Hegel’s Reconciliation: A New Form of Divine Consciousness

In Anselm’s atonement theory God’s honor has been impugned and needs restored and in Calvin’s penal substitution God’s law requires punishment and Christ renders payment for this punishment. In both instances, it is Christ’s power or the amount of honor or the amount of the payment due, that requires his divinity (so he can meet the amount required), but the divinity of Christ is not the primary focus. His divinity enables him to restore the honor or make the payment, but his divine nature, though necessary to render satisfaction, is not itself given or shared. The New Testament makes it clear that it is the divine nature, the person of God, the life of the Spirit, given through Christ. It is not that God receives payment but that humanity receives God through being reconciled into the life of the Trinity. As Peter describes, the point is to become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4); as Revelation describes, there will be direct incorporation into the divine name and presence (Rev. 22:4), and as John says, “we are called the children of God” (I John 3:1-2). While Anselm and Calvin rightly perceive there is a gap or divide that needs to be bridged, it is not simply honor, will, or legal righteousness which Christ provides, it is unity with God, reconciliation with the divine image (in which we were created), and entry into knowing God and sharing in his life. Christ completes the divine image for which humans were made, yet this fundamental truth of Christianity has been obscured.

This direct access into the life of God was obscured by pagan or Greek notions (taken up in theology) that God is unknowable or inaccessible. Christians, such as Anselm, took up Greek rational and philosophical arguments in which God is known only indirectly or negatively, such that God is “something than which nothing greater can be thought.” This greatness or absoluteness is ultimately empty, nothing, or darkness, in Anselm’s own description. This apophaticism became the norm in nominalism, which presumes universal trues are not directly knowable, and that God in his immanence is unavailable. The Kantian divide between subject and object or between the noumena (things in themselves) and the phenomena (the experience of things) was presumed to be an unbridgeable gap. Not only the reality of God but the reality of the world was felt to be beyond knowing.

The philosopher/theologian who did the most to combat this notion was G.W.F. Hegel, who bluntly described Christianity as the bringing together of subject (humans) and object (God). Hegel refers to Christianity as the religion of reconciliation, as it brings together those things which would, from the human side remain separate. “The Christian religion is the religion of reconciliation— of the world with God. God, it is said [2 Cor. 5:18—19], has reconciled the world with himself. The fall of the world from God means that it has fixated itself as finite consciousness, as the consciousness of idols, consciousness of the universal not as such but rather in external ways or in regard to finite purposes.”[1]

To many, Hegel appeared so radically positive that he was and is dismissed as arrogant and unchristian, yet his primary point is nothing more than the teaching of the New Testament, that the knowledge, power, and nature of God are directly accessible in Christ (2 Peter 1:2-4). The “consummate religion,” Christianity in Hegel’s estimate, brings “subjective consciousness and its object, namely God” into direct relationship through the spirit. “The consciousness that knows, and the absolute object that is known, are both spirit, and hence the concept of spirit is what relates humanity and the absolute to each other.”[2] For Hegel this is the point of Christianity, this is why it is the “consummate religion,” as through the incarnation it accomplishes reconciliation between God and man. This reconciliation brings together the divine and human, in the incarnation, the results of which are granted to all through the gift of the spirit.

 Everyone can know God. He refers to the church father, Tertullian, claiming, that with the advent of Christianity even children have a knowledge of God, which only the wisest men of antiquity aspired to.[3] This knowing God and making God human and humans God, is directly concerned with the sharing of the divine with the human in Christ. Only God can share God, “It is only God who can reveal himself, not an external force or understanding that might unlock him.”[4] Hegel too, speaks of sin and finitude, but only God can make himself available to humanity through himself (in spite of sin). It is not simply a matter of will or morality, it is a matter of divinity. The finite spirit of humanity (its contentment with finitude) was abolished and “Thus spirit became sufficiently capable of absolute consciousness for God to reveal or manifest himself. Spirit is precisely this image of God.”[5]

Consciousness of God ushers in the capacity for a fullness of consciousness of the world and of the self. God’s self-consciousness, shared through Christ and the spirit, is the power of consciousness. God in Christ brings together the absolute object (God) in a concrete capacity for knowing. God reveals himself, but this revelation is the enabling of consciousness. “Revelation, manifestation is itself its character and content. That is to say, revelation, manifestation is the being of God for consciousness, indeed, the revelation for consciousness that he is himself spirit for spirit, i.e., that he is consciousness and for consciousness.”[6]

The finite understanding is incapable of bringing together subject and object, and in this Kant is correct, but this finitude is overcome through the incarnation. In other religions, and in a failed form of Christianity, “God is still something other than what he reveals himself to be. God is the inner and the unknown; he is not as he appears to consciousness.”[7] But in the true Christian faith, he reveals himself and this revelation is definitive of truth and knowing the truth. Knowing this truth is not simply knowing historical facts or affirming the historical truth of the faith. “Whoever possesses it knows the true and cognizes God as he is. A Christian religion that did not cognize God, or in which God is not revealed, would be no Christian religion at all. Its content is the truth itself in and for itself, and it consists in the being of truth for consciousness.”[8] For Hegel, this is the meaning of atonement and reconciliation.

