Thinking about “Hegel’s Christianity and the Deification of Reason”

A week ago, I attended the Annual Solomon Lecture on Hegel’s Christianity and the Deification of Reason by Professor Robert Wicks. The lecture was titled “Hegel Christianity and the Deification of Reason.” In this brief post, I will attempt to reflect on some of the points made during the lecture. So here is a rough sketch.

The question at stake is the following one: “How did the image of Jesus inspire Hegel’s philosophy, and how can it be understood to be the epitome of Christian philosophy?” It is impossible to dismiss the assumptions made here. The question assumes that there is an archetypal image of Jesus at the root of Hegel’s philosophical system. That ultimately for Hegel, theology serves as the handmaiden to philosophy. It is almost as if Hegel is rebranding theology as philosophy.

Wicks begins his lecture with a reminder that Hegel, a student of theology and philosophy, used the image of Jesus and God to create a philosophical system into which theological images are transformed into abstract philosophical principles. In other words, Hegel’s interest in theology was purely philosophical.  Wicks claimed that like Plato, who transformed the sensory image of goddess Aphrodite into an abstract form of Beauty, Hegel transformed theological categories into philosophical principles by overcoming the division of human minds and the world “out there” postulated by Immanuel Kant.

Kant’s dualistic account recognizes how human beings know the world. Kant maintained a dualism between things as they are in themselves, the noumena, and things as they appear to us, the phenomena. Hegel overcomes this dualism by proposing that there is no distinction between our minds and the world’ out there’. Instead, the reality is constituted as a single entity through a dialectical system that is both metaphysical and rational. For Hegel, reality (historical or what), despite all the contingencies, is fundamentally constituted rationally and therefore conforms to rational laws. And if this is the case, if reality conforms to rational laws, then it follows that reason has the capacity to explain everything. Reason becomes the central reference point for making sense of the material world.

There was also a mention of the French Revolution, which had a severe impact on Hegel’s thinking in general and his idealization of reason. Hegel saw the importance of reason in the decisive turn of history in the French Revolution. Human beings finally came to rely on their rational faculty by submitting the given reality to the standards of reason. Finally, human subjects can organize reality through rational thinking instead of depending on the established order and prevailing values. For Hegel, the French Revolution inaugurated reason’s ultimate power over reality.

But the unification of reason and reality is not straightforward. For reason to govern reality, reality has to become rational. It would be made possible through the subject’s (God’s?) entry into the content of nature and history (as human Jesus?). In this way, the objective reality is the realization of the subject. In other words, the subject is also an object (The Phenomenology of Spirit). And the actual realization of the subject is reached with the existence of humankind because of their power to be a self-determining rational subject. The reason is made real through its realization in the objective reality. In this way (through its realization), reason also becomes objective reality. So, for Hegel, it was suggested that the subject and object will become one in an ideal world. The French Revolution was only a taster for what will happen when the force of reason is realized in its fullness. But this will only occur when the reality has become fully rational by overcoming all contradiction and contingencies through a dialectical process = thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The ultimate reality or the end of history is when reason and reality is in total synthesis.

If I recall correctly, Wicks mentioned three books by Hegel during his lectures. The Phenomenology of Spirit, Science of Logic and Life of Jesus. Referencing one of the above books, he suggested that the absolute nature of Hegel’s system is based on Christian theology. It is based on the idea that all reality is gathered up in the impersonal mind, also referred to as God. Through the emergence of this mind in humanity (as depicted in the book of Genesis), the world experiences self-awareness.  According to Wick, this self-awareness of the world is adequately outlined in Christianity and, at last, reaches its completeness in Hegel’s own system of Absolute Idealism.

It is within this system that Jesus becomes the embodiment of an ‘idea.’ So much so that the embodiment in itself is less important than the idea. This idea represents the ultimate synthesis and overcoming of the divide between infinite and finite, universal and particular, rational and material. According to Wicks, the main point for Hegel is that this eternal idea was brought forth and exemplified concretely in the person of Jesus Christ. Through him, the idea was made known. This is the essential point for Hegel, a synthesis of the opposite. The idea of incarnation points to the fact that the finite human spirit achieves a greater clarity of consciousness through the synthesis of God and humanity, who may have appeared to exist in an estranged relation (thesis and antithesis) before this.

Hegel’s primary concern is not resolving theological intricacies. Instead, what matters to him is that the Christian religion offers resources in the forms of theological images to create his system of philosophy in which the deification of reason replaces the figure of Jesus. Just as in the incarnation, the opposite collided and became one, so reality will be transformed and become rational through the realization of reason.

To avoid making this post too long, I will make four brief remarks.

Firstly, I think it is overly simplistic to explain Hegel’s philosophy by the mantra of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Primarily because Hegel himself never describes his philosophy in this way. Hegel is much more nuanced than simply being a philosopher of utopia par excellence, postulating that all contradictions and conflicts will be resolved eventually. Quite the opposite, the outcome that results from contradiction is not a synthesis but reconciliation with contradiction. There is no overcoming or getting rid of contradiction, but the recognition that contradiction is the guiding force of all being (Zizek and McGowan). We cannot simply arrive at synthesis by eliminating contradiction because it is a fundamental fact of all reality.

Secondly, for Hegel, Christianity is essential not because it restores the divide between human and divine, but because it is the religion that reveals the divine as a divided subject. Long before Nietzsche proclaims the death of God, Hegel had already announced that God is dead. In Philosophy of Religion, Hegel states that God has died. God himself is dead. For Hegel, the crucifixion of Jesus is a monstrous and fearful representation of the divine estrangement. This estrangement is not between God and humanity but within Godself. It is God’s self-division. There is no synthesis here. God is divided from Godself. What dies on the cross is not only human Jesus but Godself.

Thirdly, Wicks’s reading seems to confine Hegel to a (neo)liberal bourgeoise subjectivity. Such a reading reduces Hegel to a Kantian position. To me, it appears that Wicks reads Hegel through the lens of his very early writing on the Life of Jesus. Here Jesus appears a teacher of morality in a very Kantian sense. Wicks rightly pointed out that Hegel does favour the supremacy of Reason in this essay. He says that pure Reason is deity itself. But I am surprised that Wicks did not acknowledge that Hegel refutes this exact stance in his more mature thinking.    

Lastly, if Hegel’s dialectic ultimately overcomes differences and contradictions, then his systems appear too homogenous. The differences are suspended. There is no room for differences. Hegel then emerges as a philosopher of totalitarian terror. On the other extreme, his mantra (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) appears too comforting. The conflicts are resolved, and everything ends up working out. Here Hegel seems overly optimistic, almost incapable of noticing the messiness of life.

Both these position present somewhat deflated images of Hegel.

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