Goethe on the Bible

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, On the Bible
From Conversations with Eckermann

Sunday, March 11, 1832.

This evening for an hour Goethe talked on various excellent topics. I had purchased an English Bible, but found to my great regret that it did not include the Apocrypha, because these were not considered genuine and divinely inspired. I missed the truly noble Tobias, the wisdom of Solomon and Jesus Sirach, all writings of such deeply spiritual value, that few others equal them. I expressed to Goethe my regret at the narrow exclusiveness thus manifested. He entirely agreed with me.

“Still,” said he, “there are two points of view from which Biblical subjects may be regarded. There is that of primitive religion, of pure nature and reason, which is of divine origin. This will ever remain the same, and will endure as long as divinely endowed beings exist. It is, however, only for the elect, and is far too high and noble to become universal.

“Then there is the point of view of the Church, which is of a more human nature. This is fallible and fickle, but, though perpetually changing, it will last as long as there are weak human beings. The light of cloudless divine revelation is far too pure and radiant for poor, weak man. But the Church interposes as mediator, to soften and moderate, and all are helped. Its influence is immense, through the notion that as successor of Christ it can relieve the burden of human sin. To secure this power, and to consolidate ecclesiasticism is the special aim of the Christian priesthood.

“Therefore it does not so much ask whether this or that book in the Bible effects a great enlightenment of the mind, it much more looks to the Mosaic and prophetic and Gospel records for allusions to the fall of man, and the advent to earth and death of Christ, as the atonement for sin. Thus you see that for such purposes the noble Tobias, the wisdom of Solomon, and the sayings of Sirach have little weight.

“Still, the question as to authenticity in details of the Bible is truly singular. What is genuine but the really excellent, which harmonises with the purest reason and nature, and even now ministers to our highest development? What is spurious but the absurd, hollow, and stupid, which brings no worthy fruit? If the authenticity of a Biblical writing depends on the question whether something true throughout has been handed down to us, we might on some points doubt the genuineness of the Gospels, of which Mark and Luke were not written from immediate presence and experience, but long afterwards from oral tradition. And the last, by the disciple John, was written in his old age.

“Yet I hold all four evangelists as thoroughly genuine, for there is in them the reflection of a greatness which emanated from the person of Jesus, such as only once has appeared on earth. If anyone asks whether it is in my nature to pay Him devout reverence, I say–‘Surely, yes!’ I bow before Him as the divine revelation of the highest principle of morality. If I am asked whether it is in my nature to revere the sun, again I say–‘Surely, yes!’ For the sun is also a manifestation of the highest, and, indeed, the mightiest which we children of earth are allowed to behold. But if I am asked whether I am inclined to bow before a thumb-bone of the apostle Peter or Paul, I say, ‘Spare me, and stand off with your absurdities!’

“Says the apostle, ‘Quench not the spirit.’ The high and richly-endowed clergy fear nothing so much as the enlightenment of the lower orders. They withheld the Bible from them as long as possible. What can a poor member of the Christian church think of the princely pomp of a richly endowed bishop, when against this he sees in the Gospels the poverty of Christ, travelling humbly on foot with His disciples, while the princely bishop drives along in a carriage drawn by six horses!

“We do not at all know,” continued Goethe, “all that we owe to Luther and the Reformation generally. We are emancipated from the fetters of spiritual narrowness. In consequence of our increasing culture, we have become capable of reverting to the fountain-head, and of comprehending Christianity in its purity. We have again the courage to stand with firm feet upon God’s earth, and to realise our divinely endowed human nature. Let spiritual culture ever go on advancing, let the natural sciences go on ever gaining in breadth and depth, and let the human mind expand as it may, it will never go beyond the elevation and moral culture of Christianity as it shines and gleams in the Gospel!

“But the more effectually we Protestants advance in our noble development, so much the more rapidly will the Catholics follow. As soon as they feel themselves caught in the current of enlightenment, they must go on to the point where all is but one.

“The mischievous sectism of Protestantism will also cease, and with it alienation between father and son, brother and sister. For as soon as the pure teaching and love of Christ, as they really are, are comprehended and consistently practised, we shall realise our humanity as great and free, and cease to attach undue importance to mere outward form.

“Furthermore, we shall all gradually advance from a Christianity of word and faith to one of feeling and action.”

The conversation next turned on the question how far God is influencing the great natures of the present world. Said Goethe, “If we notice how people talk, we might almost believe them to be of opinion that God had withdrawn into silence since that old time before Christ, and that man was now placed on his own feet, and must see how he can get on without God. In religious and moral matters a divine influence is still admitted, but in matters of science and art it is insisted that they are merely earthly, and nothing more than a product of pure human powers.

“But now let anyone only attempt with human will and human capabilities to produce something comparable with the creations that bear the names of Mozart, Raphael, or Shakespeare. I know right well that these three noble men are not the only ones, and that in every department of art innumerable excellent minds have laboured, who have produced results as perfectly good as those mentioned. But, if they were as great as those, they transcended ordinary human nature, and were in just the same degree divinely gifted.”

Goethe was silent, but I cherished his great and good words in my heart.

 

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