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.

A New Ordering of the Body of Thought

We can trace three psychological types in the New Testament, which correspond to three psychoanalytic descriptions, in which the coordinates between the mind and the body are determinative of alternative perceptions of reality.  What might be called the inside out person is completely subject to the valuation of cultural norms, such that there is no interior conflict or alternative awareness, at least at a conscious level (here we encounter the most common type and the most frightening possibilities). The second type is someone who begins to question the order of things (the cultural norms, the symbolic order, the law) but the struggle with these norms is still determinative, as there seems to be no way forward or no escape. The third type has not exactly escaped appearances or phenomena arising from the symbolic or cultural order, but there is a turn to an alternative order of experience.  Deploying the work of the philosopher Michel Henry, it is this third type that I want to explore in depth, but a description of the first two orders of experience will indicate the way the third order of experience is constituted.

The inside out person, the individual who knows who she is based on the scale of values afforded by complete identity with the law or the symbolic order, is at one level the most transparent and the most dangerous. Paul, during the phase in which he is arresting and presumably aiding in killing Christians, is transparent in his identity. He describes this phase of his pre-Christian understanding as guilt free in which he regarded himself “without fault” in regard to the law. As he describes it in Philippians, he considered himself righteous, zealous beyond his peers, and bearing the highest qualifications and impeccable credentials: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless” (Php 3:5–6). Paul has a clear conscience.  No introspective guilt-stricken conscience here. By reason of his birth, his descent from Benjamin, his linguistic and cultural identity as a Hebrew, Paul considered himself faultless and head and shoulders above his peers. His status as a Jew is his identity. This is an inside out world, as we understand this Paul by the outward markers of the law and his Jewishness. Inside out characters must be the most predominant: the Adolph Eichmanns of the world, willing to find their identity in the bureaucracy, the law, the legal proceedings, making sure the trains to the death camps are running on time. Their ambitions, hopes, and desires, are determined completely by the particular symbolic world in which they find themselves. Perhaps we all come to age as petty bureaucrats, presuming the order of things and the scale of values are those set out by the social order.

In Lacanian psychoanalysis this type is dubbed masculine, not because it necessarily pertains to gender, but because of complete identification with societal authority or the father figures of a particular cultural order. As Paul describes this type, “the law dominates the man for whatever time he lives” (Romans 7:1 DBH translation). Paul will identify this type, according to his own experience, as ignorant of their own actions and an incapacity to discern evil. There is a fusion between sin and the law so that Paul, at the time he was doing it, could not discern the sort of evil in which he is engaged. As he describes, in a parallel passage in Galatians, his zeal for the law and his advancement in Judaism were marked by his persecution of the church and his desire to destroy it (Ga 1:13-14). For Paul, the law was not a marker of sin and evil but was fused with sin such that he could not perceive his own evil due to his zeal for the law. As he advanced in law-keeping and in Judaism he simultaneously advanced in his participation in evil. It did not occur to Paul the Pharisee that there was a reality which exceeded the measure of the law. Clearly, Paul is not imagining that in this understanding he has rightly perceived the law; quite the opposite, as he dubs this orientation as “having confidence in the flesh.” [1] The problem is, the flesh marked by the law, has become a principle unto itself.

The second type of subject questions the cultural symbolic order but this questioning and challenging become definitive of this individual. Paul devotes most of chapter 7 of Romans to describing this individual, continually tossed about by their orientation or disorientation to the law. While this person is perhaps a step-up morally and spiritually from the first type, this psychologically tormented individual is consumed with their personal struggles. Sometimes these folks bring a breath of fresh air into our lives with their willingness to challenge all the norms but ultimately, they are exhausting as we realize there is no end to this pursuit of freedom against the law.

