Author: Stephen Theron




It is customary to begin with being. Being, though, is an intractable problem for thought, as Heidegger has noted. "Why is there anything?" Postulating a necessary being, as "pure" act, viz. act qua act, seems to do no more than posit the problem anew. Nothing is solved thereby. Act, in fact, in our thought, is prior to being. For pure act, act qua act, may or not be an existent. As necessity it is more likely a formality (as use of "is" here, which seems to signify being over again, cannot be assumed to be more than a formality of our Indo-European predication system).


Thus any thought, once thought, or even just thinkable, is indestructible, that is, necessary. And thought, taken just in itself (and forgetting how we ever came to know about it), thinks first, or above all, itself. What else should it think? Hence all else, if it is or is thought at all, is included in that "absolute idea". There is no "ontological discontinuity". God as creator of being just cannot mean that, and all the mystics in chorus insist upon it. So this absolute idea, in turn, is the ground of any thought or phenomenon whatever. Ground is a nearer relation than cause. A thing's ground is what it ultimately is. Ultimately, I or you are each the divine absolute idea, and so, thus related, identical with each other too. These truths which ecclesiology reaches at the end it does so because they are there from the beginning in the eternal designs, beyond either compulsion or contingency.


Once the primacy of act over being is seen then logic stands at the centre. Logicus non considerat existentiam rei, said Aquinas, meaning to put the logician second to the metaphysician, but if existence is a finite category merely then the logician, who has seen this, is himself the true metaphysician. Thus for Hegel, and he is our first name here, metaphysics meant the dogmatic systems of the early modern period which just his logic would replace. Aristotle too opposed substance to logic but Hegel posited substance as a category to be overcome within logic, within the doctrine (and category!) of essence more specifically:


The truth of substance is the Notion, - an independence which, though self-repulsive into distinct independent elements, yet in that repulsion is self-identical, and in the movement of reciprocity still at home and conversant only with itself (Encyclopaedia 158).


"This also is thou, neither is this thou." Hegel adds a little later:


The Notion is the principle of freedom, the power of substance self-realised. It is a systematic whole, in which each of its constituent functions is the very total which the notion is, and is put as indissolubly one with it (Ibid. 160).


The notion, unlike being, waits upon no act of arbitrary creation which would merely remove the problem a step further from us. The necessity, which the notion inherently is, itself renders it beyond all dilemma of being or non-being. It is quite other than being. In line with this, Hegel speaks of "spiritualization, whereby Substance becomes Subject" (The Phenomenology of Mind, Harper Torchbooks, New York 1967, p.782).


If esse were "the act of acts" (Aquinas) then there would be no actus purus. Pure act, as necessary, cannot not be, but it cannot be either, speaking univocally at least. It acts, as thought. It is a thinking, verb which as verb is not substance, whereas being is substance. Esse could indeed be an act, but not act of acts, not unless an act has to have esse before it can be an act. But that is just what is in question, nor may thought unthinkingly enslave itself to our system of predication in this way and call it metaphysics. Sartre's view, in which nothingness as freedom triumphs over being, might be thought to preserve the prejudice in favour of being, the density of the chestnut tree's roots, when he puts things in that way. Yet he might also be seen as overcoming the prejudice against negativity, essential for Hegel's liberating doctrine of self in other, identity in difference (when he puts things in that way). As Hegel himself says, "The Nothing which the Buddhists make the universal principle, as well as the final aim and goal of everything, is the same abstraction" (Enc.87). The "definition" of God as being is "not a whit better than that of the Buddhists."


The conclusion would seem to be a synthesis of being and nothing which is not therefore nothing as mere negation (ouk  on) but as other than being (me on), to use an ancient distinction. This, with McTaggart, we may regret that Hegel called Becoming (Werden), as if setting forth a process-philosophy merely. It is well known that the names of his categories, though taken from ordinary discourse, receive their own precise, often different meaning in the dialectic and so it is with Becoming, since this must be compatible with the transcending of common-sense temporality. It stands rather for the "utter restlessness" of dialectic. Like Being and Nothing, which "vanish" into it ("and that is the very notion of Becoming"), so Becoming "must vanish also" (Enc. 89).


In fact Becoming, as appearing with Being and Nothing at the very beginning of the dialectic, is destined, along with these common-sense notions, to vanish from serious thought. Thus thought thinks in the end only itself, an Infinity, however, which is necessarily differentiated, not, of course, into those elements of our finite thinking which the dialectic successfully surmounts, but into ourselves, as persons. This, of course, will require revision of the notion of thinking itself as itself taken from common life merely, and so McTaggart will postulate beyond it, as more fully reciprocal, as the system requires, than knowledge, what he finds is best called Love. Knowledge if absolute must pass over, "vanish into", love, thus, mutatis mutandis, as it may be, strikingly confirming the Christian revelation that "God is love", albeit from this avowedly atheist standpoint (where McTaggart at least is concerned).[1]


In retaining a subject the cogito of Descartes continued in reduced form the limitation set by Aquinas's "It is evident that it is this man that thinks", asserted against those maintaining a common intellect, as it was called (we might call it collective or, ultimately, egoless consciousness). What though is self-evident is not the cogito but that thinking is going on. There is thinking. No subject is evident here (Cf. Frege's Der Gedanke or Geach's roulette wheel in his God and the Soul[2], determining the occurrence of thoughts).


Aquinas himself says that what falls (cadit) first into the mind is being (ens), not the subject, though he appears to miss the import of his own formulation, viz. the primacy of thought even over being, so that, in Aristotle's words, thought thinks itself. What else should it think? This primal awareness ("we" or "our" are posterior constructs), requires as first task that thought, as known to us in interplay with experience, be allowed to unfold itself for itself, so to say. Thus is reached the clear and justified or demystified vision of thought thinking itself as the absolute idea by and in which all, the whole, is known, and known again as a knowing or as Spirit knowing us. What is thinking? This is a genuine question, the main question, pace Heidegger.


