Thematising Revelation in the Ecumenical Age

Accomplishing Religion with Hegel

Essay, 2009
54 Pages




Acknowledging a revelation, in the sense of an intervention from on high, is in our culture the mark of the "religious" option. As such it is routinely distinguished from "mere" religious philosophies such as Buddhism or various "individualistic" views and practices. What cannot be denied is that there is a tradition to be followed or not, as there is in all cultures. It was on this point that even Socrates was condemned. Yet his follower Plato often not so much clinched as concluded his argumentation by appeal to the mythical traditions of his Greek society’s religions.[1]

The division this introduces in man’s mind is often valued as embodying self-transcendence or transcendence of our nature, which comes in this context to be viewed as wicked or ”fallen”. In Hegel such wickedness is extended, as a characterisation, to any deviation from current Sittlichkeit or conventionality inclusive, somewhat shockingly, of such deviation as expressing conscience or conscientiousness. Yet in this way the stigma of wickedness is overcome and we rejoin Goethe’s serene acceptance of the Unzulängliche. This is equally the conclusion of McTaggart, that we should not, cannot without dishonesty, wish to be better than we are.[2] This might seem to contradict the Apostolic predicament of Romans 7 ("The evil that I would not, that I do," etc.), yet there it is the doomed effort to obey an imposed law that is chiefly engaged with. This in turn, of course, raises a problem about Sittlichkeit, surely equally imposed even though, as tradition, having its roots in nature. Furthermore, Hegel’s own philosophical efforts seem to many anything but sittlich in the sense of conventional. This, however, underlines an (his?) ambiguity concerning wickedness.

Wickedness, that is to say, becomes identified with finitude as such. Its more spectacular forms, murder, genocide, should not therefore be separated off from our shared finitude as more "radical".[3] There but for the grace of God go I is the again traditional teaching of the saints. That is, just as all sin participates in this final enormity, so this enormity too is part and parcel with the falsity of everything finite. What can fail, says Aquinas, sometimes does, adding that there is no rock-bottom to sinning. One can always be worse. Yet it remains finite as semper in subjecto, always in a basically good created being, such as Satan would always be. For nor does Aquinas make the moral good equivocal with other forms of good, as we seem to find in Kant and here too Hegel seems to rejoin the older strand of thought, prior to the modern doctrine of "values" as somehow divorced from being and the actual. This, all the same, might seem to gloss over the orthodox teaching that sin is an infinite offence, because against an infinite being. Such transposition of forensic discourse, however, is thereby figurative and belongs to religion as an imperfect from of apprehending this content. Really God does not command and so, in that sense, there are no sins, only wickedness, as a name for the finite, from which we have to extricate ourselves in both thought and deed.

Attempts were made from the beginning to soften this confrontation of the traditional and the natural, the infinite and the finite. This in fact is the whole sense of myth. Thus the author(s) of Genesis, no doubt themselves already following a tradition, cite a covenant earlier than that with Abraham and his descendants, one made with Noah as sole representative of humanity, along with his family, after the Flood. The pledge of this burying of the hatchet, patching up of the quarrel between God and man, self and super-ego, was God’s "bow in the clouds", the rainbow. In perhaps unthinking echo of this Nietzsche compared forgiveness, the mark of the superior man to come, to a ”rainbow after long storms”. This was a pointer to the pivotal nature of forgiveness as recognising finitude. "Forgive them Father for they know not what they do." Yet they knew as well as anyone ever knows.

Behind this rainbow covenant God’s dealings with the first man of all, and his woman, are presented in the same way. There will be peace between us if you remain within certain limits. The fact is that they did not raises a question about our finitude, though this is only darkly touched on in the text.[4] Consciousness as to these issues became strong in the nineteenth century. So the theory of traditionalism should not have surprised anybody, though Church authorities quickly condemned it. De Bonald, its founder, argued that man must have attained speech by revelation (hence "traditionalism"), on the questionable ground that one cannot think without speech and so cannot invent or attain to it.

