Essence of Christianity: PART I, The True or Anthropological Essence of Religion

Chapter V. The Mystery of the Suffering God

AN essential condition of the incarnate, or, what is the same thing, the human God, namely, Christ, is the Passion. Love attests itself by suffering. All thoughts and feelings which are immediately associated with Christ concentrate themselves in the idea of the Passion. God as God is the sum of all human perfection; God as Christ is the sum of all human misery. The heathen philosophers celebrated activity, especially the spontaneous activity of the intelligence, as the highest, the divine; the Christians consecrated passivity, even placing it in God. If God as actus purus, as pure activity, is the God of abstract philosophy; so, on the other hand, Christ, the God of the Christians, is the passio pura, pure suffering, – the highest metaphysical thought, the Ítre suprÍme of the heart. For what makes more impression on the heart than suffering? especially the suffering of one who considered in himself is free from suffering, exalted above it; – the suffering of the innocent, endured purely for the good of others, the suffering, of love, – self-sacrifice? But for the very reason that the history of the Passion is the history which most deeply affects the human heart, or let us rather say the heart in general – for it would be a ludicrous mistake in man to attempt to conceive any other heart than the human, – it follows undeniably that nothing else is expressed in that history, nothing else is made an object in it, but the nature of the heart, – that it is not an invention of the understanding or the poetic faculty, but of the heart. The heart, however, does not invent in the same way as the free imagination or intelligence; it has a passive, receptive relation to what it produces; all that proceeds from it seems to it given from without, takes it by violence, works with the force of irresistible necessity. The heart overcomes, masters man; he who is once in its power is possessed as it were by his demon, by his God. The heart knows no other God, no more excellent being, than itself, than a God whose name may indeed be another, but whose nature, whose substance is the nature of the heart. And out of the heart, out of the inward impulse to do good, to live and die for man, out of the divine instinct of benevolence which desires to make all happy, and excludes none, not even the most abandoned and abject, out of the moral duty of benevolence in the highest sense, as having become an inward necessity, i.e., a movement of the heart, – out of the human nature, therefore, as it reveals itself through the heart, has sprung what is best, what is true in Christianity – its essence purified from theological dogmas and contradictions.

For, according to the principles which we have already developed, that which in religion is the predicate we must make the subject, and that which in religion is a subject we must make a predicate, thus inverting the oracles of religion; and by this means we arrive at the truth. God suffers – suffering is the predicate – but for men, for others, not for himself. What does that mean in plain speech? Nothing else than this: to suffer for others is divine; he who suffers for others, who lays down his life for them, acts divinely, is a God to men.

[Religion speaks by example. Example is the law of religion. What Christ did is law. Christ suffered for others; therefore, we should do likewise. “Quae necessitas fuit ut sic exinaniret se, sic humiliate se, sic abbreviaret se Dominus majestatis; nisi ut vos similiter ficiatis?” – Bernardus (in Die nat. Domini). “We ought studiously to consider the example of Christ. ... That would move us and incite us, so that we from our hearts should willingly help and serve other people, even though it might be hard, and we must suffer on account of it.” – Luther (Th. xv. p. 40).] The Passion of Christ, however, represents not only moral, voluntary suffering, the suffering of love, the power of sacrificing self for the good of others; it represents also suffering as such, suffering in so far as it is an expression of passibility in general. The Christian religion is so little superhuman that it even sanctions human weakness. The heathen philosopher, on hearing tidings of the death of his child exclaims: “I knew that he was mortal.” Christ, on the contrary – at least in the Bible, – sheds tears over the death of Lazarus, a death which he nevertheless knew to be only an apparent one. While Socrates empties the cup of poison with unshaken soul, Christ exclaims, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” Christ is in this respect the self-confession of human sensibility. In opposition to the heathen, and in particular the stoical principle, with its rigorous energy of will and self-sustainedness, the Christian involves the consciousness of his own sensitiveness and susceptibility in the consciousness of God; he finds it, if only it be no sinful weakness, not denied, not condemned in God.

To suffer is the highest command of Christianity – the history of Christianity is the history of the Passion of Humanity. While amongst the heathens the shout of sensual pleasure mingled itself in the worship of the gods, amongst the Christians, we mean of course the ancient Christians, God is served with sighs and tears. But as where sounds of sensual pleasure make a part of the cultus, it is a sensual God, a God of life, who is worshipped, as indeed these shouts of joy are only a symbolical definition of the nature of the gods to whom this jubilation is acceptable; so also the sighs of Christians are tones which proceed from the inmost soul, the inmost nature of their God. The God expressed by the cultus, whether this be an external, or, as with the Christians, an inward spiritual worship, – not the God of sophistical theology – is the true God of man. But the Christians, we mean of course the ancient Christians, believed that they rendered the highest honour to their God by tears, the tears of repentance and yearning. Thus tears are the light-reflecting drops which mirror the nature of the Christian's God. But a God who has pleasure in tears, expresses nothing else than the nature of the heart. It is true that the theory of the Christian religion says: Christ has done all for us, has redeemed us, has reconciled us with God; and from hence the inference may be drawn: Let us be of a joyful mind and disposition; what need have we to trouble ourselves as to how we shall reconcile ourselves with God? we are reconciled already. But the imperfect tense in which the fact of suffering is expressed makes a deeper, a more enduring impression, than the perfect tense which expresses the fact of redemption. The redemption is only the result of the suffering,; the suffering is the cause of the redemption. Hence the suffering takes deeper root in the feelings; the suffering makes itself an object of imitation; – not so the redemption. If God himself suffered for my sake, how can I be joyful, how can I allow myself any gladness, at least on this corrupt earth, which was the theatre of his suffering? Ought I to fare better than God? Ought I not, then, to make his sufferings my own? Is not what God my Lord does my model? Or shall I share only the gain and not the cost also? Do I know merely that he has redeemed me? Do I not also know the history of His suffering? Should it be an object of cold remembrance to me, or even an object of rejoicing, because it has purchased my salvation? Who can think so – who can wish to be exempt from the sufferings of his God?

