Essence of Christianity: Part II, The False or Theological Essence of Religion

Chapter XXVII. Concluding Application

IN the contradiction between Faith and Love which has just been exhibited, we see the practical, palpable ground of necessity that we should raise ourselves above Christianity, above the peculiar stand-point of all religion. We have shown that the substance and object of religion is altogether human; we have shown that divine wisdom is human wisdom; that the secret of theology is anthropology; that the absolute mind is the so-called finite subjective mind. But religion is not conscious that its elements are human; on the contrary, it places itself in opposition to the human, or at least it does not admit that its elements are human. The necessary turning-point of history is therefore the open confession, that the consciousness of God is nothing else than the consciousness of the species; that man can and should raise himself only above the limits of his individuality, and not above the laws, the positive essential conditions of his species; that there is no other essence which man can think, dream of, imagine, feel, believe in, wish for, love and adore as the absolute, than the essence of human nature itself.

[Including external nature; for as man belongs to the essence of Nature, – in opposition to common materialism; so Nature belongs to the essence of man, – in opposition to subjective idealism; which is also the secret of our “absolute” philosophy, at least in relation to Nature. Only by uniting man with Nature can we conquer the supra-naturalistic egoism of Christianity.]

Our relation to religion is therefore not a merely negative, but a critical one; we only separate the true from the false; – though we grant that the truth thus separated from falsehood is a new truth, essentially different from the old. Religion is the first form of self-consciousness. Religions are sacred because they are the traditions of the primitive self-consciousness. But that which in religion holds the first place – namely, God – is, as we have shown, in itself and according to truth, the second, for it is only the nature of man regarded objectively; and that which to religion is the second – namely, man – must therefore be constituted and declared the first. Love to man must be no derivative love; it must be original. If human nature is the highest nature to man, then practically also the highest and first law must be the love of man to man. Homo homini Deus est: – this is the great practical principle: – this is the axis on which revolves the history of the world. The relations of child and parent, of husband and wife, of brother and friend – in general, of man to man – in short, all the moral relations are per se religious. Life as a whole is, in its essential, substantial relations, throughout of a divine nature. Its religious consecration is not first conferred by the blessing of the priest. But the pretension of religion is that it can hallow an object by its essentially external co-operation; it thereby assumes to be itself the only holy power; besides itself it knows only earthly, ungodly relations; hence it comes forward in order to consecrate them and make them holy.

But marriage – we mean, of course, marriage as the free bond of love [Yes, only as the free bond of love; for a marriage the bond of which is merely an external restriction, not the voluntary, contented self-restriction of love, in short, a marriage which is not spontaneously concluded, spontaneously willed, self-sufficing, is not a true marriage, and therefore not a truly moral marriage.] – is sacred in itself, by the very nature of the union which is therein effected. That alone is a religious marriage, which is a true marriage, which corresponds to the essence of marriage – of love. And so it is with all moral relations. Then only are they moral, – then only are they enjoyed in a moral spirit, when they are regarded as sacred in themselves. True friendship exists only when the boundaries of friendship are preserved with religious conscientiousness, with the same conscientiousness with which the believer watches over the dignity of his God. Let friendship be sacred to thee, property sacred, marriage sacred, – sacred the well-being of every man; but let them be sacred in and by themselves.

In Christianity the moral laws are regarded as the commandments of God; morality is even made the criterion of piety; but ethics have nevertheless a subordinate rank, they have not in themselves a religious significance. This belongs only to faith. Above morality hovers God, as a being distinct from man, a being, to whom the best is due, while the remnants only fall to the share of man. All those dispositions which ought to be devoted to life, to man – all the best powers of humanity, are lavished on the being who wants nothing. The real cause is converted into an impersonal means, a merely conceptional, imaginary cause usurps the place of the true one. Man thanks God for those benefits which have been rendered to him even at the cost of sacrifice by his fellow-man. The Gratitude which he expresses to his benefactor is only ostensible: it is paid, not to him, but to God. He is thankful, grateful to God, but unthankful to man.

