Ludwig Feuerbach, Barth bluntly writes, practiced “anti-theology” (520). The description is especially apt because in many ways Feuerbach is Barth’s conceptual foil in the history of theological ideas. Whereas Barth understood theology as evoked by, rooted in, and solely preoccupied with the Word of God, Feuerbach set out to “turn theology… completely and finally into anthropology” (520).
His primary avenue for accomplishing this goal lay in his assertion that “God” is nothing more than a projection of humanity’s essential ideals as distilled from embodied existence. God is, in Barth’s paraphrase, the “religious feeling’s mirrored self” (522). Feuerbach positions himself firmly against any thought system that introduces an unnecessary abstraction from the totality of sensory experience in which the only real distinction is the encounter between the objective I and the otherness of the Thou. “Truth, reality, the world of the senses, and humanity are identical concepts” (521) according to Feuerbach and, in the last analysis, “divinity” is just another item in the equivalency series. Thus, “the beginning, the middle, and the end of religion is Man" [#1] his own and his god’s alpha and omega.
From a philosophical standpoint, Barth finds Feuerbach’s work to be decidedly underwhelming. On this level, Barth doesn’t see any difference between the type of “abstraction” that Feuerbach rejects in the concepts of Reason, Mind, or Ego as employed by Kant or Hegel and his own optimism that humanity’s “essence” can be distilled from its cumulative sensory inputs. In order to be truly faithful to the existentialist ideal, then ontological judgments cannot proceed much past the individual human creature because the interpretive move necessarily involves some level of abstraction. In our day, probably only the most extreme evolutionary materialist positions, such as that taken by Peter Singer, meet this ideal.
Accordingly, Barth argues that grasping Feuerbach’s enduring significance is matter of reading his project theologically, not philosophically. Indeed, Barth wrote in his 1957 introductory essay to Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity that the man’s attitude was “more theological than that of many theologians” [#2] due to his ability to stay focused on one object for the much of his work (as theologians must do with the Word of God). Seen from this theological standpoint, Feuerbach’s teaching is nothing less than “a summons, an appeal, [and] a proclamation." [#3] The key to interpreting Feuerbach in this manner is to trace his proximity to three streams of Christian theology: the modern Protestant tradition as represented by Schleiermacher, the ancient mystical tradition alive and well in the Orthodox churches, and the Reformed tradition and particularly its beloved figurehead, Luther.
Feuerbach’s proximity to the first two traditions is analogous. In its position that the pious excitement provides the starting place through which to know God, the Schleiermacherian tradition shares the Feuerbachian normativity for human experience and the intellectual move to project back to “God” from said experience. This parallel leads Barth to wonder whether Feuerbach actually takes some of his theological contemporaries to their rightful logical conclusion: God really is just an (illusionary) human projection. Likewise, the mystical tradition in Orthodoxy also prioritizes human spirituality. However, Orthodoxy’s prioritization occurs in the realm of ontology instead of epistemology as with the Schleiermacherian tradition. This occurs primarily in its doctrine of theosis, which teaches that through Christ humanity is allowed to participate in God’s divinity. As the well-known quote from Athanasius goes: “[The Word of God] assumed humanity that we might become God.” [#4] Granted, where Orthodoxy speaks of participation in God, Feuerbach simply posits an equivalency: the essence of divinity and humanity are one. Nevertheless, Feuerbach himself grasps his nearness to the Orthodox doctrine of divinization: “While reducing theology to anthropology, [I] exalt anthropology into theology, very much as Christianity while lowering God into man, made man into God.” [#5] From each perspective the intent is to emphasize that the divine Beyond is near at hand, indeed within humanity itself. To these two traditions, Barth argues, Feuerbach’s legacy stands as a reminder that when the line between divinity and humanity is reversed or intermingled, the divinity of true faith is lost along the way
In the end, however, Barth makes it clear that Feuerbach’s witness ought to be most keenly felt among reformed theologians. Perhaps surprisingly, Barth notes the fact that Feuerbach himself cites Luther as the starting point of theology’s turn to anthropology, a turn that he sees himself completing. Feuerbach points to Luther’s christology, with all its (over)emphasis on God’s incarnational and eucharistic this-worldliness, as supporting evidence. More specifically, the key aspect of Luther’s christology for Feuerbach is its claim that only in the Son’s incarnate history is God truly revealed. In making this move, Luther, and the theologians who followed him, “ceased to be interested in what God is in himself and became emphatically interested in what God is for man” (522). From Feuerbach’s perspective, Luther’s rejection of the Deus absconditus laid the foundation upon which he could conclude that God was simply a cleansed form of humanity’s profoundly this-worldly predicates writ large. Once God is epistemically and ontologically rooted in his actions on earth (the economic Trinity), for Feuerbach it is a short step to conclude that his essence is rooted there also.
For the contemporary student of reformed theology, Feuerbach’s employment of Luther represents a perversion of one of the tradition’s most beloved phrases: pro nobis. The latin phrase describes God’s axiomatic commitment to his creatures’ welfare and salvation, a commitment made manifest in Jesus Christ. He is ontologically and irrevocably for us and bound to us in covenantal love. Accordingly, “God” as conceived of apart from the reality that he is “for us” is, in Barth’s classic words, “another God, a strange God” and “by the Christian standard [not] God at all.” [#6] Yet, Feuerbach reminds reformed theologians that the union between God and man must be characterized carefully. The lesson to be learned and relearned is that the mysterious truth of the covenant, and particularly its actualization and climax in the incarnation, cannot be viewed as anything but an asymmetrical union: God, in all his lordliness, loves humanity in freedom (Barth’s words, of course), not in creaturely neediness. To deny the inherent asymmetrical nature of this relationship, whether epistemologically, ontologically, or economically (as one might say in Feuerbach’s reading of Luther) equates the parties and denies the transcendence, and ultimately, the existence of God altogether. It was the gradual loss of this “fundamental assymentry” [#7] in nineteenth century Protestant theology that Feuerbach rightly accentuated in his “anti-theology” and against which Barth positioned his startlingly confessional, expressivist, in a word, theological theology. [#8]
#1 - Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (2nd ed; trans. George Eliot; New York: Harper, 1957), 239.
#2 - Karl Barth, “An Introductory Essay,” in Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity, x.
#3 - Ibid., xi.
#4 - St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 93.
#5 - Feuerbach, “Preface to the Second Edition,” in The Essence of Christianity, xxxviii.
#6 - Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/2, ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance, trans. G.W. Bromiley, et. al (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), 509-510.
#7 - The phrase is taken from Christoph Schwöbel, “The Creature of the Word: Recovering the Ecclesiology of the Reformers,” in On Being the Church: Essays in the Christian Community, ed. Colin Gunton and Daniel W. Hardy (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1989), 120.
#8 - The phrase “theological theology” is most often associated with John Webster’s theological project. This connection stems from Webster’s 1997 inaugural lecture as the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity entitled, “Theological Theology.” The lecture was recently reprinted in his new collection of essays, Confessing God. However, as far as I can tell, the phrase “theological theology” originated as an appellation of Barth’s theology in Martin Rumscheidt’s foreword to Fragments Grave and Gay (Glasgow: Collins, 1971), 10. I have little doubt, of course, that Webster is fully aware of this.