Lessing's Broad, Ugly Ditch

Photo by  Matt Heaton  on  Unsplash

Photo by Matt Heaton on Unsplash

Contingent vs Necessary Truths

What is a contingent truth? And What is a necessary truth?

These are things the German, Enlightenment Rationalist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing wrestled with. Not so much with what those are, I suppose, but rather with the relationship between the two.

In my limited knowledge of the man, it seems he wrestled really with the concept of faith.

He was in actuality a critic of Christianity. He saw historical evidences of Jesus and Christianity as contingent truths. He thought of them as contingent because they rest on the shifting sands of historical evidence and interpretation. We make decisions in the present based on information we have not personally observed. That’s essential a contingent truth from what I can tell.

The historical facts of Jesus are separated from us by over 2000 years, slightly less for Lessing in the 18th century, but separated nonetheless.

The import of Christian beliefs are on the degree of eternal importance. We stake our very lives and eternities on the claims and work of Jesus Christ as seen historically and Biblically. Lessing saw that as a necessary truth, one that needs to be known with absolute certainty- at least in his estimation.

A necessary truth, as he saw it, is one that will exist no matter the universe or the events; a truth that is a certainty. Arguably, Christianity may not be a “necessary truth” in that sense because Christ was not obligated to come and die. It did not have to be.

The Ditch

Lessing essentially recognized a gap or “Ditch” between the reasonable preponderance of evidence of Christianity and the decision of faith. At least, that’s how this who “ditch” appears.

In other words, the necessary truth required to believe in Christianity, in Lessing’s estimation, could not rest on contingent truths in history because history is subject to our trust of historical records and not on personal observation.

Here’s the problem with Lessing’s Broad, Ugly Ditch: it exists in almost every idea. It is not exclusive to Christianity.

Every thing I do in a day, is based on my observation, my moment-by-moment interpretation of what I see, and then my response of trust in my conclusion. I show willingness to accept the reliability of my observation and reason by then acting upon them.

Lessing essentially is asking about Christianity, “but how do you ultimately know?” However, could this not be asked about anything? How do you know that when you get out of bed in the morning that the floor will be there and will support you? You observe the floor, or perhaps you don’t.

You just know it’s been there before. You know gravity will bring your feet to it because it always has. You’ve observed in the past the ability of wooden structures to hold you. You’ve heard no unusual creaking sounds to indicate any structural compromise. You feel no drafts from a potential hole next to the bed. So, with certainty, you conclude with ease that you can get out of bed and step on the floor. But how do you really know? Well, you can’t, until you do.

Yet all the while, your rational mind was willing to accept certain evidences sub-consciously. You didn’t throw them out. Had you been a paranoid person, always fearful of personal injury, you might have rejected the things you clearly observed despite them providing you with a preponderance of evidence that you’ll be fine.

Limiting the evidence you’re willing to accept makes the “ditch” between reason and decision larger.

Reckoning with evidence

At some point, you must become willing to accept the congruity and preponderance of the evidence as certainty that you can get out of bed.

In the same way, historically, biblically, and rationally, Christianity is a consistent thing. It’s a conclusion you can feel safe adopting. The preponderance of evidence for its veracity is overwhelming. There are Cosmological, Moral, Teleological, and transcendental arguments to support it. There is historical evidence, literary evidence, archeological evidence. Most of all, it is intuitively evidentiary because of the moral, spiritual, and rational constitution of man. To still refuse to believe Christianity because “Well, you can’t really know with absolute certainty” is a hypocritical things to say.

Every day, multiple times per day, you use your reason along with rational and intuitive observation to act on things you “can’t know with absolute certainty.”

Yet, you accept a preponderance of logical and intuitive evidences to draw even simple conclusions. You trust and use innate heuristics to act on that which you think about. Someone who makes the list of evidences they will accept small, we may rightly call paranoid, illogical, and irrational.

Digging your own ditch

For Lessing, the broadness of his “ditch” was of his own making. He simply could not accept reasonable preponderance of evidence for the Christian faith. Lessing, perhaps like many today, are claiming to be objective about evidence, yet they are beginning with a pre-established narrative; a presupposition; a worldview already entrenched thereby making the evidences they will logically accept very few and sometimes non-existent.

A Biblical example

I’m reminded of Luke 16:27-31 where the rich man in hell wants Lazarus raised again in order to witness to his brothers:

I pray thee therefore, father [Abraham], that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.

The brothers of the rich man were probably like many of the Jews were of Jesus’ day. In fact, that was Jesus’ point with the story. Despite Jesus’ preaching (“No other man spake like he spake”), and despite His miracles, and despite His documented royal pedigree, they refused to accept the rational, intuitive evidences provided by the scriptures they had (which were verifiable) that He was their King and Messiah. Not even a person raised from the dead would be evidence they would accept because they’d made their own “Broad Ugly Ditch”, and they’d made it quite broad. It’s not that there wasn’t evidence of His identity. It’s that Jesus’ critics refused to accept the evidence.

The Ditch-digging continues

Unbelief of Christianity is a conscious choice to ignore rationality. People who reject Christianity repeatedly after being presented with it say there is no evidence. What they mean is, “there is no evidence I will accept.” Their narrative and worldview are already “baked into the cake” of their decision making.

Faith in Christ for salvation is not blind faith. In fact, there is no such thing. Faith is directed to a conclusion by a trail of evidence and internal reckonings with intuition. Some are just unwilling to follow the evidence or the intuition. They’d rather bury their heads in the sand of willful ignorance and unbelief.

Lessing, I suppose, is a tragic case. How many more tragedies are there in progress, digging the ditch broader? God only knows.