An Infinite Deal of Nothing — Part One

God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants His footsteps in the sea,

And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never-failing skill

He treasures up His bright designs,

And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy, and shall break

In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust Him for His grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,

And scan his work in vain;

God is His own interpreter,

And He will make it plain.

- William Cowper (1731–1800)

January 8, 1697. Thomas Aikenhead, who was 20 years old at the time, was led to the Gallowlee execution ground in Edinburgh and hanged for the unpardonable crime of blasphemy, for two weeks earlier he had been charged and convicted of questioning the historicity of Jesus Christ, and the logic of the Trinity; consequently, the authorities required his death in order to serve as a warning to any other aspiring dissident. The Grassmarket below Edinburgh Castle would normally suffice for the execution of common thieves, murderers, not to mention witches, but here was something different, here was an auto-da-fé, a ritual of public penance, though without the burning, deemed necessary in order to appease an angry God. Aikenhead was the last person executed for blasphemy in Britain, his case initiating new laws to ensure a young college student could not be condemned to death for criticising Christianity; radical social and political change followed in the wake of his execution, (and other events similarly irrational and unjust howsoever you may want to define those terms), and it is thinkers of the Enlightenment, such as David Hume, (1711–1776), or Voltaire, (1694- 1778), that are given much of the credit towards this progress towards, well, enlightenment, that is, the rejection of religious absolutism, increasing secularism, indeed, the decline of religious faith in the West.

Religion is increasingly being shunned, the evidence for that is clear enough, and while it is true that an absence of religious affiliation does not necessarily implicate a commitment to atheism nor to naturalism, (many people happily assert themselves to be spiritual, in some way, by which they presumably mean some kind of subjective commitment to, well something transcendent, yet what is transcendent is beyond the range of human experience so we can know nothing about that, but I digress)… yet it is evident enough that alongside a decline in religious practice is a decline in religious feeling, which presents something of a poser for sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers, who take the religious impulse to be innate in the human condition and who elevate religion into something essential and necessary for human flourishing, and who look upon its demolition with alarm; for religious beliefs are human universals, it is thought, they manifest themselves in every culture; (and yet, apparently the Pirahã people indigenous to the Amazonian Rainforest in Brazil have no word for ‘God’ but I am not going to go there for now, I have other concerns in this article).

Hence the evidence for secularism being in the ascendancy is simply dismissed in rather cavalier fashion, and a human being, we are told, always worships something, be it a political cause, or materialism in the non-philosophical sense of that word, or whatever; and everybody has faith in something. Science too is based on faith, it is alleged; the physicist Paul Davies, (1946 — ), has asserted that the correct physical attitude is essentially theological: ‘Science can proceed only if the scientist adopts an essentially theological worldview; and further, ‘even the most atheistic scientist accepts as an act of faith .. a law-like order in nature that is at least in part comprehensible to us’. And, of course, atheism is a religion too, it is asserted; the atheist’s denial of God is as absolutist as the fundamentalist’s faith in God; is it not evident that a secular culture centred around a scientific worldview can never succeed for a species religious by nature, that room must always be allowed for the sacred? Jordan Peterson, (1962 — ), is of the view that a genuine atheist would be somewhat like Raskolnikov, the axe-murderer, (he murders both an old woman and her half-sister who got in the way), in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, (1821–1881), Crime and Punishment, that is to say, an atheist is motivated by rationality and uninhibited by any metaphysical reason not to bury an axe into someone’s skull; and anyone not like that, according to Peterson, is in fact religious: ‘You’re simply not an atheist in your action’, he says. The meaning of words as set forth by Peterson becomes so thinly stretched that the words become useless; (see my article On the Nature of Truth — Part Two).

The sociologist Émile Durkheim defined religion thus: ‘A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them’. This just won’t do of course. Sacred things? Howsoever religion is precisely defined it should at least include a belief in the supernatural, whatever may be understood by that term (and granted of course that an atheist can believe in the supernatural). And so a belief in progress, or the ascent of man guided by the light of reason, that is a religious belief, we are told, and cognitive psychologist, Steven Pinker, (1954 — ), is characterised as a religious thinker, it merely happens that his faith is in reason and not in God. Pinker’s retort, a propos faith in reason: ‘We don’t believe in reason; we use reason (just as we don’t program our computers to have a CPU; a program is a sequence of operations made available by the CPU)’. And further, Pinker asserts, given that reason is employed in every kind of argument, ‘reason is prior to everything else and needn’t (indeed cannot) be justified on first principles’.

