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Hegel’s God

Robert Wallace describes a little-known alternative divinity.


In the debate about God that has been stirred up by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher
Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, writers regularly refer to certain famous philosophers. We hear about
St Thomas Aquinas’s ‘five ways’ of proving God’s existence. Sometimes we hear about Benedict
Spinoza’s unorthodox doctrine that God is Nature. Of course we are told about David Hume’s
critique of the idea of miracles; about Immanuel Kant’s critique of the ‘ontological argument’ for God;
and about Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous announcement that “God is dead.”

There is one major modern philosopher who deals extensively with the issue of God and who should
have been taken into account in these recent discussions, but hasn’t been. This is Georg Wilhelm
Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831).

It’s well known that various liberal theologians during the last century and a half have wanted to
produce a conception of God that could satisfy people’s spiritual longings without conflicting with
Darwinian evolution and other well-established scientific discoveries. What’s not well known is that
Hegel already did this, with remarkable power and subtlety, in response to the great modern
skeptics, Hume and Kant.

Hegel’s philosophy is difficult to access because of his intricate manner of writing, and because of
various misleading rumors that have become attached to his name. Karl Marx claimed that Hegel
was an important influence on Marx’s own thinking, and since Marx was an atheist, many believers
have wanted nothing to do with his supposed teacher, Hegel. On the other hand, S øren Kierkegaard
made fun of Hegel for supposedly reducing faith to an arid and impenetrable rational ‘system’. So
Hegel’s philosophical theology has been caught between the battle-lines of atheists who reject it or
try to soft-pedal it and believers to whom its terminology is foreign and off-putting. As a result, there
have been few commentators who’ve had enough sympathy for it to lay it out in a way that makes it
seem attractive.

However, I think Hegel’s time should be now. Large numbers of people both within traditional
religions and outside them are looking for non-dogmatic ways of thinking about transcendent reality.
Writers like Karen Armstrong and Elaine Pagels speak to a large audience that’s less interested in
tradition or dogma, as such, than in religious experience and religious thought. A readable account of
Hegel will speak to this audience through the sheer illuminating power of his ideas.

What are these ideas? Hegel begins with a radical critique of conventional ways of thinking about
God. God is commonly described as a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, and so forth. Hegel
says this is already a mistake. If God is to be truly infinite, truly unlimited, then God cannot be ‘a
being’, because ‘a being’, that is, one being (however powerful) among others, is already limited by
its relations to the others. It’s limited by not being X, not being Y, and so forth. But then it’s clearly
not unlimited, not infinite! To think of God as ‘a being’ is to render God finite.

But if God isn’t ‘a being’, what is God? Here Hegel makes two main points. The first is that there’s a
sense in which finite things like you and me fail to be as real as we could be, because what we are
depends to a large extent on our relations to other finite things. If there were something that
depended only on itself to make it what it is, then that something would evidently be more
fully itself than we are, and more fully real, as itself. This is why it’s important for God to be infinite:
because this makes God more himself (herself, itself) and more fully real, as himself (herself, itself),
than anything else is.

Hegel’s second main point is that this something that’s more fully real than we are isn’t just a
hypothetical possibility, because we ourselves have the experience of being more fully real, as
ourselves, at some times than we are at other times. We have this experience when we step back
from our current desires and projects and ask ourselves, what would make the most sense, what
would be best overall, in these circumstances? When we ask a question like this, we make
ourselves less dependent on whatever it was that caused us to feel the desire or to have the project.
We experience instead the possibility of being self-determining, through our thinking about what
would be best. But something that can conceive of being self-determining in this way, seems already
to be more ‘itself’, more real as itself, than something that’s simply a product of its circumstances.

Putting these two points together, Hegel arrives at a substitute for the conventional conception of
God that he criticized. If there is a higher degree of reality that goes with being self-determining (and
thus real as oneself), and if we ourselves do in fact achieve greater self-determination at some times
than we achieve at other times, then it seems that we’re familiar in our own experience with some of
the higher degree of reality that we associate with God. Perhaps we aren’t often aware of the highest
degree of this reality, or the sum of all of this reality, which would be God himself (herself, etc.). But
we are aware of some of it – as the way in which we ourselves seem to be more fully present, more
fully real, when instead of just letting ourselves be driven by whatever desires we currently feel, we
ask ourselves what would be best overall. We’re more fully real, in such a case, because we
ourselves are playing a more active role, through thought, than we play when we simply let
ourselves be driven by our current desires.

