Rowan Williams and the Rereading of Hegel

Perhaps there is no philosopher more blatantly misinterpreted than G.W.F Hegel. Hegel is said to be a pantheist, reducing all that is external to the self into possession of the rational self (“the same”) such that all difference is made univocal, monological, and subject to reason (synthesis). Hegel is made the boogeyman, whose pretensions must be opposed so as to preserve the Other, and the finitude of reason must acknowledge absolute difference and otherness, resisting synthesis (sameness). Hegel is portrayed, variously, as a super-rationalist or as marking the end of reason, and he is either an atheist or a heterodox Christian who imagines God in process. In much (most?) of what is written on Hegel, though there is not a lot of agreement, his Christianity and his self-description as an orthodox Christian working within the parameters of Trinitarian theology, is often not accounted for or mentioned. The exception to this reading, are those theologians reading him from an Eastern Orthodox orientation, such as Sergius Bulgakov, or even the Swiss Catholic, Hans Urs von Balthasar. In this list I would include Rowan Williams, who wrote his dissertation on Vladimir Lossky, though he credits Gillian Rose with his reconsideration of Hegel. Williams recognizes that Hegel is not effacing difference in synthesis and sameness, but in Christ this difference is preserved but overcome.[1]

This reconsideration of Hegel is important, as Hegel develops a full appreciation of the meaning of Trinity and the Trinitarian necessity for thought. As Williams points out in his key article on Hegel,[2] thought is ultimately dependent upon what God has done in Christ. For Hegel, “no otherness is unthinkable,” as “an unthinkable otherness would leave us incapable of thinking ourselves, and so of thinking about thinking – and so of thinking itself.”[3] God, in the tradition, is portrayed as completely Other to the world, which means he is unthinkable, discrete and independent. But this notion of God leaves out the fulness of a Trinitarian understanding. In his philosophy of religion, the culmination and final project of Hegel, “God is defined as ‘the living process of positing his Other, the world, which comprehended in its divine form is His Son.’”[4] The “consummate religion” in Hegel’s description of Christianity, in this final work of his life, is “the religion that is properly related to itself, the religion that is transparent to itself, thinks itself – spells out the inseparability of thinking God and thinking the reconciled consciousness; it also, very importantly, explains why such a religion can only be a historically determined (‘positive’ or ‘revealed’) faith.”[5] Consciousness and thought begin with the recognition of the self in and through the other. God is not an isolated Subject, but gives himself to the world in his Son. He gives himself for thought, and makes thought and self-consciousness possible.

Much like Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy aimed at dispelling the notion of private language (specifically as illustrated in Augustine), Hegel pictures self-consciousness as dependent upon God’s self-consciousness shared/realized in the historical person of Christ, and given or realized in the Spirit. “To think myself is to discover my identity in the alien givenness of the past, and to think history is to find it in my consciousness (thereby discovering that there is no such thing as a consciousness that is ‘privately mine’).[6] Thus, Hegel defends the melding of thought and being, but this defense is part of his explaining the doctrine of the Trinity, the work of Christ, the meaning of createdness, “which leads to the full and mature thinking of God, as spirit in community.[7] The condition for thinking is nothing less than the doctrine of Trinity, creation, reconciliation, and incarnation.

This is why Hegel focuses on Anselm’s ontological argument, which in Anselm’s version he judges inadequate, but which he would rescue. While he is not unappreciative of Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, picturing God in his simplicity as unthinkable, Hegel would transmute the Christian tradition of divine simplicity “into the terms of a process” rather than in terms of pure negation.[8] For example, Anselm would equate the greatest thought with God, and yet Anselm erases all content for this thought. The God that is thought (to be or to have existence) is absolutely different from any other existing thing, such that the world is rendered comparably nonexistent. Hegel’s point is that this notion of absolute otherness is at once contradictory, rendering thought an impossibility. “If there is what is not and could not be thought, there would be some sort of life or reality with which consciousness could not be in relation.”[9] Hegel may be thinking of Kant, but also Kant’s critique of the ontological argument, maintaining Kant is confused. “We should have no word or idea for such a ‘reality’ (we could not even call a reality what we could not in any way engage with).”[10] As in Anselm’s cosmological argument, in which he pictures God, in comparison to the world and normal thought, as “absolutely different,” there is a contradiction. If something is “absolutely different” than there is no comparison to be made and no thought of God whatsoever. “For Hegel, an otherness that couldn’t be thought would not even be a negation, because it would not negate anything that could be thought (if it did, it would not be absolutely other; part of its definition would be given as ‘not x’).”[11]

Anselm is in a line of thinkers who picture thinking absolute difference as the thought of God. Hegel’s point is this destroys thought itself, as God is Truth, the ground of truth and reason, and to leave God out of thought – as the impossible thought – destroys thought. The universal and eternal Truth of God holds all things together, and knowing anything is to enter into this relational understanding. “To say that there was thinking and . . . whatever, that there was no identity between nature, action, history, law, society or religion and thinking, would be to conclude that thinking is not what we do, and that therefore we cannot think what we are.”[12] Thinking is based on a relational understanding, in which thinking and knowing relate to the self, the other and to God, but where things are imagined to exist discretely (without relationship) than nothing is thinkable. “Thus to think is, ultimately, to step beyond all local determinations of reality, to enter into an infinite relatedness – not to reflect or register or acknowledge an infinite relatedness, but to act as we cannot but act, if our reality truly is what we think it is, if thinking is what we (just) do.”[13]

If God is beyond thought, Williams is quick to point out, this also means that not only thinking and knowing are rendered impossible, but sensation, emotion or love are also empty. Hegel’s point, in the Logic is, “there are no discrete and simple objects for thought . . . “ as “thought is bound to dissolve the finite perception, the isolated object, as such, moving from the level of diversity (a contingent multiplicity of things) to that of complementary opposition: each ‘thing’ is defined by not being another, lives only in the absence of another, and so ‘passes over’ from being a discrete object to being a moment in a complex movement.”[14] This complex movement allows for no final resting place for thought, no static presence, or no end to movement. Certainly the self, is not a discrete object for thought or something we come to possess. The self-presence which a misoriented desire is in pursuit of, is that static letter of the law, that immovable written word, that object in the mirror, and is not focused on a Person or the personal.  

Again, it may be helpful to think of Anselm arriving at his final thought, the place of the word arising within himself, and yet this word cannot speak as it is before language (it is the place of language). He pictures an end to the movement of thought, but this end is no-thought, no-movement, no-place, but an unthinkable apophatic interiority. Anselm thinks the greatest thought by ceasing all other thoughts. As with Descartes, all relationality, all movement, all embodiment, is excluded. One is left with an empty, static thought, in which there is an end to thinking. Rather than demonstrating the existence of God, the God who is beyond thought, establishes doubt, darkness, and nothingness, as prime reality.[15]

In contrast, Hegel is picturing thought, in its dialectic form as that which “outlives and ‘defeats’ stable, commonsense perception, not by abolishing it from the outside, but by the penetration of its own logic and process.”[16] It opens up to and requires relating thought as that which is grounded in God. “Everything can be thought” and “nothing is beyond reconciliation” as thought is the “overall environment” establishing harmony and relationship between all things. God is where thought begins and, in this light, there “can be no such thing as unthinkable contingency.”[17] The particular is thinkable in its relational harmonies and this relational entry into understanding is made possible by the fact that God gives himself for humanity, for thought.

This is the power and love of God. “God’s goodness has to give way to God’s power – but to a power which acts only in a kind of self-devastation.[18] God’s kenotic self-giving love makes God available in the Son through the Spirit. “It means both that the life of God comes to its fullness in the world solely by the death, the stripping, of the human – the human, that is conceived as something solid in itself, as the finite negation or contradiction of the divine, and that human fragility and mortal weakness are not ‘outside’ God, in the sense that they do not prevent union with God. After Calvary, then, human self-awareness, the human knowledge of humanity as vulnerable and finite, becomes inseparable from awareness of God.”[19]

Human weakness is not the end but the beginning of human understanding. Weakness is not something alone (something in and of itself) but this weakness is “a moment in the life of God.”[20] It is the place God meets us and we meet God. The dispossession of the self and of the thought of self in self-emptying, is the entry into the life of the Spirit. “Only through a history of the emptying out or bringing to nothing of the fullness of Spirit” can “thinking establish itself, because only in such an event can we definitely lose the pretensions of the individual consciousness.”[21] The self as a thinking thing is beyond thought. Despite Descartes, and the confused reading of Hegel, this is not a fusion of subject and object (sameness) in some mystical synthesis. It is itself a sign of the limitations of thought without God, or of what Verstand (understanding) alone can only think fragmentarily or episodically.”[22] The Cartesian cogito splits thought and the reality of self, isolating thought from the body and the world.

The condition for thinking is impossible apart from God who is mediated through the Son and Spirit to himself and the world. The “Christian vision is of a God who is quintessentially and necessarily mediated in a divine self-hood that is simultaneously its own absolute other. And Hegel concludes, the complete transparency of self in the other that is God’s act of being (as ‘Father’ and ‘Son’) is what constitutes God as ‘Spirit’, as living consciousness proceeding into the determinate otherness of the world.”[23] In the words of Hegel, “The abstractness of the Father is given up in the Son—this then is death. But the negation of this negation is the unity of Father and Son—love, or the Spirit.”[24]

Hegel’s continual refrain in this final lecture, is the love of God, expressed through the Son and realized in the Spirit.[25] The “concluding message of the Philosophy of religion lectures is that concrete freedom is unimaginable, unrealizable, if thinking revolts against the triune God, against thought as self-love and self-recovery in the other, against thought as ecstasis.”[26] Thinking is the realization of self in reconciliation with God. “Hegel asserts that the ‘reversal of consciousness begins’ at Calvary. The beginnings of the Church have to do with the discovery of reconciliation, the discovery that freedom is realized on the far side of dispossession so total that it is now impossible to think of a God who claims the ‘right’ to be separate from humanity.”[27] “That this is so is the Holy Spirit itself, or, expressed in the mode of sensibility, it is eternal love.”[28]

[1] See the article on Williams by Matheson Russel, “Dispossession and Negotiation: Rowan Williams on Hegel and Political Theology,” in On Rowan Williams: Critical Essays (Cascade Books, 2014) 88.

[2] Rowan Williams, “Logic and Spirit in Hegel,” in Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology (Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007).

[3] Ibid, 36.

[4] Ibid, 41.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 39 And here to avoid equating Hegelian theory with something like process theology, the Maximian formula, creation is incarnation, enters in. God is always creator, and always the Father of the Son.

[9] Ibid, 36.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid, 36.

[14] Ibid, 37.

[15] Ibid, 47 “God’s ‘exceeding’ of thought cannot itself be thought or spoken, and, in this regard,” we see Hegel’s convergence with Wittgenstein.

[16] Ibid, 37.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid, 45.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid, 38.

[23] Ibid, 42.

[24] G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: The Consummate Religion, vol. 3, Translated by R. F. Brown, P. C. Hodgson, and J. M. Stewart with the assistance of H. S. Harris (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007) 53.

[25] It brings to mind the work of Julia Kristeva who pictures all dialogue as an act carried out in love (see here).

[26] Hays, ibid op. cit., 44.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid, 42. Williams is quoting Hegel, but provides no reference.

The Uses of Language: Julia Kristeva and Kenotic Love

Language is the medium in which we live and move, and what we make of or do with language, is determinative of the reality in which we live. In this post-theological age, it may not occur to us to consider that we have an orientation toward or within language. Psychoanalysis, or the talking cure (as Freud described it) is nearly the last realm in which what we do with words, linguistic exchange (even in dreams), how we linguistically constitute ourselves towards others and ourselves (transference and countertransference), is an object of study.

Psychologists have noted that young children pass through a fundamental depression just prior to acquisition of language. Julia Kristeva describes the passage into language as an abandonment by the mother or the narcissistic paradise in which all needs are met, and entry into the symbolic world of the father. “The child must abandon its mother and be abandoned by her in order to be accepted by the father and begin talking … [L]anguage begins in mourning …”[1] Both death and abandonment and the establishment of the self are implicated in language acquisition.

In the description of G. W. F. Hegel, language brings simultaneous awareness of death and its refusal. As he describes, inasmuch as he is speaking and mortal, man is, the negative being who “is that which he is not and not that which he is.”[2] The “faculty” for language and the “faculty” for death arise together, but of course the peculiar faculty for life, at least in the Christian understanding is interwoven with this “faculty” of death and language. Which is to say, this focus and enquiry into language is first and properly the domain of theology.

As Kristeva describes, the work of the cross is to address us at this most basic and deep psychological level: “The ‘scandal of the cross’, the logos or language of the cross … is embodied, I think not only in the psychic and physical suffering which irrigates our lives … but even more profoundly in the essential alienation that conditions our access to language, in the mourning that accompanies the dawn of psychic life. By the quirks of biology and family life we are all of us melancholy mourners, witnesses to the death that marks our psychic inception.”[3] Yet it is through this passage, from out of blissful narcissism, that we discover the other. We form connections, not simply warm support in an extension of the life in the womb, but the possibility of love and hate, life and death, self and other, through entry into language. Kristeva depicts this slightly hellish condition as precisely the place in which Christ meets us: “Christ abandoned, Christ in hell, is of course the sign that God shares the condition of the sinner. But He also tells the story of that necessary melancholy beyond which we humans may just possibly discover the other, now in the symbolic interlocutor rather than the nutritive breast.”[4]  Language is for finding the other, for recognizing and negotiating mortality, and yet it can also be deployed as a refusal of this reality.

