The Essence of Christianity/Chapter XXI

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The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach
Chapter XXI
CHAPTER XXI.
THE CONTRADICTION IN THE REVELATION OF GOD.


With the idea of the existence of God is connected the idea of revelation. God’s attestation of his existence, the authentic testimony that God exists, is revelation. Proofs drawn from reason are merely subjective; the objective, the only true proof of the existence of God, is his revelation. God speaks to man; revelation is the word of God; he sends forth a voice which thrills the soul, and gives it the joyful certainty that God really is. The word is the gospel of life,—the criterion of existence and non-existence. Belief in revelation is the culminating point of religious objectivism. The subjective conviction of the existence of God here becomes an indubitable, external, historical fact. The existence of God, in itself, considered simply as existence, is already an external, empirical existence; still, it is as yet only thought, conceived, and therefore doubtful; hence the assertion that all proofs produce no satisfactory certainty. This conceptional existence converted into a real existence, a fact, is revelation. God has revealed himself, has demonstrated himself: who then can have any further doubt? The certainty of the existence of God is involved for me in the certainty of the revelation. A God who only exists without revealing himself, who exists for me only through my own mental act, such a God is a merely abstract, imaginary, subjective God; a God who gives me a knowledge of himself through his own act is alone a God who truly exists, who proves himself to exist,—an objective God. Faith in revelation is the immediate certainty of the religious mind, that what it believes, wishes, conceives, really is. Religion is a dream, in which our own conceptions and emotions appear to us as separate existences, beings out of ourselves. The religious mind does not distinguish between subjective and objective,—it has no doubts; it has the faculty, not of discerning other things than itself, but of seeing its own conceptions out of itself, as distinct beings. What is in itself a mere theory, is to the religious mind a practical belief, a matter of conscience,—a fact. A fact is that which from being an object of the intellect becomes a matter of conscience; a fact is that which one cannot criticise or attack without being guilty of a crime;[1] a fact is that which one must believe nolens volens; a fact is a physical force, not an argument,—it makes no appeal to the reason. O ye short-sighted religious philosophers of Germany, who fling at our heads the facts of the religious consciousness, to stun our reason and make us the slaves of your childish superstition,—do you not see that facts are just as relative, as various, as subjective, as the ideas of the different religions? Were not the Gods of Olympus also facts, self-attesting existences?[2] Were not the ludicrous miracles of paganism regarded as facts? Were not angels and demons historical persons? Did they not really appear to men? Did not Balaam’s ass really speak? Was not the story of Balaam’s ass just as much believed even by enlightened scholars of the last century, as the Incarnation or any other miracle? A fact, I repeat, is a conception about the truth of which there is no doubt, because it is no object of theory, but of feeling, which desires that what it wishes, what it believes, should be true. A fact is that, the denial of which is forbidden, if not by an external law, yet by an internal one. A fact is every possibility which passes for a reality, every conception which, for the age wherein it is held to be a fact, expresses a want, and is for that reason an impassable limit of the mind. A fact is every wish that projects itself on reality: in short, it is everything that is not doubted simply because it is not—must not be—doubted.

The religious mind, according to its nature as hitherto unfolded, has the immediate certainty that all its involuntary, spontaneous affections are impressions from without, manifestations of another being. The religious mind makes itself the passive, God the active being. God is activity; but that which determines him to activity, which causes his activity (originally only omnipotence, potentia) to become real activity, is not himself,—he needs nothing,—but man, the religious subject. At the same time, however, man is reciprocally determined by God; he views himself as passive; he receives from God determinate revelations, determinate proofs of his existence. Thus in revelation man determines himself as that which determines God, i.e., revelation is simply the self-determination of man, only that between himself the determined, and himself the determining, he interposes an object—God, a distinct being. God is the medium by which man brings about the reconciliation of himself with his own nature: God is the bond, the vinculum substantiale, between the essential nature—the species—and the individual.

