Tuesday, April 15, 2014

"What Suffering Does" (comment on David Brooks)


I applaud David Brooks’s suggestion (“What Suffering Does,” April 8) that suffering sometimes enables us to break through our culture’s common pursuit of hedonic “happiness” and to see life in terms of depth of experience, instead. This is why many of the most purposeful people I know, those with the least angst and vagueness about their lives, I’ve met in twelve-step groups. They have seen the depths, and discovered the value of life. 

Brooks is also right in suggesting that the best lives require us to accept suffering, to be vulnerable to the world. Those who "don’t care," diminish themselves. The traditional teachings that appear to advocate self-sufficiency, probably actually advocate the inner freedom that enables us to embrace more and care about everyone and everything. 

“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” (Whitman).

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Hegel's God: How We Know It, and Why It Deserves to be Called 'God'

 (delivered at a University of Sydney conference, 2007)

Robert M. Wallace

abstract: This paper outlines G.W.F. Hegel’s critique of conventional conceptions of God and presents his own substitute conception, which makes it clear how we can know a God who is nevertheless, in an important way, transcendent. The paper also responds to well-known objections to the “philosophers’ God,” explaining in some detail what Hegel preserves from conventional conceptions, which justifies him in applying the traditional name of “God” to what he’s discussing.

It’s well known that various liberal theologians during the last century and a half have wanted to articulate a conception of God that could satisfy people’s spiritual longings without conflicting with Darwinian evolution and other well-established scientific discoveries. What’s not well known is that G.W.F. Hegel already did this, with remarkable power and subtlety, in response to the great modern skeptics, Hume and Kant. 

Hegel’s philosophy is difficult to access because of his intricate manner of writing, and because of various misleading rumors that have become attached to his name. Karl Marx claimed that Hegel was an important influence on Marx’s own thinking, and since Marx was an atheist, many believers have wanted nothing to do with Marx’s supposed teacher, Hegel. Many scholars working on Hegel today continue in Marx’s footsteps in that they believe that what’s of value in Hegel has no significant overlap with the doctrines of traditional religion, or perhaps with what they call “metaphysics.” Søren Kierkegaard, on the other hand, shared Hegel’s concern about “God,” but made fun of Hegel for supposedly reducing faith to an arid and impenetrable rational “system.” The “right Hegelians” who defended Hegel’s philosophical theology weren’t able to explain it concretely enough to counteract these two lines of critique, and the result has been that Hegel’s philosophical theology has had rather limited influence down to the present.

The most visible group of Anglophone philosophers advocating Hegel’s relevance today—the group composed of Robert Brandom, Robert Pippin, and Terry Pinkard—has shown no interest in Hegel’s philosophical theology. Among religious thinkers, Hans Küng, the Catholic theologian, published a thick book about Hegel. Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, admires Hegel. Slavoj Zizek gaily paraphrases Hegel for numerous purposes. But none of this provides much access to Hegel’s God for the person in the pew (or the person not in the pew, as the case may be). In the recent exchanges between religious people and the “new atheists,” Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, I haven’t seen any mention of Hegel’s conception of God, although it presents a powerful reply to many of the new atheists’ complaints about what they call “God.”

In this paper I aim to outline Hegel’s central train of thought about God clearly enough so that you can see how it cuts through many long-running and unnecessary disputes.

Hegel begins with a radical critique of conventional ways of thinking about God. This is his critique of “spurious infinity.” Hegel provided a condensed and rather impenetrable version of this critique in Faith and Knowledge, as early as 1802. He relied on it throughout the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), and laid it out in extensive detail in the Science of Logic (1812). Unfortunately, he didn’t state the critique in simple terms in any of his more introductory writings, including his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. The Encyclopedia Logic is too condensed to be helpful on this crucial issue, and even its very useful introductory sections don’t bring the issue into focus. Hegel had a habit of assuming, even in his lectures, that his readers had already understood the gist of his most important writings, and especially of the Science of Logic. It was all so clear to him, and had been for so long, that he could no longer imagine what it would be like to have no clue as to what he was driving at. This state of affairs, more than anything else, explains the ongoing lack of comprehension of Hegel’s philosophical theology, and indeed of his “system” as a whole. For of course very few of us have in fact understood the gist of the Science of Logic, or even of Faith and Knowledge.