The matrix of language can be made to constitute its own reality, and can act as an obstacle rather than a bridge. In this understanding, attaching ourselves to the law, the immovable symbolic order, is simultaneously a means of inscribing ourselves into stone (becoming immortal) but the stone is an epitaph. Meaning attached to language per se, to the occurring of the sign, mistakes the letter of the law for its meaning. Kristeva raises the example of Chinese reification of the word: “In classical Chinese (for example, the I Ching), ‘to believe’ and ‘to be worthy of faith’ are expressed by the word xin, where the ideogram contains the signs for man and speech. Does ‘to believe’ therefore mean ‘to let speech act?’”[5] In the case of Japanese, being a speaker of the language conveys the spirit of Japanese identity. Much like the Jew, marked by Hebrew speaking and law-keeping, attachment to the sign conveys an immovable essence, which Paul characterizes as deadly. The reification of the word seems to be the universal tendency.

The philosopher often uses words much like the mathematician employs numbers, as a coherent symbol system which is or produces truth. In this understanding, language works within a closed system, in which words and symbols constitute their own reality. Thinking is being, as the thought contains the essence of reality. Rather than language leading from death to resurrection, we can be haunted by negativity, rejection, castration, death drive. In the language of the Apostle Paul, we can be caught between wanting and doing, between the law of the mind and the law of the body, and we can find ourselves overwhelmed with the ego, that ungraspable “I” in the mirror. The ego cogito is ever allusive, and yet pursuit of the ego poses as salvation.

To pass from death to resurrection requires a relinquishing of the ego. What Paul describes as kenotic self-giving love, is a relinquishment of stasis, being, and position, so as to reach out to and exist with and in the other. This kenotic lover does not insist upon his status or position in the symbolic order. This deadly attachment to law, is a futile attempt to have existence within the self – to establish the self-image as distinct from and not subject to the other. The ego is preserved at the cost of love. In the description of Graham Ward:

To be redemptive, to participate in the economy of redemption opened and perfected by Christ the form of God’s glory, our making cannot be in our name. Our making cannot, like the builders of the Tower of Babel, make a name for ourselves. Our making cannot reify our own autonomy. Such making is only death and idolatry. Our making must be in and through an abandonment to an operation that will instigate the crisis of our representations. Our making has to experience its Passion, its descent into the silent hiatus.[6]

The recognition of mortality, forsakenness, alienation, is the first step toward life. According to Kristeva, “It is because I am separate, forsaken, alone vis-àvis the other that I can psychologically cross the divide that is the condition of my existence and achieve not only ecstasy in completion (complétude: reunion with the father, himself a symbolic substitute for the mother) but also eternal life (resurrection) in the imagination.”[7] She is specifically thinking of life in Christ as completing the journey to love. ”For the Christian believer the completion of faith is real completion, and Christ, with whom the believer is exhorted to identify, expiates in human form the sin of all mankind before achieving glory in resurrection.”[8] The passage through death with Christ enables, through tarrying with the negative, kenotic love.

As Slavoj Žižek explains I Corinthians 13, this love necessitates self-emptying:

the point of the claim that even if I were to possess all knowledge, without love I would be nothing, is not simply that with love I am ‘something’ – in love, I am also nothing but, as it were, a Nothing humbly aware of itself, a Nothing paradoxically made rich through the very awareness of its lack. Only a lacking, vulnerable being is capable of love: the ultimate mystery of love is therefore that incompleteness is in a way higher than completion. On the one hand, only an imperfect, lacking being loves: we love because we do not know all. On the other hand, even if we were to know everything, love would inexplicably still be higher than completed knowledge.[9]

Žižek’s negation rests upon an atheistic reading of Hegel, but the Christian Hegel sees negation, not as an end in itself, but as the merging of the infinite and finite. The infinite negates itself and so arises in the finite and the finite negates itself and this is realization of the infinite.[10] As Hegel states it, “Thus the life of God and divine cognition may well be spoken of as a disporting of Love with itself; but this idea sinks into mere edification, and even insipidity, if it lacks the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labour of the negative.”[11] In Kenotic love God incorporates the finite. God in Christ emptied himself, not of deity, but of the presumption of infinity. “He existed in the form of God, [but] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men” (Php. 2:5–7). Paul is recommending Christ as the model for the Christian, who obviously cannot empty themselves of deity, but they can “have this attitude” of self-sacrificial giving. They can “hold fast to the word of life” (Php. 2:16) in taking up this self-emptying Word.  

Language is made for love, for connection to the other, such that all true dialogue is an act of love. Speaking as a reaching for the other is a relinquishment of the isolated ego. All true discourse is an act of love. According to Kristeva, “The speaking subject is a loving subject.”[12] But at the same time, “Love is a death sentence which causes me to be.”[13] As Ward explains, “All representation is a kenotic act of love towards the other; all representation involves transference – being caught up in the economy of giving signs.”[14] We gain access to both God and the neighbor through transferential (mutually indwelling) discourse of the kenotic Word. The task of theology, the work of the Christian, is to recognize how it is that the language of Christianity shapes us according to a different order of desire – (as Hans Frei describes) the unique “cultural linguistics of the Christian religion.”[15] In the vivid explanation of Ward:

As such, Christian theology is not secondary but participatory, a sacramental operation. It is a body of work at play within the language of the Christian community. Our physical bodies are mediated to us through our relation to other physical bodies and the mediation of those relationships through the body of the signs. Thus we are mapped onto a social and political body. The meaning of these signs is mediated to us through the body of Christ, eucharistic and ecclesial, so that we are incorporated into that spiritual body. Transcorporality is the hallmark of a theological anthropology. [16]

The deep grammar of the body of Christ inducts into an alternative linguistic community, in which lack and negation become the opening to love and entry into the corporate body of Christ, sharing a body, indwelling one another, through the “transcorporality” of Christ.

[1] Julia Kristeva, In the Beginning Was Love: Psychoanalysis and Faith, tr. Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Colum[1]bia University Press, 1988) pp. 40. Cited in Graham Ward, Christ and Culture (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008), 207.

[2] According to Giorgio Agamben, Language and Death: The Place of Negativity, Translated by Karen E. Pinkus with Michael Hardt (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006) xii.

[3] Kristeva, 41.

[4] Kristeva, 41.

[5] Kristeva, 35

[6] Ward, 215.

[7] Kristeve, 35.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Slavoj Žižek, The Fragile Absolute  — Or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (London/New York, Verso 2000) 147. Cited in Ward, 264.

[10] This is the argument of William Goggin, Hegel’s Sacrificial Imagination, (University of Chicago, PhD. Thesis, 2019), 12.

[11] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 10.

[12] Kristeva, 170.

[13] Kristeva, 36, Cited in Ward, 212.

[14] Ward, 212.

[15] Types of Christian Theology (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 20. Cited in Ward, 217.

[16] Ward, 217-218.

Hegel’s Ontological Proof as an Account of Christianity in a Postmodern Age

Of the apologetic proofs for God, Hegel considers the ontological argument key, not simply as an argument for the existence of God but as the argument which captures the significance of Christianity. It is in conjunction with this argument that he lays out his doctrine of the Trinity, his understanding of the atonement, describes the various (Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist) views of communion, describes the significance of the fall, and in which he pictures the completion or point of the Christian experience of God and God’s integration into man through the Spirit. He does not see the argument as a rational proof for God which stands along or separate from the Christian religion, but this argument is integral to that which Christianity brings about. The bringing together of thought and being, that which Anselm presupposes and which Kant critiques, cannot be either understood or accomplished apart from the work of God in Christ. That is Christianity, as spelled out by Hegel, provides the content for the argument and shows how the promise of the argument is accomplished (his critique of Anselm, that he does not demonstrate the proof).

It is not that the argument contains a form of rationality which offers a proof of Christianity or God separate from Christianity, rather the argument sets forth the accomplishment of Christianity in a form of reason which does not otherwise exist (in Hegel’s estimate). It is perfectly rational, but is a reason known only in the revelation of Christ. Thus, he can both critique Anselm’s form of the argument and Kant’s critique of the argument as inadequate, but true insofar as they go, because what both fail to see is that the legitimacy of the argument rests upon what God has done in Christ; namely give the Spirit as the means of knowing God. God can be thought and, in this thought, there is life and being (spirit). This is the primary premise of the Christian faith which is succinctly set forth by the argument. (Anselm presumes this without explaining it, and Kant in the spirit of the age, dismisses it).

The history of the argument, its naïve presentation by Anselm taken up as the foundation of modernity through Descartes, critiqued and set aside by Kant, captures the modern and postmodern fate of ontology. Unfortunately, this fate, given that Hegel is largely misinterpreted, reviled as a heretic, and set aside, unfolds absent the Hegelian insight into the argument and its importance. The degree to which modernity and its ontological assumptions inherited from Anselm and presumed by Descartes would dominate the age of modernity, may not have been clear to Hegel. The presumption of Anselm and Descartes, challenged by Kant, captures the movement of modernity and postmodernity, yet Hegel is already there, bringing a corrective to each phase of the fate of the argument. It is not a matter of metaphysics versus anti-metaphysics but it is a matter of Christ, revelation, knowing God, and redemption versus their absence.

In this sense, the argument is best approached not as a rational proof which will either stand or fall within the contours which Anselm, Kant, or Descartes present it (which is not to say they did not see the argument as profoundly important). Where each of them fail is where Hegel begins. For Hegel Christianity provides the content or makes real what a mere formal argument can only indicate. God can be thought and known because this for-thinking and knowing is precisely who he is. Rather than judging the various presentations of the argument (some of which Hegel does), Hegel’s main concern is to show how Christianity accomplishes what the argument promises. But he also indicates the argument might be used, much as Slavoj Žižek uses the Cartesian reduction of the argument (the cogito), as a barometer of human spiritual health. Either there is a gap between thought and being (the human sickness, the failure of the argument), and all of human life is a grasping attempt to combine the two, or one receives the Spirit in whom being is thought.

 In the first estate, the infinite and finite, being and thought stand opposed. The thinking thing, the depth of what it means to be human, fails to achieve life and this failure shows itself in the compulsions of evil. In Hegel’s depiction of the fall, knowing or cognition (which is not itself evil) entails a “cleavage, rupture, or severance within the self and from whatever is outside the self.” (As the editor (of the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion) points out, the “divided will” of Romans 7 is probably what he has in mind.)[1] In the second estate, there is reconciliation between the infinite and the finite and the very being of God is manifest (revealed) and the eternal nature (spirit) is made known in human consciousness and the liberating effects of freedom and life are realized. Thus, the argument can function as the indicator of a psychological and spiritual state, in which the failure of the argument describes the human sickness (the spilt between thought and being), and the success of the argument depends upon reconciliation and redemption.

The human sickness or failure is a result of remaining split in knowing (between good and evil) which Hegel describes as “being-for-myself” or “singularizing myself in a way that cuts me off from the universal” or from knowing God.[2] As he puts it, “Now the consciousness of this antithesis, of this separation of the ego and the natural will, is the consciousness of an infinite contradiction. This ego exists in immediate relation with the natural will and with the world, yet at the same time it is repelled from them. This is the infinite anguish, the suffering of the world.”[3] Recognition of the antithesis or the state of “being-for-self as such” is a dialectically necessary step toward health. Being split is the disease but the recognition of the disease is the beginning of health.

In his reading of the Genesis story, there is the necessary possibility pronounced by God and fulfilled by Christ, “Adam has become like one of us, knowing good and evil (Gen. 3:22).” There is the temptation of a knowledge that leads to deceit and pride, however “it is placed on the lips of God himself that precisely knowledge—the specific knowledge of good and evil in general, that is—constitutes the divine in humanity.”[4] As he explains, “The deep insight of this story is that the eternal history of humanity, to be consciousness, is contained in it: the original divine idea, the image of God; the emergence of consciousness, knowledge of good and evil, (and at the same time responsibility;) [the knowledge of good and evil emerges] as something that both ought not to be, i.e., it ought not to remain as knowledge, and also as the means by which humanity is divine.”[5] Knowing God is only possible, in Hegel’s estimate, if a prior antithetical knowing precedes the unifying knowledge of God. “Knowledge heals the wound that it itself is.”[6]

In Hegel’s reading, the Genesis story contains inherent contradictions: “according to the first view, humanity was created immortal but lost its immortal nature because of sin; according to the second view, humanity was created mortal but had the possibility of gaining immortality by eating of the mythical tree, an opportunity that was lost.” In pointing out the contradictions, he attempts to show that the “punishment” theme is mythical, but this also elucidates the truth that knowledge, gone bad, is the origin of evil.[7] However, the power of knowledge (to “become like one of us”) indicates something more than the original human likeness to God. Becoming like God (Gen. 3:22), indicates “the likeness that is to be regained. It is represented as something that has already come to be, expressing generally this other aspect of knowledge, namely, that it is in itself the turning point.”[8] This “likeness” contains the promise of the new Adam.

Hegel’s doctrine of the atonement, the defeat of evil or overcoming of the split between being and knowing, is already contained in the Genesis story. The serpent represents autonomous knowledge “found outside of Adam and indeed on the side of evil.” This knowledge is without being or life, but the one whose heel is bruised by this evil will crush the head of the serpent.[9] The consciousness of the unity of divine and human is present in the fall, and it is through this consciousness as imparted through the second Adam, that the first Adam is made complete. The first moment or first Adam or first knowledge is the necessary prelude to the second. “This consciousness consummates religion as the cognition of God as spirit, for God is spirit in the process of differentiation (and return,) which we [have] seen in the eternal idea.”[10]

Like Origen and Maximus, Hegel pictures what is happening in Christ as what is eternally true about God. Not that God is somehow coming to fulness in history, but that history contains the movement of the eternal. “This means that the unity of divine and human nature has a significance not only for the definition of human nature but just as much for that of the divine. This is because all differentiation, all finitude, though it is a transitory moment, is a moment of the process of the divine nature, which it develops, and hence it is grounded within the divine nature itself.”[11] The being of God shared through the humanity of Christ brings together divine and human, being and knowing, defeating and bringing to completion the moment of alienation and evil.