What is God, then? God is the fullest reality, achieved through the self-determination of everything
that’s capable of any kind or degree of self-determination. Thus God emerges out of beings of limited
reality, including ourselves.

Note that I haven’t said that God is ourselves, or that God is the world, or (as Spinoza said) that God
is Nature. Instead, I’ve said that God is the fullest reality, arising out of ourselves, the world, and
nature. This doesn’t reduce God to us, the world, or nature, because the God that we’re talking
about is more fully real than they are. There is a process of increasing reality at work here, rather
than some underlying ‘stuff’ that’s simply the paradigm of what’s ‘real’.
Though Hegel’s conception doesn’t reduce God to us or to the world, it does avoid the mistake that
Hegel identified in conventional conceptions of God as a separate being. By locating God in a
process, of sorts, that includes us, the world, and nature, Hegel’s conception avoids identifying God
as something that isn’t us or the world or nature, and thus it avoids limiting God in the way that
conventional conceptions do.

I know this Hegelian conception of God sounds pretty ‘squishy’, at first hearing. What is this thing
that’s neither identical with us and the world, nor a separate being from us and the world? How can
we even talk about such a thing?

The first answer, of course, is that what we’re talking about isn’t a ‘thing’ at all, because if he (or she
or it) were a ‘thing’, he (she, it) would be limited, as we are, and wouldn’t be God. So we need to
stretch the limits of our ordinary language, which is pretty much designed for talking about limited
‘things’ like ourselves. Above all, we need to get used to the idea that for Hegel a word like ‘real’
doesn’t necessarily refer simply to material objects that we can measure, weigh, and kick. Nor need
it refer to an additional category of objects, such as ‘souls’, that aren’t material objects but somehow
get connected with material objects. Instead, ‘reality’ can be a matter of degree, proportional to the
object’s degree of success in being self-governing, self-determining, and ‘itself’. Without an
understanding of this dimension of increasing reality, the notion of ‘God’ is almost inevitably doomed
to the sort of self-stultifying anthropomorphism that Hegel criticized, in which God is pictured as ‘a
being’, a quasi-object, like us.

It helps to have some acquaintance with the traditions of mystical literature, such as St Augustine,
Meister Eckhart, Jelaluddin Rumi, St Teresa of Avila, and modern poets such as Wordsworth, Emily
Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Rainer Maria Rilke. They all show that Hegel isn’t alone in stretching
ordinary language to evoke a reality that, to some degree, is bound to elude it.

The distinctive thing about Hegel’s contribution to this literature is, of course, that he aspires to a
more systematic and logically sound statement than poets are obliged to produce. In this, he follows
the prior examples of (especially) Plato (427-347 BCE) and Plotinus (ca. 204-270 CE). All three of
these thinkers focus in various ways on the notion of a higher, self-determining reality with which we
can be involved through our capacity for seeking to be guided, as Plato says, by the objective Good,
rather than simply by appetite or emotion.

Another important question is, Why is it appropriate to use the name, ‘God’, for this emerging highest
reality? Why not some technical term like (say) ‘the Absolute’ or ‘the Ground of Being’, which
wouldn’t imply any particular connection with traditional religion? Writers like Blaise Pascal, S øren
Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger have rejected what Pascal called the ‘God of the philosophers’ as
having little or nothing to do with the God who’s worshipped by ordinary believers.

