Saturday, 7 January 2017

Lessing Liked God and Drama

The story so far...

In his quest to discover the meaning of Dramaturgy, Gareth K Vile has gone back in time to the eighteenth century. Noticing that Lessing first used the term in the 1740s, he is tracing the relationship between Enlightenment thought and the functions of Dramaturgy. He's convinced that placing Dramaturgy within the context of its genesis, he'll be able to create a working definition that allows him to further his studies. 

My suspicion is that the past is constantly in a process of revision. Rather like in those X-Men adventures when a character goes back in time to prevent a particular event, which then changes history, contemporary thinkers re-evaluate their ancestors in an attempt to prove their own position.

I've been looking up Lessing, and just discovered the other academic discipline that is still interested in his writings. Turns out that the son of a preacher-man did some theology. In 1961, Irving Louis Horowitz examined Lessing's theology (Lessing and Hamann: Two Views on Religion and Enlightenment: Church History, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Sep., 1961)). Far from being a complete religious sceptic, Lessing attempted to reconcile religious revelation and reason. He's kind of a compromise between the anti-clerical thoughts of Diderot and a more philosophical - and mystical - Christian tradition.

Apart from challenging the mythology of a 'secular Enlightenment', Horowitz's essay notes that Lessing identified God as 'immanent' rather than 'transcendental'. Roughly, his notion is that God exists within the Universe, and doesn't sit on a big throne stroking his beard. Immanence ranges across a wide set of models, from a pagan pantheism where God is the physical universe (and nothing more) to a Christian view of the divine as incarnated within the world. 

There might be a big 'so what?' about to follow, but here's the thing. The Enlightenment - say in Anthony Pagden's Big Cool Tome - is often interpreted as a break with religious thought. Kant's reply to the question 'what is enlightenment?' (TL;DR: 'grow up') is taken as a rejection of the 'authority through revelation model' encouraged by churches. But Lessing doesn't go that far. He sustains a dialogue with religious thought. 

He doesn't dethrone reason, but he does see it in collaboration with spiritual faith. His ability to integrate the two approaches makes him more Reasonable than some of the more explicitly atheistic thinkers, and while he locates religious sentiment within the personal rather than social sphere, he's not abandoning the Christian tradition for an all-new, sparkling godless universe. 

I fear we are still in the 'so what?' zone.

Well, there's the idea that continuity is important when considering the Enlightenment. Then there is the question of how a theological thinker might perceive theatre. Knowing that Lessing rejected the more Catholic notion of 'religion as social process' but accepted a personal engagement with the spiritual might help make sense of how he would then interpret various plays. It's all conjecture, but give it a chance...

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