Revelation, like traditions in general or moral teaching, is perfected in a process of internalisation, precisely the difference between education and indoctrination. This is referred to sometimes as "the birth of Christ in the soul", which the Nativity festivities should prefigure. In this way the outside becomes the inside, as dialectic shows, and the two categories are superseded together. This is why here we will show how revelation as a category finally becomes absorbed within philosophical thinking as "accomplishing" religion.

The truths of faith cannot be said to be beyond Reason absolutely. Reason, in fact, cannot but be absolute, as the subject, any subject, cannot be other than subjectivity itself, intrinsically repelling conditioning by any alien other. Thus the true God, finally beyond idolatry, must be intimior me mihi, closer to me than I am to myself, as Augustine expressed it. I am that, say the Indians, "I in you and you in me", says our own tradition, where we are "all members one of another".

Faith, that is, naturally culminates in "the birth of Christ in the soul" and philosophical enlightenment, if it is ever to be such, cannot be other than that. In so far as this birth of Christ is, professedly, birth of "the Son of Man", it may be said to happen or to have happened eternally. The intentions of Reason are one with their execution. In this sense man, every man, is an infinity, not constrained from without. Only thus is he end and not means. Only thus is he truly the unknown Christ we serve or spurn, as the Gospel says he is. If philosophy anticipated or "accomplished" this initially figurative presentation, so liable to be misunderstood as mere imputation, yet philosophy only achieved this post factum, when the religious praxis and belief was in place. We may beg to discern a "backward causation" here, in so far as revelation is precisely the revelation which is the eternal Reason, none other than self-manifestation, as we shall argue below. Thus such philosophy contains all of the content of religion under its own more perfect form and is not a watered down version, but a result, as the dialectic terminates as result in the absolute. Just so the biologists tell us the eye would necessarily (and therefore dialectically) "evolve"[5] in nature, as in fact has happened in at least four otherwise distinct natural histories. The content of absolute religion quite naturally passes over into a higher form, which is another way of saying, in transposition, that philosophy is religious.


The Jews considered themselves chosen. How can we respect, even share this belief? Hegel maybe considered the claim historically born out. Maybe we could accept that too. Perhaps even other groups consider themselves chosen, e.g. certain Australian tribes believe their particular ancestors created the world. The faith claims of around half the world include such an exclusivist approach or at least a claim to privilege. A rejection of intolerance needs to tolerate, even affirm that. Is it possible? Hegel seems to attempt it.

Jewish writings (one should perhaps say Hebrew or Israelite, Judaea was just one tribe, though it came to see itself as the "right" or orthodox one) humbly stress their nation's insignificance apart from this selection. They accord the River Jordan and prophets such as Elijah or Elisha healing powers beyond the "great" rivers of, for example, the conqueror Naaman's land.

One can think that this sense of uniqueness comes from the rejection, the intellectual seeing-through, of idolatry. Their God, they came to see, if God, is as such infinite. "The gods of the heathen are nought." There could not be two or more infinite gods. They would not have gone on to abstract this quality from their God or idealise it in itself, like Plato maybe. It is just their God who in earlier tradition "saved" them, who has this quality. Therefore they are as a people important in this transcendent way.

This idea is carried through into Christian theology, as it has to be if this "fulfils" the Law. "I am the way". "No man comes to the Father but through me" and we have started to interpret this "invisibly", talking first of "invincible ignorance" and later using less insulting but still more mysterious schemes to show, in Hannah Arendt's words, writing of John XXIII, that Jesus is for everybody. Not very encouraging for those who have built their lives and wisdom on teachers they feel bound to consider at least as central.

Here a perspective of absolute idealism offers us a short way through this tangle. Such idealism will also accept the Kantian thesis of a kingdom of ends, implicit in Christian ethics anyhow one might think (and therefore itself calling for absolute idealism where souls have been capable of it). As I think Hegel especially brings out though, one cannot be an end without being THE END. All things are yours, St. Paul had said, at the same time as he saw as necessary that God "shall be all in all". One can't have the all without being it. You are "in" one another. "I in them and they in me." There Jesus, who is represented as speaker, equates himself with each other reciprocally. "Because one died for all, therefore all died", says Paul, mysteriously enough I grant. It is through Jesus that this IDEA comes into the world, uniquely or not.