Outside of Christ the world has “fixated itself as finite consciousness, as the consciousness of idols, consciousness of the universal not as such but rather in external ways or in regard to finite purposes.”[9] However, the estrangement involved in this finite consciousness prepares the way for the “turning point,” which becomes explicit in the cross. “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 of this separation, this division, and means that each cognizes itself in the other, finds itself in its essence.”[10] The estrangement disappears in reconciliation.

It is not clear whether Hegel pictures estrangement as a necessary evil, but it is a state in which evil is made a possibility. The separation results in the realization “that I exist for myself,” (a necessary stage) and this “is where evil lies.”[11] There is no avoiding this possibility: “Inasmuch as it is spirit, humanity has to progress to this antithesis of being-for-self as such. Humans must have ‘their antithesis’ as their objective—what for them is the good, the universal, their vocation. . . In this separation being for-self is posited and evil has its seat; here is the source of all wrong, but also the point where reconciliation has its ultimate source. It is what produces the disease and is at the same time the source of health.”[12] As he states it in another lecture, “This separation is the source of all ill, the poisoned chalice from which human beings drink death and decay; at the same time this point where humanity is firmly posited as evil is the point where reconciliation has its source. For to posit oneself as evil is the implicit sublation of evil.”[13] Humans initially recognize they are not what they should be, and this realization of rupture gives rise to a desperate grasping (being-for-itself) in which the soul is felt to be naked, empty, or lacking. For the truth to appear as a possibility the “infinite anguish, the pure depth of the soul” in its anguish and contradiction must be experienced so as to point to the need for resolution.[14] Realizing finitude, differentiation, and separation, is the necessary ground for reconciliation.

The recognition of differentiation allows for return, but this is the movement which God himself enacts, and is part of who he is. “This consciousness consummates religion as the cognition of God as spirit, for God is spirit in the process of differentiation and return. . .”[15] In Christ on the cross is the pinnacle of separation, which is the inauguration of reconciliation. “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.”[16] Death on a cross confronts separation and negation, and the giving of the spirit through this reconciling act of love, is the movement of exaltation. Human fragility and mortal weakness are not ‘outside’ God but the entry point into who God is.

In its development, this process is the going forth of the divine idea into the uttermost cleavage, even to the opposite pole of the anguish of death, which is itself the absolute reversal, the highest love, containing the negation of the negative within itself and being in this way the absolute reconciliation, the sublation of the prior antithesis between humanity and God. The end is presented as a resolution into glory, the festive assumption of humanity in the divine idea.[17]

To repent and to turn to the reality of God is to have one’s estranged finitude taken up into God’s eternality – “to be implicitly the unity of divine and human nature, and the process of eternally positing this unity.”[18]

The realization of this unity is a new consciousness or certainty, which is the knowing and freedom imparted by the spirit. The Subject and the truth of subjectivity and personhood are realized in the spirit. The work of the spirit, or the very definition of spirit, is the unity of the divine and human, which Hegel refers to as the realization of the “absolute concept.” “Since we call the absolute concept the divine nature, the idea of spirit is to be the unity of divine and human nature. Humanity has arrived at this intuition. But the divine nature is itself only this, to be absolute spirit; hence precisely the unity of divine and human nature is itself absolute spirit.”[19] The spirit is the process of and reality of the bringing together of the human and divine. In the spirit thought and being are united, which is not simply the proof of the ontological argument, but is the accomplishment of God in Christ through the spirit.

While Hegel thinks Anselm’s argument (the continual touch point in this lecture), bringing together thought and being, is a legitimate presupposition, the bringing together of the two is the accomplishment of reconciliation. Where Anselm presupposes this must be the case, Hegel maintains it is a reality that must be shown, and this is the work of reconciliation. The apparent incompatibility between subject and object (the evil subject and the infinite God), is not the truth, but the unity between the divine and human, which is the truth, must be demonstrated. “The truth of this unity must therefore appear to the subject. But how can it appear to humanity in the latter’s present condition of immediacy, rupture, evil, anguish, being-within-self, and so on? It is God who appears, the concrete God, in sensible presence, in the shape of the singular human being, which is the one and only sensible shape of spirit.”[20]

