Reassessing Hegel in Light of Maximus

My reading of Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel has been through the work of Slavoj Žižek, which obviously fails to grasp the theological centeredness, or even the possibility of the orthodox Christ centeredness, of Hegel’s thought. I realized my short sighted treatment of Hegel when Jordan Wood suggested in conversation (a conversation which will be published on Saturday, 3/16), Hegel is in line with the outworking of the Origenist, Maximian, theological project and is an orthodox Christian. This goes against the overwhelming consensus, and it is no surprise that even those of us who might be inclined to read Hegel in this light, have not done so (due to the consensus).

For thinkers like Derrida, Levinas, Adorno, Deleuze and Bataille, there is the “metaphysical” Hegel who, in Robert Pippin’s phrase, served as these philosophers whipping boy.[1] According to Gavin Hyman, “This was what has become known as the ‘textbook’ or ‘cliché’ Hegel, a caricature our ‘new’ readers (e.g., Rowan Williams) believe to be far removed from what is warranted by Hegel’s own texts.”[2] Far from being a postmodern Hegel, this is the modern, rationalist Hegel. “This is a Hegel too who represents the apogee of modernity’s omniscient aspirations. His all-seeing System, crowned with the concept of Absolute Knowledge, seems to deliver modernity’s totalising dream. It appears to be a ‘God’s eye view’ recast in the terms of a secularised modernity, to which all is subordinated, and in light of which all is intelligible.”[3]  

Žižek’s is the opposite of this reading, in that he sees Hegel as the truth of the human condition, which is ultimately devoid of the metaphysical form of truth, in that it is purely symbolic and pragmatic. According to Pippin, “Žižek’s ambitious goal is to argue that the former characterization of Hegel attacks a straw man, and that, when this is realized in sufficient detail, the putative European break with Hegel in the criticisms of the likes of Schelling, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Deleuze, and the Freudians, will look very different, with significantly more overlap than gaps, and this will make available a historical diagnosis very different from the triumphalist one usually attributed to Hegel.”[4]

Then in the wake of the work of Gillian Rose, thinkers such as Rowan Williams read Hegel as working within a theistic and more orthodox ontology. What may be strange in these various readings, is that Žižek’s atheistic reading is closer to Williams theistic reading than the classical text-book reading. That is the extreme atheism and theism converge at key points.

This may account for my reaction to Jordan’s suggestion. I must admit, given my own slanted reading it had not occurred to me to consider Hegel the Christian. On the other hand, my reading of Žižek, who considers his work as an extension of Hegel, lands as close to the kingdom as possible (for an atheistic materialist). Beyond this, Žižek’s insights into the human condition, are derived directly from the deep psychology posed by Hegel, which I have understood (as has Žižek) as biblical insights. Thus, it is no surprise that Hegel’s depth of insight is, as with Žižek, directly related to the Apostle Paul.

So, Hegel’s reception may not mean much given the reception of Origen and Maximus. That is, there is a form of reason and thought implied in a Maximian speculative theology, which apart from a few thinkers such as Sergius Bulgakov, has mostly been written off (Bulgakov’s appreciation of German idealism is not surprising, in this light). An apocalyptic, universal, cosmic, Christianity has also been obscured or written off. Thus, it is no surprise to realize Hegel is also misunderstood, as he is promoting a form of Christianity unrecognizable to most Christians. In turn, given that Hegel’s is the first post-foundational, post-enlightenment, postmodern philosophical/theological project, it should be no surprise that a form of thought which by-passed the enlightenment-modernist project should converge (at least in part) with his form of thought.

According to Rowan Williams, Hegel’s philosophy coincides at key points  with what has already been said by theology:

Dialectic is what theology means by the power of God, just as Verstand is what theology means by the goodness of God. Verstand says “Everything can be thought”, “nothing is beyond reconciliation”, every percept makes sense in a distinctness, a uniqueness, that is in harmony with an overall environment. It is, as you might say, a doctrine of providence, in that it claims that there can be no such thing as unthinkable contingency. But … thinking the particular in its harmonies, thinking how the particular makes sense, breaks the frame of reference in which we think the particular. God’s goodness has to give way to God’s power – but to a power which acts only in a kind of self-devastation. And, says Hegel, the “speculative” stage to which dialectic finally leads us is what religion has meant by the mystical, which is not, he insists, the fusion of subject and object but the concrete (historical?) unity or continuity or followability of what Verstand alone can only think fragmentarily or episodically.[5]

According to Gavin, “Williams shows how what Hegel speaks about philosophically is said religiously by the language of theology.” The deep grammar of theology “is what enables the truths of philosophy to appear; we would not be able to perceive the speculative truth of philosophy outside the light of the divine truth of theology.”[6] The modernist project came to an impasse, and Hegel affects a rescue of philosophical thought through theology. Thus, in William’s estimate, Hegel’s thought is an extension of a speculative theology.

