David Friedrich Strauß, Father of Unbelief: An Intellectual Biography

Here are some highlights from this 2020 book by Frederic Beiser:

* the vast majority of the Protestant population in the early nineteenth century still saw the Bible as the foundation for their faith. Ever since the Reformation, the Protestant faith rested on Scripture, which the reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli) had made their sole regula fidei. But faith in Scripture presupposed its historical credibility. In opposition to the mystical and allegorical readings of the Bible prevalent in the Roman Catholic tradition,³ the reformers had stressed especially the importance of its literal sense. But to read the Bible literally was to read it historically; it was to
assume that its many reported miracles actually happened just as they were said to have happened. It was precisely this assumption that Strauß made the target of his criticism.

Not surprisingly, then, the reaction to Strauß’s book among the Protestant public was drastic and dramatic. One contemporary described its effect as “a bombshell”;⁴ another likened it to “an electric shock”;⁵ still another wrote about the “panic-stricken terror” among the general public.⁶ Without any exaggeration, it can be safely said that Strauß’s book was the most controversial German publication of the entire nineteenth century. No other book aroused such a strong and sustained reaction.⁷ Understandably, Protestants were shocked by the book because, in questioning the historical credibility of the New Testament, Strauß seemed to attack the very basis of their faith. If faith rested upon the Bible, and if the Bible were not credible, what basis could there be for faith? So, for the orthodox Protestant in 1835, the sky was falling.

* The hostile reaction to Strauß’s book imposed a harsh fate upon him. Trained in the famous Tübinger Stift to become a cleric or theologian, Strauß found himself banished from these professions. It was impossible for him to find employment as a preacher or professor. He was forced to work as an independent author and to live off the meager royalties of his writings. Having acquired the reputation of an antichrist, Strauß was shunned by colleagues and friends, who feared for their reputations and careers if they were known to associate with him.

Strauß soon became a lonely, bitter, and isolated man. He never joined a profession, never formed a lasting marriage, and never enjoyed domestic happiness. Like Ahasverus,⁸ he wandered around Germany from one city to another—Stuttgart,
Heilbronn, Munich, Darmstadt, Cologne, Weimar, and Heidelberg—never finding a stable home. All the rest of his days, except for a brief disastrous marriage, he led the life of a sad recluse. Twenty-five years after the publication of the first edition of Das Leben Jesu, he summarized the effects of his book on his life and career: “It excluded me from public teaching, for which I had desire and perhaps even talent; it tore me out of natural relationships and drove me into unnatural ones; it made the course of my life lonely.”⁹

Because of his fate, Strauß became a very symbolic figure in Germany. Although the orthodox saw him as an antichrist, liberal intellectuals regarded him as a martyr for freethinking. The freethinker was someone who was willing to take his thinking to its ultimate limits, who had the courage of his convictions, and who stated his views in public, regardless of the consequences. This was an admirable ideal; but living by it was very dangerous in an age when religion was still closely guarded by the state. Strauß’s sad life had become a warning to all: watch what you say if you want to keep your reputation and livelihood.

The net effect of Strauß’s book on his generation was to force it to make a choice: one could retreat under the banner of faith or one could push forward with criticism. There was no middle path, however, where one could use reason to justify faith in the Bible.

* … Strauß grabbed the horn of criticism. He believed that it was the duty of everyone to examine the grounds of morality and religion, and that it was impossible to rest content with the imposition of any arbitrary limit on enquiry.¹¹ The modern individual could never accept the appeal to authority, whether it came from the state or church. He or she could rely on their reason alone, which was the only criterion of assent. But was there not a danger that enquiry would never cease, that it would ultimately result in skepticism or nihilism? In the 1830s Strauß was convinced that the quest for reasons would ultimately end, that it would finally come to rest in Hegel’s philosophy. But, by the 1840s, for reasons we shall eventually see,¹² Strauß had to abandon even that ultimate certainty. It was the fate of the modern individual,
he now taught, to accept a life of limitless enquiry which led to no ultimate certainty.