The situation is echoed in religion. Thus symbolic views of reincarnations filling up the whole apparently temporal series or, which is more in line with our evolution-paradigm, of ourselves as present within a common parent, find their rationale under absolute idealism. The original sin doctrine could never justify the imputation of culpability, that "in Adam all die". The priority of Adam (and the name simply means "man") is rather that of the Idea, ultimately of Spirit, the first or infinite. Infinitude is an abstract idea of ours. Real infinity is necessarily differentiated into individuals, as idea is realised in nature and synthesised in spiritual relations of perfect community, the prototype of which in our thought is the Trinity.


The idea is metaphysically prior and time is subjective or illusory. We are born, and hence die, in our idea. The "sin" of Adam is the awakening or "self-sundering" of spirit, as temporally represented in narrative. Each of us is identical with this "ancestral" idea. We are as necessary to it as it is to us, this being the anatomy of the perfect unity which thought requires, as monotheistic religion bears witness.


Such religion, however, contradicts itself, superficially, in a doctrine of creation as it most often is presented. "Let us make man in our image." Later, this image will be reidentified with the Absolute in the Incarnation. Man, that is, or, rather, Dasein, is ultimate, as consciousness. "We know not what we shall be, but we know that when he shall appear we shall be like Him." This, in fact, is knowing what we are, there being no need for likeness, however, when identity is to hand. Thus the duplication which is Adam's emanation as likeness and our reduplication as Adam's progeny must give way to that New Man, in seeing whom we see "the Father", and in whom all are "members one of another". But since this religious teaching is narrative representation of timeless Spirit, as thinking itself, at the summit of the Idea earlier representations fall away, or are only seen in its light, the "true light".


Dialectic here parallels the medieval discussion as to why the new and perfect "law" was not rather given from the beginning. The answer is that the dialectic is necessary for self- or reflexive knowledge, for the transparency without which consciousness cannot be itself. For this reason too the doctrine of angels as beings created, out of time, with the species of all things innately given to them, is incoherent. One cannot represent eternity as bounded by the temporal and the angels are ourselves. We have here an indication of the truth of temporality as necessary representation of the eternal, real and spiritual. Here too the negative or Other must be presupposed as moment of the Whole, since this whole is in essence the reconciliation of all otherness.


In positing man as absolute, as Spirit, we do not become atheists. There is more kinship with Spinoza's acosmism. Rather, the dilemma of theism or atheism, as seen by today's religious militants, for example, is transcended, and this is presented as the meaning of our historical experience, itself in reality a dialectic, wrapped in the bosom of thought thinking itself. If it comes to that, we are not claiming man as man either, but as Spirit ever blowing where it will. We know not what we are, since spirit transcends, in fact "sublates", substance. Substance as imagined is not and never was. It is a question of how much reality humankind can let in.




Thirty to forty years ago now Pope Paul VI brought out a document called The Credo of the People of God. He prefaced it, somewhat jarringly, with an assertion of the necessity of believing (though not as part of the ensuing Credo) that the human mind is natively capable of attaining truth. It is indeed, but it is increasingly evident that this confidence is in contradiction with the facts of evolution taken absolutely and cum praecisione. An infused soul is therefore postulated as divorced from and unaffected by the evolutionary paradigm, thus making out of our intellectuality something unnatural and miraculous within nature's own field.


Much unnecessary perplexity is thus engendered, stemming from obstinate adherence to the Moderate Realist theory of our knowledge as permitting continued belief in a universe of material substances wrongly identified as necessary object of the dogma of divine creation. Idealism, however, as sketched above is clearly the more natural pendant to any assertion of the primacy, the all-sufficiency, of Spirit. This is indeed the truth which we must believe Spirit capable of knowing. As Spirit it thinks itself, purely, while each of us, its differentiations, are one with this indivisible because necessarily perfect Whole in an identity in difference. This is the truth which Mind can attain, as the history of philosophy demonstrates, let there be doubt or hesitation over this or that point. Mind as containing all is outside of itself, a state they used to call intentional. The inside is the outside and vice versa.




The document of the Church leadership referred to here indicates a wish to draw back from post-medieval philosophical perspectives, which undoubtedly treat "moderate realism" as a form of naivete. Attempts have been made since the nineteenth century to portray this perspective itself as a form of naivete on the part of the Enlightenment (one thinks of books such as E.Gilson's On Being and some Philosophers or the treatment of Descartes in Maritain's Three Reformers) and these attempts might have offered synthetic reintegration of philosophy's history on the Hegelian model, were it not that the idealist antithesis of the Enlightenment period is merely there rejected in toto, a "pilgrim's regress" indeed. But there can be no such regress, no refuting of Berkeley, say, in a mocking paragraph merely. The nature of both time and experience forbid it.


Hegel, in his day, which was as much "a day" as any day in the thirteenth century, engaged with Christian doctrine with all the resources he had to hand, as of course, a little later, did J.H. Newman with his. They might seem to have come to opposite conclusions. This appearance is deceptive, however.


Newman wrote of The Development of Christian Doctrine. So too did Hegel and both were free of the narrowness of many of their followers, orthodox or "liberal". But Newman's treatment was more historical than philosophically systematic. Had this not been so then he would have been compelled in logic also to treat of a possible development of his own doctrine of development. His conclusion was that development had led doctrine up to the point then reached by the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. Newman's own later difficulties with that leadership ought though at least to make us modify such a judgement, even if we are not going to end by seeing him as a crypto-Hegelian.