We need a man who is "all things to all men". "Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart." Regarding uniqueness, he says "Other sheep I have which are not of this fold" (probably the evangelist's perhaps finite interpretation still, if taken at face-value, yet might we not ALL say that?) Aquinas allows that God might incarnate severally, only saying that each "Christ" would be the same (divine) person. It is often asked today if God could have "appeared" on other planets also. The answer, also of most orthodox, is that we do not know. So he could. But if on other planets, why not on this one? The difference is merely contingent.

As for "appearing". Historically, the Docetist heresy, first century, taught that in Christ God only appeared, i.e. he was not truly man. But for idealism we are all appearances and we misperceive ourselves dualistically, speaking of a "soul-thing" (as does the relevant theology). If everyone (and what is a "one"?) is such an appearance, then a) it is no heresy, b) it is that much easier to envisage plural or even general incarnation(s). "This also is thou, neither is this thou." This is the watchword both of mysticism and of absolute idealism. It means that dogmatic formulations are open. We need to talk and if it is possible to seem right or think one is right, about tolerance say, then not only is it possible to be right but right is somewhere (or everywhere) actualised. Talk of paradigms, voluntarism and the creative nature of all texts helps here. Or, as Jesus put it, don't believe what I say but believe in me "for the very works' sake", look at what I do.

The disciples, Galilean fishermen, were bound to interpret Jesus in their categories, "This is he", just as they reacted to his death, supremely, in their categories. "It was not possible that death could hold him." Surely not. If I leave open the literalness of the resurrection accounts I do not refuse a sense in which I believe them. I do not have to say, with Goethe in one place, those scoundrels stole the body away, or that Jesus survived and went to Pakistan. Schillebeeckx, in his Jesus, mentions the claim that for one group of disciples the corporeal or literal re-surrection was a comedown in Christian conception, and that this is the true explanation of the lost ending of St.Mark. It was not lost and the injunction "Why seek ye the living among the dead?", stands, whether or not the tomb still held "the dead". So I wish, if you like, to "save" orthodoxy through all the styles and standards of human thinking down the ages, the programme of "the development of doctrine".[6] Newman himself declared that "orthodoxy stands or falls with the mystical interpretation of scripture". In any case if such development is itself a doctrine then it is not itself exempt from development. As for scripture, inspiration on one theory means no more than acceptance by the community of the text in question, inclusive therefore of its interpretation, "understanding spiritual things spiritually" as the Apostle put it.

Regarding the doctrine of Revelation, this concept too has to be "thematised" or critically examined in a formal and conscious way. It was always close to that of Manifestation or Epiphany. The revealed is the manifest. The categories of natural versus supernatural, epitomised in miracle, obscure this. What is revealed is what we see. Those revelatory experiences of "joy" C.S. Lewis focussed on, for example, are all "transfiguration" of the everyday, and do not in themselves need to be reduced to a call to tread the way to a future bliss. Such bliss is not so much not yet, which would make it temporal, as it is hidden from us merely, as was the glory intrinsic to Jesus in the tradition. Such glory is revealed, McTaggart argues, to every man or woman who falls in love, for a season at least. The incarnate "one" is reflected in the eyes of the transfigured Beatrice (for her poet-lover). Yet she is not easily recognised as who she was. "Look well. We are, we are indeed Beatrice." "Is this the face…?" The disciples do not "look well" enough until "the stranger" breaks bread. The tradition is continued by the strange old man in the forest of Fangorn in The Lord of the Rings. This may be dismissed as more "fictional" still than the saga of Beatrice. Beatrice was a real lost beloved, someone may say. Yet one can as well have the falling in love experience referred to for a story or "character" therein as, where the barbarity of the distinction aimed at becomes clearer, for a piece of music. In fact and just as an experience the essential occurs within one's subjectivity in every case equally. This is the basic meaning of faith in the tradition, rather than a downgrading of it as against knowledge.