Far from Hegel being an atheistic philosopher (per Žižek), it can be argued (and has) that his thought and reason begin with Christ, and specifically with the kenotic self-giving love of Christ described by Paul. Hegel turns, as the introduction to his early works indicates, from the law of Kant to the “Pantheism of Love.” “What Hegel rejected in framing the Pantheism of Love, he never reaffirmed later on. He found a new logic, a new rationalism to solve the problem insoluble by the rationalism he had overcome in his earlier years.”[7]

 In his turn to love, he saw the inadequacies of the law, focused as it is on guilt and punishment. “A law has been made; if the thing opposed to it has been destroyed, there still remains the concept, the law; but it then expresses only the deficiency, only a gap, because its content has in reality  been annulled; and it is then called a penal law. This form of law (and the law’s content) is the direct opposite of life because it signalizes the destruction of life. . .[8] Law speaks only of destruction of life and perpetual guilt. “For the trespasser always sees himself as a trespasser; over his action as a reality he has no power, and this his reality is in contradiction with his consciousness of the law.”[9] In the key text “The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate” Hegel broaches the alternative to law in kenotic sacrificial understanding. As the title of his heading indicates, “Love is the only thing which transcends penal justice.”[10] He seems to directly contradict a Calvinistic notion of penal substitution: “For this reason it is also contradictory to contemplate satisfying the law by punishing one man as a representative of many like criminals, since, in so far as the others are looked on as suffering punishment in him, he is their universal, their concept; and the law, as ordering or punishing, is only law by being opposed to a particular.”[11] Instead of seeing Jesus as satisfying the law, Hegel suggests love is entry into a completely different order: “Jesus makes a general demand on his hearers to surrender their rights, to lift themselves above the whole sphere of justice or injustice by love, for in love there vanish not only rights but also the feeling of inequality and the hatred of enemies. . .”[12] Hegel does not see a direct continuity between law and love since “law was opposed to love,” not “in its content but in its form.”[13] Love is of the Spirit, and it is Spirit alone that “can undo what has been done.”[14]

Hegel’s point of departure, like Luther and Paul, is captured in Philippians 2:7: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interest of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself [ἑαυτòν ἐκένωσεν], taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:4-8). Hegel passes from seeing Christ as the embodiment of Kant’s categorical imperative and Kantian ethics, to the centrality of self-giving love described by Paul.

According to William Goggin, “Hegel’s retrieval of kenosis as the reflexive representation of sacrifice forms the core feature of the imaginary syntheses of religion as they are elevated into the conceptual necessity of philosophical comprehension.”[15] Hegel’s project is a reconceptualization of the atonement, which seeks to make cognizant the self-giving love of Christ. The meaning of the death of Christ in kenosis is the basis on which he turns to a revaluation of negativity – of tarrying with the negative. It is not any death, or death in general, but Christ’s death with which Hegel is concerned. “As seen in the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Hegel’s awareness of the pivotal role of kenotic sacrifice in the development of his system does not wane with time. If anything, it would seem, Hegel becomes increasingly clear on this point.”[16] As Hegel puts it, “When it becomes comprehended spiritually, this very death becomes a healer, the focal point of reconciliation.”[17] It is healing, not because it reconciles with the law, but because it works an immediate reconciliation in the Spirit.

Here, one can embrace Žižek’s understanding, that the first step in the Hegelian reading is suspending the punishing superego equated with God. Hegel goes to some length to demonstrate, there is no final reconciliation in the realm of law, retribution and punishment. While one might “picture,” as opposed to experience, “satisfaction” of the law, Hegel points to the “realization” of reconciliation. “Representing the kenotic self-sacrifice of God, the death of God points the way to a sacrifice of God as representation, to the negation of the absoluteness of the reflective, representational standpoint itself.”[18] The Christian in Christ can pass beyond representational picture thinking and experience, within herself, the reality of reconciliation.

