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Hegel and God

Hegel and God

(09 October 2007)

Hegel spent his life as a member of the Lutheran Church and several of his relatives were Lutheran pastors. He made no outspoken attacks against Lutheranism and was warmly embraced by his fellow Lutherans. This implies that Hegel felt there was no significant contradiction between his professed Lutheran beliefs and the type of God espoused in his philosophy. Is this credible, or was Hegel a hypocrite, enjoying the comforts of conventional Lutheran respectability while preaching something utterly at odds with Lutheranism?

Everyone raised in the Christian tradition is aware of the story of Creation described in the Book of Genesis. Hegel, perhaps wisely, doesn’t do his own version of Genesis, but can we speculate on how his narrative might proceed?

In the beginning there was God, Hegel might have begun, but God suffered from a lack. (Hegel says in The Philosophy of Nature: ‘If God is all sufficient and lacks nothing, how does He come to release Himself into something so clearly unequal to Him?’) God, it seems, wasn’t fully aware of himself because he was all there was, and there was nothing else with which to contrast himself. For Hegel, consciousness necessarily involves encounters with otherness. It’s through this exploration of difference that one becomes aware of what one is and is not. God, to become fully conscious, is compelled to create the world – a vast arena of otherness – through the exploration of which he will reach maximum consciousness.

But since everything created by God is touched by God and comes from God, everything must be imbued with ‘Godness’ at some level. We might speculate that at the centre of the universe stands God (not fully conscious) and around him are scattered myriad fragments of his essence, these fragments existing on a scale of consciousness all at a lower level than God at the centre.

The universe is thus full of God, divided into a host of varying states. It’s a universe of alienation and estrangement because these multitudes of states are unaware that they are part of the Whole, that their separation is fundamentally illusory. (‘The True is the Whole.’)

The process that allows alienation to be overcome is the famous dialectic. It allows the illusion of difference and separation to be systemically challenged and overcome until everything is seen as it truly is – connected and One.

We might replace the word ‘God’ with Hegel’s preferred word – Geist (Spirit/Mind). The universe is Geist and it has an inbuilt purpose – telos – to reach perfect consciousness, to permit Geist to becomeWeltgeist – the World Spirit, the Absolute Spirit, the Absolute Idea, God fully conscious, completely actualised. God at this stage has attained Absolute Knowledge, Absolute Freedom and no longer lacks anything. The universe is ruled according to perfect Reason.

Bertrand Russell, in A History of Western Philosophy, says of the Absolute Idea: It is thought thinking about itself. Clearly the Absolute cannot think about anything but itself, since there is nothing else, except to our partial and erroneous ways of apprehending Reality. We are told that Spirit is the only reality, and that its thought is reflected into itself by self-consciousness… [It] is pure thought thinking about pure thought. This is all that God does through the Ages – truly a Professor’s God. Hegel goes on to say, "This unity is consequently the absolute and all truth, the Idea which thinks itself.”

Bryan Magee in The Great Philosophers sums up Hegel’s thought in a few easy steps. These are basically as follows:

1) Reality is ‘incomplete’ and undergoes a process of change to become complete.

2) What changes? – Geist.

3) Why does it change instead of remaining the same? Because it's in a state of incompleteness (through alienation).

4) What form does the process of change take? – The dialectic.

5) Does the process of change have a goal? Yes: Absolute Knowledge, Absolute Freedom, the Absolute Idea fully realised, Reality complete in every conceivable way.

To return to our original question, does this schema represent anything remotely resembling conventional Lutheranism? At first sight, it seems like the purest heresy. Hegel’s ‘God’ begins in a state of imperfection – contrary to the Lutheran definition that God is ineffably perfect. ‘God’ does not fully know himself – contrary to the principle that God is omniscient. ‘God’s’ power is circumscribed insofar as, through lack of self-knowledge, he doesn’t initially understand the precise nature of his power. This contravenes the notion that God is omnipotent. Moreover, when ‘God’ is finally fully actualised, his power is really nothing more than the capacity to think about himself and obey the precepts of Reason; hardly a notion in accord with the usual understanding of omnipotence.

Hegel’s defence would probably be that Lutheranism is as close to religious Truth as humanity can attain, that it is the inevitable product of the dialectic, that for those who cannot yet grasp philosophical Truth, it gives them an avenue to the best Truth of which they are currently capable. In other words, by separating religious Truth from philosophical Truth, and by judicious employment of the dialectic, Hegel can easily explain away, at least to himself, the apparent tensions between Lutheranism and Hegelianism. They are simply different versions of the same thing. One (the philosophical Truth) exists on a higher level. It is truer, more complete.