It is not on the human side that being, divinity, life and spirit are made possible, it is on the side of God. God creates the world and finite spirit, in their separation, but then God reconciles what is alien to himself. The realization of the separation evokes the need for reconciliation, but this is already who God is. “Because other-being or difference is already present within the divine idea (indeed, is what makes it spirit), the other-being, the finitude, the weakness, the frailty of human nature is not to do any harm to that divine unity which forms the substance of reconciliation.”[21]

Like Origen and Maximus, Hegel sees the reconciling work of Christ as an eternal fact about God. “For it, Christ’s history is a ‘divine history,’ ‘the eternal history, the eternal movement, which God himself is.’ To say that ‘Christ has died for all’ is to understand this not as an individual act but as a moment in the divine history, the moment in which other-being and separation are sublated.”[22] Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God, are eternal facts about God such that God, by definition, is the closure of the gap between subject and object, thought and being, divine and human. Faith is the appropriation of this Trinitarian truth, the reality of which accounts for the formation of the Holy Spirit community, the Church (a subject for another time).


[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) 65.

[2] Ibid, 61.

[3]Ibid, 61.

[4] Ibid, 64.

[5] Ibid, 62.

[6] Ibid, 63.

[7] Ibid, 64.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, 65.

[10] Ibid, 171-172.

[11] Ibid, 206

[12] Ibid, 206.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, 213.

[15] Ibid, 110.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid, 132.

[18] Ibid, 65

[19] Ibid, 66.

[20] Ibid, 31.

[21] Ibid, 42-43.

[22] Ibid, 45.

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.

Apologies to Hegel: Knowing God is Essential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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

[5] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures On the Philosophy of Religion: Together With a Work on the Proofs of the Existence of God vol. 1, Trans. By E. B. Speirs, and J. Burdon Sanderson, (London:  Kegan Paul,  Trench, Trubner, & Co. Ltd., 1895) 28.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, 29.

[8] Ibid, 28.

[9] Ibid, 36.

[10] Ibid, 37.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid, 32.

[13] Ibid, 38.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid, 39.

[17] Ibid, 40.

[18] Ibid, 41.

[19] Ibid, 33.

[20] Ibid, 28.

[21] Ibid, 29-30.

[22] Balthasar, 207-208.

[23] On the Philosophy of Religion, 56.

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

[25] Ibid.

[26] Jordan Daniel Wood and Justin Shaun Coyle, “Must Catholics Hate Hegel?” Church Life Journal (June 8, 2018). https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/must-catholics-hate-hegel/

[27] On the Philosophy of Religion, 55.

[28] Ibid, 56.

[29] Ibid, 70.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid. 151

[33] Ibid, 30.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid, 30-31.

[37] Ibid, 36.

[38] Ibid, 36-37.

[39] Ibid, 37.

Reassessing Hegel in Light of Maximus

My reading of Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel has been through the work of Slavoj Žižek, which obviously fails to grasp the theological centeredness, or even the possibility of the orthodox Christ centeredness, of Hegel’s thought. I realized my short sighted treatment of Hegel when Jordan Wood suggested in conversation (a conversation which will be published on Saturday, 3/16), Hegel is in line with the outworking of the Origenist, Maximian, theological project and is an orthodox Christian. This goes against the overwhelming consensus, and it is no surprise that even those of us who might be inclined to read Hegel in this light, have not done so (due to the consensus).

For thinkers like Derrida, Levinas, Adorno, Deleuze and Bataille, there is the “metaphysical” Hegel who, in Robert Pippin’s phrase, served as these philosophers whipping boy.[1] According to Gavin Hyman, “This was what has become known as the ‘textbook’ or ‘cliché’ Hegel, a caricature our ‘new’ readers (e.g., Rowan Williams) believe to be far removed from what is warranted by Hegel’s own texts.”[2] Far from being a postmodern Hegel, this is the modern, rationalist Hegel. “This is a Hegel too who represents the apogee of modernity’s omniscient aspirations. His all-seeing System, crowned with the concept of Absolute Knowledge, seems to deliver modernity’s totalising dream. It appears to be a ‘God’s eye view’ recast in the terms of a secularised modernity, to which all is subordinated, and in light of which all is intelligible.”[3]  

Žižek’s is the opposite of this reading, in that he sees Hegel as the truth of the human condition, which is ultimately devoid of the metaphysical form of truth, in that it is purely symbolic and pragmatic. According to Pippin, “Žižek’s ambitious goal is to argue that the former characterization of Hegel attacks a straw man, and that, when this is realized in sufficient detail, the putative European break with Hegel in the criticisms of the likes of Schelling, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Deleuze, and the Freudians, will look very different, with significantly more overlap than gaps, and this will make available a historical diagnosis very different from the triumphalist one usually attributed to Hegel.”[4]

Then in the wake of the work of Gillian Rose, thinkers such as Rowan Williams read Hegel as working within a theistic and more orthodox ontology. What may be strange in these various readings, is that Žižek’s atheistic reading is closer to Williams theistic reading than the classical text-book reading. That is the extreme atheism and theism converge at key points.