Pinker of course does not have faith in Enlightenment values though he does have trust in them; if he had faith in them that would be attended with a belief in such values prevailing, but he acknowledges the possibility of set-backs and regressions, and the need for a defence of such values, but his overall view is that life is simply a series of problems that reason can solve or has already solved, and while a religious fundamentalist may proclaim an unshakeable, non falsifiable faith, or belief, in God that he or she will never allow to be challenged by any rational argument or presentation of evidence, he or she are using their reason though very poorly to such an extent it is reasonable enough to characterise their position as irrational.

The assertions that atheists have as much faith in their worldview as the devoutly religious, that any spirited critique of religion is itself religious, that explaining the natural world is merely one purpose of religion and ultimately it concerns the innate and not merely learned human need for meaning, that anyone supposing themselves to be irreligious have simply failed to become reconciled to their own religious nature, such assertions are, of course, ridiculous; but those of Pinker need challenging too, for the Enlightenment does have its dark side after all; the assertion for instance that while the putative religion-shaped hole in our lives can only be plugged with more and more superstition and pseudo-science we have nonetheless so completely internalized the values of the Enlightenment and the discoveries of the Scientific Revolution that we fail even to notice the extent to which our society has become secular; that religion and superstition are not the only sources of meaning and that reason is the innate capacity that will serve us well in moving forward while leaving behind such superstitious absurdities as the belief that in order to lighten the divine mood a twenty year old student has to be put to death.

We need to look into this more deeply. First, Pinker is wrong to suggest that the major crisis of faith in European thought and modern controversies over the truth of Christianity and religion is rooted in the Enlightenment. Rather, it stems from some very original ideas to be found in the philosophy of religion of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831); much of which was to inform existentialist thought primarily in its reaction against it; Jean-Paul Sartre, (1905–1980), for instance; (I have written already concerning the problem with existentialism generally, that it is at heart a theology reconstructed in secular form and inheriting the failings of religion in the process; see my article A World of Gods and Monsters — Part Three). Second, Pinker’s overall view that life is simply a series of problems that reason can solve or has already solved; I would concur but only if we be more precise about what we mean by reason and the way it operates historically; (see my articles The Cunning of Reason, Parts One to Four).

Philosophy of religion is considerably more comprehensive than any mere theology of course and Hegel’s intention was to reconcile nature, history, religion, politics, and culture into a single alethiological vision; for the truth revealed in the Gospel is universal and by that very fact has an integral relationship with every possible source of truth; and so it is that the question of truth is raised in an unconditional form, that truth is not simply a matter of selecting the correct specifics of information; rather it is the form of consciousness whereby human existence is fulfilled in all of its aspects and functions; and of course with the claim that truth is revealed in the Gospel it then becomes something to be considered with the utmost earnestness as a message of salvation; of redemption universally understood and not in some narrow theological sense; a message the ultimate human significance of which carries implications for all possible kinds of human activity; and so the question arises, does such a view of the Gospel liberate men and women or lead to their enslavement, does it allow for human flourishing, or result in self-alienation?

In his youth Hegel had set his sights upon the problem of the positivity of Christianity, that is to say, to the extent that a religion demands belief in and obedience to that which neither human reason nor intuition can discover on their own a religion is positive (seen in a somewhat negative sense if I may so put it, for what is revealed in such a religion has its source outside of any possible human experience and is revealed through singular events of putative supernatural self-disclosure). Hegel while still under the sway of the Enlightenment attacked the Christian religion for its seemingly ineradicable positive grounding, for such positivity is an historically particular facet of religion and is the foundation of religious authoritarianism. In an encounter with historical events that are purported to be revelatory, one must either reconcile oneself to an authoritarian fideism. (that is, knowledge depends on faith or revelation), or spurn the very idea in a spirit of human reason, dignity, and freedom; and Hegel later came to set aside both alternatives as he re-evaluated religious positivity in the light of a new orientation of philosophy to history overall, and then his sights were set upon the ahistorical abstract understanding which had been accepted in the Enlightenment as the adjudicator of matters of truth and which is manifested in our own time through the likes of Pinker.

