The Phenomenology of Spirit: Religion

At the end of the chapter on the moral worldview, we saw a final conflict reminiscent of the original conflict that inaugurated self-consciousness; two self-consciousness each convinced they held the moral high ground, a conflict that could only be reconciled via acts of forgiveness.  As we shall see, this community of forgiveness is necessarily a religious one, and it marks the final transition to absolute spirit.

Religion has two aspects: cultic rituals and faith.  The rituals are the actual practices, while faith is the “theory” underlying these acts.  Hegel argues that religion is essentially about an attempted reconciliation between the particular and the universal; to see how this works, we will be retracing our steps through the entirety of the Phenomenology.

The conflict between the particular and the universal has taken several forms.  It was born in the initial master/slave conflict, but first took recognizable form in the ethical world, in which the universal was expressed in the dread of the underworld.  Antigone forced the appearance of something like individual conscience into this world, and the universal was transformed into reasonable culture.  Culture soon found that the new form of individuality was entirely unruly, and gave way to modern conscience, which eventually necessitated acts of forgiveness.

  1. Hegel and Religion

Chapter 6 ended in confession and forgiveness.  Why is that compact essentially religious?

Faith is related to, but distinct from, religion.  Hegel often plays on that.  Kant insisted on distinguishing them – he associated religion with cult, or ritual.  In the Christian tradition, it is a ritual of thanksgiving which bonds the community together, as opposed to the bonding imposed by war (as we saw in the passages on the legal self).

Faith is a view of the universe as it relates to humans which precipitates the kind of communal response we see in ritual.  In that sense, faith is theoretical.  Kant accepted some form of it as necessary for morality, but he rejected any form of cult, though moral praxis could look a little bit culty.

Hegel accepted the social importance of cultic ritual/religion.  Religious practices are the expression of the practical judgement of a community defining how each member stands with respect to each other.  Hegel says religion is “the speech of the community about its spirit.”  It is the community’s knowledge about itself which is concrete and intuitive.  It reflects the founding judgement of the community.  It is a practical act, but it does presuppose a theoretical commitment to what human existence is; that theoretical commitment is faith, and religion is always associated with it.

We need to take faith in as broad a sense as possible.  In both English and German, it is often used in contrast to reason.  Dogmatic creeds, like the Nicene Creed, do give the impression that faith is an explanatory account of existence, and that account might well be in competition in the account science offers on the base of “reason alone.”  That apparent competition has been the source of many conflicts.

hat conflict has no place in a culture in which reason has not reached the reflective awareness and autonomy of practice in the modern world.  For example, for Antigone to believe in the spirit of her dead brother was not to take a stand against reason, but just to submit to the way things are.  The conflict arose when reason insisted on explanatory hegemony.  That conflict had to arise: explanation tends to completion or hegemony.  Compromises were always bound to fail.

Hegel thought faith was a product of reason.  The Enlightenment conflict was a family feud.  Faith had the advantage of a wealth of human representations, but once it entered into dialogue with reason, it exposed itself to critical self-reflection.

But for Hegel, philosophy is more than just explanatory knowledge – it is also wisdom. Philosophy culminates in the “idea of the idea,” the full comprehension of the process by which thought appropriates being (or given nature) by turning it into a system of meaningful intentions.

The question is, what can religion look like when reason has conquered explanation?  He never really answers the question; more like he clarifies it.

  1. The Experience of Religion

Religion is spirit as concrete individual.  It was present from the beginning as the unspoken, unifying substrate of all the experiences thus far – but as conditioned by the abstraction of the phenomena discussed, just one among many.  In the religion chapter, Hegel discusses religion as it is in itself, that is, the implicit awareness religion has had of itself since the beginning.

We must be careful not to hypostatize spirit – that would be a fall into natural theology.  The spirit at issue here is the awareness of individuals who see themselves as part of a special kind of community.  Also important to note that spirit’s self-awareness is an achievement: spirit acquires historical reality only as engaged in nature and as transcending it.

In its engagement with nature, spirit is dispersed and faced with the existential issues that inspire religious practice.  Hegel notes that religion was absent in Chapter 5, Reason, because it was a portrait of a detached observer who could face no existential issues and therefore had no need of religion.

Religion most graphically manifests the historical self which is the object of the Phenomenology, but only now do we have the experience and conceptual tools to understand it.

What is the concept of religion, or rather what is the experience that leads up to it?  At the end of the chapter on morality, just before the official introduction of religion, Hegel describes a conflict in the same language as the master/slave conflict.

In that first conflict, prestige was the issue.  But in morality, the concern was two opposing consciences.   These two battles are the extreme cases of conflict in human life; it is not possible to assert one’s own position absolutely without involving empirical content that places it at odds with the content invested by others in their own value.

In the original battle, there was no question of evil, since there was not enough self-reflection involved to make a private desire universal.  Prestige is not quite pride.

But pride was the issue in the battle over morality, and pride is the ultimate threat to communal life.  This threat was overcome with the language of forgiveness, into a community bound together by their very individuality.  Hegel claims that this sort of community is typically religious.  How did we get from a conflict to a religious community?

