The philosopher who poisoned German theology

Portrait by Jakob Schlesinger, Berlin 1831

Otto von Bismarck, the 19th-century Chancellor of Germany, tried and failed to bring the Catholic Church to heel. He would have been delighted to see its state today. With pews emptying at a great rate, and few priestly vocations, the fact that the Church remains one of the largest employers could only prove that it had become the servant of state that he hoped it would be. Yet perhaps Bismarck might want to know: How have others achieved what I failed to bring about? At least part of the answer comes from within the German Church.

Theologically, Germany has been ground zero for centuries: just think of Albert the Great mentoring St Thomas Aquinas, or the Jesuit-led Counter-Reformation which answered Luther’s schismatic dissent. But German theology has never quite recovered from its greatest challenge: Enlightenment rationalism and the attempts to overcome it through Hegelian dialectic. Even today, Hegel’s influence dominates German theology.

The Hegelian view of God’s involvement in the unfolding of history as Geist (Spirit) is at root a Christian heresy, reminiscent of the spiritualism of the 12th-century theologian Joachim de Fiore. For the Hegelian, God suffers with, and changes, precisely through the sin and suffering of his creatures, dialectically pouring out his love and mercy through the progress of history.

Citing a Lutheran hymn, “God Himself is Dead”, Hegel argues that God unites death to his nature. And so when we encounter suffering and death, we taste the particularities of the eternal divine “history”. As he puts it, suffering “is a moment in the nature of God himself; it has taken place in God himself.” For Hegel, suffering is an aspect of God’s eternal nature. Our sin and suffering is necessary for God to be God.

This heretical view has had widespread influence in modern Catholic and Protestant accounts of God’s nature. It’s often given a pastoral veneer of the God who weeps with us. Yet, tragically unaware of his error, the Hegelian homilist preaches a God who cannot save: a God who is so eternally bound to our tears he cannot truly wipe them away.

Many 20th-century German theologians followed in Hegel’s footsteps. A basic principle was Hegel’s dialectic process itself as revelatory, which is to say they smuggled into their ideas on “doctrinal development” the notion that God was continuing to reveal himself in history, as though there was always something “becoming” in God, and thus, in the Church. Hegel’s spiritual forerunner Joachim de Fiore had predicted a “third age of the Holy Spirit” which would sing a new Church into being, and it’s striking how many German theologians have been entranced by the idea of a future Church very different to the holy and apostolic one of the past.

This is not to say Hegel is the answer to Bismarck’s hypothetical question. There is a great difference between the Left Hegelian Ludwig Feuerbach’s idea of religion as projection of inner spirit and the theologies of Karl Rahner or Walter Kasper. But there is nevertheless something deeply Hegelian about making the unfolding of human experience in history a standard for theological development — to which God or the Church, always in mercy, must conform. Unfortunately, this is a terrible standard for change which leads not only to false reform, but to apostasy and desolation.

The standard for development, as 19th century German theologian Matthias Scheeben understood as well as Cardinal Newman, must be divinely revealed truths, the deposit of faith, passed from Christ to his apostles. Spiritual renewal in Germany can only begin if German bishops, priests, and laity alike recognize that change and development must be ordered to eternal truths, not to the needs of state, the Geist of culture, or the historical unfolding of inner human experience. The Church conforms not to the needs of nations, but to the fullness of Truth revealed by God Incarnate in Jesus Christ.

C C Pecknold is associate professor of theology at The Catholic University of America

This article first appeared in the August 11 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here