According to Hegel, to say that God has being, as in the Anselmian proof, lacks any real substance, and so too knowing or thinking (the concept) apart from its Christian content. He describes this lecture series (on the philosophy of religion), as making the transition or bringing together thought and being. Where they stand alone, they are one-sided or incomplete: “Neither of them must be defined solely as the term that permanently has the initiative or is the origin; they must rather be portrayed as passing over into the other, i.e., each of them must be a posited term. In this way each displays itself as a transition into an other, or as a moment, so that it must be demonstrated of both of them that they are moments.”[12] Hegel’s project then, is to show the inadequate understanding of both (thought and being as separated) and how it is they are unified through Christianity. The ontological proof, in Hegel’s description, is only a formal (paltry) concept apart from the content given to being and knowing in “the consummate religion.”[13] In the ordinary sense, concepts or thinking are just in the head and are not directly connected with reality or being (Kant’s point), but this modern sensibility is a sign of the human disease. The disease is to be spiritless or lifeless or without access to being.

Hegel makes reference to the Cartesian copula, not simply to point out the gap between thought and being (as Kant would have it) but to suggest that the “is,” though empty in itself, points to its satisfaction in Christ. The “is” is a form of truth, though in and of itself it is lacking any substance. “Solely for the idea is this ‘Is’ the form of truth— but not as though the “Is” gives a content, a particular truth.”[14] Christ provides the content, filling out the form universally present in human thought. “But the idea is realized for humanity only in the form of this single individual, and only one such individual—‘this’ individual—is the infinite unity in this subjectivity, in a “this” of this kind.[15] The idea is implicitly and naturally present, as expressed in the Cartesian cogito, but Kant is not wrong. Thought and being remain separate, whether in the individual, or as in Hegel’s illustration in any religion, such as Hinduism, which posits a multiplicity of incarnations. “It is only then when I posit only one ‘this’ that the unity is objective, that the idea is in and for itself for the first time.”[16]

Hegel describes a universal salvation, dismissing the Calvinist notion that only some are chosen, as the form of individual subjectivity (the “is”) indicates a universal form realized in Christ. “Once is always. The subject must have recourse to a subject, without option.”[17] There is a necessary exclusivity in the one, but an exclusivity that gives forth to universality. “The consummation of reality in immediate singular individuality is the most beautiful point of the Christian religion. For the first time the absolute transfiguration of finitude is intuitively exhibited so that everyone can give an account of it and have an awareness of it.”[18] The universality of Christianity is in its subjectivity. The “universal soil” or the common experience is not to be found in any outward circumstance, but in human interiority. The divided self, thought removed from being, the inward experience of alienation, is universal preparation for the spirit.[19]

The disease is spiritlessness, alienation, and separation and Hegel’s focus is to describe the cure. Or in terms of the ontological argument, it is to show how the truth of the argument is made a reality. Cognition or thought is not simply a human hobby, but knowing God (the point of Anselm’s argument) is the point of what it means to be human: “This cognition constitutes the highest stage of the spiritual being of humanity, i.e., of its religious determination. This is the vocation of humanity as human in general, to enter wholly into the consciousness of human finitude—the ray of eternal life that shines clearly for it within the finite.”[20] From here he unfolds how realization of the infinite in the finite is accomplished in the incarnation. [21]

The teaching of Christ is not itself the accomplishment (of the kingdom of the spirit), but is a preparation for its accomplishment (through Christ) by which the spirit will come: “The kingdom is the universal idea still presented in representational form; it enters into actuality through this individual, and the history of spirit, the concrete content of the kingdom of God, has to portray itself in this divine actuality.”[22] In the period of Christ’s teaching his primary proclamation is about the kingdom, and the divinity of Christ is as yet only implicit.[23]

The death of Christ is a full embrace of humanity and finitude, in which the separation or “divestment” of life and divinity are complete: “‘God has died, God himself is dead.’ This is a monstrous, fearful picture [Vorstellung], which brings before the imagination the deepest abyss of cleavage.”[24] It is through full realization of the cleavage, the absolute separation of life and thought, that the cleavage or separation can be overcome. “Reconciliation begins with differentiated entities standing opposed to each other—God, who confronts a world that is estranged from him, and a world that is estranged from its essence. They are in conflict with one another, and they are external to one another. Reconciliation is the negation. Reconciliation, consequently, is freedom and is not something quiescent; rather it is activity, the movement that makes the estrangement disappear.”[25]

It is through Christ’s death that the divine and human (being and thought) are brought together in the highest love. “It is precisely love [that is] the consciousness of the identity of the divine and the human, and this finitization is carried to its extreme, to death. Thus here we find an envisagement of the unity of the divine and the human at its absolute peak, the highest intuition of love.”[26] To love through the spirit is to divest oneself of ego or the drive toward being in the self, and to find life with and through the other. Death with Christ transforms the meaning of death. “This negative moment, which pertains only to spirit as such, is its inner conversion and transformation.”[27]

Hegel describes the death of Christ as making Christ available, consumable, or assimilable. Through his death we can assimilate Christ to our identity by taking him into ourselves. Hegel compares it to consuming an apple and then proceeds to the importance of communion. “Thus my eating an apple means that I destroy its organic self-identity and assimilate it to myself. That I can do this entails that the apple in itself (already in advance, before I take hold of it) has in its nature the character of being subject to destruction, and at the same time it is something that has in itself a homogeneity with my digestive organs such that I can make it homogeneous with myself.”[28] He has in mind the sacrament of communion in which Christ is either literally, or pictured, as being assimilable, but also the gift of the spirit which is poured out on all humankind.

To give a full account of the unification of thought and being, the infinite and the finite, is to describe in concrete terms how it is that the incarnation initiates this activity, culminating in Pentecost, the formation of the church and the realization of a community of the spirit. Woven throughout his lecture and indicated in the title, is the ontological proof of God. This proof turns out to require the entire content of the Christian religion (which I have only briefly referenced) to fill out its form and to give substance to its promise. The argument only takes on its full and final form, as Hegel presents it, in conjunction with this fuller reality and explanation.

(Sign up for the next PBI class, Imaginative Apologetics which will run through the first week of July to the week of August 23rd. Go to to sign up.)

[1] G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: The Consummate Religion, vol. 3, Translated by R. F. Brown, P. C. Hodgson, and J. M. Stewart with the assistance of H. S. Harris (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007) 29.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 210.

[4] Ibid, 105.

[5] Ibid, 106.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 107. This is the editor’s succinct explanation.

[8] Ibid, 108.

[9] Ibid. Hegel is not always a carful reader of the story, and he seems to confuse who gets bruised.

[10] Ibid, 110.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 175.

[13] This is my summation, but also referencing the editor’s summation of the 3rd volume of lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. Ibid, 11-15.

[14] Ibid, 111.

[15] Ibid, 114.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, 115. The editor notes that Hegel is probably making direct reference to Pauline Christology as in Corinthians: 2 Cor. 5:14—15: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”

[19] Ibid, 116. “It occurs as a state of affairs; it is not God alone, the One, but rather a kingdom of God, the eternal as a homeland for spirit, the eternal as the dwelling place of subjectivity.”

[20] Ibid, 110.

[21] “The idea is realized for humanity; its appearance and existence occur only in this single individual.” Ibid, 112.

[22] Ibid, 123.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid, 125.

[25] Ibid, 171-2.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid, 126

[28] Ibid, 127.

Apologetics According to Maximus, Hegel, and Lonergan

The apologetic proofs such as the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, the moral argument, or historical arguments, “proving” Christianity may have their place, but traditional apologetic arguments are also guilty of misconstruing the very nature of Christian truth. Christianity is the proof – the incarnation of meaning, the enactment of inner truth, and the realization of historical truth. Incarnational truth is the truth revealed. To imagine we must prove the incarnation, miracles, or resurrection, is to miss that this is the proof. Christianity contains meaning, otherwise lacking. This truth is the beginning of true philosophy, true speculation, and true experience. The notion that the resurrection, the life of Christ, the incarnation, and the existence of God, rest on proofs so as to know them, is to trivialize the Truth. This is to get the cart before the horse. These “proofs” rest on a foundation of sand in a propositional and tautologous logic (on the order of mathematics) which is itself lacking in the substance of truth. We might argue for the truth of Christ on the basis of logic, or we might enter an alternative Logos and logic, in which truth is the system, the presumption, the realization, and the end.

Christ as the truth means truth is embodied and thus experienced in mind, body, and spirit such that the experience of love, virtue, self-sacrifice, and even faith is an imitation of Christ in which the Christian embodies the truth, making truth part of experience and bodied forth in and for the experience of others. Christianity is a realization of the truth. Proofs for Christianity, while they may serve some function, by their very nature, fall short of the immediate first-order realization of truth. As John writes, “The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself” (I John 5:10, NASB). So too all that goes with believing, such as obedience, imitating Christ, agape love, the transformation of the mind, are entry into the truth.

This does not mean truth by-passes the mind, any more than it by-passes the body, the will or human intention. The truth of Christ residing in the heart must be accessed, uncovered, practiced, willed and intended. As Maximus puts it, “In Him we live and move and have our being for he comes to be ‘in’ God through attentiveness, since he has not falsified the logos of being that preexists in God.”[1] The truth shows itself for the Christian in being true to the logos of Christ. The incarnate meaning of Christ requires an imitative alignment with Christ, as the truth is personal and centered on this particular Person. One can be true to this word or one can falsify the truth in his life. Note that Maximus speaks of attentiveness to the truth. As in the work of Bernard Lonergan, this truth requires intelligent judgments, evaluative deliberations, decisions and actions, with the continual guidance, model, and goal of Christ drawing along the process. To fail in this attentiveness is a failure to embody the truth. This following, discipleship, and faith is not a blind search for meaning, nor is it an attempt to establish meaning or logic, but it is an entry into discovery, realization, and insight, which provides a phenomenological, fully embodied intellectual coherence (intelligibility).

But to undertake this entry into truth requires a willing deference, a conscious mimesis, or a faith whose pathway is prearranged by the interior structures of intelligibility (what Maximus calls the logoi) entailing the cosmic order. “In honoring these logoi and acting in accordance with them, he places himself wholly in God alone, forming and configuring God alone throughout his entire being, so that he himself by grace is and is called God, just as God by His condescension is and is called man for the sake of man.. . .”[2] Maximus carries on the work of Origen, in describing apocatastasis or divinization as the point or goal of humanity, but also as the purpose of creation. In Maximus’ formula, “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things”[3] This is the path of discovery laid before humanity. All stand before Christ, faced with the question, “Who do you say that I am.”

 As in all modes of discovery, the inquiry exceeds the understanding. The questioner has already begun to feel the force of meaning before the fulness of that meaning dawns. According to Maximus, the Christian “‘moves’ in God in accordance with the logos of well-being that preexists in God, since he is moved to action by the virtues; and he ‘lives’ in God in accordance with the logos of eternal being that also preexists in God.”[4] Jesus’ embodied meaning attracts through a mimetic force, which like every meaning exerts a pull, but this force is a divine gravity. The good, the true and the beautiful embodied in Christ is a perfect love, perfect friendship, perfect understanding of the Father, which brings peace, healing, and reconciliation, and this exerts a pull beyond acquisitive, rivalrous, jealous, mimetic desire, which in Maximus and Lonergan would amount to being inattentive or untrue.

Of course, one can fail in the task of truth, which in Maximus explanation is to abandon one’s own origin and is to be swept away toward nonbeing, and in this state one experiences instability and suffers from fearful disorders as he has traded truth for what is inferior and nonexistent.[5] The untruth is a form of suffering as it entails a loss of meaning, a loss of agape love, and a failure to be fully human, in falling short of the interpersonal truth of love. It would seem that to prove this on some other basis is already a loss of love and meaning.