It is a requirement of authentic reason to apprehend the truth as it is revealed in reality itself, and most ideally in historical reality itself; for philosophy deals with nothing less than that which has the power to force itself into existence: ‘Philosophy treats nothing, in general, which is not; only what is (what really is, not merely the appearing, the existing) is rational’, as Hegel explains, although the parenthetical aside is a reminder that he is never simply informing or describing regardless of the factual form his exposition frequently assumes, rather he is expounding the essential unfolding of Spirit within the movements of history, an unfolding within and not merely behind history: ‘The universal must pass into actuality through the particular’. And thus we are now well situated to deal with the particularily of positivity of an historical religion in a much less negative manner, in particular if philosophy is to apprehend actual religious truth at all it must begin from this concrete, non-abstract, source, as Hegel explains:

‘We have first of all not religion in general but positive religion, of which it is acknowledged that it is given by God, rests on a higher authority than the human, and therefore appears elevated outside the realm of human reason’.

The content of the positive religion has to be apprehended by reason; and there’s the rub, for to begin with it is given from ‘outside the realm of human reason’, and were religious truth not delivered by God to us in this way it could not be apprehended in any sense and yet, once it has been delivered it must be reconciled by reason to itself and the authentic man or woman has to know God as Spirit and must himself or herself become spiritual which is to say reconciled to Spirit, (Geist). It is however perfectly feasible to know Spirit in itself only because Spirit has manifested itself for itself and in and for itself in history and from a theological point of view one can know God because the divine being has revealed itself in history and is known by its providence. The events of the Gospel are taken to be historical facts alongside every other historical fact and yet they are conclusive for Hegel in that within them can be ascertained clues appertaining to the entirety of history and consequently such clues amount to knowledge of the divine Spirit itself.

‘In the Christian religion God has revealed himself, i.e. he has given men to understand what he is, so that he is no longer a concealment, a secret. This possibility to know God lays upon us the duty to do so; and the development of thinking Spirit which has proceeded from this basis, from the revelation of the divine Being, must finally proceed to grasp in thought that which has at first been exhibited to Spirit in feeling and representation. Whether the time has come to comprehend depends upon whether that which is the final purpose of the world has at last passed into actuality in a universally valid and conscious way. Now what distinguishes the Christian religion is that with it this time has come; this constitutes the absolute epoch in world history. … So we know as Christians what God is; now God is no longer an unknown: if we still say that we are not Christians. The Christian religion demands the humility . . to apprehend God, not on its own terms, but on the terms of God’s own knowledge and apprehension. Christians are initiated into the mysteries of God, and so the key to world history is also given to us. Here is given a definite apprehension of providence and its plan’.

Whatsoever maybe the exalted and eminent achievements of Christianity it is a positive religion in the sense that it comes to man and woman from outside of himself or herself: ‘in the sense that everything which exists for consciousness is an objectification to consciousness. Everything must come to us in an external way’. This is very much like the objects of sensation, or the edicts of law, the are given, and thereby impose themselves in a mode of externality and authoritarianism; and yet while this external givenness is indeed definitive and conclusive in the matter of its discovery, it nonetheless constitutes merely one side of the ultimate dialectic of freedom, a side that it is necessary to sublate (aufgehoben); for a truth, be it natural, moral, or theological, becomes essential for us only if, according to Hegel:

‘….. it is regarded by us not merely externally,because it is so, but is also regarded inwardly by us, is regarded by our Reason as an essential, just because it is itself also internal, rational ….. Its positivity doesn’t at all take away its character as rational, and therefore as our own. ….The Laws of Freedom always have a positive side, a side of reality, externality, contingency, in their appearance. . . . That which is positive as such in its nature is irrational. It must be determinate, and determinate in a way that has rationality contained in itself. … This side is also necessary in the revealed religion; since it is an historical, externally appearing occurrence, it is also something positive, contingent, which could be one way or another way. . . . But . . . [t]he Law of Freedom is not to be regarded simply because it is, but because it is a determination of our rationality itself. If it is known as such, then it is not merely positive, not something externally valid. Religion also appears positive in the whole content of its teaching. But it is not to remain so; it is not to be an affair of mere representation, mere rote’.

