The Critique Of Theism – Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Lecture 2 (Johannes Zachhuber)

The following is the second lecture in an eight-lecture series.   The first can be found here.

I introduced these lectures last week by pointing out the unique situation within which our thinking of God is situated. Intellectual developments over the past two hundred years have meant that discourse about God has increasingly become both more pluralistic and more controversial.

It is the major purpose of this week’s lecture, therefore, to add to this by giving some additional background on non-theological arguments during the 19th century, which have been, in one way or another, critical of traditional theology and of traditional theism: Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Friedrich Nietzsche. All these thinkers have in common criticisms of traditional theology; also, they became quite influential for theological developments in the 20th century, albeit in different ways.

One has, of course, to be careful not to paint with the same brush all these thinkers. Only two of them, Feuerbach and Nietzsche, consider themselves atheists and see the overt aim of their philosophical arguments and of their published writings in a stinging and devastating critique of Christianity and religion per se. Neither Kant nor Hegel had such an intention, and while the latter’s students were split in the 1830s, about the precise theological consequences of his philosophical system, it seems fairly clear that his attitude to Christianity is not, in any obvious way, polemical or hostile.

So, let us look at this pair first. Why do they fit the title of ‘critics of theism’ even though, as I just said, neither of them delivered a devastating or polemical critique of Christianity? The answer is that both of them offered powerful challenges to long-held assumptions about the way thinking about God was to be done, and it is these challenges that have in many ways defined the field for any serious intellectual engagement with God during the 20th century.

It is perhaps needless to emphasize that the thought of each of these people is so complex, and their ideas have been developed within so many and different writings that the kind of summary I shall be giving is just short of misleading. Some further reading is, in any case, advisable, and for the rest I will restrict myself very strictly and firmly to their view of God.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant must have pride of place, not only because he is the oldest of the four, but also, because he laid the foundations, on which everyone since has been building. He may be one of the last European philosophers for whom theology was so closely interwoven with philosophy that, in a sense, his philosophical oeuvre as a whole has a strong theological dimension to it; I should expressly warn against the hope of finding his theological views specifically in his late writing on Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.

For the purposes of this lecture, I must focus entirely on Kant’s epistemology and his rejection of the traditional arguments for the existence of God in his Critique of Pure Reason, which has been in theology his most influential contribution. I leave to one side therefore his other major insight: his theological interpretation of human morality in his Critique of Practical Reason.

The Critique of Pure Reason, by many regarded as one of the most important works in the history of philosophy, was first published in 1781 and in a substantially revised 2nd edition in Critique for Kant means not just to criticise, but in line with the Greek work krinein, to examine and judge critically. His aim in this work then is a critical examination of pure, speculative or theoretical reason. Why was this necessary? Kant looks back at two conflicting evaluations of the power of speculative reason. One had been dominant in Continental philosophy since the early 17th century; thinkers such as Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz were associated with it.

According to this tradition, human rationality can on its own refute scepticism. The sceptical question of how we can know that our thoughts correspond to anything in reality, they would answer by an attempt to show that at least in one case we can prove that the contents of our mind must have reality, namely in the case of God. This was achieved on the basis of the ontological argument, which claims that for the perfect being existence is a necessary predicate. The ens perfectissimum is at the same time the ens necessarium. Once this has been established, the reality of the world around us and the accuracy of our cognition of it are deduced from the ideal contents of the notion of God.

Against this tradition, Hume had reaffirmed a sceptical critique based on Empiricist principles. According to Hume, this impressive rationalist edifice collapses once we realise that the only basis of any knowledge we have is derived from sense perception. We know nothing independently of the data we collect through our senses, things we see or hear about are the ultimate source of all our expertise.

Therefore, any epistemology that moves from these data towards their rational interpretation cannot make claims beyond inductive probability. Take causality: according to Hume, this is essentially our experience that an event A is usually followed by event B. There is nothing intrinsic in A that ‘causes’ B, as far as we are concerned. All we can say that one appears to follow the other with some regularity and that, failing A, B will not occur either.

