Hegel and Bulgakov: Relating to the Infinite Through the Finite

Sergius Bulgakov’s sophiology is both creaturely and divine, with creaturely Sophia dependent upon the suppositions of divine Sophia. G.W.F. Hegel’s notion of dialectic fits Bulgakov’s creaturely Sophia, in that dialectic (dualism) is not itself a method or way, but the necessity that presents itself in the finite human condition. Immanuel Kant’s philosophy, marking the relation between the finite and knowable and the infinite and unknowable presumes that cognition is limited to the finite, to the unknowable and that ultimate reality, God, “the thing in itself,” are beyond cognition. But Kant, in examining the instrument of reason or the grounds for its possibility, in Hegel’s estimate, is like someone attempting to learn to swim prior to getting into the water. “If we are not to begin philosophical speculation without having attained rationally to a knowledge of reason, no beginning can be made at all, for in getting to know anything in the philosophical sense, we comprehend it rationally; we are, it seems, to give up attempting this, since the very thing we have to do is first of all to know reason.”[1] How can one make any preliminary conclusions about the rational without being rational?

Kant is steeped in contradiction, which does not mean he can be dismissed, but he provides introduction to the antinomies marking human thought. The resolution is not a refutation of Kant, but for Hegel reason is mediated within a larger “whole” in which the finite and infinite are integrated. The antinomies point beyond the finite and natural to this Absolute. The antinomies between the infinite and finite, heaven and earth, the categories of thought and thought itself, marked the end of cognition for Kant, but for Hegel these differences point to an all-encompassing relational reality which makes thought possible. What is being experienced in finiteness is a relation to the infinite.

As Gillian Rose puts it in explaining Hegel, “The limitation of ‘justified’ knowledge of the finite prevents us from recognizing, criticizing, and hence from changing the social and political relations which determine us. If the infinite is unknowable, we are powerless. For our concept of the infinite is our concept of ourselves and our possibilities.”[2] In place of Kant’s transcendental method, Hegel proposes the idea of phenomenology, of a new order of logic, of absolute ethics, all of which introduce the relational into the rational as they are brought together in human consciousness.  “For it is consciousness itself which makes the distinction between the finite and the infinite, between knowable appearances and unknowable things-in-themselves. It is consciousness which posits an unconditioned infinite, a being or things-in-themselves, which exist outside any relation to consciousness, and hence at the same time are related to consciousness in a negative sense.”[3] It is consciousness which has apparently known the ‘unknowable’ infinite so as to define it. Consciousness of what counts as finite and infinite does not divide consciousness, but it points to a more fundamental reality which cannot be pre-judged. The infinite or absolute cannot be relegated to something outside consciousness as its presence has made itself known, even if it is through seeming impossibility or contradiction. But this impossibility is the very possibility of the absolute and infinite made known, and so the goal for Hegel is to recognize its presence and history.

Bulgakov, like Hegel, sees antinomies and division as characterizing reality, but he sees this “crack in reality” as indicating the kenotic love of God (kenotic love as an ontology). Both Žižek and Bulgakov are following Hegel in this understanding, but Žižek would ontologize the absence or crack in reality, making nothing or evil generative of all else (and I am guilty of reading Hegel through Žižek). It is precisely this sort of arrogant presumption, that Hegel is exposing, but of which he is sometimes accused. According to Rose, Hegel is not proposing that “the actual as rational” is an accomplished fact in human rationality but “the truth of this proposition must be sought.”[4] It would seem to be a nearly tautological truth that true rationality deals with what is actual and what is actual gives rise to a true rationality – how could it be otherwise? But it has been misread as a justification of existing reason. “Hegel is precisely drawing attention to the illusions (relations, difference) of bourgeois society. He is warning against an approach which would see illusion as rational, which makes illusion into the absolute principle of the whole.”[5] As Hegel explains, “Philosophy is its time apprehended in thoughts”[6] and “always comes on the scene too late to give instruction as to what the world ought to be.”[7]  The very possibility of philosophy points to the Absolute and the rational, but philosophy cannot capture its own possibility.

As Hegel describes it,

For such a purpose philosophy at least always comes too late. Philosophy, as the thought of the world, does not appear until reality has completed its formative process, and made itself ready. History thus corroborates the teaching of the conception that only in the maturity of reality does the ideal appear as counterpart to the real, apprehends the real world in its substance, and shapes it into an intellectual kingdom. . . . The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.[8]

Philosophy, the owl of Minerva, is dependent upon a reality that precedes and surpasses it but which makes it possible. To reason, to do philosophy, is to acknowledge that human knowledge and existence is dependent upon and subsequent to an experience and reality which constitutes our world, which makes thought and reason, and even the actual, a possibility. Reality, Hegel says, has completed its “formative process” upon our arrival, and the hope of “maturity” is that reality as it is conceived will one day coincide with what is real.