This may account for my reaction to Jordan’s suggestion. I must admit, given my own slanted reading it had not occurred to me to consider Hegel the Christian. On the other hand, my reading of Žižek, who considers his work as an extension of Hegel, lands as close to the kingdom as possible (for an atheistic materialist). Beyond this, Žižek’s insights into the human condition, are derived directly from the deep psychology posed by Hegel, which I have understood (as has Žižek) as biblical insights. Thus, it is no surprise that Hegel’s depth of insight is, as with Žižek, directly related to the Apostle Paul.

So, Hegel’s reception may not mean much given the reception of Origen and Maximus. That is, there is a form of reason and thought implied in a Maximian speculative theology, which apart from a few thinkers such as Sergius Bulgakov, has mostly been written off (Bulgakov’s appreciation of German idealism is not surprising, in this light). An apocalyptic, universal, cosmic, Christianity has also been obscured or written off. Thus, it is no surprise to realize Hegel is also misunderstood, as he is promoting a form of Christianity unrecognizable to most Christians. In turn, given that Hegel’s is the first post-foundational, post-enlightenment, postmodern philosophical/theological project, it should be no surprise that a form of thought which by-passed the enlightenment-modernist project should converge (at least in part) with his form of thought.

According to Rowan Williams, Hegel’s philosophy coincides at key points  with what has already been said by theology:

Dialectic is what theology means by the power of God, just as Verstand is what theology means by the goodness of God. Verstand says “Everything can be thought”, “nothing is beyond reconciliation”, every percept makes sense in a distinctness, a uniqueness, that is in harmony with an overall environment. It is, as you might say, a doctrine of providence, in that it claims that there can be no such thing as unthinkable contingency. But … thinking the particular in its harmonies, thinking how the particular makes sense, breaks the frame of reference in which we think the particular. God’s goodness has to give way to God’s power – but to a power which acts only in a kind of self-devastation. And, says Hegel, the “speculative” stage to which dialectic finally leads us is what religion has meant by the mystical, which is not, he insists, the fusion of subject and object but the concrete (historical?) unity or continuity or followability of what Verstand alone can only think fragmentarily or episodically.[5]

According to Gavin, “Williams shows how what Hegel speaks about philosophically is said religiously by the language of theology.” The deep grammar of theology “is what enables the truths of philosophy to appear; we would not be able to perceive the speculative truth of philosophy outside the light of the divine truth of theology.”[6] The modernist project came to an impasse, and Hegel affects a rescue of philosophical thought through theology. Thus, in William’s estimate, Hegel’s thought is an extension of a speculative theology.

Far from Hegel being an atheistic philosopher (per Žižek), it can be argued (and has) that his thought and reason begin with Christ, and specifically with the kenotic self-giving love of Christ described by Paul. Hegel turns, as the introduction to his early works indicates, from the law of Kant to the “Pantheism of Love.” “What Hegel rejected in framing the Pantheism of Love, he never reaffirmed later on. He found a new logic, a new rationalism to solve the problem insoluble by the rationalism he had overcome in his earlier years.”[7]

 In his turn to love, he saw the inadequacies of the law, focused as it is on guilt and punishment. “A law has been made; if the thing opposed to it has been destroyed, there still remains the concept, the law; but it then expresses only the deficiency, only a gap, because its content has in reality  been annulled; and it is then called a penal law. This form of law (and the law’s content) is the direct opposite of life because it signalizes the destruction of life. . .[8] Law speaks only of destruction of life and perpetual guilt. “For the trespasser always sees himself as a trespasser; over his action as a reality he has no power, and this his reality is in contradiction with his consciousness of the law.”[9] In the key text “The Spirit of Christianity and its Fate” Hegel broaches the alternative to law in kenotic sacrificial understanding. As the title of his heading indicates, “Love is the only thing which transcends penal justice.”[10] He seems to directly contradict a Calvinistic notion of penal substitution: “For this reason it is also contradictory to contemplate satisfying the law by punishing one man as a representative of many like criminals, since, in so far as the others are looked on as suffering punishment in him, he is their universal, their concept; and the law, as ordering or punishing, is only law by being opposed to a particular.”[11] Instead of seeing Jesus as satisfying the law, Hegel suggests love is entry into a completely different order: “Jesus makes a general demand on his hearers to surrender their rights, to lift themselves above the whole sphere of justice or injustice by love, for in love there vanish not only rights but also the feeling of inequality and the hatred of enemies. . .”[12] Hegel does not see a direct continuity between law and love since “law was opposed to love,” not “in its content but in its form.”[13] Love is of the Spirit, and it is Spirit alone that “can undo what has been done.”[14]

Hegel’s point of departure, like Luther and Paul, is captured in Philippians 2:7: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interest of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself [ἑαυτòν ἐκένωσεν], taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:4-8). Hegel passes from seeing Christ as the embodiment of Kant’s categorical imperative and Kantian ethics, to the centrality of self-giving love described by Paul.

