Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Hegel, Anachronism, and Critique

Yesterday was our second and final week of covering Hegel in Hector's class; we focused on the second and third parts of the Lectures on Philosophy of Religion where he discusses the determinate religions and the consummate religion (Christianity).

The discussion was good, but also frustrating for me. Much of it was caught up in criticism of Hegel's "ethnocentrism". Other students were rather turned off by his second section and discussion of various world religions, finding it disturbing how he would test them and find them wanting based on a (supposedly) "Christian" standard. To a certain extent, that's fair enough. Certainly Hegel does not allow the religions to speak for themselves or present a picture of them true to their lived reality. But it was just mind-boggling to me that people would get so caught up on this fact. Some thoughts that were running through my head; some voiced during discussion and some not:

1. Hegel is a 19th century scholar. He will certainly not have the scientific precision of a 21st century religion scholar, because he doesn't have the benefit of almost 200 more years of scholastic discussion. However, Hegel is careful to cite the scientific literature of his time. He will also engage the classical histories in a way that we just wouldn't today, but what else would you expect from someone of his era?

2. Any centrism that Hegel betrays is entirely his own. The Christianity that he presents is often just as unrecognizable as the Buddhism or the Hinduism that he presents. That Hegel works in the Christian tradition and is attempting to offer a philosophical defense of the primacy of the Christian religion should not blind us to the fact that his constructive work does just as much to re-standardize his own religion as it does for any other.

3. Aren't we missing the point?! Reading Hegel today as a religious studies scholar is simply an anachronism. That scientific undertaking has long passed him by. Where Hegel is important, in questions of philosophy and philosophical theology, he can still be read even in his outdated presentation of determinate religion, simply for the sake of the wider project that he assumes rather than for the historical accuracy of anything that he says within his ideal system. No scholar of Buddhism is going to quote Hegel, and no scholar of Hegel is going to quote his thoughts on Buddhism as thoughts on Buddhism; rather they will examine these thoughts as part of a wider Hegelian system, or on an historical level as Hegel's understanding of a particular religion.

4. Hegel's discussion of Spirit is tied to his Christianity, but its consummation in Christianity is not for Hegel its entirety. Realized Spirit is realized in a positive religion but does not thus mean a triumph of any particular positive religion (Christianity) over others. It is rather just what he says it is; a consummation of the whole process of the realization of Spirit. Hegel's apology for the Christian religion is thus not a Christian or ethnocentric critique of other religions; Christianity, like every other religion, is subsumed by the entire process of the realization of Spirit. Whether Hegel's system is or isn't true, it is certainly coherent in its appropriation of particular determinate religions within the wider life of the Spirit and not in any ethnic or religious privileging. Christianity's consummate status does not make it the one true religion- this is trying to fit a square peg into Hegel's round hole. Consummate religion is dependent upon the realization through determination of Spirit, just as determinate religion is dependent for its truth upon its consummation.

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