This perspective of the open Church, however (which we here open up) as much on pilgrimage in the sphere of doctrine, that is to say in the sphere of the optimal expression of the substance of faith, as it is in all other spheres, is one more suited to emerge at the end of this study. Here we merely indicate, our subject being Hegel and not Newman. Nonetheless, we find that the same pattern of opposition within a more fundamental unity, as between these two, when they write of development, is repeated among Hegel's interpreters (one might ask if this is so with Newman's, or even with Aquinas's!), as we shall now see. In itself this is evidence that Hegel might be right in making his overarching conception one of reconciliation.


So we take two interpretations, that of Georges Van Riet (1965)[3] and that of McTaggart (1901), theistic and atheistic respectively. Our task is to declare what they are and then to try to determine whether and how far they are compatible, or not, as the case may be. Since one interpretation is professedly theistic, and indeed Catholic, while the other is professedly atheistic we already make a statement in raising this question. We admit, that is, to a possibility that the understanding of the Christian message, the substance of it, might be indifferent to a choice to express oneself in theistic or atheistic terms. At the very least we admit to an initial openness to the question once raised.


McTaggart's view of Hegel seems on the whole the simpler of the two. He points out that God in Hegel is no more and no less than the ultimate reality, whatever it is. He adds that what Hegel finds to be this ultimate reality differs too much from the general notion of God to retain the name without causing confusion. For reality, Hegel claims, is, as pure Spirit, a whole consisting of all finite-infinite spirits or persons, each one of whom is in some way identical with this whole and therefore indispensable to it, without beginning or end. It is not therefore created.


Regarding Jesus and incarnation, if we should now consider Hegel's specifically Christian credentials, McTaggart finds that for Hegel Jesus is simply conveniently fastened on in popular religion as God-man because of the "immediate" way he himself understood and taught the reality of this identity, the absoluteness, that is to say, of rational personality, which he of course had no hesitation in identifying with the observably human, whatever the final truth may be. Incarnation thus understood is true of us all, since we are all manifestations in the misperceived milieu of matter and time. We are not truly incarnate because matter is unreal, but we all appear to one another. McTaggart adds that he cannot finally judge whether or not this might prove compatible with something one can call Christian.


Thirdly, McTaggart finds Hegel's Trinitarian thought totally incompatible with orthodox teaching. This is because for Hegel, he rather convincingly shows, Spirit, dwelling in the community, is understood as the synthesis between the thesis which is the Father and the antithesis which is the Son. Both of these latter are therefore imperfect conceptions absolutely requiring synthesis in the absolute notion of Spirit. I must add that it is not so clear to me that this is not compatible with orthodox Trinitarianism, where, too, the Father has no reality without the Son, nor both without the Spirit uniting them. Even if revelation take a historical form, this does not of itself entail a realist philosophy of history and what is gradually disclosed at the end may all the time have been the sole and complete reality, in which the rest is contained.


One may add to this that McTaggart has a section showing systematically how he thinks Hegel's moral teaching is virtually the antithesis of Christian ethical attitudes. This, however, might again be seen as a replay of the Jesus versus the Church antithesis celebrated, if that is the word, by Dostoyevsky or "liberation theology".




We pass to the Van Riet, the Catholic Blondel specialist from Louvain. It is more detailed and differently nuanced. We may begin with some comparisons of his treatment of the points from McTaggart just mentioned.


Van Riet answers McTaggart's query about compatibility with Christianity with a cautious affirmative. He thus asks, like McTaggart, if Hegel's God is "personal", and the quotation marks are his own, as if, unlike McTaggart, he might be ready to find this a false dilemma. Personality, he remarks, "is not a major category" for Hegel.


As for God, he is conscious and free; under this heading, if you wish, he is "personal" (95).


In saying this he does not, as one might think, contradict McTaggart's apparent atheism, where the latter makes the community of all persons the absolute. For Van Riet adds that God "is the society of men" (McTaggart is somewhat more cautious about who or what the spirits are; so here Van Riet's Christianity paradoxically makes his Hegel more humanist).


To this Van Riet, showing more theological awareness than McTaggart, adds that "this whole question is full of ambiguity", and for the reason that "for Hegel as for Christian teaching, God is not personal but tri-personal in his unity."[4]


The "personal" character of the "Spirit animating the community" is perhaps not more (and not less) difficult to conceive than the personal character of the Holy Spirit. In the end, Hegel's atheism would not be bound up with this question.


Not more and not less! He is saying that "subjectivity as such" (Hegel), the Spirit in the community where each has the whole within him, the Whole which is thus not separable from human beings ("if God and man are distinct, they are also bound together"VR95), is as much or as little like a person as is the Holy Spirit of tradition, indwelling and independent. This would mean, if he would accept McTaggart's assessment that the whole is "for" the parts but not vice versa, that Van Riet's move (above) from personal to tri-personal as much modifies this attribute "personal" beyond the normal as McTaggart, say, thinks that Hegel modifies the term "God", i.e. beyond due proportion.[5] This consideration, though, and it is important to stress this, would not as such rule out a future more conscious development of general Christian doctrine in this direction. It is anyhow quite clear that this is what Van Riet is pleading for.


Even McTaggart refers obliquely to this eventuality when he explains the obscurities of Hegel's philosophy of the Christian religion by pointing out that at one and the same time Hegel treats of other religions in the full positivity of their concrete reality while he explains Christianity, the absolute religion, in terms of what he thinks it ought to be. Well, it would not be "absolute" otherwise. Thus the medieval phenomenon he, Hegel, simply writes off as "the unhappy consciousness", along with the mistake of the Crusaders, stemming from their and their contemporaries naive (or "moderate") realism, of seeking after earthly relics of Christian beginnings as a means of closer unity with their source.


