Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72)
Feuerbach has been variously labeled "atheist" and "materialist" for the
approach he took is his book The Essence of Christianity (1841) and other works. Both labels are correct only in a limited sense and that limitation accounts for considerable misunderstanding of his true position. Christian apologists have tended to exploit this limited understanding to promote a distorted picture of Feuerbach's thought [1].

Feuerbach certainly was a non-theist. Equally certainly he was not an a-theist, one who asserts the non-existence of God. He was a non-supernaturalist, but not a materialist who asserts the primacy of  values based upon the ownership and exploitation of physical objects.  His work was interpreted and used by Engels and Marx to advance  their own truly materialist agendas. But Feuerbach himself held that  religion is an essential part of being human. 

Feuerbach pointed out that it's impossible to describe God as though describing either an object or a class of objects. One can't describe God in the same way as one can describe one's dog or one's cousin. Similarly, one can't use language to say "God is good" in the same way one can say "This man is good". Even saying that God is "unknowable" is to attempt description.

The best we can do to describe God is to use words which describe the highest category of being known to us - ourselves.

When we do try to describe God using words which attribute meaning (what Feuerbach calls "predicates") we slip into paradox, which is a special kind of non-meaning. Thus we attempt to make up for our limitations by using words like "omniscient", "omnipotent" and "omnipresent" about God. When we use such words we think we are describing something objective and then wonder that we get into difficulties.

Feuerbach proposes three major meanings that we project, as it were, onto what we call "God":

  1. Reason: Our intelligence is that part of us which, if we allow it, can remain unaffected by emotion. Thinking of God as a person would involve emotions. So our reason proposes an abstract God, defined as "Spirit" or "Absolute Being".

  2. Will: Humans need some sort of expression of moral good in life. They need to answer the question, "How do I know what's right and what's wrong?" So we project onto God the ability to be absolutely good. This in turn requires that God represents absolutely the faculty of the will. Our will is weak; God's is perfectly strong.

  3. Feeling: Confronted on one hand by absolute goodness, and on the other by our failings, we tend to experience disunity with the divine. So we project onto the God absolute "feeling" we call love. "It is the consciousness of love by which man reconciles himself with God, or rather with his own nature as represented in the moral law," writes Feuerbach.

His work carries on to explore the implications for Christians:

  • The limitations of our perceptions, reason and language - that is, our very nature as creatures - confine us to knowing God in terms of ourselves only. So the human concept of God is "�the commonplace book where [man] registers his highest feelings and thoughts, the genealogical album in which he enters the names of things most dear and sacred to him �[a] compendious summary devised for the benefit of the limited individual�"
  • Another false or at best impractical way ahead is when "God is thought of abstractly". Those who explore this route often fail to realise that abstractions can't convey reality in any concrete sense. "A God who has abstract predicates has also an abstract existence" which isn't really of much use to anyone and certainly  has little to do with being Christian. This is because Christianity is rooted in a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived as we all live. It is not concerned only with an idea of God. The latter is shared with many other religions. It is not specific to Christianity.
  • Yet another blind alley arises when "religion" treats as essential our descriptions of God using words which have humanity as referents. "It is the very essence of religion that to it these [anthropomorphic] definitions express the nature of God".

At the beginning of the 21st century, as Christianity goes into an even steeper decline than in the previous 100 years, and as some try to preserve revealed doctrines at the cost of reason, it has become critical to face up to Feuerbach's conclusions. For if he is correct, then humanity can't look up to heaven for answers. Those answers lie instead within ourselves as we respond to God's created order.

Using the religious terms of his day, Feuerbach explicitly tries to eliminate the heavenly or supernatural dimension considered essential to being Christian in his time and throughout the history of Christianity. If our reason and language can only express God in human terms, then religion has to do with the relationship between people rather than between humankind and God in a supernatural realm.

Feuerbach criticised the great philosopher Georg Hegel for being too abstract. Hegel had, in effect, made mankind into God whereas Feuerbach thought that was was needed in this new age was "... the humanisation of God, the transformation and dissolution of theology into anthropology". (The latter term did not mean the scientific study of the human species as it does today.)

According to Van A Harvey, Feuerbach later recognised that

By claiming that the species as a whole was perfect and infinite, he had in effect deified humanity as a whole, as his critics never hesitated to remind him. [2]

Feuerbach writes: "�I deny God. But that means for me that I deny the negation of man". The "God" he denies is that of religious language touted as descriptive of an objective reality. To use language that way is to reject the hard truth that (at least in some sense) we "invent" God for ourselves.

