Dialectical View of Revelation and Reason

Thus far, we have sought to comprehend the spectrum of Lessing's religious-philosophical thought in his last book, The Education of the Human Race. As our detailed reading of the original text has shown, Lessing was unmistakably a many-faceted thinker whose mode of thought was multidimensional and highly flexible. Quite a number of previous studies, sacrificing the multidimensional richness of his ideas, have put Lessing in a straitjacket, only to expose him to sharp criticism from their own viewpoints. To avoid this kind of one-sided, arbitrary interpretation, we have sought to adhere to our principle of understanding a thinker from the original text. We have tried to reproduce Lessing's subtle arguments as faithfully and exhaustively as possible while at the same time giving attention to previous studies and, when necessary, making critical comments about them. To repeat such criticisms here is needless. What should be done here, rather, is to offer our concluding reflections, focusing attention on the most important point in his argument as a whole. The most important question to be raised and answered here is that of the relationship, in Lessing's thought, between divine revelation and human reason, or between the transcendent and the immanent.

As we have seen, Lessing's arguments had their starting point in his hypothetical conception of revelation as the education of the human race. This concept was intended to serve as a counterassertion (Antithese) to Reimarus's naturalistic dissolution of revelation. Lessing sought a way to overcome the antithetical opposition between revelation and reason, an opposition that had become almost unbridgeable in the eighteenth century. He found a possible solution in the concept of "development" (Entwicklung) and introduced this concept into the traditional dichotomy between revelation and reason. It might be possible, he thought, to achieve a dynamic mediation between the two if revelation were conceived, on the education model, as developing step by step toward a goal. But what goal? What objective will revelation conceived after the educational model attain? One can hardly avoid coming to the conclusion that Lessing himself came to.

Education gives man nothing which he could not also get from within himself; it gives him that which he could get from within himself, only quicker and more easily. In the same way too, revelation gives nothing to the human race which human reason could not arrive at on its own; only it has given, and still gives to it, the most important of these things sooner. (§4, italics added)

This conclusion is logically inevitable when one posits the idea of the education of the human race. But this is merely a hypothetical conclusion, because its major premise, revelation as the education of the human race, is itself a hypothesis. Accordingly, §4 is a hypothetical proposition.

The following facts, however, cannot be denied. Human reason has a tendency to transform the one immeasurable into many measurables (§6). Human reason would have been lost in errors, had it not been for God's revelation (§7). What positive religion has taught as revelation has functioned as a directing impulse for human reason (§ §7, 63) and has enlightened human reason more than anything else (§65). From these undeniable historical facts, the following puzzling proposition can be taken as an inference: "And why should not we too, by means of a religion whose historical truth, if you will, looks dubious, be led in a similar way to closer and better conceptions of the divine Being, of our own nature, of our relation to God, which human reason would never have reached on its own?" (§77). As can be seen from the fact that it is posed in interrogative form, this proposition too is a hypothetical one.

In the past, researchers have found these two hypothetical propositions so contradictory that no bridge could be established between them. To solve the problem, they have set forth a variety of interpretations, only to find that these interpretations merely amplified and expanded the original contradiction. Let us set aside nonessential things and present the matter simply so as to make the controversial issue clear. It then appears that the essential contradiction has to do with the relationship between two propositions, which we shall call Proposition A and Proposition B. Proposition A states that "revelation gives nothing to the human race which human reason could not arrive at on its own; only it has given, and still gives to it, the most important of these things sooner" (§4). Proposition B asserts that revelation leads us to "closer and better conceptions of the divine Being, of our nature, of our relation to God, which human reason would never have reached on its own" (§77). Which, then, is Lessing's authentic opinion, Proposition A or Proposition B? The majority of Lessing scholars have upheld Proposition A. They regard Lessing as an immanentist who does not believe in the transcendent revelation of God. Hence all his statements and utterances about God and divine revelation are declared to be mere exoteric teachings. A minority of Lessing scholars, however, insist that Proposition B represents Lessing's authentic opinion. They regard Lessing as a transcendentalist who holds fast to Christian or theistic faith.

For our part, we side with the theistic interpretation that regards Lessing as a thinker who upholds faith in the transcendent, but on grounds somewhat different from those presented by such interpreters as Helmut Thielicke and Otto Mann. First of all, we deem the either/or choice between §4 and §77 senseless. Both propositions, as pointed out earlier, are "gymnastic" hypotheses proposed by this thinker "who is fond of making various hypotheses and systems for the pleasure of tearing them to pieces again."64 It is therefore impossible to grasp Lessing's decisive assertions here. Moreover, it is hard to imagine that such a wise and clever man as Lessing would have overlooked the contradiction between these two propositions. We think it more probable that he intentionally posited this apparent contradiction himself. Our conjecture is that he deliberately set forth these diametrically opposed propositions in order to suggest that the relationship between revelation and reason should be considered not in a static and unilateral way, but in a more dynamic and multilateral manner. If this conjecture is correct, Lessing's wisdom as an educator was undoubtedly at work here. In any event, Lessing's conception of the relationship between revelation and reason is dialectical. And dialectic is a method of systematic reasoning or critical investigation that begins with the juxtaposition of opposed or contradictory ideas and seeks to overcome this opposition or contradiction by attaining a higher synthesis between them.65

Dialectically, then, how does Lessing conceive of the relationship between revelation and reason? For the sake of argument, we shall emphasize only a few important paragraphs.

