Hegelianism, Faith, and the Permission to Believe

Doug McManaman
Copyright © 2002-2006
All Rights Reserved
Reproduced with Permission

During my first interview for a teaching position, I recall being asked: "What do you think young people are searching for?" If I was asked this question today, I'd have to admit that I'd answer it differently than I'd answered it then. No doubt young people are searching for meaning and direction in their lives, but now I'd say that most of the Catholic young people that I encounter each year are, perhaps on a very subconscious level, looking for "the permission to believe". I sense that my students look to me for the permission to continue to exercise the faith that they were given in baptism. There is no doubt in my mind that the principal task of a Catholic teacher, especially a Religion teacher, is to give them that permission. And what a tragedy it is to fail in this, that is, to give them the permission not to believe, or even more scandalous, to not permit them to believe.

I know that as a young person in university, this is precisely what I was looking for in my professors. I received that permission not from my early Religious Studies professors, but from a more unlikely source, namely a Philosophy Department. Mind and heart are distinct, but not separate, and so it is possible to have the mind of a giant, but the heart of a child. Not only is this possible, but for the Christian, having the heart of a child is required: "…be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Mt 10, 16); "unless you change and become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 18, 3). In fact, it is only those who have the heart of a child that can hope to become intellectual giants: "I bless you, Father, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children" (Mt 11, 25). And of course, intellectual history is filled with giants who had the simplicity and humility to believe what was revealed by God through the Person of His Son, such as Alexis Carrel, Louis Pasteur, Jacques Maritain, G. K. Chesterton, and Ronald Knox, to name just a few. My philosophy professors were living testimony to the Christian paradox of "greatness through littleness", and it was this testimony that became part of the rock foundation upon which I was allowed to build my life as a Catholic. In them I saw real believers who chose to assent to truths that in themselves escape the grasp of human reason, truths that -- if they are genuine articles of faith -- have been revealed by God and as such are God's word about Himself, as opposed to being merely man's word about God. And that itself is an article of faith, namely, that Scripture is precisely God's word about Himself, that "in the sacred writers, in the womb of their intellect, God's thought was introduced into humanity, taking the form of human thought" (Durrwell).

Because God has conceived His one, eternal thought in time, in the imperfections of the things of time, fragmentary, complex, and limited, hermeneutics becomes a necessary and indispensable tool in the reading of the Scriptures. But the kind of biblical hermeneutics that became popular in some Catholic circles during the later half of the 1960s had its roots in the German Rationalism of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). This hermeneutics was not a theological hermeneutics at all, even though its subject matter was theological -- namely Scripture. For theology is faith seeking understanding, and as such it works from the top down; the first principles of the science of sacred theology are articles of faith, or the truths revealed by God in sacred Scripture. Contrast this with philosophy, which works from the bottom up, that is, which begins with first principles known through the natural light of unaided reason.

But for Hegel, religious faith is nothing more than a stage in the evolution of "Pure Consciousness", a stage ultimately surpassed by reason. In other words, there are no truths that exceed the grasp of human reason. Strictly speaking, theology is not possible according to Hegelian Rationalism. And many Catholics who uncritically adopted this particular hermeneutics were unaware of the philosophical framework that was behind it; for essentially that's all it is: a philosophical structure imposed upon the Scriptures. Thus anything in Scripture that did not readily fit into this rational structure was, in Bultmann's words, demythologized. What transcends the clutches of human reason, namely the supernatural and the preternatural, became myth.

To get a better sense of this, let us briefly review some of the fundamental points of Hegelian logic. Hegel begins his philosophical enterprise not with real beings in the real word. Rather, he begins with the idea of being. And this is typical of epistemological idealism, which examines our ideas first in order to determine what the world outside the mind is really like. Now if we consider the concept of being in general, we soon realize that it is the emptiest of all concepts. For example, the concept of an ant is far richer than the concept of being. If we wish to arrive at the concept of being, we simply divide the thing, such as the ant, into its genera, that is, we move from the more specific ideas to the more general. An ant is a specific kind of insect, of the order of Hymenoptera, and so it is an insect, an animal, a living sentient creature, a living creature, a substance, and finally a being. This final concept has been emptied of all content. And we can employ this method with anything, be it an oak tree, a man, or any sort of artifact; for we will always arrive at the most general class of all classes, namely being. Outside the mind, in the real world, we have an individual ant that is really a sentient creature, a thing, a being. In other words, the mind divides and separates what is undivided in the world.

