May 27: Wrong!

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing has three awesome names, the last of which is on this big pile of oversize books in what I believe passes for a theme park in Germany:

Bring the kinder to "Supergymasium!"

Nevertheless, I think Lessing is wrong right from the get-go in justifying God's ways to Man:

THAT which Education is to the Individual, Revelation is to the Race.


Education is Revelation coming to the Individual Man; and Revelation is Education which has come, and is yet coming, to the Human Race.

(Note: this is one of those weird Bartelby formatting issues that I'm too tired to reformat into blockquote.)

Nice try, liberal! (Lessing, according to Wikipedia, was one of those eighteenth-century Enlightenment types. Couldn't have proved it by me.) If God thought we needed education, then why does He allow TV and licentious dancing -- frequently mixed together? I'm not even sure the non-revelation part of this thesis is correct:


Education gives to Man nothing which he might no educe out of himself; it gives him that which he might educe out of himself, only quicker and more easily. In the same way too, Revelation gives nothing to the human species, which the human reason left to itself might not attain; only it has given, and still gives to it, the most important of these things earlier.

Really? I might be able to educe out of myself -- or "teach," to use a slang term -- molecular biology? To say nothing of the fact that it tries to make Revelation reasonable, which is not only not possible, but also -- and I say this as someone with a certain amount of sympathy to Revelation -- not desirable. If Revelation is reasonable, what's the point of it? It's like when, after a lifetime of Catholicism, I first went to a Protestant service -- all they're gonna do is talk? Where's the magic trick?

But I suspect Lessing is trying to reconcile the fundamentalist fire-breathers with the newfangled book-learnin', like the guy in your dorm who wanted to use the Big Bang as a way to prove Genesis. He's trying hard to please both sides -- Lessing spends much of the excerpt trying to placate the smartasses who point out that God forgot to mention an afterlife in the Old Testament:
In the same way, in the writings of the Old Testament those primers for the rude Israelitish people, unpractised in thought, the doctrines of the immortality of the soul, and future recompenses, might be fairly left out: but they were bound to contain nothing which could have even procrastinated the progress of the people, for whom they were written, in their way to this grand truth. And to say but a small thing, what could have more procrastinated it than the promise of such a miraculous recompense in this life? A promise made by Him who promises nothing that He does not perform.
See, God didn't think the Israelites could handle the truth, so he "forgot" to tell them. How surprised they must have been after they died! "And such small portions," I hope they said.

But, lest the fire-breathers start complaining that Lessing only wants to meet the needs of the smartasses, he also throws in some anti-Semitic red meat:


But when He neither could nor would reveal Himself any more to each individual man, He selected an individual People for His special education; and that exactly the most rude and the most unruly, in order to begin with it from the very commencement.

In other words, God could have chosen any people, but to make it doubly hard on himself, he chose Jews. He's like Paul Bunyan or something! A small-g god would have chosen, I don't know, Hittites, but not Yahweh, the guy who drinks hot sauce in 55-gallon drums. It's a good thing the Daily Reading Guide mentions that Lessing was a pioneer of tolerance or I might get the wrong idea, (although by what I imagine the standards of Harvard faculty clubs to be back in 1908, this was a tolerant attitude).

To leave the theological part aside, I have another question, which is -- Lessing seems to assume that we, the human project, need our baby steps; we are in the process of being educated, and progress is slow. And I do wonder: are we doing as well as we can? Or are all the innovations that make life so different than it was in Lessing's time (1729-1781) -- is all the stuff we should have come up with centuries ago, and it's just that we're kind of idiots?

I think it's mostly a factor of having the surplus population to spare for the think tanks, myself. The downside of that is that you also have plenty of extra people who go into the law. But all progress comes at a price, I guess.

No comments: