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Meditations on God, Faith and the Enlightenment

by Heinz Zahrnt and Walter Dietz Sunday, Dec. 26, 2010 at 6:59 AM

Christmas should be a time for the poor, for restructuring the economy so it does not only benefit a few and so public necessities like education, health care and housing are rights and not privileges. We are living in a dark age when financiers deny their responsibility.


By Heinz Zahrnt

[This excerpt is translated from the German on the Internet. Heinz Zahrnt (1915-2003), protestant theologian and journalist, turned against the notion of God’s death. “That a Christian cannot prove his faith in the sense of a worldview rationalism does not free him or her from the duty of making it understandable in critical rationalism. An understandable Yes or No is involved in the encounter with Christianity, not an arbitrary decision. Whoever says No to Christianity should at least understand what he rejects.”

1. The natural science explanation of the world and historical criticism

Before the Enlightenment finally reached us, history was like a window through which one beheld God and nature as a kind of temple forecourt, God’s front garden so to speak. Both together formed the numinous and therefore glorious and terrible marginal zone of God’s holiness. But when an airplane falls at 11:46 today because a screw loosened somewhere in the motor, no rational person dares explain that God caused this disaster through direct intervention or that this was his will from eternity. When people hunger and groan today under the pressure of unjust social conditions, no responsible person dares argue that such injustice was inflicted by God or comforts the afflicted with the prospect for eternal life.

In the same measure as science explains the world in a so-called natural way by penetrating the causal connection, God was driven out of the world and a void appeared in human society and existence. An increasing feasibility of all things corresponded to this increasing repression of God from the world. The person is no longer only a spectator on the stage of the world, guided from the top or outside but is now the director himself. From an actor, he has become a producer. All this entailed a certain loss in experience of God. Weather, massacres, sickness, political systems and social changes are seen today in their natural causes and as a result stripped of their divine character.

2. The change of the authority term

Before the Enlightenment finally reached us, what was handed down from the fathers or what was given by God – God and the fathers usually coincided – was regarded indisputably as authority. Today people are no longer ready to accept a truth as binding only it is guaranteed from outside by God or the fathers. Appeal to an objective outward norm is no longer enough to justify a truth, whether this norm is “It stands written” or “Rome has spoken.” Even the party is not always right. Instead every offered truth is now first subjected to criticism. One accepts it when it proves true from within. Therefore for example the elevated position of the pulpit in our churches has become very suspect. This elevated place is the expression of an authoritarian monologue. Here the truth is proclaimed down from above to the hearing people. Today the truth is found in dialogue in which everyone is on the same ground with each other.

Faith in God has also lost its self-evidence with this change of authority. Faith in God ceases being that sheltering living space in which a child grows by himself. Pious customs and Christian morals which shaped the everyday- or holiday garb of faith up to now and covered the believer like a protective robe dissolve. Experiences with God made by mothers and fathers are no longer adopted.

3. Sociological-economic ideology criticism

Before the Enlightenment finally reached us, an indissoluble connection prevailed between above and below, between heaven and earth and thus a relation of interests between the one Lord in heaven and the many lords on earth. The Lord in heaven bestowed something of his divine power on the earthly lords. The latter returned the favor by worrying about his reverence on earth. Today no one is prepared any more to allow any authoritarian structures to be unquestioned or unexamined and to be satisfied with anything other than rational arguments for their legitimation. As science destroyed everything that was religiously higher by exploring the connection of nature and history and transforming the universe from a monarchy to a republic, Marxist ideology criticism does the same with the help of its penetration of the economic and social connections. The pleasure of fishing over there or on the other side, as Bloch said once, was destroyed since the economic-sociological root of such pleasure was uncovered and religion suspected of being an ideological superstructure or false mirror of society, in a word as “opium” of the people.

All heavenly theocracy was dissolved and all earthly hierarchy stripped of all metaphysical-heteronymous character. The earthly lords also fell with the heavenly supremacy and the earthly fathers with the divine supreme father or All-Powerful. The person began to lift himself and walk upright before God, his sovereign, the heavenly Father and his human father. Not always entirely free from all interest-ideology, social science showed how the picture of God is always marked and influenced by the interests of believers. Since farmers were interested in good weather, God for them was the weather God. Since soldiers desired victory, they appealed to God as the Lord of hosts. Since politicians sought to stabilize their power, they called upon God as the custodian of order. Since owners wanted to maintain their property, they called God the giver of all gifts. Thus everyone unconsciously cooked his own little soup on the divine fire of the altar.

A vacuum arose in that the social sciences covered up this connection between faith in God and human interest ideologues. Since God is no longer the guarantor of their interests, many people no longer know how they should speak with him and why they should still worship God.