 Ironically, in kicking over the traces, shedding all the shackles of culture, this person is oriented to a transgressive questioning of the law, but it is still the law that defines them. This radicalized freedom might express itself philosophically, politically, socially, or as is most often the case, sexually (e.g. democratic revolutions including the American Revolution in which freedom is enshrined as an end in itself, in Marxist and communist revolutionary movements, and in the gender revolution of the moment). The possibility of reconstructing, from scratch, what it means to be human unleashes a plague of possibility. Beyond good and evil, unchained from the worlds sun, not only describes a philosophical realization but a nearly unbearable psychology and a new form of personality or personality disorder. The two most common psychological disorders might be traced to this agonistic questioning. Where obsessional neurosis is structured around the question of existence (think here of the Cartesian cogito in attempting to establish being through thought), hysteria is structured around human sexuality: “Am I a man or a woman?” or “What is a woman?”

The problem of the first two subjects is that their life is defined by the symbolic order. This order might be associated with law, culture, normative values, or simply language. The problem is how to suspend this order so that a person’s life is not spent in service to an artificial construct. Slavery, bondage, deception, and exodus, redemption, and truth, are the motifs under which the Bible poses the problem and solution. The passage is described as new birth, recreation, adoption into a new family, or citizenship in an alternative kingdom. At its most radical it is depicted as an exchange of one cosmic order for another or one sort of body (the body of death) for another (the body of Christ). The movement is not away from embodiment but towards a different sort of body, constituting a different sort of world. 

The way that Paul pictures this as happening in both Colossians and Ephesians is in and through Christ’s flesh. “He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body” (Col. 1:22) “by abolishing in His flesh the enmity” (Eph. 2:15). The enmity with the symbolic order is taken up in the sickness of the self that is definitive of the human disease. To state the reversal of this state most succinctly, the Life that is God (as opposed to death under the law), revealed in and as Christ, is communicated to us through the incarnation, in which we can become participants (through the body of Christ). At a basic level, this is to give absolute significance to embodiment. Where the human body is written over with the law, it appears as a medium for the true significance of the symbolic order.  But the body is not a medium but a source of significance in itself, and this distinguishes it radically (substantially) from other things (which are lent their significance symbolically in language).

As Wittgenstein put it, “The best picture of the soul is the body.” It is because there are human bodies that there is a world of communication and it is by my body that I belong to this world. But there is a profound sense in which we are dispossessed of ourselves, of our bodies, as the flesh becomes symbolic of something else. The first two sorts of subject inhabit a world controlled by the flesh and the desires of the flesh, not because they occupy their bodies, but because the flesh is written over with a significance in which it takes on an alien principle. Paul describes it as giving rise to hostility as it pits the self against the self, the self against God, and the self against others. Paul’s “confidence in the flesh” speaks of an objectifying and distancing from the center of life. There is a sense in which we are restored to ourselves, to our own bodies, without interference, only through the incarnation of Christ. That is, we become incarnate (peace is restored, the dividing wall of hostility is broken down) as we become as he was, incarnate, truly inhabiting our bodies, and this is definitive of true life.

The philosopher Michel Henry begins with the realization that experience of life, pure subjective experience from within, contains the only direct phenomenological access to life. Life reveals itself in itself through the flesh. Everything else presents itself from a distance and poses a gap between the perceiver and the perceived. In his exposition of the Word become flesh in John, Henry points out that if this is the way the Word becomes human, then relationship with God is to be had in and through the flesh. The flesh is not an obstacle but is the locus of our identity with God.[2] This explains why the Word becoming flesh is revelation (John 1:14). It is not that another body among many has appeared, but the flesh of the Word is the revelation. To say the Word became flesh is not to add something else to the Word. This is the cogito as it should be, without any gap between the subject and object of reflection, but pure revelation. There is not, as with ordinary human words, the possibility of duplicity or misrecognition. As Henry puts it, “Because the Word has become incarnate in Christ’s flesh, the identification with this flesh is the identification with the Word—to eternal Life. ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.’”[3]

The danger is that we might reduce the body of Jesus by allowing a symbolic significance to reduce it to a sort of mystical writing pad. So, step one is to acknowledge the primacy of the incarnate Jesus. The story of Jesus is the story of Trinity. The mission of Jesus is nothing other than the eternal generation of the Son. There is nothing secondary, shadowy, or even analogous about Jesus. Jesus is the reality of God incarnate. Jesus is the absolute truth and an absolute morality. The mystery of God revealed as Trinity does not unfold from a fleshless (asarkos) heavenly realm but from an embodied earthly realm. In turn, all human bodies are accorded their full meaning as they participate in this fullness of incarnate significance.

