An Infinite Deal of Nothing — Part Three

Wer nie sein Brod mit Thränen ass,

Wer nicht die kummervollen Nächte

Auf seinem Bette weinend sass,

Der kennt euch nicht, ihr himmlischen Mächte.

Who never ate his bread in sorrow,

Who never spent the darksome hours

Weeping, and watching for the morrow, —

He knows ye not, ye gloomy Powers.

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, (1749–1832), Wilhelm Meister

I waive the quantum o’ the sin,

The hazard of concealing:

But, och! it hardens a’ within,

And petrifies the feeling!

- Robert Burns, (1759–1796), Epistle to a Young Friend

Come, now again, thy woes impart,

Tell all thy sorrows, all thy sin;

We cannot heal the throbbing heart

Till we discern the wounds within.

- George Crabbe, (1754–1832), Hell of Justice

Van Gogh, April 1882: ‘Sorrow’, (‘The work is an absolute necessity for me. I can’t put it off..’)

For my iniquities have overwhelmed me; they are a burden too heavy to bear.

My wounds are foul and festering because of my sinful folly.

I am bent and brought low; all day long I go about mourning.

- Psalm 38:4–6.

Gerard van Honthorst, ‘King David Playing the Harp’, 1611

Following on from the previous part, God having sent his Son, now we must ask how is the reconciling work of Christ through His incarnation to be understood? According to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), this process of reconciliation is in essence the process whereby the implicit unity of the divine and human natures becomes explicit, and the medium in which this process occurs of necessity is the medium of thought, that is to say, rational consciousness, or knowledge, for Christ cannot be understood as the divine reconciler if His work were to be understood in any other terms, given that it is man and woman’s destiny to know the identity of his or her own nature with God; and yet neither a man nor a woman can come to know this simply by locating some favoured, peaceful spot, sitting themselves down, and endeavouring to think it through; for even were such an idea to occur to him or her, he or she would have no reason to believe in its truth, given nothing but the immediacies of his or her own existence.

That is indeed the situation, and the truth can only disclose itself and become an object of knowledge insofar as it becomes real, embodied in an immediate fact; and the principle holds with respect to the supreme truth of the unity of the divine and human natures; and this implicit unity, the very truth of God and man and woman, can become explicit only upon its materialisation in a concrete event; nor can this explication constitute the reconciliation of humankind if it manifests itself in a form understood only by people who have been blessed by special circumstances of culture, of education, and such like; it must be universally recognisable, and the unity of God and man and woman can henceforth become known to men and women in no other way than for this unity to put in an appearance in an entirely temporal, perfectly common manifestation in the world in one of these humans; in this particular man in fact who simultaneously becomes known as the divine Idea, not as a teacher, nor simply as a higher being in general, but rather as the highest, as the Son of God.

As Hegel explains in the ‘Lectures on the History of Philosophy’:

‘… within Christianity the basis of Philosophy is that in man has sprung up the consciousness of the truth, or of spirit in and for itself, and then that man requires to participate in this truth. Man must be qualified to have this truth present to him; he must further be convinced of this possibility. This is the absolute demand and necessity; the consciousness must be arrived at that this alone is true. The first point of interest in the Christian religion thus is that the content of the Idea should be revealed to man; more particularly that the unity of the divine and human nature should come to the consciousness of man, and that, indeed, on the one hand as an implicitly existent unity, and, on the other, in actuality as worship. The Christian life signifies that the culminating point of subjectivity is made familiar with this conception, the individual himself is laid claim to, is made worthy of attaining on his own account to this unity, which to make himself worthy of the Spirit of God — Grace, as it is called — dwelling in him. Hence the doctrine of reconciliation is that God is known as reconciling Himself with the world, … that He particularises Himself and does not remain abstract. Not external nature alone, but the whole world pertains to the particular; above all must human individuality know itself in God. The interest of the subject is itself involved, and here it plays an essential role in order that God may be realised and may realise Himself in the consciousness of individuals who are spirit and implicitly free. Thus through the process these accomplish that reconciliation in themselves, actualise their freedom; that is to say, they attain to the consciousness of heaven upon earth, the elevation of man to God’.

