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

Chapter XX. The Contradiction in the Existence of God

RELIGION is the relation of man to his own nature, – therein lies its truth and its power of moral amelioration; – but to his nature not recognised as his own, but regarded as another nature, separate, nay, contra-distinguished from his own: herein lies its untruth, its limitation, its contradiction to reason and morality; herein lies the noxious source of religious fanaticism, the chief metaphysical principle of human sacrifices, in a word, the prima materia of all the atrocities, all the horrible scenes, in the tragedy of religious history.

The contemplation of the human nature as another, a separately existent nature, is, however, in the original conception of religion an involuntary, childlike, simple act of the mind, that is, one which separates God and man just as immediately as it again identifies them. But when religion advances in years, and, with years, in understanding; when, within the bosom of religion, reflection on religion is awakened, and the consciousness of the identity of the divine being with the human begins to dawn, – in a word, when religion becomes theology, the originally involuntary and harmless separation of God from man becomes an intentional, excogitated separation, which has no other object than to banish again from the consciousness this identity which has already entered there.

Hence the nearer religion stands to its origin, the truer, the more genuine it is, the less is its true nature disguised; that is to say, in the origin of religion there is no qualitative or essential distinction whatever between God and man. And the religious man is not shocked at this identification; for his understanding, is still in harmony with his religion. Thus in ancient Judaism, Jehovah was a being differing from the human individual in nothing but in duration of existence; in his qualities, his inherent nature, he was entirely similar to man, – had the same passions, the same human, nay, even corporeal properties. Only in the later Judaism was Jehovah separated in the strictest manner from man, and recourse was had to allegory in order to give to the old anthropomorphisms another sense than that which they originally had. So again in Christianity: in its earliest records the divinity of Christ is not so decidedly stamped as it afterwards became. With Paul especially, Christ is still an undefined being, hovering between heaven and earth, between God and man, or in general, one amongst the existences subordinate to the highest, – the first of the angels, the first created, but still created; begotten indeed for our sake; but then neither are angels and men created, but begotten, for God is their Father also. The Church first identified him with God, made him the exclusive Son of God, defined his distinction from men and angels, and thus gave him the monopoly of an eternal, uncreated existence.

In the genesis of ideas, the first mode in which reflection on religion, or theology, makes the divine being a distinct being and places him outside of man, is by making the existence of God the object of a formal proof.

The proofs of the existence of God have been pronounced contradictory to the essential nature of religion. They are so, but only in their form as proofs. Religion immediately represents the inner nature of man as an objective, external being. And the proof aims at nothing more than to prove that religion is right. The most perfect being is that than which no higher can be conceived: God is the highest that man conceives or can conceive. This premise of the ontological proof – the most interesting proof, because it proceeds from within – expresses the inmost nature of religion. That which is the highest for man, from which he can make no further abstraction, which is the positive limit of his intellect, of his feeling, of his sentiment, that is to him God – id quo nihil majus cogitari potest. But this highest being would not be the highest if he did not exist; we could then conceive a higher being who would be superior to him in the fact of existence; the idea of the highest being directly precludes this fiction. Not to exist is a deficiency; to exist is perfection, happiness, bliss. From a being to whom man gives all, offers up all that is precious to him, he cannot withhold the bliss of existence. The contradiction to the religious spirit in the proof of the existence of God lies only in this, that the existence is thought of separately, and thence arises the appearance that God is a mere conception, a being existing in idea only, – an appearance, however, which is immediately dissipated; for the very result of the proof is, that to God belongs an existence distinct from an ideal one, an existence apart from man, apart from thought, – a real self-existence.

The proof therefore is only thus far discordant with the spirit of religion, that it presents as a formal deduction the implicit enthymeme or immediate conclusion of religion, exhibits in logical relation, and therefore distinguishes, what religion immediately unites; for to religion God is not a matter of abstract thought, – he is a present truth and reality. But that every religion in its idea of God makes a latent, unconscious inference, is confessed in its polemic against other religions. “Ye heathens,” says the Jew or the Christian, “were able to conceive nothing higher as your deities because ye were sunk in sinful desires. Your God rests on a conclusion, the premises of which are your sensual impulses, your passions. You thought thus: the most excellent life is to live out one's impulses without restraint; and because this life was the most excellent, the truest, you made it your God. Your God was your carnal nature, your heaven only a free theatre for the passions which, in society and in the conditions of actual life generally, had to suffer restraint.” But, naturally, in relation to itself no religion is conscious of such an inference, for the highest of which it is capable is its limit, has the force of necessity, is not a thought, not a conception, but immediate reality.

The proofs of the existence of God have for their aim to make the internal external, to separate it from man. [At the same time, however, their result is to prove the nature of man. The various proofs of the existence of God are nothing else than various highly interesting forms in which the human nature affirms itself. Thus. for example, the physico-theological proof (or proof from design) is the self-affirmation of the calculated activity of the understanding. Every philosophic system is, in this sense, a proof of the existence of God.]

His existence being proved, God is no longer a merely relative, but a noumenal being (Ding an sich): he is not only a being for us, a being, in our faith our feeling our nature, he is a being in himself, a being external to us, – in a word, not merely a belief, a feeling, a thought, but also a real existence apart from belief, feeling, and thought. But such an existence is no other than a sensational existence; i.e., an existence conceived according to the forms of our senses.

The idea of sensational existence is indeed already involved in the characteristic expression “external to us.” It is true that a sophistical theology refuses to interpret the word “external” in its proper, natural sense, and substitutes the indefinite expression of independent, separate existence. But if the externality is only figurative, the existence also is figurative. And yet we are here only concerned with existence in the proper sense, and external existence is alone the definite, real, unshrinking expression for separate existence.

Real, sensational existence is that which is not dependent on my own mental spontaneity or activity, but by which I am involuntarily affected, which is when I am not, when I do not think of it or feel it. The existence of God must therefore be in space – in general, a qualitative, sensational existence. But God is not seen, not heard, not perceived by the senses. He does not exist for me, if I do not exist for him; if I do not believe in a God, there is no God for me. If I am not devoutly disposed, if I do not raise myself above the life of the senses, he has no place in my consciousness. Thus he exists only in so far as he is felt, thought, believed in; – the addition “for me” is unnecessary. His existence therefore is a real one, yet at the same time not a real one; – a spiritual existence, says the theologian. But spiritual existence is only an existence in thought, in feeling, in belief; so that his existence is a medium between sensational existence and conceptional existence, a medium full of contradiction. Or: he is a sensational existence, to which however all the conditions of sensational existence are wanting: – consequently an existence at once sensational and not sensational, an existence which contradicts the idea of the sensational, or only a vague existence in general, which is fundamentally a sensational one, but which, in order that this may not become evident, is divested of all the predicates of a real, sensational existence. But such an “existence in general” is self-contradictory. To existence belongs full, definite reality.

A necessary consequence of this contradiction is Atheism. The existence of God is essentially an empirical existence, without having its distinctive marks; it is in itself a matter of experience, and yet in reality no object of experience. It calls upon man to seek it in Reality: it impregnates his mind with sensational conceptions and pretensions; hence, when these are not fulfilled – when, on the contrary, he finds experience in contradiction with these conceptions, he is perfectly justified in denying that existence.

Kant is well known to have maintained, in his critique of the proofs of the existence of God, that that existence is not susceptible of proof from reason. He did not merit, on this account, the blame which was cast on him by Hegel. The idea of the existence of God in those proofs is a thoroughly empirical one; but I cannot deduce empirical existence from an a priori idea. The only real ground of blame against Kant is, that in laying down this position he supposed it to be something remarkable, whereas it is self-evident. Reason cannot constitute itself an object of sense. I cannot, in thinking, at the same time represent what I think as a sensible object, external to me. The proof of the existence of God transcends the limits of the reason; true; but in the same sense in which sight, hearing, smelling transcend the limits of the reason. It is absurd to reproach reason that it does not satisfy a demand which can only address itself to the senses. Existence, empirical existence, is proved to me by the senses alone; and in the question as to the being of God, the existence implied has not the significance of inward reality, of truth, but the significance of a formal, external existence. Hence there is perfect truth in the allegation that the belief that God is or is not has no consequence with respect to inward moral dispositions. It is true that the thought: There is a God, is inspiring; but here the is means inward reality; here the existence is a movement of inspiration, an act of aspiration. Just in proportion as this existence becomes a prosaic, an empirical truth, the inspiration is extinguished.

