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.

Bulgakov’s “The Tragedy of Philosophy” as Entry into Sophiology

MAN WAS CREATED IN THE IMAGE AND LIKENESS OF God. This means that the image of the Holy Trinity is imprinted upon every part of his spiritual nature. Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (Gen. 1:26). So says the word of God, precisely pointing, by means of this plural number, to the trihypostaticity of the Divinity and the triunity of the image of God – which after all, is also the human image.”[1] Sergius Bulgakov

To attempt to describe the atmosphere or texture of Sergius[2] Bulgakov’s theology in doctrinal terms is in danger of missing the warmth and spiritual excitement of his theological project, and yet the attempt to simply restate or summarize his theology without reference to its doctrinal significance also falls short, as he is demonstrating a revolutionary shift in the very tenor of his writing. Rather than writing analogously about God (e.g., Thomas Aquinas) he presumes to speak directly of divine love (Sophia). There is no presumed gap or distance between creator and creation as Jesus Christ brings together the divine and human (Bulgakov sees Maximus as central to this development).[3] He is doing theology in a different key, and this shows up even (or especially) in his early work laying out his Trinitarian Sophiology in contrast to the philosophical project. Even as he describes the particular failings of philosophy, the failures illustrate the necessity of the Trinitarian Personhood reflected in the human image. His philosophical critique is so interwoven with his personalism and Sophiology, that this may be the place (his The Tragedy of Philosophy) to start with Bulgakov. Rather than beginning with being (or with presumptions of the economic and immanent Trinity, his description of the western failure characterized by Thomas Aquinas) or with reason, Bulgakov’s starting premise is the Trinity or a trinitarian holism necessary for reason, which cannot be subjected or reduced to reason but apart from which reason fails.

Presumed throughout is the eternality of the humanity of Christ, so that the truth of the intra-Trinitarian relationship is the truth of God and humans, and there are not two realms of truth (the presumption not only of philosophy – e.g., noumena/phenomena, act/being, – but of western theology, e.g., economic and immanent Trinity, Creator and creation, as a divide). There is one necessary realm of truth which reveals itself in human personhood, pointing to the Divine Person. What gets obscured, according to Bulgakov, and what he aims to recover is the focus on personhood (the person of God revealed in Christ and taken up in the human image) and the manner in which the person of Jesus Christ, in particular, bridges or brings together the antinomies of creator and creation (as developed in his Sophiology).[4] He presumes to develop a Chalcedonian orthodoxy (on the order of Maximus) but to more completely illustrate and define its parameters.

 His Sophiology develops as an overcoming of the antinomies of reason as expressed in philosophy, which provides a platform or insight (negative though it is), as spelled out in The Tragedy of Philosophy. The book traces the three characteristic mistakes found in philosophy, against the background of a Trinitarian theology and dogma, which in the description sounds fairly dry, but in the execution traces psychoanalytic and experiential reality such that human thought, perception, and experience, correctly perceived, is integrated directly with the reality of the Trinity. Philosophy is a tragedy but it is a tragedy awaiting and pointing toward the particulars of a Trinitarian solution.

Bulgakov applies Trinitarian theology, very much in the pattern of Paul in Romans 7, in that the tripartite reality of human experience and the human subject, absent the Trinity, does not hold together, but chapter 7 of Romans may be the necessary prologue to the heights of chapter 8, and so too Bulgakov’s philosophical engagement opens the path to his Sophiology. Throughout Bulgakov’s tracing of the problem, the light of the answer (the equivalent of Rom. 8) shines through. As Paul depicts in Romans, one might begin with the law, with the ego, or with the body of death, but what is specifically missing, as detailed in Romans 8, is the Trinity. The negative moment points to its singular resolution in Christ. Paul fills in the functioning of the human subject as a participation in Christ, by which we realize God as Father, and thus have life and being in the Spirit. Bulgakov carries out the same project in his depiction of the three-fold mistake of philosophy, and of course this Threeness is that of the Trinity absent this acknowledgement.

The philosophical project (and the human project) is always striving to bring together that which, outside of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, cannot be made to cohere. Philosophy begins with a basic mistake, the premise of his book, in its focus on human choice (Greek hairesis), so that philosophy is by definition a heresy.  All philosophy bears the singular characteristic of “arbitrary election, the choice, of some single thing or part instead of the whole: that is precisely a one sidedness.”[5] Rather than beginning with the reality of God in Christ, philosophy begins with choices or perspectives or an elected portion of this reality. Rather than beginning with the reality of God and extrapolating reasonably from this reality, philosophy begins with reason and attempts to describe reality (inductively or deductively). As a result, there is a philosophical drive to reduce plurality (all things) to a singular thing (monothematism).