Now Hegel is an idealist, and so he identifies the rational with the real, that is, logical being (in the mind) with real being (outside the mind). Within the mind, all concepts can ultimately be divided up and broken down into the most general class of all things, namely being. Therefore, in reality, everything can ultimately be identified with everything else. Reality is ultimately One, that is, reality is Being, or as Hegel concludes, God, the Absolute, the Idea. Everything is ultimately one, and everything is ultimately God.

Emptiness, however, implies "nothingness"; for an empty glass has nothing in it. The concept of being is empty of all content, and so according to Hegel, it is simultaneously nothing. Parmenides was not willing to go this far. Like Hegel, Parmenides held that being is One, but unlike Hegel, he maintained that being is unchanging and permanent, and that non-being 'is not'. What Hegel wanted was a world of constant becoming. But the only way to explain change when being is treated as an idea is to posit non-being as a principle of change. And so Hegel did just that; he ushered in non-being as a real constituent principle in the constant coming-to-be of things in the world.

Consider that as we think about the idea of being, we realize that it is empty, in other words, we realize that being is virtually nothing. Our thoughts move back and forth, from being to non-being. And since what goes on within the mind is indicative of what goes on outside the mind, being and non-being are engaged, on the most fundamental level of reality, in a constant dialectic. It is this dialectic, this tension back and forth, that gives rise to "becoming" or change. Ultimately, being is nothing (empty), and nothing is being, and this dialectic is "becoming".

For Hegel, God is the "ground of being", and so God is this dialectic. Everything, recall, is identified with everything else. In other words, everything is One, or what amounts to the same thing, everything is God. The evolution of the material universe is nothing more than the evolution of the Absolute (God), which reaches self-consciousness in man. The history of philosophy is the history of the Absolute in the process of achieving perfect self-understanding, which is achieved in the philosophy of Hegel. Religious consciousness is merely a stage in this evolution -- by no means the final stage, but one, rather, that is surpassed by Hegel's philosophical self-understanding.

This means that philosophy can fully understand and explicate the tenets of religious faith. In fact, only when philosophy has done so are the tenets of religion fully understood. But there are many things in the Scriptures that simply cannot be reconciled with Hegel's philosophy, such as the transcendence of God, God's free decision to bring things other than Himself into existence, the perfection and unchanging nature of God, the Trinity, the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity (at least as it was understood in the first and second centuries of the Church), the miracles of Christ, in particular the resurrection. In consequence, these are subject to demythologization. Hans Kueng (Kung), who is probably Hegel's most popular disciple, provides an example of demythologization. After a rather labored attempt to portray himself as one who adopts the middle position between the two extremes of what he calls "fundamentalism" on the one hand, and rationalism on the other, he writes:

The story of the calming the storm, for instance, may have originated in a rescue from distress at sea after prayer and a call for help. The story of the coin in the fish's mouth may be based on Jesus' request to catch a fish in order to pay the temple tax.

Much of what Kueng writes concerning the purpose of the miracle narratives is true, but in the end, the demythologized product unveils no less than a thoroughgoing rationalism, which he somehow believes he has avoided. This is particularly evident in his treatment of the resurrection:

Corporeal resurrection? Yes and no, …No, if "body" simply means the physiological identical body. Yes, if "body" means in the sense of the New Testament soma the identical personal reality, the same self with its whole history.

This is ironic in that the biblical term soma means precisely the entire person in his corporeal identity. For a Jew, if there is no physical or bodily resurrection literally speaking, there is simply no resurrection; for you are your body. Faith in the bodily resurrection does not amount to fundamentalism any more than does faith in the Incarnation. Rather, it is the only conceivable position that follows from the non-dualist anthropology that regards matter as included in the essence of man. A bodiless human person is nothing more than a dead one. Kueng's position is not the mean between extremes, but the extreme of unbelief disguised as a balanced compromise. The notion of the resurrection simply does not fit into the framework of the necessary and dialectical evolution of the Absolute, ultimately identified with the whole of the physical universe.

But this has never been, is not, and never will be an accurate formulation of how the Church understands herself. When all is said and done, there is nothing in Hegelian "theology" that requires a genuine assent of faith, that is, an intellectual assent to truths that, in and of themselves, transcend the grasp of reason. Hegel and his disciples are primarily and principally philosophers, not theologians -- at best philosophical theologians engaged in philosophical theology.