Hegel describes alienation as an experience of the self, and in turn his project is to describe reconciliation. “The disparity which exists in consciousness between the ‘I’ and the substance which is its object is the distinction between them, the negative in general… Now although this negative appears at first as a disparity between the ‘I’ and its object, it is just as much the disparity of substance with itself. Thus what seems to happen outside of it, to be an activity directed against it, is really its own doing, and substance shows itself to be essentially subject.”[19] The self objectifies itself, as in the object in the mirror, creating an inner antagonism, cured only by self-giving love realized in the Spirit. There is an enacted unity in the Spirit as the I and its object, existence and essence, are unified. Through kenotic self-negation, Spirit is realized and grasps the self as its own – with the self becoming what it essentially is. There is an end to the antagonistic self-relation through the reconciliation of the Spirit. According to Hegel,

Spirit has two sides which are presented as two converse propositions: one is this, that substance alienates itself from itself and becomes self-consciousness; the other is the converse, that self-consciousness alienates itself from itself and gives itself the nature of a Thing, or makes itself a universal Self. Both sides have in this way encountered each other, and through this encounter their true union has come into being. The self-emptying [Entäußerung] of substance, its growth into self-consciousness, expresses the transition into the opposite…that substance is in itself self-consciousness. Conversely the self-emptying [Entäußerung] of self-consciousness expresses this, that it is in itself the universal essence…two moments through whose reciprocal self-emptying [Entäußerung] each become the other, Spirit comes into existence as this their unity.[20]

This resonates with Paul, Lacan and Žižek. Lacan and Žižek describe their psychoanalytic understanding in conjunction with Romans 7, in which self-consciousness forms in an alienation between the object or thing in the mirror, reducing to an object, viewed from the subject position. The I is split, and as Paul explains in Romans 8, it is only in the work of the Spirit that the self experiences reconciliation with self and God.

Christianity is “revelatory,” according to Hegel in that the problem of overcoming the antitheses of understanding is realized in passage into Absolute Knowledge. But Absolute Knowledge is not an abstraction or picture thinking but is the end point of a kenotically realized identity. “It is the moment of kenotic sacrifice that unites Substance with Subject.”[21] The I must die with Christ, in a kenotic self-giving love, which does not turn from death and sacrifice, but is a taking up of the cross of love.

Given this reading, one can quote Žižek’s favorite passage from Hegel, and recognize, Hegel is not describing death per se, but the death of Christ as accomplishing a healing reconciliation on the order of theosis.

“[T]he Life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather life that endures [erträgt] and maintains itself in it [in ihm sich erhält]. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment [Zerissenheit], it finds itself…Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being. This power is identical with what we earlier called Subject, which by giving determinateness an existence in its own element supersedes abstract immediacy, i.e., the immediacy which barely is, and thus is authentic substance: that being or immediacy whose mediation is not outside of it but which is this mediation itself.”[22]

The Subject of being is nothing less than divine or a participation in divinity. As Goggin states it, “Hegel understands his idealism as the conceptual clarification of Christianity. Hegel was, in good faith, interpreting Christian dogma as an idealist project, as depicting a logic of kenotic sacrifice that reshaped the space of reasons and made possible the emergence of the speculative system.”[23] This is not a wholesale endorsement of Hegel, nor is it to suggest that Hegel has fully achieved his goal of making kenosis the ground of cognition, but this can be said to have been his goal. This alone calls for a reassessment of Hegel.   

(Sign up for the course, The Theology of Maximus the Confessor with Jordan Wood. https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings. The course will run from 2024/3/25–2024/5/17 and will meet on Saturdays.)


[1] Robert B. Pippin, Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 4. Quoted in Gavin Hyman, “The ‘New Hegel’ and the Question of God,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory (Spring 2020) 19:2, 276.

[2] Gavin, 276.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Robert Pippin, ‘Back to Hegel?’ Mediations 26.1-2 (Fall 2012-Spring 2013), p. 8. Quoted in Gavin, 277.

[5] Rowan Williams, ‘Logic and Spirit in Hegel’ in Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology, ed. Mike Higton (London: SCM Press, 2007), pp. 37-38. Cited in Gavin, 279-280.

[6] Gavin, 280,

[7] Friedrich Hegel, On Christianity: Early Theological Writings, Trans. By T. M. Knox with and Introduction and Fragments translated by Richard Kroner (New York: Harper Torch Books, 1948) 12.

[8] Hegel, On Christianity, 225.

[9] Hegel, On Christianity, 227.

[10] Hegel, On Christianity, 224.

[11] Hegel, On Christianity, 226.

[12] Hegel, On Christianity, 218.

[13] Hegel, On Christianity, 225.

[14] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Vorlesungen, Band 5, 246; Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, 467. Cited in William Ezekiel Goggin, Hegel’s Sacrificial Imagination, (PhD Dissertation, The University of Chicago, 2019) 284.

[15] Goggin, 278.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Vorlesungen. Ausgewählte Nachschriften und Manuskripte Band 5, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion, 249; Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Press, 467-468 (Translation modified). Cited in Goggin, 277.

[18] Goggin, 258.

[19] Hegel, Phenomenology, 21. Cited in Goggin, 244.

[20] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.  755 (Translation modified). Cited in Goggin, 255-256.

[21] Goggin, 255.

[22] Hegel, Phenomenology, 19. Cited in Goggin, 243.

[23] Goggin, 235.

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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