* From the very beginning, Strauß protested against this interpretation. As if to anticipate this very criticism, he wrote in the first paragraph of the final chapter of Das Leben Jesu: “The results of the previous investigation, it appears, is that everything the Christian believes about Jesus has been destroyed, that all encouragement his faith has given him has been taken away, that he is robbed of all consolation. The infinite treasure of truth and life, which have nourished humanity for the last eighteen centuries, appears to have been turned to waste, the most sublime truths crushed into dust, the mercy of God and the dignity of man have been lost, and the bond between heaven and earth has been torn into shreds. (II, 686; §140)”

Strauß goes on to warn his readers that this feeling is premature. Nothing is more dear to him, he assures his readers, than maintaining the fundamental truths of Christianity. His aim was not to destroy Christianity but to preserve it. Although, to be sure, he wanted to replace the traditional historical foundation, which proved ever more precarious and wobbly after the battering of decades of historical criticism, he wanted to provide it with a new speculative foundation.

* Such was the young Strauß’s hunger for immediate experience that he developed an interest in spiritualism. That people could have contact with the spirit world was something he would have to see for himself. In the summer of 1827 he visited a friend, Justinus Kerner, who had a woman living in his house reputed to have psychic powers. The woman, Friederike Hauffe, would later be immortalized by Kerner’s Die Seherin von Prevorst.⁹ When Strauß arrived at Kerner’s house, she
was already talking with the spirits. When Kerner put Strauß’s hand on hers, Strauß had a powerful sensation, one he never felt before. It was as if the boards under his feet were swept away and as if he were falling into an abyss. In his entire
life, Strauß said later, he never felt a comparable moment.¹⁰ The experience awed him. Friedrich Vischer, Strauß’s close friend, later described him after his visit: “I met Strauß just after his first visit with Kerner; he was as if electrified; a deep longing for the dawn of the spirit world overcame him; when in debate he noted the least trace of a rationalism indistinguishable from the shallow enlightenment, he became violently querulous; everyone who did not follow him into his moonlit magical garden was called pagan or turkish.”¹

* Protestantism marks for Strauß the crucial transition from the medieval to the modern period. Although it broke with the absolute authority of the medieval church, it still remained in some respects markedly medieval. It made the Bible its
source of truth rather than the Pope and church councils; but the Bible is still a form of externality and dependence, because it does not give the individual complete authority to judge according to his critical reason (16). In Protestantism, therefore, the freedom of the modern world was only half executed; it will become fully realized only through the reason of philosophy.

Here, in these lines about the Bible and Protestantism, we can see the rationale for Strauß’s forthcoming critique of the New Testament. His aim in Das Leben Jesu was to complete the promise of freedom in Protestantism; that promise could
be realized only by demoting the authority of the Bible, which remained an external constraint on the spirit of the Reformation.

* On the most basic level, there was nothing revolutionary or new about Strauß’s method. It was well-known and practiced by many of his contemporaries, who called it simply the “critical” or “historical method.” This is the method employed
by all historians when they assess the authenticity and reliability of historical documents. Its chief task is to determine the quality of the evidence for a historical statement. It raises the simple and basic questions: “What are the sources for this evidence?,” “Are these sources credible?,” “Who wrote these texts?,” “What motives were there for writing them?,” and, assuming the evidence is credible, “Is it sufficient for the conclusion drawn from it?” These are the kinds of questions that are asked in a court of law to determine the merits of a case, or that are raised by journalists to check the facts behind a story.

In the early nineteenth century, historians, eager to demonstrate the scientific status of their discipline, began to raise these kinds of questions and to pursue them with more rigor and thoroughness than ever before. The two most celebrated historians to use this method were Barthold Niebuhr (1776–1831) and Leopold Ranke (1795–1886). In his Romische Geschichte € (1811),¹ Niebuhr applied the method to test Livy’s famous narrative about the origins of Rome; and in his
Geschichte der romanischen und germanischen Volker € (1824),² Ranke engaged in a critical discussion of Guicciardini’s Storia d’Italia, which for generations had been one of the most trusted sources about Renaissance Italy. As a result of their investigations, Niebuhr and Ranke found these traditional sources to be completely unreliable, partly because they were filled with fabrications and myths, and partly because they passed off mere speculations as if they were facts. Niebuhr and Ranke were important precedents for Strauß and the entire Tübingen historical school. What Niebuhr did for ancient history, and what Ranke did for modern history, that Strauß and the Tübingers now wanted to do for the New Testament.