4. Shift of consciousness from the world to come to this side

Before the Enlightenment finally reached us, people focused on the world to come and asked about their eternal salvation. They hoped the answer to this question would help them endure their life on this side. Today people look to time, not to eternity and ask how they can withstand their earthly life. If they hope for anything, they hope the answer to this question will hold up even in the hour of their death and guide them to eternal life. The enjoyment of life has turned around a hundred-and-eighty degrees in the modern age.

The answer to the challenge of Christian faith in God by modern religion criticism

By Heinz Zahrnt

[This article is translated from the German on the Internet, http://www.dober.de/religiouskritik/zahrnt.html. Heinz Zahrnt (1915-2003), protestant theologian and journalist, grappled critically with religion criticism. All speech for God, whether Christian or non-Christian, must grapple with the projection-suspicion raised by Feuerbach and modern religion criticism.]


There is no possibility of an absolute exclusion of the suspicion of projection.

Given the problem of projection, we are in a dilemma that we cannot solve rationally but can only withstand existentially.

The person is the questioning being in the world that cannot stop asking anew and constantly transcending him or herself.


Religion belongs to the person from the start and is not secondary to human existence.

Historical development has not done justice to religion criticism. It has refuted more than confirmed religion criticism.


The same Bible that strictly prohibits making any picture of God is full of human pictures and conceptions of God.

As certainly as God’s revelation is directed to people, human speech for God cannot happen without projections.

The possibility of projections includes and does not exclude annulment of reality.

The reproach of projection requires and makes possible the cleansing of human conceptions of God.

The crucial answer to the challenge from modern religion criticism is that theology strives to confirm faith in God in the reality of the world and in this way to weaken the suspicion of projection through verification.


The credibility or incredulity of speech for God, what supports faith in God for the humanliness of people, is decided in the conflict between faith in God and atheism.

Christians have to change the world socially and not only interpret the world theologically in the sense of Jesus of Nazareth.

From: H. Zahrnt: Stammt Gott von Menschen ab? Zurich 1979


By Walter Dietz

[These theses are translated from the German on the Internet. Walter Dietz is a professor of protestant theology at the University of Mainz.]

1) The elementary connection of salvation and healing: The Christian gospel is only credible where it goes along with the salvation of the person in the deeper sense. Healing aims at harmony of the person in a concrete body-soul relation, at internal and external balance.

2) On the command of charity: The Christian message to love one’s neighbor as oneself does not negate the ability to accept oneself but presupposes this ability. In Christianity, (socially mediated) self-realization is central, not self-obliteration.

3) Teaching on sin: Exaggerated guilt-fixation is different from genuine concrete guilt. What is neurotic in Christianity is best overcome where one no longer sinks in the feeling of an infinite unpardonable guilt (gnashing of teeth mentality; neurotic expansion of guilt feelings of being responsible for everyone and everything).

4) Doctrine of God: God is not the omnipotent or almighty Father who complies with my desires as conjured (Bonhoeffer: Deus ex machine). God is not omnipotent or almighty in the abstract sense (cf. Scholastic spiritualizing in the monastery cell: Can God create a stone so heavy he could not lift it himself?) Rather God is the God loving in his omnipotence (and therefore only almighty in his love)!

5) Feminist criticism: God is not the absolute super-Father, super-macho, pater familias. God must be described as love in suffering and self-renunciation (Christ in death), as the God looking after us (God’s providence). God is better described with motherly or maternal attributes (tradition-connected objection: In the context of the Trinity, God is only describable as Father, not as mother).

6) Christology (nature and meaning of the person Jesus Christ): The depth psychology criticism of Christology criticizes its dependence on the illusion-rooted ideal of Jesus’ “messianity.” In contrast, what is special in Christ is his not corresponding to that ideal of messianity. In answering Freud’s religion-criticism, christology should not cover up the dimension of Jesus’ suffering and death or whitewash or gloss over this through a new form of theologia gloriae. Rather Christ should be proclaimed as the one whose way of life goes against all human ideals. Christ’s cross represents the end of religious illusion, universally as the unmasking of all religious illusion, and in no way only with view to the messiah hope of Judaism not fulfilled as expected. The illusion is that God could reveal himself immediately and free of pain and suffering as love, in addition that we can religiously develop and live out our omnipotence fantasies as disciples. Here the cross is the decisive turning point, the turning away from an illusion, the fundamental collective disillusioning of people. Christianity could never have existed without this pain of disillusionment. Because Freud was far removed from this central discovery of Christianity, his criticism was also very far from the heart of the matter. Christianity pursues illusion-criticism and sees a “wholesome despair” in disillusionment as the transition to a free self-understanding and world consciousness.
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