Christianity And Religion Lessing And Rousseau

This approach was facilitated by the growth of the perception that Christianity was only one religion among others, a secular view quite different from the Deist attempt to dissolve Christianity into 'natural religion'. There had for long been a Western perception of the rest of the world as having developed differently, but this had been understood as a mystery of Providence. God had simply chosen not to redeem the Chinese—a familiar presence to the eighteenth-century West—before the arrival of the Europeans, rather late in Chinese history, with the offer of salvation in Christ. What happened in the eighteenth century, through secular and religious contact, was the partial invalidation of that older perspective, a putting of the West, religion and all, on the same level as other cultural centres of the race.

Lessing consolidated this transition, from doubt about Christianity's claim to be both a historical religion and finally true to the conviction that the history of the human race was itself the medium through which truth would be finally grasped, because an inner rationality determined humanity's arrival at moral perfection. He wrote in 1777:

If I have no historical grounds on which to object to the statement that Christ resurrected a dead man, must I therefore hold it true that God has a son who shares his essence?. If I have no historical grounds on which to deny that Christ rose from the dead, must I therefore consider it true that this resurrected Christ was the son of God?

(Lessing 1970:48)

Semler had conceived of Christianity as a changing, developing religion, but he had not really doubted its uniqueness. In The Education of the Human Race (1781) (Pelters 1972) Lessing drew his own consequence from the historical nature of Christianity, that its doctrines could only be relatively true. He could then defend orthodox doctrines like original sin on the ground that they were historically conditioned: they contained an element of the ultimate truth but they would certainly be transcended. Men like Jesus could be interpreted as having been so far ahead of their contemporaries as to seem divine, perhaps even to themselves. There was no question of human history being transformed by the intervention of revelation; instead, revelation was in history, and the gradual education of humanity would end in universal enlightenment (Allison 1966).

Lessing's plea for toleration was quite different from the violent Jacobin attempt to wipe the past slate clean and invent society all over again. The Jacobins dissolved the links between the French state and the Catholic Church, executed numbers of priests, drove many others into exile, and tried to set up their own religious institutions. This revolutionary tradition continued into the nineteenth century, especially in the Marxist view that violence was part of the historical dialectic. Later eighteenth-century 'enlightened' writers, however, thought in gentler terms of social amelioration, of change through education, of monarchs who allowed their subjects freedom of religion, speech and publication. Christian dogma might be tolerated, but only if the dogmatic institutions were themselves tolerant.

One misinterprets 'enlightenment' if one sees it chiefly as a revolt against religion, as distinct from a revolt against some Christian doctrines and institutions. The real challenge to the Churches came from the gradual emergence of a religious alternative which did not look for its authority in Christian sources, as, for example, the Unitarian tradition had done since the sixteenth century, but which combined morality and emotion more successfully than had been the case in early Deism. Kant contributed to this movement of feeling, by his renewed criticism of Christian worship and his philosophical defence of moral conviction, but it was Rousseau more especially who released religious aspirations in people who had decided that the Christian vocabulary and symbolism did not fit or extend their experience, and who did not respond to the view of the human being as a sinful creature separated utterly from a transcendent God, who, when approached through Christ in fear and trembling, offered grace.

Rousseau did not draw the religious opinions which he put in the mouth of the Savoyard Vicar in Emile, ou de l'éducation (1762) from the New Testament. He believed that one should turn away from both Christian metaphysics and philosophical materialism to an inner principle of justice and virtue, the light of conscience, assent to whose promptings enabled one to pursue justice and the eternal order. His image of Jesus, which had vast influence in the nineteenth century, was of someone whose reason and conscience had been purified of the influence of the passions and schooled to the highest possible point. 'If the life and death of Socrates are those of a philosopher, the life and death of Christ are those of a God', he wrote in the Lettre a Mgr de Beaumont (1763), the Archbishop of Paris, who had publicly condemned Emile as heretical and dangerous and forbidden his flock either to read or to own it (Grimsley 1970:297). Rousseau meant that Jesus was a sublime spirit who invented a sublime morality. In the Lettre Rousseau rejected both New Testament and eighteenth-century miracles, giving as his example of the latter the miracles which allegedly took place in 1731 at the tomb of a pious Jansenist in Paris. For Rousseau, neither the Church nor the Bible could claim absolute authority over the conscience: authority was within, and on that basis he dismissed the doctrines of the Trinity, original sin and eternal punishment in hell (Cotini 1984:256).

Rousseau shared Lessing's passion for toleration. Religion was too important as a social binding force to be left at the mercy of radical critics like Diderot and d'Holbach, or in the hands of the Churches, which had either substituted or accepted social oppression for social creation. Hence the provision of a civil religion at the end of the Contrat social, a religion whose primary aim was to underwrite social morality, and show, indirectly, that it was not necessary to use Christianity as the civil religion. What Locke, the Deists, Voltaire and his friends, and Rousseau all shared was their recoil both from the idea of an interventionist deity in the orthodox tradition, and from the secular equivalent, the intolerant, intervening state. There was therefore no question of supernatural grace because there was no need for an externally produced transformation in a human being who was endowed with reason and liberty and able to give an internal assent. This was the other face of the denial of the miraculous in the New Testament.

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