Philosophical Theology

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Hegel's theology was formulated in conscious opposition to the deism of earlier Enlightenment thinkers, to Kant's reduction of religion to an aid to moral performance, and to Schleiermacher's (perceived) grounding of religion in subjective feeling. Moreover, it eschewed a return to the rationalist tradition which stressed the transcendence of the impassible God over against the finite, contingent creation. The key concept in Hegel's theology is that of spirit (Geist). It has several connotations that render it appropriate for his purpose. Lacking the more static sense of "substance" or "being," spirit denotes movement, energy, and dynamism. Its religious use, particularly in Hebrew and Greek, suggests that it is expressed in living forms. For Hegel, spirit is essentially self-communicating. It must reveal and reconcile itself to what it is not. Only by so doing does it become fully expressed and achieve its identity as spirit. Thus, although including mental activity, spirit is not reducible to the operations of the intellect alone. Its field encompasses nature and history. To this extent, Geist is better translated as "spirit" than "mind."

Hegel also distinguishes between absolute and finite spirit. This is a critical distinction in his account of religion. The relationship to everything which is not spirit is internal to the identity of absolute spirit. "It is the whole which embraces all otherness, everything finite and determinate, within itself."7 By internalizing relatedness in this way, absolute spirit becomes limited only by its own self. As only self-limited, therefore, it emerges as free and infinite. Absolute spirit may be thought of as God, although it is important to understand that God's identity is only expressed in relationship to the world. As traditionally conceived, the aseity of God is not a feature of Hegel's theology. By contrast, finite spirit perceives otherness as distinct from itself and apart from its own identity. It is limited by the not-self. In this way it is finite and its freedom is curtailed. Generating a struggle for freedom and fulfillment, finite spirit only achieves its goal by a sublation (Aufhebung) in which it is abolished, yet surpassed by absolute spirit.8 The three forms of absolute spirit are located in art, religion, and philosophy.

"[T]he beautiful is characterised as the pure appearance of the Idea to sense."9 For Hegel, the idea (Idee) is the objective form in which the concept (Begriff relates itself to itself. Thus in art the truth is here apprehended in sensuous external form, yet as appearance it is not yet a full conceptual disclosure.10 The function of art is not simply to imitate the natural world but to discover in it an order, unity, and wholeness: "Genuine art for Hegel, does not present us with things as they are in ordinary experience, it idealises them by investing their natural form with grace, balance and proportion which are not encountered in such a pure form in nature itself."11 In doing so, art reconciles the aesthetic subject with the natural world of sensuous experience through the representations of sculpture, painting, drama, literature, or music. In religion, these forms gradually become internalized in the attempt to characterize the Absolute and our relation to it. Nonetheless, religion must continue to use images or representations to describe its object. The stories of the Bible and the classical doctrines of the Christian faith are to be understood in this way. Their inner, rational connections can be set out only by philosophy.

The stress on divine knowability sets Hegel apart from some of his anti-Enlightenment contemporaries, including Jacobi or Schleiermacher. A religion of pure feeling denies the essence of God as knowable and communicable. God is God in the divine self-knowledge, and it is in our human knowledge of God that God is able to know God's own self. Yet this knowledge requires an overcoming of our estrangement from God, a longing for union and reconciliation. In this respect, there is also in Hegel a reaction against the over-intellectualized religion of the rationalists. Here a distinction must be made between an old-style natural theology and what Hegel regards as a proper philosophy of religion. Philosophy has the task of interpreting in rational concepts (Begriffe) the images (Vorstellungen) of religion; to this extent, it surpasses the latter by bringing it to a truer rational understanding. Yet philosophy does not bring about the demise of religion even when it has reached this stage of development. The practical dimension of religion is stressed in his recognition of the significance of cult. In the Eucharist, for example, our existential separation from God is overcome in a double movement toward God and from God. Defending a Lutheran interpretation of the real presence of Christ in the elements, Hegel argues against (as he sees it) the externality of the Roman Catholic theory of transubstantiation and the more symbolic or spiritual account favored by the Reformed churches.

Hegel appears to hold to the indispensability of religion on several fronts. The division of labor in modern societies prevents everyone from attaining philosophical understanding. The symbols and practices of religion will continue to provide more immediate access to God. Moreover, it seems that the function of religion in engaging will and heart should continue to be important even for the philosopher whose mind has learned how to interpret religious representations and forces. Besides this, Hegel seems also to have resisted any assimilation of the institutions of religion to those of the state and civil society. Not every member of a free society can be expected to subscribe to the same faith. In this respect, civil religion is resisted: there is to be no return to a pre-modern (or early-modern) confessional state. At the same time, religion transcends particular political societies: the kingdom of God is a universal community which can unite races, nations, and peoples. In all these respects, then, religion continues to exercise a practical function even after it has been intellectually surpassed by philosophy.

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