[“Because God does good through government, great men and creatures in general, people rush into error, lean on creatures and not on the Creator; – they do not look from the creature to the Creator. Hence it came that the heathens made gods of kings. For they cannot and will not perceive that the work or the benefit comes from God, and not merely from the creature, though the latter is a means, through which God works, helps us and gives to is.” – Luther (T. iv. p. 237).]

Thus is the moral sentiment subverted into religion! Thus does man sacrifice man to God! The bloody human sacrifice is in fact only a rude, material expression of the inmost secret of religion. Where bloody human sacrifices are offered to God, such sacrifices are regarded as the highest thing, physical existence as the chief mood. For this reason life is sacrificed to God, and it is so on extraordinary occasions; the supposition being that this is the way to show him the greatest honour. If Christianity no longer, at least in our day, offers bloody sacrifices to its God, this arises, to say nothing of other reasons, from the fact that physical existence is no longer regarded as the highest good. Hence the soul, the emotions are now offered to God, because these are held to be something higher. But the common case is, that in religion man sacrifices some duty towards man – such as that of respecting the life of his fellow, of being grateful to him – to a religious obligation, – sacrifices his relation to man to his relation to God. The Christians, by the idea that God is without wants, and that he is only an object of pure adoration, have certainly done away with many pernicious conceptions. But this freedom from wants is only a metaphysical idea, which is by no means part of the peculiar nature of religion. When the need for worship is supposed to exist only on one side, the subjective side, this has the invariable effect of one-sidedness, and leaves the religious emotions cold; hence, if not in express words, yet in fact, there must be attributed to God a condition corresponding to the subjective need, the need of the worshipper, in order to establish reciprocity.

[“They who honour me, I will honour, and they who despise me shall be lightly esteemed.” – i Sam. ii. 30. “Jam so, o bone pater, vermis vilissimus et odio dignissimus sempiterno, tamen confidit amari, quoniam as sentit amare, imo quia se amari praesentit, non redamare confunditur. Nemo itaque se amari diffidat, qui jam amat.” – Bernardus ad Thomam (Epist. 107). A very fine and pregnant sentence. If I exist not for God, God exists not for me; if I do not love, I am not loved. The passive is the active certain of itself, the object is the subject certain of itself. To love is to be man, to be loved is to be God. I am loved, says God; I love, says man. It is not until later that this is reversed, that the passive transforms itself into the active, and conversely.]

All the positive definitions of religion are based on reciprocity. The religious man thinks of God because God thinks of him; he loves God because God has first loved him. God is jealous of man; religion is jealous of morality; [“The Lord spake to Gideon: The people are too many that are with thee, that I should give Midian into their hands; Israel might glorify itself against me and say: My hand has delivered me,” – i.e., Ne Israel sibi tribuat, quae mihi debentur.” Judges vii. 2. “Thus saith the Lord: Cursed is the man that trusteth in man. But blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord and whose hope is in the Lord.” – Jer. xvii. 5. “God desires not our gold, body and possessions, but has given these to the emperor (that is, to the representative of the world, of the state), and to us through the emperor. But the heart, which is the greatest and best in man, he has reserved for himself; – this must be our offering to God – that we believe in him.” – Luther (xvi. p. 505).] it sucks away the best forces of morality; it renders to man only the things that are man's, but to God the things that are God's; and to him is rendered true living emotion, – the heart.

When in times in which peculiar sanctity was attached to religion, we find marriage, property, and civil law respected, this has not its foundation in religion, but in the original, natural sense of morality and right, to which the true social relations are sacred as such. He to whom the Right is not holy for its own sake will never be made to feel it sacred by religion. Property did not become sacred because it was regarded as a divine institution, but it was regarded as a divine institution because it was felt to be in itself sacred. Love is not holy because it is a predicate of God, but it is a predicate of God because it is in itself divine. The heathens do not worship the light or the fountain because it is a gift of God, but because it has of itself a beneficial influence on man, because it refreshes the sufferer; on account of this excellent quality they pay it divine honours.