A lot of the limitations and intolerance of orthodoxy revolve around views as to the opportuneness or permissibility of utterances at a given time or place. The guardians of orthodoxy, "servants of the servants of God", take a lot upon themselves here, as they seem to feel they have to. Who are these guardians? Why should we have them? Well, let us not a priori reject all need for them in guarding our inner freedom. The centre is everywhere, there too.


"We (you) sit with Christ in the heavenly places" (St. Paul). The worshipping or liturgical community believes itself in heaven. Christ on the Cross, on the altar, sees and loves each one of them totally. Each has the whole, the unity, within himself, McTaggart urges, who seldom if ever himself "went to Mass". He refers to the reality liturgy would set forth.

As he saw you he also saw them, writes Lewis's diabolical Screwtape to his apprentice, describing the final escape from the two of them of a "Christian soul". Lewis also has the heroine of his later novel, Till We Have faces, cry out, "How can the gods see us face to face until we have faces?" But who are these gods? Popular theorists argue sometimes that gods, superior beings from elsewhere, spawned the human race on earth, not, this time, by mating with the sons or rather daughters of men, as did the angels in Genesis, but by advanced technology. Such "gods" though are clearly finite, since infinite transcendence requires total immanence, the outside being inside and vice versa. Any viable creationist[7] theory must be compatible with this. Thus creation, like any divine act, one with his essence, is extra-temporal, eternal, including any putative creation of time itself. God in creating produces things without change in himself. After that we can go on to ask whether the notion of change is itself finally consistent or not rather as finite, and therefore false, as the objects it posits. This would be the Aufhebung of "becoming".

Reincarnation, let us now consider, is the belief of a large portion of the human race while even the Christians believe in incarnation without the "re". Incarnation in itself, I would suggest, insinuates the first heresy concerning it, viz. docetism, that Christ only "appeared" as a man. Don't we all, if all flesh, flesh universally, is as such mere appearance? This is the conclusion of Absolute Idealism, while docetism only gets off the ground as specifically a heresy, separating Christ from real humanity, on the contrary Realist supposition.[8] So the true incarnation of the incarnate "one" would not be denied in stating this later conclusion, viz. absolute idealism. To become incarnate, in that case, just is no more than to take on an untransfigured appearance.

The perspectives transcend reincarnation however. We are "members one of another" as God is "all in all", "I in them and they in me… that they all may be one in us." One may assume that the prayer of the one chosen is here granted, or represents the reality rather. He states what is eternally and necessarily so. It has been rationally demonstrated in the more perfect form of philosophy.

"I will see you again." "You will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of glory." There was no need to take this as a fallacious prophecy concerning the later experiences of those present, i.e. in their life-times. The reference, should these texts be venerated as normative, would rather be, still, to the End, but an End that all will see, if we do not behold it eternally indeed, ourselves constituting it. Spirit is neither born nor dies and as necessary we more than exist. Existence abstracts, as a category, from immanent otherness.

Thus the end of "time", created by backward causality of the last member of the series, is not a temporal end but an end to temporality, where we see ourselves in our last or final and only real incarnation, which is spirit and so no incarnation at all. Ten thousand times ten thousand or, more truly, a multitude "without number" (what kind of multitude is that?), infinitely differentiated, each is necessary to the whole. The "angels" of the smallest children "behold the face of our (my) father in heaven". The doctrine of the guardian angels (of children and others), that is, is one of at least some kind of identity with Spirit beyond empirical consciousness, as "I and my father are one".

Twins can experience a most perfect identity, uncanny to others. We all, though, are not merely begotten of one mother-father, but are begotten perpetually, at every actual moment, in one another. For being in the other is constitutive of its other, viz. of self. I "know as I am known" and am thus necessary to the whole as having it within myself.

The divine simplicity, the perfect whole which infinity necessarily is, can be and has been thought in terms of the Trinitarian relationships, without contradiction. So it can just as well be thought in terms of this relation here (of infinite differentiation in identity), which actually annihilates relation (a finite category after all, along with substance and all possible accidents), of all with all. It is a relation of the whole with itself in an infinite transparency of self-conscious, self-constituting perception. In this way man, spirit, is revealed "in glory" or as absolute behind the veils of time and space, of transitional "nature".

