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The Dialectics of Faith & Enlightenment

Hegel has been enormously influential, but is notoriously difficult to read. In this new section, Peter Benson guides us through a series of typical Hegelian moves from the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit.’.

This is a summary of the section of Hegel’s ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ which he calls ‘The Struggle of the Enlightenment with Superstition’. I will not be discussing all of the intricate and complex details of this section, but simply providing a sketch of the general trajectory of Hegel’s presentation. Nor will I be able to discuss in detail the specific place of this section within the overall architecture of the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’. Nevertheless, this section, by itself, provides a good example of Hegel’s dialectical method. This is the method of argument which organizes the entire book, and arranges its various sections in a necessary sequence.

The section on Faith and Enlightenment follows that on the world of alienated culture. Hegel had given a vivid portrait of this world of alienation by means of quotes from Diderot’s satirical dialogue ‘Rameau’s Nephew’. It was a society completely lacking in honesty or sincerity, in which people survived by adopting artificial roles, making themselves agreeable to those with power and money, fawning on the rich, and using their intelligence only to be amusingly witty to each other. Diderot describes the salons of Paris in the years before the revolution, but one does not have to look far to find parallels within our contemporary society.

In such a world of razor-sharp wit and withering irony, anyone with serious beliefs and deeply-held convictions will find themselves the butt of jokes and ridicule. As a result, anyone dissatisfied with such a frivolous and empty existence will tend to detach themselves from such a society and form more serious communities of their own. One such community would be formed by those who seek in religious faith for those values and certainties which are lacking in the social world. Another group would be formed by those who seek to attain stable and certain truths through reason and rationality, science and logic. Hegel particularly had in mind the philosophers of the French Enlightenment (Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau). But one can easily think of equivalent figures today among those for whom science is the only possible route to truth (Richard Dawkins, Lewis Wolpert). These contemporary figures, like their 18th Century predecessors, are particularly known for their attacks on, and aversion to, religion. The French Enlightenment was strongly anti-clerical, denouncing both the dogmatism and the corruption of the institutional church. These philosophers fought against superstition, and were in their turn denounced as dangerous atheists who would corrupt the morals of the nation. It is this conflict which Hegel sets out to analyse.

However, he had already pointed out that both sides of this dispute emerged as a reaction against the materialistic world of culture, where social success meant more than any concern with truth. Hence the philosopher and the pious believer have much in common. The dispute between them will reveal, even further, the extent of their similarity.

As in several earlier sections of the ‘Phenomenology’, (such as the section on the Master and the Slave; or the section on Antigone and Creon) Hegel personifies two opposing worldviews, and then steps back to observe the dialogue between them. Rather than introducing his own criticisms of each viewpoint, he observes the reactions of each to the criticisms of the other. This imagined dialogue is the dialectical process through which a higher world-view than either will eventually emerge.

The two parties to the discussion, therefore, are a pious Christian and an apostle of the new ideas of the Enlightenment, a devotee of humanist reason. I will set out the argument as Hegel presents it, giving the paragraph numbers from A.V. Miller’s translation of the Phenomenology of Spirit (Oxford University Press, 1977).

(542) Enlightenment regards Faith as composed of superstition, prejudice, error. It sees the Christian world as divided into 3 social classes:

(i) the mass of naive people who believe everything they are told;

(ii) an intellectual group, the priesthood, who teach doctrines they themselves often know to be untrue, in order to preserve their own social status;

(iii) despotic political rulers, for whom religion is a useful opium to keep the people quiet.

This is the basis for the virulent attacks on the Church made by the French Enlightenment thinkers.

(543) Enlightenment sees itself as on the side of universality: both universal truths, and the universal availability of these truths to everyone. It therefore does not directly enter into argument with the corrupt priests, but appeals to the common humanity of the mass of people, attempting to show them the error of the beliefs that have been foisted on them.