The belief in revelation exhibits in the clearest manner the characteristic illusion of the religious consciousness. The general premiss of this belief is: man can of himself know nothing of God; all his knowledge is merely vain, earthly, human. But God is a superhuman being; God is known only by himself. Thus we know nothing of God beyond what he reveals to us. The knowledge imparted by God is alone divine, superhuman, supernatural knowledge. By means of revelation, therefore, we know God through himself; for revelation is the word of God—God declaring himself. Hence, in the belief in revelation man makes himself a negation, he goes out of and above himself; he places revelation in opposition to human knowledge and opinion; in it is contained a hidden knowledge, the fulness of all supersensuous mysteries; here reason must hold its peace. But nevertheless the divine revelation is determined by the human nature. God speaks not to brutes or angels, but to men; hence he uses human speech and human conceptions. Man is an object to God, before God perceptibly imparts himself to man; he thinks of man; he determines his action in accordance with the nature of man and his needs. God is indeed free in will; he can reveal himself or not; but he is not free as to the understanding; he cannot reveal to man whatever he will, but only what is adapted to man, what is commensurate with his nature such as it actually is; he reveals what he must reveal, if his revelation is to be a revelation for man, and not for some other kind of being. Now what God thinks in relation to man is determined by the idea of man—it has arisen out of reflection on human nature. God puts himself in the place of man, and thinks of himself as this other being can and should think of him; he thinks of himself, not with his own thinking power, but with man’s. In the scheme of his revelation God must have reference not to himself, but to man’s power of comprehension. That which comes from God to man, comes to man only from man in God, that is, only from the ideal nature of man to the phenomenal man, from the species to the individual. Thus, between the divine revelation and the so-called human reason or nature, there is no other than an illusory distinction;—the contents of the divine revelation are of human origin, for they have proceeded not from God as God, but from God as determined by human reason, human wants, that is, directly from human reason and human wants. And so in revelation man goes out of himself, in order, by a circuitous path, to return to himself! Here we have a striking confirmation of the position, that the secret of theology is nothing else than anthropology—the knowledge of God nothing else than a knowledge of man!

Indeed, the religious consciousness itself admits, in relation to past times, the essentially human quality of revelation. The religious consciousness of a later age is no longer satisfied with a Jehovah who is from head to foot a man, and does not shrink from becoming visible as such. It recognises that those were merely images in which God accommodated himself to the comprehension of men in that age, that is, merely human images. But it does not apply this mode of interpretation to ideas accepted as revelation in the present age, because it is yet itself steeped in those ideas. Nevertheless, every revelation is simply a revelation of the nature of man to existing men. In revelation man’s latent nature is disclosed to him, becomes an object to him. He is determined, affected by his own nature as by another being; he receives from the hands of God what his own unrecognised nature entails upon him as a necessity, under certain conditions of time and circumstance. Reason, the mind of the species, operates on the subjective, uncultured man only under the image of a personal being. Moral laws have force for him only as the commandments of a Divine Will, which has at once the power to punish and the glance which nothing escapes. That which his own nature, his reason, his conscience says to him, does not bind him, because the subjective, uncultured man sees in conscience, in reason, so far as he recognises it as his own, no universal, objective power; hence he must separate from himself that which gives him moral laws, and place it in opposition to himself, as a distinct personal being.

Belief in revelation is a child-like belief, and is only respectable so long as it is child-like. But the child is determined from without. And revelation has for its object to effect by God’s help, what man cannot attain by himself. Hence, revelation has been called the education of the human race. This is correct; only, revelation must not be regarded as outside the nature of man. There is within him an inward necessity which impels him to present moral and philosophical doctrines in the form of narratives and fables, and an equal necessity to represent that impulse as a revelation. The mythical poet has an end in view—that of making men good and wise; he designedly adopts the form of fable as the most appropriate and vivid method of representation; but at the same time, he is himself urged to this mode of teaching by his love of fable, by his inward impulse. So it is with a revelation enunciated by an individual. This individual has an aim; but at the same time he himself lives in the conceptions by means of which he realizes this aim. Man, by means of the imagination, involuntarily contemplates his inner nature; he represents it as out of himself. The nature of man, of the species—thus working on him through the irresistible power of the imagination, and contemplated as the law of his thought and action—is God.