In short, as Maximus describes, this meaning carries the weight of divinity. He “draws near to us in his humanity” while bearing the fulness of his divinity, and “having given the whole of Himself, and assuming the whole of man” he witnesses to perfection of humanity and deity “bearing witness within His whole self—by the perfection of the two natures in which He truly exists—to the unchangeable and unalterable condition of both.”[6] For Hegel, “God becomes man generically, universally, essentially.”[7]  In Hegel’s explanation, the hypostatic union lies at the base of all human religion and all seeking after truth. As James Yerkes explains, for Hegel “the reconciliation of God and man universally longed for in all religious traditions and only implicitly understood by thought, is now in Christianity concretely fulfilled and made explicit to and for thought.”[8] According to Hegel, “It was Christianity, by its doctrine of the Incarnation and of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the community of believers, that first gave to human consciousness a perfectly free relationship to the infinite and thereby made possible the comprehensive knowledge of mind [Geist] in its absolute infinitude.”[9] Incarnational truth, is the truth revealed. “Hegel is arguing that the entire event of Jesus of Nazareth is a religiously central paradigmatic event by which the truth of what ultimately is and the truth of the meaning of human existence are disclosed to human consciousness.”[10]  To imagine we must prove the incarnation, miracles, resurrection, is to miss that this is the proof. Hegel describes this knowing as the most concrete reality.[11]

Likewise, in Matthew Hale’s explanation of Maximus, the Christian embodiment is dependent upon the incarnation of Christ (two concrete realities): “First, Jesus Christ is the content of what is revealed by the embodiment of the Word in the Christian. Second, Jesus’s own way of revealing the divine Word to humankind has a normative, exemplary force for the way in which the Word is revealed in the Christian.”[12] The virtue and knowledge of Christ embodied in the Christian is the Word in bodily form. Christ is the content revealed in and through the Christian. Hale argues that for Maximus, the embodiment of the Word in the Christian aligns with what Lonergan calls the “incarnate meaning” of Jesus Christ, so that the Christian bears the meaning of Christ in her life.  The hypostatic union of Christ (fully divine and fully human) is one that occurs through the Word for the Christian. Christ initiates what Maximus calls “the beautiful exchange,” which renders God man by reason of the divinization of man, and man God by reason of the Incarnation of God. For the Logos of God (who is God) wills always and in all things to accomplish the mystery of His embodiment. Such a one is a “‘portion of God’ insofar as he is God, owing to the logos of his eternal being that is in God.” According to Yerkes, “Religion is the existential starting point of philosophical reflection in dealing with the truth of reconciliation as an accomplished fact, and not as a mere yearning which is forever unrealizable. And this is why Hegel constantly can insist philosophy is the truth of ‘what is.’”[13] Truth or the “notion” is consummated in Christianity as Christ is the incarnation of the divine idea or notion. Here the mind of God is enfleshed. “In Christianity the nature of the religious consciousness itself is central, and thus the Hegelian conviction that Christianity is the “revealed” religion also implies that the form and content of human religious consciousness in the Christian religion for the first time adequately mirrors the form and content of God’s consciousness of himself as living Spirit.”[14]

For Hegel, as for Maximus, the incarnation of Christ is the reality upon which human thought and philosophy depend. “The content, it is then said, commends itself to me for its own sake, and the witness of the Spirit teaches me to recognise it as truth, as my essential determination.”[15] Apart from “eternal reconciliation” there would be no concrete or lived experience of the truth. Apart from the “incarnational principle” human experience flies apart between the finite and infinite or between the divine and human. The recognition of these poles is necessary but inadequate apart from the one who incarnates their synthesis. Reconciliation or synthesis is actualized in Christ and made available to the Christian. “The antithesis of subjective and objective” of infinite and finite is a realized redemption in the fact that God is “known as love.”[16] As Hegel states succinctly, “the truth exists as actually present truth.” It is, through the Holy Spirit, an appropriated truth: “the Holy Spirit comes to be in them as real, actual, and present, and has its abode in them; it means that the truth is in them, and that they are in a condition to enjoy and give active expression to the truth or Spirit, that they as individuals are those who give active expression to the Spirit.”[17]

In Maximus and Hegel, the truth is known and experienced directly in Jesus Christ. According to Hegel, “this is the inward, the true, the substantial element of this history, and it is just this that is the object of reason.”[18] This is not an object obtained according to reasonable proofs, or human reason, but is the object of reason, the ground and experience of meaning, which is its own proof. The New Testament, Maximus and Hegel, speak of a certainty grounded in Christ, and not in the biblical text, not in the authority of tradition, and not in rational proofs. There is a direct and immediate certainty realized in the Spirit, bearing witness to Christ, that God is revealed in the God/man.

(Sign up for the next PBI class, Imaginative Apologetics which will run through the first week of July to the week of August 23rd. Go to to sign up.)

[1] Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua Vol. 1  Edited and Translated by Nicholas Constas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014) Ambigua 7, paragraph 22. 

[2] Ambigua 7:22.

[3] Ambigua, 7.22.

[4] Ambigua 7:22.

[5] Ambigua 7:23.

[6] Maximus, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, trans. Maximos Constas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2014), vol. 2: Ambigua 31: paragraph 8.

[7] James Yerkes, The Christology of Hegel (State University of New York Press, 1983) 120.

[8] Yerkes, 112.

[9] G. W. F. Hegel, Hegel’s Philosophy of Mind: Being Part Three of the”Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences” (1830). Translatedby William Wallace, together with the Zusdtze in Boumann’s Text(1845) translated by A. V. Miller, with a Foreword by J. N. Findlay. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971) 2. Quoted in Yerkes, 112.

[10] Yerkes, 123.

[11] Philosophy of Mind, B 2.

[12] Matthew Hale, “Knowledge, Virtue, and Meaning: A Lonerganian Interpretation of Maximus the Confessor on the Embodiment of the Word in the Christian” (PhD Faculty of the School of Theology and Religious Studies Of The Catholic University of America, 2022) 310.

[13] Ambigua 7:24.

[14] Yerkes, 119.

[15] 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) 151.

[16] Yerkes, 116-117.

[17] G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion Together with a Work on the Proofs of the Existence of God vol. 3, Translated by E. B. Spiers and J. B. Sanderson (Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1968) 124.

[18] Lectures On the Philosophy of Religion, vol. 1, 146.

Reflections on the Impact of Jürgen Moltmann on My Theological Journey

I was saddened to hear of the passing, on Monday, of Jürgen Moltmann. I am told he was working on one more manuscript, even at age 98. As I thumb through my well-worn copy of the Crucified God with its copious underlining and notes in the margin, it brings to mind my excitement in reading Moltmann as a missionary in Japan, and for the first time finding an explanation of Christ’s saving work, with immediate implications. Moltmann displaces legal justification with the turn to liberation from bondage as the focus of salvation. What particularly struck me was his picture of psychological liberation and the turn to Sigmund Freud to explain both the problem and the solution.

Moltmann describes the passage from an Oedipal conception of God to a religion of brotherly love: “In origin Christianity is not a father-religion; if it is a religion at all it is a son-religion, namely a brotherly community in the situation of the human God, without privileges and without the rebellions that are necessary against them.”[1] This would point me toward the work of Slavoj Žižek, with its primary focus on getting rid of the oppressive force of the obscene super-ego father, which functions in both human personality and religion as an oppressive, punishing, law-giver.

In Moltmann’s portrayal, deploying Freud’s mythical picture of the Oedipal horde, both the human sickness and its expression in human religion can be traced to (either an unconscious or conscious) guilt. He describes Freud’s prehistoric primal horde father, who prohibited his sons from possessing their mother or sisters, by castrating them. Even should the mother allow it, the sons can only sire children through the permission of the father, thus the sons kill their father. “Totem religion emerged from the sons’ awareness of guilt as an attempt to relieve this feeling and to reconcile the injured father through subsequent obedience.. . . It makes it a duty to repeat the crime of parricide again and again in the sacrifice of the totem animal.”[2] As Moltmann explains, “The parricide and blasphemer is out for annihilation and therefore falls into apathy. He rebels against the restrictions laid down by the authority of the father, but his rebellion does not free him from being a mirror image of his adversary. In the Oedipus conflict he remains clamped to his opponent.”[3] This sickness is both religious and psychological: “These are two sides of the same coin. There are psychological and religious forms of straitened and hindered humanity, sick and on the way towards death.”[4]

Christ on the cross demythologizes the obscene father who laid down the law and its castrating effects. “God allows himself to be humiliated and crucified in the Son, in order to free the oppressors and the oppressed from oppression and to open up to them the situation of free, sympathetic humanity. Knowledge and acceptance of the new situation extends God’s freedom from the gods and antigods who produce the universal feeling of guilt and the need for compensation, right into the unconscious.”[5] Moltmann acknowledges that the obscene father and idols may still haunt us, “But if one can laugh at them, one need no longer repress them. They are still there, but they have lost their power.”[6]

The idols with their punishing guilt are replaced by a loving and suffering God that is psychologically liberating. The situation of the “the crucified God” presents us with the “pathos of the loving and suffering God” and the idols and fetishes – and their implicit “refusal of the cross,” are defeated.[7] Combined with the power of the resurrection, this affords one to abandon the imposed suffering of guilt, and allows for hope, even in the face of death. “Christian faith understands itself as faithfulness to hope as it is mindful of the resurrection of Christ, and as faithfulness to the earth as it is mindful of the cross of Christ. Because it leads man into this history of God, it frees him for an acceptance of human life which is capable of suffering and capable of love.”[8]

Moltmann pictures the human disease as a rejection of life, an incapacity in the face of repression and fear, and an overall apathy, which is summed up in fear of death. He launches his book with the pronouncement that the cross of Christ can enact a reorientation to death which changes everything: “only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom which changes the world because it is no longer afraid of death.”[9] God and the world are reconceived in light of the cross, and the task of theology is to speak of God and the world in light of the cross. “As far as I am concerned, the Christian church and Christian theology become relevant to the problems of the modern world only when they reveal the ‘hard core’ of their identity in the crucified Christ and through it are called into question, together with the society in which they live.”[10] The Crucified God comes after his Theology of Hope, but as he explains, his theology of the cross is the “reverse side” of the focus on resurrection in the theology of hope.[11] The theology of the cross addresses the problem of death as it is construed in religion, society, psychology, and politics. With the cross there is a new diagnosis of the human situation: “the cross alone, and nothing else, is its test, since the cross refutes everything. . . .”[12] The cross is the means of diagnosing and curing the problem of death denied.

A society, psychology or politic founded on death denial cannot recognize the depth of suffering it inflicts, and a church caught up in defense mechanisms against death, absorbed by the social environment, is worthless before the suffering inflicted by the world. A church at home in the world has become the problem, and only the rediscovery of homelessness can offer hope and healing. The various reformations of the church are a rediscovery of homelessness: “It is this inner homelessness which enables it to perpetuate its institutions, even when they become an established part of society.”[13] Only in continually rediscovering its origins does the church become “a dangerous and liberating reality.” This “faith becomes aware of the incommensurability of the cross of Christ with the revelation of God, and realizing this, becomes aware too of its own strangeness and homelessness in its own Christian world.”[14] The world is built on death denial, and the cross deconstructs this false understanding, leaving the church and Christians strangers in the world.

Perhaps this strangeness is most sharply felt in Moltmann’s depiction of the way in which Christian knowledge functions. Knowing God on the basis of analogy and metaphysics is part of the human problem (knowing God through the world). The God of metaphysics “is determined by its unity and indivisibility, its lack of beginning and end, its immovability and immutability” but this God is not directly knowable or capable of love. This form of knowing is a defense mechanism: “As the nature of divine being is conceived of for the sake of finite being, it must embrace all the determinations of finite being and exclude those determinations which are directed against being. Otherwise finite being could not find a support and stay against the threatening nothingness of death, suffering and chaos in the divine being. Death, suffering and mortality must therefore be excluded from the divine being.”[15] Theology as a defense mechanism against death has dominated the theological project. Moltmann’s statement of this made a lasting impact: “Christian theology has adopted this concept of God from philosophical theology down to the present day, because in practice down to the present day Christian faith has taken into itself the religious need of finite, threatened and mortal man for security in a higher omnipotence and authority.”[16] The metaphysical concept of God rules out the death of God – “evacuating the cross of deity.” It is this notion, of a distant, unmoved mover which Moltmann attacks at every stage of his theology.

Rather than beginning with analogy, and the finitude of the world to describe how God is known, with Luther and Hegel, Moltmann presumes God is only directly known in the cross.

The theology of the cross therefore takes quite seriously God’s interest in his knowledge through man. God reveals himself in the contradiction and the protest of Christ’s passion to be against all that is exalted and beautiful and good, all that the dehumanized man seeks for himself and therefore perverts. So God here is not known through his works in reality, but through his suffering in the passiveness of faith, which allows God to work on it: killing in order to make alive, judging in order to set free. So his knowledge is achieved not by the guiding thread of analogies from earth to heaven, but on the contrary, through contradiction, sorrow and suffering. To know God means to endure God.[17]

To know God in Christ is to abandon the “dreamed-of-exaltation” of knowing God in his divinity, and it is to turn to God in the humanity of Christ – abandoned, rejected and despised. This “brings to nothing his dreamed-of equality with God, which has dehumanized him, and restores to him his humanity, which the true God made his own.”[18] Man’s inhumanity is his pursuit of deity, and he is made fully human only in the embrace of the crucified God.

With Luther, Moltmann concludes one can know God indirectly through the world (the focus of the theologians of glory) but he can only be known directly in the cross with the saving knowledge of God. Knowing God directly is to know of his deliverance. “His grace is revealed in sinners. His righteousness is revealed in the unrighteous and in those without rights, and his gracious election in the damned.” God is fully God not in his eternality, but in what is opposite to eternality. “God is only revealed as ‘God’ in his opposite: godlessness and abandonment by God. . . . The epistemological principle of the theology of the cross can only be this dialectic principle: the deity of God is revealed in the paradox of the cross.”[19]

The Unmoved Mover is not the Father of Jesus Christ, and Moltmann prophetically declares it is time to make an absolute departure from such notions, so as to recover the Christian faith. This is not the faith of bourgeois conservatives or of Christian nationalists but this faith “breaks the spell of the old philosophical concept of God, at the same time destroying the idols of national political religions.”[20] The death of God on the cross cannot be understood or accepted on the basis of Greek metaphysical presuppositions, but “God’s Godness” is known only in the event of the death of Christ. The omnipotent God of metaphysics is impotent in his incapacity for suffering, finitude, and love. This God that cannot suffer or die is incapable of relating or being known. This God that we project upon the idols of our imagination is the God from which Christ delivers:

Thus at the level of the psychology of religion, Christian faith effects liberation from the childish projections of human needs for the riches of God; liberation from human impotence for the omnipotence of God; from human helplessness for the omnipotence of God; from human helplessness for the responsibility of God. It brings liberation from the divinized father-figures by which men seek to sustain their childhood. It brings liberation from fear in the ideas of political omnipotence with which the powers on earth legitimate their rule and give inferiority complexes to the impotent, and with which the impotent compensate their impotence in dreams. It brings liberation from the determination and direction from outside which anxious souls love and at the same time hate.[21]

The projection by finite human beings of the impassable God, threatened as they are by their finitude and creation, is a counter salvation system to that of Christ. But the God of metaphysics, the Oedipal father, is an impotent and incomplete being in his inability to experience death, finitude, helplessness and powerlessness. Worship of omnipotence by the helpless, as a defense mechanism, deprives them of the love of God. It is this love by which the Father of Christ is defined. The “almighty” is a being without history or experience or destiny or love.[22] This God that oppresses human beings is the devil from which Christ delivers in his love.

