A Brief Interpretation of the Theology of J.G. Fichte

“True atheism”, J. G. Fichte writes in Divine Government of the Universe, “unbelief and godlessness in the real sense, consists in calculation of consequences” (1).  In other words, Fichte seems to be saying that it is not so much one’s abstract beliefs, but instead how one lives (which is, of course, the truest way to learn what one believes – how do they live?), and if one lives as a utilitarian–calculating consequences–Fichte would call her an atheist.   Why exactly this is the case will be considered shortly. Fichte also rejects the notion of an infinite, personal God who exists separately from our world.  His argument may be summarized thusly: When God is understood as a being that has a personality, self-consciousness, will, etc. He/She/It is no longer something completely transcendent, for such characteristics “can be employed only if what they refer to is limited and finite” (2).  After all, it seems that a necessary condition of my having a personality is that there are characteristics which differentiate me from every other individual: there are certain traits and combination of traits which no one else has and vice versa.  Furthermore, my having a specific personality, with such-and-such a trait and without such-and-such other trait obviously necessitates that in virtue of this I am not (qualitatively) infinite.  So, Fichte would say, for me to say that God also has a personality just as I do, is to create God in my own image, which, according to Xenophanes, is precisely what we humans tend to do, and precisely why our “gods” tend to not be godly at all, but merely human creations. (3)

It is also worth commenting on the above qualification of Fichte’s understanding of the name “God” necessitating qualitative infinity.  Spinoza would agree; Leibniz would not.  For this reason, Fichte’s arguments must not be initially applied to all religious conceptions of God as such.  Perhaps this is the best way to understand the concept of God, but it must be allowed that it is an open question.  Some (such as Leibniz) would reject outright the notion of God’s qualitative infinity and instead affirm His/Her/Its quantitative infinity.  But such a discussion is beyond the scope of the present paper.

In the hope that the above sketch of what Fichte rejects about the notion of God has been deep enough to do so, we will move on to what it is that Fichte affirms concerning God.  Fichte writes, “This is the true faith: this moral order is the Divine which we accept.  It is constituted by acting rightly.  This is the only possible confession of faith: to do what duty prescribes” (4).  Very clearly we once again find Fichte affirming faith in God as a way of acting as opposed to an abstract belief concerning metaphysics.  He goes on to state that the “moral world order is identical with God” (5).  The moral world order is, according to Fichte, acting according to one’s conscience out of a pure, Kantian sense of duty, with no consideration for the consequences–consideration which is not moral in any meaningful sense, but simply utilitarian. Thus, the utilitarian denies the moral world order–God–and is therefore an atheist.

So, God is morality and morality is God.  Sound familiar?  According to the New Testament, “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (6).  Similarly, John D. Caputo seems to apply a Fichtean concept of God to this verse: “…love is a how, not a what” (7), which means, furthermore, that “God”, too, “is a how, not a what” (8).  For Caputo, this how is unconditional love, and for Fichte, it is acting out of a Kantian sense of moral duty.  So, in this sense, God is more accurately understood as a verb as opposed to a noun.  This is what Caputo refers to as a “theology of event.”

In a way, to the mind of the present writer, this understanding of God makes beautiful sense, and, in another way, is still quite elusive and mysterious.  But perhaps this mystery too is part of the beauty – after all, according to Caputo, “Religion is for lovers” (9).  The question of whether or not this particular notion of God is plausible is admittedly sticky, for, before it can be addressed, certain preliminary questions regarding the probability of the existence of a God, and the question of which religious texts (if any) are held to contain the true writings concerning the nature and actions of this God must be answered.  Does it jive, for example, with the aforementioned passage from 1 John?  In a way, yes, but such a passage must not be extracted from its context; for, according to the tradition in which the author was writing, God does exist as a personal being, and became as personal as possible when He/She/It appeared in the form of a man (i.e. Jesus of Nazareth).  Nevertheless, John is saying quite simply that God is love, which might suggest that he saw Jesus as pure love manifested in human form.  All of this seems to suggest that God is not reducible to a personal being, in the way that, say, I am – for I am and always will be only a noun; I cannot become a verb.  But, according to this interpretation, God can.