The importance of Niebuhr and Ranke for Strauß was neatly summarized by Eduard Zeller, a leader of the Tübingen school, when he wrote of its methods: “Its leading principles are the same as those used outside theology by all German historiography since Niebuhr and Ranke.”³

Strauß’s aim in Das Leben Jesu was, simply put, to determine whether the New Testament could be regarded as a reliable historical document. He demanded that the Bible meet the same standards of evidence as any historical writing. In the
preface to his work Strauß insisted that his enquiry would be presuppositionless, which meant, among other things, that he did not want to prejudice his investigation either for or against the New Testament (vi). Whether it was a reliable
historical document would have to be the conclusion, not the starting point, of his investigation. In saying this much, Strauß was simply stating what any historian would say before investigating the reliability of any document. But in the case of the Bible this was an especially important and controversial point to make. The traditional and orthodox assumption about the Bible was that it is the product of supernatural inspiration, that it was written under the guidance of the divine spirit itself, and that it is therefore an infallible historical source. When Strauß insisted that his enquiry be presuppositionless he had in mind especially this assumption.

Rather than granting it, he would investigate it. We could prove the divine authority of the Bible only by determining whether its contents are true; we could not just assume that its contents are true because the Bible has divine authority.
The assumption of the divine authority, and therefore historical truth, of the Bible was still very much alive among Strauß’s predecessors and contemporaries.

It was shared by both schools of biblical interpretation in his day, i.e., the supernaturalists and rationalists. The supernaturalists held that the Bible is about supernatural events, viz., miracles and prophecies, and that these events
actually occurred as described and as the authors understood them. The rationalists, however, maintained that the Bible is about natural events, which actually occurred but not as described because they were misunderstood by their authors as
supernatural. For example, Jesus could indeed cure the sick, but not because of his supernatural powers but because of his superior medical knowledge. Whether about supernatural or natural events, both schools regarded the Bible as accurate
history. It was this common premise of the rationalist and supernaturalist schools that Strauß now wanted to examine.

* Strauß is proceeding according to a historical method, not a natural scientific one. The two methods have different aims and objects: the historical method investigates the evidence that a particular event or action has occurred; the natural scientific method investigates the phenomena of nature to determine why they happen according to general laws. These methods depend on one another. The scientific method presupposes that one makes good observations about what has happened;
and the historical method presupposes the natural scientific one, given that one often assumes the laws of nature in order to investigate the reliability of historical statements. But it is important to see that there is no necessity that the historical method commits one to naturalism, i.e., the principle that everything that takes place in nature occurs according to uniform and regular laws.

The historian cannot rule out a priori the possibility of miracles. If there is a question whether a miracle has occurred, the historian has to investigate it like any other event, accepting or rejecting it strictly according to the evidence for it. In the first edition of Das Leben Jesu Strauß is perfectly clear that his method does not commit himself to naturalism. Thus, in the preface and introduction, Strauß distinguishes his approach from the naturalism of the eighteenth century, which insisted on interpreting the Bible in naturalistic terms simply because it regarded miracles and supernatural revelation as incompatible with the principles of natural science (vii; 33–5, §8). Throughout Das Leben Jesu Strauß rejects naturalistic interpretations of the Bible because they import all kinds of arbitrary and artificial assumptions that are contrary to the intentions of the authors. Even though naturalism might be true, it does not provide a reliable guide for the interpretation of the Bible. The task of the historian is not only to determine what happened but also to interpret the text as it was understood by those who wrote it. Such was Strauß’s attitude in the first edition of Das Leben Jesu. However, in later editions (1837, 1838),⁵ and in his Das Leben Jesu für das deutsche Volk bearbeitet (1864),⁶ Strauß states that the principle of causality is a fundamental principle of critique. If a biblical narrative states something that is contrary to the laws of nature, then that ipso facto stands as evidence against it. Now he makes a tight connection between the historical and natural methods: if a statement is historical, then it must report events that happen according to the laws of nature.

