Here again, let us examine Lessing's arguments before we attempt a critical appraisal.
"That portion of the human race which God had wished to embrace in one plan of education, was ripe for the second great step" (§54). That is to say, that portion of the human race "had come so far in the exercise of its reason, as to need, and to be able to make use of, nobler and worthier motives for moral action than temporal rewards and punishments, which had hitherto been its guides. The child has become a youth. Sweetmeats and toys have given place to an awakening desire to be as free, as honoured, and as happy as its elder brother" (§55). It was now "time that another true life to be expected after this one should gain an influence over the youth's actions" (§57). So Christ was "the first reliable, practical teacher of the immortality of the soul" (§58). He taught us to judge inner and outer actions in accordance with eternal norms. "To preach an inward purity of heart in reference to another life, was reserved for him alone" (§61). "His disciples have faithfully propagated this teaching" (§62). "If, however, they mixed up this one great truth together with other doctrines whose truth was less enlightening, whose usefulness was less considerable," it could not be otherwise. Instead of blaming them for this, one should "rather seriously examine whether these very commingled doctrines have not become a new directing impulse for human reason" (§63).
It is clear from our experience that the New Testament scriptures "have afforded, and still afford, the second, better primer" for the human race (§64). They "have occupied human reason more than all other books, and enlightened it more" up to the present day, "were it even only through the light which human reason itself put into them" (§65). "It would have been impossible for any other book to become so generally known among such different nations." The fact that people of such completely diverse modes of thought have turned their attention to one and the same book has indisputably "assisted human reason on its way more than if every nation had had its own primer specially for itself" (§66). It was therefore "most necessary that each people should for a time consider this book as the nonplus ultra of their knowledge" (§67).
What is "of the greatest importance now" is to proceed with caution. "You who are cleverer than the rest, who wait fretting and impatient on the last page of the primer, take care! Take care that you do not let your weaker classmates notice what you are beginning to scent, or even see!" (§68). "Until these weaker fellows of yours have caught up with you, it is better that you should return once more to this primer, and examine whether that which you take only for variations of method, for superfluous verbiage in the teaching, is not perhaps something more" (§69).
"You have seen in the childhood of the human race, in the doctrine of the unity of God, that God makes immediate revelations of mere truths of reason, or has permitted and caused pure truths of reason to be taught, for a time, as truths of immediate revelation, in order to promulgate them the more rapidly, and ground them the more firmly" (§70). "You learn in the childhood of the human race the same thing, in the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. It is preached in the second, better primer as revelation, not taught as a result of human reason" (§71). "As we by this time can dispense with the Old Testament for the doctrine of the unity of God, and as we are gradually beginning also to be less dependent on the New Testament for the doctrine of the immortality of the soul," so there might be mirrored in the Bible "also other truths of the same kind, which we are to gaze at in awe as revelation, just until reason learns to deduce them from its other demonstrated truths, and to connect them with them" (§72).
The first thing to notice in the above arguments is that Christ, referred to as "a better instructor" (ein beßrer Pädagog) in §53, is now expressly defined as "the first reliable, practical teacher of the immortality of the soul" (der erste zuverlässige, praktische Lehrer der Unsterblichkeit der Seele) (§ §58-60). He was the first "to preach an inward purity of heart in reference to another life" (§61), and "his disciples have faithfully propagated this teaching" (§62). The New Testament scriptures, even if thought to include some less enlightening and less useful doctrines, "have become a new directing impulse (ein neuer
Richtungsstoft) for human reason" (§63). Thus they "have afforded, and still afford, the second, better primer" for the human race (§64). Lessing stresses the fact that the New Testament scriptures "have occupied human reason more than all other books, and enlightened it more" (§65).
But the cardinal question is whether it is theologically adequate to regard the New Testament scriptures as "the second, better primer" for the human race. This question is central, no matter how greatly it is stressed that the New Testament scriptures are superior to those of the Old Testament. The issue at stake becomes manifest in §68 and following. As expected, Lessing begins to speak of "you who are cleverer than the rest, who wait fretting and impatient on the last page of the primer" and of "your weaker classmates" (§ §68—69), thus suggesting both the possibility and the necessity of advancing from "truths of immediate revelation" (unmittelbare geoffenbarte Wahrheiten) to "mere truths of reason" (blofte Vernunftswahrheiten) (§ §70-72). To demonstrate this possibility, he presents his own rational reinterpretation of Christian doctrines, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, of original sin, and of redemption, all of which have been regarded as "truths of revelation" (§ §73-75).