The Enchanting of nature: religious attitudes

The first conflict resulted in the mutual recognition of self-consciousness; why did it have to be a conflict, and not just an accident of nature?  The answer is the same for both questions: the two self-consciousnesses acquired the ability to abstract, to negate, so that desiring a particular object is quickly seen as an issue of desire as such.  Desiring this rather than that requires justification.

It is a change from a natural demand to a claim, a desire.  The validity of the claim involves recognition, and prestige is the satisfaction gained from recognition.  The conflict establishes a difference from nature, a transcendence with respect to it.

One one hand, the negativity of self-consciousness gives us a distance from the past, and also from the future, what might happen.   But that negativity, the ability to abstract, arose out of nature, and its actions are still answerable to nature.  The battle for recognition risks death – the end of that transcendence from nature.  One is answerable to both nature and other consciousnesses.

This is how nature is enchanted: one gets into the battle of prestige in dread of natural consequences.  It is not merely an animal dread, but rather a fear of nature itself – how nature may reclaim and snuff out consciousness.

At the end of the moral chapter, the risk is not death but sin, the end of the community.  But from the beginning, nature has lurked, threatening to snuff out consciousness, and religious praxis is always an answer to that anxiety.  There have been several forms of that anxiety, each with its own version of religious praxis.

The pathos of resignation

The first form of religion is natural religion. On one hand, there is a sort of cosmic justice, a natural order to all things which causes the actions of humans to come to grief.  On the other hand, there are the human actions themselves, which are are particular actions born of (apparently) natural desire, and they upset the universal order of things.  This calls for redress at the hand of that cosmic justice (δ ́ικη).

Each side involves a judgement: the universal judgement of cosmic justice which fails to take into account the particularity of the actions it judges, and the particular judgement which sets up a desire as cause for action, therefore upsetting the universal.

Both judgements are in fact one judgement: a judgement which fails to reconcile the particularity of nature with the universality of spirit.  The phenomenologist knows this; the individual does not.  So one cannot act without perceiving their actions as being overtaken by a greater order which they upset.  Nature is threatening in the universal shape of fate.  Only the pathos of resignation is possible as a response.  For example, Oedipus undertakes a reasonable course of action, only to find himself acting out in a larger order, and he suffers for it.

Religious rituals used celebratory acts to redeem what would otherwise only cause suffering.  This is not quite about gods, which are also subject to fate.  Rather, it is about funeral rites, which humanizes and hence redeems the otherwise merely biological event of death.

Like we saw in the chapter on ethics, the departed join the underworld and remain capable of influencing the living.  They represent the non-rationalized side of nature, which is otherwise controlled by fate.   Antigone throws a wrench into this; she buries her brother not out of reverential fear of the underworld, but in the name of laws that are higher than all laws, and just as universal as justice:  “They are not of yesterday or today, but everlasting, though where they came from, none of us can tell.”

That is the first reconciliation of universal and individual judgment: Antigone, being female, belongs to the cult of the underworld.  But she contravenes the law of the city and claims a universality in the name of an individual (her brother), and reveals an obligation just as pervasive as δ ́ικη, justice.   That obligation is transformed into a law of reason – no longer the redressing of cosmic order but acts by individuals for individuals.  The subject of that law is the legal self.

Dissatisfaction and unhappiness

Historically, the legal self is part of the Roman Empire.  The form of judgment in that world was a formalism; individuals were granted rights, but were still anonymous as persons.  Basically, they were still ruled by a sort of cosmic justice (δ ́ικη), but instead of this justice being unconscious, it is exercised in the full light of day.

This justice is embodied in a Lord of the World, one who speaks with a rational human voice, but is also somehow a blind cosmic force.  Hence, the war and tyranny that we saw at the end of the chapter on the legal self.

The key to understanding the legal self’s transition into the world of culture is that the Roman legal order was essentially one of rationally justified slavery.  The world the legal self operated in was its own world, the product of rationality, but their sense of freedom was incompatible with it.  The Stoics saw this implicitly, the Skeptics explicitly.  The fact that they had to exercise their freedom as a kind of detachment indicates their dissatisfaction.  The underlying problem is that the universal self and the individual self were still separated.

Hence, the belief in a universal self with a real human body, investing the natural aspects of the human with dignity – the incarnation.  The Lord of the World was a destructive form of the incarnation, a partial form of the spiritualization of nature; Christianity sanctified nature by painting as an image of a world to come.

Faith was the new arrangement of universality and particularity; but given that it is impenetrable to reason, we see the rise of the unhappy consciousness.  It isn’t the dissatisfaction of the legal order; there is satisfaction to be found in the idea that both man and nature will one day be redeemed.  But this hope has nothing to actually show for it; this is the unhappiness.  The work of overcoming this unhappiness is the work of culture.


The alienated world of culture was fraught with internal divisions.  On one hand, the work of priests and philosophers that bring it into existence was directed at its transcendent element.  It was a work of reason, emphasizing the overarching rationality of the world.  But it was devoid of content.  The content was provided by faith, which fills it in with the image of the glorified world beyond.

