Monday, February 14, 2011

The idea of the essence of Christianity

I'm reading an old Beacon Press edition of Heinrich Heine's Religion and Philosophy in Germany that I picked up this summer at Volume 1 Books (a great Michigan bookseller...make sure you don't miss their attic inventory as well, where there's a lot of philosophy and old leftist political literature).  The book was originally published as a number of essays intending to introduce German intellectual history to the French public (with no pretensions to a neutral view on anything).  Early on, Heine writes:
Voltaire could only wound the body of Christianity.  All his sarcasms derived from ecclesiastical history; all his witticisms on dogma and worship, on the Bible, that most sacred book of humanity, on the Virgin Mary, that fairest flower of poetry; the whole dictionary of philosophical arrows which he discharged against the clergy and the priesthood, could only wound the mortal body of Christianity, but were powerless against its interior essence, its deeper spirit, its immortal soul.

For Christianity is an idea, and as such it is indestructible and eternal, as all ideas are.  What then is this idea?

One of the courses I'd love to put together and lead one day is a seminar on the idea of the essence of Christianity.  The mid-19th to early-20th century Das Wesen des Christentums genre hasn't been in fashion for a while, and the ideas of this essentialism probably aren't especially useful or interesting to contemporary theological work, but as a chapter of intellectual history it's a fascinating topic of consideration and instructive if not directly applicable.  Heine offers a striking precursor here to the idea of a Christian "interior essence", and examples of such precursors certainly present themselves before him.  As a decidedly German motif, one could even draw its pedigree back to something like Luther's identification of the doctrine of justification as "the head and the cornerstone" of the faith (although I imagine this would be pretty speculative and require a good bit of qualification to connect it to post-Enlightenment attempts to identify the essence of the faith on an ideational level).  Setting aside the content and looking at the form of the Wesen tradition, the opposition of history to eternal truths is bread and butter for modern German thought and readily suggests Lessing along with a number of others.

A consideration of this essentialist tradition would also benefit from further discussion of its demise and present alternatives.  An emphasis on creed, canon, and structure of the sort that Jaroslav Pelikan pushed is probably a strong contender for the most prominent current heir amongst intellectual traditions that want to say something worthwhile about "Christianity" as a whole.  The Nicene Christianity volume of essays is a good recent example of this school of thought as it might synthesize the Christian faith, although one of the most interesting characteristics of a structural focus (rather than a doctrinal or moral focus) is how diverse the outcome will be... Nicene Christianity is only one of many ways to invest canonical rubrics with religious content.  On the level of popular discourse, Mere Christianity comes most obviously to mind as a 20th century version of the Das Wesen des Christentums literature.


  1. You might be interested in Overbeck's On the Christianity of Theology, in this connection. There are two editions I know of, but one is quite expensive.

  2. I confess I think there is an essence to Christianity and that that essence is an idea. You may think that there is no essence, or that it is not an idea, but it seems a bit premature, with secular philosophers out there like Badiou, to proclaim that this possibility is just outdated, a mere historical curiosity.

    Of course certain kinds of "essentialism" are not historically defensible. Obviously there is and always have been various, irreconcilable opinions about what Christianity is. That is a fact. The question is whether we are stuck in those opinions, or in their antagonism, which question takes us away from mere facts.

  3. I'm not opposed to identifying a sort of "essence" to Christianity, although I don't think the essence is an idea (although as a theologian I take the ideas we do have about the faith to be useful and important... just not the right tools for the task of getting at essential Christianity). It's on the level of my preceding parenthetic comment that I take the idea of the essence of Christianity to be worth thinking about... so while I may not be that interested in talking about an idea that is the essence of Christianity that is theologically important, I'm also not simply saying that such an approach is "just outdated, a mere historical curiosity". I have suspicions about the concept of outdatedness, and I think the significance of these ideas are a bit stronger than "mere curiosities".

    Could you unpack your last sentence a bit? I'm not sure I understand what you mean. When you say "stuck in", are you talking about having-a-hangup-concerning? That is, are you pointing out that one could be in disagreement with a particular conception of the essence itself (those opinions), or with the dizzying sense that our grasp of the essence has never been as timeless and enduring as we claim the essence to be (their antagonism)? If that's the case, then I'm 1) not troubled by the fact that ideas of the essence have changed over time, and 2) not convinced that any essence of Christianity is an idea. But whether it's you or Harnack or someone else, I still take these distillations of the faith to be theologically interesting and worth considering, because of the extent to which these concepts influence the way that the faith is lived out and subsequently conceived.

