Kierkegaard’s Alternative to Hegelian Atonement Theory: Curing the Sickness Unto Death

One of the key confrontations in human thought (philosophy/religion/psychology. . .) occurred in Denmark with the clash between the thought of Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (or SK). In that Hegel is summing up the possibility of human thought (not only the history of thought in philosophy and its various forms but its future) and SK is positing his own Christian understanding as the alternative to Hegel, it might be said that one has the choice of either being Hegelian or Christian.[1] Overlooking for the moment the questions this might raise, I would like to blunder along with the two-fold assumption that Hegel sums up the possibility of human thought and potential under a fallen perspective and SK provides a summation of the Christian diagnosis of the problem (represented by Hegel) and the alternative to Hegel (authentic Christianity).  Hegel, in this reading of SK, is not simply wrong but is a summation of how we have all gone wrong and of how Christ addresses the primordial human problem (represented and articulated best by Hegel). At the same time that Hegel offers deep psychological insight gone bad, SK builds upon this insight – providing at once an alternative analysis and resolution. We are sick (with a sickness unto death) and we need to be clear about the diagnosis so as to understand Christ’s intervention into the disease through his death.[2]  At the same time, the contention between Hegel and SK is over the meaning of the death of Christ – Hegel’s understanding poses the problem as the cure and SK sees the cross as specifically confronting the Hegelian cure.

The Hegelian dialectic is grounded in an ontology and orientation that revolves around death and negation.  It is a description of the emergence of the conscious (‘spiritual’) self from the abyss of the unconscious.  Death though, is the engine that keeps the move toward self-conscious realization running.  Life and death are not irreconcilable opposites, but are two sides – the two sides, in the dialectic of human consciousness. This is reflected in both Hegel’s reading of the Fall in Genesis and his taking up of the Lutheran notion (and twisting it) of the meaning of the death of Christ.

In Hegel’s reading of Genesis, the goodness of humanity is one that must evolve through the Fall into dying. (An idea represented in forms of Christianity which presume that redemption requires sin and the Fall, and that this was God’s plan from the beginning.) The Fall takes man out of immediacy (a childlike state lacking in cognitive and ethical capacity) into the knowledge which will enable him to attain to spirit. (Hegelian Christians will read Romans 7 (innocence, encounter with the law, desire, etc.) as necessary stages in human development.)  The process of separation from nature and immediacy is to “transgress” or “step forth” and this “separating out” gets at the necessity of a dialectic between good and evil. Humans are created with a potential goodness which will only be realized through the evil of being split or separated. The goodness and truth of reconciliation depend upon a prior alienation, so knowledge (concept/spirit) of the good can only arrive if it is conjoined to evil. As Hegel makes clear, evil is not simply to be found in the transgression but because humans are spirit, the fall from immediacy was implicit in the original creation. The first couple were “good” so far as natural goodness is concerned but they were evil in that they were made to transgress this immediate state and to attain fully to the “concept” of spirit. Their original condition set up the dialectic of history in that they were both good and evil and this split (the thesis/antithesis) contains the potential which must be “actualized” in a working toward synthesis (Spirit). [3]

Hegel presumes he has touched upon the root of everything: binaries and difference are at the root of human knowing and this cognition is divine (God is coming to his fullness). Hegel’s roommate and friend, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, will read this dialectic back into the origins of God himself, which is true to the Hegelian sensibility that history is a process in which Spirit/God comes to fullness. Like a Hegelian big bang cosmologist, Schelling simply presumes to follow history backward to the point at which God arises through the dialectic of good and evil (or Something and Nothing). There is a separation or difference that opens up within God (the equivalent of Hegel’s description of potential and actualization in his description of the creation of humans) and this difference accounts for the origin of God and every Subject.[4] God, like man, is faced with a forced choice (in the retrospective view) of choosing predication and action or literally nothing at all.  Mankind likewise, is forced to choose between language, the social network, or a form of non-existence.  But the “ground” of choice, or that from which being, predication, or language arises is the madness, the pure drives (Schelling’s rotary motion of repetition of nothing) or the absolute nothing, which continues as the threatening ground of every predication.

Hegel’s philosophy describing the emergence of consciousness, spirit, or mind out of unconsciousness and death, does not turn from negation or presume to fill it in, even through Christ. Hegel’s pronouncement of the death of God, unlike the atheistic denial of God, does not presume to pass over the negation of the unconscious but just the opposite; the death of God in Christ points to the absolute mediation of negation as it is experienced in death.  Even God must die in Christ.  As Sean Ireton has put it;

“For Hegel, death constitutes an internal and determinate negation rather than a sudden disruptive event that strikes from without.  Death is a necessary and inseparable aspect of Spirit, an analogue of the very negativity that drives the dialectic onward and leads to the culminating experience of absolute knowing at the conclusion of the Phenomenology.”

So, Hegel will build upon Luther’s notion, aimed at fighting scholasticism, that there is no distinction between the humanity and deity of Christ – especially in the death of Christ. Thus, one can rightly claim that “God died on the cross.” The difference being that Hegel takes Luther’s phrase, unlike Luther, to describe the absolute nature of death.

Evil, nothingness, and death, or simply madness, are not posited as a mere by-product or simply an impetus to something greater; rather death and madness are a continuing underlying reality.  As Schelling asks, is normal reason not merely “regulated madness?” As Žižek explains, “the difference between ‘normalcy’ and madness is inherent to madness. . . Is ‘normalcy’ ultimately not merely a more ‘mediated’ form of madness?”  The occasional trauma or rip in Hegel’s symbolic world is not a failure to align oneself with reality; rather reality is showing through the traumatic rip: “here shoots a bloody head – there another white ghastly apparition, suddenly here before it, and just so disappears.  One catches sight of this night when one looks human beings in the eye – into a night that becomes awful.”[5]  The Subject is put into the position of grounding himself, but that ground is constructed in and through death and madness which shine through.