According to William Goggin, “Hegel’s retrieval of kenosis as the reflexive representation of sacrifice forms the core feature of the imaginary syntheses of religion as they are elevated into the conceptual necessity of philosophical comprehension.”[15] Hegel’s project is a reconceptualization of the atonement, which seeks to make cognizant the self-giving love of Christ. The meaning of the death of Christ in kenosis is the basis on which he turns to a revaluation of negativity – of tarrying with the negative. It is not any death, or death in general, but Christ’s death with which Hegel is concerned. “As seen in the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Hegel’s awareness of the pivotal role of kenotic sacrifice in the development of his system does not wane with time. If anything, it would seem, Hegel becomes increasingly clear on this point.”[16] As Hegel puts it, “When it becomes comprehended spiritually, this very death becomes a healer, the focal point of reconciliation.”[17] It is healing, not because it reconciles with the law, but because it works an immediate reconciliation in the Spirit.

Here, one can embrace Žižek’s understanding, that the first step in the Hegelian reading is suspending the punishing superego equated with God. Hegel goes to some length to demonstrate, there is no final reconciliation in the realm of law, retribution and punishment. While one might “picture,” as opposed to experience, “satisfaction” of the law, Hegel points to the “realization” of reconciliation. “Representing the kenotic self-sacrifice of God, the death of God points the way to a sacrifice of God as representation, to the negation of the absoluteness of the reflective, representational standpoint itself.”[18] The Christian in Christ can pass beyond representational picture thinking and experience, within herself, the reality of reconciliation.

Hegel describes alienation as an experience of the self, and in turn his project is to describe reconciliation. “The disparity which exists in consciousness between the ‘I’ and the substance which is its object is the distinction between them, the negative in general… Now although this negative appears at first as a disparity between the ‘I’ and its object, it is just as much the disparity of substance with itself. Thus what seems to happen outside of it, to be an activity directed against it, is really its own doing, and substance shows itself to be essentially subject.”[19] The self objectifies itself, as in the object in the mirror, creating an inner antagonism, cured only by self-giving love realized in the Spirit. There is an enacted unity in the Spirit as the I and its object, existence and essence, are unified. Through kenotic self-negation, Spirit is realized and grasps the self as its own – with the self becoming what it essentially is. There is an end to the antagonistic self-relation through the reconciliation of the Spirit. According to Hegel,

Spirit has two sides which are presented as two converse propositions: one is this, that substance alienates itself from itself and becomes self-consciousness; the other is the converse, that self-consciousness alienates itself from itself and gives itself the nature of a Thing, or makes itself a universal Self. Both sides have in this way encountered each other, and through this encounter their true union has come into being. The self-emptying [Entäußerung] of substance, its growth into self-consciousness, expresses the transition into the opposite…that substance is in itself self-consciousness. Conversely the self-emptying [Entäußerung] of self-consciousness expresses this, that it is in itself the universal essence…two moments through whose reciprocal self-emptying [Entäußerung] each become the other, Spirit comes into existence as this their unity.[20]

This resonates with Paul, Lacan and Žižek. Lacan and Žižek describe their psychoanalytic understanding in conjunction with Romans 7, in which self-consciousness forms in an alienation between the object or thing in the mirror, reducing to an object, viewed from the subject position. The I is split, and as Paul explains in Romans 8, it is only in the work of the Spirit that the self experiences reconciliation with self and God.

Christianity is “revelatory,” according to Hegel in that the problem of overcoming the antitheses of understanding is realized in passage into Absolute Knowledge. But Absolute Knowledge is not an abstraction or picture thinking but is the end point of a kenotically realized identity. “It is the moment of kenotic sacrifice that unites Substance with Subject.”[21] The I must die with Christ, in a kenotic self-giving love, which does not turn from death and sacrifice, but is a taking up of the cross of love.

Given this reading, one can quote Žižek’s favorite passage from Hegel, and recognize, Hegel is not describing death per se, but the death of Christ as accomplishing a healing reconciliation on the order of theosis.