The question of God for Feuerbach is therefore actually the question of man and the relationship between the I and the Thou of humanity. When we focus upon God's creation instead of fixing our eyes on the heavens we are truly transformed. Servants of God serve their fellow beings, blind believers become creative thinkers, sterile worshippers become productive workers.

A side-effect of faith in the supernatural, of a gaze fixed upon a heavenly city, of a hope for life after death, tends to be a substantial alienation of people from the real world and from self. Feuerbach's approach becomes at this point profoundly relevant to modern consciousness. Alienation should not be a result of religion. The latter's aim is to help people in their life tasks, to anchor them in a non-spiritual world, to help them achieve authentic being and self-understanding.

It is at this point, says Harvey, that Feuerbach is most commonly misinterpreted.

This new theory of religion ... is not only different than but superior to that with which Feuerbach's name is usually identified.

This is because [a] this way of thinking about religion doesn't rely upon a suspect assumption that we project out human attributes onto "God" as a necessary stage of human development; and [b] because it doesn't suggest a form of alienation by which "God" is given those perfections which rightly attach to the human species as a whole.

Feuerbach has often been criticised for reducing theology (God-talk) to anthropology (man-talk), though this is far from the truth. Feuerbach denies the God of a supernatural reality while affirming the need, in effect, to find God in and through his creation. His is not anthropology as we now know it but theology in terms of nature - what is technically termed a "natural theology" ( in contrast to revelation as a means of knowing God).

In The Essence of Christianity, said Feuerbach, he had been mainly concerned with God in terms of moral and personal attributes. 

The larger result Feuerbach wants from his approach to religion, however, is no less than the liberation of mankind from invisible, fictitious chains which bind us to a misconceived concept of the divine. In his later Lectures on the Essence of Religion he proposes that religion (and therefore Christianity) is more than defining God in terms of human subjectivity. A second pole of religion is nature (what we would today usually call "the universe") upon which humanity is absolutely dependent. There is

... no God in the sense of an abstract disembodied being distinct from nature and man, who decides the fate of the world and of mankind as he pleases.

What he now intended to get across was that God, the creator of the universe, is also the "deified, personified essence of nature". That is, when we try to think about the be-all and end-all of everything, we inevitably do so in terms of nature in all its glory and of ourselves as part of nature. The word "God" then becomes a way of understanding the essence of nature on one hand, and the essence of humanity on the other.

Once we understand this, says Feuerbach, it's not enough to conclude only that traditional theism is no longer useful. We should also realise that a side-effect of theism has been a distortion of humanity's self-understanding. We have been in a sense separated from our very essence as an integral part of the natural order. The being of humanity has been split into two parts - the divine (perfect) and the human (imperfect). If Feuerbach is correct, it's possible to understand how the idea of Satan arose. We have blamed our sense of alienation on an entity who embodies the worst of humanity's attributes, just as God embodies the good. Neither is a useful way of construing the world any longer. They should be abandoned. We should recognise that we ourselves are responsible for the sundering of God from humanity.

Similarly, the more perfect God is, the more sinful are we likely to perceive ourselves.

The conception of the morally perfect being ... [has the effect] of throwing me into disunion with myself; for while it proclaims to me what I ought to be, it also tells me to my face, without any flattery, what I am not.

Feuerbach acknowledges that part of his work has the effect of abolishing much of dogmatic Christianity. This is because the terms in which Christian doctrines continue to be framed are fossils from a bygone era. However, we need not waste time actively trying to disprove the supernatural, for example. That's impossible, since nothing of the supernatural can be known or described except in human terms. That way  of regarding reality  has ceased to be either credible or "practical" (one of Feuerbach's favourite words).

A good example of how important doctrines are affected is that of life after death. Once we no longer split the human being into "spirit" and "flesh" then the unified being ends with death, said Feuerbach.

I know that I am a finite mortal being and that I shall one day cease to be. But I find this very natural and am therefore perfectly reconciled to the fact.

If what we call "God" is really ourselves writ large, as it were, then it doesn't make sense to justify life after death on the grounds that God loves us and wants us to share an eternal fellowship. But it is possible to construe personal immortality differently.

Faith in a future life is therefore only faith in the true life of the present ... faith in a future life is not faith in another unknown life; but in the truth and infinitude and consequently in the perpetuity, of that life which here below is regarded as the authentic life. As God is nothing else then the nature of man purified ... so the future life is nothing else than the present life freed from that which appears a limitation or an evil.

