Nathan der Weise by G. E. Lessing is the third book I got for Christmas to help me retain my German. I must say, I like it much better than watched German-dubbed Chico Bon Bon with my four-year-old. I am not very familiar with Lessing, other than that he was a figure of the German Enlightenment; he featured briefly in The Fate of Reason by Frederick Beiser, which I reviewed back in 2017. The book had some biographical information, which I admittedly skimmed, but I did make sure to read the origin story of Nathan der Weise.
Theology took a turn in the 18th century, as it wrestled with the implications of the Enlightenment. There were three broad schools, as defined by the supplementary documents: Theism, which believed in God as described by the Bible, what I would call literalism; Deism which believed in an impersonal God and a natural religion with no need to call on the supernatural; and Neology which was an “enlightened” version of Christianity that didn’t take the Bible literally but that it was still an inspired document.
Lessing fell in the camp of the Deists. And he got in a fight with his pastor over it, Johann Melchior Goeze. They were at each others’ throats in the press, until Goeze silenced his opponent by going to the Duke who had the authority to censor Lessing. That wasn’t the end for Lessing, who got around the ban by publishing his thoughts in the form of a play. And hence Nathan der Weise was born.
Lessing puts his natural religion into the words of the Jew Nathan the Wise, as he interacts with Muslims, the sultan Saladin and his friend Al-Hafi, a dervish or Muslim monk; and Christians, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, a monk and a knight. There are two scenes in particular where Nathan drives his message home. The first is a scene between Nathan and his daughter, Recha. Recha was just saved from a fire by a Christian knight. Recha insists it wasn’t a knight, but an angel. Nathan responds:
Why? If it sounds only natural, ordinary, that a knight had saved you, should it be any less a miracle? The highest miracles are those that make miracles of mundane, daily occurrences. Without these ordinary miracles, a thinking person would hardly call anything a miracle. Only children gawk and call miracles of the strange and the new.
I am assuming that Lessing and Goeze had an argument about the literalness of the miracles in the Bible, and this was his response; just because something is ordinary doesn’t make it any less a miracle. The idea is a common one taught across the pulpit today, but denying the literalness of miracles themselves is a step most are not willing to go. The result is a mix of accepting the reality of miracles, while having some excuse for why miracles don’t occur today. The talk that immediately comes to mind is Elder Bednar’s Accepting the Lord’s Will and Timing in which he develops the idea of having the faith not to be healed.
The second passage that I found very moving was Nathan’s parable in response to the sultan’s question, which religion has it right, Judaism, Islam, or Christianity? The parable is, in short:
There once was a man who had a ring that could make him pleasant to God and man. When he was close to dying, he bestowed it upon his favorite son, and so the ring was passed on through generations. Eventually, it came upon a father with three sons all whom he equally favored. He could not pick a favorite on which to bestow it. He was on his deathbed, and he still had not made a decision. He decided to have two copies of the ring made, and gave each son a ring, and bestowing the kingdom on each. After he died, the three sons squabbled over their father’s inheritance, each claiming they had the true ring. A judge was called to settle the dispute. The true ring was supposed to make the wearer pleasing to God and man. Judging by their bickering and fighting amongst themselves, it was clear none had the true ring, and none had truly inherited the kingdom.
I loved this ending, as it is clear that Lessing holds very little from religion that is reduced to squabbling over truth claims. It is only righteous doing that has any worth, and I would have to agree. Christ said by their works ye shall know them. When it comes down to it, I sympathize more with the Deist than with the churchman, although one could argue I only heard one side of the argument. There are similar arguments today within my own faith tradition, and they can break out into mudslinging on social media. I would have to stand by Nathan’s wise words here:
Don’t you see now how much easier it is to praise God in words only [schwärmen] than to do good works? How many empty words praising God have been uttered by the weakest of men, and seems to be totally unaware of his obligation to do good continually!
These passages are the ones I found most moving, but the plot itself establishes many of Lessing’s points– the many interactions between Jews, Muslims, and Christians must have been hard to hear to a devout Christian of the day! The book does not paint the head of the church in Jerusalem, the Patriarch, in very good colors. When confronted with the doctrinal question of what to do if a Jew were to raise a child as a Christian, the Patriarch insists on the death penalty, he will not be moved. Lessing seems to have found little mercy in the judgments of churchmen. However, the book has a very, well, odd ending, to say the least. You can Google it if you’d like– I’ll just leave this here: