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Seeking the Essence of Christianity

Last week, as my Macbook was in the shop, I did the logical thing and took it as a God-given opportunity to spend some time with a couple of great works of Protestant liberalism: Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity and Wilhelm Herrmann’s The Communion of the Christian with God. Both books are incredible in their own way (particularly Herrmann, who can easily match a guy like John Piper in sheer Christian passion), but what makes them particularly interesting for me is their participation in the now largely defunct theological endeavor to determine the essence of Christianity.

For contemporary readers, it’s rather difficult to understand what exactly an “essence” project is. For instance, while chatting with some friends last week, one remarked that while Feuerbach’s book clearly levels a forceful argument, ultimately his critique fails to overturn Christianity in its true form (i.e., non-liberal). But this is to miss the point. An essence project is not fundamentally a critique; it’s an interpretation – an explanation of what Christianity really is, despite the conflicting accounts of actual confessing Christians. In other words, an essence project must first of all offer a positive, prescriptive account before it can deploy its critical edge. Andrew Dole is absolutely right when he points out in his recent book, Schleiermacher on Religion and the Natural Order (OUP, 2010), that for the liberal Protestants, determining the essence of a religion “is from the first a principle of criticism, a criterion relative to which claims can be advanced about what the religion in question should be” (i.e., as opposed to those who assume that essences are discernible purely on the basis of empirical observation; p. 79). Yet this only underscores the point that the purported essence of a religion is first speculative and only then empirical. You don’t argue for a speculative theory on the grounds of the empirical; you throw it against the empirical and see what sort of world emerges as a result.

This is not to say that the historical is ignored in an essence project, since it’s actually out of concern for the purity of the historical that the project is undertaken. Moreover, if an essence claim lacks explanatory power viz. actual historical events then its persuasiveness is obviously undermined. Nevertheless, what drives such investigations is ultimately the conviction that below the surface of all phenomenal manifestations of a particular religion lies something much more real, and although this “essence” is actually that which renders religious expressions authentic, its very nature as the “root” of the religious renders it properly unobservable. For Feuerbach, this root is the dialectic of man’s understanding and love, for Herrmann it’s communion with God through Christ, and for the early Schleiermacher it’s the intuition of the universe.

Now all of this raises the question: what exactly does one do with an essence proposal? On what grounds does an essence claim commend itself? It’s my suspicion that, in the end, the essence claim that will seem most appealing to the gentle reader will ultimately be the one that reinforces their already-held philosophical and cultural beliefs. In other words, because essence claims are essentially explanatory hypotheses, they generally lack the ability to disturb what one already holds to be true. Put simply: essence projects are designed to “fit” the world as it’s already experienced, and to the extent that this is true, they preclude the possibility of the judgment of God (which, some might say, is a bad thing).

That, perhaps, is an unfair critique, but then again, I’ve been reading Barth’s Römerbrief these days, too.