It has been quite a few years now since I last taught a high school honors class in European history. But I can remember how I would cover the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-1872) at the time. Very quickly.
There were two reasons for that. First of all, even thought the course I taught was an Advance Placement course, it was a survey course, covering the Renaissance to the Cold War. There was no time to linger on a single thinker. My judgment at the time was that Feuerbach should be covered, but only as part of the introduction to Marx's atheism.
There was another thing: I was not equipped to do much more than that. I'll ‘fess up. My knowledge of Feuerbach's theories was a classic example of knowing the "stuff about the stuff," limited to a few selections in various political theory anthologies and books on Marx. So that was what I offered my classes: stock summaries found in those sources. We went over how he was a student of Hegel who rejected Hegel's idealism and turned to atheism, viewing religion as a nothing more than a psychological need; that he saw God as a projection of our highest-minded ideals onto an imaginary being, an idealization of self.
Before going further (I don't know if I should admit this in public), it has always struck me that Feuerbach was on to something. Not that he was right about the existence of God. If unaided reason fails us in this regard, we have Jesus' word that there is a loving Father in Heaven. But I would argue that Feuerbach is correct about how humans perceive God. His error was in concluding that this yearning and projection of our ideals somehow disproves God's existence. Not so. That human beings, in all parts of the world, from the beginning of time, have "projected their highest ideals onto a Supreme Being" is another way of saying that "God made us to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in the next," to quote from the old Baltimore Catechism.
What interests me just now is a different aspect to this topic. I was always puzzled about why Feuerbach's theories would stimulate very little classroom discussion in my teaching days. My students would nod, and jot down some notes to be used for test purposes, but there was no give-and-take, no eagerness to take a stand, one way or another about his atheism. And this was not par for the course in my honors classes, where the students usually were eager to weigh in with their opinions and impressions about an author or controversial idea.
At the time, I attributed this reticence to their concerns about offending one another. This was one area where the students were respectful of each other, even those who would not think twice about ribbing someone for his choice of sneakers or the size of his nose. My honors classes were always a mixture of Christians and Jews, with an occasional admitted atheist along the way. They would go out of their way never to say anything demeaning — in public, at any rate — about each other's religious beliefs, or lack of same.
And I still think this the primary reason for the subdued response to Feuerbach's theories. But recent events have led me to consider another possibility: my inability at the time to come up something analogous to Feuerbach's "projection of our ideals onto an imaginary being" to stimulate their intellectual curiosity, something in our own time that they could relate to.
Well, if I were teaching those classes nowadays, I think I could come up with an example: the Barack Obama phenomenon. I don't know if I have ever seen anything quite like it. There have been political leaders before with remarkable charisma: FDR, JFK, Ronald Reagan, yes, Bill Clinton. But their crowd appeal was always based on something that these individuals had accomplished. Or at least a perception of accomplishment ginned up by public relations experts. Obama does not have even that. It seems to me that what people admire about him are attributes they project onto him, a symptom of a yearning for a new kind of leader who represents their ideals, Feuerbach's "idealization of self."
Am I saying that Obama would be a bad president? No. Outside of his position on legalized abortion and the homosexual agenda (he favors both), I can't point to anything in his record to indicate that. But neither can the people who are oohing and aahhing over him point to anything that would make him a good president. That's the point. He has no record to speak of. Yet he is all over the place, on Oprah, on the cover of the newsweeklies, on the talk shows, at bookstores signing his best-selling book, meeting with celebrities and rock stars, drawing large crowds and admiring stares.
All this for a man who has accomplished very little in his public life. Check his official website, if you think I am exaggerating. Even there, all they can come up with is a few paragraphs about committees he was on and legislation he co-sponsored during his 7 years as a state legislator in Illinois and 2 years in the United States Senate. I am not saying that he lacks intelligence. The man was president of the Harvard Law Review. You can't fake your way into that position. (I think.) It is just that he has no executive experience and virtually no voting record as a US senator; no clearly articulated positions on the major issues of the day.
But that does not seem to matter. Ask the people who are singing his praises about why they think he should be president. They won't be able to point to anything specific. They will use words like "a breath of fresh air," talk about how he "understands" the needs of the poor and urgency of racial reconciliation, about how he is our best chance to "end the partisan bickering in Washington" and bridge the gap between the Islamic world and the West. They might quote from his book, where he speaks of his "powers of empathy" and his "ability to reach into another's heart."
There is nothing wrong with such sentiments, of course. But more is required from those who aspire to political office, some indication of the specific policies they would employ to achieve their high-minded aspirations. Absent specific policy recommendations, rhetoric is just rhetoric. Socially active movie stars and rock musicians can give us that.
Probably Obama will be forced to come off the mountain and get into the specifics in due course. The other Democratic Party candidates for the presidency are not going to give him a free ride, especially the Clinton team. It is not hard to picture a debate somewhere down the road where an opponent will cut through the haze around him and make clear to the audience that they are listening to a recitation of platitudes from a young man not yet ready for prime time. Someone like James Carville or Paul Begala will come up with a line for Hillary that will sound like a patient pat on the head, but will cut to the bone. Even in this age of celebrity, what sells on Oprah does not sell everywhere.
But in the meantime, the Obama phenomenon has provided us with an insight into what Feuerbach meant. It is possible to impute nobility, intelligence, competence, compassion, understanding and courage onto a cipher.