For Moltmann, faith always speaks of a practical liberation from the various forms of oppression foisted upon man by social, religious, and political institutions. He notes that both institutional and psychological oppression must be addressed simultaneously. “Personal, inner change without a change in circumstances and structures is an idealist illusion, as though man were only a soul and not a body as well. But a change in external circumstances without inner renewal is a materialist illusion, as though man were only a product of his social circumstances and nothing else.”[23] This fullness of salvation and liberation cannot make peace with the principalities and powers which beset him inwardly and outwardly. Liberation is a real world throwing off of oppression.

It is interesting (or was to me, being in Japan) that Moltmann turns to the example of Christian students in Japan who recognize Christian complicity in the problem. Students at Meiji-Gakuin declared, “God does not exist in this church, but rather in the living deeds of a man involved in human relationships.” Thus, they barricaded the church as by “making our church a refuse dump we want to proclaim to the university authorities and our fellow students that Christianity and worship can become symbols of the absence of humanity and contempt for it.”[24] Moltmann concludes, “Only someone who finds the courage to be different from others can ultimately exist for ‘others’, for otherwise he exists only with those who are like him.”[25] This critique of society can only occur through identity with the Crucified, by “a witnessing non-identification with the demands and interests of society.”[26] Christian identity is founded upon this act of God in Christ, the crucifixion, in which God identifies with the godless and abandoned.

When faith becomes fearful and defensive, it is focused on morality and penal law and misses the identity of God in Christ.  “He who is of little faith looks for support and protection for his faith, because it is preyed upon by fear. Such a faith tries to protect its ‘most sacred things’, God, Christ, doctrine and morality, because it clearly no longer believes that these are sufficiently powerful to maintain themselves.”[27] A faith that is afraid for itself and its Christ is a lack of faith. Fearful faith would build a defensive wall so as to defend “true belief, pure doctrine and distinctive Christian morality.” “They accept the increasing isolation of the church as an insignificant sect on the margin of society, and encourage it by their sectarian withdrawal.”[28] The God of metaphysics, of conservative social and moral ethics, is not the God who died on a cross. Where the cross is not kept front and center, the tendency will be either decay by withdrawal or decay through assimilation. Both are forms of fear, unbelief, and ultimately death denial. True faith is willing to confront the world and acknowledge Christ as effective ruler, and in this faith, fear is overcome.

Moltmann described in real-world terms the freedom of the children of God through faith. This freedom can be described in concrete and specific psychological terms and entails a fully embodied (political and social) deliverance. Moltmann describes the need for a “psychological hermeneutics of the word of the cross”[29] and this set the course of my theological journey.

Thank God for the faithful witness of this servant of Christ.

[1] Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press,1993) 307.

[2]  N. O. Brown, Love’s Body, (New York 1968), 122. Quoted in Moltmann, 304.

[3] Moltmann, 307.

[4] Ibid, 313

[5] Ibid, 307.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 312.

[8] Ibid, 313.

[9] Ibid, 1.

[10] Ibid, 3.

[11] Ibid, 5.

[12] Ibid, 7

[13] Ibid, 10.

[14] Ibid, 37.

[15] Ibid, 214.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, 212.

[18] Ibid, 213.

[19] Ibid, 27.

[20] Ibid, 215

[21] Ibid, 216.

[22] Ibid, 223.

[23] Ibid, 23.

[24] Ibid, 14-15.

[25] Ibid, 16.

[26] Ibid, 17.

[27] Ibid, 19.

[28] Ibid, 20.

[29] Ibid, 291.

Christian Championing of Jordan Peterson Exposes a Perverse Form of the Faith

The popularity of Jordan Peterson as part of a conservative backlash to this supposedly postmodern moment is surprising in its scope and in the fact that many Christians have found a champion in Peterson. This however may say more about the shape of modern Christian faith than it does about the depth of insight of Peterson. A faith that can celebrate our “Common Stories, the participation in our common rituals” and which looks to the hierarchy of culture, politics, or as Peterson puts it, the unified attention which has evolved through time through myths, stories, and the development of social order as the truth, this is not the Truth of Christ.[1] But Peterson is not confused about his stance (he does not identify as a Christian and he does not hesitate to interpret Christ and the Bible according to his definition of truth).[2] The confusion arises with Christians who imagine law, the symbolic order of culture, the structural hierarchies of state, society and church, are definitive of the gospel.

This is not simply a rhetorical point, but describes a form of the faith which interprets the gospel through law, which understands Christ through the Old Testament (e.g., dying due to the law) and which attaches primacy to language, symbols, and law, rather than to Person or personhood. For Peterson the personal and personhood is subsequent to language, symbols, and culture – this is no surprise, given his worldview. What is surprising is that Christians would relinquish the primacy of the Person of Christ and God, and assign it to the structures of the social order. While one might agree (or not) that Peterson occasionally says something true, this is very different than confusing his truth with Christian Truth. One is evolutionary, dualistic, gradually unfolding, and ever aiming (never arriving) toward the arche contained in myth, while the other is the Divine Person.

Peterson has made it clear that he is not simply offering advice, self-help, or cultural critique, but is attempting the broadest of philosophical/scientific projects in which he is tracing the rise and function of truth. Peterson and Jonathan Pageau (an Eastern Orthodox Christian) describe the ground of truth as evolving through human attention: “Our own personal attention becomes organised in a more comprehensive and universally viable, rewarding, and stabilising sense when it is related to others; when it is given or offered up to our connection with our family, friends, and fellow citizens; when it is sacrificed to the social hierarchies we participate in.”[3] This attention then gives rise to the unity and coherence of truth.

He does not hesitate to include the Bible and Christianity as supports of his view that truth evolves through human interaction, hierarchy, and organization. Moses did not receive the ten commandments from above, but inductively arrived at them from below and Christ is not the Truth but he “embodies the ideal of ‘speaking the truth.’”[4] As Marc Champagne summarizes, “In his writings and lectures, Peterson presents an ambitious re-reading of the Bible that locates this text in humanity’s evolutionary history, as it were. On his telling, the Biblical stories are a collectively authored attempt to depict the ideal person.”[5] The key point here is not that Peterson reworks the story of Moses, or questions whether the law came from God. Paul and the writer of Hebrews do as much, suggesting angels and not God delivered the law, and that it has a secondary function to Christ. The point is, Peterson gives primacy to both the inductive method, and the laws at which the method arrives. Christ’s claim to be the son of God is itself aimed at displacing divine authority with inductive generalization.[6] Every son can perform the inductive trick.

Peterson has no room for revelation (whether in Christ or otherwise) rather, “different folks observed the conduct of many moral persons, abstracted out the common denominator in their actions, and then reified the resultant abstraction in a narrative format.”[7] The logos for Peterson, is not a person but a “leading principle” distilled from many human samples over a long span of time. “The Bible has been thrown up, out of the deep, by the collective human imagination, which is itself a product of unimaginable forces operating over unfathomable spans of time.”[8] Human beliefs, for Peterson, “make the world, in a very real way – that beliefs are the world, in a more than metaphysical sense.”[9] Human belief (the archetypes, the trues extracted from religion), evolved and tested through time provide a moral and metaphysical order (Peterson’s absolute).

Peterson claims “the meanings of the most profound substrata of belief systems can be rendered explicitly comprehensible, even to the skeptical rational thinker.” He has learned “why people wage war,” which paradoxically revolves around “protecting and expanding belief” but he can tell us how to “ameliorate this tendency,” universal though it is. Unfortunately, in Peterson’s world it is life’s cruelty that produces life: “the terrible aspect of life might actually be a necessary precondition for the existence of life – and that it is possible to regard that precondition, in consequence, as comprehensible and acceptable.”[10] What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, in Peterson’s Nietzschean world. Life’s cruelty and evil is part of life’s necessity.

In terms of his field of specialty, psychology, Peterson is a Jungian, holding that the archetypes (a sort of basic truth) are uncovered in considering all religions, dreams, and myth, which also serve as the foundation of the human psyche. In psychological terms, this is a rejection of the Freudian/Lacanian understanding taken up by Slavoj Žižek, which while recognizing the primacy of language, notes that a fundamental lie must accompany the psychological structuring around language. Language, in this lie, must be reified, made substantive, and accorded a metaphysical reality. (This is precisely what Peterson sets out to do in each stage of his work.) The big lie for Žižek is that there is something substantive to the ego, while in fact the dynamic between the symbolic (the superego, law, language) the imaginary (the ego, the sense of self), creates a dynamic of death drive (the id, the real) which is a dynamic of death and nothingness. This aligns with Paul’s picture of the fallen self in Romans 7 (according to Žižek), but of course, Žižek is an atheist, who denies there could be anything more (he is a Romans 7, atheistic Christian). While Peterson may acknowledge something like God, it is the lying image of God (God as the one who holds the symbolic order together as Big Other, as Superego, as Law Giver) which Jesus, Paul, and the New Testament would rid us of. In both Christian and Žižekian terms, Peterson is a promoter of the lie, that language, society, the symbolic order, is truth per se, and this he equates with God. In terms of Genesis, Peterson is on the side of the serpent, advocating for the dialectic of the knowledge of good and evil as accessing the divine order.

He comes by this conclusion in the typical fashion of Platonists or dualists, by positing two primary forces, chaos and unity, as the dualistic poles which constitute reality. He says, “We are adrift in chaos and longing, in the absence of a firm identity, no foundation underfoot, nothing to strive toward, prone in our lacking conscious and unconscious to decomposition and strife. Something must unite our attention and our action, so that we are integrated, psychologically. Something must unite our interests and endeavours, collectively, so that we can cooperate and compete peacefully, productively, reciprocally, and sustainably.”[11] He points out the dangers on both the chaos and order side of the dualism, but suggests this is the engine of history driving toward extremes but eventual harmony: “It moves forward in time like a powerful motor, pistons cycling back and forth, driving the machine of modern identity toward ever-greater extremes.”[12]

The dialectical war between the state and individual is not one in which either can emerge triumphant over the other, as the dualism is the truth. Too much autonomy of the individual, “freeing himself from religion, family, nation. . . means the totalitarian state becomes more likely” to occupy all these “intermediary roles.” This becomes the opportunity (he uses Covid and the vaccine as an example) “to universalize the collective.” The pendulum swings between Weimar and Reich, between Revolution and Napoleonic empire, between Great Mother and Father, but as the book of Revelation describes, this war produces the heavenly City. “This may seem obscurely mythological to some, but the image of the heavenly city is in fact the ultimate representation of structured harmony, a vision of the reality that might obtain if the entirety of existence properly found its place, served what is highest, and integrated itself into a transcendent whole.” [13] The trick is to keep the Beast or Leviathan from consuming the individual through totalitarian control, and so “nation, gender, family, and religion,” pose the obstacle to totalitarianism. The dialectic must be kept alive, both by preserving the individual but by also preserving intermediate identities such as those found in heterosexual marriage and normative sexual identity. Too much relinquishing of these identities unleashes state control over identity.

Peterson references Platonism and Christianity as playing key roles in imparting this dialectic and keeping it alive. It is in fact, the secret behind the cosmos, the secret of God, carried within each individual. “This perspective is offered by the early Hermetic and the Neo-Platonic writings. It permeates the Christian mysticism running from St. Paul to Meister Eckhart. Within this tradition, the individual is understood as the active embodiment of and participant in the patterns of the cosmos itself—even of the God who created that cosmos—instead of a unity in contrast to or competition with the superordinate social order.”[14] The knowledge of good and evil, the dialectic, provides access to deity, and is itself the divine reflected in each individual. This, according to Peterson, is what St. Paul meant when he “describes the Church as the Body of Christ, he is similarly stepping into this domain of fractal conceptualisation, journeying between macrocosm and microcosm in a manner that is no mere literary trope.” It is like “the head of a city or a company, or of a body of laws, a body politic, or a corporate body we are, like St. Paul, employing this vision of a fractal identity or reality, attempting in that way to describe the very nature of our participation in reality.”[15] Paul, in Peterson’s estimate, had in mind Peterson’s sort of dualism, and the body of Christ, is just one example of how society can organize itself, and in doing so fully participate in reality.

Peterson’s God, and apparently the God of those Christians who align themselves with his metaphysics, is no bigger than the dualism of chaos and unity. Each side of the dialectic, as in the knowledge of good and evil, yin and yang, something and nothing, is required. Evil (suffering and human cruelty) is the means to the good (unity), and the good is never free of the evil. “Unity—purposeful essence— and multiplicity define each other.”[16] Chaos and multiplicity feed new information into unity, freeing it from a frozen totalitarianism. The building blocks of unity are forged in furnace of chaos. Error and fallibility are inevitable and perhaps, the desired constant of the human environment.[17] God needs the devil, just as unity needs the disrupting powers of chaos.

Real evil is to be found only in those who do not fight the good fight and take responsibility for themselves. “The best strategy for coping with the ignorance and suffering that result from our finite nature is to take personal responsibility for one’s hardships and constantly negotiate between sticking with one’s beliefs and revising them.”[18] This is the mode selected by Darwinian mechanisms and taken up in cultural dynamics. The very fact that certain forms of life have evolved and endured is testimony to their foundational role.