So I’ll begin by stating Hegel’s critique of spurious infinity and (thus) of conventional conceptions of “God.” The critique addresses the common conception of God as a being who is omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good, and so forth.[1]  Hegel says that this conception already embodies a disastrous mistake. The mistake is contained in the first two words: “a being.” If God is to be truly infinite, truly unlimited, then God cannot be “a being,” because “a being,” that is, one being (however powerful) among others, is already limited by its relations to the others. It’s limited by not being X, not being Y, and so forth. But then it’s clearly not unlimited, not infinite! To think of God as “a being” is to render God finite. This is the message of Hegel’s critique of “spurious infinity,” as applied to God. Whatever impressive attributes it may have, nothing that can be described as “a being” can be truly infinite, nor (consequently) can it be God.

We could think of this critique, by Hegel, of the conception of God as “a being,” as another step in the long struggle (in religion) against “anthropomorphism” —against our natural tendency to think of God as like ourselves, only bigger and more powerful. As long as we think of God as like ourselves in being “a being,” we prevent this “God” from being truly infinite, regardless of how often we may call this God “infinite.”[2]

If God, then, isn’t “a being,” what is God? Here Hegel makes two main points. These are implied especially in his treatment of (spurious and true) infinity in the Quality chapter of the Science of Logic. All of Hegel’s later treatments of the divine, whether as the Concept, the Absolute Idea, or Absolute Spirit, rely crucially on the pattern of thinking that he lays out here. I’ll lay out the pattern’s full implications for philosophical theology without regard to the details of its presentation in the various sections of Hegel’s works. For explanation of those details, I invite you to consult my book.[3]

The first point that Hegel makes is that there is a sense in which finite things like you and me fail to be as “real” (German: real) as possible, not in the sense that we’re illusions, but in the sense that we aren’t fully ourselves. What you and I are depends to a large extent on our relations, both logical and causal, to other finite things. Our location in space and time, our color, weight, and nationality depend on our relations to other finite things; so do our fears, desires, genes, and numerous other characteristics that have been implanted in us by what isn’t us. If, by contrast, there were something that depended only on itself to make it what it is, then that something would evidently be more fully itself than we are, and more real, as itself. This focus on being real as oneself will be crucial for everything that follows. It’s what makes it important for God to be truly infinite: being infinite makes God more himself (herself, itself), and more fully real, as himself (herself, itself), than anything else is.

Hegel’s second, very important point is that this something that’s more real as itself than we are isn’t just a hypothetical possibility, because we ourselves have the experience of being more real, as ourselves, at some times than we are at other times. We’re more real as ourselves when we step back from our current desires and projects and ask ourselves, what would make the most sense, what would be best overall, in these circumstances? When we ask a question like this, we make ourselves less dependent on whatever it was that caused us to feel the desire or to have the project. We experience instead the possibility of being self-determining, through our thinking about what would be best. But something that can be self-determining in this way, or even conceive of being self-determining in this way, seems already to be more “itself,” more real as itself, than something that’s simply a product of its circumstances.

Putting these two points together, Hegel arrives at a substitute for the conventional conception of God that he criticized. God is the fullest reality, achieved through the self-determination of everything that’s capable of any kind or degree of self-determination. Thus we might say that God “emerges out of” beings of limited reality, including us. Because God emerges out of us, God isn’t rendered finite by being a separate being from us.

But this doesn’t mean that God essentially is us, as in Ludwig Feuerbach’s “anthropotheism,” or that God is Nature, as in Spinoza. God’s emerging out of us and out of nature doesn’t reduce God to us or to nature, because the God that we’re talking about is more fully real, more real as itself, than we and nature, in general, are.

Hegel’s picture differs from familiar pictures of something emerging from something else because rather than some underlying “stuff” that’s simply the paradigm of what’s “real,” what we have here is a process of increasing reality. Furthermore, we can correctly say that we and nature receive whatever full reality we possess from Hegel’s God (from “the self-determination of everything that’s capable of any kind of self-determination”). We get our reality from God, while God gets his (her, its) freedom from limits, by including us. This mutual relationship enables us to be intimately connected to God (who isn’t “a separate being” from us, and thus isn’t limited by us), without being identical to God. God embodies all of our self-determination, all of our full reality, without embodying our limitations.[4]

