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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G E Lessing (1729-81) 
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was the son of a Lutheran minister. He went on to study theology at the University of Leipzig. Students there at the time were strongly influenced by the rising tide of the Enlightenment thought throughout Europe. The works of English deists were being translated into German and widely read.

His first loves were literature and art. His natural bent was towards liberating both from the then stifling dominance of traditional forms of criticism - particularly, as he saw it, from the restrictive influence of French literary traditions as against the free creativity of German writing.

H Chadwick notes that ,"He was above all a critic, and his attitude may be described as one of passionate detachment. His nonconformity made him appear to be perennially restless; he was never permanently satisfied to adopt the conventional opinions of society, always preferring to be a minority of one" [1].

Chadwick thinks that Lessing's life was transformed when, in 1754, he was appointed Librarian for the Duke of Brunswick. Lessing was given a manuscript entitled Apology for Rational Worshippers of God, written by Herman Reimarus whom he had met some years previously. Between 1774 and 1778 Lessing published fragments of this work anonymously, presenting them as having been "discovered" in the Duke's Wolfenbuttel Library although they had in fact been given to him by Reimarus' daughter.

Reimarus was sceptical about the validity of the Christian claim to possess the revelation of divine truth. Revelation independent of history was rejected by Lessing (though it is not always easy, writes Chadwick, to be certain exactly what stand Lessing is taking). Like many of his time, Lessing tended to regard morality as the fundamental concern of Christianity, intended to bring people to more rationally enlightened tolerance, kindness and generosity.

The publication of the Reimarus manuscripts caused a resounding controversy with traditional Lutheran theologians. Like all such controversies it eventually died a natural death. Nevertheless, it can be said to have stimulated a debate which very soon turned into what we now know as the quest for the historical Jesus or, as Chadwick puts it, the search for a "Jesus of history behind the Christ of faith".

It was Lessing who first began the quest through the texts of the New Testament with an essay entitled New Hypothesis Concerning the Evangelists As Merely Human Historians. In it he called into question the reliability of the Synoptic sources. When his employer objected to his theology, Lessing put it into a play, Nathan the Wise. He asserted that our task in life is a moral one, not merely assent to religious doctrines. This is, he thought, the essence of Christianity.

Chadwick remarks that Lessing "... spent his life hoping that Christianity was true and arguing that it was not" and that "... his basic attitude ... took the form of an impassioned question".

Lessing laid the foundation for what we now call "liberal theology", which prevailed in Germany in the 1800s. But in the final event he rejected Christianity on the grounds that the nature of knowledge is such that no conclusion is likely ever to be absolute in the way that 
was claimed by Christians.

Both he and Reimarus thought (as did the British philosopher Hume) that human witness alone is insufficient evidence for past events which cannot now be experienced. That is, an event of the past which has no  analogy in the present can only be regarded as extremely improbable.

This came to a head when considering miracles, in particular the resurrection. Newtonian physics had recently proposed that the universe is highly ordered at the level of normal experience. Biblical events which contradict these laws, said Lessing, could not happen now and therefore are extremely unlikely ever to have happened (the principle of analogy again).

Enlightenment thinkers in general tended to be sceptical about the value of history as a basis for absolute truth. In contrast, the Church has always held that Christians have been able to preserve "the faith once and for always delivered to the saints". That is, a continuous substrate of absolute truth persists beneath the changing fabric which clothes the Church as institution from time-to-time.

The absoluteness of this truth is assured, they would claim, because it is revealed to humans direct by God, either through holy writings in the Bible or through Church authority. Revelation cannot by definition be incomplete, misguided or false because God is perfect. 

Lessing thought that there is an unbridgeable gap between rationality and history. The latter can't provide data for the former. He wrote, "Accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason". Historical events and truths established by reason belong to different categories within the overall class of what we call knowledge. There is no logical connection between them. Indeed, to move from history to any sort of religious statement of truth is to move away from reason and into faith (which he equated with affirmation of religious truth).