(544-545) Enlightenment therefore appeals to a common level of consciousness between itself and the pious believers. Communication between the two groups is direct and immediate. The ideas of the Enlightenment diffuse into the mass of society and become part of what everyone is talking about. It is like a perfume spreading through the air. By the time one notices the distinctive scent, it is already too late to keep it out, to exclude it: for it is already everywhere. What becomes widespread are the new attitudes toward truth, the new methods of seeking and determining truth (through rational enquiry and observation, rather than through authority). When it is a question of the actual content of these truths, the pious believer will still defend the claims of the church, but now using the methods of the Enlightenment to defend religious faith. Hence, for example, there will be archeological research into the evidence for the Biblical stories, and philosophical attempts to prove the rationality of religious belief.

(546) A noisy polemic rages between the Church and the Enlightenment philosophers, each attacking the other. But neither acknowledge how extensive their common assumptions have become. The Church which argues with Diderot is no longer the imperturbable institution of mediaeval christianity.

(548) Equally, if Christian belief were entirely irrational, there would be no point in Enlightenment thinkers engaging in debate with it. It is only through this engagement with what appears to be its opposite that Enlightenment actualizes itself. Enlightenment is a method of inquiry, rather than a body of truths. Initially, it is empty of any content of its own. Faith, on the other hand, is rich in content: dogmas, stories, theological propositions, transcendent visions. Enlightenment, by the very fact of engaging in debate, acknowledges that it will find some rational core to these beliefs, since it recognizes the believer as a rational being. It is only in such mutual recognition that a dialectical movement can take place, in which the assurance and fixity of both sides is put at risk. The resulting recognition, however, will prove to be unequal.

We are given a series of four major lines of criticism which Enlightenment raises against religion, and the corresponding responses from the side of Faith. In each case, Faith complains that Enlightenment has given a very partial view of its beliefs, a view which is only true as far as it goes. However, in recognizing that it is a partial truth, Faith experiences a painful split within itself. In part it recognizes itself within the criticisms of Enlightenment, and in part it keeps aloof. Enlightenment, on the other hand, is relentlessly critical and fails to recognize any aspect of itself within the superstitious world of Faith. Hegel is at pains, however, to show that many of Enlightenment’s supposed criticisms could equally be directed against its own world view. Attacking something outside itself, it reveals its own contradictions, but remains unaware of them. Enlightenment seems to have the best of the argument, but its eventual victory is hollow. This situation resembles that of earlier dialectical processes described in the ‘Phenomenology’, notably that of the Master and the Slave. There, a battle resulted in apparent victory for the Master, but the Slave achieved a greater degree of selfconsciousness as a result of his apparent defeat.

A dialectic, therefore, does not consist of a dispute between two viewpoints resulting in one disproving the other. Rather, the dialogue between the two divides the unity of each,fracturing it into its contradictory parts, elements of which find their mirroring reflection in the other party to the dispute, confusing the very separation that began the dialogue. A dialectic is not a debate, resulting in victory for one party, the affirmation of one set of propositions, but rather the transformation of the conceptual arena within which any disagreements could be formulated.

Let us look, therefore, at the criticisms Enlightenment makes of religion, and at the way they embody the unequal levels of recognition between the two contestants in this dialectic.

(549&566) Enlightenment’s first charge against Faith is that the God of the believer is “a Being of its own consciousness, its own thought, something that is a creation of consciousness itself.” However, it is the basis of Enlightenment’s own claims that all truths must be generated out of one’s own consciousness, and not accepted on the basis of authority. So the same charge might be made against Enlightenment itself.

Believers do not deny that God is, in one sense, “a Being of their consciousness”. God is not an abstract hypothesis, but an immediate experience. And the form this experience takes is that of trust. The believer trusts in God. And to trust someone completely is to find one’s own sense of self confirmed in that person. This is what the believer finds in God. A necessary part of Faith is obedience to God, and the various acts of worship which take place in the religious community. For the believer these are not optional extras, external to belief itself. So, in a manner of speaking, the believer does create God, bringing God into the world of human existence through their actions. All of this (which is a great deal) can be accepted and understood by Enlightenment.