This intimate relationship between something that’s less real (us) and something that’s more real (God), is Hegel’s version of what’s usually called “transcendence.” Please don’t let anyone tell you that Hegel’s God is “immanent” in the world or nature or anything else. Hegel’s God is not immanent, because he (she, it) is more fully real than anything else. Hegel has reformulated transcendence as a kind of emergence, precisely so that it can be true transcendence, rather than failing, as the “spurious infinity” did, to be transcendent at all.  If like most present-day writers about Hegel we continue to use the terms “transcendent” and “immanent” in the conventional way, rather than reconceiving them along the lines of Hegel’s true infinity (where transcendence is a kind of emergence), we have simply failed to get the point of Hegel’s critique of spurious infinity. Hegel identifies an intimate connection between us and God, precisely so as to prevent this “God” from being a spurious infinity, which fails to transcend its relationship of contrast with us.

Now this intimate connection between us and God, whereby God is the self-determination of everything that’s capable of self-determination, has another important consequence. Because we experience this divine self-determination in ourselves, as our stepping back from immediate urges and searching for what’s really good, we can reasonably say that, to a significant degree, we “know God.” This is why Hegel can confidently assert, contrary to notions of sheer “faith,” that we know God. While at the same time acknowledging that obviously we don’t know God in the same way that we know physical objects. In fact we know God more intimately than we know physical objects, since we know God through our own inner mental acts that are directed at self-determination. Probably we aren’t often aware of the fullest reality, the sum total of what’s truly itself, as such; but we’re often aware of one aspect of the fullest reality, which is the process of seeking greater self-determination and freedom for ourselves.[5]

I know that this Hegelian conception of God sounds pretty “squishy,” at first hearing. What is this thing that’s neither identical with us and the world, nor a separate being from us and the world? How can we even talk about such a thing?

The first answer, of course, is that what we’re talking about isn’t a “thing” at all, because if he (or she or it) were a “thing,” he (she, it) would be limited, as we are, and wouldn’t be God. So we need to stretch the limits of our ordinary language, which is pretty much designed for talking about limited “things” like ourselves. Above all, we need to get used to the idea that a word like “real” doesn’t necessarily refer simply to material objects that we can measure, weigh, and kick. Nor need it refer to an additional category of objects, such as “minds” or “souls,” that aren’t material objects but somehow get connected with material objects. Instead, “reality” can be a matter of degree, proportional to the object’s degree of success in being self-governing, self-determining, and “itself.” This is the significance of Hegel’s famous transition from “Substance” to “Subject,” in the course of his Logic. “Subject” is what is self-determining and thereby real as itself. Without an understanding of this dimension of increasing reality through “Subject”-hood, the notion of “God” seems to be doomed to the sort of self-stultifying anthropomorphism that Hegel criticized, in which God is pictured as “a being,” a finite quasi-object, like us.

I suspect that it would be very difficult to understand what Hegel is doing without having some acquaintance with the traditions of mystical literature, such as St Augustine, Meister Eckhart, Jelaluddin Rumi, St Teresa of Avila, and modern poets such as Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Whitman, and Rilke. They all show that Hegel isn’t alone in stretching ordinary language to evoke a reality that, to some degree, is bound to elude it.  And they show that the intimate connection between God and ourselves that Hegel proposes—we’re not identical, but we’re not separate beings, either—has plenty of precedents in the history of religious thought. Consider St. Augustine’s famous description of God as “more inward [to me] than my most inward part”; Meister Eckhart’s dictum that “we must act from our own inner self, which is him [God] in us”; Rumi’s “There’s no need to go outside” (to find God); and Whitman’s “There is that in me […]/It is not chaos or death…. It is form and union and plan… it is eternal life…. it is happiness.”[6]

The distinctive thing about Hegel’s contribution to this mystical literature is, of course, that he aspires to a more systematic and logically sound statement than poets are obliged to produce. His key contribution for this purpose is his explanation of just how it is that God is “within us,” while still being in important ways beyond us. God is “within us” because God is our freedom, our ability to be ourselves rather than merely being the product of our surroundings. At the same time God is always beyond us, because we’re never fully free, never fully self-determining and ourselves. As the mystics constantly tell us, if we achieved full freedom, the finite “we” would no longer be there; only the infinite “we” or “I,” which is God, would be there.

