The Authenticity of Lessings Ugly Ditch

So far, in order to pursue the theological problem involved in Lessing's "ugly broad ditch," we have sought to shed light on the following topics: the validity of the proof of the spirit and of power, truths of history and truths of reason, appropriation of the truth, the inner truth of religion, and the quintessence of Christianity. We now return to Lessing's proposition that "accidental truths of history can never become the proof for necessary truths of reason" in order to reexamine this proposition in detail.

The reason Lessing's proposition and its metaphorical image of the "ugly broad ditch" have been discussed in Protestant theology over the past two centuries is that they accurately indicate the difficulty involved in the theological task of validating the truth claim of Christianity or of demonstrating the universal validity of the historical revelation. Lessing deplores the ugly broad ditch between accidental truths of history and necessary truths of reason, a ditch he cannot leap across no matter how often or how earnestly he tries. But why is there a "ditch" between the two truths? Why is the ditch "ugly"? How "broad" is it? Moreover, is Lessing's lament genuine? Impelled by such questions, we have thus far followed Lessing's discussion in On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power. Our examination showed that there was a subtle but very important change of subjects in Lessing's argument, a change carried out in a surreptitious, almost misleading, way. This change of subjects resulted in the ambiguities that cloak his famous image of the "ugly broad ditch." In my view, these ambiguities are also closely related to the obscurity of the terms he used. For the more we try to clarify what Lessing meant by "accidental truths of history" and "necessary truths of reason," the more ambiguous they become.

As pointed out earlier, Lessing's use of terms basically presupposes and follows the lines of thought laid down by Spinoza and Leibniz. But he also adds his own special nuances. For example, in On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power, when he mentions the prophecies fulfilled in the person of Christ, the miracles performed by Christ, the miracles performed in the primitive church by Christ's disciples, and not least the resurrection of Christ from the dead, it is evident from the context that these things belong to the "accidental truths of history." What is not evident is what he deems "necessary truths of reason." There is, in fact, some confusion as to this question. Lessing's argument leaves the impression that theological propositions, such as those on the consubstantiality of God and the Son or on the divine Sonship of the resurrected Christ, and "a very useful mathematical truth"56 had been jumbled together promiscuously in the same bag. But should they not be differentiated? Should they not be separated into different categories? To be sure, mathematical truths belong to necessary truths of reason. But do theological propositions on God and Christ belong to the same category of truth? Do they not belong, rather, to the category of "revealed truths" geoffenbarte Wahrheiten) and therefore to the truths of history—though in this case it would be inappropriate to call them "accidental."

Furthermore, Lessing uses the terms "historical truths" (historische Wahrheiten) and "truths of history" (Geschichtswahrheiten) as if they were virtually identical and interchangeable.57 But should they not be distinguished?58 As H. Richard Niebuhr's concept of "inner history" indicates, history has a dimension that cannot be illumined by ordinary history (Historie). Lessing undoubtedly knows this. He knows of historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) that cannot be dealt with by the science of history. But if he knows this, why, then, is he so careless in his use of these terms?

These questions inevitably lead us to discuss the concepts of revelation, reason, and history in Lessing. Since detailed analyses of these concepts will be undertaken in chapters 5 and 6, here we only plan to touch on the results of our considerations in an anticipatory way, saving for chapters 5 and 6 the grounds for these results. Our research will show that Lessing does not turn his back on supranatural revelation, that his concept of reason is fundamentally different from that of ordinary Enlightenment thinkers, and that a developmental concept of history mediates the opposition between revelation and reason. At any rate, Lessingian reason does not exclude revelation or faith but makes use of them for its own sake. To this extent, it may indeed be possible to speak of "the concept of religiously founded reason" (der religiös fundierte Vernunftbegriff )59 or of the "devoutness of reason" (Vernunftgläubigkeit)60 in Lessing.

Loosely related to these considerations is the question of what Lessing meant by "necessary." When he speaks of "necessary truths of reason," does the adjective "necessary" denote anything that is metaphysically necessary in the Leibnizean sense? That is to say, does "necessary" mean that "its opposite is impossible"? In my view, Lessing ostensibly follows the Leibnizean definition, but secretly incorporates into it a new existential meaning. To be concrete, Lessing means, it would seem, that I recognize a truth as necessary if it cannot be denied without contradicting my rationality, or if it is so convincing to my reason that I cannot oppose it. In a word, it connotes what my reason discerns as having the character of obligatoriness or binding force (Verbindlichkeit). If this is the case, the phrase "necessary truths of reason" in Lessing means not only "truths of reason" (les vérités de raisonnement) in the Leibnizean sense, but also truths that my reason acknowledges as existentially obligatory or binding. Only if the word "necessary" is understood in this way can we make sense of Lessing's proposition in The Education of the Human Race that "the development of revealed truths into truths of reason is absolutely necessary" (die Ausbildung geoffenbarter Wahrheiten in Vernunftswahrheiten ist schlechterdings notwendig)6

But here a new and difficult question arises. Lessing asserts that "accidental truths of history can never become the proof for necessary truths of reason."

Yet he also maintains that "the development of revealed truths into truths of reason is absolutely necessary." In other words, at the same time that he declares it impossible to proceed from "truths of history" to "truths of reason," he also declares it essential to develop "truths of history" into "truths of reason." Is this not a self-evident contradiction? Can these two propositions be compatible? If so, how are they related to each other?

True, it may be conceivable that it is this contradiction which gives rise to the "ugly broad ditch" and that for this very reason Lessing's lament over his inability to cross the ditch is all the more acute. But another view is possible, a view that removes the "ugly broad ditch" from the theological arena on the ground that it is merely fictitious. We find this sort of interpretation in Karl Barth's construal of Lessing.

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