If Hegel's original premises are correct, then perhaps it follows that everything, including the New Testament itself, is ultimately subject to the rationalistic hermeneutics of German Idealism. But what is striking is that this very complex philosophical edifice (of which we have only scratched the surface) is built on a very simple metaphysical error. Put simply, being is not a genus, a class, or an idea. Being is analogous, not univocal. Quantity is a genus, quality is a genus, and substance is a genus, and all of them are modes of being irreducible to one another. But being is not itself a genus. The reason is quite simple. Through the addition of a specific difference that is outside the genus, a species is produced. For example, add "sentient" to the genus "living", and we get "animal." "Sentient" is not included in the meaning of living -- otherwise all living things, such as a rose bush, would be animals. It is for this reason that being cannot be a genus. For outside of being is non-being (nothing), and adding nothing to a genus does not give us a species, but merely the same genus without any specific addition. Hegel's system of thought is really one very complex, eloquently constructed arrangement of philosophical nonsense, founded upon the absurd claim that nothing 'is' and 'being' is nothing.

God is not the ground of being. God is, rather, His own act of existing, while every other being in this universe has its own unique act of existing, which it has received from God. Outside the mind, in the world of real being, the act of existing is the richest in intelligible content and is the perfection of all the perfections of a thing. There is a real multiplicity of beings in this world because the act of existing of each being is diverse, and thus not shared by any other thing.

Consequently, God and nature are not one, and man is not divine. God does not reach perfect consciousness in man, but rather man discovers himself in God. And God may choose to reveal Himself in such a way that what is revealed transcends what is evident through the effects of creation and the efforts of reason, that is, in such a way that the gift of faith is required in order to know the content of what is revealed. And the faith of a Christian is precisely that God has indeed revealed Himself as a plurality in unity, a Trinity of Persons, one of whom joined himself to a human nature in one hypostasis, and that this Person entered into the darkness of a sinful world, one in which each person finds himself unable, on his own strength, to rise above his inclination to sin and selfishness, that is, to rise above the wounds of that mysterious condition that we call Original Sin.

It is also quite possible for God, who is distinct from and the author of creation, to bring about an event that is outside the order of the laws of nature, that is, work a miracle if He so chooses. This is especially true if Jesus is the Incarnation of the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. If all things came to be through the Word (Jn 1, 1): And God said, "Let there be…and there was…" (Gn 1, 1-31), and if Jesus is the Word who came into the world (Jn 1, 10), then the move from faith in the Incarnation to faith in the fact that Jesus spoke and the "wind and the sea obey him" (Mk 4, 41) is not a difficult step to take. Miracles are only difficult for the person who has chosen not to believe in them. Indeed the Greek word for "miracle" means "sign", and thus miracles are signs of the kingdom. But there is no signifying without a real existing sign. If Jesus did not actually heal the physical blindness of the blind man at Bethsaida, or actually heal the man with a withered hand, or cure Peter's mother-in-law, then nothing is actually signified. One cannot receive a ticket for driving above the speed limit that is signified by a sign that does not actually exist.

Moreover, according to Hegel, contradictories can be true at one and the same time ("is" is nothing, and nothing "is"). But when we dispose of the principle of non-contradiction, it is impossible for anything to be definitively true. That is why the most politically acceptable point of view in a culture pervated by Hegelian liberalism is that which is so indeterminate that it includes virtually every other point of view. We've even seen this Hegelian indeterminism creep into the preaching habits of a good number of Catholic clergy. It isn't often that we hear the kind of preaching that actually says something determinate enough to make demands on a person's conscience. The nebulous realm of theological platitudes has become the standard of acceptable preaching today, at least for those priests educated in the late 60s or early 70s.

Hegelianism and the pseudo-biblical hermeneutics that results from it cannot nourish the faith of a person because such a hermeneutics is not rooted in faith, but rather unbelief. Form criticism, for example, can be a very useful tool in the hands of one whose life is governed by supernatural faith, which is a gift that one cannot acquire on one's own efforts. As Francois-Xavier Durrwell writes:

Scripture has two facets -- one accessible to the senses, the other visible to faith alone. It was so with Christ, whom his enemies saw with their eyes and nailed to the Cross, but whom his believers adored…There are various ways of approaching Scripture, and not all of them lead to an encounter with Christ. Scholars without faith can make scripture an object of investigation; but there is no critical apparatus that can bring them to the heart of Scripture, to the point of meeting with Christ. It has been said that scripture is a locked house with a key inside. To enter it one must live in it, one must be in Christ, in his house which is the Church. One must be inside faith. This is yet one more sphere in which it is true that "whosoever hath, to him shall be given." (Lk 8. 18)

Adolescence is the time of greatest religious readiness. Young people who have the gift of faith would like permission to believe. Their faith is genuine, but frail. Our first task is to have the courage to believe; for our students will inevitably forget most of what we taught them, but they will not forget whether we were persons of a living faith. Hopefully, none of us will ever make the sad discovery that we were so hung up on appearing sophisticated that we could not find the humility to stand before our students with the heart of a child that believes.