Lessing's Ugly Broad Ditch

Read and try to respond to German critic Gotthold Lessing's (1729-1781) argument regarding miracles and history:

“Miracles, which I see with my own eyes, and which I have opportunity to verify for myself, are one thing; miracles, of which I know only from history that others say they have seen them and verified them, are another.” “But…I live in the 18th century, in which miracles no longer happen. The problem is that reports of miracles are not miracles…[they] have to work through a medium which takes away all their force.” “Or is it invariably the case, that what I read in reputable historians is just as certain for me as what I myself experience?”

Lessing, just like G.W. Leibniz before him, distinguished between the contingent truths of history and the necessary truths of reason and wrote: Since “no historical truth can be demonstrated, then nothing can be demonstrated by means of historical truths.” That is, “the accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason.”

He continued: “We all believe that an Alexander lived who in a short time conquered almost all Asia. But who, on the basis of this belief, would risk anything of great permanent worth, the loss of which would be irreparable? Who, in consequence of this belief, would forswear forever all knowledge that conflicted with this belief? Certainly not I. But it might still be possible that the story was founded on a mere poem of Choerilus just as the ten year siege of Troy depends on no better authority than Homer’s poetry.”

Someone might object that miracles like the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, are “more than historically certain,” because these things are told to us by “inspired historians who cannot make a mistake.” But Lessing counters that whether or not we have inspired historians is itself a historical claim, and only as certain as history allows. This, then, “is the ugly broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap.” “Since the truth of these miracles has completely ceased to be demonstrable by miracles still happening now, since they are no more than reports of miracles, I deny that they should bind me in the least to a faith in the other teachings of Christ.” (“On the Proof of the Spirit and of Power,” [Lessing’s Theological Writings, (Stanford University Press, 1956, pp. 51-55)].

[First posted Feb. '06]

13 comments:

The Jewish Freak said...

Isn't it too convenient that all of the major miracles happened "a long time ago".

Kenneth Coughlan said...

I am not an expert on the resurrection, etc., but the most obvious response to this statement is that it, once again, demonstrates how atheism demands 100% certainty. Lessing is basically saying that unless he personally witnesses a miracle, he will remain unconvinced. That is demanding 100% certainty.

Lessing is incorrect when he concludes that historical truths cannot be "proven". His evidence, at best, shows that historical truths cannot be proven to 100% certainty, a proposition with which I would agree. As Lessing admitted, we all believe that Alexander conquered almost all of Asia. So that fact, in most of our minds, is "proven", to the extent that we believe it is more likely than not. The 10 year siege of Troy may be based only on the poetry of Homer, but we still believe it happened. Lessing even admits that we believe these events happened. He simply does not think that the amount of proof rises to the level which would spur us to action (i.e., "who, on the basis of this belief, would risk anything of great worth?"). He does not think we would act on that belief, but he admits that we HAVE that belief.

So these historical events have been "proven", they just haven't been proven beyond all doubt. Given more time, I would point out how the historical evidence for the claims of Christianity is FAR MORE than the historical evidence for either of the events discussed above. But I certainly would not claim that it can be proven historicaly 100%. Of course there is doubt. But will that doubt change my behavior? No.

Lessing claimed that no one would "risk anything of great worth" based upon a belief that is derived from historical evidence. I disagree.

Of course, a Christian would say that the risk of losing something "of great worth" actually lies in FAILING to believe, not in believing. But leaving that aside, people risk things of great worth all the time based upon the same, if not a lesser, degree of certainty than what we get from historical documents.

The study of history cannot give us 100% certainty, that is true. But are you 100% certain when you get behind the wheel of a car that you are not going to crash and die? Of course not. But you are still willing to put your very life at risk (something I would define as of "great worth") based upon the belief that you will make it to your destination alive, even though you are not 100% certain.

So it isn't a question of whether or not truth can be proven through the study of history. The question, instead, is simply how high you are going to set the burden of proof before you will act. Do you require 60% certainty, 75%, 90%?

You may disagree about whether the evidence for Christianity has met whatever burden you choose to set (although I believe that the evidence for Christianity is overwhelming, a topic for another day). And different people may set the standard at different levels. But it is a logical fallacy to say that "no historical truths can be demonstrated" and "nothing can be demonstrated by historical truth." Yes it can, just not to 100% certainty. But that is true of everything we claim to "know" in our lives. Historical information is no different.

John W. Loftus said...

There are non-controversial historical events, like who was the first President of the US. Even these events we cannot know with certaintiy from history, and we certainty cannot tell Washington's motivations nor specify exactly how it came to be that he become the President.

Then there are controversial historical events. Who killed Jon Benet Ramsey, who killed JFK and why, who built the pyramids and why, how many times did Paul visit Jerusalem, how many times did Jesus cleanse the temple, what were the boundaries of Galatia whom Paul visited, who wrote Hebrews, and so on.

Then there are those events that are controversial plus miraculous, like any miraculous claim by any group in history.

Where are any non-controversial miraculous events?