The Trinity is not hereby denied. It may be thought of as constitutive of all consciousness within itself, having the other as other and yet having it, as it were intensively, all multitude being finally denied or superseded (aufgehoben). Self just is its other, known and so realised as and in its other. The final return of other to self, to other of its other, is self-constitutive. It constitutes self in the final bond of love. Thus reality is spirit, blowing where it will so that you cannot tell where it comes from. This is the significance of the original insistence on the Trinitarian notion as a mystery or as "above" reason. The meaning is that reason is in its inmost self creative or revelatory, "at play". Hegel's notion of the "notion as pure play" coincides with the Wisdom (sapientia) in the Proverbs attributed to Solomon. It, Reason, Vernünft, is not as it were enslaved by self -manifestation but is manifestation simply, the manifest, the re-vealed. We may say it transcends itself ceaseless, since this is what it is, viz. reconciliation, not merely of self and other, but of self into other. Self, that is, is paradoxical in its notion, as personality for Hegel, its principle, is universality.

Thus the outside is the inside and in looking out, upon nature, upon brothers and sisters, man apprehends him/herself, "all glorious within". He sees the "thoughts of one mind", which is his own. Thomas Aquinas, in arguing from a premise that "It is evident that it is this man who thinks" (On a Common Intellect), begs all the philosophical questions he himself elsewhere tackles. Man, neither one nor many, is "at home with himself", "the great Apocalypse". I am that. Finally the only subjectivity is absolute subjectivity. In seeing that we leave ourselves behind, kick the ladder away, as Hegel found and reported in his day, as in his critique of the specifically a posteriori proofs of God in the "Little Logic" and elsewhere.

To make things more perspicuous, inclusive of what we are doing here. The view I am offering here is my view, my thought, which I, as subject, write down for readers. In the same way, or similarly, God the Father knows all of us, inclusive of the relations of identity and necessity and reciprocal interchange advanced, if they be true, in his one Word ever returning to him in Love. What is God? Whatever is beyond the horizon of our knowledge or, equally, most deeply within it. Therefore God must be compatible with or, rather, authentically revealed in whatever Reason discloses, the Unfalsifiable indeed.


One needs to focus upon the transcendence of the biological in man. One may treat man biologically, as is done in Aristotle's On the Soul or Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape. Seeing oneself, or ourselves collectively, however, as one of nature's species is not "the natural attitude" we easily slip into pretending it to be. Aristotle's definition of man as a or the rational or talking animal is reached by an effort of abstractive thinking. This effort knocks out, for him, other definitional candidates, such as featherless biped, in his search for the essential feature. Feature and not features since his account of definition is ordered. There has to be one ultimate difference which limits (defines) the broader category first begun with. This category is itself not given merely, and animal, as a genus, is nonetheless a species of a broader category, living being (zoon), and so on.

Although one might think that we talk of man as we talk of the elephant or the daffodil we only do this by a definite, somewhat hard-nosed decision. It is mediated, as Hegel would say. Many cultures preserve more consistently a strong awareness of the gulf between "us" and nature or the animals, whether or not this leads to a lack of respect for "life". In compensation, maybe, we have a strong awareness of the individual, of subjectivity, as other or prior. According to Heidegger only man ex-ists. We look back to Aristotle with this in mind and find there, implicitly, the same insight.

Morris concedes that he makes his examination of the naked, if rational, ape qua zoologist, i.e. not as Desmond Morris the man in his entirety.[9] So also Aristotle arrives at a more final estimate of man (and of much else) in his Metaphysics, when endeavouring to think reality as a whole without discriminative attention, to think being as being, in his words.[10] Noting that such biological definitions are pre-patterned to give one a composite he concludes that this composite is determined by some one element or "part", since any being is one, which will therefore be more essentially the being, viz. its "form", than is the composite of everyday. This part is more the whole than the whole composed of parts! In other words the schema part-whole is here superseded as inapplicable and Aristotle has in fact passed to the less abstract but more metaphysical schema of act and potency. The form ("soul") is the act, the actuality, of a man or woman. The organised body, made up of matter, is potential to this act, which makes it entirely what it is, such that its final organisation is one with the form, but as viewed potentially. This is only understandable, in my view, under the format of idealism, taken absolutely. Substance as subject (hypokeimenon) of properties or accidents, including an organised body (having life potentially), becomes, as nous, absolute or self-bearing subject and ipso facto activity, ultimately one with the first substance of all, as is also the case, regarding this point at least, in the later Augustinian noetic.