A: "Revelation had guided their reason, and now, all at once, reason gave clearness to their revelation" (§36). This proposition is a descriptive statement based on historical facts related to Jewish people of the Old Testament age.

B: "When they were revealed they were certainly not truths of reason, but they were revealed in order to become such. They were like the 'facit' said to his boys by the mathematics master; he goes on ahead of them in order to indicate to some extent the lines they should follow in their sums" (§76). This proposition is sheer hypothesis. C: "The development of revealed truths into truths of reason is absolutely necessary, if the human race is to be assisted by them" (§76). This is a hypothetical proposition that formulates the logical conclusion to be drawn from B.

In all these propositions, revelation precedes human reason. Human reason is guided by and seeks, or must seek, revelation. And at some point in history, human reason catches up, or must catch up, with revelation. Thus revealed truths become, or must become, truths of reason. This is what can clearly be deduced from Lessing's utterances, no matter what hypothetical assertions they may involve.

But the really important question is whether revelation becomes useless, whether human reason can be autonomous after human reason has caught up with revelation and revealed truths have thus become truths of reason. Scholars who interpret The Education of the Human Race in immanentist terms declare that this is precisely what Lessing intended to assert. But never did he express such a contention.

Lessing's basic standpoint is implied in the following noteworthy dictum: "Let everyone tell what seems to him to be truth; and let the truth itself be entrusted to God!" (Jeder sage, was ihm Wahrheit dünkt, und die Wahrheit selbst sei Gott empfohlen).66 Another famous dictum is this: "If God held all truth in his right hand and in his left everlasting striving after truth, so that I should always and everlastingly be mistaken, and said to me, 'Choose,' with humility I would pick the left hand and say, 'Father, grant me that. Absolute truth is for thee alone.' "67 Both dictums point in the same direction.

In the last analysis, judging from all of Lessing's statements, we consider Lütgert's formulation of Lessing's conception of the relationship between revelation and reason as most fitting. Lütgert says, "He does not know a completely free self-development [of human reason], even if revelation [in him] is little more than the trellis by which the human race grows."68 Wilhelm Windelband appears to endorse this judgment when he says, "he [Lessing] does not yet know the concept of self-development. . . . Accordingly, the only thing that later philosophers could add to the Lessingian principle was the dissolution of the concept of revelation and the endeavor to conceive the history of religions as the self-development and self-revelation of the human spirit."69 In any case, one thing is clear: Lessing's thought by no means rules out the concept of transcendent revelation.

Up to this point we have striven to analyze Lessing's dialectical understanding of revelation and reason on the basis of a careful reading of the original German text. In consequence, we have confirmed that the concept of revelation continues to be valid in his thought. This fact compels us, however, as Johannes von Lüpke contends, to reconsider the age in which Lessing lived, generally regarded as an age of "moral autonomy" (die sittliche Autonomie).70

As is well known, Immanuel Kant saw the goal of enlightenment in "man's release from tutelage," that is, in deliverance from "man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another." The motto of enlightenment, he maintained, was to be, "Have courage to use your own reason!" His goal, therefore, was to attain autonomy for human reason.

For Lessing, however, such a definition of enlightenment was clearly insufficient. For from his point of view, "to deliver oneself from instruction by another, can also be a sign of refusal to come of age."71 The highest stage of "perfect illumination" and "purity of heart" is, as Lessing sees it, the stage at which we are "capable of loving virtue for its own sake" (§80) and "will do the right because it is right" (§85). The ordinary concept of autonomy would certainly be inadequate for expressing the ideal of Lessingian reason. As we asserted in the preceding chapter, Lessingian reason is, in essence, a "religiously grounded concept of reason" (die religiös fundierte Vemunftbegrifj)?2 Correspondingly, the ideal of autonomy he envisioned is an autonomy backed by awareness of its own limitations. In other words, such autonomy is a mature autonomy, capable of confessing that absolute truth is for God alone. An autonomy of this sort may well be called "autotheonomy" (Autotheonomie).73

In conclusion, we can aver that the ideal of Lessingian enlightenment is the attainment of an "autotheonomy" in which "autonomy is at the same time theonomy." In order to attain such a goal, revealed truths must not remain unintelligible truths that are only to be believed, but must become truths of reason that are intrinsic to human reason. And only when revealed truths thus become truths of reason can human reason find certitude and repose in God.

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