Varieties of Religion

Religion for Hegel is ultimately concerned with the genesis of Absolute Spirit in mutual recognition. But before that, in most of its historical existence, it involves various “presentations” of this ultimate truth by way of figures and images.

About these earlier forms Hegel writes, “So far as spirit in religion presents itself to itself, it is indeed consciousness, and the reality enclosed within it is the shape and garment in which it clothes its idea of itself. The reality, however, does not in this presentation get proper justice done to it, that is to say, it does not get to be an independent and free objective existence and not merely a garment. And conversely, because that reality lacks within itself its completion, it is a determinate shape or form, which does not attain to what it ought to reveal, viz, spirit conscious of itself” (Baillie trans., p. 688).

Hegel’s sketch of a general phenomenology of religion is as far as I know the earliest attempt at such a thing. Despite significant limitations with respect to concrete data, it has both philosophical and spiritual value. Hegel profoundly admires Greek tragedy, sympathetically interprets his native north-German Lutheranism, and remains close to the spiritual perspective of his old friend the poet Hölderlin. There are many other traditions to which he does not begin to do justice, but here I want to dwell on the positive value of what he does say. As a principle of charitable interpretation, we ought to give much more weight to a philosopher’s distinctive developed thought than to prejudices of the philosopher’s community that the philosopher happened to share.

At top level, Hegel distinguishes natural religion, what he calls art religion, and offenbare (“manifest”) religion. All three of these terms are either used in nonstandard ways or are original to him. Harris thinks that religion is the one area in which Hegel in the Phenomenology really meant to claim a kind of linear progressive historical development.

As examples of “natural” religion, Hegel gives the ancient Zoroastrian symbolism of light, and a notion of spirit as “artificer” that he associates with ancient Egyptian religion. Natural religion for Hegel is not associated with direct nature worship or the early modern “argument from design”. Its most significant characteristic seems to be a sort of abstractness that Hegel associates with the “natural” consciousness for which everything is an object or Vorstellung. As Harris says, “We have to learn to think conceptually (or without Vorstellungen)” ( Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 689).

In this context Hegel observes that “The consciously presented self is not the actual concrete self” (Baillie trans., p. 697). “[W]hat is consciously presented… only ceases to be something ‘presented‘ and alien to spirit’s knowledge, by the self having produced it, and so viewing the determination of the object as its own determination, and hence seeing itself in that object” (ibid).

Harris comments that “In the world of Natural Religion, the human community solves problems and remodels its environment; but it has no consciousness of making itself by so doing. That sort of consciousness can only arise when there is a community of communities that do things differently, and a communication system in which all parties recognize both the legitimacy of this, and the ‘freedom’ that is involved in it” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 564).

This begins to be the case in what Hegel calls the ancient Greek “religion in the form of art”, in which he sees a new recognition of human creativity. Hegel sees a spiritual significance in realistic portrayals of the idealized human form in statues of the gods. In its higher forms, religion in the form of art includes the ideal of living a “beautiful” life.

In Greek culture poets were the principal spiritual authorities. The Greek drama that impressed Hegel so much seems to have begun as a kind of ritual performance, but the great tragedians showed considerable originality of thought.

Hegel says, “The work of art hence requires another element for its existence; God requires another way of going forth than this, in which, out of the depths of his creative night, he drops into the opposite, into externality, to the character of a ‘thing’ with no self-consciousness. This higher element is Language — a way of existing that is directly self-conscious existence. When individual self-consciousness exists in that way, it is at the same time directly a form of universal contagion; complete isolation of independent self-existent selves is at once fluent continuity and universally communicated unity of the many selves” (Baillie trans., p. 716).

Here again we meet Hegel’s thesis that language is the concrete being (Dasein) of spirit. The earlier part of the passage contrasts this with the mere “presentation” of objects. The ordinary use of language already implicitly takes us beyond “presentation”.

“Higher than both [oracles and utilitarian calculations] is to make careful reflection the oracle for contingent action, but yet to recognize that this very act reflected on is something contingent, because what it refers to is opportune and has a relation to what is particular.”

“The true self-conscious existence, which spirit receives in the form of speech, which is not the utterance of an alien and so accidental, i.e. not universal, self-consciousness, is the [poetic] work of art which we met with before” (p. 719).

Harris suggests that Sophocles’ Antigone, who can be read as seeking forgiveness for her brother, would be one of the saints of Hegel’s personal religion, and even that the New Testament can be read as the “last and greatest” of the Greek tragedies.

He quotes Hegel saying the simple content of “absolute” or “manifest” religion is that God is incarnate in humanity and “has essentially and immediately the character of Self-Consciousness” (p. 666).

