Lessings Problem and Peters Problem

In his book Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century., Karl Barth presents a remarkably interesting and instructive interpretation of Lessing's theological thought. Barth's interpretation also contains several sharp criticisms. With regard to Lessing's "ugly broad ditch," for example, he observes:

This lament about the impossibility of passing over from historical proof to revelation-faith is not, in fact, genuine. Lessing could perfectly well do without what he represented in those sentences as being inaccessible to him, and he wished to make it clear to the theologians that it is not only inaccessible but also superfluous for them, and that for the sake of their own cause they should give it up.62

Barth holds that Lessing knows how to build a bridge between "accidental truths of history" and "necessary truths of reason." For Lessing, "truths of history," when they are not merely accidental but convincing to a person, have become necessary truths, directly necessary to this person. They can thus become "truths of reason." That which is historical (historisch) denotes that which must first be made part of a person's own experience by investigation, and which is therefore not yet experienced by the person. Accordingly, historical truth as such, the truth that is in need of such investigation and is not yet part of my own experience, cannot be the legitimate and fully authorized messenger of the truth of revelation, that is, the truth which, being ultimately certain, necessarily imposes itself on my reason. A truth of history, if it were to have this significance for me, would have to come to me by other means, not as "accidental" and not as "historical" truth, not as requiring investigation by me, and thus not at all merely as truth that has been handed down, and by no means, further, in such a way that there should be any question at all of the problem of that "ugly broad ditch." It is impossible for a revealed religion that rests on human testimony to afford undoubted assurance in anything. There is, according to Lessing, another way.63

As the preceding quotation implies, Barth thinks that Lessing knows full well of "another way." In Barth's view, "experience" as Lessing interprets it is "the direct way from the truth of history to the heart (Herz) of the present-day person." Through experience "the historical element in Christianity assumes the power of proof for Christianity itself, and by way of the truth of history, becomes proof for the necessary truths of reason." After all, "the fact that this way exists," Barth insists, "is the positive side of that negative proposition. Lessing knows very well about the truths of history that can become proof for necessary truths of reason in this manner."64

The foregoing paragraphs summarize the main points in Barth's interpretation of Lessing's "ugly broad ditch." On the face of it, his interpretation may seem rather close to ours. In reality, however, his point of view is quite different from the one suggested by our research.

In the last analysis Barth takes what Lessing speaks of as miraculous power, experience, "the beneficial shocks of the electric spark" and the like as nothing more than "possibilities within history" (innergeschichtliche Möglichkeiten). Even Lessing's understanding of the "proof of the Spirit and of power" is in Barth's view merely "the realization of human possibilities." Hence Barth condemns Lessing for treating God as if he were something like "a fifth wheel on a carriage."65

Barth's basic stance is essentially what it was in his treatise "Lessing's Problem and Peter's Problem," written for the journal Evangelische Theologie in 1952 in commemoration of Ernst Wolf's fiftieth birthday.66 Against the problem of "historical distance" (diegeschichtliche Distanz) posed by Lessing's ugly broad ditch,67 Barth raises "a completely different problem of distance" {ein ganz anderes Distanzproblem^).68 This is the problem of the distance between God and human beings. To be more precise, it is the problem of "the real distance" (die eigentliche Ferne) between God in heaven and human beings on earth. "There God is for the human being—here the human being is against God!" (dort Gottfür den Menschen—hier der Mensch gegen Gott!). According to Barth, the problem that theology ought to tackle with utter seriousness is this problem alone. It is this problem, therefore, originally raised by Peter, that constitutes "the real problem" of theology. In comparison with this problem, the one of Lessing's ugly broad ditch is merely "a technical problem" and "a typically methodological problem."69

But this distance between God and us has already been overcome, Barth avers, by the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Christus pro nobis tunc is Christus pro nobis nunc. This simultaneity, however, inevitably brings us dread and fear. To avoid this dread and fear, we humans, instead of accepting the truth and reality of the reconciliation achieved by Jesus Christ, try to escape them as long as we can. The problem of Lessing's ugly broad ditch makes this dreadful simultaneity with Christ technically difficult and neutralizes it into the problem of a merely historical relationship. It thus helps us to evade the real problem, which Barth refers to as "Peter's problem."70

The paragraphs above give the gist of Barth's criticism of Lessing. We are prepared to acknowledge something worthy in Barth's sharp criticism. But his interpretation of Lessing's religious thought, though indeed excellent as a theological interpretation, strikes us as a bit forced because it is overwhelmingly colored by his own theology. For this reason we doubt that Barth's interpretation, as a proper study of Lessing, is adequate.71 To give an example of its inadequacy, Barth takes the problem of Lessing's ugly broad ditch as no more than a problem of "historical distance." In his view it is a "temporal problem" {Zeitprobl^em) that differs from the religious problem. But it is incorrect to take Lessing's ugly broad ditch as involving no more than historical distance. For as Michalson's superb analysis shows, Lessing's ditch involves at least three dimensions: the "temporal ditch," the "metaphysical ditch," and the "existential ditch."72 The "existential ditch," in particular, implies that Lessing's ugly broad ditch includes a religious dimension. The question of how a modern person can appropriate the religious message, often offensive to modern autonomous reason, without surrendering his or her intellect, is a religious problem par excellence for modern people.

In the end, despite our best efforts to clarify its meaning, Lessing's ugly broad ditch remains enigmatic. But this metaphorical image may attract us all the more strongly precisely because it continues to be enigmatic. In any event, everyone is invited to make an attempt to leap over this ditch. And only when we actually make such an attempt ourselves can we really understand the difficulty of crossing over Lessing's "ugly broad ditch."

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