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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.

Posted in Friedrich Schleiermacher, liberal Protestantism, Ludwig Feuerbach, Wilhelm Herrmann

12 comments on “Seeking the Essence of Christianity

  • Nice. It’s interesting how much of an “essence project” is still going on in evangelicalism. Strange to say, but I think that’s what intrigued me about Rob Bell when I first read him: that’s specifically what he’s not doing.

    On your essence-project-precludes-criticism point though, what do you make of Overbeck? His idea of Christianity’s essence is pretty peculiar. But I guess that aided his polemic against Christianity?

    • Hmm – good question. Well, I’ll just come out and admit that I know very little about Overbeck’s theology, and what I do know has come mostly from secondary sources. I gather, though, that Overbeck’s take on the essence of Christianity was more historical – as in, “Here’s what I think was the real heart of the early Christian message” (to the tune of eschatology, or something like that). The essence projects I’m talking about are more of the “experiential expressivist” variety (to use a neat and tidy typology). To the theologians who undertook such projects, the essence of a religion can produce all sorts of funky expressions – and hence even early Christian theology would have to be critiqued in its light. By contrast, Overbeck seemed to have zoomed in on a particular construal of Christian theology and then judged all others by its light (here essence is taken in the sense of a “central dogma” I suppose). But again, I don’t know Overbeck – so correct me if I’m wrong.

      I’m interested in your dig at evangelicalism though. Where do you see evangelicals searching for Xpanity’s essence? (by way of inference to the opposite of Rob Bell – are you referring to a love of systems or something?)

      • Yeah, I’ve only read the chunk Phil assigned us last semester. But Overbeck said there that Christianity’s essence is world-denying and its true development was heavily ascetic monasticism. Also, any attempt to “think” Christianity (e.g., Nicaea, or theology against Enlightenment philosophy) is to confuse what Christianity is, which is waiting for Christ’s imminent return while we eschew the world and eat stale bread in the desert.

        My take on evangelicalism is that they see Christianity’s essence as accepting Jesus into your heart, reading the Bible, praying and then going to get others to accept Jesus into their hearts too. So more of a “propositional” type essence-project? In this way, Catholicism and other “traditional” Christianities come in for it because they have all-these-other-things while they miss out on the “heart”/”core”/”essence” of Christianity.

      • PS. On the Rob Bell, I see him interested in the fact that Christianity might be multiple, that there might be more than one way to be a Christian–in a much broader sense that evangelicalism might allow.

  • I’m thinking if you could reconcile “Essence” theology with that of traditional Pentecostalism and what exactly the outworking of the Holy Spirit meant.

    • That’s an interesting question. I’ve actually seen a few attempts to try to connect Schleiermacher to contemporary Pentecostalism via his emphasis on feeling and doctrinal expressivism. I’m not sure that this works though, since most Pentecostals tend to privilege Scripture as some kind of norming norm for theological expression. Although a guy like Schleiermacher was definitely pneumatologically focused (i.e., his doctrine of the church basically was his doctrine of the Spirit), I don’t think he felt compelled to explain his accounts of religious expression within early Christian belief structures the way that Pentecostals often do – in fact it was just the opposite.

  • I haven’t read Schleiermacher and so my question was one of a stab at trying to understand what is meant by essence…

    My reference to early traditional pentecostalism was that it was united by a practical outworking of freedom from racial, social class and gender distinction.

  • Glad to see you’ve made it through Herrmann’s Communion, which I think (along with Schleiermacher’s Reden) should be required of everyone before they read anything by Barth.

    When I read Communion, however, I don’t really see all that much ‘essence finding.’ In fact, I think two things in Communion would work against such a project 1) the emphasis upon Christianity being a personal, incommunicable encounter between God and the individual, and 2) the fear of setting upon a Lehrgesetzt which must be believed by all Christians (isn’t finding the ‘essence of Christianity’ not just a classically liberal move, but an orthodox and conversative as well? As in the project of determining ‘the fundamentals of the faith’?).

    that is all.

    • Agreed – though of course I think that Schleiermacher should be required reading for any discipline whatsoever.

      I think you’re right that both orthodox (esp. Lutherans) and liberals (also Lutherans) have something invested in an essence project – although I think for liberals that there’s something to be said for the drive to whittle down that project to a search for some kind of singular, simple experiential core, rather than a particular doctrine, as you point out viz. your point #2. In the case of Hermann, I don’t really think my construal of his project suggests a Hermannian Lehrgesetz, since the essence he offers doesn’t actually regulate Christian speech, but rather explains it (i.e., its critical edge consists in interpretation rather than prescription). It’s a bit different in my mind, but I still take your point.

      What’s interesting to me is that, to take this approach to the fullest, you sort of have to do away with the concept of heresy as a particular category. As Hermann says, whatever emerges from communion is a-okay as Xpian expression, and whatever doesn’t is sub-Christian. But is it really possible for a person in communion w/Xp to speak/act in such a way that there is literally no vestige of that communion present? I don’t see how it would be possible – but the answer might lie somewhere in his Ethics I suppose. I don’t know – what do you think?

  • Here is where Frei picked up well on Herrmann’s understanding of faith/experience and revelation (a position he called ‘relationalism’ which I think can apply to both Herrmann and Barth). To interpret Herrmann as saying there is a singular, experiential core (an essence of religion) is to interpret him as being the same kind of mystic that he is criticizing throughout *Communion.* There is a content to this experience: God’s work in the historical Christ to forgive sins and transform individuals (and here the historical Christ determines even one’s doctrine of God, although what Herrmann means by ‘historical’ has different connotations today). Indeed, even this ‘experience’ is dependent upon something far richer than the individual’s subjective states: revelation.

    One could read Herrmann as basically having an insanely effacious and sufficient doctrine of revelation, for if revelation does nothing, then why would one call it revelation? (a question put to Barth by Rade after 1914). And if there is revelation, how could we question it? (sound like Barth?) Herrmann himself is happy to point out misunderstandings of the faith (both orthodox and mystical), and it would be interesting to press him on how he does this (the operative criteria). Rarely will he quote Scripture, rarely will he allude to creeds, councils or confessions. So I think your question regarding heresy (or criteria) for Herrmann is a good one, and I’m not sure how to answer it just yet (although the answer is certainly not in the Ethik).

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