Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Hegel And I Chat About Spiritless Ages

There's sort of a funny paradox about the soundbytes I've heard recently about the health (or lack thereof) of Christianity in modern culture. Christians claim that they're persecuted, and that they must evangelize to spread what they view as a marginalized belief system in a godless culture. Atheists and non-evangelicals, on the other hand, have bemoaned the influence of Christianity in the culture, and assert that religion is less a marginalized sub-culture than a pervasive influence, whose often-backwards ideas must be combatted in the name of fairness and human rights.

People on both sides of the debate seem to assume that it's a recent development; Christians in particular often seem to long for a time in the past when Christianity was somehow the only cultural influence. Reading some early analytic philosophy recently, I realized that the feeling is anything but recent. Hegel talks about the same thing in Enlightenment-era Germany.

Ah, Hegel. Kant's truest and brightest idealist son, father of the modern logicians. With Kant, one of the most famously difficult-to-read of all philosophical writers. Without a doubt, Hegel is a giant in the philosophical tradition, difficult to decipher though he may be. He is not, however, to my knowledge commonly read as a religious philosopher. This is actually a bit of a curiosity, since he spent his early years as a theology student, and much of his early writing is religion-centered. The later work on logic is best-known of his oeuvre, but his work in philosophy of religion anticipates Kierkegaard on a number of salient points.

In a series of early essays, Hegel writes about what he sees as the major problem with religion in his day: its objectivity. Hegel defines 'objective religion' as the outward aspects of religious life that can be codified in formal ceremonies, historical traditions, and discursive doctrines. I highlight discursive doctrines, because I think it's important to remember, while reading Hegel, that objective religion isn't just comprised of the religious things one does. It also includes the discourses that represent or typify a large body of believers. Hegel makes the point that in their own ways, these discourses are just as ceremonial as the actual sacraments. Taking the Lord's Supper and ascribing to an anti-choice mindset are both objective aspects of religion, on Hegel's reading of it.

These things are objective in comparison to the other prong of the dialectic that Hegel is developing: subjective religion. Subjective religion is the person-by-person experience of God. It's impossible to codify, because it will necessarily be different for every person who experiences it. Hegel believes that both elements are necessary in a living religious tradition, but worries that in his age the objective is becoming divorced from the subjective, leaving only objective religious structures (or dialogues) that linger long after the subjective reasons that motivated them have left or changed. When this happens, the objective traditions can be maintained only by coercion from authorities, or by "superstitious adherence to pure external formalities". Hegel labels such spiritless belief "fetishism".

On the other hand, subjective belief, per Hegel, is "alive, effective in the inwardness of our being, and is active in our outward behavior. Subjective religion is fully individuated, objective religion is abstraction..." Subjective religion is the only way to interact with God, and is thus in many ways more important than objective religion. But there's a hitch: because subjective religion is so individual, it's not conducive to participating with others in the joys of the faith, as Jesus commanded. To solve this problem, Hegel's dialectic resolves itself: the opposition between the subjectivity of the individuated believer and the objectivity of established religion is overcome through a process of personal appropriation wherein the believer reconciles outward expressions with inner feelings and intentions, so that instead of being coercive, the external forms are adapted to objectify internal dispositions and creatively guide individual and corporate activities for all members of a given community. (That was me trying to clarify his points. See why Hegel is the very devil to understand sometimes?)

The point is, Hegel sees in his age the same problem that many liberal (or even just non-fundamentalist) Christians see in ours: people adhere dogmatically to certain doctrines or traditions "because the Bible says so", or "because it's always been that way", but do so with no understanding of the deeper reasoning behind the doctrines. Death penalty? Reproductive choice? Feminism? Queer rights? All of these are issues that fundamentalists dogmatically oppose, but often with a very limited understanding of why. Hegel sees this behavior as a harmful divorce of the objective from the subjective: an individual Evangelical may oppose feminism because the pastor said women should be submissive, but their opposition has no relation to any subjective beliefs that they may hold about the nature of God. Similarly, if you ask them to articulate a connection between their subjective concept of a God that is all-loving and cares deeply for all his creations, and their objective espousal of a homophobic stance on gay marriage, very few can remain coherent in their explanation under even the most superficial questioning. I think I agree with Hegel that there's a significant way in which the objective practice of religion has become divorced from subjective religious life, to the detriment of both.

But how to resolve this conflict? Should we all become hermits or ascetics, eschewing all to concentrate on our subjective spiritual lives? No, says Hegel, if you do that then you miss out on all the good that worshiping together can bring. Instead, the answer is an effort from every believer to integrate the subjective and objective religious lives. Think about what you're doing, he says, and then think about why you're doing it and how that relates to your most fundamental beliefs.

It sounds so easy. It's not, though, particularly for Christians who have good ideas about what their subjective beliefs are like, but find that most of the objective rituals and discussions in their local church conflict with those beliefs. Hegel describes the ideal reconciliation of the objective and subjective opposites as a sort of 'folk religion', vital yet necessarily localized.

What does one do, though, when the folk religion of one's locality (Evangelical Christianity in the Bible Belt South for me, heretical Lutheranism in Enlightenment Germany for Hegel) necessarily excludes one's subjective beliefs? Well, if you're Hegel, you realize that perhaps the proper folk religion for your beliefs isn't located in space-time, per se, but in a system of ideas. You begin to study Kant, and you write in a tradition that allows you to examine your beliefs in the context of generations of other philosophers talking about the same things. If you're me, you likewise realize that perhaps the proper community for your beliefs isn't located in space-time, per se. So you go online, and discover other scattered liberal Christians, alienated in their own localities, but slowly resolving their dialectics nonetheless by creating a dialogue, forming new traditions and new celebrations, in the communities found online. My method is a lot less likely to make me immortal than Hegel's, but hey, at least I'm easier to read.

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