This reconstituted world through the flesh is determined by the incarnate Christ. This world is not a symbolic order pointing elsewhere but meaning inheres in it. There is a world where law might reign or where it has not yet been determined what one should do or can do. In Christ’s embodied life what we should do is determined and what we should not do is determined. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (Eph. 2:10). What we are to do flows from the absolute which is the body of Christ. Notice that it is Christ Jesus – the incarnate Christ. His human body is the source of significant behavior. His body and our body and human embodiment is the place from which the absolute flows, not from a transcendent law, or a vague situational principle, or a symbolic order utilizing the body and the world as its medium. The body is not a tool or a medium for writing, or a megaphone for the voice, such that we are inside of it, manipulate it, and “have” it. The flesh of the body is our incorporation into the world, community, communion, and communication.

The hostility of the flesh written over by the law is undone in Christ. Living significance (as opposed to a dead letter) is restored as “now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). As we inhabit his body, we are no longer divided in ourselves, from one another, and from God. “For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall” (Eph. 2:14). Entering this peace is synonymous with life and meaning and is a first order experience which serves as its own ground of meaning. This is a self-validating and self-evident truth and not a truth that refers elsewhere or mediates something else. This truth is without the gap between signifier (I think) and signified (I am) as the life is in this Word of truth. There is no gap in this order, as it is a Word enfleshed, a direct access to life and the realization of life as a first order experience.

[1]  Žižek, Ticklish Subject, 247-51 Lacan dubs this most common human a “pervert.” Perversion does not refer so much to abnormal sexual practices as to a structure in which the subject sides with the law in the attempt to escape its punishing effect and to partake of its surplus enjoyment. Every individual, religious or not, who presumes to sit in judgment and to punish others in the name of the law, God, Jesus, the Nation, etc. is acting out the simple formula Paul epitomizes as the sinful orientation: the law is completed or established through sin. There is a denial of sexual difference and of death in what Žižek describes as giving oneself completely over to the symbolic without regard for finitude and mortality: “Perversion can be seen as a defense against the motif of ‘death and sexuality,’ against the threat of mortality as well as the contingent imposition of sexual difference.”

[2] Michel Henry, Incarnation: A Philosophy of Flesh (Northwestern University Press, 2015), 124.

[3] Words of Christ, 124. I am following John Behr’s exposition of Henry in, John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 296 ff.

Easter’s Defeat of the Necessity of God

The God of the philosophers (the unmoved mover), the God of German idealism (who is becoming), and the God constituted as part of the psyche (the source of the previous two) is, I would claim, a singular entity which Christ defeated and rendered unnecessary in his death and resurrection. In each instance, God is the end term of a logical and psychological necessity in which the posited structure requires God. The philosophical, metaphysical, and psychological world constituted (I was going to say “glued together” but this is a world continually coming unglued) in conjunction with this God precedes, rather than proceeds from, his existence. It is not only a particular logic and mode of argumentation at work but this logic, in producing or arriving at God, absolutizes itself or the self’s capacity for the divine.  This way of putting it may miss the fact that this is an absolute immediately at hand, which argument does not so much render necessary as it renames. Underlying the absolute conclusion (God), the necessity of the argument (an irresistible logic, often equated with the divine), is a more immediate constraint – human finitude and mortality.  The trick of turning death into an ontological and epistemological resource equated with God is, precisely, the necessity Christ overcame. Continue reading “Easter’s Defeat of the Necessity of God”