‘The Virgin of Guadalupe’, 1959, Salvador Dali

‘And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!’ (‘John’ 19:5). But such a man must be both immediately and concretely, the God-man; He must embody the ‘immediate certainty and presence of divinity’, for only as ‘that which is [das Ist]’ can the truth actually exist ‘for the natural consciousness’, and Hegel emphasises throughout his discussion of the God-man his contention that this historical Incarnation was essential for man and woman to gain immediate certainty of the truth, for the appearance of the God-man is the truth in the form of certainty, and in order for the truth to become certain to men and women, God must appear in flesh in the world, and Christ is divine in that He perfectly embodies the Idea, the truth.

‘Ecce Homo’, 1605, Caravaggio

This particular detail is in essence that which distinguishes Him from anyone else who had been honoured in one way or another as divine. According to Plutarch, (46 CE — 119 CE), writing about Demetrius Poliorcetes, (337 BC — 283 BC), (the ‘Besieger’), nobleman, military leader, eventually king of Macedon, (294–288 BC): ‘some one … proposed that whenever Demetrius visited the city [Athens] he should be received with the hospitable honours paid to Demeter and Dionysus, and that to the citizen who surpassed all others in the splendour and costliness of his reception, a sum of money should be granted from the public treasury for a dedicatory offering’. This may be the source of some confusion, whereby Hegel, writing concerning another Demetrius, Demetrius Phalereus, (c. 350 BC — c. 280 BC), Athenian orator and statesman, states that: ‘Demetrius Phalereus and others were thus soon after [Alexander] honoured and worshipped in Athens as God’; but there is no mention of this by Diogenes Laërtius, (3rd Century ACE), biographer of Demetrius.

But the point still stands; there have been others honoured and worshipped as gods or as divine prior to the advent of Christ. Hercules, as son of Zeus, inherited godly powers. And yet all that have been so honoured as divine are related to Christ in the manner of John the Baptist, (late 1 st century BC — AD 28–36), also honoured as divine: ‘There was a man sent from God, whose name was John / The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. / He was not the light, but he came to testify about the light’. (John 1: 6- 8)); they are forerunners readying the minds of men and women for the Incarnation through which the God-man unity would become genuinely concrete in its embodiment.

In the story of the teaching, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Christians thereby find absolute adequacy to the divine Idea; which is to say, the teacher of the Kingdom of God comes fully to embody His teaching, for the Kingdom of God is not an abstract truth; rather, it means that God as abstract truth (Geist an sich) passes out of his abstract universality into reality, into the world, and it is this process which is embodied in the life of Jesus, for insofar as the Kingdom remains a teaching as such, it remains an abstract idea, the idea of God’s realization and individuation in the world. And as Meister Eckhart, (c. 1260 — c. 1328), explains, in one of his sermons:

‘ST LUKE xxi, 31. — ‘Know that the Kingdom of God is near’.

OUR Lord saith that the Kingdom of God is near us. Yea, the Kingdom of God is within us as St Paul saith ‘our salvation is nearer than when we believed’. Now we should know in what manner the Kingdom of God is near us. Therefore let us pay diligent attention to the meaning of the words. If I were a king, and did not know it, I should not really be a king. But, if I were fully convinced that I was a king, and all mankind coincided in my belief, and I knew that they shared my conviction, I should indeed be a king, and all the wealth of the king would be mine. But, if one of these three conditions were lacking, I should not really be a king’.

Salvador Dali, ‘Surrealist King’, 1971

As long as the Kingdom of God is presented as a teaching of the divine individual, the divinity of Christ is at first only implicit and the God-man is only such for Spirit merely as the process of Spirit making him to be such and has to manifest himself, that he is and represents a progress of the Idea, the manifestation of its absolute content, its determination; which, you may suppose, suggests that Hegel favoured adoptionism, a theological doctrine that holds that Jesus was adopted as the Son of God either at his baptism, or his resurrection, or his ascension, but any apparent resemblances between Hegel’s philosophy of religion and any particular theological doctrine can only ever be apparent on the surface given Hegel’s take on the divine; that God is nothingness, (in case any of you were wondering about the title I have given to this series): ‘He is the Undetermined; no determinateness of any kind pertains to God; He is the Infinite. This is equivalent to saying that God is the negation of all particularity’. That is to say that God Himself is true and not real prior to His manifestation in the world; such a manifestation that is to say that is not merely in teaching, but in historical events; and the divinity of Christ consists in His being this divine manifestation through the whole course of His life. For insofar as he simply teaches the Kingdom of God, his divinity is still implicit; it becomes explicit in the acts in which he actually is God’s passing out of ideal universality into the alienation of existence, that is, progressively, in his birth, his suffering and death, and finally in his resurrection which overcomes this alienation of his existence. Indeed, the story becomes divine history in a special sense, the history of God, the history of Spirit in this peculiar medium, namely the external, common human existence [Dasein]; and in nowise through embodying this history is the manhood of Christ contradicted.

The life of Christ is in many ways a natural, ordinary life, merely the ordinary life of a man, in addition to the true life of man in general, and yet it is by no means on this account a myth, but genuine history. Since it is the divine Idea which proceeds through this history, it is not only the history of a single individual, but is in itself the history of real man, who makes himself into the existence of Spirit. It may be objected, as indeed it has been, that howsoever much Hegel cares to discuss the historical life of Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth in Himself, it would appear, has no special significance for Hegel’s doctrine of reconciliation, it is rather at the best merely symbolic of the course taken by the reconciliation, or perhaps here is just one man, albeit maybe the first, within which it was embodied. God, after all, is nothingness, or perhaps if we put it less paradoxical sounding, God is not a being, for finite beings like ourselves can never achieve full reality given our dependence to a considerable extent upon our relations to other finite beings, for were there something dependent only upon itself to make it what it is, then it is evident that something would be more completely itself as itself and thereby more fully real than any of us. But God is infinite and hence more him/her/itself and more fully real as him/her/itself than anything else is; which is to say, God is the fullest reality achieved through the self-determination of everything that is capable of any kind or degree of self-determination; that is, God emerges out of beings of limited reality inclusive of ourselves.

Which is a good instance to explain why philosophy and religion often fail to get on; to a theologian philosophy can be seen as doing naught else other than corrupting, dragging down and profaning the content of religion, presenting an understanding of God in an entirely different manner from that in which religion understands Him/Her/It (although in religion it is usually Him as though God were an organism never mind a being). But to proceed. Spirit may well be immanent in the historical process, but that does not mean that any man could in principle develop his spirituality or his self-consciousness to the point of being the God-man in the sense that Jesus Christ was God-man; nor does it mean that Jesus Himself became the God-man purely through that means.

Odilon Redon, ‘Christ with Red Thorns’, 1897

However, God sending his Son certainly incorporates a metaphor, and the mechanism by which the process of reconciliation has an historically immanent character certainly requires explanation; God may well transcend any particular event but does not transcend all historical events together, so how is it that one realm is able to break in upon another? Such a question is misplaced in the light of Hegel’s distinction between understanding and reason and his opinion on picture-thinking that reduces the pure content of notions or concepts into something more easily grasped by the understanding leading the subject into an argumentative thinking falsely representing content without realising its misrepresentation reducing the content of the pure notions or concepts to something insignificant thus leading the subject into intellectual presumption. However, without going into all that now I will just make the point that Spirit finds itself, becomes transparent to itself as it were, in this event.