Kant’s response to these rival theories essentially has two elements. He accepts that Hume’s conclusions were inevitable if all knowledge did indeed derive from sense perception. Yet against this premise he holds that it is impossible for us to conceive of any bit of knowledge that is not already sense perception interpreted by rationality. This is because even the most simple thing we know about reality is never, nor could it be, purely empirical, but combines an empirical and a conceptual element. Kant’s essential assumption, therefore, about our ability to know and understand reality is that in order for it to be reliable, it must contain these two elements: empirical data based on our sense perception, and their conceptual interpretation through mental categories.

Yet while this is, in the first place, a refusal of Hume’s empiricism and scepticism, Kant is far from siding with the rationalist tradition. For unlike these philosophers, he emphasises the necessity of an empirical grounding of experience and knowledge. Any knowledge is based on the duality of sense-perception and mental conceptualisation: this implies that, where one of the two is lacking there cannot be knowledge, and if there seems to be such, it is surely deceptive. This, Kant believes, is the case for the three major metaphysical ideas of a totality of the world, of the soul, and of God. All of them could not ever correspond to any potential act of sense-perception, and for this reason, the intellectual and philosophical search for their purely speculative grasp is futile and misleading.

Kant devotes considerable care to the show this in the case of the arguments for the existence of God, and many of you will have heard of the claim, against the ontological argument, that existence is not a predicate. Yet it is more important to see that, within the setup of Kant’s critical philosophy, these arguments must be fallacious, not because of any internal fault that could be remedied, but because of the fundamental concept of human knowledge within which they are integrated. Faced by Hume’s stinging scepticism, Kant felt that the only way to defend the principal reliability of human experience and human knowledge was by tying it to the basis of sense-perception in principle. There is no way our cognition could ever reach beyond the borderline that is marked by the limits of our sensual interaction with the world.

Kant’s contemporaries saw this argument as an attack against philosophical theology and thus against theism and religion generally. Kant himself did not disagree with the former, but he vigorously maintained that his critique of metaphysical approaches to God had not only not damaged Christianity, but that rightly understood it was helpful to the cause of the latter. ‘I had to take away knowledge to make room for faith,’ is a famous phrase he uses in the preface to the 2nd edition of his first Critique.

Why is this? Kant argues theologically, and, in a way reminiscent of what I referred to last week as the transcendent-immanent fault-line in discourse about God. Provided the metaphysical arguments would hold (which they do not), they would conjure up an idea of God that is remote from and ultimately incompatible with that mandated by the Christian faith. These arguments may prove a God that is detached from the world, omnipotent and the principle behind the existence of the world. Yet this is a far cry from the notions of God as righteous, as merciful or as loving, of a God who cares for and interacts with humans and wills their salvation. Christians should therefore be happy to let go off them.

Jumping from here into the 20th century, it seems clear that Kant’s rejection of any metaphysical knowledge of God has deeply informed the debate about theological epistemology. How can theology, or any other discipline, claim to know of and speak about God? Interestingly, two very different paths have been pursued: there were, certainly, liberals who took Kant’s critical philosophy as their starting point to argue that theology needed to be radically transformed on the basis that God-talk was really impossible. Theology would, therefore, have to consider other topics and leave its traditional questions behind.

Yet more importantly, there were those who took Kant’s thesis as a reminder of the traditional insights of negative theology, that we cannot know of or speak about God properly, and that it is therefore precisely a task of theology to seek ways of doing this, which do not fall into the traps highlighted by him among others. In one sense, and perhaps counterintuitively, the increased interest in revelation during (19th and) 20th century theology may well be a result of Kant’s critical insistence.

G.W.F. Hegel

With these insights, we move on at once to the next person in our line, G.W.F. Hegel. Once again, he is not a critic in the strict sense of the word. In many ways, he restored and reevaluated central elements of traditional doctrine; notably, the doctrines of the Trinity and of the Incarnation take on an important place in his elaborate philosophical system. And, as in Kant, this is not restricted to those parts of his philosophy where he deals explicitly with religion and with Christianity, but these theological ideas are written into the deep structure of his thought.

It is impossible here to give even a vague overview of Hegel’s system. Suffice it to say, that he believed that from within Christianity what was worth preserving was not primarily, as most 18th century Enlightenment people had thought, an idea of God and some moral guidelines, but that the core doctrines, which had been discarded by many, were of immense value, which only waited to be recognised.