On the other hand, there is the level of day-to-day life, where the labourers are the power brokers – aristocrats and merchants.  The aristocrats work for the welfare of all; the merchants seek wealth for individual purposes.  The merchants are the ones who give the ideal of service a concrete content.

The point at which the world of culture culminates is the point of its dissolution.  It has to collapse, because it is founded on the idea that God is with us, and so that spiritual transcendence is to be sought in the here and now.  That searching produces the reason vs faith conflict.  On one hand, there is the pure insight which eventually develops into the sciences of nature and human behaviour, which comes into conflict with faith, a battle faith was always destined to lose.

On the other hand, on the level of day to day life, the aristocrats have to hammer out what constitutes legitimate authority and the merchants must justify their place in the world.  The aristocrat and the merchant cannot help but be intertwined – those in the service of the state gain wealth, and the merchant’s activity benefits all.  The attempts to make a distinction between the two eventually gives way to the language of the philosophers, in which every value is shown to be its opposite.

Short of retrenching into blind faith, the cultural individual of the Enlightenment has to choose between the smug satisfaction of reducing everything to its opposite or of taking the tact that this is the best of all possible worlds.

What we get is the religion of universal reason, the religion of the useful.  In practical terms, it is the project of a society in which each member will his individual good as the good of the whole.  But that of course places the individual against the whole; every actual action is a betrayal of the common good.

The individual, in order to fulfill their vocation as a member of the community, must admit their guilt and call for their own punishment.  The impersonal force of justice is now the explicit judgment of society, and we get the French revolution.  Its cult, its ritual, is the work of the guillotine.

Guilt and Forgiveness: the religious community

In the conflict between faith and reason, faith had to lose.  But to some extent, the reason that shaped the world of culture also had to lose, given its attempted direct realization of freedom.  The moral order that appeared afterwards was a system of subjective activities which sought satisfaction in knowing nature; to know nature mean to recognize the extent to which nature conformed to the moral order, and to act meant to impose values upon nature which the moral system generated.

As we saw, the relation between morality and nature is one of outright contradiction – whereas, for example, nature under faith was engaged in a process of sanctification.

While faith saw the world “as if through a glass darkly,” the moral order sees the world in a completely self-contradictory way. It is a commitment to certain beliefs for purely pragmatic purposes.  The moral order ends in a renewed contradiction between the universality of value and the particularity of natural content.  The hope was that a totally contextualized voice could carry universal authority.

This throws us back to the very beginning, to a renewed version of the conflict which inaugurated self-consciousness, but now we are dealing with individuals who carry the full awareness of the significance of individuality.

Now it is a conflict of competing moral visions; in this renewed battle, the judgment that is passed consists in saying that the individual who sticks by their convictions is either evil or hypocritical.  The threat is no longer death, but spiritual death.

The stage is set for the appearance of the religious community.  It is the concrete speech of the community about itself; it contains all previous judgments within itself. The religious community is one in which both the individual and the community are at their most concrete.  The final reconciliation of universal and particular takes place on two conditions.  The first is that individuals must recognize that they are complicit in evil, because it is impossible to assert one’s universal value without infringing on someone else’ value. Second, individuals must equally understand that this limitation is constitutive, and so must be ready to forgive.  In this reconciliation, the two I’s let go of their antithetical existence.

The religious community is capable of containing evil without denying it.

The Concept of Religion

Religion is not just a matter of feelings, though feelings accompany every human activity – but a matter of judgement.  It is a judgment that establishes a social compact by defining, in the context of actual experience, how each of its members stand with respect to every other and to all of them with respect to nature.

It is a judgment expressed in a given vision of the universe and in a set of cultic acts.  It is the process by which spirit asserts itself over nature.  Religion pertains to the mediation that nature plays in it – not, of course, in the sense that nature is actively engaged in the process (by itself, nature is powerless) but in the sense that, by establishing a purposiveness which is its own over and above nature, spirit invests the latter with a new power as a source of unpredictability.

Nature is the realm of the irrational, and religion exists to cope with it.  So the human mortal ought to revere the Lord of Nature in dread – whether that power is projected to a beyond, is identified with reason, or is found within.  But only when the human comes to terms with finitude, and recognizes that spirit creates finitude, when the sinfulness of humanity is recognized and that the only reconciliation to be found comes from acknowledging that – only then is the dread dissolved to give way to thanksgiving.

Implicit in all of religion is a work of conceptualization.  The underlying theme of the religion chapter is the passage to the final chapter.  Spirit is “the knowledge of oneself in the externalization of oneself; the being that is the movement of retaining its self-identify in its otherness.”  This knowledge comes into its own in the community that knows it is capable of containing its own evil.

We end with the question with which we began: given that cult and faith are existentially necessary for Hegel, what happens to them in a world in which spirit has come to full reflective light?  What counts as religion in a post-Christian world?  Alas, there is no clear answer to this question.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s