Letters of Frederick Engels

To Friedrich Graeber
In Berlin

Written: July 12 1839
Source: MECW Volume 2, p. 457,
First published: abridged in Die neue Rundschau, 10.,Heft, Berlin, 1913, and in full in the book: F. Engels, Schriften der Frühzeit, Berlin, 1920

Bremen, July 12-27, 1839

Fritzo Graebero. July 12. Really, you could condescend to write to me. It will soon be five weeks since I received your last letter.-I chucked a mass of sceptical bricks at you when I last wrote; I would have understood the thing differently had I then been acquainted with Schleiermacher’s teaching. For that is still a reasonable kind of Christianity. Everybody finds it clear even if one does not actually accept it, and one can recognise its value without feeling obliged to adopt it. I have already accepted the philosophical principles which I found in the teaching. But I am not quite clear about his theory of salvation and I will guard against accepting it immediately as a conviction so that I may not soon have to change again. But I will study it as soon as I have the time and the opportunity. If I had come into contact with this teaching before, I would never have become a rationalist, but where do you hear about things like this in our Muckertal [Muckertal — valley of bigots; an allusion to Wuppertal]? I feel a blazing anger at this kind of thing, and will fight against pietism and literal belief as long as I can. What is this nonsense? What is rejected by science, the development of which now includes the whole of church history, should no longer exist in life either. Pietism may have been an historically justified element in the development of theology in former times. It obtained its lawful right, it lived and should not now refuse to make way for speculative theology. It is only out of this latter that any certainty can be developed. I cannot understand how one can still try to maintain literal belief in the Bible or defend the direct influence of God, since this cannot be proved anywhere.