Indeed what is at issue with "the unhappy consciousness"? Essentially this: In it Hegel wants to show the failure of a realist consciousness (Van Riet, p.94).


So much for the first point, the doctrine of God. We come now to Jesus and the incarnation. Surely here McTaggart's forthright attitude as described above must diverge from any "Christian" interpretation of  Hegel, we will want to say. As Van Riet puts it (p.82), "Jesus is the God-man… He is the other of the Father, reconciled with him in the Spirit. For the unbeliever he is only a wise man, a new Socrates… For religious consciousness… He is God incarnate…."


Perhaps the phrase "religious consciousness" supplies a key to reconciliation. McTaggart points out that in calling Christianity the absolute religion, for whatever reason, Hegel does not depart from his essential subordination of religion to philosophy. The religious consciousness deals in symbols and thus far falls short of direct or philosophical encounter with reality. It was necessary, Hegel claims, in the Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion that one man should present himself, in all "immediacy", as divine, not attempting to prove this, while in the Sermon on the Mount he teaches our own divinity, that the pure in heart shall see God (Hegel's example), the peacemakers be the children of God, the kingdom of heaven be ours (we are then kings, even if we should receive it as might a child) and so on. But he insists that the "incarnation" shows what man is, essentially, and not what he shall contingently become.


Van Riet seems able to agree, saying "Man is God's image, God's son, reconciliation" (p. 82). Man is God's son, and not only Jesus.


He knows that not only the history of Jesus, but also his own history, grasped in all the depth of their meaning, are the manifestation of the eternal history of the Trinitarian God.


Here there seems to be a bit of backtracking. It would be more consistent to say, to add, that he knows that not just the Trinitarian life of God, but also the life of his own spirit, were it to be fully grasped, manifests, is one with, the absolute. This, indeed, or the inner lives of all person whatever, just is "the eternal history of the Trinitarian God", according to Hegel. What is Trinitarian is the triadic form it takes in each, not an over-arching system of necessary persons, since these finite-infinite persons, our own subjective consciousnesses, are themselves necessary and timeless, without beginning therefore. We have already found McTaggart pointing to the dialectical character of Hegel's Trinitarianism, whereby the persons are not equal so much as that the Holy Spirit synthesises the thesis of the Father and his antithetical negation in the Son, with which Nature is at least analogous. But in orthodoxy too Father and Spirit are nothing apart from their mutual relation. Ipsae relationes sunt personae may contain depths not yet plumbed. Dialectic, for example, might help us overcome the brute either/or of economic and metaphysical Trinity as we have them now, as the relativization of time rids us, as we noted above, not only of those angels and their aevum, but of the mirage of a pre-existent Christ.[6] All is eternal. Therefore the angels cannot be made eternal over against a real temporality somehow bounding eternity.

Similarly, the incarnation in one or several chosen individual natures entails a regime, a class of real beings over against or excluded from as bounding the sphere of the infinite, among which God would choose or prepare candidates  for union. Even the most jejune doctrine of an analogy of being(s) would exclude this scenario, where God is not God, a situation not saved by inventing the phrase "ontological discontinuity" (Richard Gildas), which names rather the scandal. Instead, every finite thing is God incarnate, as everything affects everything else. Sound philosophy forces this conclusion and the corresponding interpretation of the Biblical data, that the Son of Man stands in this way for all men. They are all and each one with the Whole. This, of course, is totally against Jewish exclusivism (as it is incompatible with any realist doctrine of sin, not however to be remembered in eternity, the prophet intimates), in terms of which St. Paul expounds an exclusivist Church (Romans 9-11, balancing the first two chapters). St. Peter, however, learned in a vision to let the Spirit blow over Cornelius and where it will. He did not have to be "grafted in", a complicated operation at best.




It will be fruitful to make an additional comparison of the more specific treatments by the two thinkers of Hegel's view of the relation between religion and philosophy, in order finally for ourselves to pronounce upon this.[7] We have already sketched McTaggart's view, and Hegel's own approach can indeed be read off in the closing pages and layout of The Phenomenology of Mind, culminating in the section on absolute knowledge, which comes after as perfecting religion. We might call it an Alexandrine view (note on Hermetic). But what of Van Riet?


Van Riet refers several times to what Hegel "wants", and it seems to me that this is the operative word. Men, and women, desire to think what they practice or believe, since this is quite naturally an irritant to their minds. Nothing less, in fact, is the project of theology. But, as Van Riet points out, theology today takes to itself, as it must in order to be itself, all the freedom of philosophy. Wherein then can there be a difference? For Aristotle his metaphysics was theologia and claiming that there is a "sacred" theology in the same breath as we acknowledge and allow for doctrinal development is scarcely meaningful. There was merely a theology more or less monopolized by people "in holy orders". Hegel too develops his philosophy from Christian doctrine, in part, and all development is in part in this sense. Thus some of the Thomistic development too comes from pagan sources brought into contact with the Christian ones. Besides this, we must allow for lateral development, where we take insights not only from earlier experience but from present insights evolved beyond the pale of orthodoxy, as Catholicism learns from Protestantism or from modern science.


To put this in another way, we have found that Van Riet's "Catholic" interpretation of Hegel, which he as it were pleads be taken over by the Church and her teachers, coincides in large part with the "atheist" account of Hegel given by McTaggart. Atheist or not, McTaggart leaves open the possibility of its being reconcilable with Christian teaching. There is a larger question here. What is at stake, namely, is a possible rethinking of the nature of (religious) faith. It is this question that our investigation of Hegel's thought and its interpretation is meant to help clarify, insofar as it is quite clear that this is the question which Hegel himself faced. Our method, that is, is philosophical and not historical. We do not seek to know what really  happened, Newman's "realist" mistake insofar as he was ready to take such putative happenings (this is comparable to a naive interpretation of exceptional occurrences or miracula as "miracles") as normative. We seek to understand what finds itself in our consciousness, having come there by whatever route.