Any historical statement about miracles shows that it is not really history but myth. The later Strauß therefore shows a tightening and hardening attitude against miracles. The difference between him and the earlier Strauß is that between a
stricter and looser attitude toward the principle of causality. In the first edition of Das Leben Jesu Strauß does not treat the principle of causality as an a priori principle. It is still logically or conceptually possible that there are miracles; if one were to occur, we could conceive or understand its occurrence according to our human faculties. If everyone were now to witness a miracle, an event for which there is no possible scientific explanation, then we would have to accept that there are miracles. In the later editions, however, Strauß treats the principle of causality as an a priori principle, one based on the laws of our cognitive constitution, so that a miracle would be completely incomprehensible to us. Any claim that a miracle has occurred would have to be rejected with no need for further investigation.

Reason and experience are “true in themselves,” Strauß insists, and that is because they are “grounded in the laws of human nature and thinking.”⁷

* Strauß’s critique here operates like Hegel’s dialectic: it both negates and preserves; it negates the form (historical narrative) but it also preserves the content (moral or metaphysical truth).

* ² Time and again he argues that the supernaturalistic reading of the text is the correct one because it is what the authors intended and it is in accord with the beliefs and values of their time.

* He insisted that myth is not fable. That is to say: myth is not deliberate fiction, a story invented by someone (29; §8). Whereas fiction is the creation of an individual author who knows that his story is false, myth is the creation of a whole community which believes that its story is true (74; §12). Strauß laid great emphasis on the fact that the creation of myth is unintentional and subconscious (74; §12). Part of the point of this contention was to distinguish his theory of myth from that of the freethinkers, who held that myth arises from the self-conscious deceptions of the clergy, who are intent on controlling and hoodwinking the people.¹⁴

* the myth is not written by an author at all but it is transmitted by a culture, handed down from one generation to the next. The authors are not the creator of the myth but simply the agents of its transmission.

* Strauß’s theory of myth arose to explain something initially very puzzling: Why did people passionately hold beliefs for which there was no evidence, or which were even contrary to the evidence? This was the case for the belief in miracles, which go against all the knowledge we have of the laws of nature. It is also the case for the belief that Jesus is the son of God, which goes against all the knowledge we have that people are fallible and mortal. There needs to be some explanation for these beliefs which goes beyond the cognitive state of the believer, i.e., his or her knowledge of matters of fact.

The explanation Strauß provides states that we hold these beliefs because they express and support the values or ideals of our community. Without them, we would not be able to achieve our common goals or stay together as a group. When an individual creates, or just affirms belief in, a myth, he or she is acting as the mouthpiece of the community, expressing its values or goals through him or herself. Because these beliefs have this social and political function, we are willing
to hold in abeyance the normal laws of evidence; this is because the justification of the beliefs is more pragmatic than logical; they serve our ends or ideals, even if they happen to be false.

* The spirit of a nation or a community consists in the unity of its characteristic forms of social, political, and cultural life; it is what makes it this nation rather than any other, what is unique and distinctive about its culture,
customs, and religious, and political institutions.

* The great value of the Volksgeist theory—and by implication Strauß’s theory of myth—is that it stresses the cultural context of religion, its importance for the values and traditions of a community. It gets beyond the view, deeply entrenched within Protestantism, that religious belief is simply the personal belief of an individual; it sees how religious belief shapes the social and political world of which the individual is only a part.

* To refuse the post would have meant leaving government service entirely, which would have been a terrible disgrace to his parents, who had sacrificed much so that their son could go to the Tübinger Stift. The most difficult consequence of the judgment against him, Strauß later explained,⁷ was the tensions it aroused with his parents. He had to shield them from all the libels and obloquy cast against him. Their son was now known as “the Antichrist of Ludwigsburg,” and the parents felt the infamy. They were sometimes the target of the disapproval and derision directed against their son. Strauß himself was ashamed that his parents were subjected to this. The tensions between son and father grew so great that Strauß eventually had to leave the family home, where he had been living after he left Tübingen.

