The Essence of Christianity/Chapter XII
THE OMNIPOTENCE OF FEELING, OR THE MYSTERY OF PRAYER.
Israel is the historical definition of the specific nature of the religious consciousness, save only that here this consciousness was circumscribed by the limits of a particular, a national interest. Hence, we need only let these limits fall, and we have the Christian religion. Judaism is worldly Christianity; Christianity, spiritual Judaism. The Christian religion is the Jewish religion purified from national egoism, and yet at the same time it is certainly another, a new religion; for every reformation, every purification, produces—especially in religious matters, where even the trivial becomes important—an essential change. To the Jew, the Israelite was the mediator, the bond between God and man; in his relation to Jehovah he relied on his character of Israelite; Jehovah himself was nothing else than the self-consciousness of Israel made objective as the absolute being, the national conscience, the universal law, the central point of the political system. If we let fall the limits of nationality, we obtain—instead of the Israelite—man. As in Jehovah the Israelite personified his national existence, so in God the Christian personified his subjective human nature, freed from the limits of nationality. As Israel made the wants of his national existence the law of the world, as, under the dominance of these wants, he deified even his political vindictiveness: so the Christian made the requirements of human feeling the absolute powers and laws of the world. The miracles of Christianity, which belong just as essentially to its characterization, as the miracles of the Old Testament to that of Judaism, have not the welfare of a nation for their object, but the welfare of man:—that is, indeed, only of man considered as Christian; for Christianity, in contradiction with the genuine universal human heart, recognised man only under the condition, the limitation, of belief in Christ. But this fatal limitation will be discussed further on. Christianity has spiritualised the egoism of Judaism into subjectivity (though even within Christianity this subjectivity is again expressed as pure egoism), has changed the desire for earthly happiness, the goal of the Israelitish religion, into the longing for heavenly bliss, which is the goal of Christianity.
The highest idea, the God of a political community, of a people whose political system expresses itself in the form of religion, is Law, the consciousness of the law as an absolute divine power; the highest idea, the God of unpolitical, unworldly feeling is Love; the love which brings all the treasures and glories in heaven and upon earth as an offering to the beloved, the love whose law is the wish of the beloved one, and whose power is the unlimited power of the imagination, of intellectual miracle-working.
God is the Love that satisfies our wishes, our emotional wants; he is himself the realized wish of the heart, the wish exalted to the certainty of its fulfilment, of its reality, to that undoubting certainty before which no contradiction of the understanding, no difficulty of experience or of the external world maintains its ground. Certainty is the highest power for man; that which is certain to him is the essential, the divine. “God is love:” this, the supreme dictum of Christianity, only expresses the certainty which human feeling has of itself, as the alone essential, i.e., absolute divine power, the certainty that the inmost wishes of the heart have objective validity and reality, that there are no limits, no positive obstacles to human feeling, that the whole world, with all its pomp and glory, is nothing weighed against human feeling. God is love: that is, feeling is the God of man, nay, God absolutely, the Absolute Being. God is the nature of human feeling, unlimited, pure feeling, made objective. God is the optative of the human heart transformed into the tempus finitum, the certain, blissful “is,”—the unrestricted omnipotence of feeling, prayer hearing itself, feeling perceiving itself, the echo of our cry of anguish. Pain must give itself utterance; involuntarily the artist seizes the lute, that he may breathe out his sufferings in its tones. He soothes his sorrow by making it audible to himself, by making it objective; he lightens the burden which weighs upon his heart, by communicating it to the air, by making his sorrow a general existence. But nature listens not to the plaints of man, it is callous to his sorrows. Hence man turns away from Nature, from all visible objects. He turns within, that here, sheltered and hidden from the inexorable powers, he may find audience for his griefs. Here he utters his oppressive secrets; here he gives vent to his stifled sighs. This open-air of the heart, this outspoken secret, this uttered sorrow of the soul, is God. God is a tear of love, shed in the deepest concealment, over human misery. “God is an unutterable sigh, lying in the depths of the Heart;” this saying is the most remarkable, the profoundest, truest expression of Christian mysticism.
