Lessing Kant and Spinoza

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Goethe and Schiller were at best cool towards Christianity; but Lessing and Kant represent a profound knowledge of, and not uncritical interest in, Christianity. Lessing, the godfather of the German Enlightenment, in his Uber den Beweis des Geistes und der Kraft (On the proof of Spirit and power, 1777), criticised the traditional employment of the argument from prophecy and miracle from the testimony of Scripture, whilst his Das Christentum derVernunft (Christianity of reason, 1758) had interpreted the dogmas of Christianity in terms of their rational content. Both in his neo-Spinozism and in his rational interpretation of the dogmas of Christianity, Lessing was both a harbinger of and a decisive formative influence upon nineteenth-century German theology in its Hegelian form.

Kant is also a vital figure. He attacked rationalistic-scholastic arguments for God's existence and the immortality of the soul in the form of his critique of rational psychology and cosmology in the Critique of pure reason but rebuilt rational theology upon the basis of his moral theology. The Romantics recognised a profound theological dimension of Kant's thought which has generally been neglected since, and made it the key to his whole enterprise. The fact that Kant became a very important figure at the end of the nineteenth century for theologians like Ritschl and Harnack (and indirectly for the Catholic Modernists) is a testimony to his enduring legacy throughout the nineteenth century.

If Lessing bequeathed an interest in understanding the philosophical and spiritual meaning ofthe Christian doctrines in a properly critical and historical context and if Kant insisted upon freedom as the key to any proper theology or metaphysics, it was the Janus face of Spinoza that loomed largest over the nineteenth century. Spinoza was widely regarded as an atheist and a sceptic in the seventeenth century, yet his philosophy exerted an immediate appeal to Schleiermacher and also attracted tough-minded followers of Darwin like Nietzsche, Huxley and Haeckel who sought for a metaphysic to correspond to the gloomy doctrine of natural selection. It is intriguing that the two greatest popularisers of Darwin in the nineteenth century, Huxley and Haeckel, were both enthusiasts for Spinoza.

4 Young, Religion and enlightenment.

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