This creation from nothing not only points to the ontology of modern atheism (Nietzsche will build on the Lutheran phrase taken up by Hegel to announce a new meaning to “God died on the cross”)  but it brings us to the intervention which SK presumes constitutes authentic Christianity. In The Sickness Unto Death, SK (and here we may not need to worry that this is a pseudonymous work as SK confides to his diary that his original intention was to publish this work under his own name) deploys something very much akin to the Hegelian dialectic – but he will wield it in a very different fashion. The dialectic of “spirit,” as SK sets it up, contains the same unrealized “potential” Hegel attaches to natural man: “Man is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short it is a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two factors. So regarded, man is not yet a self.” As with Hegel, SK pictures the human Subject as falling short of his full humanity but of having to work out this potential. He describes this relation of the self to the self as a “negative unity.” The difference is that where Hegel pictures this negation  taken up into God through Christ (negative unity in the divine), SK presumes death and negation are annihilated through Christ and in the life of the Christian.

To put it in the language of Paul, Hegel and Hegelians of every stripe will imagine Paul’s picture of “the body of death” or the “the body of sin” as a condition which persists in salvation (thus reading Ro. 7 as if it is describing the normal Christian life). Like the Paul of Ro. 8, SK poses an alternative to the negative relation (death, agonistic struggle): “If this relation which relates itself to its own self is constituted by another, the relation doubtless is the third term, but this relation (the third term) is in turn a relation relating itself to that which constituted the whole relation.” One can either posit an infinite power of absence (despair, sin, death) or the positive power of God as the driving force – the third term within the self.  God or Christ, as that which constituted the whole relation, introduced back into the self-relation would displace the negative power. The relation can be constituted in a negative unity (Paul’s “body of sin” or “body of death”) or in the one “which constituted the whole relation” (God).

The way one recognizes and moves beyond the negative relation is through despair. Despair is the recognition that one is not oneself and so is despairingly willing to be oneself. In turn, despair is “eradicated” when “by relating itself to its own self and by willing to be itself the self is grounded transparently in the Power which posited it.” The fact that the self is constituted by another, means “that the self cannot of itself attain and remain in equilibrium and rest by itself, but only by relating itself to that Power which constituted the whole relation.” In other words, SK’s point of departure from Hegel is in the annihilation, and not the preservation, of this negative power. The power of negation (the ultimate Hegelian power) takes on the look of the infinite in that it is God that is displaced in the negative self-relation. SK would locate this Hegelian power, not as part of a dialectical necessity but simply as a reflection of the capacity for the infinite. Death and the role of death may appear as something on the order of a negative infinite force but this is not a true infinite but the place to be filled by God.

SK counters Hegel and Schelling in that he denies negation (nothingness and death) any part in his positive resolution. “The thing of not being in despair must mean the annihilation of the possibility of being this; if it is to be true that a man is not in despair, one must annihilate the possibility every instant.” (As he works this out this is a continual departure from Speculation (Hegel and Hegelians) and is an “ethical” engagement that “goes deeper into reality.”) SK notes that this is not the usual relation between possibility and actuality. “Here, on the contrary, the actuality (not being in despair), which in its very form is a negation, is the impotent, annihilated possibility; ordinarily, actuality in comparison with possibility is a confirmation, here it is a negation.” There is no “lifting up,” preservation, or fulfillment, of death and despair; there is only their complete annihilation. SK pictures this annihilation as a continually present and lived possibility which is inherent to faith. He ends where he began: “’By relating itself to its own self and by willing to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the Power which constituted it.’ And this formula again, as has often been noted, is the definition of faith.”[6]

Faith is a continual taking up of the power of the cross which displaces the power of negation or despair (Christ defeats death – “the grave could not hold him”) with perfect love: “It marks a cross before Speculation.”[7]

[1] There are several potential problems or questions concerning this characterization: isn’t SK dependent on Hegel and so to speak of this as a clash is already to misunderstand it (as some would argue); aren’t the major manifestations of modern Christianity Hegelian (as in variations mutations of Lutheran and Calvinist theology – which is true); is SK really dealing with Hegel or only his disciples; isn’t Hegel describing a human reality that is a necessity?

[2] It may be that SK is thoroughly Hegelian at certain points within his authorship (at the beginning of his career he seems to have also counted himself Hegelian – See Jon Stewart, Kierkegaard’s Relation to Hegel Reconsidered). Under various pseudonyms he seems to be describing Hegelianism from the inside but he ultimately sees Christian conversion (the authentic kind) as a holistic alternative which can be concretely realized and lived out.

[3] The discussion appears in Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. This is a helpful analysis I employed:

[4] If one is not troubled by “common place” Hegelianism the heights Schelling would attain should be a sign that Hegelianism presumes to sum up everything, including God, in the concept of dialectic.

[5] G. W. F. Hegel, ‘Jenaer Realphilosophie’, in Fruhe politische Systeme (Frankfurt: Ullstein, 1974) 204; translation quoted, from Donald Phillip Verene, Hegel’s Recollection (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1977) 18‑19, quoted in Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, 29‑30.

[6] Kierkegaard, Soren. Sickness Unto Death (Kindle Locations 2123-2125). Start Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition.

[7] Kierkegaard, Soren. Sickness Unto Death (Kindle Location 1906). Start Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition.


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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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