July 26. So here you are. To business. It is quite remarkable how in your letter you cling to orthodoxy and yet manage to concede some points to a rationalising trend, thus providing me with a weapon. Joseph’s family tree. To my first objection you reply: “Who knows whether we have not often read son instead of son-in-law or nephew in the genealogical tables in the Bible?” Are you not destroying the whole credibility of the biblical genealogical tables when you say this? I cannot at all understand how the law is supposed to prove anything here. — To my second objection you reply: “Luke wrote for Theophilus.” Dear Fritz, what kind of inspiration is that which has such consideration for the level of knowledge possessed by the one into whose hands the book happens to come first? If there is not also consideration for all future readers, then I cannot acknowledge any inspiration at all. In general, you do not as yet seem to be clear about the concept of inspiration. 3) How Joseph’s genealogical table demonstrates the fulfilment of the prophecy, I am incapable of understanding. On the contrary, the Evangelists should have been above all concerned not to present Jesus as the son of Joseph, to destroy this view, and not at all to honour Joseph by thus presenting his genealogical table. — “To say that Jesus. was a son of Mary and that Mary was a daughter of Elijah would have been quite contrary to custom.” Dear Fritz, can custom have the slightest influence here? Make sure whether by talking like this you are not once more going against your conception of inspiration. Really, I cannot regard your explanation as anything but so completely forced that if I were in your place I would rather conclude that one or the other was wrong. — “Insoluble doubts must confront Christianity, and yet we can arrive at certainty through God’s mercy.” I doubt this influence of God’s mercy on the individual in the form in which you have it. I well know the feeling of happiness everyone has, rationalist or mystic alike, who places himself in a close, heartfelt relationship with God; but make yourself clear about it, think about it without using biblical phrases, and you will find that it is the consciousness that mankind is of divine origin, that you, as part of this mankind, can never be lost and that after all the countless struggles in this world, as in the next, you must return, divested of all that is mortal and sinful, to God’s bosom; that is my conviction, and I am at rest with it. To this extent, I can also tell you that God’s Spirit gives me testimony that I am a child of God and, as I have said, I cannot believe that you could say it in any other way. To be sure, you are much calmer about it, while I am still threshing around with all kinds of opinions and cannot let my conviction remain in its present undeveloped state; but because of that I can indeed acknowledge the difference quantitatively but not qualitatively. — I readily admit that I am a sinner and that I have a deep-rooted propensity to sin and I refrain completely from any justification by works. But I do not admit that this sinfulness lies in the will of man. I readily admit that though the possibility of sinning is not inherent in the idea of humanity, it must necessarily be inherent in its realisation. I am therefore certainly as penitent as anyone can possibly demand, but, my dear Fritz, no thinking person can believe that my sins can be remitted by the merits of a third party. When I think about this independently of all authority, then I find, like the new theology, that the sinfulness of man lies in the necessarily imperfect realisation of the idea, that it must therefore be the striving of everyone to realise in himself the idea of humanity, i.e., to make himself the equal of God in spiritual perfection. That is something quite subjective. How can the orthodox theory of salvation, which posits a third, something objective, accomplish this subjective development? I admit that I deserve to be punished, and if God wishes to punish me, let Him do so, but eternal banishment even of the least part of the Spirit from God — this I find it quite impossible to conceive or to believe. It is, of course, true that it is God’s mercy that He accepts us. Everything God does is mercy, but everything He does is likewise necessity. The unity of these contradictions constitutes an essential part of the essence of God. What you say later about God not being able to deny Himself, etc., sounds to me as if you wanted to evade my question. Can you believe that a man who strives for union with God ought to be rejected by God for all eternity? Can you? You can’t, so you beat about the bush. Is it not very base to believe that God would inflict further punishment for past wickedness, in addition to that already contained in the wicked deed itself? Alongside eternal punishment you must also set eternal sin, and alongside eternal sin eternal possibility of believing and, therefore, of being saved. The teaching of eternal damnation is terribly inconsistent. Furthermore: historical belief is for you a great essential of belief, without it belief is unthinkable. But you will not deny that there are people for whom it is quite impossible to have this historical belief. And should God require such people to do the impossible? Dear Fritz, just think — this would he nonsense and God’s reason is certainly higher than ours, but still not of a different kind, for otherwise it would no longer be reason. The biblical dogmas also are to be understood by using reason. — Not to be able to doubt, you say, is freedom of the mind? It is the greatest enslavement of the mind. He only is free who has overcome every doubt concerning his conviction. And I am not even demanding that you refute me. I challenge all orthodox theology to refute me. Christian scholarship is now all of 1,800 years old and has been unable to bring forward any counterarguments against rationalism, and has only repulsed a few of its attacks; nay, it shies away from the fight in the purely scientific field and prefers to drag the personalities of its opponents in the mud-what is a man to say to that? Indeed, is orthodox Christian teaching capable of being purely scientific? I say no. What more can it do than engage in a little classifying, explaining, disputing? I advise you to read some time Darstellung used Kritik des modernen Pietismus by Dr. C. Märklin, Stuttgart, 1839. If you can refute it (that is, not what is positive, but what is negative in it), you will be the world’s leading theologian. — “The simple Christian can rest quite content with this; he knows that he is a child of God, and it is not necessary for him to be able to give answers to all apparent contradictions.” Neither the simple Christian nor Hengstenberg can give answers to the “apparent contradictions”, for they are real contradictions; but truly, whoever rests content and prides himself on his faith, has in reality no basis whatever for his faith. True, feeling can confirm, but it can most certainly not furnish a basis-that would be like wanting to smell with one’s ears. What makes Hengstenherg so detestable to me is the really scandalous editing of the [Evangelische] Kirchen-Zeitung. Nearly all the contributors remain anonymous and the editor, therefore, has to be responsible for them; but if somebody who has been attacked in the paper takes him to task, then Herr Hengstenberg denies all knowledge of the matter, will not reveal the name of the author, but also disclaims all responsibility. This has already happened to many a poor devil who has been attacked by God knows what miserable lout in the Kirchen-Zeitung and the only answer he got from Hengstenberg when he approached him about it was that it was not he who wrote the article. The Kirchen-Zeitung still enjoys a big reputation among the pietist preachers because they do not read anything opposed to it, and so it keeps going. I have not read the latest issues, otherwise I would quote you examples. You cannot imagine how abominably the Kirchen-Zeitung slandered and abused Strauss in connection with his Zurich affair, [209] while all reports are unanimous in saying that he behaved quite nobly over the whole business. Why, for example, is the Kirchen-Zeitung so very eager to bracket Strauss with Young Germany? And unfortunately many people regard Young Germany as something terribly wicked.-You understood me quite wrongly with regard to the poetry of belief. I did not believe because of the poetry. I believed because I realised that I could no longer live only for the day, because I repented of my sins, because I needed communion with God. I gladly gave away immediately what I most loved, I turned my back on my greatest joys, my dearest acquaintances, I made myself look ridiculous to everybody everywhere. It was an immense joy to me when I found in Plümacher someone with whom I could talk about it, and I gladly put up with his fanaticism concerning predestination. You know yourself that I was in earnest, in dead earnest. I was happy then, that I know, and I am still just as happy; I had trust and joy when I prayed; I have them now too, I have them even more because I am struggling and need to be strengthened. But I have never experienced anything of that ecstatic bliss I heard so much about from our pulpits. My religion was — and is — quiet, blessed peace, and if I have it after my death then I shall be satisfied. I have no reason to believe that God will take it from me. Religious conviction is a matter of the heart and is only concerned with dogma insofar as dogma is or is not contradicted by feeling. Thus the Spirit of God may convince you through your feeling that you are a child of God-that is quite possible; but it most certainly cannot so convince you that you are a child of God through the death of Christ; otherwise feeling would be capable of thinking and your ears of seeing. — I pray daily, indeed nearly the whole day, for truth, I have done so ever since I began to have doubts, but I still cannot return to your faith. And yet it is written: “Ask, and it shall be given you.” [ Matthew 7:7] I search for truth wherever I have hope of finding even a shadow of it and still I cannot acknowledge your truth as the eternal truth. And yet it is written: “Seek, and ye shall find. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone?... how much more shall your Father which is in Heaven? [Matthew 7: 9-11]

