Tag Archives: religion & philosophy

The Essence of Christianity

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Essence of Christianity [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library, Feuerbach Internet Archive] by Ludwig Feuerbach, trans George Eliot, introduction Karl Barth, foreword Richard Niebuhr, part of the Great Books in Philosophy Series.

Feuerbach Eliot Barth Neibuhr the Essence of Christianity

When Ludwig Feuerbach declared “Anthropology” to be “the secret of Christian Theology,” he was not referring to (the not-yet-invented) cultural anthropology, but to a study-of-the-human combining disciplinary features we would now probably class with psychology and philosophy. This equation is the central thesis of his most famous work, The Essence of Christianity

The body of the book is divided into two parts. The first and longer part focuses on retrieving philosophical truths from the morass of Christian belief, and thus accounting for the empirical success of Christianity. The second part is intent on exposing the falsity and incoherence of Christian teachings, abominating “Christian sophistry,” and rejecting the enterprise of speculative theology. I suppose that that sequence was the one most rhetorically appropriate to Feuerbach’s own 19th-century audience. He could soften them up with approbations of “the essence of” Christianity (albeit from his unusual perspective) before condemning its visible intellectual superstructure. It might be more useful for many readers today to consider the parts in the reverse sequence: Feuerbach thus points the way to an esoteric understanding of traditional Christianity that opens onto a neo-Christian perspective in which genuine religious sentiment can be divorced from theological obfuscation. 

A long appendix to the work is made up of “Explanations–Remarks–Illustrative Citations.” These add few if any new ideas, and much of the text is untranslated Latin in my copy of the George Eliot translation. There are some other difficult features of the Eliot translation. She uses “negativing” where we would now say “negating,” and “subjectivism/objectivism” where we might have “subjectivity/objectivity.” Probably the greatest consequence for today’s reader comes from her choice to use “thou” and “thee” to maintain the du (dich, dir) of informal second-person pronouns in German. But, mostly on account of the King James Bible being the contemporary Anglophone’s main site of exposure to those archaic pronouns, they are now psychologically charged with authority and formality, rather than intimacy and approachability.

I have found Feuerbach’s later writings somewhat more congenial and useful to my own positive philosophy of religion, but I am grateful for his climactic discourse here on the contradiction between faith and love, in which he declares himself a partisan of the latter. And while by “love” he does mean a general goodwill and sense of human care, this sense expressly includes sexual love. Feuerbach anathematizes Christian prescriptions for celibacy, and defends the principle of sexual pleasure, as well as the nobility of the generative process. “All the glory of Nature, all its power, all its wisdom and profundity, concentrates and individualises itself in the distinction of sex. Why then dost thou shrink from naming the nature of God by its true name?” (78)

Another feature of this book that I found valuable is Feuerbach’s reflections on the Christian sacraments. “Even the Protestant — not indeed in words, but in truth — transforms God into an external thing, since he subjects Him to himself as an object of sensational enjoyment” (199). He emphasizes that the pleasure taken in eating and drinking is declared to be holy by means of the Eucharist, and that the real power of a sacramental bath — as contrasted with its perverted, imaginary effect in Christian doctrine — is to unite the baptisand with Nature and the world.

In a footnote to the first part, recognizing that orthodox interpreters will view his readings of traditional Christian ideas as “atrocious, impious, diabolical,” Feuerbach declares: “I would rather be a devil in alliance with truth, than an angel in alliance with falsehood” (155). The party of the devils is fortunate to have him.

The Sources of Religious Insight

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sources of Religious Insight [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Josiah Royce.

Royce The Sources of Religious Insight

I found this 1912 book to be surprisingly worthwhile. It’s a set of lectures by Harvard academic Josiah Royce, with a scope situated somewhere between philosophy of religion and religious psychology. It is not theological or sectarian. When Royce observed that “It is useless to make some new sect whose creed shall be that there are to be no sects” (294), I could not help thinking with amusement that he was indicting the Plymouth Brethren, just such a sect, as well as their “non-denominational” successors among “Bible-believing” Christians.

Speaking during the later part of the Progressive Era, Royce refers to William James as “my dear friend” (27), and particularly in the book’s fourth section “The World and the Will” he is at some pains to explain how his views both accord with and differ with those attributed to philosophical Pragmatism. In an earlier section on “Individual Experience and Social Experience” he also details his particular understanding of James’ theory of religion, as well as providing a surprisingly generous and sympathetic gloss on Nietzsche’s “Titanism” (60 ff.).

Although Royce’s willingness to class Christianity and Buddhism as the “higher religions of mankind” (8) and his use of the search for human “salvation” as the touchstone of religion as such seem like stigma of a thinker with whom I would find few if any points of agreement, he develops his argument with a good deal of care and patience. In the culmination of his fifth lecture “The Religion of Loyalty,” he arrives at what I consider to be cardinal truth: “For our attention is now fixed, not on a condition to be called salvation, but on a rule for doing something in accordance with our own true will” (188). Before the lecture concludes, he progresses from this pivot to insisting that “your true cause is the spiritual unity of all the world of reasonable beings” (205, italics in original).

The final lecture is concerned with what Royce calls “The Invisible Church” which transcends all limited doctrines and specific cultures, although he gives no signal of having drawn on esoteric thinkers such as Eckartshausen and Lopukhin for his use of this phrase. Royce is sufficiently scrupulous in his avoidance of theological identification that it is impossible to tell if he originally took “Invisible Church” from the contexts in which it has been used as a gloss on Augustinian anti-Donatist notions supposed to be common to all Western Christianity, or if he was specially receptive to the Protestant usage which allowed for institutional legitimation via a supra-historical avoidance of Roman Catholicism. In any event, Royce uses it in neither sense, and he is explicit that he extends “membership” in the Invisible Church to those “loyal” to non-Christian religions, as well as to the “cynics and rebels” who attack “the narrowness of our nature, the chaos of our unspiritual passions, the barren formalism of our conventions” (285).

So, while there are any number of points where I feel my views to be in friction with those of Royce, I found his treatment on the whole to be both coherent and productive of useful reflection. I would recommend it to clergy, scholars of religion, and others willing to give serious thought to its questions.