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Luther’s Contribution to Feuerbach’s Atheism

Van Harvey traces one of the more unexpected consequences of the Reformation.

In October 2017, Protestants throughout the world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the religious revolution that began when Catholic monk and local professor of moral theology Martin Luther nailed ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. He was protesting against indulgences, which were certificates people could purchase from the Church to reduce their or their loved ones’ punishment in Purgatory for their sins. We can expect numerous articles and books praising Luther and his return to St Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith and not by works. What we cannot expect will be many articles explaining how those same writings could become an important step in the development of the atheism of the nineteenth century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. Reading Luther’s theology confirmed Feuerbach’s conviction that Christianity was rooted in the human wish to be free from evil, sin, and death; and that the Christian God was “nothing but the satisfied urge towards happiness, the satisfied self-love of the Christian man” (The Essence of Faith According to Luther, Ludwig Feuerbach, trans Melvin Cherno, p.102. All quotes are from this book unless otherwise indicated).

Feuerbach’s earlier book The Essence of Christianity had burst like a bombshell on the European scene in 1841, and made him famous. It had rave reviews: controversial theologian D.F. Strauss wrote that the book was “the truth of our time” and Friedrich Engels that “at once we all became Feuerbachians.” However Feuerbach himself had become dissatisfied with it, for at least two reasons. The first was that he felt he had not yet completely shaken off the abstractionism of his once-held Hegelian idealism. The second was that his book had suffered a long and stinging review by a Lutheran theologian, Julius Müller, who had argued that because Feuerbach relied so heavily on patristic and medieval sources, his criticisms might apply to Roman Catholicism, but not to Lutheranism. So in 1842-3 Feuerbach set out to clarify his thought. He produced two short monographs in which he criticized Hegel and developed his ‘new philosophy’, and also a short supplement to The Essence of Christianity, dealing with the criticism that he had neglected Luther. The supplement was published in 1844 as The Essence of Faith According to Luther.

Luther and Feuerbach
Luther & Feuerbach portrait by Gail Campbell, 2017

The second of the two philosophical documents, Principles of the Philosophy of the Future (1843), is a restatement and extension of the arguments in Feuerbach’s Preliminary Theses on the Reform of Philosophy (1842). It is a difficult book to read because the very complex issues fundamental to his new philosophy are put forward in frustratingly short paragraphs and aphorisms. The first thirty paragraphs offer a very sweeping interpretation of the development of modern philosophy of religion from Spinoza’s pantheism to Hegelianism, which development Feuerbach then says finds ‘realization’ in his own atheistic humanism. To these thirty paragraphs Feuerbach then added his own new philosophy in a series of paragraphs varying from 500 words in some to no more than 24 in others.

Critics have wondered why Feuerbach should publish his new philosophy in such a disorganized and fragmentary form. The excuse that he gave in his preface was that he had intended to write a voluminous work but changed his mind when confronted with the real possibility of government censorship. So he cut the work “like a barbarian”, although he kept the structure of the work he had originally planned.

Despite the inadequacy of the Principles as a philosophical monograph, it is clear that Feuerbach had decisively shed the remnants of his Hegelianism and based his new philosophy on the principles of feeling (Emfindung) and sensuousness (Sinnlichkeit). Sensuousness is living through the senses and not through thought alone. Whereas the old philosophy, he said, began with the argument that we are abstract, thinking beings, the new philosophy begins by saying, “I am a real, sensuous being, and indeed, the body in its totality is my ego, my essence itself” (Principles, para. 36, trans Manfred H. Vogel). The human self is not primarily a bearer of reason, but a concrete sensuous being in relation to other sensuous beings. “To-be-there [Da-sein]” Feuerbach wrote, “is the primary being” existing in space and time and linked to others by the senses: “The heart does not want abstract, metaphysical or theological objects; it wants real and sensuous objects and beings” (para.34). Consequently, it is the task of the new philosophy not to lead away from the sensuous, but rather to lead people to real objects (para.43).

Feuerbach Addresses Luther

After writing the two monographs, Feuerbach turned to the writings of Luther, in order to meet the criticism that he had neglected him in the first edition of The Essence of Christianity. To his surprise, he discovered that Luther had based the certainty of Christian faith on the same principle that was at the foundation of his own new philosophy, namely, sensuousness. Throughout his writings, Luther had depreciated mere creedal Christian belief because it is subject to doubt and so lacked certainty. Rather, genuine faith must be certain faith, and this certainty was provided through the sensuous appearance, that is, the worldly incarnation, of Jesus Christ: “Christ is the sensuous certainty of God’s love to man. He is himself the man-loving God taken as a sensuous object or sensuous truth” (p.79). Consequently, Feuerbach’s turn to Luther’s writings turned out to be more important for his philosophical thought than he had anticipated. As he later observed about himself concerning his previous work: “You were still haunted by the abstract Rational Being, the being of philosophy, as distinct from the actual sensuous being of nature and humanity. Your Essence of Christianity was, at least partially, written when you still looked at things in this contradictory manner. Only in your Luther – which thus is by no means a mere ‘supplement’… was this contradiction fully overcome. Only there did you fully ‘shake off’ the philosopher and cause the philosopher to give way to the man.”