He raises the question as to why this should be, and answers, “It is the spirit of system and the pathos of system; and a system is nothing other than the reduction of many and all into one, and conversely, the deduction of all and many out of one.”[6] He describes the drive as the human sickness or a manifestation of original sin. As the title of this chapter indicates, “The Nature of Thought,” this chapter and the first portion of the book is about fallen human thought as evinced in philosophy, but philosophy is simply a case in point of the human predicament. The philosopher “has desired a system. In other words, he has wished to create a (logical) world out of himself, out of his own principle – ‘you shall be as gods’ – but such a logical deduction of the world is not possible for a human being.”[7] The philosopher, like every human, has taken up the appeal of the serpent, to make of the dialectic of knowledge a replacement for living reality. Reason or philosophy as its own origin and end betrays signs of the human malaise: “Sickness, corruption, the perversion of all human existence which presented itself in original sin, also, in other words, afflicts reason, and makes it impossible for reason to gain access to the tree of heavenly knowledge, since access is denied by the fiery sword of the cherubim – the antinomies.”[8] Philosophy puts on display, not a personal pride, but the objective role of hubris, in that the philosopher, like the legalist, has no sense of the limits of the system. This then gives rise to the contradictions or antinomies of the system.   

In Pauline terms, this starting point reduces God to the system of the law. In psychoanalytic terms (which is to say the same thing in different terms), the human sickness is to interpolate the self (and with the self, all of reality) into the symbolic order. The law, the logos, the symbolic, or philosophy, would serve as its own end, displacing the divine Logos with a human word. Bulgakov traces the philosophical impetus, but he has in mind the general human orientation toward deception, violence and sin: “Logical continuity, or, what amounts to the same thing, the continuous logical deduction of all from one, making the whole system circle around a single centre which can be passed through in any direction, and which admits of no hiatus or discontinuity of any kind: this is the task which human thought naturally and inevitably strives to complete, not stopping short of violence, and self-deception, of evasions and illusions.”[9]

Logical monism, or the attempt to bridge subject and object, subject and predicate, noumena and phenomena, or to create a synthesis out of the antinomies, demands a full investment of faith (a violent bringing down of reality to fit it into the system). Every philosophy “dimly or distinctly, instinctively or consciously, timidly or militantly” claims “to be the absolute philosophy, and each of which regards its own sketch of what is as the system of the world.”[10] Hegel’s system is the characteristic illustration of overcoming the antinomies: “Hegel – and in his person, all philosophy” supposes it can bind reality into a system.[11] It presupposes what is impossible – to begin from itself, or generate from itself what can only come from what truly exists. The impossibility shows itself in the characteristic failure of philosophy, of taking one arm of tripartite reality as an end in itself.

 As Bulgakov describes, philosophy will choose either “(1) hypostasis, or personhood; (2) the latter’s idea or ideal form, logos, thought; (3) substantial being as the unity of all moments or states of being, as the self-actualizing whole.” These three philosophical moments can be summed up in the formula, “I am Something (potentially everything).”[12] This is a true enough statement, but philosophy “incessantly” cuts apart this indisseverable statement. “Philosophizing thought produces heresies through the arbitrariness of these disseverations, and through its choices of discrete beginnings; and the style of philosophizing is determined by the way in which this dissection is made.”[13] Philosophy takes what exists and that which is a necessary component of human consciousness and attempts to enter into this reality by segmenting and privileging a particular component.

The classic example is Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” The thinking thing is privileged over being. Being is subject to question and doubt, and is presumed to be determinate only through the predicate of thought, the second I. The first I and the second, (the thinking thing and that which exists as the predicate) are only conjoined in thought. This presumption cuts off the subject from its predicate and copula, as if the subject precedes predication and existence. Descartes is using his formula as a foundation to arrive at the certain proof of his existence and the existence of God, performing a dissection of thought in order to reduce it to the parameters of reason.

 In one form or another, this dissection of subject, predicate, and being indicates the history of philosophy. “Every philosophical system . . . is governed by an attempt of this kind: the subject, or the copula, or the predicate is announced as the single beginning, and everything is made to derive from it or to lead towards it. Such a ‘deduction,’ whether of the subject from the predicate, of the predicate from the subject, or of both from the copula, in fact presents philosophy with its principal task, and, thereby presents an insoluble difficulty to philosophical thought, which strives toward monism, strives to reduce everything to a first unity, no matter what.”[14] Bulgakov’s book is mostly dedicated to proving this point in three philosophical moments or movements, through engaging a wide range of philosophical thought, but focused most intensely on Immanuel Kant, Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. (I will return, in future posts, to the specifics of his proofs).