“[T]he Life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation, but rather life that endures [erträgt] and maintains itself in it [in ihm sich erhält]. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment [Zerissenheit], it finds itself…Spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face, and tarrying with it. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being. This power is identical with what we earlier called Subject, which by giving determinateness an existence in its own element supersedes abstract immediacy, i.e., the immediacy which barely is, and thus is authentic substance: that being or immediacy whose mediation is not outside of it but which is this mediation itself.”[22]

The Subject of being is nothing less than divine or a participation in divinity. As Goggin states it, “Hegel understands his idealism as the conceptual clarification of Christianity. Hegel was, in good faith, interpreting Christian dogma as an idealist project, as depicting a logic of kenotic sacrifice that reshaped the space of reasons and made possible the emergence of the speculative system.”[23] This is not a wholesale endorsement of Hegel, nor is it to suggest that Hegel has fully achieved his goal of making kenosis the ground of cognition, but this can be said to have been his goal. This alone calls for a reassessment of Hegel.   

(Sign up for the course, The Theology of Maximus the Confessor with Jordan Wood. https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings. The course will run from 2024/3/25–2024/5/17 and will meet on Saturdays.)


[1] Robert B. Pippin, Hegel’s Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 4. Quoted in Gavin Hyman, “The ‘New Hegel’ and the Question of God,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory (Spring 2020) 19:2, 276.

[2] Gavin, 276.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Robert Pippin, ‘Back to Hegel?’ Mediations 26.1-2 (Fall 2012-Spring 2013), p. 8. Quoted in Gavin, 277.

[5] Rowan Williams, ‘Logic and Spirit in Hegel’ in Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology, ed. Mike Higton (London: SCM Press, 2007), pp. 37-38. Cited in Gavin, 279-280.

[6] Gavin, 280,

[7] Friedrich Hegel, On Christianity: Early Theological Writings, Trans. By T. M. Knox with and Introduction and Fragments translated by Richard Kroner (New York: Harper Torch Books, 1948) 12.

[8] Hegel, On Christianity, 225.

[9] Hegel, On Christianity, 227.

[10] Hegel, On Christianity, 224.

[11] Hegel, On Christianity, 226.

[12] Hegel, On Christianity, 218.

[13] Hegel, On Christianity, 225.

[14] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Vorlesungen, Band 5, 246; Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, 467. Cited in William Ezekiel Goggin, Hegel’s Sacrificial Imagination, (PhD Dissertation, The University of Chicago, 2019) 284.

[15] Goggin, 278.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Vorlesungen. Ausgewählte Nachschriften und Manuskripte Band 5, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion, 249; Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Press, 467-468 (Translation modified). Cited in Goggin, 277.

[18] Goggin, 258.

[19] Hegel, Phenomenology, 21. Cited in Goggin, 244.

[20] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A. V. Miller. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.  755 (Translation modified). Cited in Goggin, 255-256.

[21] Goggin, 255.

[22] Hegel, Phenomenology, 19. Cited in Goggin, 243.

[23] Goggin, 235.

The Radical Theology of Maximus the Confessor: Creation is Incarnation

If the end point of Augustinian thought might be said to be the theology of Martin Luther, in which the essence of God is unattainable (nominalism), then the fulfillment of Origen’s theology must be found in the work of Maximus the Confessor (580-662 CE), who pictures identification between God and the world. The logic (the Christo-logic) of Origen’s apocatastasis is summed up in Maximus’ formula, “The Word of God, very God, wills that the mystery of his Incarnation be actualized always and in all things” (Ambigua, hereafter Amb. 7.22). As Maximus explains it elsewhere: “This is the great and hidden mystery. This is the blessed end for which all things were brought into existence. This is the divine purpose conceived before the beginning of beings, and in defining it we would say that this mystery is the preconceived goal for the sake of which everything exists, but which itself exists on account of nothing, and it was with a view to this end that God created the essences of beings” (QThal. 60.3).[1] Creation’s purpose is found in the incarnation (in the lamb sacrificed before the foundation of the world), and this end is present in the beginning, so that incarnation is not simply a singular event within creation but is the basis of creation.

In the incarnation the absolute differences between God and man (those differences which one form of Christianity picture as unbridgeable) are brought together in the God/man Jesus Christ, and this identity between creator and creation is complete:

This mystery is obviously the ineffable and incomprehensible union according to hypostasis of divinity and humanity. This union brings humanity into perfect identity, in every way, with divinity, through the principle of the hypostasis, and from both humanity and divinity it completes the single composite hypostasis, without creating any diminishment due to the essential difference of the natures.

(QThal. 60.2).