Harris continues, “‘Self-Consciousness’ has to travel all the way from the life and death struggle to the community of forgiveness; but in its immediacy it is the kind of self-awareness that the living man Jesus had; and it appears to me to be a rigorously necessary inference from what Hegel says that ‘the divine essence’ has no other ‘self-consciousness’ than this. The humanly ’embodied shape’ can say, as the Jesus of our record did, ‘I and the Father are one’. It will be a very naive historian who says confidently that this record (in John) is ‘historic’; but only in the ‘oneness’ that is here asserted (which our science seeks to explicate) can ‘the Father’ properly be said to have ‘self-consciousness’ at all. We, the observing readers, are the absolute authority concerning what ‘self-consciousness’ is; and if ‘absolute religion’ or ‘absolute knowledge’ is even possible, then it does not use language in an analogical way, since no analogy is knowably ‘absolute’. The presence of God is a matter of Sense-Certainty because I too can say that ‘I and the Father are one’.”

“The religious encounter of two selves, which is the immediate shape of Absolute Spirit, is the complement of their encounter in the world. The self in whom God is actually recognized, refused to fight, and accepted the certainty of death willingly, rather than put the life of another self at risk. His God, in whom he knew himself and all other selves, was a Substance whose accidents were all precious and essential. In the religious metaphor, this God sees the fall of every sparrow. He is Spinoza’s ‘God or Nature’, because Nature has already been recognized as the divine ‘Substance’ that contains all finite selves as its accidental aspect.

“It is the structure of Consciousness (as the intentional awareness of an ‘object’) that requires this universal Spirit to be known as other. There is not, and cannot be, anything hidden by its otherness; properly speaking, the Other is ‘the Father’, i.e., the world of the reconciled community of all selves. It can become another ‘self’, the object of an inward encounter, only as my own higher self, the embodiment of the perfectly reconciled community in me. Only in this way can I know God as a self, who is both other, and my own self. From the first moment I have claimed to know anything, from the first moment of theoretical sense-certain consciousness, when I could say ‘It is‘, though I found it impossible to say what ‘it’ was… my own selfhood has had this universal dimension. Now… I can say that this universal dimension is God — that it is ‘I that is We and We that is I’…. My Sense-Certainty that ‘It is’ has become the certainty that God is, as the absolute Spirit…. God’s being ‘the Creator of all things visible and invisible’… will only be interpretable if we can first grasp how the Spirit creates itself ‘out of nothing'” (pp. 666-667).

“No theologian of the schools taught the identity of God and Nature; but Hegel interpreted both the Trinity and the Mass in this way” (p. 675). “The doctrine of the Trinity is the logical expression in a Vorstellung of the concept of Spirit as self-actualizing self-knowledge” (p. 677). “What ‘Selfhood’ is, we learn in experience; and even when we have learned empirically that we are ‘members of one another’, it seems to us paradoxical rather than ‘logical’. So it is a long time before we can see that the Trinity is just the logic of it” (ibid).

“The world in its finite multiplicity is certainly other than God; but the human consciousness of it is the ‘appearing’ of God as ‘essence'” (p. 680).

“Just as Creation was not a gratuitous act, or an arbitrarily free choice, so the Fall of Man did not result from a sinful act of disobedience or pride. The story of the Fall is a myth that expresses the logical necessity of the Spirit’s turning away from the natural world within which it comes to birth, and leaving it behind” (p. 682).

“Hegel’s speculative conception of the creative Incarnation of the Logos requires the reconciliation of the ‘evil’ principle of self-assertion with the ‘good’ principle of duty and sacrifice” (p. 684). “Evil is the blind moment of singular self-assertion, which finally recognizes its own spiritual character as the self that is born from, lives in and returns to, the rational community. If the cycle did not begin with a natural organism, with its exclusive needs, and its selfish urge for dominance and ‘independence’, the human community could never come to be a community of ‘individuals’; or in other words it could not come to be as a self-conscious community, since the individual is the ‘concrete universal’, the self-consciousness that is both singular and communal” (p. 685).

“We must cling firmly to the contradiction that self-consciousness is both Evil and Good.” (p. 689).

“The self has to break with Nature, and become the Unhappy Consciousness. We should interpret this now as the betrayal and loss of the Greek Garden of Eden, the Paradise of True Spirit” (p. 691).

“As we shall soon see, the difference between Religion and Absolute Knowing is marked by Religion’s dependence on Vorstellung. But there is such a thing as ‘fully self-conscious Faith’ — i.e., a religious consciousness that still uses the Vorstellungen, but knows what they mean, and does not count on any Beyond” (p. 688).