* Another great source of frustration were his many critics, who were abusing and taunting him when he could find neither time nor energy to reply to them.¹³ It was as if he were nailed to the school bench as his critics hurled sticks and stones at him.

* If it was difficult to bear these critics, it was even more galling for Strauß to see that his closest friends had also been silent, saying nothing to defend him. Strauß wrote his friend Binder in May 1836: “I honestly admit that I have been vexed by my isolated position and that I am angry because of my friends. Together, they were happy to pull the cart with me for so long; but then, as things got serious, they left it standing there.”

* These gods or demons, it turns out, take on the shape of “beautiful and seductive female forms.” Strauß goes on to hint that before the winter he had had an affair that greatly unsettled him; he has gotten over it now; but, still, it “broke
the ice,” and since then he has not been able to find firm ground. Finally, he reveals the source of his present unease: the singer Agnese Schebest, whom he has seen recently in the Stuttgart opera. Strauß confesses that he has been pursuing her—he organized a dinner for her and her friends—and that he has even written a sonnet for her. But he wishes she would leave Stuttgart soon so that he could be rid of this “thorn of unrest.”⁵ As it turned out, five years later he would marry Schebest.

The letter to Rapp is as revealing as it is deceptive. It is revealing because it shows the sexual side of Strauß, which, as he confesses, was a driving force in his life. But it is also deceptive because this seems to be an old story: Strauß has finally found his blue angel, like so many intellectuals, and he does not know how to handle the feelings unleashed in him. Yet Strauß was no naïf in sexual matters—he had already had several sexual affairs—and there were other sides to his crisis which had little to do with sex or “the eternal feminine.” It would be excessively reductivist to think that sex alone was the problem. Another source of Strauß’s crisis was his work. He had grown tired of it and took no pleasure in it.

* After the completion of Das Leben Jesu and the first volume of the Streitschriften, Strauß felt depleted and exhausted; but, even worse, he did not know what to do with himself. He worked with passion on these works because he felt that he had a mission and that he needed to communicate it. But now that the work was done, it seemed that there was nothing more to do. His raison d’être was gone. Where could he go? What could he do?

* Strauß’s crisis had three sources. One was romantic: the lack of a partner. Another was intellectual: the lack of a project or great work. And still another was social: the lack of a position or office in the world. All of them combined to make Strauß’s life miserable. One could be cynical and see the crisis as the result of Strauß’s bourgeois background and expectations. What did he want, someone might say, other than the comfort and status of a wife, family, and good job? But Strauß did not really want security—his income was already sufficient—and he did not really need status—he was already famous. His crisis was—for a lack of a better word—existential: he needed a sense of purpose, the feeling that he mattered and that he could make a difference to the world. That need can be satisfied only in social network, in living and working for others and for some cause bigger than oneself…

There were no obvious solutions. He could not find a university position, because no one would employ a heretic. And he could not find a suitable partner, because he lived in virtual isolation and it was difficult to meet women…

* Both Protestant and Catholic hermeneutics assumed that the Bible was the product of divine inspiration, that it was written, as it were, “by the hand of God” (122). If this were so, then the Bible must be a perfect document, an organic whole where all parts are necessary, and where no part is missing. But everything known about the composition of the Bible seemed to belie this assumption. Rather than written all at once under divine inspiration, the Bible was a compilation of many texts composed at different times. Apparently, some books had gone missing, because other books refer to them, though now they appear nowhere in the text, not even under another name (129). Furthermore, the Bible was made from copies of original documents, all of which were lost. What ensured that the copies handed down to us are faithful reproductions (128)? Any document handed down through the generations becomes altered or mutilated in the course of transmission. Richard Simon, in his Histoire critique du vieux testament,¹⁵ found thousands of such errors (128). The presumed perfection of the Bible was further undermined by the presence of many grammatical errors in Hebrew in the Old Testament and in Greek in the New Testament. The authors of these texts, it seemed, were very far from the perfection and infallibility claimed for the holy spirit (126). Was their ignorance and crudity to be ascribed to the divine spirit
itself, to the auctor primarius scripturae? Hardly.