This total identity with God on the part of Christ is perfectly duplicated in the Christian. That is, according to Maximus, the Christian becomes Christ: “they will be spiritually vivified by their union with the archetype of these true things, and so become living images of Christ, or rather become one with Him through grace (rather than being a mere simulacrum), or even, perhaps, become the Lord Himself, if such an idea is not too onerous for some to bear” (Amb. 21.15). Maximus is not speaking metaphorically or analogously but is describing a complete identification between the disciple and his Lord. His qualifications pertain only to the difference that what Christ is by nature the disciple attains by grace. Or as he states it in Ambigua 10, the disciple may be limited by his nature but nonetheless reflects the “fulness of His divine characteristics”:

Having been wholly united with the whole Word, within the limits of what their own inherent natural potency allows, as much as may be, they were imbued with His own qualities, so that, like the clearest of mirrors, they are now visible only as reflections of the undiminished form of God the Word, who gazes out from within them, for they possess the fullness of His divine characteristics, yet none of the original attributes that naturally define human beings have been lost, for all things have simply yielded to what is better, like air—which in itself is not luminous—completely mixed with light.

(Amb. 10.41).

Their “own natural potency” is the only delimitation between the identity of the Word and the one reflecting that Word. Otherwise they are “imbued with His own qualities” and are “reflections of the undiminished form of God the Word” and “possess the fullness of His divine characteristics” which totally interpenetrate but nonetheless do not overwhelm or diminish who they naturally are. It is not that the individual is absorbed into the One and so lose themselves, but in reflecting the Word the individual becomes fully who they are. He explains that he is not describing the erasure of the individual: “Let not these words disturb you, for I am not implying the destruction of our power of self-determination, but rather affirming our fixed and unchangeable natural disposition” (Amb. 7.12). One’s natural inclinations are fulfilled through the work of Christ, as “there is only one sole energy, that of God and of those worthy of God, or rather of God alone, who in a manner befitting His goodness wholly interpenetrates all who are worthy” (Amb. 7.12). This is accomplished through the body, the incarnation, of Christ.  

The body of Christ not only accounts for the deification of the Christian but is the means for cosmic deification: “The ‘body of Christ is either the soul, or its powers, or senses, or the body of each human being, or the members of the body, or the commandments, or the virtues, or the inner principles of created beings, or, to put it simply and more truthfully, each and all of these things, both individually and collectively, are the body of Christ” (Amb. 54.2). The body of Christ is the body of “each human being” it is the “virtues” or “the inner principles of created beings.” As Jordan Wood puts it, “Everything is his body.”[2] There is a complete identification (though Maximus is careful to stipulate this is not an identity in essence): “the whole man wholly pervading the whole God, and becoming everything that God is, without, however, identity in essence, and receiving the whole of God instead of himself, and obtaining as a kind of prize for his ascent to God the absolutely unique God” (Amb. 41.5).

Maximus is building upon Origen’s notion that the beginning is in the end and the end is in the beginning, which is Jesus Christ. Thus, he describes the virtuous person through Origen’s formula: “For such a person freely and unfeignedly chooses to cultivate the natural seed of the Good, and has shown the end to be the same as the beginning, and the beginning to be the same as the end, or rather that the beginning and the end are one and the same” (Amb. 7.21). As Maximus explains, from the viewpoint of God taken up by the virtuous person “by conforming to this beginning,” a beginning in which “he received being and participation in what is naturally good,” “he hastens to the end, diligently” (Amb. 7.21). This end is the deification of all things: “In this way, the grace that divinizes all things will manifestly appear to have been realized” (QThal. 2.2).  

As with Origen, it is the incarnate Christ, and not an a-historical or preincarnate Logos, in which he locates the beginning of all things. In the incarnate Word, God has identified with the world, and the worlds beginning and end is found in this identity of the Word (in the middle of history).  As stated in the Gospel of John, this process of creation continues through the Son, and this work is the work of deification:

 In this way, the grace that divinizes all things will manifestly appear to have been realized—the grace of which God the Word, becoming man, says: “My father is still working, just as I am working.” That is, the Father bestows His good pleasure on the work, the Son carries it out, and the Holy Spirit essentially completes in all things the good will of the former and the work of the latter, so that the one God in Trinity might be “through all things and in all things.

(QThal. 2.2).

The Trinitarian work begun through the Son is carried out on all of creation, so that he might be all in all (Col. 3:11).  As Maximus states it in Ambigua 31:

If, then, Christ as man is the first fruits of our nature in relation to God the Father, and a kind of yeast that leavens the whole mass of humanity, so that in the idea of His humanity’ He is with God the Father, for He is the Word, who never at any time has ceased from or gone outside of His remaining in the Father, let us not doubt that, consistent with His prayer to the Father, we shall one day be where He is now, the first fruits of our race. For inasmuch as He came to be below- for our sakes and without change became man, exactly like us but without sin, loosing the laws of nature in a manner beyond nature, it follows that we too, thanks to Him, will come to be in the world above, and become gods according to Him through the mystery of grace, undergoing no change whatsoever in our nature.