Wherever morality is based on theology, wherever the right is made dependent on divine authority, the most immoral, unjust, infamous things can be justified and established. I can found morality on theology only when I myself have already defined the Divine Being by means of morality. In the contrary case, I have no criterion of the moral and immoral, but merely an unmoral, arbitrary basis, from which I may deduce anything I please. Thus, if I would found morality on God, I must first of all place it in God: for Morality, Right, in short, all substantial relations, have their only basis in themselves, can only have a real foundation – such as truth demands – when they are thus based. To place anything in God, or to derive anything from God, is nothing more than to withdraw it from the test of reason, to institute it as indubitable, unassailable, sacred, without rendering an account why. Hence self-delusion, if not wicked, insidious design is at the root of all efforts to establish morality, right, on theology Where we are in earnest about the right we need no incitement or support from above. We need no Christian rule of political right: we need only one which is rational, just, human. The right, the true, the good, has always its ground of sacredness in itself, in its quality, where man is in earnest about ethics, they have in themselves the validity of a divine power. If morality has no foundation in itself, there is no inherent necessity for morality; morality is then surrendered to the groundless arbitrariness of religion.

Thus the work of the self-conscious reason in relation to religion is simply to destroy an illusion: – an illusion, however, which is by no means indifferent, but which, on the contrary, is profoundly injurious in its effect on mankind; which deprives man as well of the power of real life as of the genuine sense of truth and virtue: for even love, in itself the deepest, truest emotion, becomes by means of religiousness merely ostensible, illusory, since religious love gives itself to man only for God's sake, so that it is given only in appearance to man, but in reality to God.

And we need only, as we have shown, invert the religious relations – regard that as an end which religion supposes to be a means – exalt that into the primary which in religion is subordinate, the accessory, the condition, – at once we have destroyed the illusion, and the unclouded light of truth streams in upon us. The sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, which are the characteristic symbols of the Christian religion, may serve to confirm and exhibit this truth.

The Water of Baptism is to religion only the means by which the Holy Spirit imparts itself to man. But by this conception it is placed in contradiction with reason, with the truth of things. On the one hand, there is virtue in the objective, natural quality of water; on the other, there is none, but it is a merely arbitrary medium of divine grace and omnipotence. We free ourselves from these and other irreconcilable contradictions, we give a true significance to Baptism, only by regarding it as a symbol of the value of water itself. Baptism should represent to us the wonderful but natural effect of water on man. Water has, in fact, not merely physical effects, but also, and as a result of these, moral and intellectual effects on man. Water not only cleanses man from bodily impurities, but in water the scales fall from his eyes: he sees, he thinks more clearly; he feels himself freer; water extinguishes the fire of appetite. How many saints have had recourse to the natural qualities of water in order to overcome the assaults of the devil! What was denied by Grace has been granted by Nature. Water plays a part not only in dietetics, but also in moral and mental discipline. To purify oneself, to bathe, is the first, though the lowest of virtues.

[Christian baptism also is obviously only a relic of the ancient Nature-worship, in which, as in the Persian, water was a means of religious purification. (S. Rhode: Die heilige Sage, &., PP. 305, 426.) Here, however, water baptism had a much truer, and consequently a deeper meaning, than with the Christians, because it rested on the natural power and value of water. But indeed for these simple views of Nature which characterised the old religions, our speculative as well as theological supra-naturalism has neither sense nor understanding. When therefore the Persians, the Hindus, the Egyptians, the Hebrews, made physical purity a religious duty, they were herein far wiser than the Christian saints, who attested the supra-naturalistic principle of their religion by physical impurity. Supra-naturalism in theory becomes anti-naturalism in practice. Supra-naturalism is only a euphemism for anti-naturalism.]

