restricted access Hegelian Spirit in Question: The Idealistic Spirit of Liberal Theology
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Hegelian Spirit in Question:
The Idealistic Spirit of Liberal Theology


My subject is the role of philosophical and social idealism in liberal theology, and I will argue that both are tremendously significant in the history of liberal theology and both are problematic, adaptable, and still important. There is no such thing as a vital or relevant progressive theology that does not speak with idealistic conviction, however problematic that may be. I am currently writing a large book on this topic, so some compression is necessary today.

The book begins, as it must, with Kant, Hegel, and Schleiermacher, and it ranges over the German, British, and American traditions of liberal theology. But today I'm going to make most of my case through the least familiar part of this story, the British part.

The liberal movement in British theology is very much like the American one in two respects: it spoke English, and it took off in the 1890s. Before that time there was no movement in either place; there were only smatterings of forerunners. In the U.S. the key forerunner was Horace Bushnell, who was influenced principally by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In England the key forerunner was Coleridge, who mediated Kantian idealism to British and American theology. Before Coleridge, and for decades after him, it was standard fare in British philosophy to dismiss Kant as impossibly turgid, obscure, ridiculous, and overrated. Coleridge, by contrast, was defiantly admiring, insisting that Kant towered above everyone in originality, depth, sophistication, and importance.1

But there were problems with Kant, Coleridge acknowledged. At the turn of the 19th century, when Coleridge began to study Kantian philosophy, Fichte and Schelling were developing their critiques of Kant. Coleridge was deeply influenced by Schelling, though he later claimed that he adopted his views before [End Page 3] he read Schelling. In any case, in 1815 Coleridge published a wild, rollicking, monumental work, Biographia Literaria, which repeated Schelling's critique of Kant, and which, unfortunately, contained entire pages that plagiarized Schelling word for word. By then Coleridge was wracked with an excruciating array of physical and emotional problems that included severe addiction to opium.

But the parts that he didn't plagiarize showed that Coleridge knew his post-Kantian idealism. It was hard to say what Kant really thought about religion, Coleridge argued, there were similar problems with the thing-in-itself, and Kantian idealism was too mind-centered to treat nature holistically. If Kant's autonomy of the will, and thus his ground for a moral system, and thus his ground for religion, was as central to his theory of human nature and understanding as he claimed, why did he relegate it to practical reason? And if the noumenon was crucial to Kant's system, how could he have nothing to say about it? Nothing could be said about the very thing responsible for the sensory element of knowledge? Coleridge, besides rejecting that opinion, couldn't believe that Kant really believed it either.2

Coleridge followed Schelling in conceiving nature as the sum of all objective things and intelligence as the sum of all that is subjective. Nature is exclusively represented and lacking in consciousness, while intelligence is exclusively representative and conscious. The objective and subjective mutually exclude each other, yet all positive knowledge requires a reciprocal concurrence of these two factors. To Coleridge, there were only two possibilities about how this happens. Since the objective and subjective mutually exclude each other, one must be primary. Coleridge opted for idealism and its problems.3

Transcendental philosophy was a mind-centered version of idealism that derived everything from an act of free self-positing. For Kant and, especially, Fichte, nature was an organic product of consciousness tending toward the realization of reason. Philosophy theorized the movement from the pure subjectivity of self-consciousness to nature. Schelling had started there, but in the late 1790s he began to say that a deeper course correction was needed, one that took nature more seriously. Nature is not merely the mind in the process of becoming, or, more precisely, the positing of the not-I. Rather, mind derives from nature and nature derives from mind.4 [End...