The Truth Claim of a Historical Religion in the Interim

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The first point to notice when we read the parable of the three rings as a story is that the biblical view of history as a dramatic movement that proceeds from beginning to end is implicitly presupposed as a general framework. The premise that underlies the beginning of the story is the prehistory (Urgeschichte) in which man stands in close relationship with God.

According to the story, a man of ancient times who dwelt in eastern lands received a ring of priceless worth from the hand of God. This ring, adorned with an opal that radiated a hundred beautiful colors, had the magical power to make its bearer, if he wore it trusting in the strength of the stone, beloved of God and men. But with the passage of time, confusion arose. It turned out that there were actually three rings, each of which was alleged to be the original, genuine ring—though only one was supposed to be the true one. Faced with this unacceptable situation, each of the three bearers, insisting that the one in his possession was the only genuine ring, eventually went so far as to file a suit against the other two bearers. At the bar, however, no solution was forthcoming. "The modest judge" (der bescheidne Richter) left the final judgment to "a wiser man" (ein weisrerMann) who would sit as judge on the bench when "a thousand thousand years" had passed. In other words, the question as to which of the three rings is the true one would find an answer only at the end of history. This shows that Lessing has basically presupposed the biblical or Judeo-Christian view of history as the general framework for his parable of the three rings.

In this historical framework, the present time is an "interim" between the beginning and the end of history. In the beginning, history knows no confusion or conflict because it has only one true ring that originates from God himself. At the end of history, one of the three rings will be demonstrated to be the true ring, thus putting an end to confusion and conflict. Thus unity and uniformity characterize both the beginning and the end of history, whereas plurality and disunity are characteristic of the interim. Everything in the interim is ambiguous and equivocal. For this very reason, the effort to demonstrate the truth by seeking out the facts is futile. The method of objective demonstration is useless because wheat and tares are inseparably mixed together in the present. As a result, it is quite impossible to make a decisive judgment about anything in this interim period of history.

Thus the "modest judge," fully aware of existing in this interim, gives up any attempt at "solving riddles" from the outset, gives up any attempt to determine the genuineness or spuriousness of the rings. He knows how far his discerning eye can see. In other words, he knows the limits of human reason. As a result, all he can do is to give "counsel, instead of verdict." But since it is necessary to make a preliminary or penultimate judgment as to the matter under dispute, the criterion for judgment must be sought in the magical power of the ring itself.35 So he says, "But stop! I hear the genuine ring enjoys / The magic power to make its wearer loved, / Beloved of God and men. That must decide! / For spurious rings can surely not do that!" This criterion shows, however, that none of the three sons can meet the requirements for making the magic power of the ring reveal itself because they are all fighting each other. Each one lives for himself, loves himself first of all, so "the magic power to make its wearer loved, / Beloved of God and men" fails to show itself. To quote the modest judge's words, "The rings' effect is only backward, / Not outward? Each one loves himself the most? / O then you are, all three, deceived deceivers (betrogene Betrieger)!" This implies that the loving father might have deceived his beloved sons. But this too is impossible!

Is there any way out of this dilemma? According to the counsel of the modest judge, the only interim solution is to vindicate the claim for the genuineness of the ring by one's own religious and moral conduct. So the judge counsels the three as follows:

"Accept the matter wholly as it stands. / If each one from his father has his ring, / Then let each one believe his ring to be / The true one . . . Let each aspire / To emulate his father's unbeguiled, / Unprejudiced affection! Let each strive / To match the rest in bringing to the fore / The magic of the opal in his ring! / Assist that power with all humility, / With benefaction, hearty peacefulness, / And with profound submission to God's will!"

In short, since it is impossible to demonstrate objectively the genuineness or spuriousness of the rings, the only way left for us is to strive, trusting in the goodwill of the bestower, to make ourselves worthy of being loved by God and men.