However, this also calls into question Fichte’s notion that God must be understood as a qualitatively infinite being.  If God is love, as John says, He/She/It cannot, by nature, also be hatred.  Indeed, to allow our metaphysical abstractions to devolve into something like “Pure Being”, thinking this will defend us from the danger of a less-than-infinite God, will actually, in leading to the purest abstraction of being as such, simultaneously result in nothing.  Pure being is presumably so irreducible, so beyond the pale of particularity, that it is at the same time nothing.  Quite often, it seems, folks who think themselves incredibly pious feel the need to affirm the qualitative infinity of God in order to avoid any sentence beginning with “God cannot…” despite the contradiction.  But the contradiction is not necessary, according to 1 John.  There are such things as intrinsic impossibilities, which do not necessitate that one deny God’s omnipotence or infinitude, if this is in fact what one is hoping to defend. As C.S. Lewis explains:

His [God’s] omnipotence means power to do all that is intrinsically possible, not to do the intrinsically impossible. You may attribute miracles to Him, but not nonsense. If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it’, you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words ‘God can’. It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk about God. (10)

And this applies equally to Fichte’s God: if God is morality, God is necessarily not immorality, rendering Him/Her/It less than qualitatively infinite. It seems that Spinozistic pantheism is the only option for one who wants to affirm the qualitative infinity of God, but Fichte is clearly not arguing for Spinozism here.

One final point: I think Fichte offers an interesting insight into the common usage of the name, God (albeit, given an almost ironic reading). There seems to be a tendency to tack God onto our moral statements in order to give them legitimacy. Think about it: “My opinion is (X)” carries considerably less weight than “God said (X)”. Consequently, when we have strong moral beliefs on a certain issue, we find a way to spin it as the word of God, rather than our own, fallible opinions. And in this way, we do seem to conflate the idea of God with our own conscience and almost end up (unintentionally) agreeing with Fichte. And in so doing, “God” becomes nothing more than what the ideal being who perfectly embodies our personal moral views would look like. Thus, the soldier sees a warrior God, the pacifist a God of nonviolent love, the traditional soul (so to speak) a God of conserving tradition and maintaining proper authority, and the progressive soul a God of liberation and freedom from oppression.

It is not my intention to offer the above thoughts in a cynical tone. I sincerely hope that “God” is not simply a result of a Nietzschean will to power, as it were–or, more specifically, ressentiment–driving the weak to find a “metaphysical higher ground”, so to speak, over the strong by saying that it is actually an absolute authority over and above all of us which is the source of my personal moral beliefs. Such a god would be a reactionary concept and nothing more. Perhaps that is the case, but I’d like to think it is not. But then again, perhaps I am simply a naive romantic. If it is not the case, however–if we can speak of God in a meaningful sense as removed from our own ideals–how do we do so? How can we look at the concept of God outside of our cultural context? I think it was Gadamer who said something to the effect of, we cannot escape our cultural context and all of the biases that come along with it; the best we can do is recognize our biases as such and do our best to move beyond them. I think the same applies here. I may never know for sure if my concept of God is authentic or received, but I think that simply recognizing that and striving for the authentic is the best place to begin.

Notes

1. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, On the Foundation of Our Belief in A Divine Government of the Universe. Translated by Paul Edwards, reprinted in Nineteenth Century Philosophy, eds. Forrest E. Baird and Walter Kaufmann. (Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, 1997), 21.

2. Ibid., 22.

3. Xenophanes writes, “But mortals think that gods are born, and have clothes and speech and shape like their own . . . But if cows and horses or lions had hands and drew with their hands and made the things men make, then horses would draw the forms of gods like horses, cows like cows, and each would make their bodies similar in shape to their own.” (Early Greek Philosophy, Trans. and Ed. Jonathan Barnes, (London: Penguin Books, 2001), 43.)

4. Fichte, 21.

5. Ibid., 21.

6. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, 1 John 4:16b

7. John D. Caputo, On Religion.  (New York: Routledge,  2001), 134.

8. Ibid., 135.

9. Ibid., 2.

10. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain. (New York: Harper Collins, 1996), 18.

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One thought on “A Brief Interpretation of the Theology of J.G. Fichte

  1. Pingback: Mutual Aid and The Kingdom of God: Toward A Christian Anarchist Hermeneutic | Living the Greys

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