On what has become an annual pilgrimage to the Reformation sites of East Germany during the week after Christmas, my tour group and I revel in the heroic actions of Luther at the Erfurt monastery, the Wartburg fortress, and the Wittenberg castle church; and on New Year’s Eve we meet the shade of J. S. Bach as his chorales resound through St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, announcing another year of grace. But along the way we have contact with two places whose associations are very far from the Reformation era and the great period of Baroque orthodoxy.

These two historical sites are Weimar and Buchenwald, one the center of the eighteenth-century German “Enlightenment,” the other perhaps the most horrible of the death camps of World War II. Buchenwald is on a hill just above Weimar. Thus the epitome of man’s inhumanity to man was demonstrated just a few kilometers from the city that lauded man’s perfectibility. A chance irony? On one level, yes, but on another (the level where the Lord “laughs them to derision”?), a parable of the history of a fallen race.

Even today, in the suffocating embrace of the totalitarian-Marxist German Democratic Republic, Weimar is a perfect physical expression of the eighteenth-century “Age of Reason.” Its broad streets and rationally placed buildings impress the visitor with a sense of order and humanistic self-satisfaction. It is as if eighteenth-century Freemasonry’s Great Architect of the Universe had himself been hired to lay out the town. Here Goethe, Schiller, and Herder gave expression to the German Enlightenment and to its Classical-Romantic worship of Man.

As the greatest literary representative of the era, Goethe serves as our best introduction to its central beliefs—and myths. While a law student at Strasbourg, in contact with Herder, Goethe concentrated more on mystical flights of fancy (alchemy and occultism) than on the rigors of the Justinian Code, for he saw in the occult a possible means of romantic self-salvation. (During my doctoral time at Strasbourg, when I was preparing a theological dissertation involving the study of alchemical and Rosicrucian mysticism, I was amused by the non-romantic use the pigeons make of the statue of Goethe in front of the Palais Universitaire. Ironies of history abound everywhere!) In Goethe’s early Sturm und Drang (“storm and stress”) period, human emotions were elevated to the status of means of grace. Subsequently, Goethe’s travels to Italy introduced him to the Classical ideal of eternal beauty and order and the Renaissance motif of the the universal man.

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Goethe’s house in Weimar is the best possible illustration of the truth that architecture is physical liturgy. The house was built and furnished as an extension of the world-view of its famous occupant. Virtually every inch of wall space is covered with paintings, classical objets d’art, and evidences of man’s accomplishments—as if Goethe (a bit unsure of himself, like Faust?) had to remind himself continually that Man was indeed the apex of the universe. (In this respect, the contrast with Luther’s humble quarters at the Wartburg castle and at Wittenberg could not be more striking.) The height of the steps of the main stairway is abnormally low, even when the small stature of eighteenth-century people is taken into account; the psychological effect is to give one the feeling of a Gulliver striding into Lilliput. There is even a hallway, extending from one end of the house to the other, in which the door frames at intervals along it are so constructed that each is slightly larger than the one before it; as one walks along this hallway, he sees a full-length portrait of himself in the mirror at the end of the hall, framed in a series of enlarging frames: bigger and more important than life!

Theologically, Goethe embraced the eighteenth-century rejection of biblical revelation. He said of the crucifix that it was “the most repugnant thing under the sun,” and the idea of miracles was a “blasphemy against the great God and his revelation in nature.” But unlike the deists of his time, such as Thomas Paine, Goethe did not merely substitute “Nature” for “Scripture” as the source of truths about God; Goethe regarded Nature as God. One of his most famous aphorisms was: “When we study nature we are pantheists; in our poetry we are polytheists; in our morality, monotheists.”

Arnulf Zweig has summed up Goethe’s theology in terms that show its influence on and alignment with later evolutionism, Bergson’s élan vital, and contemporary process thinking:

Since every man is part of nature and, hence, of the divine, he shares the basic impulses of all natural things—specifically, the urge to develop upward and outward, the striving for an ideal.… Since there is no goal for man apart from his life, man struggles, like Faust, with the fear of life (Lebensangst) and is tempted by care (Sorge).

Thus the German Enlightenment rejected the Bible and the Cross, substituting for them Nature and Man. Man’s striving quickly became the only ultimate value, and he himself took on the functions of pantheistic Deity. His morals became the “monotheistic” reflection of himself as sole arbiter of value.

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A hundred years after Goethe’s death (we are told that the clock in his house in Weimar stopped ticking when he died, and its hands still point to that moment), the inheritors of the German Enlightenment pushed tens of thousands of Jews, political opponents, and evangelical Christians through the iron gates of the concentration camp in the beech forest just above Weimar; most of them never came out again. On that iron gate, the camp motto remains: “Jedem das seine”—“To each his own,” i.e., “Each man gets what he deserves.” Note the logical (and inevitable) sequence: The Enlightenment makes man the measure of all things; modern man establishes the measure as he wills; and the strong, having devalued the weak, exterminate them. From Goethe to Nietzsche to Hitler is as short a step as from Weimar to Buchenwald.

The only counteractive to such a hideous sequence is a thoroughgoing rejection of the fundamental premise of the German Enlightenment. Man is not God; and fallen humanity is without hope apart from a clear scriptural word as to who God really is and as to the miraculous means he has provided for man’s salvation. “Fear of life” (Lebensangst) and the “temptation of care” (Sorge), when made ends in themselves, reduce to meaninglessness and the annihilation of human value. Only the Gospel—as the Reformers taught from the Angst of their experience in the light of Scripture—is capable of Seelsorge: the binding up of fractured souls.

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