Though Bulgakov is focused on philosophy’s denial or dissection of a triadic unity and the tragedy which results, the same story could be told in the register of psychoanalysis or theology. The psyche strives to unify the self, experienced as mind and body, or as the objective I in the mirror and the I of experience. For Jacques Lacan, the Cartesian dilemma is the human dilemma, in that every subject is split by language. The enunciating subject is split from the subject of the statement (the enunciated) and thus the subject is inescapably split or castrated by language. By taking up and defining the self through language, there occurs a three-way split between the symbolic (language), the ego or imaginary, and the dissonance of nonbeing or death drive created in the relation between the two. Here, the tragedy is not a philosophical or metaphysical mistake, but the human sickness and neurosis which arises from trying to make the self a synthesis out of an antithesis. The compulsion to repeat, the death drive, human violence toward the other and self-destructiveness, can be traced to the psychoanalytic sickness.

The point is universalized in Paul’s use of the law, which pits the subject against itself. “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15). The philosophical and psychoanalytical is captured in Paul’s depiction of the I split by the law, but Paul includes the religious, the legal, the sexual and the social, or every aspect of the human predicament. What Bulgakov claims about philosophical systems seems to be a particular instance of Paul’s point, that could be described as the drive to a legal monism, in which the law is the system of the world, and the split between the two ‘I’s (Jew/Gentile, male/female, slave/free, mind/flesh, body/spirit) caused by the law would also be resolved through the law.

 Bulgakov, like Paul, will not so much resolve the dilemma of the split as address it through the reality of the Trinity. His presumption is that humans are created in the image of God and it is only on the basis of the divine image that the human image can be approached (if not comprehended). Like the Divine Person, the human person cannot be defined. “The essence of the hypostasis consists precisely in the fact that it is indefinable and indescribable; it stands beyond the limits of the world and of the concept, even though it continually reveals itself in them.”[15] It is not that the self cannot be named, but the I is not merely the subject of thought and reason, but thought and reason arise from the subject. The subject, transcendent as it may be, is revealed through the immanence of its predicates. “The subject, the hypostasis, is always revealed, always expresses itself, in the predicate. It goes without saying that the hypostasis in this sense is not the psychological I, psychological subjectivity, which already defines the hypostasis as a predicate, not as a subject.”[16]

The life force or spirit of the human subject is no more definable than the divine Spirit. Just as the Son bears the image of the Father, so too every child of God is defined in this relationship: “Eternity belongs to the hypostasis; it is eternal in the same sense as eternal God, who Himself breathed His own Spirit into humanity at the latter’s creation. The human being is the son of God and a created god; the image of eternity is an inalienable and indelible part of him.”[17] Humankind bears eternity in the image, and Bulgakov suggests that even suicide is not actually aimed at annihilating or extinguishing the I (“suicide attempts represent a kind of philosophical misunderstanding, and are directed not at the I itself, but only at the way in which it exists, directed not at the subject, but at the predicate”). As Bulgakov sums up, “The hypostatic I is the philosophical and grammatical Subject of all predicates; its life is this predicate, endless in its breadth and depth.”[18] The Father, Son, and Spirit, are the reality of subject, predicate, and copula of being. The Father is revealed through the Son, and this lived out realization is the work of the Spirit. This participation in the divine is the reality behind human thought and experience, and even a failure of thought points to its completion in this reality.

[1] Sergij Bulgakov, The Tragedy of Philosophy (Philosophy & Dogma), trans. by Stephen Churchyard (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2020) 91. Many thanks Jim, for the gift of this book. It is a key into Bulgakov.

[2] Or Sergij, or Sergei, among some 9 possible variants.

[3] See Jonathan R. Seiling, From Antinomy to Sophiology: Modern Russian Religious Consciousness and Sergei Bulgakov’s Critical Appropriation of German Idealism (PhD Dissertation, Toronto School of Theology, 2008) 229-233.

[4] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1990), 35. Cited in Katy Leamy, “A Comparison of the Kenotic Trinitarian Theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Sergei Bulgakov” (2012). (Dissertations (2009 -). Paper 211. http://epublications.marquette.edu/dissertations_mu/211), 36.

[5] Bulgakov, 3.

[6] Ibid. To miss this point will not only amount to missing the thesis of the book, but is the characteristic theological mistake. The issue is on the order of that of Jordan Wood in his departure from David Bentley Hart, or the tradition through Origen to Maximus, taken up by Bulgakov. The antinomies of heaven and earth, God and human, subject and object, are only resolved in the concrete case of the God/Man Jesus Christ. Reason cannot overcome these antinomies but Christ (in reality), in who he is, brings them together. Thus, reason begins with Jesus Christ as ground. Otherwise, it is not clear what a subject or reason might be.  

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Ibid, 7.

[9] Ibid, 3.

[10] Ibid, 3-4. Bulgakov has passed through commitment to Marxist Hegelianism, then with his conversion and the Russian Revolution, at this writing, he is without a job or a library in Crimea.

[11] Ibid, 6.

[12] Ibid, 9.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, 10.

[15] Ibid, 11.

[16] Ibid, 12.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.