Tears come into my eyes as I write this. I am moved to the core, but I feel I shall not be lost; I shall come to God, for whom my whole heart yearns. And this is also a testimony of the Holy Spirit and I live and die by it, even if the Bible says the opposite ten thousand times over. And don’t deceive yourself, Fritz, you may seem to be so sure, but a doubt will come before you know it, and the way your heart decides often depends on the merest coincidence. — But I know from experience that dogmatic faith has no influence whatever on one’s inner peace.

July 27

If you did what it says in the Bible, you should have nothing more to do with me. In the Second Epistle of John (if I'm not mistaken) it says that one should not greet the unbeliever, not even say haire [I greet you] to him. There are many such passages in the Bible and they have always angered me. But you do not do all it says in the Bible by a long way. Incidentally when orthodox evangelical Christianity is called the religion of love, that sounds to me like the most monstrous irony. According to your Christianity, nine-tenths of mankind will be eternally unhappy and only one-tenth happy. Fritz, and do you call that God’s infinite love? Just think how small God would appear if that was what His love amounted to. It is therefore clear that if there is a revealed religion, its God must indeed be greater than but not different from the one who is shown by reason. Otherwise all philosophy is not only empty but even sinful. Without philosophy there is no education; without education there is no humanity; without humanity, again, there is no religion. But even the fanatical Leo does not dare to revile philosophy in this way. And that is another of the inconsistencies of the orthodox. I could reach an understanding with men like Schleiermacher and Neander, for they are consistent. and have pure hearts. I look in vain for these qualities in the columns of the Evangelische Kirchen-Zeitung and other pietist journals. Especially for Schleiermacher I have enormous respect. If you are consistent you must, of course, consign him to damnation, for he does not teach the word of Christ in your sense, but rather in that of Young Germany, of Theodor Mundt and Karl Gutzkow. But he was a great man, and I only know one man now living who has equal intelligence, equal power and equal courage-and that is David Friedrich Strauss.

I was very pleased that you should rise up with such vigour to refute me, but one thing made me angry and I shall tell you straight out what it is. It is the contempt with which you speak of the striving of the rationalists for union with God, of their religious life. To be sure, you lie comfortably in your faith as in a warm bed, and you know nothing of the fight we have to put up when we human beings have to decide whether God is God or not. You do not know the weight of the burden one feels with the first doubt, the burden of the old belief, when one must decide for or against, whether to go on carrying it or to shake it off. But I tell you again, you are not so safe from doubt as you think, so do not delude yourself with regard to those who doubt. You could become one of them yourself, and then you too would ask for fair treatment. Religion is an affair of the heart and whoever has a heart can be devout; but those whose devoutness is rooted either in their understanding or in their reason have none at all. The tree of religion sprouts from the heart, overshadows the whole man and seeks its nourishment from the air of reason. But its fruits, which contain the most precious heart-blood, are the dogmas, and what goes beyond them is of the Evil one. This is what Schleiermacher teaches and I stand by it.

Adieu, dear Fritz. Think carefully about whether you really want to send me to hell and write me my sentence soon.


Friedrich Engels