While a Christian might find some good advice in Peterson (get married, have a family, etc.), this is not all that is happening. Though he invokes God, Peterson’s metaphysics are at best atheistic or theism of the worst kind. If he is articulating what they see as essentially true, this may mean many Christians are functioning from an atheistic form of the faith or a deeply perverted understanding of God. A metaphysically shallow faith, attached to Christendom, social order and unified rituals and institutions, may need an unbeliever like Peterson to articulate the “conservative values” which now serve in place of the radical faith preached by Christ, but to mistake this for Christian Truth is on the order of fusing the law with Gospel or confusing Christendom with Christianity. It is a failure to grasp the foundational Truth of Christ, and to replace it with an alternative foundation.

[1] Jonathan Pageau and Jordan Peterson, “Identity: Individual and the State versus the Subsidiary Hierarchy of Heaven” (ARC Research, October 2023) 21. (Hereafter, “Identity”).

[2] Which is not to say he may not be confused about the nature of Christianity.

[3] Identity, 1.

[4] Marc Champagne, Myth, Meaning, and Antifragile Individualism: On the Ideas of Jordan Peterson (Societas Book 92) . Societas. Kindle Edition

[5] Ibid.

[6] Champagne, 1812.

[7] Ibid, 100.

[8]  Jordan B. Peterson, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, (Toronto: Random House, 2018) 104..

[9] Jordan B. Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (Routledge, 1999) 13.

[10] Maps of Meaning, Ibid.

[11] Identity, 1.

[12] Identity, 2.

[13] Identity, 3.

[14] Identity, 6-7.

[15] Identity, 7.

[16] Identity, 7.

[17] Maps of Meaning, 47.

[18] Champagne, 100.

Rereading Žižek’s Hegel in Light of the Spirit and Truth of Kenotic Love

Though Slavoj Žižek, reading Hegel as if he were an atheist must ultimately misread him, there is a great deal in Žižek’s atheistic reading which commends itself and acts as a guide, not only to Hegel, but to New Testament Christianity as understood by Hegel. The particular point where there is both convergence and divergence between an atheistic and theistic reading of Hegel concerns the meaning of Spirit and the death of God. As Žižek describes it, the Hegelian notion of the “death of God” in Christ amounts to the death of the “transcendent Beyond” as definitive of the experience of God, and this brings about the opening of reality from within (Metastases of Enjoyment, 39). Indeed, this suspension of God as other, and the immediate experience of God as immanent is key to Hegel. But Hegel’s point of departure is not simply negation, but he is focused on the Pauline concept of kenotic self-sacrifice in which one arrives at the Spirit of Christ. The kenotic sacrifice simultaneously marks the death of something “beyond” humanity and this is realized in the Spirit through imitation of Christ’s self-giving love.[1] But it is not simply the negation of God as Other, but the bringing together of the infinite and the finite in Absolute Spirit as Concept [Begriff] or a new form of speculative understanding and Truth.

In Hegel there is a double movement as the infinite negates itself and so arises in the finite and the finite negates itself and this is realization of the infinite.[2] But this is no mere feeling, but is the way of the Spirit, the way of love and of reason. As Hegel states it, “Thus the life of God and divine cognition may well be spoken of as a disporting of Love with itself; but this idea sinks into mere edification, and even insipidity, if it lacks the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labour of the negative.”[3] In Kenotic love God incorporates the finite. As Hegel puts it, “If God has the finite over against himself, then he himself is finite and limited. Finitude must be posited in God himself, not as something insurmountable, absolute, independent, but above all as this process of distinguishing that we have seen in spirit and in consciousness—a distinguishing that, because it is a transitory moment and because finitude is no truth, is also eternally self-sublating.”[4] God is not limited by the finite or infinite, as this would be something less than God.

Žižek gets this understanding half right, in that he misses the movement of Spirit as arising from both God as infinite Father, and the immanent Son. As he describes it, the Hegelian “reconciliation” is the “redoubling of the gap or antagonism” as the gap that separates opposites “is posited as inherent to one of the terms” (Parallax View, 106). “The gap that separates God from man is transposed into God himself” through the death of Christ, so “the properly dialectical trick here is that the very feature which appeared to separate me from God turns out to unite me with God” (Parallax View, 106). There is relief from the oppressive otherness of God as Christ makes God immanent, but in Hegel’s understanding there is not simply the relinquishing of the infinite for the finite, but a realization of the infinite in the finite. In “externalization” (Entäußerung), Luther’s rendering of “kenosis,” Hegel depicts the break from “immediacy” through self-sacrifice, which is the work of the Spirit experienced in the Eucharist, and in the Christian’s taking up the life and death of Christ. In Pauline terms, self-sacrifice or being crucified with Christ is to arrive at the self, and in Hegelian terms self-negation is at the heart of self-actualization.

In Žižek’s understanding, the focus is on the negative moment. The move from the legal, symbolic, totalizing religion of Judaism to Christianity, is due to the death of Christ which suspends the perverse relation to the law. In Žižek’s Hegelian/Lacanian notion of dialectic, Judaism and Christianity posit the gap either as a gap between man and God or as within God, respectively. Judaism posits the gap between God and man, as God stands outside the Law in that he cannot be properly represented within it. The holy of holies, the empty room, is isolated and separated from everyone by a series of walls emphasizing God’s absolute transcendence to the Law. God is the Other, outside of the symbolic, and yet the one who holds the symbolic together (Parallax View, 106). The death of Christ exposes the orbit of the oppressive symbolic in God as Other. In Žižek’s Hegel the death of Christ, the fulness of the work of the Trinity comes into effect as thesis/antithesis/synthesis. There is the suspension of the Other (thesis) in the death of God (antithesis). The Holy Spirit is “then posited as a symbolic, de-substantialized fiction” which exists in and through the “work of each and all” (synthesis) (Metastases of Enjoyment, 42).

Of course, the primary contention between a Christian and atheistic reading of Hegel, revolves around Spirit. In Žižek’s reading the Spirit is a fiction, which is not a dismissal of its importance, as the Spirit is an open fiction, where the movement of the Subject, in all of its phases prior to the gift of the Spirit is a necessary lie, but one that remains hidden. The hidden force of negation or death drive animates the Subject – giving life through death, but in therapy exposure of the lie, the death drive and its attendant categories, can be tapped as a source to unplug from perversion and to come to an understanding of Being as sustained in and through negation. The encounter with the death drive is a “limit-experience” which “is the irreducible/constitutive condition of the (im)possibility of the creative act of embracing a Truth-Event: it opens up and sustains the space for the Truth-Event, yet its excess always threatens to undermine it” (Ticklish Subject, 161). Behind the good, the true and the beautiful is the constitutive background of the death drive – “the Void that sustains the place in which one can formulate symbolic fictions that we call ‘truths’” (Ticklish Subject, 161). The means of manipulating the truth is through tapping into the underlying ground of the death drive and approaching the void of deception in which the symbolic truth is grounded. The death of Christ and dying with Christ provides access to this deception undergirding the truth. The truth inheres in a lie, so to refer to the Spirit as a fiction, is a new form of truth.

For Hegel, the Spirit is not a fiction but the absolute truth: “it is here maintained that this content, which the knowledge of absolute Spirit has of itself, is the absolute truth, is all truth, so that this Idea comprehends the entire wealth of the natural and spiritual world in itself, is the only substance and truth of all that constitutes this world, while it is in the Idea alone that everything has its truth, as being a moment of its essential existence.”[5] This truth, in the Spirit is a realized truth. Kenotic love unites the infinite and finite in the Concept (Absolute Spirit), which is the realization of presence (God’s and the self) and identity. Hegel slowly recognizes the inadequacies of other forms of sacrifice, which fall short of fostering the social relation, inherent to kenosis. Mere self-negation, apart from the establishment of a community of the Spirit, simply ends in self-defeat.[6] To be a living sacrifice or to “live” sacrifice is not simply a negation, but the arrival at one’s true essence.

A way to get at the divergence in regard to Spirit, is in Žižek’s focus on the death of Christ, which more or less sums up what he has to say about the gift of the Spirit and resurrection (unlike Hegel). Where for Hegel the death of Christ results in the immanence of God in the Spirit, Žižek has more to say about death, which he equates with resurrection and spirit. He repeatedly refers to Christ’s cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mk. 15.34; Mt. 27.46)., “In Lacanian terms, we are dealing with the suspension of the big Other, which guarantees the subject’s access to reality: in the experience of the death of God, we stumble upon the fact that ‘the big Other doesn’t exist’” (Metastases of Enjoyment, 42). This negation or death opens up the possibility of life in the spirit.

In describing the death of Christ, Žižek equates life and death: “Life and death here are not polar opposites, contrasts, within the same global Whole (field of reality), but the same thing viewed from a global perspective” (The Monstrosity of Christ, 292). He concludes, “The (temporal) death of Christ is his very (eternal) life ‘in becoming’” (The Monstrosity of Christ, 292). Death and life are not in some sort of “pseudo-dialectic relation as utter loss/negation (death) and its reversal into absolute life” (The Monstrosity of Christ, 292). The death of Christ is the founding of the community of the Spirit and this community is his resurrection. According to Žižek, “That is to say that Christ’s death, in the Hegelian reading, is the disappearance of disappearance. It is in itself already what becomes for itself the new community.”[7]

Christ’s death reveals the psychoanalytic ground; the Freudian moment of madness which Schelling anticipates and which Žižek comes to understand Paul to describe in Romans 7. Radical negativity, the death of Christ or death drive, is the constitutive moment of the event which serves as the ground of a Subject no longer constrained by law or ideology (the significance of the resurrection Event). Resurrection can be identified with death as they both amount to the destruction of one’s symbolic supports and the emergence of a new form of subjectivity. This new form of subjectivity is the hysteric, which Lacan and Žižek equate with Hegel – “that most sublime of hysterics.” Where the masculine orientation identifies unquestioningly with the symbolic order of the law, the hysteric questions the status of the law. So, for example, Žižek identifies hysteria with the Paul of Romans 7. The feminine, hysteric position from which Paul writes describes the necessary passage through negativity and death drive as this is the road trod by Christ himself.

In my original reading of Hegel, through Žižek and Lacan, the role of negation was key to understanding the rise of the Subject in the dynamic interplay of the three registers of symbolic, imaginary, and real. The real is the engine of negation and death which explains the negative energetics dominating fallen personhood. I think this reading is a partially true reading of Hegel, in its diagnosis of the disease, much as Žižek’s is an insightful reading of Paul’s depiction of the problem in Romans 7. But both Paul and Hegel pass beyond this negative moment. But for Žižek, nothingness and death drive precede the Subject and are the primary “substance” constituting the Subject. In Žižek’s atheistic creation ex nihilo (a creation from nothing) God and truth, subject and object, are preceded by death drive and nothingness, which he does not hesitate to call evil (Reader, 273). Lacan also describes the death drive as the attempt to go beyond the pleasure principle to the realm of excess jouissance, the pure substance of the death drive, which he also does not hesitate to call evil: “We cannot avoid the formula that jouissance is evil” (Seminar VII, 184–5). This evil is subject to manipulation but, inasmuch as it is prime reality, it is not something that can be finally and completely overcome; nor would one want to overcome it, as this nothingness is the only possible ground for the absolute freedom of the Subject. Absolute freedom and autonomy cannot, by definition, be constrained by a prior Good (in Žižek’s reading). The absolutely free, autonomous Subject can be preceded by nothing, and this is the Nothing and negation Žižek links to death drive.

But of course, if one understands Hegel is working with negation, not in an atheistic sense as a point of origin, but in the Pauline sense of kenotic self-giving love, this will account for the illness of the Subject diagnosed as more or less incurable by Lacan and Žižek, and go beyond this privileging of the negative, to kenotic self-giving love, truth and unity in the Spirit.

[1] This is the argument of William Goggin, Hegel’s Sacrificial Imagination, (University of Chicago, PhD. Thesis, 2019).

[2] Goggin, 12.

[3] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 10.

[4] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: One-Volume Edition – The Lectures of 1827. Edited by Peter Hodgson. One-Volume Ed edition. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1988, 190. Quoted in Goggin, 273.

 [5] 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) 206.

[6] Goggin, 11.

[7] See On Belief, 106 – 51; The Puppet and the Dwarf, 171; The Parallax View, 106; For They Know Not What They Do, liii.

Beyond Žižek and Milbank to Hegel and the Salvation of Persons

Though G.W.F. Hegel is sometimes portrayed as focused on rationalism,[1] what holds his philosophy and his conception of Christianity together, is his focus on personhood. Knowledge and reason do not exist apart from the personal but are grounded in the divine Person: “Knowledge is here accordingly no immediate knowledge of a corporeal object, but knowledge of God; God is the absolutely universal Object; He is not any kind of particularity, He is the most universal Personality.”[2] In turn, the development of human personality is in conjunction with the Person of God found in the Trinity, in which God’s kenotic self-giving through the Son and Spirit immerses him in the life of the world. This is the truth of every personality: “In friendship and love I give up my abstract personality and thereby win it back as concrete. The truth of personality is found precisely in winning it back through this immersion, this being immersed in the other.”[3] Human personality knows itself as and through the divine Person as “by virtue of his fundamental nature,” man “knows himself as infinite Personality.”[4] Hegel equates Spirit and person but not with the abstract notion of person, as only in “love and friendship” does the person arise and maintain himself, thus achieving true subjectivity – “which is its personality.”[5]

In the argument of Robert Williams, for Hegel, personhood is central to understanding God and spirit.[6] Spirit is personhood for Hegel, and divine and human personhood united in Spirit is redemption. Divine and human personhood unified or synthesized in the Spirit unifies not only the Divine and human but overcomes the differences in which humanity is alienated from God. Forgiveness or redemption in reconciliation is the movement between divinity and non-divinity in which the gap separating them (evil, according to Hegel) is overcome. Reconciliation is movement from both sides of the gap, in which God indwells humanity and humanity is taken up into God. Christ as creator and creature inaugurates the movement completed in the Spirit, in which the divine indwells the non-divine and the non-divine inhabits divinity.