And I'm supposed to commit 100% of my life based on a controversial miraculous "event?"

NO!

Anonymous said...

To all those willing, read John H. Yoder's essay, "But We Do See Jesus": The Particularity of Incarnation and the Universality of Truth (Chap. 2 in The Priestly Kingdom: Social Ethics as Gospel. Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 1984). Yoder begins and ends with Lessings quotation arguing for the continued confession of "Jesus is Lord" while recognizing that not everyone will recognize this, and building a case for the need to and how to make a case with a closeness to people of all walks.

DJ Seifert

Michael said...

Kenneth,

Lessing's argument was that mankind should not ascribe something of great value (i.e., their lives) to that which they cannot be certain.

Nothing is 100% certain, not even gravity, or celestial mechanics. But we do not need to cower in fear that these might at once fail to operate as we reason they will. This is because our understanding of them leads us to have far greater certainty in their reliability, that they will behave as expected. To believe in something as fanciful as a human resurrection is far less certain and, thus, as Loftus says, fails the test.

In other words, you as a Christian may in fact accept such controversial miraculous historical events as true, but to do so is foolish.

The greater point, which Anonymous made me realize, is that if true, Christianity should produce far more certainty in the minds of the skeptics since it desires to save the soul from eternal damnation. That it fails in doing so is telling.

Anonymous said...

One of the problems with anecdotal accounts and eyewitness acounts is that the eyes can be decieved. For example the vase/face picture, or the trick with the three different sized cards, show that what we think we see is not that at all. If all historical eyewitness accounts are true, then we are living amongst aliens. Thanxs.

Kriss, of kriss-n-cleo

Gabriel said...

In response to Kenneth Coughlan:

The definition of "proof" in this sense of the word is, "evidence sufficient to establish a thing as true, or to produce belief in its truth."

You misunderstand and are confusing proof with belief. Believing something is true does not establish proof that it is true. The reason that the author gives the examples of Alexander and the siege of Troy is that there is insufficient proof, but even so it is common belief.

The rest of your comment on setting a bar for acceptance is interesting though, and I found it to be well thought out. I must however, frown at the following statement though.

"But it is a logical fallacy to say that 'no historical truths can be demonstrated' and 'nothing can be demonstrated by historical truth.'"

This is logic in its purest. If this is black then it can not be white. The author is dealing in absolutes, not gradients of truth. The author is not commenting on the lack of lessons to be learned from the past, or that they may or may not be true, he is arguing that they are not provable. They are not.

Michael's point that belief in things such as gravity is a sound one. We as a species are given evidence that a force exists and affects us in every aspect of our life. The finer points of the theory aside, we realize that the force called gravity is real based of experiences we can prove. To call something truth based on, in all sense of that which is provable, a feeling or belief is absurd.

Establishing proof in Christianity, or any other world religion, is nearly impossible. Proof requires evidence. Evidence requires facts which can be confirmed. The existence of a being outside the realm of human experience is not something anyone can prove.

William of Baskerville said...

Just ran across this interesting thread in the process of looking up the formulation of the "ugly ditch."
You have really not debunked anything so much as given an accurate and very understandable description of what Lessing was saying. Nice job!
The ensuing discussion has focused on the cogency of proof and shows the various degrees of skepticism we bring to the table when it comes to religious issues, but which would strike us as virtually insane if we applied them in life outside of that sphere. But that's neither here nor there. Or, come to think of it, I'll leave it there rather than letting it come here.
What seems to be missing in this discussion is the fact that Lessing et. al. misunderstood the nature of Christianity. In his writings, Lessing kept coming back to the point that we can practice the truth of Christianity, by which he meant essentially loving our fellow human beings, as taught in particular by the apostle John, without any historical data, let alone any miraculous events. This was his defense against his critics who chastised him for publishing posthumously the works of Reimarus, who had argued that Christianity must be false because it rides on the truth of miracles. Since miracles are impossible, Christianity must be bogus.
In his own defense for publishing Reimarus (it not only cost Lessing his job as librarian, but worse yet, made him endure scolding letters, mostly from Protestant pastors all over Germany), Lessing said in so many words, "Miracles, Shmiracles; we don't need no miracles to have true Christianity," by which he meant that we could practice love and tolerance without accepting miracles as true. (My tranlation from German is a little loose.)
But is loving your neighbor the "essence of Christianity"? Many of us would say no. Loving our neighbor is a necessary consequence of the central truth of Christianity, which is grounded in historical events. Many religions teach that we should exercise love or benevolence toward each other. (Cue the Beatles: "All we need . . . ") What sets Christianity apart is that it offers us human beings redemption from our sin and its consequenes on the basis of the historical acts of Jesus Christ: his life in which he demonstrated the righteousness of God and the authority of God through his miracles and exorcisms, his actual death on the cross, and his physical entombment, followed by his resurrection and ascension. If you leave out those matters, you don't have Christianity so much as either meaningless pietosity or unconvincing gobbledy-gook. Lessing, in trying to soften the blow of Reimarus' argument, has given away the store and replaced it with prototypical "Hallmark Card" religion.
No, you cannot cross the "ditch" from history to Lessing's understanding of Christianity, but it's hardly worth the effort to try.
Let me add that to the extent to which Lessing (mis)understood the nature of Christianity, his life and writing were exemplary in displaying the virtues he espoused. His plays carry the common theme of the folly and self-destructiveness of prejudice. In real life he was a life-long supporter of Moses Mendelsohn, the first Jewish student at the University of Berlin and long-standing intellectual, whose life makes subsequent developments in Germany all the more of a travesty.
My overall point, then, is that Lessing was mistaken in believing that he needed to cross the ugly ditch in order to get to true Christianity. True Christianity is found right there in the ditch of historical events.
Thanks for letting me interlope at such a late dte on this very interestin discussion.
Win Corduan.

John W. Loftus said...

Win, so nice to hear from you. I too graduated from TEDS (in ’85).

Win said… The ensuing discussion has focused on the cogency of proof and shows the various degrees of skepticism we bring to the table when it comes to religious issues, but which would strike us as virtually insane if we applied them in life outside of that sphere.

The difference is that in any other sphere of life we aren’t asked for a 100% commitment to that which we believe about the past, as Lessing articulated.

Win said…What seems to be missing in this discussion is the fact that Lessing et. al. misunderstood the nature of Christianity.

That is completely irrelevant to his argument. He could be a Buddhist and still make it.

Win said…the works of Reimarus, who had argued that Christianity must be false because it rides on the truth of miracles. Since miracles are impossible, Christianity must be bogus.

I’ve read his Fragments. He instigated a critical investigation of the New Testament that does not depend upon his denial of the miraculous. The New Testament itself contains problems when it comes to what Jesus could’ve said about the atonement, the resurrection accounts have nine discrepancies which he elaborated on, and the second coming of Jesus was supposed to come in their lifetime, he argued. So how does this depend on a rejection of miracles?

Win said…Lessing said in so many words, "Miracles, Shmiracles; we don't need no miracles to have true Christianity," by which he meant that we could practice love and tolerance without accepting miracles as true. (My tranlation from German is a little loose.)

If methodological naturalism has been so fruitful when it comes to understanding the world, then why not apply that same method to the study of the Bible? If you don’t apply it to the Bible, then why the double standard?

Win said…But is loving your neighbor the "essence of Christianity"? Many of us would say no.

And many would say “Yes.” Why is there such a diverse set of opinions when it comes to the essence of Christianity?

Win said…What sets Christianity apart is that it offers us human beings redemption from our sin and its consequenes on the basis of the historical acts of Jesus Christ: his life in which he demonstrated the righteousness of God and the authority of God through his miracles and exorcisms, his actual death on the cross, and his physical entombment, followed by his resurrection and ascension.

There is no coherent understanding of the atonement, nor of the Trinity, nor of the incarnation, nor of where Jesus is right now, nor of personal identity in the afterlife, and the ascension story is based on a mythical three-tired universe.

Win said…No, you cannot cross the "ditch" from history to Lessing's understanding of Christianity, but it's hardly worth the effort to try.

Agreed.

Win said…My overall point, then, is that Lessing was mistaken in believing that he needed to cross the ugly ditch in order to get to true Christianity. True Christianity is found right there in the ditch of historical events.

Is this a metaphor? I don’t quite understand, for what you believe depends on history.

For a summary of my case see this..

Win said…Thanks for letting me interlope at such a late dte on this very interestin discussion.

No, thank YOU for commenting!

Robin said...

So, we can't have proof for the resurrection or say that it's the best explanation of the facts. I still think the evidence makes it rational to believe that it happened.

Mark Plus said...

Buddhism makes an interesting contrast with Abrahamic theism regarding historicity. Some Westerners gets caught up in the debate of whether a historical "Buddha" in India existed, and when. But many Buddhists see this discussion as beside the point, because Buddhism teaches techniques which we can test empirically in the here-and-now, independently of whether a historical Buddha existed or not. For example: Buddhists 'really are happier'. Ironically some people insist on using the term "neurotheology" to describe the scientific study of "spiritual" states in the brain, when many Buddhists, the object of these studies, consider the existence of a god beside the point as well.

The demonstrable abilities of Buddhists also show the irony of Christians' efforts to invoke the authority of science to support their beliefs!

Darren Delgado said...

"Ugly Broad Ditch" sounds like an evasive maneuver I have had to perform on several dates I've been on.

J said...

Lessing's points remain as relevant now as they were in the
18th century. Loftus is correct it's not merely the lack of verification that should lead us to question the accuracy of Scripture, but non-verifiability (or confirmation, proof, what have you) AND supernatural events.

I do not think Lessing goes as far as Hume does, however: Hume does more or less reject the authority of scripture completely because of the supernatural events. Lessing however does suggest scripture is not to be mistaken for historical record. Metaphorical or mythological readings are still possible.