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History of the God Crisis

 

From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 8/2010, P. 85 et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

    In the nineties the theologian Johann Baptist Metz has coined the word "God Crisis". It hits the nerve of the times. The phenomenon admittedly exists already for a long time - as the philosophical and theological quest for the relationship between God and world (cf. CIG No. 7, p. 77). How can we redefine this relationship?

 

In the early nineties Johann Baptist Metz, the founder of the political theology has coined the word of the "God Crisis". The term soon circulated and was discussed in newspapers and episcopal pastoral letters. In the Christian area he had somehow hit the nerve of the times. However, a deeper analysis did not happen and also no retrospective look at the history of ideas. This has contributed to the fact that this headword was used extremely vague and downright inflationarily.

A closer look, especially at the history of philosophy, would have quickly realized that this "God Crisis" over which Metz laments is anything but a new phenomenon. It is about those incredibly dense philosophical and theological debates that were held between 1781, the death of Lessing and the appearance of the first edition of Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason" on the one hand and 1831/32, the death of Hegel and Goethe, on the other hand. These disputes can as the only ones of the modern era probably be compared with those of the Athens' situation in the era of the Attic classics. Following the historian Reinhart Koselleck (1923-2006) they can be described as "saddle period" of the modern philosophy of religion.

 

Historical Review

In the sequence of three highly unconventional conflicts these discussions have particularly crystallized since 1785: First, in the so-called pantheism dispute between the philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi (1743-1819) and Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786). It was on Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's so-called Spinozism, which entailed the in those days extremely dangerous accusation of pantheism, or even atheism. Spinozism means the view that only God the Absolute is that substance to which existence belongs; without it nothing can be truly understood, and so everything that exists must necessarily be contained in it.

Then, the so-called atheism dispute followed. The philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814) opened this dispute in 1798 with his essay "Ueber den Grund unseres Glaubens an eine göttliche Weltregierung" [On the Basis of our Belief in a Divine Governance of the World]. In it he identifies, in radical consequence of the ideas of Immanuel Kant, God with the absolute moral obligation and thus found himself forced to abandon theistic attributions to God, such as consciousness and personhood. For Fichte it is out of the question that his considerations of God's reality are more appropriate than the tenets of the orthodox theological dogmatics of his time.

And finally, in the middle of the atheism dispute the so-called controversy about the divine things is on the horizon, which one could also call "theism dispute". The main opponents were Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi with the paper "Von den göttlichen Dingen und ihrer Offenbarung" [On Divine Things and their Revelation] and the philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854). The point at issue was this time the possibility and necessity of a philosophical speech about God. Jacobi denied both, whereas Schelling affirmed both as an outstanding philosophical task.

In the course of these discussions the partly ambivalent, partly enigmatic, partly fascinating Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) had become the key element - which incidentally is not surprising. Spinoza offered for the first time the means of thought to solve the hidden basic problem of the whole traditional philosophical theology. It had basically been kept in check by the fact that theology had abstained from reflecting on it as a problem. It is about the question of how it is possibly at all that something can exist, if there must necessarily be an infinite, absolute being in order to ensure that something exists at all. For if an infinite being exists it is simply impossible that apart of it [außer has in German two meanings: besides & outside] something exists, because it is impossible to think an "outside" in addition to this infinity. The finite being can therefore only be something like a part of the Absolute. Already Nicholas of Cusa and the Renaissance philosopher Giordano Bruno have dealt exactly with this question.

The answer was radically substantiated conceptually [auf den Begriff bringen] by Spinoza. By taking as startingpoint for thinking the oneness of God and world, the relationship between transcendence and immanence, the conception of God and conception of man, and even the significance of religious matters are fundamentally transformed; and this in a way that the main elements of world and self-interpretation come free from the contradictions or at least seem to come free, in which they were involved by the previous thinking.

 

The Pantheism Dispute

That is exactly what sensationally happened in the first of the cases, the so-called pantheism dispute. It was focussed on fundamental data of the handed down religious tradition. Although its importance was misjudged for a long time, the pantheism dispute was at least as important for the progress of modern philosophy and theology as formerly the appearance of Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason".

In 1785, four years after Lessing's death, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi made known that Lessing had confided to him shortly before his death in a private conversation that he no longer believed in a personal God and Creator, and had declared himself to be a partisan of Spinoza. This triggered the pantheism dispute. Superficially, namely as a broad public noticed it, this was a conflict between Jacobi and the Berlin Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn about Lessing's attitude of mind. In substance, however, it was about a fight over fundamental questions of philosophical theology.