More positively, the same train of thought can make the doctrine of the incarnation of Jesus come alive. "God" as man has enabled us to come to terms in a full sense with ourselves as human beings. Out of the concept of incarnation has come a religion which enables us to find our true and proper places in the cosmos. Though Feuerbach's reasoning is often tortuous, his conclusion in this respect is clear. The incarnation

... has no other significance , no other effect, than the indubitable certitude of the love of God to man. Love remains, but the Incarnation upon the earth passes away ... the divine significance of my nature is become evident to me ... If God loves man, is not man, then, the very substance of God? That which I love, is it not my inmost being?

As 20th some century thinkers have pointed out, Feuerbach is guilty of a fundamental error, called by some "projectionism". It is that words about God are the involuntary "projection" of human attributes onto or into an abstract concept called "God". This projection eliminates the possibility of a totally other Being to which we usually give the name "God" (theism). 

It's true that the word God is empty of referent until we supply  it with human descriptors. But supplying descriptors does not logically eliminate the possibility of ultimate Being, though it does eliminate the validity of claiming that descriptors themselves can convey ultimate meaning. They therefore can't be elevated to formulae which somehow solidify truth to the point where they can be used as tests of "faith".

For example, it's a truism that different individuals will understand and interpret the same piece of poetry differently. Modern analysts of literature might maintain that a poem's meaning is as varied as the meanings placed upon it by its readers. That is, readers project their meanings onto poetry, just as Feuerbach says we project ourselves onto an abstract being we call "God". But would anyone be given credit for a moment if, when different meanings are given to a poem, it was claimed that therefore the poem does not exist, or has no underlying meaning or that the poet didn't know what he or she meant when it was written? In the final analysis, acknowledgment of projection doesn't prove or disprove the existence of anything objective.

Karl Barth used Feuerbach's approach to religion to show that there is no viable alternative to a theology of revelation. The former's work has been rightly described as less-than-honest, if only because it allows the historical Jesus to be the foundation of faith only as long as it's convenient to do so. The earliest Christian tradition insists that the Jesus of faith is an historical person, not an abstraction or a projection.

Feuerbach suggested that a focus on the other-worldly nature of God had the unexpected effect of drawing humanity away from God.

Most genuine Christians have declared that earthly good draws man away from God, whereas adversity, suffering, afflictions lead him back to God ... The impoverishing of the real world and the enriching of God is one act. Only the poor man has a rich God.

Karl Marx (1818-83) seized upon this aspect of Feuerbach's work to criticise the plight of the poor upon whom so many 19th century fortunes had been built. Traditional Christianity, for Marx, was bent on promoting God and demoting the interests of humanity. Because God was "out there", the Church saw little need to focus on social advances. And because Christianity distracted the attentions of people to another, supernatural world where all would be put right, it taught that suffering and penury were to be patiently born.

Given that a supernatural reality revealing itself miraculously is no longer credible, the issue is how to know God through nature, through what has been created. That is perhaps one of the greatest challenges of the future. The task, thinks Feuerbach, involves no less than

.. the complete and absolute dissolution ... of [traditional] theology ... not only in reason ... but also in the heart, in short, in the whole and real being of man. [3]

Now, at the start of the 21st century, it seems that more and more theologians are becoming aware of the probability of Feuerbach's assertion.

Feuerbach's emphasis on a "new religion" needed to replace traditional Christianity has, rightly I think, not proved useful. At best it has spawned vague or sentimental humanistic versions of some essential Christian doctrines. But his work does properly focus on certain fundamental disharmonies between modern conceptions of the world and those which, until very recently in historical terms, have underpinned previous ages (the supernatural for example).

In his Lectures on the Essence of Religion he suggests that answers to eternal questions, if they can be discovered at all, will come from within us. Subsequent history has shown that his humanist optimism in our potential absolute goodness was utterly wrong. His thinking in this respect led to a false sense throughout Europe and into the 20th century that mankind is potentially perfectible. Those who interpreted him in this way were, I think, mistaken. It is human maturity that we seek. This may never be entirely reached, but maturity by its very nature is learned not taught. Therefore

... man should seek the ground of his being, the goal of his thinking, the cure of his ills and suffering in himself, rather than outside himself like the pagan or above himself like the Christian.

Lloyd Geering concludes that

... his critique of traditional Christianity was devastatingly penetrating. He undercut the theistic foundations of Christianity, he revealed the earthliness of human beings and he challenged modern humans to recognise that the responsibility for the future destiny of the human race lies squarely on our shoulders.

[1] I have relied considerably on Christian Faith At the Crossroads by Lloyd Geering, 2001 and The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1967, for this summary.
[2] Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion, Van A Harvey, 1995
[3] Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, 1843, translated 1986

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