When we interpret the parable of the three rings in this way, we can see that this masterly fable accurately reflects Lessing's basic position in his theological controversy with Goeze. It is not without reason that Nathan the Wise is often called his Anti-Goe%e, no. 12. As noted above, the original question that Saladin raised was which one of the three religions—Judaism, Christianity, or Islam—is the true religion. His question implicitly presupposes not only that "Of these three / Religions only one can be the true one" but also that the truth of the one true religion, whichever it may be, is demonstrable.

To begin with the second presupposition, Lessing clearly asserts through this parable that the truth claim of a historical religion cannot be objectively demonstrated. Just as the two extra rings the father ordered from the jeweler were so similar to the original that no one could tell which of the three rings was the genuine one, so in the case of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, it is impossible to demonstrate that any one of the three is the genuine faith. The reason, as stated above, is that in this interim period of history, everything is ambiguous and equivocal. As Lessing puts it in another work, within history "truth moves under more than one form" (Die Wahrheit rühret unter mehr als einer Gestalt). To put it another way, all historical truths are partial and restricted and therefore to some extent untrue. In his epigraph to The Education of the Human Race Lessing cites Augustine's dictum, "Haec omnia inde esse in quibusdam vera, unde in quibusdam falsa sunt," words that will occupy us again in chapter 6 and that certainly relate to this way of thinking about historical truths.

How, then, does Lessing regard Saladin's first presupposition? He too thinks that "only one [religion] can be the true one"—but in a sense that differs from Saladin's idea. That is to say, Lessing does not think, as Saladin did, that among Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, only one is the true religion. The true religion in Lessing's sense is a religion that transcends all of the historical religions and yet underlies the truth of each. It is a religion based on real and universal humanity. Such a religion is not only one and universal; it also unifies people into a fellowship. In a word, it is Lessing's "religion of humanity."

If we interpret the parable of the three rings faithfully, it is true that only one of the three rings is genuine. The other two are fakes, no matter how closely they resemble the original. To this extent, there is no justification for the judge's conjecture that "Yours rings are false, all three. The genuine ring / No doubt got lost. To hide the grievous loss, / To make it good, the father caused three rings / To serve for one." Though we cannot discern it, one genuine ring does exist among the three. When applied to the issue at stake, it might seem that the proper way to reason would be to hold that only one of the three historical religions is the true one, the other two being false. But this is certainly not correct reasoning from the standpoint of the parable. No careful reader of the story will be led to this conclusion. For the magic power of the opal in the genuine ring does not reveal itself so long as he who is lucky enough to possess it is fighting with his brothers as to the genuineness or spuriousness of the ring. Even though he has the genuine ring, he is not loved by God and men. But what will happen to one who has received a fake ring, "believ[ing] his ring to be / The true one," if he aspires "to emulate his father's unbeguiled, / Unprejudiced affection?" Will he not be loved by God and men? And if this be true, what, then, about the magic power of the ring? Is not such power a matter of indifference?

The real difficulty with the parable of the three rings lies at this point. But is "the magic power" (die geheime Kraft) of an opal set in a ring such a "magic or supernatural power" (Zauberkraft) that it will work automatically regardless of the bearer's personality or mode of life? It was said of the stone that it had "the magic power that he who wore it, / Trusting its strength, was loved of God and men" (italics added). In other words, a voluntary faith from the human side is the sine qua non of the effectiveness of the ring's miraculous power. To be so bold as to use a misleading term, a kind of synergism is presupposed from the outset.

In addition, the fake rings are "in all points identical" with the genuine ring, so no one, not even the owner of the original, can tell which are fake. Ought they not to have, then, magic powers similar to those of the original ring? If we think of the matter this way, we have to conclude that magical powers will disclose themselves even in the case of the two sons who received fake rings so long as they, in full compliance with the judge's counsel, strive to emulate the father's unbeguiled, unprejudiced love. On this view, synergism holds good even for the bearers of the fake rings.

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