Thursday, May 29, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Christology of Hegel

James Yerkes.  The Christology of Hegel.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel was a nineteenth century German philosopher.  James Yerkes’ The Christology of Hegel is about Hegel’s view of Jesus Christ, and how that fit into Hegel’s larger religious, historical, philosophical, and political ideas.

Yerkes’ book, as I understood it, presented a lot of tensions.  Here are some of them:

1.  Hegel believed that a spirit, God, was moving history forward to a time of freedom and rationality.  He treated German Protestantism as an exemplar of where history should lead.  Yet, Hegel was not always so optimistic.  At times, he did not regard German Protestantism as the ultimate culmination of historical progress, thinking there was a yet future stage.  Hegel looked at Germany and saw problems like factionalism.  Yet, in the midst of these problems, he clung to the idea that God is close to human beings, and he regarded Jesus’ incarnation as an exemplar or a precursor to that.

2.  Hegel believed that Jesus was an essential part of historical progress.  Jesus needed to be here and do what he did for humanity to arrive at where it needed to be.  For Hegel, Jesus promoted authentic morality and embodied God’s presence with humanity.  Yet, my impression is that Hegel also had some problems with Jesus.  For one, Jesus was from a Jewish culture, and Hegel did not have a high opinion of Judaism, believing that it promoted alienation within the human race (i.e., God chooses a people who are separate from others).  Second, Jesus had apocalyptic and world-denying ideas, and Hegel thought this was why Christianity encouraged separation and systemic fragmentation rather than unity.

3.  On the one hand, Hegel emphasized the importance of the incarnation, which is God becoming man.  On the other hand, Yerkes interprets Hegel’s Christology as being rather adoptionistic: that Jesus was a man who was particularly in tune with the divine, and so God decided to make this man Jesus into the Christ.

4.  On the one hand, Hegel championed reason.  He did not care for Shleiermacher’s subjective, feelings-oriented approach to religion.  He hoped that reason could sift between the universal and normative aspects of Christianity and what was merely historical and cultural.  He believed in people doing what was right out of a free recognition that it was the reasonable thing to do, and he supported political systems that would allow that.  He regarded the religion of his time as slavish adherence to doctrines and laws, without much authenticity.

On the other hand, Hegel valued the cultural expressions of religion (i.e., church, doctrines, practices, etc.).  He believed that fed people in a way that mere philosophy could not.  He wanted to unite his people, and culture was a way to do so.  He was against human autonomy because that could amount to each person doing what was right in his own eyes.

5.  On the one hand, Hegel believed that we can know about God rationally.  He disagreed with Immanuel Kant's idea (or an idea attributed to Kant) that we cannot know anything about God through reason.  For Hegel, we can see that we are finite, and thus we can draw the conclusion that there is an infinite.  On the other hand, Hegel thought that people could believe in God as a result of illumination from the Spirit.  

This was my impression after reading Yerkes’ book, and I may have missed some nuances.  Yerkes was a clear author in terms of his prose, clearer than many who write about philosophy.  But I am unclear as to how Hegel held all these tensions together, assuming I am correct in saying there are tensions in the first place.

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