Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
In contrast to the constructive theology that readers might expect from the title, The Essence of Christianity instead poses a sharp critique of Christian religion and a strong challenge to German philosophical idealism. The book had significant influence among European intellectuals of the early nineteenth century, including philosophical atheists such as Karl Marx. Ludwig Feuerbach’s text was especially important in the broader historical context of political confrontation with forms of nineteenth century religion perceived to be in “unholy” alliance with repressive political authority. Despite its fundamental critique of normative Jewish and Christian theology, The Essence of Christianity has remained important for a range of thinkers as theologically diverse as Swiss theologian Karl Barth and Jewish philosopher Martin Buber.
Feuerbach’s central thesis is that Christian religion has “projected” and thus “displaced” qualities of human consciousness onto “sacred” objects, and by doing so, it has misrepresented the true essence of religion and the fundamental reality of human nature and human consciousness. By constructing the sacred as an “object” that is external to the human being, religion has alienated humankind from the truth of its own nature. For example, the divine entities that Christianity calls “God” or “Christ” are actually human capacities for “understanding,” “creativity,” and “love,” but these human qualities have been falsely construed by religion as being the characteristics of a separate and supernatural being. For Feuerbach, there is no objectively real supernatural realm: God does not exist as a distinct supernatural reality. Instead, God is created by the human “subjective” capacity to imagine God’s existence. Like all aspects of existence, human imagination is an expression of “nature.” For Feuerbach, the starting point for all philosophy (including theology) is the human being, as both individual and species.
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Sources for Further Study
Barth, Karl. Introduction to The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach. Translated by George Eliot. New York: Harper, 1957. Barth examines Feuerbach’s work for its relation to Protestant theology. Also contains a foreword by H. Richard Niebuhr.
De Roover, Jakob. “An Unhappy Lover of Theology: Feuerbach and Contemporary Religious Studies.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 71, no. 3 (September, 2003): 615-635. Analyzes Feuerbach for underlying Christian presuppositions, critiquing issues related to pluralistic scholarship in comparative religion.
Harvey, Van A. Feuerbach and the Interpretation of Religion. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. Interpretive emphasis on “projection theory.”
Niebuhr, H. Richard. Foreword to The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach. Translated by George Eliot. New York: Harper, 1957. Niebuhr addresses Feuerbach’s significance for Protestant theology.
Wartofsky, Marx W. Feuerbach. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1977. Focuses on contexts of philosophy and intellectual history.