Religion, therefore, in so far as it is founded on the existence of God as an empirical truth, is a matter of indifference to the inward disposition. As, necessarily, in the religious cultus, ceremonies, observances, sacraments, apart from the moral spirit or disposition, become in themselves an important fact: so also, at last, belief in the existence of God becomes, apart from the inherent quality, the spiritual import of the idea of God, a chief point in religion. If thou only believest in God – believest that God is, thou art already saved. Whether under this God thou conceivest a really divine being or a monster, a Negro or a Caligula, an image of thy passions, thy revenge, or ambition, it is all one, – the main point is that thou be not an atheist. The history of religion has amply confirmed this consequence which we here draw from the idea of the divine existence. If the existence of God, taken by itself, had not rooted itself as a religious truth in minds, there would never have been those infamous, senseless, horrible idea of God which stigmatise the history of religion and theology. The existence of God was a common, external, and yet at the same time a holy thing: – what wonder, then, if on this ground the commonest, rudest, most unholy conceptions and opinions sprang up!

Atheism was supposed, and is even now supposed, to be the negation of all moral principle, of all moral foundations and bonds: if God is not, all distinction between good and bad, virtue and vice, is abolished. Thus the distinction lies only in the existence of God; the reality of virtue lies not in itself, but out of it. And assuredly it is not from an attachment to virtue, from a conviction of its intrinsic worth and importance, that the reality of it is thus bound up with the existence of God. On the contrary, the belief that God is the necessary condition of virtue is the belief in the nothingness of virtue in itself.

It is indeed worthy of remark that the idea of the empirical existence of God has been perfectly developed in modern times, in which empiricism and materialism in general have arrived at their full blow. It is true that even in the original, simple religious mind, God is an empirical existence to be found in a place, though above the earth. But here this conception has not so naked, so prosaic a significance; the imagination identifies again the external God with the soul of man. The imagination is, in general, the true place of an existence which is absent, not present to the senses, though nevertheless sensational in its essence.

[Christ is ascended on high.... that is, he not only sits there above, but he is also here below. And he is gone thither to the very end that he might be here below, and fill all things, and be in all places, which he could not do while on earth, for here he could not be seen by all bodily eyes. Therefore he sits above, where every man can see him, and he has to do with every man.” – Luther (Th. xiii. p. 643). That is to say: Christ or God is an object, an existence, of the imagination; in the imagination he is limited to no place, – he is present and objective to every one. God exists in heaven, but is for that reason omnipresent; for this heaven is the imagination.]

Only the imagination solves the contradiction in an existence which is at once sensational and not sensational; only the imagination is the preservative from atheism. In the imagination existence has sensational effects, existence affirms itself as a power; with the essence of sensational existence the imagination associates also the phenomena of sensational existence. Where the existence of God is a living truth, an object on which the imagination exercises itself, there also appearances of God are believed in.

[“Thou hast not to complain that thou art less experienced than was Abraham or Isaac. Thou also hast appearances ... Thou hast holy baptism, the supper of the Lord, the bread and wine, which are figures and forms, under and in which the present God speaks to thee, and acts upon thee, in thy ears, eyes, and heart.... He appears to thee in baptism, and it is he himself who baptises thee, and speaks to thee.... Everything is full of divine appearances and utterances, if he is on thy side.” – Luther (Th. ii. P. 466. See also on this subject, Th. xix. P. 407).]

Where, on the contrary, the fire of the religious imagination is extinct, where the sensational effects or appearances necessarily connected with an essentially sensational existence cease, there the existence becomes a dead, self-contradictory existence, which falls irrecoverably into the negation of atheism.

The belief in the existence of God is the belief in a special existence, separate from the existence of man and Nature. A special existence can only be proved in a special manner. This faith is therefore only then a true and living one when special effects, immediate appearances of God, miracles, are believed in. Where, on the other hand, the belief in God is identified with the belief in the world, where the belief in God is no longer a special faith, where the general being, of the world takes possession of the whole man, there also vanishes the belief in special effects and appearances of God. Belief in God is wrecked, is stranded on the belief in the world, in natural effects as the only true ones. As here the belief in miracles is no longer anything more than the belief in historical, past miracles, so the existence of God is also only an historical, in itself atheistic conception.

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