The ultimate essence of religion is revealed by the simplest act of religion—prayer; an act which implies at least as much as the dogma of the Incarnation, although religious speculation stands amazed at this, as the greatest of mysteries. Not, certainly, the prayer before and after meals, the ritual of animal egoism, but the prayer pregnant with sorrow, the prayer of disconsolate love, the prayer which expresses the power of the heart that crushes man to the ground, the prayer which begins in despair and ends in rapture.
In prayer, man addresses God with the word of intimate affection—Thou; he thus declares articulately that God is his alter ego; he confesses to God as the being nearest to him, his most secret thoughts, his deepest wishes, which otherwise he shrinks from uttering. But he expresses these wishes in the confidence, in the certainty that they will be fulfilled. How could he apply to a being that had no ear for his complaints? Thus what is prayer but the wish of the heart expressed with confidence in its fulfilment? what else is the being that fulfils these wishes but human affection, the human soul, giving ear to itself, approving itself, unhesitatingly affirming itself? The man who does not exclude from his mind the idea of the world, the idea that everything here must be sought intermediately, that every effect has its natural cause, that a wish is only to be attained when it is made an end and the corresponding means are put into operation—such a man does not pray: he only works; he transforms his attainable wishes into objects of real activity; other wishes which he recognises as purely subjective, he denies, or regards as simply subjective, pious aspirations. In other words, he limits, he conditionates his being by the world, as a member of which he conceives himself; he bounds his wishes by the idea of necessity. In prayer, on the contrary, man excludes from his mind the world, and with it all thoughts of intermediateness and dependence; he makes his wishes—the concerns of his heart, objects of the independent, omnipotent, absolute being, i.e., he affirms them without limitation. God is the affirmation of human feeling; prayer is the unconditional confidence of human feeling in the absolute identity of the subjective and objective, the certainty that the power of the heart is greater than the power of Nature, that the heart’s need is absolute necessity, the Fate of the world. Prayer alters the course of Nature; it determines God to bring forth an effect in contradiction with the laws of Nature. Prayer is the absolute relation of the human heart to itself, to its own nature; in prayer, man forgets that there exists a limit to his wishes, and is happy in this forgetfulness.
Prayer is the self-division of man into two beings,—a dialogue of man with himself, with his heart. It is essential to the effectiveness of prayer that it be audibly, intelligibly, energetically expressed. Involuntarily prayer wells forth in sound; the struggling heart bursts the barrier of the closed lips. But audible prayer is only prayer revealing its nature; prayer is virtually, if not actually, speech,—the Latin word oratio signifies both; in prayer, man speaks undisguisedly of that which weighs upon him, which affects him closely; he makes his heart objective;—hence the moral power of prayer. Concentration, it is said, is the condition of prayer: but it is more than a condition; prayer is itself concentration,—the dismissal of all distracting ideas, of all disturbing influences from without, retirement within oneself, in order to have relation only with one’s own being. Only a trusting, open, hearty, fervent prayer is said to help; but this help lies in the prayer itself. As everywhere in religion the subjective, the secondary, the conditionating, is the prima causa, the objective fact; so here, these subjective qualities are the objective nature of prayer itself.