In drawing this connection between divinity and the human capacity for self-determination, Hegel follows the prior examples of Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus. All four of these thinkers focus in various ways on the notion of a higher, self-determining reality with which we can be involved through our capacity for seeking to be self-determining, to be ourselves. The exit from the Cave, in book vii of Plato’s Republic, is an image of pursuing the Good, which (as Plato explained earlier, in books iv and v) is the way in which the tripartite “soul” is able to act as one, and thus (we could add) to be one, be fully itself and be self-determining. This is the basis of Plato’s announcements in the Theaetetus and the Timaeus that the philosopher can be “like God.”[7] When we understand Plato’s writings in this way, what is absolutely central for him is not the Forms, as such, but rather the process of transcendence whereby the soul becomes one, fully itself and self-determining. Plato believes that this process presupposes something like the Forms, but later thinkers who follow him in other respects are often revisionary about the Forms. Aristotle’s account of human functioning in the Nicomachean Ethics and De anima is very similar to Plato’s in focusing on a vertical dimension by which humans can transcend their animal roots and develop what is “divine” in them.[8]  This dimension, and not the Forms as such, is likewise the central concern of Plotinus, who describes the soul as seeking to find itself and thus truly be itself through the fuller reality of the One.

By taking Kant as his primary point of departure, Hegel was in effect taking an important modern version of this broadly understood “Platonism” as his point of departure. In contrast to materialists and empiricists, Kant and Plato agree that the crucial feature of human functioning is the human being’s ability to achieve a kind of inner unity and self-government that non-rational beings can’t achieve (or can achieve only to a lesser degree). Kant and Plato disagree in that Plato thinks that our knowledge of this difference in functioning justifies us in believing that the result—namely, what he calls the “soul” or the “divine”—is more fully real; whereas Kant assigns the soul and the divine merely “regulative” functions in practical reasoning, and no status as known realities.

There is no reason to assume that thinkers like Hegel who agree with Plato rather than with Kant on this issue, are thereby engaging in a distinctively “religious” rather than “secular” type of thinking. Rather, it seems that Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Hegel have simply come to different conclusions than Kant came to about what deserves to be called “real,” and in what sense. Since Kant (unlike Hegel, in particular) seems not to have given focused attention to the different possible meanings of the word “real,” it may well be that Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and especially Hegel give a clearer and more persuasive account of “reality,” as such, than Kant does. In any case, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Hegel all claim to be engaging in pure philosophy (as opposed to un-philosophical “religious” thinking), and it seems to me that it’s appropriate for us to take them at their word on this, unless and until someone shows from the detail of their arguments how what they were doing is not pure philosophy.

Writers who interpret modern philosophy as seeking to replace more or less theistic metaphysics with a kind of thinking that’s “secular” (i.e., non-“religious”) need to confront the fact that Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus and Hegel all seem to base their talk about “god” on the same process of seeking self-government and self-determination on which Kant focuses in his Critiques.[9] Why should modern philosophy exclude a certain kind of thinking as non-“secular,” if the foundation of that thinking isn’t different in principle from its own? A proper appreciation of the Platonic tradition will make it clear that transcendence and divinity are perfectly legitimate concepts for philosophy as such, because their relevance doesn’t depend on our accepting any sort of non-rational revelation or dogma. The modern preoccupation with the confrontation between dogmatic religion and skeptical “secularism,” which continues in (for example) the debates recently set off by the “new atheists,” makes it difficult for people to get into focus this third, non-dogmatic but “spiritual” option. But one has to ask, why should we assume that when metaphysicians speak of “God,” their agenda has been set for them by dogma, rather than by autonomous reason? Why shouldn’t God himself (herself, itself) be an extrapolation of autonomous reason, as I’m suggesting he (she, it) is for the entire Platonic tradition, including Hegel?[10]

