Thursday, November 13, 2008

Troeltsch on Schleiermacher, Hegel, and Christianity

"Schleiermacher, after declaring in his Über die Religion: Reden an die gebildeten unter ihren Verächtern [On Religion: Addresses in Response to Its Cultured Critics] that he would bar no book from becoming a Bible, later- in his theological and ecclesiastical period- developed an interpretation of Christianity as the realization of that essence of religion which is latent in creation and which evolves by means of the elevation of the spirit over the flesh. Yet at the same time he was careful to consider Christianity in its constantly individual and historically limited, hence always changeable, forms. It was he who coined the catchword "individual" (das Individuelle) and made it fruitful for a nondogmatic understanding of Christian history. For this reason it was also he who limited the absolute religion to a single point, to the person of Jesus, whom he then interpreted, in a sense that was actually both historical and dogmatic, as an archetypal redemptive figure of absolute, unconditioned, and unlimited religious knowledge and power, subject to change in appearance but in reality changeless. The effects proceeding from this original figure, however, he at once subsumed again under the category of history, holding that they were always to be understood not only as mperfect because of sin but also as necessarily limited because of their individual character.

Hegel, on the other hand, defined Christianity in its entirety as the absolute religion, for he perceived in it the highest and final stage of religion. In fact, however, it was for him merely the last of the preparatory stages that, though remaining limited to symbols, would lead to the absolute religion. This absolute religion was to evolve out of Christianity as a purely mental construct, but its truth could be demonstrated only by drawing inferences from the absolute principle inhering in the absolute idea that works itself out in history. Accordingly, the idea of the absolute religion was taken not from history but from the concept of the absolute itself. The concept of the absolute was regarded as a rationally necessary concept. It derived from and was utterly dependent on a rationally necessary concept of God, but it appeared in history only as an end product of thought. However, the connection between this concept and historical Christianity- most important, its connection with the person of Jesus taken as exhibiting this concept perfectly in a practical sense- is merely asserted, not demonstrated.

Thus both of these creative thinkers made only cautious, qualified use of the idea of Christianity as the absolute religion..."

Ernst Troeltsch, The Absoluteness of Christianity and the History of Religions, trans. David Reid, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), pp. 76-77.


  1. So what do you think of all that? It sounds like "spiritual determinism" - much like the "economic determinism" that I'm used too... which seems like a reasonably comparison given their seemingly common Hegelian roots.

  2. Yeah, I think that comparison could certainly be made. I think Troeltsch brings out well the extent to which the Christian religion was for Hegel always still a positive religion and the last stage of a process towards what he's calling "absolute religion". This was the point I was trying to make in class the other week (see my Hegel post on this a little while ago) that Hegel was not really engaging in a Christian "centricity" in his historical discussion of the history of religions- because Christianity itself is subsumed in the process for him. And it is all about the realization of Spirit, so "spiritual determinism", as you call it, is a good description of his project. It is the meat of the process of religious history for him, and it's the reduction that any particular religion will undergo in Hegel's account.

    Troeltsch has been very interesting to read- it will be good to finish this book and also read some of his essays that we've been assigned. There's a real attention to historical scholarship and method; Troeltsch is very good at parsing out how these projects are structured. I haven't gotten to the point where he actually really gets into Christianity as an "absolute religion", so it will be interesting to see where he goes with that.

  3. So I read that Hegel's project was essentially the Protestant version of Aquinas - reconciling Christianity with Greek philosophy. Not sure if that is a fair depiction or not - but it certainly seems to be consistent with you're discussion here about a process of evolution towards and absolute religion.

    It reminds me of something I've heard Christopher Hitchens mention a couple times during this Hitchens binge I've been on. He's repeatedly stated that human civilization was significantly set back by none other than the events commemorated by Hannukah - the Maccabean rebellion against Antiochus and the Hellenized Jews. He talks about how Judaism was largely remaking itself into a Hellenized version that downplayed ritual and sacrifice and became more integrated with Greek philosophy, etc. - but that this whole process was derailed by the Maccabees. He just goes on to say that if Christianity and Islam had emerged at all in a world where the Maccabees didn't revolt - they would be much different. There would be no dark ages and the world would be a better place - etc., etc.