It is an extremely superficial view of prayer to regard it as an expression of the sense of dependence. It certainly expresses such a sense, but the dependence is that of man on his own heart, on his own feeling. He who feels himself only dependent, does not open his mouth in prayer; the sense of dependence robs him of the desire, the courage for it; for the sense of dependence is the sense of need. Prayer has its root rather in the unconditional trust of the heart, untroubled by all thought of compulsive need, that its concerns are objects of the absolute Being, that the almighty, infinite nature of the Father of men, is a sympathetic, tender, loving nature, and that thus the dearest, most sacred emotions of man are divine realities. But the child does not feel itself dependent on the father as a father; rather, he has in the father the feeling of his own strength, the consciousness of his own worth, the guarantee of his existence, the certainty of the fulfilment of his wishes; on the father rests the burden of care; the child, on the contrary, lives careless and happy in reliance on the father, his visible guardian spirit, who desires nothing but the child’s welfare and happiness. The father makes the child an end, and himself the means of its existence. The child, in asking something of its father, does not apply to him as a being distinct from itself, a master, a person in general, but it applies to him in so far as he is dependent on, and determined by his paternal feeling, his love for his child. The entreaty is only an expression of the force which the child exercises over the father; if, indeed, the word force is appropriate here, since the force of the child is nothing more than the force of the father’s own heart. Speech has the same form both for entreaty and command, namely, the imperative. And the imperative of love has infinitely more power than that of despotism. Love does not command; love needs but gently to intimate its wishes, to be certain of their fulfilment; the despot must throw compulsion even into the tones of his voice in order to make other beings, in themselves uncaring for him, the executors of his wishes. The imperative of love works with electro-magnetic power; that of despotism with the mechanical power of a wooden telegraph. The most intimate epithet of God in prayer is the word “Father,” the most intimate, because in it man is in relation to the absolute nature as to his own; the word Father is the expression of the closest, the most intense identity,—the expression in which lies the pledge that my wishes will be fulfilled, the guarantee of my salvation. The omnipotence to which man turns in prayer is nothing but the Omnipotence of Goodness, which, for the sake of the salvation of man, makes the impossible possible;—is, in truth, nothing else than the omnipotence of the heart, of feeling, which breaks through all the limits of the understanding, which soars above all the boundaries of Nature, which wills that there be nothing else than feeling, nothing that contradicts the heart. Faith in omnipotence is faith in the unreality of the external world, of objectivity,—faith in the absolute reality of man’s emotional nature: the essence of omnipotence is simply the essence of feeling. Omnipotence is the power before which no law, no external condition, avails or subsists; but this power is the emotional nature, which feels every determination, every law, to be a limit, a restraint, and for that reason dismisses it. Omnipotence does nothing more than accomplish the will of the feelings. In prayer man turns to the Omnipotence of Goodness;—which simply means, that in prayer man adores his own heart, regards his own feelings as absolute.
- “The greater part of Hebrew poetry, which is often held to be only spiritual, is political”—Herder.
- Sebastian Frank von Wörd in Zinkgrefs Apophthegmata deutscher Nation.
- It would be an imbecile objection, to say that God fulfils only those wishes, those prayers, which are uttered in his name, or in the interest of the church of Christ, in short, only the wishes which are accordant with his will; for the will of God is the will of man, or rather God has the power, man the will: God makes men happy, but man wills that he may be happy. A particular wish may not be granted; but that is of no consequence, if only the species, the essential tendency is accepted. The pious soul whose prayer has failed, consoles himself, therefore, by thinking that its fulfilment would not have been salutary for him. “Nullo igitur modo vota aut preces sunt irritae aut infrugiferae et recte dicitur, in petitione rerum corporalium aliquando Deum exaudire nos, non ad voluntatem nostram, sed ad salutem.”—Oratio de Precatione, in Declamat. Melancthonis, T. iii.
- Also, on subjective grounds, social prayer is more effectual than isolated prayer. Community enhances the force of emotion, heightens confidence. What we are unable to do alone we are able to do with others. The sense of solitude is the sense of limitation: the sense of community is the sense of freedom. Hence it is that men, when threatened by the destructive powers of Nature, crowd together. “Multorum preces impossibile est, ut non impetrent, inquit Ambrosius. . . . Sanctae orationis fervor quanto inter plures collectior tanto ardet diutius ac intensius cor divinum penetrate. . . . Negatur singularitati, quod conceditur charitati.”—Sacra Hist. de Gentis Hebr. ortu. P. Paul. Mezger. Aug. Vind. 1700, pp. 668, 669.
- In the excellent work, Theanthropos, eine Reihe von Aphorismen (Zurich, 1838), the idea of the sense of dependence, of omnipotence, of prayer, and of love, is admirably developed.