Projections
So Roland Boer portrays what was probably the most influential work of the day, Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity [link is to the online text], as an assault upon biblical, political and philosophical thinking of the time.
Feuerbach argued that God was a projection of humanity’s subjective nature [the quotations are from the online text, not Roland’s references or translation]:
The pure, perfect divine nature is the self-consciousness of the understanding, the consciousness which the understanding has of its own perfection. (The Essence, ch. 2)
From the Wikipedia article:
Feuerbach shows that in every aspect God corresponds to some feature or need of human nature. “If man is to find contentment in God,” he claims, “he must find himself in God.” (See also The Essence)
This human projection, God, is believed to be superior to us and that we are all accountable to him.
God is the most subjective, the very own being of man, but set apart from himself. That means that he cannot derive his actions purely out of himself, or that all good comes from God. The more subjective, the more human God is the more man exteriorises his subjectivity, his humanity, because God is in reality the exteriorised self of man which he, however, reappropriates. As the activity of the arteries drives the blood into the extremities, and the action of the veins leads it back again, as life basically consists in a constant systole and diastole, so is it also in religion. In the religious systole man’s being departs from itself into an outward projection; man disowns, rejects himself; in the religious diastole his heart again embraces his rejected being. God alone is the being whose actions originate within himself, whose activity flows out of himself – thus operates the repelling force in religion; God is the being who acts in me, with me, through me, upon me, and for me; he is the principle of my salvation, of my good sentiments and actions, and hence my own good principle and essence – thus operates the attracting force in religion. (The Essence, Intro. 2)
Religion, at least the Christian religion, is the expression of how man relates to himself, or more correctly, to his essential being; but he relates to his essential being as to another being. The Divine Being is nothing other than the being of man himself, or rather, the being of man abstracted from the limits of the individual man or the real, corporeal man, and objectified, i.e., contemplated and worshiped as another being, as a being distinguished from his own. All determinations of the Divine Being are, therefore, determinations of the being of man. (The Essence, Into. 2)
Note that mankind diminishes himself through his belief in God.
Religion is the disuniting of man from himself; he sets God before him as the antithesis of himself (The Essence, ch. 2)
Karl Marx took Feuerbach’s argument and extended it to mean that religion was the sign of mankind’s more complete alienation from itself in the world. The major difference, of course, between Feuerbach and Marx was that Feuerbach believed in humanity’s redemption should come through a proper understanding of religion (including the doctrine of sin), while Marx argued for the need to change the oppressive conditions under which we live.
Strauss and Myth
|Since writing the following I have come to suspect I have overstated Strauss’s real reliance on Hegelian philosophy. Wider reading has led me to understand that Strauss later confessed to deploying a fractured view of Hegel’s ideas in his work. (16th August 2012)|
Feuerbach’s book was published in 1841 but its ideas were being worked out through the 1830s. Into the tense conservative religious world of Germany was launched “no so much a book, [but] a bomb”: Das Leben Jesu (The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined).
As soon as it was published the theology department at Tübingen sacked its author, David Strauss. Strauss had no further hope of a university or church appointment in Germany. In 1839 he was invited to take up a chair in Dogmatics and Church History at Zurich (Switzerland) — the invitation was allowed to pass the Zurich authorities on its third attempt — but when he arrived the protests were so hostile that the government pensioned him off instead.
Strauss was attacked not only by the religious conservatives. Even his fellow Young Hegelians such as Bruno Bauer attacked him for misrepresenting Hegel, whose philosophical system formed the structure of the book’s argument.
Intruding here on Roland Boer’s discussion, but for the benefit of those not familiar with Hegelian thought, the relevant concept here can be simplified into a model that describes the “nature of things” as the working out of a thesis and antithesis into a synthesis:
A thesis [situation, state of affairs] contains internal contradictions that express themselves as an opposing Antithesis. A conflict ensues until a Synthesis is reached.
Thus Strauss’s book argued that the Gospels contained stories of the fabulous and supernatural [thesis]; against this, in story after story in the Gospels, Strauss pointed to the opposing, naturalistic or rationalist explanation [antithesis]. So when the Gospels speak of Jesus walking on water (a fiction, or crude myth), the rational critic can set up the antithesis of this myth by claiming the original authors misunderstood or misrepresented what had happened and that Jesus really was walking on a hidden sandbar. But Strauss argued that in each case such an antithetical rationalist explanation of the myth-fiction actually missed the point of the original story.