In Ursula Roessiger’s account of Hegel, “By their respective involvement in other-being, both the divine and the non-divine are transfigured such that reconciliation (the winning back of one’s personality as concrete) is possible.”[7] This is the way Hegel launches his work on Religion, by bringing together human thought and Spirit as constitutive of persons: “Speaking generally, it is through thought, concrete thought, or, to put it more definitely, it is by reason of his being Spirit, that man is man; and from man as Spirit proceed all the many developments of the sciences and arts, the interests of political life, and all those conditions which have reference to man s freedom and will.”[8] Human freedom and creativity flow from the fact that humankind is Spirit, and by Spirit Hegel makes reference to the essence of God shared with humanity.

This essence, or the lifting up of the creaturely to the divine has God going outside of his transcendence (through Christ and the Spirit) to humanity, and humanity surpassing itself into divinity (through Christ and the Spirit). The terms “thought” and “consciousness” refer directly to the experience of God, in which humanity arrives at divinity: “God is the beginning of all things, and the end of all things. As all things proceed from this point, so all return back to it again. He is the centre which gives life and quickening to all things, and which animates and preserves in existence all the various forms of being.”[9] Hegel lists “human relations, activities, and pleasures, and all the ways in which these are intertwined; all that has worth and dignity for man, all wherein he seeks his happiness, his glory, and his pride, finds its ultimate centre in religion, in the thought, the consciousness, and the feeling of God.”[10] The experience of God in human thought and creativity, completing what it means to be human, is through the Spirit. The spirit occupied with this end sheds the limitations of finiteness and is related to the infinite and to freedom (Personhood).

This is an unfolding and dynamic reality, but it is not, as Slavoj Žižek has pictured it, an emptying out of divinity. Žižek’s death-of-God theology is aimed at getting rid of the Otherness of God by getting rid of God, having Christ’s death signify the end of transcendence. But Hegel gets rid of this oppressive otherness by synthesizing transcendence and immanence, divine and human, in the kenotic love of God definitive of Trinity, which overflows to all of creation. This dawning of the Spirit over all things is the unfolding of creation and history, in which God’s Trinitarian self-relation gathers the world into its embrace.  

Žižek may accurately portray the common understanding of transcendence: a God who is immovable, impassable, Other, imposing, and beyond material reality. “Do those who call themselves ‘Christians’ not prefer to stay with the comfortable image of God sitting up there, benevolently watching over our lives, sending us his son as a token of his love, or, even more comfortably, just with some depersonalized Higher Force?”[11] Hegel, it is true, rejects this notion of transcendence, but not to get rid of the category, but to conceive of God as fulfilling his role as Creator through creation (how could it be otherwise). This introduces a dynamic possibility into God, but it is a simple acknowledgement of the reality portrayed in creation and redemption. Yes, God is becoming “all in all,” and this is a process, but one which does not negate eternality. God’s personhood is completed in Christ, the incarnation, the giving of the Spirit, but this is always who God is.

John Milbank, on the other hand, argues that Hegel cannot accept the paradox of the hypostatic union, and that with Protestant theology as a whole, seeks to immanentize God. He seems to accede to Žižek’s atheistic interpretation of Hegel:

So the crucial thing at issue between myself and Žižek is the question of the interpretation of Christianity. I wish to argue that he concludes that atheist Christianity is true Christianity only because he accepts a dialectical (Lutheran, Behmenist, Kantian, Hegelian) version of Christian doctrine as the most coherent. By contrast, I claim that there is a radically Catholic humanist alternative to this, which sustains genuine transcendence only because of its commitment to incarnational paradox.[12]

Milbank conflates Hegel, Protestantism, and atheism, despite Hegel’s appeal to a broad spectrum of thought, incorporating specifically Catholic theology (for instance, Eckhartian mysticism) and Catholic mysticism and spirituality into his thought. Yet, Milbank seeks to promote a paradoxical/Catholic logic which can maintain tension between contingency and necessity, while he claims Hegelian Protestantism will collapse into either of these two poles. As Roessiger argues, this reduction of Hegel by Milbank as well as Žižek, is mistaken: “there is room for transcendence and paradoxical reasoning in Hegel’s account, both of which suggest that Hegel’s account of religion is theistic, and even mystical, rather than atheistic.”[13] 

The way of the Spirit in Hegel, in spite of Milbank’s reduction of it to pure transcendence (closed within itself) and Žižek’s reduction to pure immanence, is Hegel’s attempt to mediate and synthesize these realities. Hegel would overcome the impasse of the Enlightenment, a problem with which Žižek and Milbank leave him. Hegel describes the work of Kant, Fichte and Jacobi, as giving rise to a faith which can only desire the absolute while denying any possible knowledge of it. As a result, “At the end of the enlightenment we are left with two corpses: faith and reason.”[14] Hegel describes the death of reason as a departure from religion or Christianity, which means “victorious Reason is no longer Reason. The new born peace that hovers triumphantly over the corpse of Reason and faith, uniting them as the child of both, has as little of Reason in it as it has of authentic faith.”[15] Reason limited to the finite is presumed incapable of knowing God, and faith is reduced to worship of the unknown. Faith without reason and reason without faith are both dead.

The attempt to rescue Christianity through rationalism, is not Hegel’s but the Enlightenment project, which reduces God to the abstraction of deism, completely rational, lawful and absent. The embrace of reason, not through faith but in scientism and natural theology, leaves an impersonal God of the gaps, in which God is ultimately excluded, as the gaps, in the workings of the machine, are closed. Hegel is attacking this negative theology (God as unknowable and beyond reason) and posing against it the revelation which constitutes Christianity (the revealing of a Person). Hegel, working from a Johannine and New Testament understanding sees Christianity as disclosing and sharing the divine reality (I have explained this here). God in Christ, through the Spirit, is open to being known and comprehended. “This knowledge of Spirit for itself or actually, as it is in itself or potentially, is the being in-and-for-itself of Spirit as exercising knowledge, the perfect, absolute religion, in which it is revealed what Spirit, what God is: this is the Christian religion.”[16]

As he goes on to explain, “revealed religion is manifested religion because in it God has become wholly manifest.” No longer does God dwell in darkness or secrecy, as in Spirit He is made known and this is the meaning of Spirit. “Here, then, is the consciousness of the developed conception of Spirit, of reconciliation, not in beauty, in joyousness, but in the Spirit.”[17] God and reality are not subject to caprice or darkness, but are revealed, manifest, and made known: “that is, in the eternal reason, wisdom of God; it is the notion of the reality or fact itself, the divine notion, the notion of God Himself, which determines itself to enter on this development, and has set its goal before it.”[18] God has entered into the world and made Himself, the ground and notion of reality, manifest, and human consciousness is the center of this manifestation, in which God shows himself in thought as Spirit. Knowing this Person is on the order of all personal knowing, in which the two become one united in a singular Spirit.

What distinguishes man from the animals is Spirit, that is “he is consciousness” but he attains to this consciousness or Spirit only “when he withdraws himself out of immediate identity with the particular state of the moment.”[19] Only by negating or arising above the natural and immediate to the Spirit does man come to God and to the fulness of his own personhood. As Roessiger describes, “the expression ‘God is love’ is meant to encapsulate the entire eternal movement of spirit by demonstrating that spirit’s activity is bound up with the special kind of reconciliation achieved within the loving exchange.” So too man in self-giving love comes to self-consciousness, not in the self, but through friendship and love of the other. Forgiveness and love are “immersion into other-being, the giving of oneself over completely to the other.”[20] This marks the passage into infinite personhood.

In so doing, man achieves the thought of God and it is in this thought that “all the distinctions of the arts and sciences and of the endless interweaving of human relationships, habits and customs, activities, skills, and enjoyments – find their ultimate center” that is “in the one thought of God.”[21] In the thought of this Person flows all personhood and creativity. “It is in thinking that humanity truly exists for the first time. The universal object, the essence of the object, is for thinking, and since in religion God is the object, he is such essentially for thinking.”[22] To be human is to think, and the highest thought, God, brings humanity into the fulness of personhood.

[1] Slavoj Žižek describes this view of Hegel in the following manner: “Hegel as the absurd ‘Absolute Idealist’ who ‘pretended to know everything,’ to possess Absolute Knowledge, to read the mind of God, to deduce the whole of reality out of the self- movement of (his) mind—the image which is an exemplary case of what Freud called Deck- Erinnerung (screen- memory), a fantasy- formation intended to cover up a traumatic truth.” Slavoj Žižek, “The Fear of Four Words: A Modest Plea for a Hegelian Reading of Christianity,” Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 27.

[2] 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) 121.

[3] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 3, edited by Peter C. Hodgson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 285-6. Cited in Ursula Roessiger, A Metaphysics of Faith and Reason: Mystical and Trinitarian Elements in Hegel’s Philosophy of Religion, (University of Pennsylvania, PhD Thesis, 2017) 43. LPR 3, 1827, E285-286 G210-211.

[4] Philosophy of Religion 1, 230.

[5] Philosophy of Religion 3, 194, Cited in Roessiger, 43.

[6] Robert R. Williams, Hegel on the Proofs and Personhood of God: Studies in Hegel’s Logic and Philosophy of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

[7]  Roessiger, 18.

[8] Lectures On the Philosophy of Religion 1, 1-2.

[9] Ibid, 2.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Žižek, Monstrosity of Christ,  25.

[12] Milbank, Monstrosity of Christ, 117.

[13] Roessiger, 107.

[14] Ibid, 29.

[15] G.W. F. Hegel, Faith and Knowledge, translated by Walter Cerf and H.S. Harris (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977), 55. Cited in Roessiger, 30.

[16] Philosophy of Religion 1, 83-84.

[17] Ibid, 84-85.

[18] Ibid, 85.

[19] Ibid, 134.

[20] Roessiger, 51-52.

[21] Philosophy of Religion 3, 84. Cited in Roessiger, 29.

[22] Philosophy of Religion, 3, 189. Cited in Roessiger, 32.

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.

Apologies to Hegel: Knowing God is Essential

One thing we all know to be true about Hegel – he is presumptuous, assigning too much weight to philosophy and human knowing, and thus he is pitting philosophy against Orthodox Christianity.

Whatever else one might say about Hegel, the presumed consensus is precisely wrong, both in its reading of Hegel and most likely in its understanding of the Christian faith. One does not have to read much of Hegel to recognize he is challenging the presumptuousness of Enlightenment thought, in particular that of Immanuel Kant, as it has impacted theology. He is arguing for a biblical, doctrinal, Trinitarian, Alexandrian, Christianity, in which Christian dogma, and not human reason takes first place. He is not displacing Christ or Christianity but working from the axiom of the incarnation, very much like Maximus the Confessor. As Hans Urs von Balthasar notes, Hegel is a thinker on the order of Maximus, sharing focus on synthesis, on Trinity, on escaping a finite dialectic, and even on developing the Chalcedonian formula. As Balthasar puts it, “Maximus looks straight in the eye of Hegel, who clearly derived his synthetic way of thinking from the Bible-more precisely from the anthropological antitheses of the Old Testament and from that between the Bible and Hellenism, as well as from the reconciling synthesis of Christ, understood principally from a Johannine (and thus, in effect, from an Alexandrian) perspective.”[1] Balthasar here pictures the singular difference as Maximus being more open in his Christology, “everyone recognizes that his ontology and cosmology are extensions of his Christology, in that the synthesis of Christ’s concrete person is not only God’s final thought for the world but also his original plan.”[2] Yet, he pictures them as directly reflecting one another. Maximus’ focus on synthesis and not confusion and his bold application of “theological truth to philosophical, ontological, and cosmological thought” is directly taken up by Hegel (it is here that Maximus is looking into the eyes of Hegel).[3] As Balthasar notes in private correspondence concerning his work on Maximus, “This morning I put the finishing touches on a new two hundred-page book about Maximus Confessor, the ‘Hegel’ of the Greek fathers and ‘father’ of Eriugena.”[4] Could the problem be that, like Maximus, Hegel is developing a form of thought so centered upon Christ that it is beyond the common notion of reason. At a minimum, to accuse Hegel of presumptuously displacing Christ is misdirected.

First of all, Hegel is concerned to recover Christ as the true import of the Bible. He recognizes that all parties might appeal to the Bible, but philosophy, theology and reason are implicitly undermining Scripture. He describes a form of exegesis that “has taken counsel with reason” and “pretends only to lay stress on the understanding of the word, and to desire to remain faithful to it” but empties it of all spiritual value and content.[5] He describes a system in which “in downright earnest” exegetes imagine “the Bible is made the foundation” but due to the very categories of thought and reason with which Scripture is read “the thoughts of the interpreter must necessarily be put into the words which constitute the foundation.” In turn, “Commentaries on the Bible do not so much make us acquainted with the content of the Scriptures, as rather with the manner in which things were conceived in the age in which they were written.”[6] The “most contradictory meanings have been exegetically demonstrated by means of Theology out of the Scripture, and thus the so-called Holy Scriptures have been made into a nose of wax.”[7] This form of exegesis, a “Theology of Reason,” “is put in opposition to that doctrinal system of the Church,” though it “pretends only to lay stress on the understanding of the word, and to desire to remain faithful to it” in reality it “takes possession of the written word” and bends it to its own shape.[8]

Hegel notes that all heresies appeal to the Scriptures. So too the “Theology of Reason,” claims to keep to Scripture as foundation but is a form of reason alien to the Bible.  The end result of this approach is not encounter with God, but the knowledge of God made impossible. “It no longer gives our age any concern that it knows nothing of God; on the contrary, it is regarded as a mark of the highest intelligence to hold that such knowledge is not even possible.”[9] Hegel is attempting to bring about a return to the faith of the Bible, by refuting the negative understanding associated with the Theology of Reason.

