Karl Barth Blog Conference (2007) - Hegel

(This post was written by David Congdon, a long-standing friend and colleague of mine who needs no introduction in the theo-blogosphere. If you aren't already a regular reader of his blog, Fire and Rose, be sure to head on over and check it out.)

Hegel: A Great Problem, A Great Promise
1. Introduction

In 1953, Karl Barth remarked, “I myself have a certain weakness for Hegel and am always fond of doing a bit of ‘Hegeling.’” While Barth strongly criticizes Hegel throughout his works, he is careful to always remind his readers of his high regard for Hegel’s philosophy. Barth’s fondness for Hegel becomes more apparent in his later years as his theology begins to interact with Hegel directly, and the essay on Hegel in Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century is a sustained appreciation for his accomplishments that sheds important light on how Barth appropriated Hegel in his own theology.

Barth begins his essay by asking, “Why did Hegel not become for the Protestant world something similar to what Thomas Aquinas was for Roman Catholicism?” (370). Barth sets out to answer this question in the pages that follow, and he returns again and again to this problem: How could the modern age abandon Hegel, whose work towers over all those who followed him? How could such a magnificent mind be almost entirely ignored so soon? Barth spends a good deal of time asking this question in different ways, and it is worth quoting some of them for the sake of setting the stage for Barth’s answer.
That Hegel, at all events outwardly, should temporarily at least appear to have been put so much in the wrong by the events of history; that is the amazing fact. … Was not Hegel he who should come as the fulfiller of every promise, and was it worth waiting for another after he had come? … Was Hegelianism really just another ‘ism’ among and before and after many others? … The century had denied its truest and most genuine son and since then it no longer had a good conscience or any true joyousness or any impetus. (371-73)
2. Hegel’s Philosophy

The question then remains: Where does the fault lie for this turn of events? Barth tables this question for the time being—he says to place all the foregoing “in parenthesis”—since “we do not know whether the age of Hegel is in fact entirely past” (376). Barth then proceeds to examine the three central aspects of Hegel’s philosophy:

2.1. First, according to Barth, Hegel’s philosophy seems so convincing because “he has complete trust in his own self-knowledge,” or to put it another way, Hegel is confident that “his thinking and the things which are thought by him are equivalent” (377). The basis for Hegel’s self-confidence rests in the identity which exists between thinking and what is thought, an identity which is established in the act of thinking itself. Hegel’s philosophy is a confidence in the thinking mind, which is finally identical with God. In this self-confidence, Barth sees Hegel as fulfilling the trajectory of the Enlightenment while at the same time affirming the central insights of Romanticism.

2.2. Second, Hegel’s philosophy is a confidence in human reason—in the act of thinking, the event of reason. According to Barth, “Reason understood in this sense is absolute reason, the concept in this sense the absolute concept, truth the absolute truth, the idea the absolute idea, mind the absolute mind” (384). The “secret” to Hegel’s philosophy is that human thinking is identical with the event of reason. In other words, the act of thinking is an event, or rather it is the event in which truth, life, revelation, even God are all realized. The act of thinking is “an absolute act”; it is actus purus (385). The concept as absolute concept, reason as absolute reason, is thus God (387-88). Furthermore, the event of reason has a particular rhythm, characterized by the “triple heartbeat” of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis; the dialectical method of reason thus gives to reason itself a historical character. Reason and history are conjoined such that reason is a “life-process” and history is a rational event (386). Finally, Barth asks where the center of Hegel’s philosophy resides—where one might locate his most significant idea—and he concludes that it is not to be found in any particular concept or area of philosophical inquiry. There is “no centre here at the expense of a periphery,” but rather “the centre moves with the thinker himself” (391). The dialectical method of Hegel’s thought has no single center but instead makes all reality the centre of philosophy, because what distinguishes the event of reason is precisely its universality. Hegel’s genius rests not so much in the dialectical character of his method but “in the invention of a universal method” (made possible by the dialectic) by which all doors may be opened, all possibilities surveyed, and all questions answered (392).

2.3. Third, Hegel’s philosophy resolves the classic conflict between reason and revelation, between civilization and Christianity, between the polis and the ekklesia. He resolves this conflict by producing a philosophy which is at the same time a theology. Hegel’s philosophy does everything theology intends to accomplish and does it better. The reason this is the case is that Hegel uniquely produces a philosophy that is not de-historicized, in which the rational and the historical are not at odds but are instead harmonized. Whereas Schleiermacher wanted a “treaty” between culture and religion, Hegel is able to join them together, thereby restoring the unity of the human and divine that “had been lost since the Middle Ages” (396).

3. Hegel’s Demands

With these three central facets of Hegel’s philosophy established, Barth proceeds in the rest of his essay to examine the three demands that Hegel’s philosophy of religion made upon modern culture and theology; he concludes by looking critically at these three demands to see what in Hegel remains “unacceptable to theology for good reasons” (403).