So on the one hand we have a story that is at face value clearly not true. On the other, we have a credible explanation but one that misses the entire point of the original. The synthesis was worked out when Strauss argued that the Jewish authors were drawing upon mythical traditions about the messiah and were using these Jewish mythical traditions to portray Jesus as the Messiah. The evidence for this is poetic and prophetic language throughout the Old Testament and Gospels. This concept of myth (a positive meaning distinct from its popular meaning of something entirely fantastical) was said to be the natural language of pre-scientific peoples expressed ideas about life and their religion.
As Boer sums it up: Strauss set up the respective supernatural explanations found in the Gospels, negates each one with the naturalist explanation, and then resolves the conflict by offering a mythic (in the positive sense) interpretation. Strauss is re-establishing on a transcended level that which has been destroyed critically.
The Speculative Christology
In his concluding dissertation in The Life of Jesus Strauss went to Jesus’ jugular in a section titled “The Dogmatic Import of the Life of Jesus“, subsection #150, “The Speculative Christology”. Departing (again) from specific quotations used by Boer, I copy the following from the text of Strauss’s online translation. One can see where Strauss is taking the reader as to the nature of Jesus Christ himself.
Kant had already said that the good principle did not descend from heaven merely at a particular time, but had descended on mankind invisibly from the commencement of the human race; and Schelling laid down the proposition: the incarnation of God is an incarnation from eternity. . . .
When it is said of God that he is a Spirit, and of man that he also is a Spirit, it follows that the two are not essentially distinct. To speak more particularly, it is the essential property of a spirit, in the distribution of itself into distinct personalities, to remain identical with itself, to possess itself in another than itself. Hence the recognition of God as a spirit implies, that God does not remain as a fixed and immutable Infinite encompassing the Finite, but enters into it, produces the Finite, Nature, and the human mind, merely as a limited manifestation of himself . . . .
If God and man are in themselves one, and if religion is the human side of this unity: then must this unity be made evident to man in religion, and become in him consciousness and reality. . . .
This is the key to the whole of Christology, that, as subject of the predicate which the church assigns to Christ, we place, instead of an individual, an idea; but an idea which has an existence in reality, not in the mind only, like that of Kant. In an individual, a God-man, the properties and functions which the church ascribes to Christ contradict themselves; in the idea of the race, they perfectly agree. Humanity is the union of the two natures . . . . .
The Life of Jesus not only undermined “any verifiable historical record of Jesus of Nazareth” and thereby undermined the very foundations of every Church’s assumptions about the Bible and Christianity itself, it also undermined the religious ideology that upheld the entire monarchical and aristocratic system. The King was, after all, Christ’s representative on earth and God had ordained the rulers as his agents. Note, in particular in the above quotations, the way Strauss equated Christology not with a particular man in history but with all of humanity who came to an enlightened understanding. Now that was a politically dangerous idea. One that could fuel democratic spirits.
Roland Boer suggests that Strauss may not have foreseen such far-reaching consequences of his ideas given his “own dismay and surprise at the massive reaction” his work engendered.
Strauss felt the pressure enough to revise his work significantly by the third edition. By then he was prepared to grant that Christ had been an extraordinary aristocratic type of soul after all, even capable of performing certain kinds of “miracles”. He had been hoping to return to a teaching position. But his backpedaling was only temporary. In the fourth edition he returned to his hard-hitting arguments.
Strauss may well be seen as inevitably expressing the tensions of his time despite himself. The Life of Jesus “gave clear expression to the struggles within Germany between the liberal, democratic movements and the forces of reaction which waged a consistent campaign against Strauss and the liberals.”
Biblical criticism had the potential to undermine the theological foundations of Prussia’s “Christian State” itself. It fed into the longstanding tensions between Catholics and Protestants. The Crown and conservative papers in turn savagely attacked Strauss and the Young Hegelians.
Strauss’s relevance for today? We are seeing in scholarship today a return to appreciating the mythical nature of the narratives in the Bible. (Compare the themes of my previous two posts covering the Introduction and chapter 1 of Is This Not the Carpenter?
But Roland Boer invites readers into another dimension of this question of myth. While myth is generally seen as a sublime way of expressing noble truths, Boer hints that myths also play “a double game, operating with a fair degree of cunning and subterfuge.” Here he footnotes to his book, Political Myth: On the Use and Abuse of Biblical Themes, (or as a Google book, and reviewed here).
The concluding post in this series will address Roland Boer’s discussion of Bruno Bauer and a general discussion of what lessons he sees for today from the adventures of these three pestilential fellows.
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