The Christian religion is the religion of suffering. [“It is better to suffer evil than to do good.” – Luther (Th. iv. s. 15).] The images of the crucified one which we still meet with in all churches, represent not the Saviour, but only the crucified, the suffering Christ. Even the self-crucifixions among the Christians are, psychologically, a deep-rooted consequence of their religious views. How should not he who has always the image of the crucified one in his mind, at length contract the desire to crucify either himself or another? At least we have as good a warrant for this conclusion as Augustine and other fathers of the Church for their reproach against the heathen religion, that the licentious religious images of the heathens provoked and authorised licentiousness.

God suffers, means in truth nothing else than: God is a heart. The heart is the source, the centre of all suffering. A being without suffering is a being without a heart. The mystery of the suffering God is therefore the mystery of feeling sensibility. A suffering God is a feeling, sensitive God. But the proposition: God is a feeling Being is only the religious periphrase of the proposition: feeling is absolute, divine in its nature.

Man has the consciousness not only of a spring of activity, but also of a spring of suffering in himself. I feel; and I feel feeling (not merely will and thought, which are only too often in opposition to me and my feelings), as belonging to my essential being, and, though the source of all sufferings and sorrows, as a glorious, divine power and perfection. What would man be without feeling? It is the musical power in man. But what would man be without music? Just as man has a musical faculty and feels an inward necessity to breathe out his feelings in song; so, by a like necessity, he in religion’s sighs and tears streams forth the nature of feeling as an objective, divine nature.

Religion is human nature reflected, mirrored in itself. That which exists has necessarily a pleasure, a joy in itself, loves itself, and loves itself justly; to blame it because it loves itself is to reproach it because it exists. To exist is to assert oneself, to affirm oneself, to love oneself; he to whom life is a burthen rids himself of it. Where, therefore, feeling is not depreciated and repressed, as with the Stoics, where existence is awarded to it, there also is religious power and significance already conceded to it, there also is it already exalted to that stage in which it can mirror and reflect itself, in which it can project its own image as God. God is the mirror of man.

That which has essential value for man, which he esteems the perfect, the excellent, in which he has true delight, – that alone is God to him. If feeling seems to thee a glorious attribute, it is then, per se, a divine attribute to thee. Therefore, the feeling, sensitive man believes only in a feeling sensitive God, i.e., he believes only in the truth of his own existence and nature, for he can believe in nothing else than that which is involved in his own nature. His faith is the consciousness of that which is holy to him; but that alone is holy to man which lies deepest within him, which is most peculiarly his own, the basis, the essence of his individuality. To the feeling man a God without feeling is an empty, abstract, negative God, i.e., nothing; because that is wanting to him which is precious and sacred to man. God is for man the commonplace book where he registers his highest feelings and thoughts, the genealogical tree on which are entered the names that are dearest and most sacred to him.

It is a sign of an undiscriminating good-nature, a womanish instinct, to gather together and then to preserve tenaciously all that we have gathered, not to trust anything to the waves of forgetfulness, to the chance of memory, in short not to trust ourselves and learn to know what really has value for us. The freethinker is liable to the danger of an unregulated, dissolute life. The religious man who binds together all things in one, does not lose himself in sensuality; but for that reason he is exposed to the danger of illiberality, of spiritual selfishness and greed. Therefore, to the religious man at least, the irreligious or un-religious man appears lawless, arbitrary, haughty, frivolous; not because that which is sacred to the former is not also in itself sacred to the latter, but only because that which the unreligious man holds in his head merely, the religious man places out of and above himself as an object, and hence recognises in himself the relation of a formal subordination. The religious man having a commonplace book, a nucleus of aggregation, has an aim, and having an aim he has firm standing-ground. Not mere will as such, not vague knowledge, – only activity with a purpose, which is the union of theoretic and practical activity, gives man a moral basis and support, i.e., character. Every man, therefore, must place before himself a God, i.e., an aim, a purpose. The aim is the conscious, voluntary, essential impulse of life, the Glance of genius, the focus of self-knowledge, – the unity of the material and spiritual in the individual man. He who has an aim has a law over him; he does not merely guide himself; he is guided. He who has no aim, has no home, no sanctuary; aimlessness is the greatest unhappiness. Even he who has only common aims gets on better, though he may not be better, than he who has no aim. An aim sets limits; but limits are the mentors of virtue. He who has an aim, an aim which is in itself true and essential, has, eo ipso, a religion, if not in the narrow sense of common pietism, yet – and this is the only point to be considered – in the sense of reason, in the sense of the universal, the only true love.


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