Thursday, May 04, 2006

Is Hegel a Christian?

Pardon me if your pretension detector just rose to orange, but I'm about to quote a Hegel scholar again. To recall the elementary school years, reading G.W.F. Hegel is like putting your hands into a bag of peeled grape "eyeballs" at a mock hall-o-horrors on Halloween: You spend a lot of time trying to figure out just what it is you're dealing with.

By this I mean I've spent a good bit of time this year wondering whether or not Hegel's philosophy is a Christian one. It's a touchy issue, and I've come across many attempts, even book-length ones, at addressing it; but I thought I'd pass the briefest and clearest of them along:
"Hegel is a Christian, but not an orthodox one by the Nicene Creed. He denies the precedence of the Father, from whom the Son and the Spirit proceed. He denies that lordship is the meaning of divinity, so that Christ manifests divinity only as the risen Lord. The true definition of divinity is Spirit. But Hegel is not an ancient Gnostic like Marcion or Valentinus. He does not denigrate the body as the kingdom of the devil. He affirms the incarnation and construes natures as the logos made flesh, as spirit, i.e., the infinite Christ. He is a modern, Joachimite Gnostic: world history is the story of the logos making itself flesh in the rational state and human rights... [Hegelian philosophy] is still Christian even if not orthodox. To be a heretic one must after all first be a Christian" (Clark Butler 139 and 141).
Calling someone a heretic is not pleasant business. Perhaps the blow will be softened by knowing that those weren't the words of a conservative religious authority figure, but a professor of philosophy who, in so designating Hegel, is by no means alone.

Heresy is a lot like vomit. Though not pretty at the time, it's ultimately a sign that the body is functioning properly. The fact that a given belief system loses the ability to call someone a heretic is not a sign therefore of "progress," but decline, just as a body that consumes toxins but can't expel them is not healthy, but sick. Boundaries are not necessarily bad. To recall Tom Oden, a circle without boundaries is not a circle. It's a point.

Heresy need not be the dirty word that it has become. Consider the converse of the usual case: If someone believes in the bodily resurrection, but then proceeded to call themselves a genuine Valentinian "Gnostic"... and when corrected by a real Gnostic, continued to assert that they were still in fact a Gnostic (but one who believed in the bodily resurrection) - that person would then be a Gnostic heretic. So labeling such a "Gnostic" as a heretic would both clarify Gnosticism's self-identity, and provide an important service to the person confused enough to think they could be a genuine Valentinian Gnostic while asserting the inherent goodness of the physical body.

Hegel is not, as many assume, a full-blown pantheist. But by clearly departing from the Creed he earns his status as a Christian heretic. Does this mean he cannot be learned from? The answer to that question should be obvious. If only because of his vast influence on modern thought, Hegel should be seriously engaged. Furthermore, because of Hegel's Christianity there will be many more points of contact for the orthodox Christian who reads him than there are in most 19th century philosophical alternatives.

But to use another analogy pulled from elementary school, reading Hegel is like conducting a mold experiment. Observing the growth of mold on previously consumable bread may be fascinating, but it's not nutritious. Likewise, observing what Hegel does to classical Christianity may provide insight, but the bread of life of orthodox Christianity is much more satisfying food.

In conclusion, I'd like to suggest that orthodoxy/heresy is not just a matter of personal preference. Hegel's departures had grave public consequences. He made the standard heretical move of trying to reduce faith to knowledge, trying to squeeze God into the head. And though Hegel had an extremely generous and spacious intellect, even his brain was too small for God.

Because all things for Hegel, including religion, are en route to their being understood in philosophy, Hegel unwittingly set up the victory of the Hegelian Left. Explains another professor, "By the middle of the nineteenth century, right-wing Hegelianism had disappeared. The left-wing had the field to itself. It had in effect repudiated Hegel"(241). And "left" here doesn't mean your friendly neighborhood progressive. It means Hegel's atheist interpreters who sought to de-Chrisitianize him completely, paving road via Feuerbach to that most famous left-wing Hegelians, that Old Testament prophet who lost religion, Karl Marx.

Such was Hegel's unhappy spawn. At one point Hegel informs us that "the owl of Minerva flies at dusk." This is his beautiful way of saying "hindsight 20/20," or that you don't know the true character of something until you see its full consequences - and on this point Hegel was right. So much so that his philosophy is no exception to his rule.