The prospectus for this conference asked us whether Hegel continued “the world-view that inextricably linked orthodox theological and metaphysical notions,” or should be thought of instead as “advancing the spirit of Kant’s critical project.” It’s hard to know where exactly—in how much of our history—this “linkage” of metaphysics with orthodox theology is supposed to be “inextricable.” It is, at any rate, clear that Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus, being pagans, had no interest in church dogma. I believe, in fact, that these three thinkers anticipated everything that’s valid in Kant’s critical project, so that their (chronologically pre-Kantian) “metaphysical notions” are not, in general, vulnerable to justifiable Kantian skepticism. The same, of course, need not be true of orthodox Christian or other theologies, or of particular arguments constructed by various theologians with the aid of concepts borrowed from Plato or Aristotle. Many of these arguments are quite vulnerable to the kinds of critiques to which Kant, and Hegel as well, subjected them. In particular, the common notion of an omnipotent, omniscient being is vulnerable precisely to Hegel’s critique of spurious infinity. But neither Plato, nor Aristotle, nor Plotinus, nor Hegel himself advances such a notion. They suggest instead something like the more subtle, “true-infinity” conception of God that I’ve been outlining, which does not appear to be vulnerable to Kant’s justifiable criticisms.

So my answer to the prospectus’s question is that Hegel certainly advanced the spirit of Kant’s critical project, just as Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus, “Kantians” avant la lettre, had done before. It’s only the limited perspective of the modern struggle against church dogma that gives Hume and Kant the mantle of advocates of free thought, and denies that mantle to Plato and his successors in philosophical theology, including Hegel.

You may be wondering how Hegel, who (unlike Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus) presents himself as a more or less orthodox Christian, can be an advocate of free thought. Not having space to go into the relevant texts in detail here, I can only offer the (I think) uncontroversial observation that in unfolding his Logic and his system, Hegel has no intention of appealing to Christian or any other dogma. Specifically Christian notions enter the system only in the Religion section of Absolute Spirit, and there (as always) Hegel claims to arrive at these notions by strict logical development out of the concept of freedom, which underlies Spirit as a whole. So once again, interpretive charity requires that we take him at his word, unless and until it has been shown that some portion of this development in fact conflicts with his claims about it.

It’s time, now, to turn to objections from, as it were, the other side. You may be wondering, what does the Plato/Hegel “God” have to do with the God that we learned about in Sunday school, who created the world in seven days, sent his Son to save us from our sins, and will judge us at the end of time? Rather than using the name, “God,” for Plato’s or Hegel’s emerging fullest reality, wouldn’t it be more honest to use some technical term like (say) “the Absolute” or “the Ground of Being,” which wouldn’t imply any particular connection with traditional religion? Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard and Martin Heidegger rejected what Pascal called the “God of the philosophers” as having little or nothing to do with the God who’s worshipped by ordinary believers.

I want to underline several ways in which even without the biblical mythology, and without the anthropomorphic conception of God as “a being,” Hegel’s conception of God nevertheless seems to capture what ordinary believers care about the most. So that it makes good sense to say that he’s still describing what they call “God.”

The first point is that when Hegel and his predecessors in the tradition of mystical philosophy talk about human beings becoming more “themselves” by stepping back from their current desires and projects, this stepping back has consequences that go well beyond the “intellect,” as we usually think of it. Plato wrote extensively about love (eros). His central concern in this writing was to show that inner freedom and love, head and heart, are not ultimately separable from one another.[11] First, Plato showed that love necessarily has an intellectual dimension, a dimension of inner freedom or questioning. This is because love seeks what’s truly Good for those it loves, and therefore it has to ask the question, what is truly Good?[12] This requires thought, which is the function of intellect. And second, Plato aimed to show that inner freedom ultimately has to lead to love of others, for their capacity for freedom. Plato says in the Symposium that we can “possess the Good forever” only by “giving birth” to an orientation to the Good (and thus, we might add, to an actualization of freedom) in others. But it seems that if we were to limit the number of others whom we care about in this way, we would replace the “forever” by a limited portion of space and time.[13]

Hegel spells out what’s probably essentially the same thought in the following way. If I exclude anyone from what I’m concerned about, I define myself by my relationship to them (namely, the relationship of excluding them), and thus I prevent myself from being fully self-determining: that is, from having inner freedom. It’s easy enough to see in everyday life that people who think of themselves as having “enemies” seldom manage to be very free, internally. It’s not that we must agree with others about everything, or endorse everything that they do. Rather, it’s that we need to be able to see something in others that we can identify with, so as not to be confronted by something completely alien, which will define us (always) by this relationship rather than by ourselves. But to identify with something in others is at least a key aspect of what we call loving them. So Plato and Hegel have shown that there is an intimate connection between inner freedom and love.