Philosophy is reflection on experience. And Hegel knows very well that the notion of a Trinitarian God is born of the experience of Christianity (Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, tr. Speirs and Burton Sanderson, London 1895, III, p.99). But for him the experience is not contingent. As with reflection, it is the work of Reason, the manifestation of Spirit in history. Each philosophy, as each religion, comes in its time… Also, in his eyes, the affirmation of the Trinitarian God is neither a "theological" affirmation (in the sense of Saint Thomas), nor a thesis of "Christian philosophy" (improperly rational, because inspired by faith), but it stems directly from the philosophical order, and the task of showing the truth of it belongs to philosophy. (Van Riet, p.81)


As we saw, in McTaggart's view the truth Hegel finds here does not correspond to orthodox teaching. Van Riet scarcely considers this possibility or, rather, we can take him as meaning that Hegel's Trinitarian thought, as it surely is, has as much claim not to be rejected out of hand as does anyone else's. It is now accepted that doctrine develops. We have here a development of a doctrine otherwise worked out more or less fourteen centuries earlier. What in fact was soon to be somewhat idiotically called "modernism" by its detractors, who went to the hysterical lengths of imposing an "anti-modernist" oath upon certain classes of the faithful, was simply a working out of Newman's principle, by which each new generation should develop the substance of tradition according to its inherently superior lights. The principle of progress, after all, has been conceded by those attempting to guard orthodoxy at least since Paul VI's Populorum progressio of 1967.


We cannot say with certainty that human philosophy at any time whatever was capable of reaching precisely this Trinitarian conception. A particular experience maybe needed to be supplied first. But after this Christian religion which Hegel calls the absolute religion, at least as properly interpreted by philosophy, has reached maturity then philosophers are bound, indeed compelled, to "reflect on human experience in its totality"(Van Riet). To pretend that this is only to be done as if receiving from a superior other, an authority, what one does not experience oneself is all too easily in fact a kind of inauthentic division in the self which prevents one being any kind of philosopher whatever, even if one acquire the skill of expounding Aristotle backwards, let us say. This was in fact the scholastic error, an error of form which, in the scholastic period itself, only the genius of an Aquinas might hope in part to overcome.[8] So much for "the rule of faith". What we believe is what each of us, like St. Paul, "received of the Lord", i.e. from within and out of ourselves, of course in union with all others, since this is what it is to be a self at all. As Hegel says, further to this, the truth is never a mystery, for


What is directed towards rationality is not a mystery for it; it is a mystery only for the senses and their way of looking at things (III, 17).


Here we touch precisely the problem of the understanding of faith, not of things believed but of faith as a form of apprehension. A prophetic intuition of the error involved is given in the Fourth Gospel where the Samaritans, after going out to see Jesus at the well, say that now they believe in him and his claim, not because of what the woman he spoke with has told them but because they have seen for themselves, just as she once did. We may need to start off relying on someone else, but we certainly don't want to stop there and it seems dishonest or perverse to continue to take one's stand upon the witness, however exalted, once one is seeing for oneself, Joan of Arc's problem, one might say. There is, all the same, a certain ecstasy of faith in which people emphasise such perversities, precisely because for them at that moment they seem to promise a contact with the transcendent, as when Newman states in effect that the basic doctrine of Catholicism is the infallibility of the teaching Church, surely a strange view of things. Such a putative privilege must needs rest upon something greater in the very nature of things. There is indeed argument for blind belief being on occasion rational, and Naaman (not Newman) the leper had this argument supplied to him by the servant-girl before he went and washed in the scruffy little Palestinian river to which the prophet had scornfully directed him. That is not what we are talking about here. We are discussing the making of such belief into the form of all sure knowledge necessary for salvation, as they used to say, in the way that one "believes in" God.[9] Our thesis is that they started to say this in a bad moment, a somewhat "inquisitional" moment indeed.


What Hegel declares by his philosophy, and declares, be it noted, precisely for Christians, is an end to viewing the religious and symbolical form of apprehension of ultimate and "saving" realities as absolute. Christianity, ideally interpreted, may be the absolute religion, but precisely because it is still religion it cannot be absolute absolutely, so to say. Absolute knowledge belongs to philosophy and the philosophical mode of "mediation". McTaggart in fact will question Hegel's right to maintain the absoluteness of Christianity, even taken thus absolutely, since, he says, whether it is to be succeeded by a superior religion (as it always can be since the religious mode as such is imperfect) is an empirical matter only knowable when it might occur.


Another approach, perhaps not envisaged by McTaggart, is closer to Hegel's mind, it would seem. It is possible to interpret Christianity, as did the Pharisees or the ancient Roman persecutors, as hostile to the religious principle as such. In saying that whoever sees him sees "the Father" the man Jesus promulgates an absolute humanism, whereby man is God incarnate precisely because man is himself absolute spirit. (Cf. Christianity without God, Lloyd). On this view Christianity has been misunderstood as long as it has been seen as a religion, and not simply as The Way, a philosophy simply, though first presented in prophetic and religious terms alone available to the Semites, as was later the case with Islam.


