Lessing's Passion and Human Goodness

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The German poet-philosopher, Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781), became the spokesman for Germany's intellectuals whose religion focused on human goodness. 

Goodness, for Lessing, was the unconditional acceptance of all human expressions of love. The true believer, according to Lessing, is the person whose heart is filled with tolerance for people of all faiths, be they Jews, Christians, or Muslims. Faith is the pursuit of virtue without any expectation of reward. Truth, he said, cannot be formulated, it can only be lived. Lessing was quote as saying, "If God had truth in his right hand and the search for truth in his left, I would choose the left." 

Who of us would not be quick to express our disagreement with Lessing? But wait, what if there is perhaps more of Lessing in us than we might realize?

I belong to the segment of humanity who has known seasons when the flame of faith burns dimly. And I try then to live a bit more virtuously, hoping to feel better about myself and even be restored to God's favor. 

This, I believe, is a very human response to failure...

In fact, I think it was a bit on the mind of the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism (Ursinus and Olivianus). When they talked about the ideals of good works, they become almost a bit strident: "Why can't the good we do make us right with God...?" (qu 62). And in the next question: "How can you say that the good we do doesn't earn us anything?" Yes, that could be me talking...

It's here that the Catechism (again) turns to the Scriptures. Even our best works are not perfect. Our hope lies in grace. This is why Christ came and it is what the Bible echoes. 

Do my experiences actually confirm that? Though I treasure the moments of excellence in my life, I also know that they don't prevail all the time. I need forgiveness, over and over. I need to live by grace. I am thankful for Christianity. I wonder how Lessing came to size up his religion of human goodness when he came to the last season of his life. 

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Thanks, Louis, for a perceptive article distinguishing Gotthold Lessing’s perception and the Christian perspective on God’s acceptance of people.  If I get the gist of Lessing’s thinking, he thought God would judge people based on the good they had done.  And seeing as all people have done some good, God would be gracious and accept all, at least to some degree.  When you ask, “I wonder how Lessing came to size up his religion of human goodness when he came to the last season of his life,” he probably felt good about God’s love and grace, knowing that he will spend eternity with God.  This comes close to what the Mormons believe, that all are God’s children and will spend eternity in heaven, rather than hell.

Of course Christians have a much different perspective.  Christians teach that all people have failed to reach God’s standard of moral perfection and therefor deserve eternal damnation.  The good news is that all who truly acknowledge Christ, as Savior and Lord, will experience God’s grace and forgiveness.  And those who do not acknowledge Christ will only experience God’s justice and eternal damnation.  Of course, Christianity is the only religion, that offers a substitutionary payment for sin.  But seldom, if ever, do Christians mention that God’s grace and forgiveness is only for the elect, those chosen by God.  And the rest of humanity are left to stand before a severe and just God and will spend eternity in hell.

Lessing tends to look at the goodness in people, whereas Christians look at the moral failure of people (at least when it comes to salvation).  And of course, most religions side with Lessing, rather than Christianity.  It’s kind of like looking at the glass half empty in contrast to half full.  I like the idea of seeing the good in people.  I have a lot of friends and acquaintances and family members, and seeing them as moral failures makes little sense to me, let alone any comfort.  Although, not pleased with everything I do, I like the idea that God can also see the good and say, well done.  Welcome to my eternal kingdom.

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