Does philosophy have to think about God? Kant had argued that this was impossible, but Hegel passionately and pointedly disagreed. Philosophy had to take this topic seriously if it didn’t want to provoke another dichotomy of faith and knowledge, which could be in the interest of neither philosophy nor theology. Yet how was God to be conceived? Is he utterly transcendent? Hegel perceived the force of the pantheistic view, developed by Spinoza: if God is truly the absolute, how can he not be in the world? Clearly, he must be everywhere, and this must include the entirety of the world. Still, Hegel does not fully agree with Spinoza, but opts for a view that has often been called panentheism: God is in the world, but he is not coextensive with it. God is the world, but this is not all he is.

Yet Hegel felt that in order to make any sense of God’s absoluteness, this was only possible if he moved away from a purely static towards a dynamic conception of God. The oneness and the absoluteness of God could only be grasped properly if God himself was seen as becoming, as moving through the different stages that, taken together, constitute the history of the world. And this, precisely, was in Hegel’s view, the speculative contents of the theological doctrine of the Trinity. This was not at all an incompetent attempt at maths, nor a nonsensical play with words, but the notion of God as one in three was based on the insight that only in this way the unity of the Godhead could be grasped and expressed properly.

We have to see the extraordinary thing that happens here: one of the central Christian doctrines, which at that time even many theologians had treated as a survival from a long bygone period of ecclesiastical and doctrinal history and a mere addendum to the fundamental truth that there is one God, is said to contain the deepest insight ever formulated into the being of God and a necessary aspect of any philosophical attempt to come to terms with the absolute. If anybody talks about the 20th century Trinitarian revival as though this happened out of thin air, this is where the foundations for this were being laid. Christian theology, it seems, is told to go back to the drawing board and readdress in earnest one of the most fundamental and yet too often neglected doctrines of its tradition.

Or is it? Hegel’s philosophy has become a bone of contention between theological and secular interpreters ever since. And the reason for that is simple. While theologians can see in his philosophy an immense appreciation of the intellectual relevance of their own discipline, philosophers may simply ask what it means that these insights are developed here within what is after all a philosophical system. Whatever one makes of it, it is written and argued for without direct use of or reference to revelation or the authority of the Christian tradition.

So, if a philosopher can arrive at these insights, do we need the job of the theologian any longer? Was theology, perhaps, only a midwife helping over a long-time span to develop ideas which, once they are there, can now thrive and flourish perfectly well within a secular framework? In other words: is Hegel’s philosophy encouraging a restoration of traditional Christian theology, focusing on topics like the doctrine of the Trinity? Or is it a kind of benign death knell to this discipline as it shows how the tasks traditionally assigned to it, can now be performed much better by secular reflection?

Whatever the conclusion, it should be clear that once again we have a ‘critic’ whose reflections were to become fundamentally important for theology in the 20th century. The imperative of his system is clear: think God – but it is equally clear that his heritage is ambiguous, and theologians have been equally inspired by the awareness that a system that promises a complete understanding of things human and divine may be a temptation more than a boon.

Ludwig Feuerbach

With this we come to the first person here who really was, and meant to be, a critic of Christianity. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) expressed his views most clearly in his 1841 book The Essence of Christianity. Its central thesis is in one way easily expressed: the theological claims religion makes about God express in reality an anthropological insight: In truth it is not God who created men according to his image, as Genesis has it, but human beings created God to their image. God is nothing other than the ideal concept of humanity projected into the transcendent realm:

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. (§ 2)

This, for Feuerbach, is clear enough from the anthropomorphic language predominant in practically all religions. We had heard about this last week, and also about the fact that this feature of religion had drawn criticism as early as the 5th century BC. Theology had responded by seeking to refine language about God, not least through the use of negative predicates. So, is Feuerbach then merely restating in a more radicalised manner what many before him had already observed?

In one sense, this is true, and it has soon been observed that from the fact that religion contains projection of human ideals into God one could not deduce that religion was nothing but projection. Yet Feuerbach is quite aware of attempts to avoid anthropomorphic language in theology, and he finds this contemptible. He argues that negative theology may satisfy the intellectual desires of some, but that it is far removed from the religious needs of the masses. This, he argues, simply is not any longer religion because religion is relish, it is tied to human interest in their salvation which requires some personal interaction with God or gods. The god of negative theology could not fulfil this function any longer, he is impotent and without any religious significance.

