The Feuerbach Exchange, part Two

Why Feuerbach? Most important to me: Feuerbach posits that God is a representation of humanity’s attempt to understand itself.

I wouldn’t recommend actually reading the Essence of Christianity unless you are the sort of person who can dive into something old and mostly useless and find nuggets of truth (which describes some of my friends, to be sure). To employ a Minecraft metaphor, if you’re the sort who’s willing to dig down through 64 blocks of stone, dirt and gravel, fight off the creepers, skellies and zombies, and avoid falling into the lava just to get a couple diamonds, go for it. Otherwise, let me sort it out for you.

Feuerbach himself seems to have wanted to promote a contrast between a religion of “faith” and a religion of “love”. In this he seems to have anticipated much liberal theology of the 20th Century, particularly after two World Wars and the Holocaust left much of Christendom a crater-pocked ruin. Others do it better, however.

What made Feuerbach famous among German leftists of the 1840s was his “materialism”. Among the Marxists this became “dialectical materialism”. By “materialism” they meant something different than what we would call “science” today, more of an orientation towards facts rather than fact-gathering. What a Hegelian philosopher of the 1840s would mean by “materialism” is simply the rejection of idealism, the philosophical trend which presumes that ideas cause reality, rather than being themselves merely the result of natural and/or mechanical processes. I would venture to suspect that both camps would be overwhelmed by the advances in determining the material causes of natural phenomenon since the 1840s, with quantum physics giving both sides plenty of new material to argue over.

Another feature of contemporary “science” is transparency: it is a collaborative and peer-reviewed process. While this may mean that your reports are fully comprehensible only to other specialists in your “field”, there is at least some attempt to make yourself understood by others, for the purpose of having your work replicated by others. Hegelians like Feuerbach liked to pretend that their work is perfectly transparent (and I daresay Feuerbach is a bit easier to understand than Hegel himself) and they certainly imagined they were building conceptual “systems” which could be understood and reproduced and enhanced by others, they mostly failed at this. The exception, of course, was Marxism, which did indeed create a set of portable concepts which could and did spread around the world and find application in an amazing variety of circumstances. Feuerbach…. not so much.

By “anthropology”, the word Feuerbach uses to describe his account of the origins and purposes of Christianity, he means merely the study of man. He does not mean a science based on empirically-gathered data, that is, what we would call “anthropology”. Basically he is saying his viewpoint is human, not divine; it’s about about human beings want and need, not what God wants and needs. Why the Christian God would want or need anything was always a mystery anyway, but traditional theology was always trying to discern and explain God’s agenda for us. Feuerbach, instead, is working on our agenda for God, which you might think of as an exegesis of the import of Voltaire’s remark “if God did not exist, we should have to invent Him.” Why, indeed, would invention be necessary?

Today we can discuss, for example, the “hyperactive agency detection device” theory as to why people believe in supernatural entities. Ideas like this can now be grounded in notions of natural selection and evolution, which do not ensure accuracy but at least allows us to understand one another. The intellectual tools to discuss such theories didn’t exist in the 1840s. Darwin’s Origin of Species wasn’t published until 1859. That is not to say that such ideas might not have occurred to a thinker like Feuerbach. What he lacked, however, was a set of presumptions and methods which enjoyed widespread acceptance among his readers, which now make the job of giving “material” explanations for religious beliefs much easier.

Likewise, a historian of science might be interested to trace Freud’s ideas on the psychology of religion back to Feuerbach. There’s an obvious connection between Feuerbach’s remarks on “wish-fulfillment” and ideas developed more fully by Freud. (Briefly, we fear death and wish for immortality, so it makes us feel happy to believe in an entity that has the power to grant us eternal life.) But again, these ideas were developed more fully and freely by Freud in the 20th Century, so there’s no reason to go back to Feuerbach to read them in mere embryonic form (unless you are an academic, which I am not).

I don’t read Feuerbach as “science” but rather as political theory. Ultimately, the “materialism” of Feuerbach is a political statement against conservative, traditional approaches to religion which allow supernatural explanations to pass as unexamined fact, or grant authority to Scripture as the revealed word of God, rather than a set of texts written and compiled by human beings.

While it may be contrary to his intent to read his work as a political tract rather than a scientific monograph, today’s readers cannot indulge Feuerbach in this respect. If a “science of religion” is what we are looking for, we need to look elsewhere. Despite efforts to be “concrete”, Feuerbach has no data and doesn’t seem to think he needs any data. I find support for my approach, however, in how contemporary readers understood Feuerbach. His development of what came to be known as “dialectical materialism” gave him fans and financial supporters among the emerging radical socialist movement in Germany. This transformed the thinking of the “Young” or “Left” Hegelians and made them Marxists. For posterity, however, those fans and supporters pigeon-holed Feuerbach as the transition between Hegel and Marx. Today, you can find an online version of the Essence of Christianity, translated by George Eliot (!) at marxists.org. Marxists, however, have little interest or use for religion, and so most of Feuerbach’s insights are wasted on them.

