Lessings Theological Position

Since detailed analyses of the main aspects of Lessing's theological or religious-philosophical thought will be attempted in chapters 2 through 7, our task here is to make clear the basic characteristics of his thought. We approach this limited task by asking why Lessing ventured to publish Reimarus's manuscripts as Fragments from an Unnamed Author.

Reimarus himself had chosen not to publish his manuscripts, with their radical criticisms of Christianity, for fear of possible persecution against himself and his family. Why, then, did Lessing risk putting them into print?

To our question, Lessing himself provides two significant answers. In his A Confutation against Friedrich Mascho, he states: "I have pulled him into the world because I no longer wanted to live under the same roof with him alone. He incessantly pestered me; and I confess that I was not always able to resist his whispers as much as I could have wished. So I thought, somebody else must either bring us closer together, or separate us further, and this somebody else can be nobody other than the public."23 Again, in the first installment of his Anti-Goe%e, Lessing says: "God knows that I have no objection to the fact that you and all schoolmasters in Lower Saxony are campaigning against my unnamed author. On the contrary, I am pleased with this. For I brought him to light for the very purpose that a goodly number of people could examine and refute him."24

If we take these statements at face value, Lessing was not completely in accord with Reimarus, but wished, rather, to resist him if he could. On the other hand, he could not deny that there was a grain of truth in Reimarus's radical historical criticism of the biblical accounts. This thrust him, unavoidably, into an extremely ambivalent state, which was naturally intolerable to him. But because he was unable to extricate himself from this state by his own power, he appealed to the general public for rescue. He thus took it on himself to publish Reimarus's manuscripts anonymously so that the general public might be able to examine and judge them.

Nevertheless, we cannot take Lessing's statements at face value. For his was an exceptionally ironical mind, and he had a genius for tactics. Furthermore, a glance at his "Editor's Counterpropositions" shows that he had already taken a definite stance toward Reimarus, or, rather, had already taken a stance at a certain distance from him. This implies that Lessing was not actually in need of adjudication by the public, for he himself had already attained, by the time he decided to publish the Fragments from an Unnamed Author, his own theological position, a position transcending both orthodoxy and deistic rationalism.

Why, then, did he make these fragments available to the public? In my view, the answer can be found in the "Editor's Counterpropositions." Here Lessing proclaims: "Truly, he is yet to appear. On both sides he is yet to appear: the man who disputes religion in such a manner, and defends religion in such a manner, as the importance and dignity of the subject requires. With all knowledge, with all love for the truth, with all seriousness!"25 Lessing, who had regarded Reimarus as a person who came close to "the ideal of a genuine disputer of religion," now expected that the Fragments from an Unnamed Author would awaken "a man who would come just as close to the ideal of a genuine defender of religion."26 Thus we can perceive, in his publishing of Reimarus's fragments, an audacious attempt to mobilize and revitalize the theological situation of that time. Unlike the neologians, he did not want to mediate between orthodoxy and Enlightenment in an easygoing manner, but intended to attain a deeper understanding of Christian truth through a dialectical process of disputation and defense.

How did Lessing locate himself in the theological situation of that day? It is true that he looked down on Lutheran orthodoxy, but he despised enlightened rational theology, or neology, even more. As he put it with characteristic verve, "our new-fashioned clergymen" are "far too inconsequential [as] theologians, and not nearly consequential enough [as] philosophers" (die Theologen viel %u wenig und Philosophen lange nicht genug sind).21 In a letter of 2 February 1774 to his brother Karl, he explains his paradoxical relationship to Lutheran orthodoxy.

Now without investigating how much or how little I have reason to be satisfied with my fellow men, I must tell you, however, that you truly form a completely false idea of me on this point, that you understand my entire attitude toward orthodoxy very incorrectly. Am I supposed to begrudge the world's seeking to be more enlightened? Am I supposed not to wish from the heart that everyone could think about religion rationally? I should despite myself if my scribblings were devoted to any end but that of helping to further these great intentions. But let me [decide] in my own way how, in my view, I can do this. And what is simpler than this way? I should not wish the impure water, long unusable, to be preserved; it is only that I should not wish it to be poured away before we know where we can get purer; I simply do not want it poured away unthinkingly, leaving the child to be bathed in liquid manure. And what else is the new-fashioned theology, as compared with orthodoxy, but liquid manure as compared with impure water? With orthodoxy, thank God, there was a tolerably clear understanding. A curtain had been drawn between it and philosophy, behind which each could go its own way without interfering with the other. But what is happening now? This curtain is being torn down, and under the pretext of making us reasonable Christians, we are turned into extremely unreasonable philosophers. I beseech you, dear brother, look rather less at what our modern theologians discard than at what they want to put in its place. We are one in our conviction that our old religious system is false. But I cannot say with you that it is a patchwork created by bunglers and quasi-philosophers. I know of nothing in the world on the study of which human intelligence has been more acutely displayed and exercised. What is really a patchwork created by bunglers and quasi-philosophers is the religious system that they now want to put in place of the old—and with far more influence on reason and philosophy than the old arrogated to itself. And yet you take it amiss that I defend the old system? My neighbor's house is on the point of collapsing. If he wants to pull it down, I will willingly help him. But he wants to prop it up and support it in a way that entails the complete ruin of my house. He must stop this, or I shall take care of his collapsing house as if it were my own.28

This citation shows that Lessing had now attained a position that transcended the three main trends of the time (orthodoxy, neology, and deistic rationalism) and that he wanted to contribute to the development of theology in his peculiarly realistic manner by relating himself dialectically to each of these trends.

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