Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, December 08, 2014

GOETHE: Faust (Scene 16: Faust the Theologian)

Not long after Gretchen meets Faust she asks him a simple question.  “Tell me how you feel about religion.”  Like many modern people Faust basically says: I’m not a religious person but I’m a spiritual person.  Gretchen isn’t satisfied with that answer.  “That isn’t right, one must believe!”  So like many intellectuals Faust tries to patiently explain the profound truths of spirituality to a simple believer in “religion.”  Spirituality embraces a notion of God as “the All-Embracing, the All-Sustaining… call it what you will.  Call it Love!  Happiness!  Soul!  God!  I (Faust) have no name for it.  Feeling is everything.”

Well.  Gretchen isn’t a scholar like Faust.  But she’s not stupid either.  Her response to Faust’s theology of spirituality is much more direct than his roundabout approach to God: “It sounds all right when you say it that way, but just the same there’s something wrong with it.”  And what’s wrong with Faust being a “spiritual” person instead of a “religious” person?  “Because you’re not a Christian,” says Gretchen.  In Gretchen’s world “feeling” isn’t everything.  It’s not even the most important thing.  For Gretchen the most important thing is to believe the right things in the right way.  What Faust is proposing is a god without a name.  Gretchen wants something more solid.  If Faust wants to impress Gretchen here’s what she wants to hear from him.  “I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”  If he really wants to impress her he would add “…and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.”  This is the Apostle’s Creed, Gretchen’s theology.

What’s the difference between Faust’s spirituality and Gretchen’s religion?  Faust is looking for an experience; Gretchen is looking for a relationship.  Faust’s spirituality is so flexible he can’t commit himself to even set down a name for god; for Gretchen God is so personal she can call him Father.  Does it really matter which view we hold or which path we take?  Consider the context of the play and we can see if it matters.  When Faust is cutting a deal with Mephistopheles they discuss what will happen “over there” in the afterlife once Faust dies.  Faust says, “What do I care about your “over there”?   Faust has a flexible spirituality.  For Faust God is “Love!  Happiness!  Soul!”  So he’s not too much concerned with the details of the contract Mephistopheles is proposing.  How does Gretchen’s religion respond to a creature like Mephistopheles?  She tells Faust, “I detest him from the bottom of my heart.  Nothing in all my life has sickened me so much as that man’s loathsome face… I have a secret horror of that man… there isn’t anything alive that he can love… when he comes it shuts up my very soul.”  This sets up a stark contrast between distinct theologies.  Faust’s spirituality is intellectual; Gretchen’s religion is instinctual.  Faust wants to know God with his mind; Gretchen wants to know God with her whole being.  For Faust God is complex; for Gretchen God is simple.

Mephistopheles overhears the whole exchange.  When Gretchen is gone he taunts Faust.  “Ah, Doctor, you have just been catechized… These girls take a very lively interest in learning whether someone’s simple and pious in the good old-fashioned way.”  And it’s true that Gretchen is simple and pious.  But Mephistopheles adds a cynical twist.  “If he minds there, they think, he’ll mind us too.”  In other words, if a man is obedient to God he’ll also be obedient to his wife.  This is why Gretchen loathes Mephistopheles and it’s why Mephistopheles loathes Gretchen’s religion.  Faust’s home-grown theology can be easily twisted into evil.  Gretchen’s religion is her fortress against it.       


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