To deny this possibility, or what is the same thing for Hegel, to deny God, is on the order of denying the possibility of reason. As he goes on to argue, actuality and rationality must coincide in God, and to believe God exists is to acknowledge as much. Or even if God exists, and yet is counted unknowable, then nothing is knowable.

For the two aspects the objective and subjective have but one foundation for their further determination, and but one specific character pervades them both. The idea which a man has of God corresponds with that which he has of himself, of his freedom. Knowing himself in God, he at the same time knows his imperishable life in God; he knows of the truth of his Being, and therefore the idea of the immortality of the soul here enters as an essential moment into the history of religion.  The ideas of God and of immortality have a necessary relation to each other; when a man knows truly about God, he knows truly about himself too: the two sides correspond with each other.[9]

Knowing God is reason’s possibility and it is this possibility that is actualized in reason, which brings together the objective and subjective. The idea of God and the understanding of self are necessarily interdependent. A false or inadequate understanding of God will give rise to a false or inadequate understanding of the self, but the tendency is not to relinquish my “fixed finiteness” as this serves as my absolute. On the other hand, “To relinquish my finiteness and to reach it would be one and the same thing.” My finitude is only rightly understood in relation to what is infinite. Thus, “The interest or motive not to reach that something beyond, and the interest I have in maintaining myself, are identical.”[10]

Where this false understanding is the shared understanding of a society, this will give rise not only to inadequate religion but a failed state and society, as religion serves as the foundation of the State (in Judaism, according to Hegel, they are one and the same). Thus, according to Hegel, “A nation which has a false or bad conception of God, has also a bad state, bad government, bad laws.”[11] The direct correlate of an unknowable God is an unknowable self, and thus all truth or possibility of truth, for myself, is impossible. Truth must be mediated and the self is rendered dependent, enslaved, unfree. Thus, in this situation, the self is powerless against the State. In Hegel’s estimate, since European societies have a bad conception of God, in which he is unknowable, this explains why they have a bad state. While they acknowledge the existence of God, “To say merely that ‘God exists’ is to ascribe bare, characterless existence to a meaningless name.” Natural consciousness might assign predicates such as “perfection” or “necessity” to God but they still cannot “be added up to tell us what the empty name ‘God’ means.”[12] This objectification of God results in a self-objectification, which misses the immanent realization of God in Spirit.

For example, the Cartesian cogito, “I think therefore I am” concludes to an inaccessible self, divided from thought. The existing thing, is a bare existent thing in itself, and what is passed over is the “I Am” of the tetragrammaton.  Finding the terminus of this “I am” in the self is on the order of identifying God’s existence as impersonal other; here “I am” rendered other to myself, assigning to the self a being that is inaccessible, the thinking thing that does not arise in thought. The “I think” is indeed dependent upon an “I Am” but not one that is graspable in thought, but which is the very necessity for thought. Being, mind, the noumena, the thing in itself, is not thinkable but provides for all thought and experience. God is more intimate to myself than my own thoughts. He is the Absolute in whom we live, move and think and in and through whom we have being.  The Absolute is thought, but cannot be thought or reduced to comprehension. There is only the possibility for a relational, dynamic, temporal, approach to the Absolute.

[1] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures On the Philosophy of Religion: Together With a Work on the Proofs of the Existence of God vol. 1, Trans. By E. B. Speirs, and J. Burdon Sanderson, (London:  Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co. Ltd., 1895) 53.

[2] Gillian Rose, Hegel Contra Sociology, (New York: Verso, 2009) 48.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 87.

[5] Ibid.

[6] G.W.F. Hegel, Hegel, Vorlesungen über Rechtsphilosophie 1818–1831, Edition und Kommentar in sechs Bänden, hrsg. von Karl–Heinz Ilting, Stuttgart, Friedrich Frommann, 1973, 26, cited in Rose, 87.

[7] Ibid, Rechtsphilosophie, 27-8, cited in Rose, Ibid.

[8] G.W.F. Hegel, Philosophy of Right, Translated by S.W Dyde (Kitchener Ontario: Batoche Books, 2001) 20.

[9] Hegel, Philosophy of Religion, 79-80.

[10]Ibid, 177.

[11] Ibid, 247.

[12] Rose, 100.

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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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