From the outset every Christian soul feels the shift there is between Hegelian discourse and the language of the Bible along with traditional theology… Hegel is perfectly aware of this… In his eyes, it is the divergence which fatally separates speculative thought and religious representation. In a word… according to him man is divine rather than divinized, or more precisely, he is only divinized because in himself and for himself he is divine. His concrete essence or his concept… is to be and know himself as a "moment" of God, whereas according to the Christian tradition man's essence is to be a contingent creature, set in being by a free decree of God and, in relation to this essence, his condition as sinner and his divinization are accidental. The first befalls him by the fault of the first man, the second is added by virtue of God's gracious decisions (elevation to the supernatural order, redemption by Christ, real sanctification by the gift of the Holy Spirit). Hegel understands man's divine filiation as essential rather than accidental, seeks an intelligible meaning for what is realised in fact… raises religious "content" to the "form" of speculative thought. Must all this be the same as radically contesting God's transcendence, offending his sovereign freedom or completely distorting the Christian message? (Van Riet, p.96).


Whether it must or not, Van Riet considers, there is a way of presenting such transcendence that is no longer acceptable as Good News. One wonders if indeed transcendence can be separated from such presentation. Can we so state this Good News without betraying it, asks Van Riet, writing as a Christian, and goes on immediately to ask if we entitled or obliged to make reason the criterion of everything in this way.


It comes to this, that any and all self-transcendence is and can only be transcendence of self by self. Alienation, accepting things externally, is incompatible with the infinity of what naturally seeks and grasps the universal, in that immaterialitas which is radix cognitionis, we might say. Immateriality is in fact spirit, and not merely the absence of matter. For spirit transcends matter in its notion. Matter in this sense is part of the dualist illusion. But it is dualist also to make of God the other of the self. God, as Augustine understood, is closer to self than is self to itself. This is transcendence. In the same way it is crude anthropomorphism to think of revelation as God speaking within history as a man might. This would be no infinite "lordship" of history. Spirit rather assumes its new forms, shows more of itself, at the right time and place in accordance with a logic, a rationality, in principle able to be descried by the human spirit seeking to understand. Mystery, that is to say, is not a surd and in transcending the analytical understanding (Verstand) faith directs us to the employment of speculative reason (Vernünft). Such reason, however, is Spirit at work in the world, as it worked in those who composed the Biblical texts.


One has to notice though that here one in some sense flogs a very dead horse. Theology today, that is to say, is not distinguishable from Hegel's philosophy of religion. One understands that one has to "surpass the thought of the biblical author". There are no principles to be fixed by positive theology independently of reason itself, since one cannot prevent these from being revisable dialectically, this being contained in all that we mean by "paradigm shifts". The Wittgensteinian image of kicking away or as it were dissolving the ladder (to mix metaphors) by which one has ascended is appropriate here too, just as I do not have perpetually to recall the long transcended accidents whereby I fell in love with whom or what I now love. The intentions of contemporary theology and of Hegel's religious philosophy are one and the same.


We touch here, it would seem, upon politics, even though the issue is a transcendent and spiritual one, a fact which in itself raises politics above the way it is more usually conceived. It is often said that the Church is not a democracy. By this is meant that there are those who teach, with an infallibility that the notion of teaching taken absolutely, but only so, must require and there are those who learn, again with an exceptionless obedience only proper to learners taken absolutely. But there has always been question as to whether or how, in what sense, "one man can teach another" (Aquinas), just as it is not clear whether it is the doctor (teacher) or the sick man's own nature which heals him. There is, rather, a time to listen and a time to speak, though I listen in saying that, in teaching that, to the method of The Preacher.


Thus, or nonetheless, there were in the first times of the Church, as if on an equal dignity of standing with one another, both teachers and prophets. The office of prophet is fulfilled in our culture by the philosopher. The philosopher does not say "Thus saith the Lord" because he knows now that this is a crude anthropomorphism, though in early Semitic milieus the crudeness of concept may have been open to refining interpretation of its nature. Spirit, rather, issues in philosophy (as philosophy issues in sophia, one hopes) of which the thinking human being remains as it were the scribe. Jewish Old Testament prophecy, all the same, was conducted under the sign of alienation, from which Christ came to liberate us, as foretold by Jeremiah when he said that no one will tell others to know the Lord, because all will know him, which returns us to politics.


For those in power this has been called, simply, laicism (or modernism, liberalism  and so on where clergy were themselves on the wrong side) and we even have an analogy from the philosophical establishment itself (and such "inner rings" are ever forming) from where such active freedom of thinking, where all proceed as if they knew "the Lord" or have direct understanding of all things, even though they are not in universities, say, is occasionally dismissed as a "rebellion of the masses" or some such. But these masses are an abstraction, or at least they do not refer to man as thinking, but as ideologized, which is thinking's opposite and its denial. Such a state, however, of ideologization is a deformation of the individual's nature as a thinking person.[10] This is why we should not have a laity, even a laos, in this sense and he who once had compassion on the multitude expressed it by meeting men, and women especially, individually, i.e. really, whenever this was possible for him.


It is however no longer the pharisees or even the popes, unless as servants of the servants of God, who sit in the seat of Moses. That piece of furniture is presumably no more sacrosanct than the torn up old veil of the Temple and the fondness for speaking of a cathedra is thus implicitly "Judaizing". For the form is supposed to have changed, isn't it? It is important to see how a correct understanding of the relation between faith and reason is interwoven with this political and social but simultaneously philosophical, that is to say anthropological question.


