The Hermeneutics of Suspicion and the Problem of History

Some of Hegel's immediate followers, who became known as the Hegelian Right, believed that his Idealist system had indeed achieved the reconciliation of Christian truth and modernity; but their influence was short-lived. Far more important in the long run were those on the other side of the split, the so-called Young Hegelians on the Left, of whom three are especially crucial for later religious thought.

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) has been called "Hegel's Fate," since he begins from the Hegelian system, learns from it how to think dialectically, but then inverts the whole enterprise into an historical materialism that denies rather than justifies the truth claims of Christian theology. In The Essence of Christianity (1841), his best-known work, Feuerbach reduces theology to anthropology, arguing that religion is based on an illusory reversal of subject and object in which the essential attributes of humanity are projected onto an imaginary divine subject. Like Hegel, he sees the incarnation of Christ as the decisive historical turning point; but he inverts its meaning, interpreting it as the moment in which the projected attributes of "God" are reclaimed by alienated humanity. Feuerbach thus develops a "theological" atheism that does not attack theology from without but turns its own implicit logic against it. In his later work, Feuerbach leaves Hegel behind entirely and develops a critique of religion as a misinterpretation of the forces of nature by an illusory imagination.

Feuerbach's early dialectical critique of religion was politicized by Karl Marx (1818-83), who interprets religious projection not simply as a theoretical error but rather as the practical means by which the economically dominant classes have kept the dissatisfaction of the oppressed classes in check by diverting their energies to unrealistic otherworldly goals. He too claims to have inverted Hegel's system - not, as is sometimes reported, by "turning Hegel on his head" but rather by finding the Idealist Hegel already standing on his head and returning him to a firm footing on the earth. Like Feuerbach, Marx learns to think dialectically from Hegel but then uses the method to produce the opposite outcome: what Marx calls dialectical materialism, a philosophy that offers the key to history and the motivation for the oppressed classes to rise up and transform social reality. Religion is thus at the same time crucially important to the historical process and wholly negative in its effects, the opiate that drugs the oppressed into harmless dreams of another world, the flowers that disguise the true nature of the economic chains that bind them. Religious critique is therefore the opening wedge in the original Marxist program for socio-political transformation. There have been others - especially the Liberation Theologians of the twentieth century - who have nevertheless believed that a modified Marxist analysis is a useful tool that can be employed on behalf of theology. There are signs, however, now that the great political empire that claimed Marx as its prophet has faded from the stage of history, that the influence of his thought, whether positive or negative, is waning as the new century unfolds.

The kind of critical thought exemplified by Feuerbach and Marx has come to be called the hermeneutics of suspicion, and it constitutes one of the most powerful intellectual and moral factors in religious thought since the middle of the nineteenth century. The other thinkers most commonly associated with this movement are Nietzsche and Freud, but others in the past century and a half might also be usefully understood as practitioners of hermeneutical suspicion. An example is the third major figure among the Young Hegelians, David Friedrich Strauss (1808-74), who can be thought of as the originator of the historical critique of Christianity. After studying theology, Strauss came under the influence of Hegel. He taught philosophy briefly before publishing his Life of Jesus (1835), which became one of the most influential and controversial books in modern religious thought, among not only scholars but also the general public. Strauss is responsible for introducing a new interpretive key into biblical scholarship, which he called mythological criticism, intended as a mediating position between rationalistic interpretation (which took miracle stories to be either misinterpretations of scientifically explainable events or deliberate frauds), on the one hand, and orthodox interpretation (which assumed that the gospels present wholly reliable eye-witness accounts of supernatural occurrences), on the other. Strauss thus undercuts the common assumption of both sides, that the biblical account provides factual information about the real Jesus. He was convinced that whatever facts could be established are insufficient to give us a Jesus worthy of religious faith. Strauss does not maintain that the individual authors fictionalized the facts, but rather that the biblical narratives are the product of an unconscious myth-building power of the early Christian community, by which it expressed the truth it apprehended in the form of its stories about Jesus. The storm of protest in response to the book ended Strauss's academic career and unleashed a public controversy not only in Germany but also in Britain after The Life of Jesus appeared in a translation by the novelist George Eliot, who was also responsible for the English version of Feuerbach's Essence of Christianity.

The controversy about Strauss's Jesus represents the most dramatic chapter in the struggle over one of the major issues of theology and modernity, the problem of the historical reliability of the Bible. The issue first emerged in the eighteenth century when G. E. Lessing published posthumous fragments by the radical Deist Hermann Samuel Reimarus challenging the historical truth of central biblical narratives. After Strauss the arguments generally focused on attempts to distinguish myth from history, with liberals typically arguing that the biblical writers presented their ideas in the form of mythical stories, and conservatives insisting on the factual accuracy of the texts. A new chapter in the battle over faith and history unfolded in the twentieth century after Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) proposed that scripture be demythologized by means of what he called "existential interpretation," a method heavily influenced by the early thought of the philosopher Martin Heidegger. Bultmann believed that his approach made it possible to distinguish the essential message of the New Testament proclamation (kerygma) from the mythic form in which it was expressed by the ancient authors. His opponents, especially Karl Barth (1886-1968), charged that demythologization distorts the essential message of Scripture, which cannot be isolated from the historical narrative in which it is embedded.

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