Somewhat later Feuerbach wrote that he was not happy with the book. He thought it was too brief and that his central argument was not expressed as clearly as it might have been. Nevertheless, there is no question about his central claim: that Luther believed that the Christian revelation was aimed at providing a sensuous confirmation of the faith that God’s only purpose is to fulfill the human wish for blessedness – a confirmation found in the historical figure of Jesus.

The German version of the book is less than sixty pages, and one might characterize it as an example of what in his book Freud and Philosophy Paul Ricoeur called “the hermeneutics of suspicion.” He meant by this somewhat mannered phrase that there is a type of interpretation of a text in which one can detect an unconscious or latent meaning quite different from the author’s conscious, intended meaning. The suspicious interpreter then shows how the surface meaning is really a function of the hidden meaning. If, for example, Luther writes that the sole meaning of the Gospel is to bring eternal life or blessedness to the Christian believer, then Feuerbach, the suspicious interpreter, sees this ‘good news’ to be really the fulfillment of an egotistical wish for life after death. If the believer attributes omnipotence to a creator, this is because he believes that only a sovereign power over nature can work the miracles necessary to save one from evil. In short, all expressed Christian religious beliefs really reveal a consciousness confronted by the obstruction of nature to one’s deepest wish, which is to survive.

Characterising it as a ‘suspicious reading’ may well describe the strategy Feuerbach employed in writing the book. What he does is first recount what he takes to be the implicit meaning of Luther’s writings in some particular instance, and then find quotations from Luther to confirm this reading. This strategy, of course, lends itself to the criticism often directed at the practitioners of suspicious interpretation; namely that they cherry pick texts that vindicate their reading. Thus one can argue that Feuerbach ignored those writings of Luther that did not justify his suspicious interpretation, and only used those that did. Thus, although Feuerbach’s book is an attempt to show that the implicit meaning of Luther’s writings is that God “has shown and proved himself to be a human being” (p.63), Feuerbach first had to deal with what any knowledgeable person knows about both Luther and Calvin; namely, that they both believed in the Deus Absconditus – the hidden God whose majesty was beyond any human conception and imagination. They both insisted that there was an infinite qualitative difference between God and humanity. So in the first pages of the book, Feuerbach acknowledged that Luther had often written that God and man are opposed to each other – so much so that whatever qualities humanity possesses must be denied of deity, and whatever deity possesses must be rejected in humanity. You might even say, Feuerbach admitted, “that every affirmation in God presupposes a negation in man” and that this “is the foundation on which Luther erected his edifice and shattered the Roman Catholic church” (p.38). But after these few pages of concessions to Luther’s radical distinction between God and man, Feuerbach argued that the Reformer had to abandon it in order to assure his readers that God’s sole purpose is to convey blessedness on man: “The essence of faith, according to Luther, is that God by his very nature is concerned with man” (p.51). Thus Luther can write: “The divine nature is nothing but mere beneficence and, as Saint Paul says, friendship and affability – philanthropy” (ibid); or again, “A God is that from Whom one should expect all good, and in Whom one should take refuge in times of need… God is the One from Whom one receives all good and relief from all misfortune” (ibid). Quotations like these led Feuerbach to believe that Luther came to downplay if not abandon the notion of Deus Absconditus and move to the belief that “In the humanity of Christ the humanness of God is placed beyond all doubt” (p.63).

Luther nailing theses
Luther nailing his 95 theses to the doors of Wittenberg Cathedral

What makes this move possible? The Lutheran faith and the Roman Catholic faith both embrace the Nicene Creed, which says that God became man for us and for our salvation, but there is a crucial difference. Luther departs from the Catholic view by placing all of the emphasis on the words “for us.” The ‘for us’ is the essential content of faith. The Catholics, he argued, make the Incarnation and the Passion mere objects of belief. They do not see that “Everything we relate in faith occurred for us and comes home to us” (p.49); or again, “It is therefore not enough that a man believe that there is a God, that Christ suffered, etc. but he must firmly believe that God is a God for his blessedness, that Christ suffered for him” (ibid).

Why Luther made so much out of the words ‘for us’ may not be immediately evident to those readers unfamiliar with traditional Christian theology. This has always made a metaphysical distinction between ‘God-in-Himself’, prior to creation, and God as He relates to the world. This distinction serves at least two purposes: to affirm the ineffable nature of the deity in contrast to our human categories, and to emphasize that God’s purposes are not exhausted in the Creation. But by emphasizing the ‘for us’ in the way that he does, Luther seems to have implicitly rejected this tradition, even though, like Calvin, he affirmed that God was Deus Absconditus. Yet Feuerbach claimed that Luther not only rejected this distinction, but took his rejection of it to such an extreme that he was committed to the view that God is for us by definition. He did this by arguing that even the metaphysical attributes of God, such as necessity, omnipresence, omnipotence, or omniscience, are all derived from the attribute of benevolence, which Luther takes to mean ‘for us’. Omniscience is taken to refer to God’s knowledge of all our needs; omnipresence is to mean that He is able to help us in all places; and His omnipotence is in order to accomplish all that He has promised to us. Luther even went so far as to say that creation is solely intended ‘for us’ (p.54). With these radical views, Feuerbach claimed that Luther “was the first to let out the secret of Christian faith” – namely, that “‘God’ is a word the sole meaning of which is ‘man’” (p.50). In short, theology is anthropology.