Hegel’s position would certainly have been rejected by all God-fearing Lutherans if they had managed to grasp what he was actually saying. The key Lutheran concept of justification by faith (amplified by Luther’s radical assertion that Reason is the Devil’s whore) is negated by Hegel’s system, which is, of course, based on, ‘What is rational is real; and what is real is rational.’

Does the Incarnation make sense in Hegel’s scheme? Does God decide to send his ‘son’ to the earth, or is it the dialectic that causes the Incarnation to happen?

How does Hegel account for the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception in his narrative? What about the Lutheran concept of consubstantiation? Or miracles such as the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the feeding of the 5000, the curing of lepers, water being turned into wine? When the ‘Holy Spirit’ descends on the Apostles at Pentecost, what does it have to do with Geist, with the dialectic? Are Satan and hell dialectical? These might all be labelled by Hegel as ‘pictorial thinking’, but isn’t that just evading perfectly substantive, and rather awkward, questions?

Was the Holocaust an inevitable dialectical occurrence? Given that the dialectic works in such a way as to ensure that nothing is unambiguously rejected, the Holocaust must then, finally, be realised in some capacity in the Absolute Idea. Hardly a reassuring thought. In fact, every act of ‘evil’ that has ever been perpetrated seems to be embraced in some way by Hegelianism. This must render its moral stance somewhat paradoxical.

Hegel, in Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, interprets the story of the Fall of man in the Garden of Eden in the following way: ‘What it really means is that humanity has elevated itself to the knowledge of good and evil; and this cognition, this distinction, is the source of evil, is evil itself. Being evil is located in the act of cognition, in consciousness.’ His argument appears to be that the dialectic automatically generates evil as soon as consciousness evolves. There is no evil without consciousness, and as soon as there is consciousness there must be evil (as the dialectical twin of good). This is surely a unique way of accounting for the existence of evil in the world.

Given these views, it seems extraordinary that Hegel continued to regard himself as a good Lutheran, and indeed that he assigned Lutheranism such a lofty position in his philosophy – much higher than that of any other religion. In fact, if any religious system is compatible with Hegelianism it is probablyGnosticism. In this religion there is a True God called Deus Absconditus (the hidden God) who lives in a universe of light and spirit – heaven. A False God, a lesser God, called the Demiurge is the creator of the material world – hell. Souls from heaven are lured into the material world through curiosity about sensual pleasures, and they become trapped. Unless the trapped souls can gain the mystical secret knowledge of the true nature of things – Gnosis – they are condemned to keep being reincarnated in the material world.

With a few minor adjustments, this stands as an ideal representation of Hegelianism. Deus Absconditus is Hegel’s ‘God’, whose nature is hidden even from himself. To understand himself he creates the material world; a place of otherness, alienation and estrangement. In other words, the Demiurge is simply another aspect of Deus Absconditus through which he explores his own nature. The Demiurge is the ‘evil’ that is necessarily dialectically released by Deus Absconditus when he first becomes conscious. Reincarnation is a manifestation of the dialectic and, as souls go through repeated cycles of death and rebirth, they get closer and closer to Gnosis. When they finally reach this point, they understand the mind of God i.e. they attain Absolute Knowledge and they are at one with the Absolute Idea/Absolute Spirit. Hegel himself, in this narrative, is the very first human consciousness to achieve Gnosis and to secure the opportunity to be finally liberated from material hell. He experiences Absolute Freedom through Reason, and True Knowledge of Reality. He is thus the very culmination of world history, of what the dialectic has been struggling for eons to achieve. He is Geist realising for the very first time that the world is in fact itself. In effect, Hegel is Deus Manifestus, the hidden God at last revealed. Oddly enough, this fact seemed to escape him.

Of course, Hegel is not literally God since God, for Hegel, is the Whole, everything that exists, and it’s even more than that – it’s an entity greater than the sum of its parts, just as a human is more than the collection of all the cells that comprise his body. Yet, in Hegel, God/Geist first becomes completely conscious of what it truly is. As Peter Singer says in The Great Philosophers, ‘Then Mind has only to implement its own principle of rationality in the world to organise the world rationally.’ In other words, post-Hegel, the only task remaining to Geist is to put Hegel’s philosophy into practice. (So why are we still waiting?) Hegel has, so it seems, told God who He is, what He is, how He came into being, what the nature of His Creation is and how everything must be. So, although Hegel wasn’t God, he might as well have been.

Maybe that’s why Nietzsche, another German philosopher immersed in Lutheranism, was confidently able to declare, decades after Hegel’s demise, ‘God is dead.’ Literally.