The original medium of knowledge may be continually positive, external, and immediate, but for knowledge to be ultimately acceptable to reason it must assume another form, for absolute knowledge and the concomitant freedom and reconciliation implicate a subject that him or herself must become the absolute truth that he or she knows, it must be his or her own, he or she must be at home in it, its rational necessity must be a truth for his or her consciousness; for the apprehension of the necessity of the truth in consciousness means that consciousness of the truth becomes identical with self-consciousness, and it is a stipulation of the dialectic of alienation and reconciliation that all positivity necessarily is sublated (aufgehoben) inclusive of the positivity of the Gospel, for to apprehend the truth that is initially presented in positive form in such a manner that it is necessary, and transparent to reason, requires that the apparent immediacy of truth is demonstrated to be mediated; which is to say, it must be known, not merely as something given, fallen into the midst of existence as it were in some mysterious way, but rather as a necessary consequence and a logically mediated result; for after all the events of the Gospel themselves have always been considered from a theological point of view as a sort of result.

Which is to say, these events do not occur adventitiously, but rather in accordance with divine predestination, albeit that this divine predestination has overall been maintained purely as an article of faith; indeed, John Calvin, (1509–1564), promoter of the doctrine of predestination, as a matter of principle was hostile towards any endeavour to inquire into the divine nature in such a manner that the necessity of these aforesaid events could be demonstrated. But to fail to provide such demonstration would be to abandon the most essential tenet in the dialectic of reconciliation, that the immediacy of the Gospel must be shown ultimately to be mediated. And such mediation by no means involves a simple reduction to general principles; merely abstracting some moral or metaphysical principles from the Gospel will not serve; it must be historical; the mediation is enacted in the development of human consciousness in history; that is to say a reconciliation of man and woman with God is executed. Whereas a principle can be annunciated, the Gospel discloses the unity of man and woman with God, and yet the reconciliation in itself is not merely a matter of understanding the principle; it is more than that, it is the spiritualization of man and woman, which is to say, Spirit becomes actual through its embodiment in an existing being, in man and in woman, and Absolute Spirit comes into existence in history in its progressive self-reflection in human consciousness, for it is the nature of Spirit to be for Spirit in the true infinite of self- reflection, and it is inconceivable that such a reconciliation could occur at any point in history unless the divine and human natures were implicitly one throughout.

Hegel’s principle of the implicit unity of the divine and human natures, however, is not a statement about man and woman’s actual state of existence in history. Man and woman has not been actually or intentionally, consciously or unconsciously, one with God. The principle that the divine and human natures are implicitly one is, in the first place, a statement about human destiny; in fact, the principle could be recognized only after the destiny has been fulfilled, after God and man and woman have actually become one.

However, this destiny has been implicit from the very outset on account of the fact that its enactment is necessary and the actual unity of man and woman with Spirit is not simply a contingent possibility, that which may or may not occur, neither does it depend upon a capacity present in man and woman’s immediate existence as such, this destiny belongs to the nature of Spirit itself, it depends upon the absolute necessity of Spirit to realize itself in human self-consciousness, as Hegel explains:

‘But the divine nature is itself only this: to be absolute Spirit; therefore just the unity of the divine and human nature is itself the absolute Spirit. … Spirit is therefore the living process in which the implicit unity of the divine and human nature becomes explicit, is brought forth. That which is implicit must just on that account be brought forth (Destiny, Cultus), will thus be brought forth, elicited, through the Idea itself; and nothing will be brought forth which is not implicit’.

Actual human existence whatever may be its elevated and imposing destiny may well be characterised as anything other than divine, events such as the execution of Aikenhead, which are legion, testify to that, and Hegel puts forward a view of history as consisting of successive forms of human self-alienation, and yet from out of the true human self, from which historical man and woman has been alienated, there is man and woman in their purely ideal visualisation in unity with God. From an ethical, a social, psychological, an existential point of view, the the history of actual men and women has been overall a sorry saga of human wretchedness, and yet as Hegel’s philosophy of history aspires to demonstrate, it is history that finally mends the injuries that history itself has visited upon us.

The laws of God, the laws of man,

He may keep that will and can;

Not I: let God and man decree

Laws for themselves and not for me;

And if my ways are not as theirs

Let them mind their own affairs.

Their deeds I judge and much condemn,

Yet when did I make laws for them?

Please yourselves, say I, and they

Need only look the other way.

But no, they will not; they must still

Wrest their neighbour to their will,

And make me dance as they desire

With jail and gallows and hell-fire.

And how am I to face the odds

Of man’s bedevilment and God’s?

I, a stranger and afraid

In a world I never made.

They will be master, right or wrong;

Though both are foolish, both are strong.

And since, my soul, we cannot fly

To Saturn nor to Mercury,

Keep we must, if keep we can,

These foreign laws of God and man.

- Alfred Edward Housman (1859–1936)

To be continued ….



David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.