According to Lessing, "the development of revealed truths into truths of reason, is absolutely necessary, if the human race is to be assisted by them" (die Ausbildung geoffenbarter Wahrheiten in Vernunftswahrheiten ist schlechterdings notwendig, wenn dem menschlichen Geschlechte damitgeholfen sein soll). For "when they were revealed they were certainly not truths of reason, but they were revealed in order to become such." To put it parabolically, "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. . . . If the scholars were to be satisfied with the 'facit,' they would never learn to do sums, and would frustrate the intention with which their good master gave them a guiding clue in their work" (§76). If we were to judge solely by the foregoing paragraphs, we could safely conclude that Lessing's conception of revelation and reason is basically on the same path as that of Hegel, who insists that religious "representation" (Vorstellung) should be developed and transformed into a philosophical "concept" (Begriff).
What makes the matter extremely puzzling, if not hopelessly complicated, is that in the very same breath Lessing sets forth the following proposition: "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). This proposition clearly attests to the limitations of human reason and suggests that some knowledge is available only through revelation. This being the case, §77 seems to stand in diametrical opposition to §4, where it was asserted 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." Is this not a sheer contradiction? Or if these two propositions are not mutually contradictory but are supposed to hold true together, how, then, do they relate to each other? This is precisely the question that has tortured Lessing scholars. Faced with this difficult question, most scholars have condensed Lessing's entire argument in The Education of the Human Race into the apparent contradiction between §4 and §77. So simplistic a treatment of the problem, however, would seem to miss the real point that Lessing apparently intended to make by juxtaposing these contradictory propositions. We propose, therefore, to follow to the last letter, and as meticulously as possible, the arguments he presents.
According to Lessing, these "speculations" (Spekulationen or Vernunfteleien) that he tried out experimentally on "the mysteries of religion" have never "done harm or been injurious to civil society"; but they are unquestionably "the most fitting exercises of the human reason that exist, just as long as the human heart, as such, is capable to the highest degree of loving virtue for its eternal blessed consequences" (§ §78—79). The goal at which the exercises of the human reason aim, he asserts, is "to attain its perfect illumination, and bring out that purity of heart which makes us capable of loving virtue for its own sake alone" (§80). "Or," he asks himself, "is the human species never to arrive at this highest step of illumination and purity?—Never?" (§81). Such a suspicion is entirely out of the question. It would be blasphemous to suspect that nature is not "to succeed with the whole, as art succeeded with the individual" (§84). "No! It will come! it will assuredly come! the time of the perfecting, when man, the more convinced his understanding feels about an ever better future, will nevertheless not need to borrow motives for his actions from this future; for he will do right because it is right, not because arbitrary rewards are set upon it" (§85).
Lessing's arguments come to their climax when he speaks, in the end, of "a new, eternal gospel" (ein neues ewiges Evangelium). Before considering this important topic, however, we had better reexamine his arguments thus far and point out some problems.
The first point open to theological criticism is Lessing's view of Christ as a teacher of the human race. Though Christ is referred to as "a better instructor" and "the first reliable, practical teacher of the immortality of the soul," it is undeniable that his conception of Christ as an ideal moral teacher has something in common with Enlightenment theology's shallow, moralistic view of Christ. But we must also admit that the point he is trying to make here is not concerned with Christology proper. In the face of Reimarus's deistic and rationalistic criticism as well as his radically historical criticism, the point with which Lessing is concerned centers, rather, on the reaffirmation of Christian revelation by means of the postulated idea of the education of the human race. We would do him an injustice, therefore, if we were to speak of his Christology solely on the basis of these hypothetically formulated propositions.
The next question, touched upon earlier, is whether it is possible and permissible to develop or deepen revealed truths into truths of reason. The Christian theologian would reject such an attempt as presumptuous; the speculative philosopher, however, would assuredly recommend it as a task that must be carried out. In any case, there is no doubt that Lessing was proceeding in a direction that moved from revelation to reason. His aforementioned proposition that "the development of revealed truths into truths of reason, is absolutely necessary, if the human race is to be assisted by them" is certainly its most explicit indication. Yet we must notice here that this proposition is not a categorical but a hypothetical one. We tend to be dazzled by the main clause and its insistence that "the development... is absolutely necessary" without giving full attention to what follows. It is important to consider the conditional clause, "if the human race is to be assisted by them." What, then, does this conditional clause imply?45
In our interpretation, the conditional clause means that revealed truths, if fully understood and appropriated by the human race, become essential to its development toward perfection. In other words, revealed truths must not remain extraneous truths coming from without; they must become intrinsic to the human race. They are to be appropriated so as to be part of humanity. Thus understood, what is at issue in this proposition is the "appropriation" (Aneignung) of revealed truths. If this interpretation is correct, then the proposition can be paraphrased as follows: the development of revealed truths into truths of reason is absolutely necessary for us, if they are to be appropriated by the human race in such a way as to promote the development of humanity. Thus paraphrased, the proposition evokes no objection. For revealed truths, if we are to appropriate them, must become truths that are internally intelligible to us. This meaning of revealed truths is precisely what Lessing intends by the phrase "mere truths of reason."
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