Christian Themes

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The medieval legend of Faust is a morality tale of sin and damnation. In contrast, Goethe’s Faust is a drama of human striving for the divine and salvation through grace. God is a dynamic creator and sustainer of the universe. He has created humankind in his image. Thus, Faust and all human beings should actively engage the world in which they live. Above all else, God is benevolent. He embraces all his creation and creatures, including the devils. Every creature has its divine purpose within this unorthodox framework of Providence and good versus evil. God’s ultimate plan is to release humankind from earthly despair and suffering. His means are beyond human reason and comprehension. Human beings see only the bitter contest between good and evil, in which evil often prevails. Only at death does a soul see the whole of Providence and God’s grace. On earth, Faust leads Margarete to her downfall. In Heaven, Gretchen prays to the Virgin for Faust’s soul.

In Faust, Christian love redeems the sins of the world no matter how egregious. As a sign of amazing grace, the person most violated by the sinner, Gretchen, is the one to plead for redemption of the sinner. Gretchen embodies the magnanimity of Christian mercy and forgiveness. Thus, the heavens in the final scene of Faust are full of souls ascending toward God. The Mystical Choir concludes the drama with the Christian distinction between imperfect human life and perfect spiritual life in God:

Everything transitoryIs only a resemblance;The unobtainableBecomes a reality here;The indescribableIs here achieved;The Eternal FeminineLifts us up.

In this life, human beings cannot comprehend God and his perfect creation, yet the force of Love will ultimately redeem humankind.


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Salvation Through Constant Striving
This is perhaps the most dominant theme of Faust. The Prologue in Heaven explicitly sets the groundwork for this theme throughout the rest of the play by implicitly comparing Goethe’s conception of the universe in Faust to that of the Old Testament’s in Job. The latter’s view of creation does not allow for deviation from the prescribed path and commands a blind acceptance of one’s fate, but Goethe’s suggests that humans are free to err and that error, in fact, is inevitable for one who strives toward understanding. Only through questions and challenges can one be saved, not through a static obedience. Ultimately, Faust comes to realize that one must strive to become one with the ultimate—that this striving is essentially human.

Individual Action
An offshoot of the first theme, individual action should strive to be creative and generative, not evil or destructive. In acting, humans emulate the creative action of the Lord, ecstatic, full of motion and creative energy, while non-action, passivity, and acceptance are sinful. In fact, this theme is reflected in Faust’s pact with the devil: Faust states that the day he actually feels content will be the day he surrenders his soul to the devil. This theme is first suggested in Faust’s translation of the first line of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Deed.”

The individual is a key part of this theme: Faust acts by himself, for himself, without relying on an intermediary like the church. Goethe seems to suggest that humans have an individual relationship to the divine, and he is often critical of the church throughout Faust because of its materialism and its concern with worldly matters. For example, see Mephisto’s reaction to Gretchen’s mother’s donation of the jewels to the church in Part I, or the church’s inability to address Gretchen’s suffering after she was...

(This entire section contains 520 words.)

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abandoned by Faust. Not only is the individual key, but the individual’s concern for others is also necessary for salvation.

Goethe sets up many dichotomies—reason versus animal desires, spirituality versus materialism, love versus lust—that are examined throughout the course of the text, usually following Faust’s caprices. For example, Faust must commit several sins against reason in order to seduce Gretchen and thus fulfill his desire to find love. In these choices that Faust must make, Mephisto usually represents the more animalistic side of Faust’s psyche, acting as foil and tempter to the full range of human experience. Gretchen, in contrast, is the part of Faust that is pure and innocent, appealing to the more tender and loving side of Faust. Indeed, Faust is often torn between his lust for Gretchen and his love for her, causing these polarized forces to wrestle within his conscience for dominance. After Gretchen’s death, Faust realizes the consequences of his unchecked lust and begins to see the moral necessity of human reason, compassion, and love. Part II carries on this theme by contrasting, and in some sense synthesizing, the Classical and the Romantic traditions.