For the believer, of course, God also exists in and for himself, quite apart from our belief in Him. In engaging in the argument with Enlightenment, therefore, Faith finds its own understanding of itself split between two aspects: on the one hand, its activities of worship and duty as a member of the Church; and on the other, the transcendent reality of God. Prior to the criticisms of Enlightenment, Faith had experienced both these aspects as an indivisible unity. Hence, even as it defends itself, Faith experiences a profound splitting of itself, a fragmentation and division which, for Hegel, is always a sign of an increase in self-consciousness.

Though Faith considers its transcendent God to be immune from the criticisms of the Enlightenment; the Enlightenment itself was sceptical, rather than rejecting the existence of such a Being. Enlightenment thinkers tended towards agnosticism rather than atheism. Often, like Rousseau, they believed in some kind of supreme Being, but wanted to dismantle the restrictive social structures of religion. Their real quarrel was with the Church and the priests, whom they took to be deliberately deceiving the people, keeping the population in their lowly place with religious hocus-pocus.

(550) Here, Faith believes it catches Enlightenment in a self-contradiction. On the one hand, God is supposed to be an imaginary invention of each individual consciousness; on the other hand, it is supposed to have been foisted on people by the priesthood. No doubt people can be deceived about many things by their leaders, but not about their own immediate feelings of trust and devotion towards God. Even the Enlightenment admits that the ordinary believer (unlike the priests) is an honest person who describes their experiences truthfully.

(552-3&567) Enlightenment’s next criticism is that believers bow down and worship mere blocks of stone or wood (the sacred statues in churches), and reverently consume (in communion services) pieces of bread which in fact are merely human products of grain from the fields. But, says Faith, it is wrong to think they are concerned with nothing but these material perishable things, which (on the contrary) are only the outward signs of the true and eternal objects of faith. Enlightenment is trivializing the claims of Faith. But its criticisms force Faith to think separately about the two aspects of the communion bread: as physical object, and as sign of grace. Once again, Faith’s view of things is split into two separate realms. And this split is equally present within Enlightenment itself (though it refuses to acknowledge the fact). The physical world, for Enlightenment, is disenchanted, devoid of any spiritual dimension. But consciousness can think about the world, and thus transcend its finitude.

(554&568) Next, Enlightenment criticizes the historical evidence about the life of Christ and the events of the Bible. If Faith tries to defend itself on these grounds (arguing about the authenticity of documents, for example) it would already have accepted the Enlightenment worldview. This can be seen, in our own time, in those fundamentalist Christians who regard themselves as propounding ‘creation science’ as an alternative to Darwin’s theory. They read the Bible as if it were a scientific text book written with the same intentions of literal truthfulness as guided Darwin’s writings. The Bible was not read in this way during the Christian middle ages, which were more attuned to the use of metaphor as a mode of access to truth. If Faith retains its own grounds for belief, these lie in an immediate experience of divinity in the cosmos and the soul, which the quibbles of Enlightenment cannot touch, but which become separated from the world in which the believer must still live their life. Equally, Enlightenment itself, for all its search for evidence, cannot deny the validity of some immediate certainties (such as those of logic).

(555-6&569-70) Finally, Enlightenment criticizes the actions of the pious believer, particularly their self-denial and restrictions on such natural pleasures as food and sex. But Faith says that it is in setting aside its indiviaual desires that it becomes more and more “at one with absolute Being”. Enlightenment too, in its search for for truth, believes itself to be beyond mere material acquisitiveness (otherwise Diderot would simply behave like Rameau’s Nephew, practicing the deceitful skills of social success). Yet Enlightenment thinkers ridicule the pious for using self-denial as a means towards achieving detachment from the world – a detachment they themselves would like to possess, but it seems, are not prepared to do anything to achieve. Faith recognizes the validity of Enlightenment’s criticism that giving up a small part of one’s pleasures and possessions does not prove that one is free of all possessiveness. Faith wants its actions of sacrifice to be of universal significance, but the actions themselves remain necessarily particular. Faith feels, under these criticisms, the painful inadequacy of this split between the universal and the particular. Enlightenment, however, believes that its own inner detachment from the world is quite sufficient, and is complacently unconcerned about its own lack of any actions of self-denial at all.

