On Hegel’s Rational Christianity

It seems natural to ascribe a deep Christian influence to G.W.F. Hegel’s understanding of political enlightenment, given his strong Lutheranism and statements to the effect that the absolute ideal’s realization can be found in Christianity (Hegel, 1988). Yet any claim of their inseparability must reconcile Hegel’s apparent acceptance of alternative religions in the spiritual make up of societies, as well as his own pluralistic reading of the Gospels. The solution is Hegel’s surpassing belief in the power of philosophy: While Hegel may find the philosophical ideal of freedom perfected within Christianity, philosophy is the highest calling, to which his interpretation of Christianity is speculatively subordinate. Political enlightenment as the unfolding of individual freedom is inseparable from Hegel’s Christianity, an emancipatory immanence that comes before any particular aspect of doctrinaire Christian belief.

Hegel’s philosophy of history is essentially the self-conscious awakening of mankind through objective institutions, like the state. And here, “among the different forms of conscious unification, religion stands at the pinnacle” (Hegel, 1988, p. 52) as “this reason — in its most concrete representation — is God. God governs the world: the content of His governance, the fulfillment of His plan, is world history” (p. 39). Thus Hegel held that “the state has its roots in religion” meaning “essentially that religion is prior, and that the state has arisen from it and continues to do so” (p. 54). By this he does not merely mean that states harness the fear of God for control. Rather, recall that the state for Hegel is an ethical totality, referring to the organic subjective whole of a people’s culture manifested in the objective constitution of a polity. When Hegel says that “the state has its roots in religion” he means that “the vitality of the State is in the individual citizens,” (who are themselves religious) which “is what we have called its ethical life” (p. 55). Put a bit differently, “there can be freedom only where individuality is recognized as a positive [aspect] of the divine being” (p. 53).

To begin to unmuddy this, it is arguably easier to grasp Hegel’s meaning using the term nation rather than state, which in modern vernacular refers to a people with a common identity — that is, a nationality — that persists with or without the material actuality of a territorial state (e.g. the Jewish nation as distinct from the state of Israel). Nation-state is even more accurate, as Hegel recognizes the conceptual distinction but elevates them into one. He explains, “Among the Athenians, Athens had a double meaning: first, it meant the totality of its institutions; but then also the goddess, who displayed the Spirit of the people, its unity” (p. 55). This elevated concept of nation-state is when objective history begins, for a state without a nation is inconceivable, and nation without a state (or other method of objective instantiation) is a relic of pre-history. As the wills and actions of a nation transform into the “universally binding directives” of a state, a nation produces “actions and events whose results are binding” (p. 65). This “precondition” for history is not at all arbitrary. As Hegel explains, “the [German] term for ‘history’ is derived from the verb ‘to happen’”(p. 64), analogous to the “becoming” synthesis of being and nothing. For historical sublations to occur the substance of will and action must be both negated and preserved, the latter only being possible once those binding, objective records are in place. This is the germ of history and of historicism; the notion that everything present contains some elevated aspect of the past. Neolithic cults surely bore some semblance to religion, but the rationality contained in such cults could never be realized by a dialectical process whose foundation was set in the amnesic sands of time.

With the above conception of history in mind, Hegel’s acceptance of other religions begins to make sense as descriptive sociology: “Whatever the nature of the shared religion may be, the nature of the state and its structure must agree with it” (p. 54). This appears to be a more or less natural observation extending from the basic historicism just defined: for example, that the Athenian state was “possible only in the context of the specific paganism of these peoples” (p. 54). Likewise, whatever comes after is and was just as much an outgrowth of our inescapable historical context. This is what is meant by the assertion that the nation-state both arises from religion and continues to do so (p. 54).

Now the question turns to: Why Christianity? The short answer appears to simply be because Hegel was German (which he saw as one of if not the most advanced and enlightened nationalities of his time) and the Spirit of the German nation embodies Christianity and vice versa. His acceptance of other nations with their own self-determined wills and thus their own distinct religions seems to be more than a brute fact for Hegel. Instead, he seems to treat these seemingly dispirit sects as valid intermediate representations of an Absolute Ideal that is world-universal: “We can see how Spirit tests itself in any number of directions…” (p. 77). Hegel was of course clearly extremely knowledgeable of other world religions, cultures and customs, in particular those of Hellenistic Greece. He posited a seed of common spiritual truth (his preferred metaphor) in a multiplicity of religions.

Hegel’s adherence to Christianity is therefore above all an adherence to a continually transforming ethic, not a set of dogmas. Ethics is empty without human freedom, which is in turn meaningless without self-consciousness (meaning, the “reflection into itself” (p. 23) via the nation-state). Christianity is thus more than just compatible with freedom — it is a devotion which “renounces [the spirits] particular interests” (p. 52) (i.e. individual subjective wants) and points a nation to its common spiritual end: “Ethical life consists in the feeling, the consciousness, and the will — not of the individual personality and its interests, but of the common personality and interests of all the members in general” (p. 45).

Hegel’s Lutheranism, as a denomination steeped in reform and rationalism, should if anything be a count against accusations of a strictly Christian motive to his philosophy. Just as readily as he dismisses the historical existence of the so called state of nature (such as on page 43), Hegel virtually mocks the literal reading of Genesis’ “primordial condition” story: “According to this fiction, nature, in the beginning, stood as a mirror of God’s creation and God’s truth, open and transparent before the clear eye of man” (p. 61). This is unthinkable for Hegel, and an ignorance of history’s dialectic. In increasingly strong language, he dubs the ubiquity of these Eden-type fables as “erroneous mythologies.” Elaborating, he says:

“The supposed condition of man’s knowledge of God; certain kinds of scientific knowledge; the assertion that this condition prevailed at the very beginning of history, or that the traditions of the various religions began from this knowledge, and developed through a process of degeneration and corruption… — all these are presuppositions that have no historical foundation; and as soon as we contrast their arbitrary subjective source with the true concept of history, we know that they can never achieve one” (p. 62).

