In Defense of Orthodoxy: Lessing between Spinoza and Maimonides

Watling, Daniel, Religious Studies - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Biemann, Asher, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
Jones, Paul, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

G. E. Lessing’s later theological writings have long been understood as a precursor to the German historicist philosophies prevalent throughout the 19th century. In this essay, I attempt to unearth the ironical features of essays such as "The Education of the Human Race" and "A Rejoinder" in order to highlight Lessing’s open-mindedness towards revealed religion. Rather than interpreting Lessing’s work as indicative of a project whereby he assimilates Judaism and Christianity into an outline of Europe’s historical progression towards secularism, I argue that the agnostic Lessing revisits the writings of Benedict de Spinoza and Moses Maimonides for the purpose of offering Christian orthodoxy a sound defense of religion against Enlightenment philosophy and biblical criticism. In remaining open to the possibility of revealed religion, Lessing’s arguments in favor of religion allow him to point to the limitations of human reason, as well as to underscore the shortcomings of Enlightenment philosophy. Furthermore, I wish to demonstrate Lessing’s importance for contemporary scholarship by tracing the influence of his theological essays on major 20th century thinkers, such as Hermann Cohen, Karl Barth, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Leo Strauss.

MA (Master of Arts)
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