It is in fact the same with faith as with logic. There, in order to take part in the life of reasoning, one has to see for oneself that the various logical laws one employs hold, either immediately or mediately. It is not possible to think according to externally imposed rules and believe in what one is doing, believe that one is thinking. One might be dutifully performing some other procedure, but one is not thinking. Similarly, in order to take part in the life of faith, one has both to understand the truths proposed to one and see that they are true. Usually people don't see that they are true (they may profess them nonetheless) just because they don't understand them. It is not possible to profess what one does not understand and draw any kind of life from it whatever. You must at least have confidence that you will understand because of your confidence in the, it may be, wonder-working proposer. One's mystification, that is, will be cleared up. Such theology, or philosophical scholasticism by proxy, does not express faith. So what is faith? It is something that philosophy perfects or "accomplishes" since it exists in order to that. As proper to man in via, subject to temporal process, faith is the reverse of sitting still and is rather a movement that can only be dialectical, not losing truth already won, perhaps taught by another initially, but only initially, but continually refining and perfecting it and in the process seeing it more and more for oneself. In this sense one may approve the saying that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom". What the fear of the Lord will mean in a Christian or Jewish milieu will correspond in more secular milieus to a readiness to "prove all things" and to "hold fast that which is good", starting, that is, from a listening to tradition, the child's position in life.


In this way it is quite clear that whether or not the statement that "the Church is not a democracy" says anything to the point the members of the Church, at least like everyone else but hopefully better, have to behave democratically, as free human beings serving the freedom of one another, that is to say. No one is to be told that he or she is not to try to understand or "judge" initial beliefs imposed by the social and family milieu. All judgement worthy of the name is private and personal anyway, so the phrase "private judgement", an in its time Orwellian "newspeak", was never anything but invidious. General Councils should not therefore be seen as declarations as to what is to be believed but statements as to what the promulgators, say rather publishers, of these declarations, believe, or, in the case of a Pope, what he believes, infallibly or not. If he is speaking as a teacher and magister then he will be teaching and not, impossibly, telling people what they must believe. He can at most say "Believe me when I tell you…", which is not a declaration as to what is to be believed. There is no law or rule in it in other words and in any case different people believe the same thing in different ways, as the internal heterogeneity even of the canonical Gospels illustrates. Someone denying the reality of matter will understand Christ's resurrection differently from a materialist like St. Augustine at the time when, he tells us, he could not conceive of a spiritual substance. It is in fact almost Hegel's main point that a realist philosophical epistemological outlook, as we find in "common sense", disqualifies us from understanding the religious mysteries and creates, in fact, the celebrated "unhappy consciousness" of specifically medieval Christianity, in his view.


One needed to be yet more radical to escape the medieval nemesis. One said, this is what we believe. Believe the same if you want to be with us, otherwise you are cursed. In fact the first so-called Council of Jerusalem (actually it does not really belong in that series imposed from the tormented future) said nothing as to belief, giving practical directives only, a tradition rejoined in part by the "pastoral" intent of Vatican II. All the same, this was the line taken in the first preaching and it is important to see that, given certain politico-religious conditions bound eventually to occur for some while, this approach leads quite naturally (and just like Serbian nationalism) to the crimes and persecutions of later times in the name of this "faith".


What this means is not that the content of faith is false but that its form of presentation was defective. Truth itself, for that matter (since faith is truth's apprehension), is not something that just some group gets possession of so as to exclude those thinking differently. Sumit unus sumunt mille, implicit prescription for an open Church. There was, that is to say, a dose of "sociomorphism", to use Berdyaev's immediately intelligible neologism, from the beginning, the rule of faith corresponding to a universalizing law in other fields. It is permitted though, and indeed mandatory, to rectify this defect of form, a process actually begun among Catholics, and thus encouraged in the world at large, by the original Vatican II declaration (unhappily still called a decree; the illusion that one can impose democracy dies hard) on ecumenism of over forty years ago now.


To see that the medieval crimes necessarily follow from the earlier stance, of the regula fidei, is to understand the duty of enacting this process of purifying the form of believing, going over to what can only be a philosophical form. Realisation of this form coincides with the democratic movement, according to which all are called upon to become literate and thus philosophical, to prepare a civilization of philosophers in accordance with Porphyry's rather optimistic assessment of the ancient Jews as a nation of philosophers, because, precisely, of the form of their believing.


So it is not a question of "proving" the mysteries of faith, for Hegel, but of showing their meaning in so far as they accord with a true philosophy. In the process people come to accept them because they are reasonable. This is why divine interventions in history, as contingently imagined by the half magical Semitic mentality (or not only Semitic) of ancient times, cannot be left uninterpretedly in the form in which they are delivered to us. Neither divine action nor divine freedom can be contingent. Therefore, to show the necessity and rationality of faith and its truths is not to change their content but to present them in a more perfect form, and this was ever the task of theology, whether in the time of Aristotle or in the developed Christian time in which Hegel found himself. Again, "the spiritual man judges all things". 




These considerations might strike some as not particularly novel. Liberal Catholicism goes back to the days of Hegel himself, after all, and Gregory XVI appears to have perceived, already in 1832, the depth of the challenge, when, in the Encyclical letter Mirari vos he wrote that what was being called liberalism "overthrows the nature of an opinion". This was of course a biased and alarmist way of saying that our way of viewing the phenomenon of opinion becomes here the matter of the discourse. This too, however is, as it ought to be, as old at least as Plato, when he suggested in The Republic that the things concerning which we hold opinion, doxa, "both are and are not". That is to say, the dialectic of thesis and antithesis which Hans Küng and others today find essential to theological method, as the post-modernists (or Nicholas of Cusa) find it in philosophy, is dictated pro parte objecti, from the side of the object, of experience, that is to say. The process of putting together in a judgement what our abstractions separate extends right up to the final vision, the "last" judgement which is the absolute idea. Ecumenism, one has long suspected, is not compatible with finding the "separated" partner absolutely mistaken. It is a question of bringing his or her and also our truth to light, where they will be seen not as identical but as complementary or even, and typically, forming a contradiction for the understanding which is resolvable for speculative reason in synthesis.


