The Irish Crimean: Christian Orthodoxy and Hegel


August 1, 2017 – Fort Russ News – 

Op-ed by Padraig Joseph McGrath – “The Irish Crimean”

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For the last 3 years, I have been living in Simferopol, Crimea. In that time, I have discussed Orthodox theology with people many, many times. It has gradually led me to rethink the task of interpreting the Calvary-narrative. Just to give context to this discussion, first I’ll briefly lay out the interpretation of Matthew’s Gospel which I have mostly worked around up until now, the Hegel-Chesterton-Žižek interpretation. Having done that, I’ll then try to discuss how I’ve recently been re-thinking what is happening in the Calvary-narrative. But I will do so at the risk of sounding somewhat inarticulate – this is my first clumsy attempt to write these thoughts down.

As per the Hegel-Chesterton-Žižek interpretation, the incarnated deity succumbs to death, the ultimate human limitation. Immediately before he dies, he calls out “My god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

According to the Hegel-Chesterton-Žižek reading, this is the climactic moment when Christ himself realizes that there’s nothing waiting on the other side – there is only the void – there is only man and his desire. So, as per this reading, with the Calvary-narrative, the father also dies implicitly. 

However, this is all necessary for the full coming-to-be of the holy spirit. It is only through the self-negation of the transcendental and immanent aspects of divinity that the fully internalized, humanized, existential aspect (the third person of the Trinity) can fully come-to-be. So even in destroying traditional Christian metaphysics, this reading sets up a new Christian metaphysics. As per this reading, the New Testament is a polyphonous narrative whose climactic moment comes when the deity intuits that his own existence is a human existential project.

And furthermore, it is argued that this can be traced back to the “kenosis” thematic alluded to by St. Paul in Philippians 2:7. The transcendental deity fades away insofar as he de-transcendentalizes himself, insofar as he “empties himself into the world….”

And all of this dovetails with a certain interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity, wherein the father, son and the spirit can be seen as distinct “moments” in the trans-historical morphing of the divine, so that the Trinity actually becomes a kind of genealogical explanation of the coming-to-be of the spirit. For example, this is Hegel’s reading of Galatians 4:3-4:7.

“This is the goal and starting-point of History. “When the fullness of time was come, God sent his son,” is the statement of the Bible. This means nothing else than that self-consciousness had reached the phases of development (momente), whose resultant constitutes the Idea of Spirit, and had come to feel the necessity of comprehending those phases absolutely.” (The Philosophy of History, p.319)

A little later, Hegel expands further on his interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity:

“If Spirit be defined as absolute reflection within itself in virtue of its absolute duality….it as recognised as Triune: the “Father” and the “Son” and that duality which essentially characterizes it as “Spirit.” It must further be observed that in this truth, the relation of man to this truth is also posited.” (The Philosophy of History, p.324)


“Christ dies; only as dead, is he exalted to Heaven and sits at the right hand of God only thus is he Spirit….To the Apostles, Christ as living, was not that which he was to them subsequently as the Spirit of the Church, in which he became to them an object for their truly spiritual consciousness.” (The Philosophy of History, p.325)

In this sense, Hegel argues that Christianity is a historically self-aware religion, insofar as its central doctrine is actually a genealogy of its deity.

So in this reading, it is only through the negation of the transcendental aspect of divinity that God can become fully spiritual – that is to say, existential…. And it is only through this de-transcendentalization (or “kenosis” or “self-emptying”) and existentialization of God that human alienation from the divine principle can be overcome. Writers of Hegeliana refer to this thematic as “the kenosis of the cross.”

Now, for the purpose of intellectual rigor, I should clarify that this implicitly atheistic reading of Hegel’s phenomenology of religion is not the most influential reading in academic circles. The interpretation of the Canadian communitarian philosopher Charles Taylor, a bona fide heavyweight, is somewhat more conservative. Taylor explains Hegel’s god-talk in terms of “Geist” – while Taylor’s version of Hegel is certainly not atheistic, he paraphrases Hegel as saying that “we are the only possible loci of God’s own self-awareness.”

Another A-list Hegelian commentator, Terry Pinkard, puts it a different way – Pinkard sees Hegel’s phenomenology of religion and interpretation of his own personal religiosity as resting on the idea that, until the development of the human religious community, God had “remained metaphorically asleep in nature, unaware of his own existence.”

So while neither Taylor’s nor Pinkard’s readings of Hegel could be described as atheistic – both interpret Hegel as believing that the divine pre-exists humanity – nonetheless, they both hold to the idea that it is only through human self-awareness and human religious consciousness that God himself can “wake up” – clearly, they both see Hegel’s interpretation of Christianity (and, to a lesser extent, his interpretation of ALL of the Eurasian land-mass’s known religious traditions) as implicitly humanistic. 

The question inevitably arises as to where “religious humanism” ends and where “atheism” begins. There is really very little difference between Taylor, Pinkard and Žižek regarding what they see as the actual propositional content of Hegel’s interpretation of Christianity or his phenomenology of religion as a whole. The difference between calling Hegel a “religious humanist” and calling him a crypto-atheist depends, then, not on the propositional content of what we think he is saying – the difference is largely a matter of semantics, definition, and which items of his phraseology we choose to emphasize. Frederick Beiser has suggested that “God” is simply Hegel’s pious term for the universe and, along the same line, we might interpret Hegel’s references to “providence” as simply meaning “the process of world history.”

It may be argued that one tendency which Hegel shares with his student Feuerbach is this tendency toward the deification of history (or rather “History”).

Because I had become acquainted with the Žižekian interpretation of Hegel’s phenomenology of religion a few years after I had read Taylor and Pinkard, it was fresher in my mind – that was where I was until I started re-thinking it a few weeks ago. My discussions with Orthodox Christians here in Crimea and elsewhere have gradually seeped in over the past few years, but the light-bulb finally switched on in my head when a friend simply said to me “The logos does not die.”

That opened up a very good theological question connected with Christianity’s appropriation of the Greek doctrine of the logos – if “the father” and “the son” are biological metaphors for the distinction between logos and the immanent manifestation of logos in the world, then how can this logos simply die?

And this is probably where I will start sounding inarticulate. But I started re-thinking the whole schema of symbols in the Calvary-narrative along the following lines: What if we take these symbols in the Calvary-narrative, and move them around a little bit? Then we might end up with a different economy of symbols….

For example, instead of interpreting Christ’s death as the implicit death of God (including the god-of-beyond), why not interpret it as the death of the alienated man? Maybe God becomes human precisely for the purpose of overcoming human alienation…. So, in this series of moments, the meaning and purpose of the incarnation is precisely to be negated QUA incarnation. The death of the human Christ achieves this overcoming of alienation – as per this reading, it is a human being, and therefore implicitly human alienation from the divine principle, which is negated on the cross.

And so, re-thinking the economy of symbols in the Calvary-narrative in this way, the Orthodox interpretation of Calvary, wherein humanity itself is “aufgehoben” to become part of the godhead, started to make sense to me.

Of course, Orthodox Christians do not conceptualize it in terms of “Aufhebung” – they conceptualize it in terms of “θέωση” (“theosis” or “deification”). Insofar as I’m still transcribing everything into Hegelian language, I know that probably sounds like a terribly inarticulate way to put it.

Padraig McGrath was born in the Republic of Ireland in 1973. He has lived in Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic, and has published journalism and commentary on social and philosophical issues for a number of media for 15 years. He moved to Simferopol, Crimea in December 2013, 3 months before Crimea’s re-unification with Russia, and still lives there.

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