If the Bible is not perfect in its text or composition, it is no better in its content, Strauß contends. One could not derive from Scripture any satisfactory moral or metaphysical doctrine. Many parts of the Old Testament contained objectionable anthropomorphic concepts of God, viz., its references to God’s anger and jealousy, or to his movement from one place to another (183). And there were contradictions in its morals, viz., although Moses declared one ought not to kill, God commanded the Jews to wipe out the Canaanites (183–4). Regarding morals, there were also irreconcilable conflicts between the New and Old Testaments, viz., the Old Testament promised the Jews earthly happiness but the New Testament foresaw bliss only in heaven; the Old Testament allowed vengeance but the New Testament preached forgiveness of one’s enemy (184, 198). Because of these conflicting passages, one could put together from the Bible only an incoherent
morals or a very selective and arbitrary one.

* According to Strauß’s account of the controversy, the opposing camps in the Jewish question come from different social and economic strata (117b). Those in favor of Jewish emancipation are from the educated urban classes; and those against it are the less educated rural classes or peasants. Many people think that culture, education, and humanity are totally on the side of emancipation, while opposition to it comes from prejudice, superstition, and old privileges. But this
opinion fails to understand, Strauß argues, the reasons for the peasants’ hostility toward emancipation. No one would say that the revolt of the peasants against feudal burdens has been unjust and willful (117b). But the peasants’ feelings toward the Jews are just part and parcel of their general revolt against such oppression (118a). Just as the peasant has been oppressed by his landlord, who demands ever higher payments for the use of his land, so he has been oppressed by
the Jew, who demands ever increasing interest on his loans. If the peasant fails to pay, he suffers a terrible fate: the landlord takes away the land and the Jew takes away his property. It is not surprising, then, that the peasants oppose emancipation; they think that it is only to give the Jew carte blanche for further exploitation.

Anyone who speaks against abolition of the death penalty or emancipation nowadays, Strauß writes, is likely to be shunned by the liberal and treated as if he were a medieval barbarian (118a). All the newspapers speak in one voice about the
need for emancipation, though they express mainly the interests of the urban classes and ignore the grievances of the rural ones. The liberal and humanitarian ideas behind emancipation are a fashion, Strauß insists, and they stand just as
much in need of criticism as the old patriarchic and religious ideas…

Strauß reveals the core of his position through an anecdote. In 1842 he was sitting in the gallery of the Baden Estates Assembly listening to a debate about emancipation with his friend Züllig, who was the stenographer for the occasion. He heard the views of one speaker, a certain Herr Zittel, who dared to oppose the liberals. Zittel said that he agreed with the liberals that in the modern state religion should not be a reason to exclude any citizen from receiving full civil and political rights; but for him the crucial question was whether Jews really were citizens (118b). “Are the Jews full members of our nation?” he asked. It would seem not, he argued, because they do not share the same descent as we, and because they separate themselves from us as if they were better than us. The state cannot allow such a “separate organism” within itself, such “a state within a state,” Zittel continued. As long as the Jews are like this, it is not religious intolerance but political prudence to grant them civil rights only under certain conditions. Such was the view of Herr Zittel; but, without hesitation or qualification, Strauß assures us that it is his view too. “This seemed to me to be cogently said not only then but even today,” he writes; “I still have not heard anything that has refuted it” (118b).
Zittel’s views, as Strauß briefly expounds them, were essentially those of Paulus, Fries, and Rühs, who had made their case against emancipation in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Their argument was that the Jews were an alien people within the German nation, and that therefore they did not deserve full civil and political rights. Just as we do not grant a Frenchman or Englishman resident in Germany such rights, so we should not do so to Jews, who, no less than
Frenchmen and Englishman, are guests or resident foreigners. A Jew has his homeland in Israel, just as a Frenchman has his in France and an Englishman in England. Under these circumstances, Paulus and Fries argued, it would be foolish for the state to grant civil and political rights to the Jews, because this would be to allow a state within the state, which either divides or severely limits sovereignty.

* He refers to the Jews as “uninvited guests” (119a); he warns against the state within the state; and he explains why the Jews, because of their religious heritage, will always want to be separate from the rest of the community (118b). Yet Strauß does not draw the same conclusion from this argument as his more conservative predecessors. For all his agreement with them, he offers a solution to the Jewish question that they could not accept at all and that is not even conservative.