Herein lie the beneficial moral effects of the belief in revelation.

But as Nature “unconsciously produces results which look as if they were produced consciously,” so revelation generates moral actions, which do not, however, proceed from morality;—moral actions, but no moral dispositions. Moral rules are indeed observed, but they are severed from the inward disposition, the heart, by being represented as the commandments of an external law-giver, by being placed in the category of arbitrary laws, police regulations. What is done, is done not because it is good and right, but because it is commanded by God. The inherent quality of the deed is indifferent; whatever God commands is right.[3] If these commands are in accordance with reason, with ethics, it is well; but so far as the idea of revelation is concerned, it is accidental. The ceremonial laws of the Jews were revealed, divine, though in themselves adventitious and arbitrary. The Jews received from Jehovah the command to steal;—in a special case, it is true.

But the belief in revelation not only injures the moral sense and taste,—the æsthetics of virtue; it poisons, nay it destroys, the divinest feeling in man—the sense of truth, the perception and sentiment of truth. The revelation of God is a determinate revelation, given at a particular epoch: God revealed himself once for all in the year so and so, and that, not to the universal man, to the man of all times and places, to the reason, to the species, but to certain limited individuals. A revelation in a given time and place must be fixed in writing, that its blessings may be transmitted uninjured. Hence the belief in revelation is, at least for those of a subsequent age, belief in a written revelation; but the necessary consequence of a faith in which an historical book, necessarily subject to all the conditions of a temporal, finite production, is regarded as an eternal, absolute, universally authoritative word, is—superstition and sophistry.

Faith in a written revelation is a real, unfeigned, and so far respectable faith, only where it is believed that all in the sacred writings is significant, true, holy, divine. Where, on the contrary, the distinction is made between the human and divine, the relatively true and the absolutely true, the historical and the permanent,—where it is not held that all without distinction is unconditionally true; there the verdict of unbelief, that the Bible is no divine book, is already introduced into the interpretation of the Bible,—there, at least indirectly, that is, in a crafty, dishonest way, its title to the character of a divine revelation is denied. Unity, unconditionality, freedom from exceptions, immediate certitude, is alone the character of divinity. A book that imposes on me the necessity of discrimination, the necessity of criticism, in order to separate the divine from the human, the permanent from the temporary, is no longer a divine, certain, infallible book,—it is degraded to the rank of profane books; for every profane book has the same quality, that together with or in the human it contains the divine, that is, together with or in the individual it contains the universal and eternal. But that only is a truly divine book in which there is not merely something good and something bad, something permanent and something temporary, but in which all comes as it were from one crucible, all is eternal, true and good. What sort of a revelation is that in which I must first listen to the apostle Paul, then to Peter, then to James, then to John, then to Matthew, then to Mark, then to Luke, until at last I come to a passage where my soul, athirst for God, can cry out: Eureka! here speaks the Holy Spirit himself! here is something for me, something for all times and all men. How true, on the contrary, was the conception of the old faith, when it extended inspiration to the very words, to the very letters of Scripture! The word is not a matter of indifference in relation to the thought; a definite thought can only be rendered by a definite word. Another word, another letter—another sense. It is true that such faith is superstition; but this superstition is alone the true, undisguised, open faith, which is not ashamed of its consequences. If God numbers the hairs on the head of a man, if no sparrow falls to the ground without his will, how could he leave to the stupidity and caprice of scribes his Word—that word on which depends the everlasting salvation of man? Why should he not dictate his thoughts to their pen in order to guard them from the possibility of disfiguration?—“But if man were a mere organ of the Holy Spirit, human freedom would be abolished!”[4] Oh what a pitiable argument! Is human freedom, then, of more value than divine truth? Or does human freedom consist only in the distortion of divine truth?