Hegel in fact lectured extensively on traditional religion, seeking to show how his philosophy
captures what believers really care about. The following are my thoughts about this issue, based
mostly on Hegel’s Science of Logic (1812-1814), which is his central work in philosophical theology.
The first thing that needs to be emphasized is that when Hegel and his predecessors in this project
talk about human beings becoming more ‘themselves’ by stepping back from their current desires
and projects, they aren’t focusing on a narrowly intellectual kind of functioning. Plato wrote
extensively about love ( eros). His central concern in this writing was to show two things. First, that
love necessarily has an intellectual dimension, a dimension of inner freedom or questioning. This is
because love seeks what’s truly Good for those it loves, and therefore it has to ask the question,
what is truly Good? And second, Plato wanted to show that inner freedom ultimately has to lead to
love of others, for their capacity for freedom. So inner freedom and love, head and heart aren’t
ultimately separable from one another.

For his part, Hegel explains that inner freedom leads to love of others – this is a part of Plato’s
argument that Hegel spells out more fully than Plato did – because attempts to be free
independently of others necessarily fail. They fail because by excluding others from what I’m
concerned about I define myself by my relationship to them (namely, the relationship of excluding
them), and thus I prevent myself from being fully self-determining: that is, from having inner freedom.

This connection between freedom and love will come as a surprise to some of the self-described
admirers of freedom. But it’s easy enough to see in everyday life that people who think of
themselves as having ‘enemies’ seldom manage to be very free, internally. Plato and Hegel aren’t
saying that we must agree with others about everything, or endorse everything that they do. Rather,
they’re saying that we need to be able to see something in others that we can identify with, so as not
to be confronted by something completely alien, which will define us (always) by this relationship
rather than by ourselves.

This intimate connection between inner freedom and love must also operate, obviously, on the level
of God. The God who is fully self-determining because he (she, it) isn’t defined by ‘not being’
anything else, is intimately involved in every living thing, as its capacity for self-determination. Hegel
describes this involvement as “free love and boundless blessedness,” just because of its universal
inclusiveness.

Thus Hegel’s God exhibits the combination of justice and nurturing love that we see in the more
inspiring documents of the Abrahamic religions. Justice, because all are included, and love for the
same reason.

Hegel’s conception explains and preserves two other famous features of Abrahamic religions as well.
The God that Hegel describes as emerging from the world of finite things, gives to them the greatest
reality of which they’re capable. In this way, Hegel’s God performs something very similar to what’s
traditionally called ‘creating’. However, because this Hegelian ‘creating’ takes place throughout time,
rather than only ‘in the beginning’, it doesn’t conflict with what astrophysics and biology tell us about
the history of the universe.

The other feature of the Abrahamic religions that Hegel preserves is that their God in some way
takes care of or ‘saves’ his creatures. The God who is free love and boundless blessedness does
exactly this, though in a perhaps unfamiliar way. Hegel’s God doesn’t ‘intervene’ in the world, or in
something that comes ‘after’ it; rather, Hegel’s God is omnipresent in the world, giving each of us the
full reality and thus the blessedness of which we’re capable.

The final question that people ask is whether Hegel’s God is a ‘personal God’. If a ‘person’
resembles you and me by being a finite thing that you or I could confront face to face, then obviously
Hegel’s God isn’t a ‘person’. If, on the other hand, a ‘person’ is a reality characterized by inner
freedom, then Hegel’s God clearly is as ‘personal’ as anything could possibly be. Religion seems to
be about learning to know and love this kind of ‘person’, in all of his (her, its) manifestations.

I hope something else is evident from what I’ve outlined, as well as from the poets, mystics, and
other philosophers I listed, and from the people you undoubtedly know who resonate with their
writings. Religion that’s understood in Hegel’s way is a much more pervasive, much less dogmatic,
and much more interesting phenomenon, intellectually, than what Richard Dawkins and his fellow
critics identify as religion.

© Robert M. Wallace 2011

Robert M. Wallace has taught at Cornell, Colgate University, and other colleges, and is the author
of Hegel’s Philosophy of Reality, Freedom, and God (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
His website is www.robertmwallace.com.

For Hegel, thought is not philosophical if it is not also religious. Both religion and philosophy have a
common object and share the same content, for both are concerned with the inherent unity of all
things. Hegel's doctrine of God provides the means for understanding this fundamental relationship.
Although Hegel stated that God is absolute Spirit and Christianity is the absolute religion, the
compatibility of Hegel's doctrine of God with Christian theology has been a matter of continuing and
closely argued debate