He sees his philosophy as a counter to the arrogance of those who would “dispense both with the content which revelation gives of the Divine nature, and with what belongs to reason.”[10] This form of thought (the very form of thought accusing him of arrogance), he accuses of the “blind arrogance which is proper to it.”[11]

If, then, those theologians, who busy themselves with their argumentations in exegesis, and appeal to the Bible in connection with all their notions, when they deny as against philosophy the possibility of knowledge, have brought matters to such a pass, and have so greatly depreciated the reputation of the Bible, that if the truth were as they say, and if according to the true explanation of the Bible, no knowledge of the nature of God were possible, the spirit would be compelled to look for another source in order to acquire such truth as should be substantial or full of content.[12]

Hegel describes the plight of theology in his age (which sounds so familiar), as denying the dogmas and doctrines which once served as the center of the faith. In place of dogmas there is a “widespread, almost universal, indifference towards what in earlier times were held to be essential doctrines of the faith.”[13] Though, according to confession, Christ “continues to be made the central point of faith as Mediator, Reconciler, and Redeemer; but what was known as the work of redemption has received a very prosaic and merely psychological signification.” The old “edifying words have been retained,” but they have been emptied of significance – “the very thing that was essential in the old doctrine of the Church has been expunged.”[14] Depth of faith has given way to a “devotional bent” leaving aside the doctrines on which the early church focused: “the weighty doctrines of the Trinity, of the resurrection of the body, as also the miracles in the Old and New Testaments, are neglected as matters of indifference, and have lost their importance. The divinity of Christ, dogma, what is peculiar to the Christian religion is set aside, or else reduced to something of merely general nature.”[15]

 In particular, Hegel notes the neglect concerning the Trinity, with those of the Enlightenment or those given to theological piety concluding, “the Trinity was brought into Christian doctrine by the Alexandrian school,” or “by the neo-Platonists.” Whether Trinity is essential-Truth no longer matters, “that is a point which is not examined into, and yet that doctrine is the key-note of the Christian religion.” As Hegel sums up, “If an opportunity was given to a large number of these theologians to lay their hand on their heart, and say whether they consider faith in the Trinity to be indispensably necessary to salvation, and whether they believe that the absence of such faith leads to damnation, there can be no doubt what the answer would be.” First of all, such a one would shrink from such words as “damnation” and though he might not want to deny the Trinity, “he would, in case his being directly appealed to, find it very difficult express himself in an affirmative.” [16] He continues in this train with indictment of religious books and sermons, in which one might suppose “the fundamental doctrines of the Christian religion are supposed to be set forth” and yet, he concludes it is highly doubtful they perform this basic task.[17]

Far from Hegel displaying an arrogant dismissal of Christ, doctrine and the church, he can be read as providing a zealous indictment of this very dismissal. So much of what he writes could serve as tract against the contemporary church, not least of which is his dismissal of those who are solely concerned to recover the history of the New Testament. Such theologians are no better than “clerks in a mercantile house, who have only to keep an account of the wealth of strangers, who only act for others without obtaining any property for themselves. They do, indeed, receive salary, but their reward is only to serve, and to register that which is the property of others.” The faith passes through them, like a reward of which they are not the direct recipients. “Theology of this kind has no longer a place at all in the domain of thought; it has no longer to do with infinite thought in and for itself, but only with it as a finite fact, as opinion, ordinary thought, and so on.” A theology focused on history, imagining it enough to recover the historical Jesus, is not encountering and possessing the truth, but is content with what served as truth for others. “With the true content, with the knowledge of God, such theologians have no concern. They know as little of God as a blind man sees of a painting, even though he handles the frame.”[18]

The end product of the Theology of Reason is a denial of the basic premise of the New Testament and the life of Christ. While one might refer to this negative knowledge as a form of reason, Hegel’s point is it is not true reason. True reason is grounded in the Spirit given through Christ. Thus, it is not a Spirit “beyond the stars, beyond the world. On the contrary, God is present, omnipresent, and exists as Spirit in all spirits. God is a living God, who is acting and working. Religion is a product of the Divine Spirit; it is not a discovery of man, but a work of divine operation and creation in him.”[19] God is reasonable and has shared his form of reason in the Spirit, but humankind abandons this reason and abandons the particularity of the Spirit (of incarnation) in grasping for the absolute and universal apart from the concrete.

In particular, Hegel notes, that finite conceptions of the infinite (abstractions), exercise dominance.  “For the doctrine concerning God goes on to that of the characteristics, the attributes, and the actions of God. Such knowledge takes possession of this determinate content, and would make it appear that it belongs to it. It, on the one hand, conceives of the Infinite in its own finite fashion, as something which has a determinate character, as an abstract infinite, and then on the other hand finds that all special attributes are inadequate to this Infinite.” The infinite becomes defined by what it is not, in relation to the finite. “By such a mode of proceeding the religious content is annihilated, and the absolute object reduced to complete poverty.” [20]

Hegel describes the Enlightenment as the “consummation of finite knowledge,” but in imagining it is exalting God by regarding “all predicates” as “inadequate” (mere “unwarranted anthropomorphisms”) in “reality, it has, in conceiving God as the supreme Being, made Him hollow, empty, and poor.”[21] As Balthasar notes in regard to Maximus, “only when Christ appeared did it become irrefutably clear that the creature is not simply pure negation with respect to God and, thus, cannot be saved simply through mystical absorption in God, but rather-however much he is elevated to share in God’s being, however much he dies to the world-the creature is saved only in the express preservation and perfection of his nature.”[22] This is Hegel’s point in regard to the Enlightenment, which ends with a purely negative notion of God and thus misses the concrete reality of Christ due to its misplaced focus on the infinite.

In the typical understanding of the infinite, it takes on its characteristics as the opposite and negative of the finite. As Hegel remarks, this is the foundation of human knowing. Human thought is grounded on difference, such as subject/object or north/south in which the terms are understood in contrast, but as he notes, they are different but “inseparable.”[23] What Kant and the Enlightenment thinkers missed was the inherent negativity in the dualism between infinity and finitude. “The further step which speculative philosophy had to take was to apprehend the negativity which is immanent within the universal or the identical, as in the ‘I’ – a step the need for which is not perceived by those who fail to apprehend the dualism of infinity and finitude, even in that immanent and abstract form in which Fichte understood it.”[24] Thought grounded in the ‘I’ is inherently dualistic. There is no bridge between thought and the thinking thing. Likewise, infinity and finitude contain this same inherent dualism. The infinite is no more accessible than the noumena or the thinking thing. “But this indeterminacy is itself merely a negation with regard to the determinate, to finitude: ‘I’ is this solitude and absolute negation.”[25] What this form of thought misses is its own inherent negativity. As Jordan Wood and Justin Coyle summarize, “We know the Ding an sich [thing in itself] only as unknowable, as that which eludes our grasp. Hegel wants to know exactly how Kant knows all this. How, for instance, does Kant know for certain that what is a priori and so subjective cannot also prove objective? Here Kant’s very attempt to scrupulously police the boundaries of thought betrays a deep presumption. Kant has somehow mapped an unnavigable trench before he’s crossed it.”[26]

As Hegel argues, “This logical knowledge, which comes first, must lie behind us when we have to deal with religion scientifically; such categories must have long ago been done with. But the usual thing is to employ these as weapons against the Notion, the Idea; against rational knowledge.”[27] Hegel is contrasting this “logical knowledge,” with his development of the Christian “Notion” and his new order of reason and science. “In religion it is not, however, with phenomena that we have to do, it is with an absolute content. But those who employ this argumentative kind of reasoning seem to think the Kantian philosophers have existed only to afford opportunity for the more unblushing use of those categories.”[28] Reason must pass beyond the Kantian antinomies and his presumed delimitation of knowledge.

Hegel proposes a path around Kantian dualism, inherent to human reason, in worship of the Incarnate Christ: “Worship is thus, in fact, the eternal process by which the subject posits itself as identical with its essential being.”[29] In worship we become what we truly are and we escape the dualism inherent to abstract reason. “Through worship, unity is attained; what is not originally united, however, cannot be posited or made explicit as such. This unity, which appears as the act, the result of worship, must be recognised, too, as existing in and for itself. For what is object for consciousness is the Absolute, and its essential characteristic is that it is unity of its absoluteness with particularity. This unity is therefore in the object itself; for example, in the Christian conception of the Incarnation of God.”[30] There is a direct encounter with God in Christ, in which the Absolute is fused with particularity. “This self-existent unity, or, put more definitely, the human form, God’s becoming man, is in fact an essential moment of religion, and must necessarily appear in the definition of its object.”[31] Religion, in Hegel’s definition, is encounter with God, and thus the incarnation is definitive of religion.

However, if one is committed to reflection rather than incarnation as the central guiding point, darkness will prevail. There is no determinate content, but only abstraction devoid of spirit. In the incarnation, however, the darkness is lifted: “The content, it is then said, commends itself to me for its own sake, and the witness of the Spirit teaches me to recognise it as truth, as my essential determination. And, undoubtedly, the infinite idea of the Incarnation for example that speculative central point has so great a power in it that it penetrates irresistibly into the heart which is not as yet darkened by reflection.”[32]

The turn to the incarnation involves passage beyond abstraction to the concrete, or what can be known by faith. Faith, “actuated by the courage of truth and freedom, grasps the truth as something concrete, as fulness of content, as Ideality, in which determinateness the finite is contained as a moment.”[33] No longer is one given to the abstract negative of logical knowledge, but there appears its opposite, “thinking reason” grounded in God as Spirit. “God is not emptiness, but Spirit; and this characteristic of Spirit does not remain for it a word only, or a superficial characteristic; on the contrary, the nature of Spirit unfolds itself for rational thought, inasmuch as it apprehends God as essentially the Triune God.”[34] As I pointed out (here), Hegel’s notion of Spirit is Johannine in that it is a result of and continuation of the incarnation. All the members of the Trinity are made known in Christ. That is, in the first instance, Christ is God’s image known and being made known. “Thus God is conceived of as making Himself an object to Himself, and further, the object remains in this distinction in identity with God; in it God loves Himself.”[35] This love is then shared through the gift of the Spirit, which is the gift of God’s life and Spirit. “Without this characteristic of Trinity, God would not be Spirit, and Spirit would be an empty word.”[36] In this understanding, true reason and knowledge, the knowing of a determinate content within the human subject, are opened.

So, the choice is a theology, philosophy, and mode of reason on the order of nominalism, or accentuating the divide which marks the immanent and economic Trinity. As Hegel notes, most theologians would have no problem fudging on or relinquishing belief in the Trinity, and of course what they are simultaneously relinquishing is knowing God.

What is laid down by the Christian religion as the supreme, absolute commandment, “Ye shall know God,” is regarded as a piece of folly. Christ says, “Be ye perfect, as My Father in heaven is perfect.” This lofty demand is to the wisdom of our time an empty sound. It has made of God an infinite phantom, which is far from us, and in like manner has made human knowledge a futile phantom of finiteness, or a mirror upon which fall only shadows, only phenomena. How, then, are we any longer to respect the commandment, and grasp its meaning, when it says to us, “Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” since we know nothing of the Perfect One, and since our knowing and willing are confined solely and entirely to appearance, and the truth is to be and to remain absolutely and exclusively a something beyond the present ? And what, we must further ask, what else would it be worthwhile to comprehend, if God is incomprehensible?[37]

The point of biblical Christianity is knowing God, and apart from this knowledge it is not clear Christian faith survives. “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Such verses could be multiplied as they serve as the backbone of the faith, yet Hegel is accused of arrogance for taking this knowledge seriously, and in the meantime this simple and most concrete fact, the very point of Christianity, is passed over. As Hegel perceived it this is the height of arrogance and the last stage of the degradation of man. It is “all the more arrogant inasmuch as he thinks he has proved to himself that this degradation is the highest possible state, and is his true destiny.”[38] But of course this form of arrogant dismissal of the foundations of the faith is directly counter to the true faith. “Such a point of view is, indeed, directly opposed to the lofty nature of the Christian religion, for according to this we ought to know God, His nature, and His essential Being, and to esteem this knowledge as something which is the highest of all.”[39] Knowing God is the point of Christianity and Hegel is the thinker who has accentuated this truth.

[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to Maximus the Confessor, Translated by Brian E. Daley, S.]. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988) 207.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] In a letter from 1937, to Emil Lerch. Cited in Jordan Daniel Wood, The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus Confessor (p. 217). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[5] 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) 28.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 29.

[8] Ibid, 28.

[9] Ibid, 36.

[10] Ibid, 37.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 32.

[13] Ibid, 38.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, 39.

[17] Ibid, 40.

[18] Ibid, 41.

[19] Ibid, 33.

[20] Ibid, 28.

[21] Ibid, 29-30.

[22] Balthasar, 207-208.

[23] On the Philosophy of Religion, 56.

[24] G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Tran. H.B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 40.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Jordan Daniel Wood and Justin Shaun Coyle, “Must Catholics Hate Hegel?” Church Life Journal (June 8, 2018).

[27] On the Philosophy of Religion, 55.

[28] Ibid, 56.

[29] Ibid, 70.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid. 151

[33] Ibid, 30.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid, 30-31.

[37] Ibid, 36.

[38] Ibid, 36-37.

[39] Ibid, 37.