I am always delighted to run across a surname that can be translated directly from German to English. “Schwarzenegger” means “one from the black ridge.” My friend Josh’s surname “Unruh” means “disquiet.” “Rothschild” means “red shield,” and “Boetticher” of Breaking Bad fame means “cooper.” One of my favorite examples, Mark Twain’s essay “The Awful German Language” (which I highly recommend, it’s hilarious), tells of a tiger that “utterly ate up the unfortunate fir forest,” in which “fir forest” turns out to be a man by the name of Tannenwald.
So I am tickled all shades of pink to introduce to you today the eminent philosopher Loudbattle Firestream, aka Ludwig Feuerbach.
Feuerbach was a 19th-century German anthropologist who leveled some pretty significant criticisms at religion and theology, all while calling himself “a friend to theologians.” He had what I think is a beautiful way of expressing his critique of “God” as an actual being or person:
“What is God to man, that is man’s own spirit, man’s own soul; what is man’s spirit, soul, and heart – that is his God. God is the manifestation of man’s inner nature, his expressed self; religion is the solemn unveiling of man’s hidden treasures, the avowal of his innermost thoughts, the open confession of the secrets of his love.”–Ludwig Feuerbach,
Section 2, “Introduction,”
The Essence of Christianity
Even in my most ardent, all-in, fully-committed-to-God-as-a-Person days, I think I would’ve agreed with Feuerbach on this point. At the very least, it would’ve resonated with me hard. Ever since I was mature enough to think about and articulate such things, I’ve observed behaviors in (fellow) believers that indicated belief in a God who looked an awful lot like them, approving and disapproving of exactly the things they themselves dis/approved. What a coincidence. Feuerbach expresses it far more graciously than I do, as he focuses on the “solemn unveiling,” the “treasures,” the “secrets of love.” I guess I’m jaded, because the God most believers seem to worship isn’t as loving as I would hope.
Feuerbach goes on to say that humanity’s projecting of human essence onto God happens unconsciously. If it were conscious, intentional, it wouldn’t be religion. Instead, it is the first, though indirect, self-consciousness of humanity; therefore, religion always comes before philosophy: humanity “transposes essential being outside of self before growing able to find it within self” (paraphrased).
Feuerbach insists that this happens on a species-wide scale as well as an individual one. So, if I’m understanding him correctly, this means:
- Courtney, as a child, became subconsciously aware of my own Self, which I’ll name “X.” In order to fully understand “X,” I projected X onto “God.” Now, for me, God was X; and because X was in God, X was crystallized in a form I could examine and come to understand. Eventually, X became something for me to emulate, and I took X back into myself. And, though I’m sure this doesn’t happen in neat little packages of “first X, then Y, then Z,” but all mixed up together and non-sequentially, this repeats again and again as I grow and mature. Eventually, I grow up enough to realize that what I’ve been worshiping is actually my Self, which is, in religious thinking, idolatry.
- The next step is basically wash, rinse, repeat. Maybe with Self as “A,” “B,” and “C.” Project ABC, worship ABC, take ABC back into Self as matured traits. Finally, I begin to realize that XYZ wasn’t God but was me. This, to Feuerbach, is religion in a slightly matured form.
- As this messy process repeats and I grow up, I deepen my knowledge of Self. Finally, I arrive at the conclusion that it’s me-turtles all the way down. It was never some higher form of being; it was always me. This, according to Feuerbach, is a “later” religion that has “superseded” my previous one(s).
- Notably, in order for this, my “later” religion, to remain a religion, I must refuse to recognize my own idolatry. If I recognized my idolatry, I wouldn’t be able to claim this religion anymore. In order to maintain my religion, I must maintain the illusion that this “God” I worship is superhuman and not just plain li’l ol’ me.
In mysticism, as we saw last week, one of the “aims” is to forget trying to think of God, because God is wholly unknowable and incomprehensible; any features/aspects (predicates, determiners, descriptions) we ascribe to God are lies because they must always remain incomplete and inadequate for describing God. Instead, say the mystics, we must dwell/be/exist with God and love God without trying to comprehend any aspects of God.
Feuerbach, in so many words, says this is just kind of silly. He points out that if you remove all predicates (determiners, descriptions) from something, then that something ceases to have any meaning at all; it basically ceases to exist. “A being without determinations is a being that cannot be an object of thought; it is a nonentity.” If you remove all descriptions from God, then God doesn’t exist for you anymore. Feuerbach calls this orientation “a product of…modern unbelief.”
My question here is how Julian of Norwich could be considered “modern,” even for someone in the 1800s. But I can’t ask Feuerbach, because he’s dead.
In this “modern unblief,” a person can have cake and eat it too: discarding anything that makes God “God” while not denying the existence of God at all. Much as it hurts my mystic-leaning heart, I have to admit he makes a fair point. What good is a gardener if you can’t perceive said gardener in any way whatsoever? This gardener doesn’t help me, nor does this gardener inconvenience me. I can live my life exactly as I please without worrying about what the gardener might think or do; the gardener is a non-entity, intangible and impotent.
“The alleged religious horror of limiting God by determinate predicates is only the irreligious wish to forget all about God, to banish him from the mind….” Here, my religion without a describable God is nothing but a facade…and, says Feuerbach, “a sly form of atheism.” I’ve turned God and religion into something insipid and preposterous.
To finish, because I am exhausted and need a nap, further good quotes from Feuerbach’s intro:
To every religion, the gods of other religions are only conceptions of God; but its own conception of God is itself its God – God as it conceives him to be….
If your predicates are anthropomorphisms, their subject, too, is an anthropomorphism. If love, goodness, and personality are human determinations, the being which constitutes their source and,
according to you, their presupposition is also an anthropomorphism; so is the existence of God….
The identity of subject and predicate is borne out clearly by the course taken by religion in its development, a course which is identical with that taken by human culture.
A true atheist, that is, an atheist in the ordinary sense, is therefore he alone to whom the predicates of the Divine Being – for example, love, wisdom, and justice – are nothing, not he to whom only the subject of these predicates is nothing.(emphasis added)
All human urges, however natural – even the urge for cleanliness – were conceived by the Israelites as positive divine commandments.
Humanity “is infinitely rich in different kinds of predicates, but precisely for that reason it is infinitely rich in different kinds of individuals.” Humanity “possesses as many qualities, as many powers, as the number of its members.”