The Young Lessing and His Theological Critique

Next to be considered is Lessing's Some Thoughts about the Moravians (1750). In this fragment, the young Lessing lays the Christianity of his day on the dissecting table, considering it analytically with extraordinary theological insight. Presenting a broad outline of the history of both philosophy and Christianity, he makes a number of sharp criticisms not only about the dogmatism of Lutheran orthodoxy but also about the speculative theology of the Enlightenment. The fundamental proposition of this fragment, a proposition of exceptional importance, is this:

Man was created for action and not for speculation. Yet precisely because he was not created for speculation, he inclines more toward the latter than the former. His maliciousness always leads him to do what he should not, and his presumptuousness to do what he cannot. He should have limits set for himself.13

To verify this proposition, he surveys the general development of Western philosophy and the history of Christianity.

The great hero of ancient philosophy, according to Lessing, was Socrates, "a preacher of truth" (ein Prediger der Wahrheit). Admonishing the presumption of the sophists, Socrates taught people to abjure heavenly things and "reverse their gaze" so as to look within themselves. That is, he persuaded us to fathom "the uninvestigated depths" and "the most secret corners." But those who followed him perverted his teachings. Few followed the way of practical knowledge that Socrates had shown. "Plato began to dream, and Aristotle to syllogize."14 Later philosophy, both in antiquity and in medieval times, was under the spell of one or the other of these two philosophers. In time, Descartes appeared and opened the door to the sanctuary. The truth seemed to take new form at his hands. But modern philosophy, subjected to mathematics by two outstanding minds of the following generation, namely, Newton and Leibniz, became less practical. Thus present-day philosophers "fill the head while the heart remains empty. They lead the mind to the highest heaven, while the soul, through its passions, is set lower than the beast."15

The history of Christianity traces a similar path. The religion of Adam was "simple, easy, and vital" (einfach, leicht und lebendig). But this state did not last long. Adam's descendants treated this simple religion as they pleased, so that "the essentials were submerged beneath a deluge of arbitrary propositions."16 Thus "the correct concept of God" was replaced by the false concept of a "Being who cannot live without morning and evening offerings."17 In order to rescue the world from this ignorance and help truth prevail over superstition, Christ came as "a teacher enlightened by God" (ein von Gott erleuchteter Lehrer)1 Therefore Christ's true purpose, in a nutshell, was precisely "to reestablish religion in all its purity."19

As long as the Church was at war, it was concerned to give its religion, through an irreproachable and marvelous life, that rigor which few enemies were capable of withstanding. As soon as it was at peace, however, it lost its rigor and began to adorn its religion, to bring its doctrines into a certain order, and to reinforce divine truth with human proofs.20

As a result, "practical Christianity" (das ausübende Christentum) was superseded by "contemplative Christianity" (das beschauende Christentum)}1

The Reformation intended to restore Christianity to its original purity. But squabbles over trivial matters between two leaders (namely, Luther and Zwingli) thwarted the original intention. As Lessing puts it:

What an adverse fate it was that let two men differ over words, a mere trifle, when they could so much more skillfully have set about reinstating religion in its former splendor, had they but joined forces. Blessed men . . . who steadied the trembling crowns on the heads of kings. . . . But how was it that virtue and holiness gained so little from your improvements? Of what good is right belief in a wrong light?22

Finally, having thus described the Reformation as a movement that brought about intellectual advancement but failed to bring about a corresponding moral improvement, Lessing turns to the Christianity of his own day and finds that it has reached its lowest ebb.

And now for the present. Should I deem it fortunate or unfortunate that such an excellent combination of theology and philosophy has been achieved, one in which it is only with pain and distress that the one is separable from the other, in which one weakens the other; the former attempting to compel belief through proofs, and the latter supporting proofs with belief? I say now that because of this perverse manner of teaching Christianity, a true Christian has become far more rare than in the dark ages. In knowledge we are angels, and in living [we are] devils.23

The preceding paragraphs outline the argument Lessing develops in Some Thoughts about the Moravians. To restate a few important points, in this fragment the young Lessing conceives of the "simple, easy, and vital" religion of Adam as the ideal religion. He regards the history of biblical religion as a process of degradation from natural religion to positive religion. Furthermore, he treats Christ as "a teacher enlightened by God." Thus there can be no question about the deistic tendency of his thought.

Nevertheless, we can also discern here some features of Lessing's thought that differ from deism. His words in the Berlin Licensed Newspaper of 30 March 1751 bring out some of these features:

It is fortunate that there is still a theologian now and then who remembers what is practical about Christianity in an age when most theologians get lost in sterile disputes. Sometimes they condemn a simple Moravian; sometimes they give a much simpler mocker of religion new material for mockery through their so-called refutations; sometimes they quarrel over impossible reconciliations before they have laid the foundations for such reconciliation through cleansing the heart of bitterness, squabbling, slander, and oppression, and through spreading that love which alone constitutes the essential mark of the Christian. To patch up a single religion before considering [how to] bring people to harmonious exercise of their obligations is an empty fancy. Does one make two bad dogs good if one confines them in a shed? It is not concord in matters of opinion but concord in virtuous conduct that makes the world peaceful and happy.24

A clear-cut distinction between faith and knowledge, respect for devout faith, a preference for practical moral conduct over metaphysical speculation, and understanding of Christianity as a religion of love—all these characteristics are typical of Lessing's religious thought.

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