by Simon Smith
Feuerbach’s Radical Critique: Unpacking the Dialectic
Thus far, we have seen the development of consciousness as religious consciousness: a dialectic reflecting on the co-constitution of itself, its own essential sociality. We have also seen how that reflection reveals a fundamental disharmony between the self and the other inside, a disunion between who I am and who I ought to be. This is the creative insecurity, Kierkegaard’s five thousand fathoms of doubt, which drives the dialectic of religious consciousness onward and upward, transforming religion into onto-theology, speculative philosophy, before delivering consciousness into the hands of modern materialism and all its abstract metaphysical constructs.
Step 2: Theology & Philosophy
Theology sees religious consciousness cast out of the Garden of Eden. The self no longer recognises itself as a participant, still less a constituent, of the primal dialogue, I and Thou. The dialogue is still the ground of my Being, but it’s no longer who I am. It is only who ought to be and consequently who I am not. By objectifying the dialogue, theology alienates the self from its natural context, transforming it into a separate, subjective, limited, and contingent being: the object of a real, which is to say, necessary, Being.
Re-framing the divine Other as Objective Subject, forces religious consciousness to acknowledge the anthropic implications of its projection: the personal predicates at work in our thought and talk about God no longer represent objective truths about personal being. If they did, they would belong to the self, necessarily; but a self that ought to possess such qualities obviously can’t possess them necessarily. The personal God, therefore, appears as an anthropomorphism; its qualities: expressions of subjectivity, nothing but reflections of finitude and contingency.
The predicates will have to go.
So begins an act of intellectual purification: in Feuerbach’s words, the “abstraction from all that is sensuous and material” about the believer’s conception of God, the purging of all religion’s “subjective” content, the better to isolate the “true” or “objective” grounds of conscious existence.
It seems possible, if not probable, that the classical doctrine Contemptus Mundi is at work in all this. Exorcising the temptations and contaminations of finitude, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer: “the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.”
Theologically, that may be so; Feuerbach, however, walks a more strictly philosophical path. By purging the project of anthropomorphism, he sees religious consciousness as striving to meet the realist conditions of its own objectification. The move is a tentative one at first: the divine predicates are not rejected absolutely but merely distinguished from the divine subject. In this way, the consciousness that negates itself may still reclaim itself as a reflection of Necessary Being, relocate its own contingent being within the charter of an Objective Subject. That way, theology resists the fullest implications of its necessitarian demands. Apparently, theology wants to have its ontological cake and eat it.
Under the austere gaze of speculative philosophy, however, theology will find that there is no cake.
Mere distinction is not enough: the personal predicates from which God-talk is arises must be stripped away completely. No vestige of subjectivity must remain if we are to encounter the Real Being of God.
This acid rejection of personal predicates – and cake – forces consciousness into an ontological crisis. Apart from some predicable possibility, Being remains logically underdetermined. Entity is a presupposition of recognisable, describable identity. Sans identity, the presupposition is cast adrift without the logical anchor of that which it’s supposed to presuppose. In abstraction from any recognisable mode of existence, being-just-being-itself – the ground of being – lacks particular instantiation: it – whatever it is – is not this, that, or any other thing. Necessary Being is nothing but an empty construct.
Logically dubious and descriptively threadbare, the Objective Subject is pragmatically disastrous. Since it offers no distinguishable existence, there can be no real relation. Being isolated from particular effect means Necessary Being is isolated from the particular “effect” that is the finite self. But a God who’s isolated from us, “who does not trouble himself about us, who does not hear our prayers, who does not see us and love us, is no God.”
In the end, Necessary Being has neither moral nor psychological purchase to offer. Breaking the ontological tension here leaves consciousness with a deceptively simple dichotomy. Take refuge in the illusions of Necessary Being; or confine itself to the narrowing limits of self-separating, contingent “being,” the isolation of consciousness: being as a limited, finite individual.
And this is where the story really starts!
 See Essence of Christianity, 29-30.
 Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, 13.
 Essence of Christianity, 213.