Of course there is question still as to what this finally means. But since this form in man is in fact intellect it is arbitrary to continue to posit man as living being in only a biological sense. Biology is not the final science, does not give the final knowledge, especially not of man. This would have to give the basis of subjectivity referred to above. In Aristotle this takes the form of a lack of clear distinction (or separation, rather) between nous, intellect, as creator and thinker of all the world (as in Anaxagoras) and nous as the intellect and form of any man which, he says, perhaps misleadingly, "comes from outside". He could as well have said it comes from inside and projects the world outside! The world, abstractions apart, is, in every case where it is spoken of, the world as known by the speaker. In an immediate sense the world as including one subject as pro-jecting it is not identical with the world as including another subject projecting it. It can only be this if every subject, or these two at least, is or are identical with one another. But nor is this impossible or unthinkable. It forms the basis of both the classical account of knowledge and the religio-mystical conception of the community of love, "members one of another".

This move of Aristotle's is in fact connected with the justification of logic (logica docens) and of the principle of contradiction (Metaphysics IV), of being able to talk about anything. A condition for this is that there be not only accidentals but something necessary, not potentially in or at all in something else. This though, as "move", is still a schema and so one might adopt a Humean attitude in virtue of which the final reality could remain implicit only and self, whether as composite or form, still merely a construct. This would at least reconcile us with all the paradoxes the notion of self gives rise to, leading eventually perhaps to a Buddhistic position.


[1] Cf. J. Pieper, Über die platonischen Mythen, Kösel, Munich 1965.

[2] J.M.E. McTaggart, Studies in Hegelian Cosmology, Cambridge University Press, 1901.

[3] Hannah Arendt’s perspective on the death-camps in her Origins of Totalitarianism.

[4] Cf. Hegel, Encyclopaedia 50.

[5] We must look behind this word too.

[6] J.H. Newman, On the Development of Christian Doctrine, 1845.

[7] Deus creando producit res sine motu, agrees Aquinas, at Summa theol. I, 45, 3.

[8] Aristotle, speaking for the ancient world in which Christianity arose has a curious halfway position here. Cf. On the Soul, 423a 1ff. Flesh is an "attached medium" (of perception). It is not even clear that it is an or the organ (of touch). Thus we can equally feel roughness or smoothness at the end of a pencil, argues Merleau-Ponty. Cf. the superb commentary on De anima by Eugene Gendlin, available from this author on request.

[9] This, by the way, is a good illustration of Aristotle's thesis that it is the essential form that defines the substance and not some ordered grouping of forms, soul, body etc. "Desmond Morris the man in his entirety" actually refers here, if counter-intuitively, to the "Morrisian" intellect (to say "Morris's intellect" would perpetuate the error), his unitive consciousness, beyond his particular profession. On this view, if I say "I have hurt my finger" I refer to myself as subject, as intellect, as I do not if I say, as I might, "My finger is hurt".

[10] This formula excludes any view of being as equivocal, e.g. as between predicative, existential, “is” of identity. Rather, these senses are all subsumed under the last-named, a relationship of identity in act, be it in logic or reality (cf. Note 3). Even being as veritas propositionis is to be thought metaphysically as act, something Aquinas too brings out in his commentary on I Peri hermeneias (lect. 5, n.22), explaining predication as identity. The whole endeavour is the very opposite of basing metaphysics upon forms of predication merely. The linguistic predicate has a signification which is quasi-formalis, but it does not as such "give the form". For then I could not say, for example, "Matter has no form at all", though this is very likely a true sentence (cf. following note).

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Thematising Revelation in the Ecumenical Age
Accomplishing Religion with Hegel
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Dr. Stephen Theron (Author), 2009, Thematising Revelation in the Ecumenical Age, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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