(557) These, then, are Enlightenments criticisms of Faith. Does it have anything to offer on its own behalf, to compensate for its rejection of religion? The Enlightenment’s concept of absolute Being (the ultimate unifying nature of reality, which it is still prepared to call the Supreme Being, or God) – this concept is little more than an empty void. For, if there were any specific content to this concept, any particular attribute of that content could become the focus for the superstitions of religion, and people would once again be bowing down and worshipping something finite and limited, like the statues in churches. So the concept of God, even when it is not denied, has become vacuous.

(558) Enlightenment is certain only of the single consciousness and of the sensory objects it perceives. This natural knowledge was the very starting point from which Hegel’s whole dialectic began, in the opening chapter of the book, 300 pages earlier. There, however, it was a launching pad for an enquiry into the true nature of reality. Now, the moment of Enlightenment is a comprehensive negation of everything that had subsequently been elaborated from that starting point, and an attempt to return to the brute certainty of the beginning, refusing to accept anything beyond it.

(559-61) On Moral issues, Enlightenment replaces the concepts of Good and Bad with that of Utility. (Jeremy Bentham’s theory of Utilitarianism, first published in the year of the French Revolution, systematized ideas already present in 18th Century thought.) Everything exists for the sake of its use. This is true even of people, who make use of others, and are used by them in their turn. Reason is merely a useful instrument for calculating usefulness. Different things are useful to one another in different ways. Even religion turns out to be useful, and hence need not be rejected entirely. The vapid and vacuous religion promoted by the Enlightenment claims that the whole world is good, because God made it so; it is there for our benefit and use. And humans are inherently good, because they seek only to use the world that God provided for their satisfaction and pleasure. Too much pleasure produces satiation, and so no one will seek more than they need, once the true utility of everything has been calculated. Enlightenment presents people and their desires as finite and limited.

(562-564) The devotees of Christian Faith, of course, cannot accept this schmaltzy view of religion (which has many echoes in our own day, in some of the more vague and pastel-coloured of New Age beliefs). Nor can the believer accept Enlightenment’s criticisms of traditional religion. However, the believer can recognize half-truths and partial insights in all these criticisms. The believer is hurt and pained by these attacks, whereas the Enlightenment thinker is blandly self-satisfied.

(565) Faith recognizes aspects of itself in Enlightenment (just as the Slave recognizes aspects of himself in the Master). But Enlightenment refuses to recognize any aspects of itself in Faith (just as the Master does not see himself reflected in the Slave). This is the central moment in the Hegelian dialectic, the moment of unequal recognition. Enlightenment’s failure to embrace otherness within itself will be the source of its eventual downfall, while giving it, temporarily, a feeling of power and certainty.

(573) Enlightenment’s feelings of satisfaction, however, disguise a hidden yearning, which exactly mirrors that of Faith: a yearning to give content to the abstract absolute Being in which it still retains a degree of belief; a yearning to strive beyond itself through its actions; and a yearning for a sense of selfhood other than merely being useful to others, and making use of them in its turn. “Enlightenment bears within itself,” writes Hegel, “this blemish of an unsatisfied yearning.” A closer examination of this truth of Enlightenment will show how it seeks to rid itself of this blemish It is only when Enlightenment becomes aware of its own internal divisions and contradictions, that its mode of thinking can progress. In the battle with Faith, Enlightenment may appear to have the better arguments, but it is religion which has been deepened by the conflict, ready to figure more fully at a later stage of the ‘Phenomenology’.

© Peter Benson 2002

Peter Benson has been a participant for several years in the seminars on Hegel run by Pamela Jencks at Birkbeck College, London.

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