 

Jacobi in the matter Lessing

Because of his confession before his death, Jacobi regarded Lessing as an atheist. By rejecting this attitude, he wanted by no means to lessen his respect for his friend Lessing and his thinking. Mendelssohn, however, wanted to attest to Lessing that he held a "purified" pantheism, namely a pantheism that not necessarily entailed the charge of atheism. In order to achive this, he tried to show that the in-God-being of things was consistent with their objective external existence.

If Jacobi has truthfully reported on Lessing's expression - and no doubt about that - Lessing must have thought that his theological view, which he has otherwise expressed and which sounded quite traditional-Christian, were somehow compatible with Spinoza's approach: the source of everything as inner cause, history as manifestation of the Eternal One and All-One ... This open figure of thought and the uncertainty in the assessment of even immediate contemporaries regarding Lessing show more than anything else to which changes the concept of God and all that is connected with it were subjected since the beginning of the modern era - and still are.

With his statements in the matter of Lessing Jacobi simultaneously built a bridge to the one who, in the same breath with Lessing, has to be described as a representative of the Enlightenment and who has at the same time, more than almost any other, disclosed the boundaries of its claims: Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Already the first edition of Jacobi's "On the Teaching of Spinoza in Letters to Mr. Moses Mendelssohn" in 1785 was a sensation - not only because of the statement about Lessing, but also for three other things. First, in deviation from the text of Spinoza, Jacobi had represented his intellectual edifice in a way that appeared to be extremely attractive for those who were interested in the matter. Second, Jacobi, however, was and remained opposed to Spinozism and was of the opinion that it could only be avoided if an immediate certainty, a certainty of faith was accepted as foundation of true knowledge instead of purely rational considerations. And finally, it was noted that Jacobi's description of Spinozism was based on passages from Kant's "Critique of Pure Reason". Friends besieged Kant to react against the thus awakened impression that his doctrine of freedom was compoundable with Spinoza's thinking.

 


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And the Königsberg scholar stated his view on it in the essay "What Does It Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking?". There, he rejected Jacobi's reliance on a certainty that was not achieved by reflection, because with it he saw the authority of reason brought into discredit in matters of religion and with regard to the conception of God. Nevertheless, with Jacobi's book, which had been written in the opposite intention, began the career of Spinozism as an acceptable metaphysical position.

In a nutshell: In this debate it is about the question how revealed sentences [Offenbarungssätze] can be made acceptable for reason [vernunftfähig]. But that does not only change the conception of God and the things associated with it. It also changes philosophy. Via the attempt to speak of God intrinsically linked to man's self-awareness, it becomes speculative. This means in this case: In a controlled deviation from the everyday manner of conceptually describing the world, the whole of reality - God and world, finite and infinite, one and many ... - has to be grasped in a single thought and to be joined in thought [zusammengedacht]. From such a speculative concept of knowledge, philosophy is able in an entirely new manner to look at the tradition of religion.

After Kant's death many young people, all of them first studied Protestant theology, took up this idea and strove to be able to grasp the real truth of religion in freedom. Some of them remained theologians, but always with considerable friction between them and the ecclesiastical institution. By contrast, others said goodbye to their origin, because they were simply no longer able to bring together believing and thinking. Still others became philosophers. But they took along their theological background; they changed it just like the form of philosophical thinking and did so in the conviction at the same time to be the better theologians.

 

Spinoza and Kant

What previously stood against each other is now brought together in an imparted unity, where the associated elements come to their truth - each at the respective other of itself [am jeweils anderen ihrer selbst]. This is done not as a simple remake of Spinoza's thought but as attempt to bring his approach together with that of Kant. It culminates in the idea of freedom, which admittedly cannot be proved but without which the achievements of human reason, and especially its moral competence cannot be understood.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte is the one in whom two tendencies exemplarily meet. They completely contradict each other and therefore all the more imperiously ask for reconciliation. First, he assumes the unity of all things with God in Spinoza's sense. That's why he cannot conceive God as a person. IT is for him an eternal, necessary Being. Fichte understands the individual things as thoughts within God's All-Thought [Allgedanke], which is the Universe. However, Fichte is obliged to a radical extension of his thinking by the encounter with Kant's practical philosophy and with the priority given in it to freedom. Against fatalism (surrendering to fate) or against determinism (everything is predetermined) of his previous thinking Fichte now recognizes in the moral awareness of obligation an unconditionedness, which has the condition of its possibility in human freedom. In the more than twenty versions of his epistemology he tried since 1794 to combine this Kantian idea with Spinoza's original intuition.