Needless to say, this primordial myth is pivotal to doctrinaire Christianity. Without the story of original sin and mankind’s subsequent degeneration and separation from God, for what did Jesus sacrifice himself? As fortune would have it, we don’t have to guess Hegel’s feelings about Jesus; he wrote an early essay called “Life of Jesus”. In it, man’s separation from God is not the result of trespassing on a fig tree. Rather, the myth is symbolic of the divide between individuality and universal reason. Jesus was a rationalist philosopher who fundamentally taught ethics and opposed the Pharisees; the supposed miracles, Hegel believes, were “metaphorical or psychological experiences rather than physical incidents” (Mason-Riseborough, 1999). Jesus died in every sense as one of Hegel’s world-historical individuals “whose aims embody a universal concept of this kind” (Hegel, 1988, p. 32). As a “hero,” Jesus drew his aim “from a source whose content is hidden and has not yet matured into present existence” (p. 32). Whether one calls that content the Absolute Ideal or God, this is a radical reinterpretation of traditional Lutheran theology.

If history runs through stages, then clearly there must be something more that distinguishes subjective Christianity to Hegel from religions past. Similar religious archetype were present in the Orient, the Greek and German worlds, for instance. However, Hegel explains that in the Orient “one person is free” (a zeitgeist of subservience to the despot); and to the Greek and Romans, a class of people are free, while a serf class remained non-human. Christianity’s insight is “that every human is free by virtue of being human, and that the freedom of spirit comprises our most human nature” (p. 21). Jesus, as the immanent teacher of this universal freedom, was at once concrete and human, and eternal as a manifestation of the [Holy] Spirit. In this sense, Christianity combines the finite with the infinite, our physical and mental natures, into a Spiritual unity.

The Christian nation-state is not the end of history or political emancipation — yet. In his lecture “The German World” in the main body of his Philosophy of History, Hegel further divides the Christian world into stages, the Kingdoms of the Father, the Son and the Spirit. The Kingdom of the Father[1]:

“is the consolidated, undistinguished mass, presenting a self-repeating cycle, mere change — like that sovereignty of Chronos engulfing his offspring. The Kingdom of the Son is the manifestation of God merely in a relation to secular existence — shining upon it as upon an alien object. The Kingdom of the Spirit is the harmonizing of the antithesis” (Hegel, 1900).

Hegel ostensibly places his German contemporaries in the Kingdom of the Son, but expresses that the Reformation has brought Germany on the path to the Kingdom on Spirit by giving thought “a culture of its own” wherein “political life was now to be consciously regulated by Reason. Customary morality, traditional usage lost its validity; the various claims insisted upon, must prove their legitimacy as based on rational principles” (Hegel, 1900). Political enlightenment, human emancipation and the realization of reason in the world are all inseparable from this conception of Christianity, in which Reason is God in as much as the rational is real.

It cannot be stressed enough how foreign Hegel’s rationalist version of Christianity must be to the typical devotee. To her, the Kingdom of Heaven is an other-worldly, transcendent paradise. In this sense, the typical devotee is more of a transcendental idealist, positing a dualism that Hegel insists can be immanently unified as the Kingdom of Heaven on earth through the absolute realization of self-consciousness and human freedom: “The third stage is the elevation of Spirit out of this still particular form of freedom into its pure universality — into self-consciousness, the feeling of selfhood that is the essence of spirituality.”

When defending the thesis that Christianity and Hegel’s understanding of political enlightenment are inseparable it is therefore important to caveat that Hegel’s Christianity is “compromised” in the direction of Reason, rather than Reason being compromised at all. In a sense, the Christian artifice is totally superlative outside of the need for abstract reason to be immanentized or concretized into a set of specific cultural practices. This is what is meant by my earlier statement that doctrinaire Christianity is speculatively subordinate to philosophy. It is speculative philosophy that “teaches us that all the characteristics of Spirit subsist only by means of freedom” (Hegel, 1988, p. 20); “Philosophy, the highest, the freest, and the wisest configuration of Spirit” (p. 52).

Hegel identifies freedom and reason with Spirit. For Hegel, this is the essence of his Christianity. However, his revisionist theology does us the favor of purging all the mysticism and paranormal activity from the Genesis story through to the testament of Jesus’ life on earth. He even develops an eschatology that begins and ends with human kind, through the literal rationalization of nation-states. Thus rather than there being a “deep Christian influence” on his philosophy, there is a deep rational influence on his Christianity. This grew out the untenable dualism Hegel saw in Kant’s transcendental idealism. It is an exciting innovation that belied an embedded humanism and the seed of our contemporary condition, where faith-proper has been marginalized in lieu of modernity and a new, purely secular ethics.

Hegel, G.W.F. (Ed.). (1900). Part IV: The German World in The Philosophy of History (J. Sibree, Trans.) Ontario: Batoche Books. Retrieved from: http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/hi/lectures4.htm

Hegel, G.W.F. (Ed.). (1988). Introduction to the Philosophy of History (L. Rauch, Trans.) Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Mason-Riseborough, G. (1999). On Hegel’s ‘The Life of Jesus’. Retrieved from http://www.oocities.org/griseborough/30.htm

[1] This is also referenced on page 79 in his discussion of the ages of Chronos (pre-history) and Zeus (the ethical state).

Ensnared in a web of belief / Poverty @NiskanenCenter / Tech @mercatus / www.SweetTalkConversation.com

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