This might seem to afford no firm ground for beginners, no starting-points. One can indeed suspect that the dogmas and rules of history have functioned as easier substitutes, or at least as shorthand, for faith properly so-called. Whatever the function of the so-called Apostles' Creed the Creed proper was elaborated at Nicaea, like all subsequent definitions, as a way of taming the endless mental life that faith, faith proper, evoked. What else but this kind of faith, and not a mere subscribing to documents, could have been called the principle overcoming the world. It overcomes the world precisely because it never rests content with the finite but ceaselessly proceeds towards that which is absolute and perfect, in philosophy, in social life, in prayer and all over. "Greater things shall I shall you do."


This is not a mere basic trust, though that be a great part of it, enabling the main activity it names. It is a pressing on, in the confidence that a wall of separation has been broken down, that precisely the transcendent acts in our own actions and free decisions. Here we see the fundamental importance of the Thomistic doctrine of  praemotio physica and how through it alone a future was guaranteed to Christian thought such as the Molinist alternative would have closed off, despite the superficial association of the Jesuits of that time with humanism and despite, for that matter, their preventing the Pope of the day from courageously affirming the grand Thomistic principle (Congregatio de auxiliis). Such was the price for keeping Venice Catholic, threatened as it seemed to be by the preaching of one Paolo Sarpi, otherwise forgotten. Thus we got deism and Kant. But the future of Thomism lay with Hegel. Yet even this was too alarming for the guardians of orthodoxy at a time when the Dominican and classical Augustinian spirit was in virtual eclipse (though of course everyone fancied himself as Augustinian). And so, especially when faced with a creative application of Hegel's thought even in Italy, ontologism, the papacy and its advisers hit upon the ingenious expedient of reviving the thirteenth century intellectual world in toto, instead of continuing to develop and perfect ontologism!  But life has indeed been breathed into these dry bones and so, with new appreciation of not merely praemotio physica but of the truth that God has no real relation with the finite world, in other words that the finite world is untruth. In praemotio physica the whole of Hegelianism lies coiled, something one could hardly expect St. Thomas to come out with in his own immoderately realist day, or even in those days when condemnation, of liberalism, of "modernism", "laicism" and God knows what else followed one another. Here then, today, we have the beginnings of the demystification of faith, so that it can indeed overcome the world. This process indeed is part of its continually doing so. The dialectic proceeds, like evolution, that time-bound symbol it has in the fullness of time invented for itself.


Briefly, God, the absolute, initiates all my initiations. So I am not I. My freedom is freedom itself. God has no relation to me, just for that reason. I am that one, the All, though I be part. The world exists entire in my knowledge of it. Each one, each part is as necessary to this perfect unity as I am myself, as necessary that is, though differently, as it is to us. This alone is why, or how, there can be one closer to me that I am to myself (Augustine), or how one can dwell in me in whom I dwell. "There is a time when God dwells in the soul and a time when the soul dwells in God" (De Caussade). The tradition is constant. "The eye with which God sees me is the eye with which I see him" (Eckhart). Knowledge, finally, of subject and object, "will vanish away".


Whether this was Hegel's view or what Hegel ought to have said, if anyone is not sure, we may leave open, following the medieval praxis of sympathetic interpretation of authorities, which is really idealist. We would not fall into the realist trap (of seeking the living among the dead) when considering just absolute idealism.

















Stephen Theron.

Gran Canaria. 27.XI.05.

[1] J.M.E. McTaggart, Dtudies in Hegelian Cosmology, Cambridge University Press, 1901, final chapter. See also, on Becoming, A Commentary on Hegel's Logic, Cambridge University Press, 1910. Some find this interpretation of Hegel misleading, as happens too with Aquinas's Aristotle. But the later thinker may still be preferred in either case, though one need not concede the criticism.

[2] RKP, London 1969.

[3] Georges Van Riet, "The Problem of God in Hegel", Philosophy Today, especially Parts II-III, Vol. XI, No. 2/4, Summer 1967, pp. 75-106 (Part I in the Spring 1967 issue of this journal). Translated from the original French version in Revue Philosophique de Louvain, Tome 63, August 1965, pp. 353-418.

[4] P.T. Geach makes much of McTaggart's ignoring of the divine tri-personality in Christianity (Truth, Love and Immortality, Hutchinson, London 1970. But he adverts to it frequently in his Hegelian studies, if not in The Nature of Existence. Since the three persons are not taught in Christianity as acting separately (tritheism) his objection to an all-inclusive person is not fully met by Trinitarian considerations.

[5] Cp. The Pauline "You are all one person in Jesus Christ."

[6] Cf. Herbert McCabe on this topic, in criticism of Raymond Brown, in God Matters.

[7] On Hegel and "religion" see also Msgr. André Léonard's "Fé cristiana y reflexion filosofica", Spanish version accessible on the Internet. The Bishop refers to Van Riet's "amiable" criticism of theologians (in his Philosophie et réligion, Louvain 1970) from his philosophical viewpoint. Elsewhere in his text though he complains of "human" solutions being substituted for "the rule of faith" when he might have treated these rather as interpretations, even of the "form" of faith, precisely Van Riet's point (see below).

[8] Cf. Our "Faith as Thinking with Assent", New Blackfriars, January 2005, pp. 101-114.

[9] Yet according to classical theology, one is supposed to take this "doctrine" too, of God, after conversion, rather on the word of the Church alone, taking distance from one's "private" theological musings. What is private is matter for the confessional merely. Whatever truth lies hidden here lies, indeed, pretty deeply hidden!

[10]  Hannah Arendt's great insight in her work on totalitarianism, its origins and nature.

written by Stephen Theron

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