The Evidence of the Senses

Feuerbach not only saw in Luther’s writings the confirmation of his idea that theology is anthropology, but, to his pleasant surprise, he also saw that Luther’s treatment of the certainty of faith was similar to his own emphasis on the senses.

Luther was not interested in Christians merely entertaining beliefs about the divine; rather, he wanted the believer to enjoy the certainty that these beliefs were true. He saw that Christians may believe that the divine is beneficent and for us but can easily fall into doubt as to whether God is actually good. And like Feuerbach, Luther thought that certainty could only be achieved through an encounter with a sensuous object or being. This is why he wrote that “God without flesh is nothing” (p.64). If God is only a spiritual being and so only capable of being intellectually considered, He is an uncertain being. So God reveals Himself in a human being who is His exact image – someone “whom you can touch with your hands and see with your eyes” (p.70). This someone is of course Jesus of Nazareth. It is he who “gives us the certainty – the indubitable, irrefragable certainty – that God is actually a being for us, a good, a human-minded being” (p.63). So Feuerbach concluded that in Luther’s theology, “In Christ God has revealed himself; that is, he has shown and proved himself to be a human being” (ibid). Feuerbach concluded not only that Luther’s theology proved his own thesis that theology is anthropology, but that Lutheran Christian theology is driven by an urge for certainty that can only be resolved through the senses.

Christianity as Self-Love

But what could one conclude from this analysis that religious faith is really wish-fulfillment? The appeal of the Christian faith lies in its confidence that there is a power that can fulfill the wish for recognition, love, and above all, immortality – a power that can overcome all which constitutes a limit to human wishes. By desiring a deity who is ‘for us’, Christian believers desire a God who will grant their deepest wish – for immortality. But this is not only wish-fulfillment: it is self-love.

This even more suspicious reading was justified in Feuerbach’s mind when he turned to Luther’s treatment of the relation of faith to love in the latter part of the book. He had found an extraordinary passage in Luther’s writings that reads:

“But if one wishes to speak and teach properly of faith, it far oversteps love. For let one only see what faith is concerned with and has to do with; namely… it concerns death, eternal life, sin, the law which obligates us, Grace through which our sins are forgiven” (p.101).

Love, in contrast,

“has to do with minor matters, such as serving people, helping them with advice and deeds, consoling them, who would not see that faith is much higher than love and is to be willingly preferred to it? For how can you even compare God with men? How can you even compare helping and advising a man with that which helps us overcome eternal death?” (p.101).

This wish for eternal life is why Luther considered belief in the Resurrection to be the chief article of Christian faith: “If we may not await or hope for the Resurrection there is no faith and no God” (p.105). How, Feuerbach asked, can these passages not be evidence that this faith is really self-love, the wish for a power that overcomes all the limits of one’s own finitude?

The Influence on Feuerbach’s Own Thought

I do not think one should underestimate the influence that writing this little book had on Feuerbach’s ideas. It not only enabled him to shake off the abstractionism that he thought marred his earlier thought, but it also confirmed his view that the origin of religion was wish-fulfillment – a view that anticipates the position to which he finally came in his book Theogony According to the Sources of Classical, Hebrew and Christian Antiquity (1857).

This later book, which Feuerbach considered to be his most mature work, was the result of six years of immersion in classical Greek, Latin, and Hebrew scriptures. In these sources he examined petitionary prayers, myths, systems of law, morality, dreams, conscience, the taking of oaths, miracles, and religious beliefs. Underlying all of these phenomena, Feuerbach saw wishing at work – one might even call this book a ‘phenomenology of the wish’: all these activities derive from the fact that human beings are striving, willing, wishing beings. They are basically driven by what he calls ‘the drive-to-happiness’ (Glückseligkeitstrieb); and furthermore, all these projects involve a gap between what people will to do (Wollen) and what they able to do (Können). Only the gods have the power to bridge this gap, and faith is just the certitude that they will do it, that our wishes will be fulfilled. Faith is the objectification of the wish. Because there are a variety of cultures, and because there is scarcely anything that has not been the object of wishing, there are a variety of gods. But underlying all of these wishes are the more basic wishes to be free from hunger, disease, harm, and, above all, the wish not to die. Feuerbach concluded that Luther had shown that it was the Promethean wish not to die which Christian faith fulfills.

© Prof Van A. Harvey 2017

Van Harvey is George Edwin Burnell Professor of Religious Studies (Emeritus) at Stanford University.


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