In the stream of water the fever of selfishness is allayed. Water is the readiest means of making friends with Nature. The bath is a sort of chemical process, in which our individuality is resolved into the objective life of Nature. The man rising from the water is a new, a regenerate man. The doctrine that morality can do nothing without means of grace has a valid meaning if, in place of imaginary, supernatural means of grace, we substitute natural means. Moral feeling can effect nothing without Nature; it must ally itself with the simplest natural means. The profoundest secrets lie in common everyday things, such as supra-naturalistic religion and speculation ignore, thus sacrificing real mysteries to imaginary, illusory ones; as here, for example, the real power of water is sacrificed to an imaginary one. Water is the simplest means of grace or healing for the maladies of the soul as well as of the body. But water is effectual only where its use is constant and regular. Baptism, as a single act, is either an altogether useless and unmeaning institution, or, if real effects are attributed to it, a superstitious one. But it is a rational, a venerable institution, if it is understood to typify and celebrate the moral and physical curative virtues of water.

But the sacrament of water required a supplement. Water, as a universal element of life, reminds us of our origin from Nature, an origin which we have in common with plants and animals. In Baptism we bow to the power of a pure Nature-force; water is the element of natural equality and freedom, the mirror of the golden age. But we men are distinguished from the plants and animals, which together with the inorganic kingdom we comprehend under the common name of Nature; – we are distinguished from Nature. Hence we must celebrate our distinction, our specific difference. The symbols of this our difference are bread and wine. Bread and wine are, as to their materials, products of Nature; as to their form, products of man. If in water we declare: Man can do nothing without Nature; by bread and wine we declare: Nature needs man, as man needs Nature. In water, human mental activity is nullified; in bread and wine it attains self-satisfaction. Bread and wine are supernatural products, – in the only valid and true sense, the sense which is not in contradiction with reason and Nature. If in water we adore the pure force of Nature, in bread and wine we adore the supernatural power of mind, of consciousness, of man. Hence this sacrament is only for man matured into consciousness; while baptism is imparted to infants. But we at the same time celebrate here the true relation of mind to Nature: Nature gives the material, mind gives the form. The sacrament of Baptism inspires us with thankfulness towards Nature, the sacrament of bread and wine with thankfulness towards man. Bread and wine typify to us the truth that Man is the true God and Saviour of man.

Eating and drinking is the mystery of the Lord's Supper; – eating and drinking is, in fact, in itself a religious act; at least, ought to be so. [“Eating and drinking is the easiest of all work. for men like nothing better: yea, the most joyful work in the whole world is eating and drinking, as it is commonly said: Before eating, no dancing, and, On a full stomach stands a merry head. In short, eating and drinking is a pleasant necessary work; – that is a doctrine soon learned and made popular. The same pleasant necessary work takes our blessed Lord Christ and says: “I have prepared a joyful, sweat and pleasant meal, I will lay on you no hard heavy work. I institute a supper, &c.” – Luther (xvi. 222).]

Think, therefore, with every morsel of bread which relieves thee from the pain of hunger, with every draught of wine which cheers thy heart, of the God who confers these beneficent gifts upon thee, – think of man! But in thy gratitude towards man forget not Gratitude towards holy Nature! Forget not that wine is the blood of plants, and flour the flesh of plants, which are sacrificed for thy well-being! Forget not that the plant typifies to thee the essence of Nature, which lovingly surrenders itself for thy enjoyment. Therefore forget not the gratitude which thou owest to the natural qualities of bread and wine! And if thou art inclined to smile that I call eating and drinking religious acts, because they are common every-day acts, and are therefore performed by multitudes without thought, without emotion; reflect, that the Lord's Supper is to multitudes a thoughtless, emotionless act, because it takes place often; and, for the sake of comprehending the religious significance of bread and wine, place thyself in a position where the daily act is unnaturally, violently interrupted. Hunger and thirst destroy not only the physical but also the mental and moral powers of man; they rob him of his humanity of understanding, of consciousness. Oh! if thou shouldst ever experience such want, how wouldst thou bless and praise the natural qualities of bread and wine, which restore to thee thy humanity, thy intellect! It needs only that the ordinary course of things be interrupted in order to vindicate to common things an uncommon significance, to life, as such, a religious import. Therefore let bread be sacred for us, let wine be sacred, and also let water be sacred! Amen.