Feuerbach’s own solution therefore is to recognise that what humans yearn for in religion is something they need to accomplish themselves. It is the fulfilment and perfection of their race. The projection that is mistaken for God in religion is in reality this ideal state of humanity, which it is our task to achieve and complete.

Feuerbach, clearly, has influenced theology in ways quite different from Kant and Hegel. He could only be seen as a warning sign: how could the question about God appear to be receptive of such an answer? He has been studied and taken seriously where people have realised how easy it is to construe God within any intellectual discourse in a way that makes him seem more like a human projection than anything else.

Few people, I think, have taken seriously his critique of negative theology, though this too needs to be taken into consideration. I have pointed out in my first lecture that there are good theological reasons to be wary of a solution that posits God simply as so remote that any criticism is deflected by his transcendence. For by the same token much that makes God potentially relevant for the believer dissipates alongside. Feuerbach is a potent reminder of this problem too.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche is the last on our list, and, like Feuerbach, he is difficult to integrate into a theological discourse about God if only because his way of writing about religion is so overtly hostile that it seems all but impossible to find anything worthwhile considering from a theological point of view. Yet one should not be deceived. Nietzsche, in spite of his aphoristic way of writing and in spite of the venom with which he attacked religion, has been perhaps the single most influential figure at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century; very little serious theological thought in the 20th century has not been influenced by him.

Nietzsche took Feuerbach’s view that gods are human projections probably for granted. In any case, this is not his major concern. He is often quoted with the word that God is dead, but this perhaps more for the utter quotability of it than for its fundamental significance for Nietzsche himself or for the world at large.

What Nietzsche really contributes to our debate is that he asks more specifically what ideas of God specific cultures and specific religions produce, and it is his analysis of the Judaeo-Christian tradition in this regard that deserves attention. For Nietzsche sees this religious tradition as arising from the desires of a group of underdogs who felt they could not reach their normal social, economic, or political objectives and therefore develop religion into a tool of nurturing the ensuing resentment. Ideas such as judgment day and the eternal fires of hell for those who are rich and privileged to him speak a distinct language (and much of this is indeed to be found in the New Testament).

Yet more important than those direct outbursts of hatred against those better off, according to Nietzsche, is a more subtle variation of essentially the same emotion. This he detects crucially in the Christian notion of love. This idea, he argues, has been propagated by those who had to hope that God would love them because in no other way could they have expected to find mercy in his eyes. Yet this was the most perverse reversal of the natural order: human beings love God, not the other way around. He who loves is lacking in something, and the attempt to make God into such a being indicates the wish of those who happen to be miserable to force even the supreme being into their own likeness.

We can see, in a way, Feuerbach rearing his head again. Yet, as I said, for Nietzsche the point is less the mere fact of projection which he probably considered established, but the fact that within the Christian tradition this ‘transvaluation of values’ had occurred and those in charge had projected not just any God, but a god who would in his turn encourage and motivate all that is despicable and weak in humanity.

So, the resulting question for the debate about God is not so much whether he can be believed in or not, but what idea we have of him, and, closely connected with this, how we conceive of ourselves and of humanity which, according to Genesis, has been made in his image and likeness.

At the end of this brief overview, we have essentially four questions resulting from the four non-theological figures we have looked at across the 19th century (they are not, of course, necessarily compatible with each other):

  • How can we know of and speak about God given that our metaphysical attempts to establish his existence inevitably fail (Kant)?
  • What does it mean for theological approaches to God that he emphatically needs to be thought about (Hegel)?
  • How can we make sure the God who is discussed is not merely a projection (Feuerbach)?
  • What is the cultural and social impact, specifically, of Christian attempts to think about God (Nietzsche)?

Johannes Zachhuber is Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at the University of Oxford. He is a Fellow of Trinity College. He earned his DPhil from Oxford in 1998 and obtained a habilitation in systematic theology at Humboldt University, Berlin, in 2011. His areas of specialisation include the history of Christian thought in late antiquity and the nineteenth century; secularisation theories; and religion and politics. He has authored or co-authored five books and edited or co-edited nine. He has written many articles and book chapters in all his research specialisations.

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