And just as necessarily as the belief in a determinate historical revelation is associated with superstition, so necessarily is it associated with sophistry. The Bible contradicts morality, contradicts reason, contradicts itself, innumerable times; and yet it is the word of God, eternal truth, and “truth cannot contradict itself.”[5] How does the believer in revelation elude this contradiction between the idea in his own mind, of revelation as divine, harmonious truth, and this supposed actual revelation? Only by self-deception, only by the silliest subterfuges, only by the most miserable, transparent sophisms. Christian sophistry is the necessary product of Christian faith, especially of faith in the Bible as a divine revelation.

Truth, absolute truth, is given objectively in the Bible, subjectively in faith; for towards that which God himself speaks I can only be believing, resigned, receptive. Nothing is left to the understanding, the reason, but a formal, subordinate office; it has a false position, a position essentially contradictory to its nature. The understanding in itself is here indifferent to truth, indifferent to the distinction between the true and the false; it has no criterion in itself; whatever is found in revelation is true, even when it is in direct contradiction with reason. The understanding is helplessly given over to the haphazard of the most ignoble empiricism;—whatever I find in divine revelation I must believe, and if necessary, my understanding must defend it; the understanding is the watch-dog of revelation; it must let everything without distinction be imposed on it as truth,—discrimination would be doubt, would be a crime: consequently, nothing remains to it but an adventitious, indifferent, i.e., disingenuous, sophistical, tortuous mode of thought, which is occupied only with groundless distinctions and subterfuges, with ignominious tricks and evasions. But the more man, by the progress of time, becomes estranged from revelation, the more the understanding ripens into independence,—the more glaring, necessarily, appears the contradiction between the understanding and belief in revelation. The believer can then prove revelation only by incurring contradiction with himself, with truth, with the understanding, only by the most impudent assumptions, only by shameless falsehoods, only by the sin against the Holy Ghost.

Footnotes[edit]

  1. The denial of a fact is not a matter of indifference; it is something morally evil,—a disowning of what is known to be true. Christianity made its articles of faith objective, i.e., undeniable, unassailable facts, thus overpowering the reason, and taking the mind prisoner by the force of external reality: herein we have the true explanation why and how Christianity, Protestant as well as Catholic, enunciated and enforced with all solemnity the principle, that heresy—the denial of an idea or a fact which forms an article of faith—is an object of punishment by the temporal power, i.e., a crime. What in theory is an external fact, becomes in practice an external force. In this respect, Christianity is far below Mahomedanism, to which the crime of heresy is unknown.
  2. “Præsentiam sæpe divi suam declarant.”—Cicero (de Nat. D. 1. ii.). Cicero’s works (de Nat. D. and de Divinatione) are especially interesting, because the arguments there used for the reality of the objects of pagan faith, are virtually the same as those urged in the present day by theologians and the adherents of positive religion generally, for the reality of the objects of Christian faith.
  3. “Quod crudeliter ab hominibus sine Dei jussu fieret aut factum est, id debuit ab Hebrais fieri, quia a deo vitæ et necis summo arbitrio, jussi bellum ita gerebant.”—J. Clericus (Comm. in Mos. Num. c. 31, 7). “Multa gessit Samson, quæ vix possent defendi, nisi Dei, a quo homines pendent, instrumentum fuisse censeatur.”—Ib. (Comm. in Judicum, c. 14, 19). See also Luther, e.g. (T. i. p. 339, T. xvi. p. 495).
  4. It was very justly remarked by the Jansenists against the Jesuits: “Vouloir reconnoitre dans l’Ecriture quelque chose de la foiblesse et de l’esprit naturel de l’homme, c’est donner la liberté à chacun d’en faire le discernement et de rejetter ce qui lui plaira de l’Ecriture, comme venant plûtot de la foiblesse de l’homme que de l’esprit de Dieu.”—Bayle (Diet. art. Adam (Jean) Rem. E.)
  5. “Nec in scriptura divina fas sit sentire aliquid contrarietatis.”—Petrus L. (l. ii. dist. ii. c. i.). Similar thoughts are found in the Fathers.