This is the ""ugly great ditch" between faith and history for which Lessing is justly remembered. Not only don't we have access to a complete set of facts upon which to base absolute conclusions, but what we call history is a subjective interpretation of those facts rather than an objective description of "what really happened".

The only way we can "know" that Jesus came alive again after death, for example, is through the witness of others. Such witness isn't reliable enough to establish the truth about anything. Not even contemporary witness is reliable in that way. What we call history is unable to deliver the kind of certainty we need to know anything as true. Christians are bound only by the teachings of Jesus. Lessing asks:

So what does bind me [when history can't]? Nothing but the teachings [of Jesus] themselves. Eighteen hundred years ago, they were so new, so strange, and so foreign ... But what does it matter to me whether this story is false or true? Its fruits are excellent.

The so-called "scandal of particularity" which Lessing held up against orthodoxy asked why any one historical event such as the life of Jesus should have momentous significance. History is a complex pattern of many events and people, some momentous and some not. On what grounds should Jesus be selected as specially important? Certainly not just because some witnesses say certain impressive things about him!

Reason on the other hand, he said, has always been available to everyone and must therefore be more significant than faith. We all have our daily experience to go on. It is on this that we base what we know. Historical conclusions are speculative. The a priori knowledge that 1+1=2 is obviously true and it is from this sort of truth that knowledge of God should be based. Chadwick puts it in typically philosophical jargon when he writes that Lessing's position was about "... the intellectually impossible leap from the contingent truths of history to the necessary truths of divine revelation".

His final objection to traditional Christianity as absolutely true regardless of rational thought was that he and others found it impossible to enter into the primitive minds and backward world of the New Testament.

This assertion is now more broadly known as "cultural relativism" and has been developed considerably in the 20th century. We are seen as locked into our cultural world view or dominant paradigms. T E Hulme puts it as follows:

There are certain doctrines which for a particular period seem not doctrines, but inevitable categories of the human mind. Men do not look at them merely as correct opinion, for they have become so much part of the mind, and lie so far back, that they are never really conscious of them at all [2].

We cannot enter into these "inevitable categories" of the past because [a] they are too strange and [b] because we are bound into our own inevitable, unconscious categories. Even if  a person does succeed in entering into a previous category, the resulting consciousness is only partial and is gained only through prodigious effort.

The same point has since been made by many. We are blind to our own presuppositions on the one hand. On the other, separated as we are by a broad sea of time from the Palestine of the first century, we are largely unable to do more than glimpse the far shore of those unexamined assumptions which governed the life of Jesus and his followers. Our conclusions about him and his perceptions are correspondingly fragile.

To draw absolute truths from so imperfect a well of knowledge can be no more than presumption. Compounding our historical myopia is the uncomfortable suspicion - voiced, though not clearly, by Lessing - that humans in the West have begun to think in ways almost totally incompatible with anything that has gone before.

Having said all this, the impression shouldn't remain that Lessing was an inveterate sceptic, determined to rubbish all tradition, to throw out the baby with the bathwater as 21st century believers complain. Rather, he was inveterately committed to the search itself. He wrote:

The worth of man does not consist in the truth he possesses, or thinks he possesses, but in the pains he has taken to attain that truth ... Possession [of truth] makes him lazy, indolent, and proud ...

If pride and indolence come before a fall, then it's perhaps hardly surprising that Christian institutions in the present century show signs of increasing decrepitude.

Reimarus held back from publishing out of fear of persecution by the reigning Lutheran powers of his day. Lessing braved the inquisitor and survived. In so doing, and despite many shortcomings (only hindsight has 20/20 vision), he can rightly be described as having started something radically new.

In essence he heralded an abiding movement away from the medieval paradigm or world view into the modern one. Christianity would never again recover its absolutist position in society.
[1] Article in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ed. P Edwards, 1967
[2] Speculations, 1949

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