Events of the time also doomed Feuerbach’s theories to obscurity. The revolutions in Germany in 1848 were a dismal failure. Germany did not become a democratic republic then, indeed, Germany failed to become a unified nation of any kind, until a generation or so later (1870) it was unified under Prussian militarism. When you read Marxist comments on Feuerbach, then, they have a bitter disappointment to them born of political failure. Here, for example, is how Marx concludes Theses on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.

I admire Marx’s attempt to ground his ideas in concrete, historical and factual settings, and in human social practice, rather than mere ideological speculation. That this is difficult does not mean we shouldn’t try. But today we can’t read “the point is to change it” without thinking of the failures of Communism and hearing the Beatles’ “Revolution” play in our head. Disaster waits for those who seek to change the world without first understanding it.

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The Feuerbach Exchange

The email said meet at the Albuquerque Press Club at 5. The Press Club is a log and stone mansion on a hill overlooking the freeway. Back in August, in went there to see an old friend while he is passing through town. I don’t see him much these days because he is now a philosophy professor down in Texas.

That was last August, and although the conversation was brief (the part I would share publicly, anyway) it continues to reverberate. I’ve known Stephen since we were teenagers and he always manages to say something “oracular” which gets me thinking. (Of course, oracles aren’t to be trusted: “A great empire will fall”, says the oracle, but doesn’t tell you which empire: yours or the enemy.)

This time I asked Stephen about Ludwig Feuerbach. You have to understand: we are both preacher’s kids and have read a lot of theology. Stephen even made Kierkegaard the subject of his doctoral thesis. Now, however, neither of us can read traditional theology any more. The self-deception, the sacrifice of intellect to some pointless standard of orthodoxy is too painful: at least when reading pre-existential or non-ironic writers.

I dropped Feuerbach’s name as a way of suggesting a bridge between old ways of thinking about religion and our current situation. Stephen made a number of remarks, which might seem to you to be total non-sequiturs. To explain, or rather, expound each one (because I can’t ever pretend to know what Stephen really means when he says these things) would take an essay, or in the current vernacular, a longish blog post. Here’s a sample of coming attractions:

“Wasn’t it you who told me: one must pass through the firey brook?”

“Don’t we all agree these days that Truth is dead?”

“These days I only like to read and teach Japanese Haiku.”

First I should mention, though, what I mean by “current situation”. Internet fora of various kinds can reveal trends in religion in America, most of which are extremely disappointing to the thinking person.
There is the conservative “Christian” fascist tripe, about which the less said the better. While my interest in religion is almost entirely political (I am a lawyer by trade, not an academic or clergy-person) the obviously reactionary form of right-wing religious politics doesn’t deserve much thought. Not much thought goes into it. You know it when you see it, you knock it down, kick it in the face and laugh at it. Better to just avoid it.

On the other hand, the modern “atheist” trend isn’t much better, though there’s at least some hope for intellectual growth there. We won’t be getting it from the heroes of the movement, writers like Richard Dawkins. He makes it pretty clear (in the first few chapters of The God Delusion, for example) that he is aware that liberal Christianity exists and just doesn’t care. And this is understandable, since liberal Christians aren’t mounting any political challenge to the very existence of Dawkin’s chosen profession: evolutionary biology. One also gets the impression, however, that Dawkin’s idea of “religion” is forever fixed in his upbringing as a conservative Anglican. He can’t be bother with, say, a Tillich-style systematic theology of God as “ultimate concern”, because to him a religion without an anthropomorphic God dispensing punishment and reward through supernatural miracles just isn’t worthy of the name “religion” of “Christianity”.

Young people who make posts on reddit’s “atheism” subreddit (using “young” here not in the sense of age, but as a synonym for “someone without a professional/institutional axe to grind” or simply “one who’s intellectual curiosity remains”) could possibly benefit from my sketchbook.

I say “sketchbook” because I survey the state of Christianity in Western Civilization much like the ruins of Rome from its period of decline and depopulation in the Early Middle Ages. Artists and architects have, ever since, been sketching the ruins. While Rome was never fully abandoned, and went through a rebuilding and re-decoration in the Renaissance, the form of the ancient temples and circuses became somewhat of a mystery after their functions ceased. Reviving worship of the pagan gods might be a fantasy entertained by a gentleman sketching the ruins in the 19th Century, but seriously, what one seeks to evoke is “the grandeur of Rome” as shown in the form and line of concrete and marble. Likewise, the intellectual decline of Christianity since the age of Revolutions left the religion in a similar state of decline. I view cultural artifacts like the doctrine of the Trinity in similar manner: like a pile of rubble and columns that was once a temple to Castor and Pollux. We can appreciate them in their outline but not as living institutions.

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