Strauß has nothing in principle against emancipation, nothing against granting Jews full civil and political rights, provided that they meet one condition. This condition is that they are willing to forswear their separation from non-Jews; this does not mean abjuring their faith but it does mean living on an equal basis with non-Jews. Strauß admits that the Jews are not likely to agree with this. How, then, overcome the rift in the body politic, the separation between Jews and Gentiles? Strauß refers us to the example of the ancients. When the Romans faced the increasing division of their body politic into patricians and plebeians, their solution to this problem was connubium.²³ In other words, intermarriage. If
Cupid is only allowed to do his work, Strauß imagines, then the division in the modern community will slowly heal, just as happened in ancient Rome.

Strauß realizes that with the present status quo, families on both sides will refuse to allow intermarriage. But he is confident that this resistance will disappear with the passage of time (119b). Now that the state does not regard itself as Christian, he reasons, families too will have no special reason to regard themselves as Christians; and if the Christians do not regard themselves as such, the Jews will follow suit. The general tendency of the time is moving toward greater religious fragmentation and the multiplication of sects, Strauß observes, so that it will not be long before the Jew will cease to appear “a strange bird” (ein so ganz besonderer Vogel) (119b).

This vision of a single nation, where religious differences cease to play any role at all, was not that of the conservatives, who wanted to keep religious differences, with all the laws enforcing Christian privileges, intact. Strauß’s position is more akin to the political left—to thinkers like Bruno Bauer, Karl Marx, and Wilhelm Marr—who opposed Jewish emancipation on the grounds that it would keep intact religious differences. Strauß, like these thinkers, looked forward to a future where all religious differences were overcome and where everyone had their rights and duties simply as human beings..

* When he was campaigning for a seat in the Frankfurt Parliament he explicitly affirmed its principle that everyone deserves equal civil and political rights regardless of religious confession.²⁴ No conditions are attached to Jews receiving such rights. It was understandable that Strauß would want to affirm this principle because, it turned out, the Jews were among his most stalwart supporters during the election.²⁵ To complete the irony: the peasants, whose interests Strauß defended in his article, were his most vehement opponents.

* In his final assessment, Strauß writes that Schleiermacher’s was the last great attempt to save the Christian faith and the authority of Scripture (130). His efforts were heroic; but ultimately they failed. One must pay tribute to him because he was so far ahead of his predecessors and contemporaries. In one telling metaphor, Strauß sums up all his merits and flaws (30). The theologians before Schleiermacher stopped their ears so that they could not hear the sirens’ song; he was braver than they because he kept his ears open. Still, he insisted that he be chained to the mast. This was his tragic mistake. This made him only a half critic; but the true critic not only hears the sirens’ song but breaks the chains tying him to the mast. He then has to face the wide open sea, not sure when or where, or indeed whether, he will make
a landing.

* Nietzsche wrote his essay on Strauß in spring 1873, very early in his career. Unzeitgemäße Betrachtungen was only the second of his published books. It was telling that he opened his literary career with a critique of Strauß. This was in itself a tribute to Strauß’s importance for him. We must not forget: Nietzsche was once an admirer of Strauß, whom he regarded as the greatest freethinker of his age.⁴ Now, however, Nietzsche wanted to inherit that mantle; he would attempt to steal it from Strauß by showing that he had betrayed the ideal of freethinking.

* Schweitzer’s second chapter on Strauß begins with a generous assessment of his literary achievement: “As a literary work, Strauß’s first life of Jesus belongs to the most perfect of scientific world literature. Over 1400 pages but not a sentence too many; an analysis into the most minute details and no getting lost in trivialities; the style is simple, rich in images, at times ironic but always respectful and dignified” (76). Strauß’s main contribution to theology, according to Schweitzer, lay in his dismantling of the rationalist and supernaturalist traditions, which never recovered from his searing critical indictment (82). There are still ghostly remnants of these traditions haunting contemporary theology, Schweitzer says, but one only needs to mention the words “David Friedrich Strauß” to scare off these ghosts.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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