Lessings Speculative Reflections in the Christianity of Reason

Despite his assertion that "man was created for action and not for speculation," Lessing did not refrain from metaphysical speculation altogether. The early fragment The Christianity of Reason (1751/52) gives ample testimony of his metaphysical speculation. It also provides important suggestions for a proper understanding of his last significant work, The Education of the Human Race.

This fragment, twenty-seven paragraphs in all, can be regarded as an attempt to demonstrate the "reasonableness of Christianity" (Vernunftgemafheit des Christentums) and thus to bridge, from the perspective of reason, the gap between faith and knowledge. Its basic standpoint accords with Leibniz-Wolffian philosophy; it opposes a Pierre Bayle-like critique of Christianity.

In the first twelve paragraphs, Lessing attempts a rational demonstration of the Trinity, the nucleus of all Christian doctrines. According to Lessing, God as the most perfect Being has from eternity been able to concern himself only with the consideration of the most perfect thing (§1). Consequently, from eternity God has been able to contemplate only himself (§2). "To conceive, to will, and to create are one with God." Therefore, "anything that God conceives, he also creates" (§3). "God can think in only two ways: either he thinks of all his perfections at once, and of himself as including them all, or he thinks of his perfections individually, one by one, each one in its own grade" (§4). By contemplating himself from eternity in all his perfection God created "a being lacking no perfection that he himself possessed" (§5). This being is nothing other than what scripture calls "the Son of God" or "the Son-God" (§6). This being is identical with God himself (§7) and can therefore be called "an image of God, indeed an identical image" (§8). Between God and this being there must exist the greatest harmony (§9). Scripture calls this harmony between God and the Son-God "The Spirit which proceeds from the Father and the Son" (§10). "In this harmony is everything that is in the Father and also, therefore, everything that is in the Son; this harmony is therefore God" (§11). As a result, God the Father, the Son-God, and the harmony between them form a unity, "all three are one' (§12).

The next nine paragraphs belong to the sphere of "physics" or "cosmology." In Lessing's view, "God contemplated his perfections individually, that is, he created beings each of which has something of his perfections" (§13). The entirety of all these beings is called "the world" (§14). God contemplated the most perfect world in the most perfect way, and thus created the real world (§15). "The most perfect way of thinking of his perfections individually is to think of them separately in infinite grades of greater and less, which follow one on another in such a way that there is never a jump or gap between them" (§16). Accordingly, the beings in this world must form a great series of being that corresponds to grades of perfection (§17). "Such a series must be an infinite series, and in this sense the infinity of the world is incontestable" (§18). "God creates only simple things, the complex being a secondary consequence of his creation" (§19). "Since each of these simple beings has something which the others have, and none can have anything which the others have not, there must be harmony among these simple things" (§20). After long centuries, the day will sometime come when all phenomena in nature can be explained by the natural sciences (§21).

The last six paragraphs belong to the sphere of "ethics." Lessing has it that the simple beings in the world are, "as it were, limited gods" whose perfections must be similar to the perfections of God (§22). The "consciousness of his perfection and the power to act in accordance with his perfections" belong to God's perfection (§23). Accordingly, "the various grades of his perfections" must be connected with "various grades of the consciousness of these perfections" and "the power to act in accordance with them" (§24). "Beings which have perfections, which are conscious of their perfections, and which have the power to act in accordance with them, are called moral beings" (§25). The law that moral beings can follow is derived from their own nature. It can be none other than the imperative: "Act in accordance with your individual perfection^ (handle deinen individualistischen Vollkommenheiten gemäß) (§26).38 "Since, in the series of beings, there cannot possibly be a gap, there must also exist beings which are not sufficiently and clearly conscious of their perfections . . . " (§27).

The fragment breaks off here. But it is clear that the metaphysical speculation which Lessing evolved in this fragment is far removed from the standpoint of Lutheran orthodoxy. The historian of philosophy Heinz Heimsoeth sees in this fragment "the path leading from Nicholas of Cusa through Leibniz directly to Lessing."39 Building on Heimsoeth's suggestion, Wolfgang Gericke assumes a history-of-thought stream running from Nicholas of Cusa through the Italian Renaissance philosophers, German natural philosophy, and Leibniz to Lessing. He calls this stream "the spiritualistic tradition" (die spiritualistische Tradition).40 This point will call for closer examination in chapter 7. But in view of both this history-of-thought tradition and Lessing's reliance on Leibniz-Wolffian philosophy, we must take account of Hans Leisegang's brilliant identification of Lessing's worldview as "a monistic personalism" (ein monistischer Personalismus^).41 For even if it is evident that Lessing's metaphysical speculation is in accord with Leibniz's and Wolff's philosophy, the proposition that "to conceive, to will, and to create are one with God" clearly distinguishes his worldview not only from Leibniz-Wolffian dualism but also from Spinozistic monism. This proposition suggests, rather, a direction that brings Leibniz-Wolffian dualism and Spinozistic monism into a synthesis.42

Yet to call Lessing's worldview "a monistic personalism" is one thing, and to lay the philosophical foundation for it is quite another. It is not too much to say that the really difficult question about the concept of God culminates in this "monistic personalism." So far as we can tell, Ernst Troeltsch's argument in his Glaubenslehre best illustrates the difficulty.