Now, this intimate connection must operate most of all, obviously, on the level of God. The God who is fully self-determining because he (she, it) isn’t defined by “not being” anything else, is intimately involved in every living thing, as its capacity for self-determination. Hegel describes this involvement as “free love and boundless blessedness,” just because of its universal inclusiveness.[14] Since, as we just said, full self-determination must be loving, to be involved in the self-determination of one is to be involved in the self-determination of all.

As for justice, the “last judgment,” and so forth, Hegel’s God administers this in the most direct possible way. Beings who achieve freedom and love, achieve the greatest reality that any being can achieve. They achieve a reality that’s effectively timeless. So their very actions reward them. Those who exhibit less freedom and love, “enjoy” less reward. They aren’t equipped to enjoy it. But Hegel’s God is likewise forgiving, as we read in the famous passage at the end of Morality in the Phenomenology of Spirit about the “reconciling Yea in which the two ‘I’s let go their antithetical Dasein,” and they are “God manifested ….”[15] Everyone is God manifested, in whatever part of themselves isn’t or wasn’t “antithetical.”

Thus Hegel’s God exhibits the combination of justice and nurturing love that we see in the more inspiring documents of the Abrahamic religions. Justice, because all are included and are treated appropriately, and love for the same reason.

Hegel’s conception explains and preserves another famous feature of Abrahamic religion as well. The God that Hegel describes as emerging from the world of finite things, gives to them the greatest reality of which they’re capable. In this way, Hegel’s God performs something very similar to what’s traditionally called “creating.”

However, this Hegelian “creating” takes place throughout time, rather than only “in the beginning.” And it deals with a kind of “reality” that, though we’re intimately familiar with it, can’t be the subject matter of natural science, which is all about how things depend on other things to make them what they are. For both of these reasons, Hegel’s God doesn’t conflict with what astrophysics and biology tell us about the history of the universe.

The final question that people ask is, is Hegel’s God a “personal God”? If a “person” resembles you and me by being a finite thing that you or I could confront face to face, then obviously Hegel’s God is not a “person.” If, on the other hand, a “person” is a reality characterized by inner freedom, then Hegel’s God clearly is “personal” to the maximum possible degree. Religion seems to be about learning to recognize and to love this kind of “person,” in all of his (her, its) manifestations.

Thus, Hegel’s “philosopher’s God” is not only less open to doubt than the Abrahamic God, as conventionally understood, is. (Less open to doubt because of the way Hegel’s God is “in us,” and thus knowable by us.) Hegel’s God also seems to preserve all of the Abrahamic God’s worship-inspiring features, but without conflicting with the empirical sciences as the Abrahamic God, as conventionally understood, does.

In dealing with the literal statements of Abrahamic religion, whether in the scriptures or elsewhere, the charitable thing is to assume that these statements are trying to refer to the reality that Plato and Hegel describe. People who insist on literal interpretations generally do so either from fear or from anger: from fear that without the letter, everything will be lost, or from anger at the hypocrisy of self-appointed spokespersons. Greater understanding can dispel this fear and moderate this anger. What is essential will not be lost, and the self-appointed spokespersons are, after all, only self-appointed.