    Anyways - this idea of evolving toward an "absolute" religion seems to be related and I was just wondering if you had ever heard of that historical "what if" before, and if you had any thoughts on it.

    And odd isn't it - that in much of the Christian tradition the Macabees are apocraphyal and just plain left out of the scriptural record. Do you know why that decision was made?

  4. - Hegel might be considered a protestant Aquinas insofar as he set up a metaphysical groundwork within which to think about theology, which has become "canonical" since his time for a large number of thinkers... I think this is the only parallel that is worth making. Christianity since pretty early on has been working constructively with Greek philosophy, so I don't think that's anything that Aquinas in particular has claim to. Barth is the other one that's mentioned as a protestant Aquinas, in some ways with better reason (his project looks a lot more like Aquinas'), in some ways with less good reason (while he is hugely influential, he has not seeped into as wide a range of thinkers as a "canonical" system the way that Hegel has).

    -I'd have to listen to the Hitchens bit, but it doesn't sound like a very helpful point. It's sort of a warmed-over thesis from the 19th or early 20th century, actually. The whole "clash" of Christianity (or Judaism) and Greek culture, with which I'm not especially familiar, is sometimes categorically taken as a good thing or a damning thing, and I don't think it's really either.

    -I don't see how the Maccabees were any more problematic for civilization than the Seleucid dynasty that they rebelled against. One wonders whether Hitchens would have viewed them as on par with the American revolution if they weren't religiously motivated. I suppose they weren't the right sort of independence movement in Hitchens' mind, because they were religious (or perhaps nationalist). As to why this history isn't as big in Christianity... Protestants don't have the benefit of the apocryphal works that cover this period, so that's part of it. I imagine it's because the Hasmonean dynasty came well after the close of the prophetic writings that were more pertinent to the coming Messiah, and so this history simply wasn't as central on a canonical level. I'm altogether ignorant of this stuff, though, so take this whole bulleted paragraph with a grain of salt.

    -I'd be interested to know what Hitchens means when he talks about the "dark ages". Sounds like a glaring misnomer to me. And if we were going to identify one, it wouldn't be the result of religiosity overcoming graeco-roman influence. Why the flourishing of the Eastern empire while the West began to crumble? And what institutional structures kept the West together between (say) 400-900? Who preserved the hellenistic scholarship that Hitchens holds in such high regard? These kinds of questions are worth asking.

    You are indeed following me around with Hitchens trying to provoke me into a response, eh? !

  5. I just wrote a really long response and lost it - this is transcribed from our facebook conversation - for posterity, etc.

    I anticipated most of your critiques - and I don't disagreee there for the most part. The other thing I found uber-ironic is that hitchen's whole concern was that judaism under the maccabees was ritualistic and superstitious.... which is exactly the kind of religion seleucid demanded be directed towards the greek pantheon but I think his bigger point was "how would things be different if Judaism had hellenized and de-ritualized in 167 BC, rather than in 70 AD?"

    what difference would it have made for Christianity and perhaps even Islam if Jesus had moved through a substantially more hellenized jewish community

    and that was more the counterfactual that interested me - rather than defending or demonizing the Maccabees or the Seleucids

    I don't think Hitchens was trying to defend the Seleucids or anything

    also - figured you'd take issue with that characterization of the dark ages. but you don't even have to accept that the dark ages were particularly bad

    the relevant counterfactual is "could we have done better".

    even then... c'mon - at the very least you can concede that between the fall of rome and the rise of the monarchial nation-state, there was a lack of cohesion in the West

    and that lack of cohesion has to count for something

    I think hitchens would definitely acknowledge the monks preserving the classical documents

    but he'd probably throw in "but why did they hide them away in their monasteries? why did it take them centuries to teach it and share it with the people?"

    anyways - he's starting to bug me too listened to a 16 part debate on iraq yesterday... he makes excellent excellent points but also has HUGE blind spots