Be that as it may, the Incarnation is unique, a singularity if we want to be pretentious about it, of the Incarnation there can only ever be one; and that one Incarnation can only ever be in one individual human being; and it must of course be in a human being, because only human beings are implicitly Spirit, infinite consciousness; so perhaps the identity of God and man and woman could not have occurred explicitly in one man had it not been implicit in all; and yet the decisive Incarnation of God, in which this identity becomes apparent, explicit for those who believe in it, could not have occurred in all, or even in a few; most certainly such a unique, revelatory Incarnation could not have been dispensed with; for the unity of man and woman with God must become known explicitly in order to be grasped by all men and women. And what is to be known is not the unity of some abstract, general, collective humankind with God; for to Hegel the notion of a divine humankind in general that appealed to some of his successors, such as David Friedrich Strauss, (1808–1874), or Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, (1804–1872), is a mere inflated abstraction.

Of humankind in general there is no such thing, for if God were identical with humankind in general then the concept of God could never be anything other than a mere abstraction; just as the particular as such has not yet authentic reality, neither has the universal as such, much less a mere class of entities such as humankind; and the true universal, God in himself, attains reality only insofar as it is embodied in an individual, in a single self-consciousness; but there is no supra-individual self-consciousness within existence as such, and Spirit must be reflected within the self-consciousness of an existent; Spirit must thereby find itself in the consciousness of an individual, for there is no other subjectivity, no other seat of consciousness, and such a fulfilment of Spirit in its individual other is at once the appropriation of this other as a moment in Spirit’s own life. The embodiment of the universal in the particular, the infinite in the finite, the Idea in that which is alienated from itself, is at the same time ‘the absolute transfiguration of finitude’ and ‘the most beautiful point in the Christian religion’.

‘Chorus of the Sphinx’, René Magritte, 1964

However, for an alternative view:

‘Religion is the dream of the human mind. But even in dreams we do not find ourselves in emptiness or in heaven, but on earth, in the realm of reality; we only see real things in the entrancing splendour of imagination and caprice, instead of in the simple daylight of reality and necessity’.

- Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, ‘The Essence of Christianity’, 1841

‘If we therefore waive the consideration of our own reality for the present, if we conceive our empiric existence, and that of the world generally, as a representation of the Primordial Unity generated every moment, we shall then have to regard the dream as an appearance of appearance, hence as a still higher gratification of the primordial desire for appearance. It is for this same reason that the innermost heart of Nature experiences that indescribable joy in the naïve artist and in the naïve work of art, which is likewise only ‘an appearance of appearance’. In a symbolic painting, Raphael, himself one of these immortal naïve ones, has represented to us this depotentiating of appearance to appearance, the primordial process of the naïve artist and at the same time of Apollonian culture. In his Transfiguration, the lower half, with the possessed boy, the despairing bearers, the helpless, terrified disciples, shows to us the reflection of eternal primordial pain, the sole basis of the world: the ‘appearance’ here is the counter-appearance of eternal Contradiction, the father of things. Out of this appearance then arises, like an ambrosial vapour, a vision-like new world of appearances, of which those wrapt in the first appearance see nothing — a radiant floating in purest bliss and painless Contemplation beaming from wide-open eyes. Here there is presented to our view, in the highest symbolism of art, that Apollonian world of beauty and its substratum, the terrible wisdom of Silenus, and we comprehend, by intuition, their necessary interdependence’.

- Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘The Birth of Tragedy’, 1872

‘The Transfiguration’, Raphael, 1516–20

To be continued ….


Apollonian: the rational, ordered, and self-disciplined aspects of human nature, as opposed to Dionysian undisciplined lust and chaos. See the reference to Dionysus in connection with Demetrius Poliorcetes above.

Wisdom of Silenus: alcoholic satyr and companion to Dionysus, after being pestered by King Midas to say what is best for humankind, replied at last: ‘you, seed of an evil genius and precarious offspring of hard fortune, whose life is but for a day, why do you compel me to tell you those things of which it is better you should remain ignorant? For he lives with the least worry who knows not his misfortune; but for humans, the best for them is not to be born at all, not to partake of nature’s excellence; not to be is best, for both sexes. This should be our choice, if choice we have; and the next to this is, when we are born, to die as soon as we can’.




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

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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