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.