3.1. The first demand Hegel makes upon “modern cultural awareness” is the recognition that “man lives from the truth, and only from the truth” (398). The progression of history and cultural awareness are concerned with the truth and depend upon the truth. Because Hegel takes John 14:6 with great seriousness, the truth is finally identifiable with God, and so we can say that humanity lives from God alone. The same demand is made upon theology in order to remind theology that “truth should not concern it less than philosophy but, on the contrary, much more” (401). Hegel’s demand is one that contemporary theology needs to hear again and again. The basic thrust is that theology cannot take place within an isolated echo chamber; theology cannot properly exist in a ghetto. Theology is concerned with truth, and not with a part of the truth but with the whole truth—i.e. with God. Here Hegel offers an important criticism of contextual theologies which seek to attend to one particular social context for the work of theology. As Barth states: “A theology whose basis was merely historical, merely psychological, merely phenomenological” easily ends up standing in the shadow of philosophy, incapable of speaking the truth, and therefore incapable of speaking of God (401).

3.2. Hegel’s second demand upon modern culture is “his insistence on having truth . . . understood as a movement, as a history” (398-99). Knowledge is an event; truth is actualistic in nature. “The concept, the idea, the mind, God himself is this event—not anything outside this event” (399). The historical character of truth is certainly threatening to those who would desire a static truth that presents itself whole and complete, except for the fact that Hegel identifies the truth with God and thus not as something outside of God’s own grasp. Of course, this then threatens the view of God as a static being, but it is this more than anything which Hegel discards. The corresponding demand upon theology consists in Hegel’s insistence that theology “be recognized and discovered in actuality and not otherwise” (401). The later Barth finds much here with which he can agree. Barth suggests that theology after Hegel “fell short” by failing to appropriate the notion of truth as a “real history” (402). Barth suggests that Hegel comes much closer to the biblical concept of revelation than theology ever did by recognizing that God presents Godself to humanity as the Living God—as a dynamic being-in-becoming in the event of revelation. By failing to understand the historical nature of truth, theology failed to apprehend the Living God of revelation.

3.3. Hegel’s third and final demand, according to Barth, is to recognize “contradiction as the law of truth”—i.e., to recognize the dialectical method as definitive of truth’s historical self-movement. The movement of life is a movement through contradictions; it is “not a unity resting in itself, but a perpetual a = non-a,” against the “whole of western logic” (399). The dialectical movement of life, not classical logic, is definitive for all reality, and thus truth does not arise in the removal of contradiction but precisely in the “unity of contradictions.” At this point, we must mention the centrality of Aufhebung (sublation) to Hegel’s thought, which functions as the logical motor driving his dialectic—e.g., in the contradictory history of Being and Nothingness, the two are sublated in the concept of Becoming. Out of this dialectical movement arises Hegel’s doctrine of the Trinity, according to which—against the philosophers and theologians who proceeded him—God is the “eternal process which consists in something distinguishing its parts, separating them, and absorbing them into itself again” (399). As Hegel himself writes: “God is this: to distinguish oneself from oneself, to be object to oneself, but to be completely identical with oneself in this distinction” (404). The corresponding demand upon theology involves the recognition that theological knowledge is also contradictory in nature. Yet it is at this point that Barth begins to register his differences with Hegel.

4. Why Theology Finally Rejects Hegel

Barth asks why theology around 1900 seemed to be no further along than Kant was a hundred years earlier. Certainly theology “could and can learn something from Hegel,” but at the same time “it may in fact be that the Hegelian demand is unacceptable to theology for good reasons” or else needs to be “very vigorously translated and transformed” (403). In order to address these problems, Barth again returns to the three demands: truth, truth as movement, and the dialectical nature of this movement.

4.1. Barth questions Hegel’s rational idealism on the Kantian basis that it divorces thought from practice. Hegel’s theory of truth, because of its grounding in human thought rather than practice, is able to be more universal than it should be. This is particularly felt in the way Hegel is able to integrate sin and reconciliation into the self-movement of truth. According to Barth, this relativizes the radical disruption of sin and the radical newness of reconciliation. In the end, the problem rests on an overly ideal unity of deity and humanity, which undermines the possibility of revelation being an event of grace from God to a humanity enslaved to sin.

4.2. Following from the previous point, Barth criticizes Hegel on the ground that God and humanity can never truly encounter each other. There can never be a truly new word, especially not a word given by God and received by humanity. Since the self-movement of truth is identical with the self-movement of the human thinking subject, human reason “is just as much divine revelation as is the imagination” (405). “Hegel’s living God,” Barth writes, “is actually the living man” (405).