 

The Atheism Dispute

Precisely with this intention, Fichte has then in 1798 triggered the so-called atheism dispute. When the at that time important journal "Philosophisches Journal" published Friedrich Karl Forberg's essay "On the Development of the Concept of Religion", Fichte as co-editor of the publication took the opportunity of this contribution, which was quite in line with his view, and placed in front of it his own essay, which described the issue even more radically - in his opinion - even more comprehensively.

Right at the start Fichte rejects every proof of the existence of God by pointing out that it was both unnecessary and impossible. It was "unnecessary" because belief needn't be brought into man by verification procedures. And it was "impossible" because those who prove the existence of God are only human beings. From where should they take then the Superhuman that they want to pass by virtue of proof? And even if they were beings of a higher nature, how could they "succeed in imparting something of that Superhuman to others, if in them no analogous entity existed?

On the contrary, faith is always already found in human beings as antecedent certainty in the form of the conviction of being morally determined, and as such faith constitutes the purpose of freedom, as the latter sets it as its target. The moral law within me, in Kantian terms the categorical imperative, makes up the true faith, and - Fichte literally - "is the Divine that we assume". Fichte rightly concludes from it, "God himself is that living and working moral order; we need no other God, and we can conceive no other."

That's why, according to Fichte, outside this perspective there is no need of an inference from a conditional entity to a special being that is assumed as cause, because this inference would inevitably remain outward. If one had to accept such an inference, it ended - theologically spoken - with an idol and in terms of philosophy with a projection. "This Being has to be different from you and the world. In the latter it has to work according to concepts, and has therefore to be capable of forming and using terms, has to have personality and consciousness. What do you call, then, personality and consciousness? Probably [sic] nothing else but what you found in yourself, what you got to know within yourselves, and what you designated with this name?"

This was the scandal that made up the hot core of the atheism dispute: God as something different, as far as his subject-side is concerned, than a particular substance and, what is more, something to which neither personality nor consciousness can be attributed. In the horizon of "All-in-One" [Verinwendigung] both the term 'God' and the conception of God of the tradition are not actually but out of conceptual necessity subjected to criticism. Exactly for that reason Fichte could reject the accusation about atheism in an honest attitude. He had not abandoned personality and consciousness as characteristics of God out of critical reasons against these God attributions [Gotteszuschreibungen], but in the wake of a thought process that, after the collapse of the traditional discourse upon God, saved the idea of God. In "Appeal to the Public" (1799), a written defense against the accusations after the "Journal" article, and in "Destiny of Man" (1800) Fichte tried to explain this.

 

The Theisms Dispute

In parallel to it still a third controversy starts to develop. Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi and the philosopher Karl Leonhard Reinhold (1757-1823) had written circular letters to Fichte in order to defend him. By his thesis that God cannot be known but only believed Jacobi declared philosophy as such to be an atheist science and exonerated thus Fichte from the accusation of atheism. Knowledge and God are thus much more separated from each other than in the pantheism dispute. With it the ground is prepared for a debate about exactly what in both the pantheism and atheism dispute had unquestioned been used as a distinguishing characteristic: the idea of God of theism.

Both controversies could only occur because what was brought forward by Spinoza-oriented Lessing and then by Fichte was measured by the standard of theism and was rejected from its perspective. But the two aforementioned circular letters mark the beginning of a shift, in the context of which theism itself - to put it mildly - comes under pressure to justify itself. Matter in dispute is the question how the theistic God has to be conceived actually.

In the context of this question two models collide. The one assumes that a revival of the idea of God (after the atheism dispute) was philosophically necessary and achievable. The second model considers this task as impossible and also dispensable. After it had built up for about ten years, in 1811/12 this conflict erupted in the "dispute about divine things." By focussing on the fundamentals the motives of the debate can excellently be reduced to a formula coined by the Graz philosopher Peter Strasser. Theology has the task to think God in such a way that he "is simultaneously a person and everything" (in "Der Gott aller Menschen. Eine philosophische Grenzüberschreitung", Graz 2002; [The God of all People. A Philosophical Border Crossing]).

One cannot say that theology had up to now adequately fulfilled this task. If it had done so, the subsequent conflicts had probably taken a different course and were perhaps not even emerged: those disputes that flared up after the described reformation of philosophical and theological discussion and which up to this day determine the public awareness in matters of criticism of religion. (A third essay has the heading "One-God-Faith and Violence"; about this topic see Arnold Angenendt - Violent Monotheism - Human Polytheism?, Franz Kamphaus - "Where is your brother Abel?" (Gen 4,9))

 

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