The Witnesses to the Historicity of Jesus/Part 4/Section 14

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14.—Idea and Personality: Settlement of the Religious Crisis.[edit]

If liberal theologians are really in earnest in attempts to attain a philosophical system, they can only realise their aim by a renewal of belief in reason in the universe, in a metaphysical “sense” of existence, in the defining and controlling power of the “idea,” and the co-ordination and subordination of human personality to the system of ends, the recognition of which is the essence and condition of all religious belief. The chief danger that has come to our time, especially to religion, under the influence of science is the denial of objective purpose in the universe. Let men be taught to believe again in ideas, and then Monism, in its idealistic form, will become the first principle of all deep religious life. From this point of view personality ceases, however great it may be, to claim an independent and unique significance in the world-process; even the great individuals of history sink to the condition of mere means and instruments; “agents,” as Hegel says, of a purpose that represents a stage in the advance of the general mind. Liberalism is content with the mere cult of the great historical personality, as if it had any value as such. But when we ask how the personality stands out from its environment, what it is that raises an individual to world-significance, whence its great influence and power over men come, we find that, as Hegel says, the world-spirit is especially active in such an individual, and leads his will.

In other words, it is the idea that attains consciousness in such men and stirs them to action; they are what they are only by the living power of the divinity within them. In this sense it is true that in the last resort ideas, not personalities, rule the world; and this is the one really religious view, because we cannot see why Christianity, too, may not have come into being from the idea living in its adherents of a suffering, dying, and rising saviour. We see how this idea created the religions of Attis, Adonis, Osiris, Dionysos, and similar gods; how Christian mysticism has at all times drawn fresh strength from it, and German speculative philosophy has derived from it a system that, by its depth, amplitude, and religious content, has thrown all previous systems into the shade, and which has only been prevented by its scientific form from exercising an uplifting and ennobling influence on life. It is said that a purely ideal religion of this kind cannot satisfy the religious needs of humanity without historical guarantees of its truth. But it has satisfied immense numbers—even setting aside India, where idealistic Monism forms the nucleus of all religious life—in the mysticism and piety of Eckehart and Tauler, in that humble and self-sacrificing surrender to the all, such as we find in the institutions of the later Middle Ages, the care of the sick and the poor, which owed their origin, not to the official religion of the Church, but to the mystics; it has satisfied the best minds of Germany—Lessing, Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Hegel, etc. How, then, can we be asked to admit that the salvation of modern times depends on a belief that has, in the Churches, degenerated into a stupid superstition? All the best that the German mind has ever conceived or felt, for which it has struggled and suffered, all the deepest aspirations of its native religious spirit, which were early quenched by the missionary work of the Christian Church, owe their emergence into light to this Monistic religion of our great thinkers and poets. Why, then, should we be compelled to take our religious possessions from the past? Are the ideas of a remote age and a degenerate culture to keep us under their power for ever? Much zeal is shown against materialism; as if it were not just as crude a materialism to make the belief in religious truth dependent on its visible realisation in a single human individual of ancient times, and as if what is called the “ideal Christ,” the working of the divine spirit in us, the one source and centre of all religious life, could be replaced and vanquished by a belief in the historical Jesus.[1]

The question of the historicity of Jesus is, as things are, not merely an historical, but an eminently philosophical, question. In it is reflected the struggle of two hostile philosophical systems, which have stirred the human mind from the dawn of thought: on one side the belief in the idea as the ultimate determining principle of the world-process, to which the great personalities of history are related as the servants, instruments, and realisers of its content; on the other side, the view that personalities as such are the determining factors of the world-process, and something ultimate and original. On the one hand is the idealistic philosophy of history in the sense of Plato and Hegel; on the other the Leibnitzian doctrine of monads in the shape of modern psychologism and empiricism. In essence it is only the old antagonism of realism and nominalism which absorbed the Middle Ages—the question whether the personality is the product of the idea, or the idea the product of the empirical personality—that has come to a head in the question of the historical personality of Jesus. And, just as surely as the profoundly religious thinkers have adopted the realistic view and contended for the priority of the idea over the individual, so the opposite theory of the nominalist has led to the dissolution of religion and the decay of belief in the ideal connectedness of the world-process—in a “providence”—in which all religious life is rooted, and with which it stands or falls; just as surely, again, the religious settlement of the problem will be found only in a return to the belief in the idea, and a renunciation of the prevailing theological theory of the absoluteness, originality, and independence of personality. If it is a matter of experience that the value of religion increases in proportion to the decay of the belief in the absolute significance of the individual, then modern religion will only be raised to its highest pitch of intensity when we cease to elevate a single personality of history to the grade of the absolute, and to raise other human individuals above the significance of mere varying phenomena and embodiments of the idea. If modern mankind cannot be restored to a belief in the idea, if Plato, Plotinus, and Hegel are now merely figures in history, then all effort in connection with the further development of religion will be fruitless, and the doom of religion is sealed.