[1] As one instance of this common conception let me quote Timothy A. Robinson’s introduction to his anthology, God (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002), p. xv: “This God has traditionally been identified as a being who is all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good….” I’m not sure that this conception (“a being”) is in fact endorsed by the great classic theologians, such as St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. But few popular writers about God seem to have gotten the message that God cannot be “a being.” I hope that spelling out Hegel’s critique of this common conception can help people to understand both what’s wrong with it and how to avoid it.
[2] William Desmond has provided one of the most extensive and thoughtful recent discussions of Hegel’s philosophical theology, in his Hegel and God: The Question of the Counterfeit Double (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2003). But Desmond neither states nor responds to Hegel’s critique, which I just outlined, of conventional conceptions of God. Desmond wants to distinguish (see pp. 2-6) between a kind of “transcendence” of which humans are capable, and another kind of “transcendence” of which only God is capable; and he thinks that Hegel fails to maintain both of these in their separate significance. But such a duality of kinds of transcendence is made questionable precisely by Hegel’s argument. Hegel’s argument points out that a duality in which “God” is on one side and something else, such as humans, is on the other, threatens to prevent this “God” from being truly transcendent, because something that “is not” the other, is limited by its relationship to the other, and thus doesn’t really transcend the other. Desmond’s appeal to an unexamined dichotomy between humans and God, to ground his critique of Hegel’s conception of transcendence, appears to assume in advance precisely the sort of contrast that Hegel’s argument challenges (challenges by pointing out that the contrast makes “God” finite and non-transcendent). I’ll explain below how Hegel’s alternative to this conventional contrast does not involve making God identical with humans.
[3] Robert M. Wallace, Hegel’s Philosophy of Reality, Freedom, and God (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
[4] Please also note that I haven’t said that God as such emerges from finite objects like us in the course of time. For time, like us, is finite. It’s limited by not being space, not being matter, etc. So whatever full reality time has, doesn’t belong to time itself but derives from God (that is, from self-determination). The achievement of self-determination can’t lie within time, since if it did the achievement would be (to that extent) finite and wouldn’t be full self-determination. The whole relation between God and what’s finite, including time, must be located, in an important way, outside time, although we experience it (ordinarily) within time.
[5] The “proof of God’s existence” that I’ve just given—for if we know God, this God must exist—is Hegel’s distinctive contribution to the genre. It coincides with none of the traditional “proofs,” differing from them especially in the way it relies on a special kind of human experience. But one can see why Hegel was most sympathetic, among the traditional proofs, to the “ontological argument.” For that argument, like Hegel’s own argument, takes as its point of departure something like a certain kind of human experience, namely, our having a certain conception of God.
[6] St. Augustine, Confessions, book iii, ch. vi, p. 43 in Henry Chadwick’s translation (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1991); Meister Eckhart, Selected Writings, trans. Oliver Davies (London: Penguin, 1994), p. 190 (German Sermon 19); Rumi, The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks (New York: Harper, 2004), p. 13; Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Chant 50.
[7] Plato, Republic 444e (acting as “one”), Theaetetus 176b and Timaeus 90c (becoming “like God”).
[8] On the important respects in which Aristotle agrees with Plato, see Lloyd P. Gerson, Aristotle and Other Platonists (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005).
[9] Paul Redding interprets modern philosophy as “secular” in his very interesting paper, “Hegel, Idealism, and God: Philosophy as the Self-Correcting Appropriation of the Norms of Life and Thought,” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, vol. 3, nos. 2-3, 2007.
[10] Just as common interpretations of modern metaphysical philosophy (as in Hegel) are skewed by the assumption that “God” characteristically has something to do with dogma, so also are leading interpretations of modern Romantic poetry. In his classic Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York: Norton, 1973), M.H. Abrams interpreted the Romantic poets as seeking to fill the gap left by the demise of orthodox religion. He thus assumed that the original and characteristic way of relating to a transcendent reality is the “religious” one. One can hardly deny that Abrams’s thesis about Romanticism contains a large grain of truth. The decline of orthodox piety among intellectuals did indeed create space for the Romantics’ “natural supernaturalism.” But if Abrams had appreciated the way the Romantics revive the Platonic approach to transcendent reality, an approach that isn’t “religious” in the sense of being linked to church dogma, he might not have been so quick to use the demise of orthodox religion as the sole or primary datum in relation to which to interpret this literature. At least from an intellectual point of view, an equally plausible approach would be to interpret orthodox religion as a temporary interruption in the ongoing tradition of un-dogmatic Platonic spirituality, to which the English Romantic poets (and their successors such as Dickinson, Whitman, and Rilke) then return. But our historical experience has been so deeply imprinted by dogmatic religion that many of us find it very difficult to set that experience on one side and appreciate the variety of other approaches to transcendence that the world has known.
[11] I don’t mean (of course) that Plato speaks of “inner freedom” as such. But his account of the soul’s functioning “as one” (in Republic v) can be understood as an account of what we might call inner freedom, insofar as both functioning as one and what we call inner freedom are ways of being fully oneself.
[12] See Symposium 205e and 210a-212b.
[13] Symposium 206a-b. Plato discusses a process of “giving birth” that goes on within each human life (207d-208b) as well as between one person and others, implying that when one is committed to the process, conventional boundaries lose their relevance. 
[14] Science of Logic, trans. Miller (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1989), p. 603 (=Wissenschaft der Logik, suhrkamp edition, vol. 6, p. 277; Gesammelte Werke, vol. 12, p. 35).
[15] Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), §671.