4.3. The final criticism Barth puts forward against Hegel is the one he himself says is “the weightiest and most significant of the doubts about him which might be raised from the theological point of view”: because Hegel identifies the dialectical method with the being of God, his philosophy results in a “scarcely acceptable limitation, even abolition of God’s sovereignty, which makes even more questionable the designation of that which Hegel calls mind, idea, reason, etc., as God. This God, the God of Hegel, is at the least his own prisoner” (406). Here we come upon a central theme throughout Barth’s theology—viz. the freedom of God. The protection of divine freedom leads him to vigorously reject Hegel’s imprisonment of God within worldly necessity. According to Barth, Hegel’s philosophy means that creation, reconciliation, revelation, the church, and the individual ego are all necessary to God. Hegel “made impossible the knowledge of the actual dialectic of grace,” and this alone means that Hegel cannot provide a true way forward for theology.

4.4. In the end, Barth claims that theology rejected Hegel ultimately for the same reasons that modern culture rejected him: not because Hegel was too radical, but because he was not radical enough. Hegel did not go far enough, but instead fell short. By this Barth means that Hegel failed to think as theologically as he could and should have. “[T]here was not too much, but too little theology” in his demands upon modern culture and theology (401).

5. Assessment of Barth’s Interpretation

For my part, Barth’s critiques of Hegel are for the most part correct, though slightly misplaced in their emphasis. The first criticism addresses Hegelian idealism as opposed to a critical realism, and here Barth is correct to advocate for a much more realistic framework of thought. The other two problems stem from this one. Hegel’s failure is finally his decision to locate reality in the process of human thought, rather than allowing human thought to follow reality. By making the thinking human subject the center of history, Hegel’s attempt to conform human logic to the movement of life becomes an empty gesture. Barth’s second criticism is just an extension of the first. God and humanity cannot encounter each other if they are both constituted by the movement of human thought. If the history of God is simply the history of humanity, then God cannot interrupt humanity and nothing new can ever truly take place.

The third criticism regarding God’s freedom is more characteristic of the earlier Barth than the later, more Hegelian, Barth we find in CD IV. As Schleiermacher rightly points out, the dichotomy between freedom and necessity is a this-worldly polarity, or as others have noted more recently, the freedom of God is not an abstract freedom-from humanity but a concrete freedom-for humanity embodied in the incarnate Jesus Christ. God certainly is not God’s own prisoner; but we might instead speak of God’s self-determination to be God for us, and this freedom can take the form of a divine self-identification with history without undermining the “dialectic of grace.” Barth says this is the most important criticism, but this seems to be misguided. Certainly, the sovereignty of God is more important theologically, but there are ways of upholding divine freedom while still working within a Hegelian framework. The first two problems, however, require a more radical shift away from idealism toward a critical realism.

Without question, Barth offers a very charitable reading of Hegel. He concludes his lecture by saying that theology still has “no occasion to throw stones at Hegel,” since the mistakes he made are no different or no less serious than the ones theologians continue to make (407). Moreover, Barth’s later confession that he is “fond of doing a bit of ‘Hegeling’” is evident in his constructive appropriation of the three Hegelian demands upon theology. The aspects of truth, history, and dialectic are, each in their own way, definitive of Barth’s own theology, but the “Hegeling” of which Barth speaks is most likely in reference to the second of these demands: the nature of truth as movement, event, history.

Barth begins the fourth volume of the Church Dogmatics by speaking of the Christian gospel in terms of “the being and life and act of God” as “a history which God wills to share with us” (CD IV/1, 7). With Hegel, Barth adopts a historicized conception of the being of God, and he even speaks of the history of God and the history of humanity as a “common history.” But this is precisely where Barth differs from Hegel, for the history of God and humanity is a “common history” only because it is the history of Jesus Christ; the history which God wills to share with us is in actuality “an invasion of our history” (7). Unlike in Hegel’s philosophy, Barth is able to posit a true encounter of grace between God and humanity, but he does so by employing an actualistic divine-human ontology concretely defined by the history of Jesus Christ. Barth thus carries out the radicalizing of Christian theology which he criticizes Hegel for failing to accomplish. In the end, despite his fondness for Hegel—and the debt he owes to his philosophy—the irreducible particularity of the person of Christ sets a clear barrier to any embracement of Hegelian metaphysics on Barth’s part. While Hegel’s philosophy presents us with “a great problem and a great disappointment,” we must also be open to the possibility that Hegel remains for us today “also a great promise” (407).

- David W. Congdon


Shane said…

Thank you for a very clear presentation. I think Barth's assessment of Hegel's value for a theologian is quite right. There is something all too human about Hegel's God.

For a more detailed examination of Hegel's philosophy of religion, I recommend William Desmond's "Hegel's God: A Counterfeit Double" (Ashgate, 2005), which makes many similar criticisms but perhaps more aggressively. One of Desmond's most striking points, it seems to me is that Hegel's God can never forgive, because there is no true alterity. An evil event occurs in history, and therefore this evil is within God. It might be sublated, but it cannot be "forgiven," because whom would God forgive? Himself for having wrong himself?

Desmond's response is to look for something beyond dialectic. In dialectic two things are brought together and sublated into a higher unity. Desmond's proposal is to allow two things to be brought together in communication without dialectical synthesis.

This idea seems promising to me.

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