(Amb. 31.9)

Maximus might be seen as working out the details of Athanasius’ formula, “God became man that man might become god.” However, he sees this as the working principle of the cosmos, with its own logic and singular explanation. It is not that God became “like” man or that man becomes “like” God, nor is it simply some sort of Greek notion of participation. Maximus gives full weight to both the human and divine principle at work in Christ. He counters the tendency to focus on the deity of Christ at the expense of the humanity. The notion, spoken or unspoken, that the incarnation is in some sense a singular episode in the life of God and not an eternal reality, is here counterbalanced (as in Origen) with a full embrace of both humanity and deity. There is a complete union between God and man, and that union is complete on both sides (divine and human) in Jesus Christ. The movement fully embracing humanity is part of the move to a fully embraced identity between God and humans. “And this is precisely why the Savior, exemplifying within Himself our condition, says to the Father: Yet not as I will, but as thou wilt. And this is also why Saint Paul, as if he had denied himself and was no longer conscious of his own life, said: It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Amb. 7.11). In the first instance, Christ really becomes human, and in the second instance, Paul really becomes Christ. There is a perichoretic or hypostatic identity in Christ:  

God renewed our nature, or to put it more accurately, He made our nature new, returning it to its primordial beauty of incorruptibility through His holy flesh, taken from us, and animated by a rational soul, and on which He lavishly bestowed the gift of divinization, from which it is absolutely impossible to fall, being united to God made flesh, like the soul united to the body, wholly interpenetrating it in an unconfused union, and by virtue of His manifestation in the flesh, He accepted to be hidden exactly to the same degree that He Himself, for the sake of the flesh, was manifested and to all appearances seemed to go outside of His own natural hiddenness.

(Amb. 42.5)

In Wood’s explanation, whether he employs the term or not, Maximus is describing perichoresis – “the idea that the deific state involves the whole God in the ‘whole’ creature and the reverse.” Wood describes Maximus’s perichoretic logic as “two simultaneous, vertical movements (both realized horizontally)—God’s descent and our ascent. Both transgress Neoplatonic participation. They make it so that the very mode (and act) of divinity descends into the finite mode (and act) of the creature just as much as the latter ascends into divinity’s; that both modes exist as one reality; and that even in this single reality both modes perdure entirely undiminished—neither’s natural power limits the other’s act.”[3] A prime example is taken from John’s two-fold description that “God is light” and then his statement a few lines later that “He is in the light.”

God, who is truly light according to His essence, is present to those who “walk in Him” through the virtues, so that they too truly become light. Just as all the saints, who on account of their love for God become light by participation in that which is light by essence, so too that which is light by essence, on account of its love for man, becomes light in those who are light by participation. If, therefore, through virtue and knowledge we are in God as in light, God Himself, as light, is in us who are light. For God who is light by nature is in that which is light by imitation, just as the archetype is in the image. Or, rather, God the Father is light in light; that is, He is in the Son and the Holy Spirit, not that He exists as three separate lights, but He is one and the same light according to essence, which, according to its mode of existence is threefold light.

(QThal 8.2)

God himself is the light and this light is “in us who are light.” God is both by nature light and by imitation in the light. As Wood points out, there is the typical “by essence” vs. “by participation” distinction here, but then “it descends or “comes to be” or even “becomes” (γίνεται) participated light (i.e. light in a qualified or finite mode).” God becomes the participated mode. “For God who is light by nature is in that which is light by imitation, just as the archetype is in the image.” In other words, there is full identification between the light that is God and the light in the archetype and the light “in us.” “It’s a claim that in the deified person God descends and ‘becomes’ the very participated mode (and activity) of that person, all while retaining the divine mode unmuted and unqualified and unmediated.”[4]

My point in this short piece is to simply set forth what seems to be the key element in Maximus’ theology, which raises a number of issues. Isn’t there a collapse of any distinction between creator and creation? Doesn’t this reduce to a kind of pantheistic monism, in which everything is Christ? Isn’t this an example of a failure of a breakdown of thought – identity through difference simply reduces to sameness? Isn’t this a return to Hegel, with total focus on the historical becoming of God? Is this a relinquishing of the distinctive role of Christ? While there are possible answers to these questions, the questions indicate the radical nature of Maximus’s Christo-logic.


[1] On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Responses to Thalassios here after QThal.

[2] Jordan Daniel Wood, That Creation is Incarnation in Maximus Confessor,” (Dissertation for Doctor of Philosophy, Boston College, 2018) 227.

[3] Wood, 209-210

[4] Wood, 211.