The desperate efforts of liberal theologians to give a central significance in faith and life to the historical Jesus, for the sake of continuity with the historical past and of the Church, seem, from the religious point of view, to be as absurd as they are superfluous. Jesus is said to be “the greatest personality in the history of the world,” the “realised ideal of man,” the creator of Christian symbolism (?), and even a symbol of the Christian life of faith (Bousset); he is glorified as “the ever newly issuing embodiment of higher religious power, whose heart-beat pulses throughout Christendom” (Tröltsch); his historical existence is guaranteed to us by the “immediate results” of his action. Yet it is merely self-deception and confusion of ideas to say that in this way his relation to Christianity can be honestly maintained. It is precisely the aim of religion to free man from dependence on the world, and therefore from the dependence and relativeness of temporal existence. Hence a single historical fact, like the life and death of a man Jesus, cannot in any sense be made a ground of faith. In religion the individual avoids history; “he shakes it off, to live his own life.” Neither in the last resort nor in the ultimate aim of his life does he tolerate this “entanglement in the confused lines of history.”[2] How, then, can the historical man Jesus be made the foundation or keystone of religion? And how can the salvation of man be made dependent on his attitude to this supposed founder of the Christian religion?

At the base of all the deeper religions lies the idea of a suffering god, sacrificing himself for humanity, and obtaining spiritual healing for man by his death and his subsequent resurrection. In the pagan religions this idea is conceived naturalistically: the death of the sun, the annual dying of nature, the happy revival of its forces in spring, and the victorious conquering of the power of winter by the new sun—this is the realistic background of the tragic myth of Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Dionysos, Balder, and similar deities. The great advance of Christianity beyond these nature-religions is that it spiritualised this idea by applying it to the man Jesus Christ, blended the many saviour-gods in the idea of the one god-man, and gave it the most plausible form by connecting it with an historical reality. But this standpoint is not yet the best. The historical clothing of the Christian idea of redemption is ruined as soon as it is, as in our time, made the express object of scientific inquiry and historical criticism, on account of the rise of historical science and the stimulation of the sense of reality. The purely historical conception of Jesus cannot satisfy the religious consciousness of our age. It owes its prestige in reality to the effects of a way of thinking that is regarded by its adherents themselves as obsolete. A single historical personality can no longer be the redeeming principle of a humanity that has not merely broken with the geocentric and anthropocentric view of the origin of Christianity, but has seen through the superstitious nature of ecclesiastical Christology. What was once the prerogative of Christianity—that it superseded the polytheism of pagan antiquity, and conceived the idea of the divine Saviour in the singular and historically—is to-day the greatest hindrance to faith. Modern humanity has, therefore, the task of again universalising the idea of divine redemption, or enlarging the idea of a god-man, which is common in Christendom, to the idea of a god-humanity.

With this belief in a plurality of “god-men,” religious development returns in a certain sense to pre-Christian religion and its numerous “god-men,” but enriched with the partial truths of Christianity, through which it has passed, filled with the idea of the one reality and its spiritual nature, to which the various individuals are related only as modi, phenomena, or revelations, confiding in the divine control of the world, and therefore in its rationality and goodness, in spite of all the apparently accidental obstacles which the world-process encounters here and there. Thus man secures a faith in himself, in the divine nature of his being, in the rationality of existence; thus he is placed in a position to save himself, without a mediator, simply on account of his own divine nature. Self-redemption is not a redemption of the ego by itself, as our opponents misrepresent, but of the ego by the self, of the phenomenon by the divine fund of being in man. Christianity recognises only one redemption through Christ; it makes the possibility of redemption dependent on belief in the reality and truth of the historical god-man. The religion of the future will either be a belief in the divine nature of the self, or will be nothing. And if there is no other redemption of man than redemption by himself, by the spiritual and divine nature of the self, no Christ is needed for it, and there is no ground for concern that religion may perish with the denial of the historicity of Jesus.

In a Monistic religion, which alone is compatible with modern thought, the idea of a religious significance of Christ is not only superfluous, but mischievous. It loads the religious consciousness with doubtful historical ballast; it grants the past an authority over the religious life of the present, and it prevents men from deducing the real consequences of their Monistic religious principles. Hence I insist that the belief in the historical reality of Jesus is the chief obstacle to religious progress; and therefore the question of his historicity is not a purely historical, but also a philosophic-religious, question.

The more progressive theologians would be ready to-day to accept this Monistic broadening and deepening of religion if they were not compelled by their clerical condition, and the connection of the Church with the State, to adhere to Jesus in some sense or other, no matter how slender it be. They support this position with the claim that a religion without Jesus would not do justice to the importance of the great personality and of history for religious life. In reply to this objection we hardly need to appeal to Hegel, the philosopher of historical development, to whom this high appreciation of the present above history may be traced, as well as this vindication of “personalities of world-history.” The great personality has clearly a value even in our own view: in it the unity of God and man, the God-humanity, attains a clearer expression. It serves as proof to the religious consciousness that God raises up the right man at the right time. It reveals the living connection of the common individual life with the universal spiritual life. In the chain of historical events the pious mind finds a guarantee of a pervading rational control and a purposive development of earthly life, however obscure the paths of this development may be, and however difficult it may be at times to recognise the sense in existence. The divinity lives in history, and reveals itself therein. History is, in union with nature, the sole place of divine activity. The divinity, however, does not chain itself to history in order to unite past and future to a single historical event; but one continuous stream of divine activity flows through time. Hence it cannot wish that men shall be bound up with some such single event; in virtue of its divine character the detail may at any point of history be raised above the conditions of time and nature.

To bind up religion with history, as modern theologians do, and to represent an historical religion as the need of modern man, is no proof of insight, but of a determination to persuade oneself to recognise the Christian religion alone.[3]


  1. See my work, Die Religion als Selbst-Bewusstsein Gottes (1906), and the second Berliner Religions-gespräch about the question, “Lebt Jesus?” 1911.
  2. S. Eck, Religion und Geschichte (1907), p. 14.
  3. See my Die Religion als Selbst-Bewusstsein Gottes.