Troeltsch, wishing to defend the prophetic-Christian personalistic idea of God, sought to conceive of God in terms of the duality between "essence" (Wesen) and "will" (Wl/e), a duality that involves an inner tension within the concept of God. But when he attempted a philosophical explanation of the concept of God, he frequently came close to tripping himself up over monistic pantheism. Though he sought to reconcile "what is true about theism and pantheism" (die Wahrheitsmomente des Theismus und des Pantheismus) by means of the idea of "God's self-replication and self-enrichment" (die Selbstvervielfältigung und Selbstbereicherung Gottes)4 when it came to philosophical elaboration for this idea, his argument fell short.44 Nonetheless, the idea underlying his argument is, as he himself acknowledges, "the idea of panentheism" (der Gedanke des PanentheismuS)).45

It is precisely at this point that Troeltsch's concept of God seems to come into contact with Lessing's metaphysical speculation. For the God Lessing speaks of in his The Christianity of Reason is not the impersonal One that Spinoza taught, but the thinking, willing, and creating God in whom these three actions are one. But the one-and-the-sameness of thinking, willing, and creating in God signifies that what God conceives of exists in reality. This implies that real things exist within God. Thus there is no question but that the worldview expressed in this fragment suggests that Lessing has a tendency toward "panentheism," the doctrine that God includes the world as a part, though not the whole, of his being, and thus that everything which exists exists within God.46

It is evident, moreover, that even though Lessing seems to have given up this speculation for a time due to Mendelssohn's objections,47 he did not reject what he had proposed in The Christianity of Reason, but reintroduced it in modified form in §73 of The Education of the Human Race.48 This shows that Lessing's concept of God has a significant resemblance to the God-concept that Troeltsch presented in his Glaubenslehre. For the present it will suffice to say that Lessing's alleged "Spinozism," which became a burning question among his friends and fellow scholars after his death, is attributable not only to his adherence to "monistic personalism" but also to the difficulty of seeing it through philosophically.49

The next thing to note, especially for a proper understanding of Lessing's later thought, is that he conceives of beings in the world as "limited gods" (eingeschränkte Götter). Such beings share in God's perfections, and Lessing includes among God's perfections "the consciousness of his perfection and the power to act in accordance with his perfections. " If, following Leisegang, we apply this insight to anthropology, we arrive at the following categories for human beings: (1) human beings who have perfections but are not conscious of them, (2) human beings who have perfections, and are conscious of them, yet have no power to act in accordance with them, and (3) human beings who have perfections, are conscious of them, and have the power to act in accordance with them. If, in place of the word "perfections," we substitute the term "reason," we then arrive at the following developmental stages of reason: (1) latent reason (latente Vernunft) (2) conscious reason (bewußte Vernunft) and (3) willing and acting reason (wollende und handelnde Vernunft). To regard the development of reason in these ways, moreover, offers an important key for explicating the profound thought that Lessing presents to his readers in his last work, The Education of the Human Race.50 But this sort of metaphysical conjecture takes us beyond the limits of our present task.

The last issue taken up in The Christianity of Reason is the weighty question of whether sins and evils in the actual world can be explained in the framework of Lessing's moral and rational worldview, and if so, how. If what

God contemplated in his perfections individually, and thus created, were the beings of this world, how, then, do the evils and sins that exist in the world relate to God's perfections? We can only conjecture that one of the reasons the young Lessing had to break off the metaphysical speculation attempted in this fragment is that he found himself incapable of dealing with this theodicean problem within his moralistic and rationalistic frame of reference. Admittedly, however, this is speculation on our part, and for the time being, at least, we will do well to stop speculating at the point where Lessing stopped.

Thus far we have analyzed Lessing's religious thought with special attention to his early writings, particularly Religion, Some Thoughts about the Moravians, The Jews, and The Christianity of Reason. These poetic, theological, dramatic, and philosophical writings show that the young Lessing has not yet worked out his own theological position but vacillates among four ways of thinking: Lutheran orthodoxy, pietism, deism, and Leibniz-Wolffian metaphysics. Nevertheless, these writings, however fragmentary, contain many of the germs of the religious-philosophical thought of his mature years. True, many twists and turns and much more time will be needed before he reaches the "high eminence" from which he can see beyond the limits of the prevailing forms of knowledge. Yet this analysis of Lessing's early writings endorses the validity of the saying that "genius displays itself even in childhood." For even in his early years, Lessing displayed brilliantly something of his later genius both as a theological critic and as a philosopher of religion.

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