  4. I see that you only mean to reject the positing of an idea as the essence, not essence in general. And that you think there is some usefulness to them, even if ultimately wrong. What, in your view, is a better possibility for the essence of the faith? I can see someone saying that God is not (or not just) an idea, but belief in God? That will certainly take some convincing on my part.

    In my last sentence I'm taking a page out of Badiou's thought, found for instance in his Ethics. The question I'm trying to raise is whether there is a subject matter capable of defending itself against the constructive tendencies of culturally-embedded subjects (i.e., us humans). See Bruce McCormack's discussion of Barth's exegesis in the introduction to the 40th anniversary edition of Barth's commentary on Philippians. If there is no such subject matter, I would say we are "stuck in our opinions," even if we realize the situation of differing/antagonistic opinions.

  5. I'd take the essence of Christianity to be something like God's reconciling of the world to Himself in Christ... certainly not an idea, but I'd also want to say that I don't take this "object" or "subject matter" or "essence" as standing in opposition to any constructive tendencies of culturally-embedded subjects (or, for that matter, in opposition to ideas and concepts). I don't think such a subject matter needs to "defend itself" against constructive tendencies precisely because I don't take a strongly antagonistic relationship between "historical fact" and "eternal truth" to be anything but itself a construction on our part. So, I would say that while there is such a subject matter, we are also always stuck in our opinions, and that this isn't such a problematic thing. If the subject matter doesn't stand in some dualism against various historical constructions, then there's no need to speak as if the stakes are so high, as if this is some zero-sum game between an object out there and our conceptions of it 'round here.

    Another thing worth considering is the difference between "Christianity" and "the faith". We've both been using them interchangeably, but "Christianity" as a religion may be more readily abandoned to the historical process of ongoing and center-less opinion. Speaking of "the faith" seems to claim an essence already in a way that "Christianity" (might) not. Not that this discounts any of the present points being brought up... just a side thought.

  6. I don't think I've implied that constructions as a whole stand in absolute opposition to the truth, nor that eternal truth does to historical fact. In fact, I would agree with you about the essence of Christianity (or of that which Christianity is about) being God's reconciling of the world to himself in Christ. That is where historical fact and eternal truth meet, in my view. The problem is that our constructions/opinions about this differ, often in deeply incompatible ways. Our constructions as such, therefore, cannot be equated with the truth. The truth therefore stands not in total opposition to constructions but at the very least in a critical moment within them.

    And I'm afraid I disagree with you that this reconciling event is "certainly not an idea." At the very least, it has an idea character, in that it was a deliberately chosen, purposeful act, done under an interpretation.

    Aristotle famously said God is "pure act" and "thought thinking itself," which, as far as I know anyway, Aquinas accepted, however critically. To the formula "actus purus," Barth added "et singularis." I think the same move can be done vis-a-vis "thought thinking itself." That is, God can be said to be a particular thought thinking itself. And to me, that thought is the thought of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself. Therefore I see no problem with saying Christianity is a thought, because it concerns what is in itself a thought; with the proviso that both are thought IN ACTION. In this, I think, Badiou is again helpful (see his discussion of Sylvain Lazarus' politics in _Metapolitics_).

  7. Unfortunately, I'm not nearly familiar enough with Badiou to comment along the lines of his work. I do hope to get into him in the future, and have been taking note over time of the many areas where he readily comes across as relevant and helpful for some of the stuff that I'm working through for my own projects. I don't doubt that your references to him clear a good bit up.

    I'm also more or less happy with what you've just written. I think that perhaps my reticence to speaking of the essence of Christianity as an idea has to do with trying to avoid "idea" as it is in play for the German thought that I mention in this post.

  8. Cool. I was initially very enthusiastic about Badiou, and I still love his work and read him when I can, but since reading Zizek's criticism of him in _The Ticklish Subject_ I have had to moderate my view of his work. Both of those guys are amazing; just make sure and get to know them yourself and not just accept what others (even myself!) say about them.