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 https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings 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.