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  • Post-Hegelian Becoming: Religious Philosophy as Entangled Discontent
  • Gary Dorrien (bio)

Realistic theologies are keyed to what is said to be actual, reading knowledge of God and the aims of ethical action from the given. Idealistic theologies are keyed to claims about truths transcending actuality. I am opposed to lifting realistic actuality above idealistic discontent, even as I acknowledge that idealism poses the greater danger. A wholly realistic theology would be a monstrosity, a sanctification of mediocrity, inertia, oppression, domination, exclusion, and moral indifference. Christianity is inherently idealistic in describing the being or movement of spirit as the ultimate reality and in holding to transcendent moral truths. But an idealistic theology lacking a sense of tragedy, real-world oppression and exclusion, and the danger of its own prideful intellectualism would be worse than the worst theological realism. The only kind of idealism that interests me is liberationist—privileging the critique of oppression, linking tragedy with the struggle for justice, expressing idealistic discontent, and admitting what it does not know.

Religious thinkers rely on metaphors, symbols, and/or analogies to signify things beyond our grasp. Some rely on poetic metaphors, creating new meanings by saying one thing to mean something else. Some are radically metaphoric in the Kantian sense of constructing worlds, whether or not they acknowledge it. Some are radically Kantian in the sense of claiming to reflect the very method and powers of mind. Some claim that analogies steer better than symbols between univocal and equivocal claims, or that symbols and analogies share this work in complementary fashion. Metaphors, symbols, and analogies convey invisible worlds of meaning. I take for granted, with Augustine, Meister Eckhart, Nicholas of Cusa, Jacob Boehme, John Calvin, Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Robert Neville, and Catherine Keller, that anything I understand is not God and that religious thinking should be fired by a passion for truth. Thus I do not spurn metaphysical audacity, for faith is a form of daring. [End Page 5]

The great “I AM” of Exodus 3:14, God telling Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. . . . [T]ell the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me,’” is a sign of the identity of thought and being, the keystone of idealism. The self-naming of God with a verb identifies God with self-expressive movement, an inference heightened in the alternative translation, “I will be what I will be.” Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel caught the nonanthropomorphic divine of Exodus 3:14 by theorizing the self-reflection of Spirit as thought and being united in Spirit. This was a move beyond traditional Western metaphysics, an ontotheology of a new category—fluid, spiraling, self-realizing Spirit. God’s being is the self-revealing and self-realizing process of differentiation and reconciliation, Spirit. Being-in-itself externalizes itself in being-for-itself and returns in the Spirit as being-in-and-for-itself. Being is an abstraction from becoming, and Christianity is about the gift of love divine poured out in differentiation, suffering, death, and reconciliation.

Hegel, however, was notoriously proud and overreaching, compelling theologians who followed his lead to scale back his intellectualism. Tillich’s corrective fused the classic Thomist identification of God with being itself to a form of post-Kantian idealism chastened by Karl Marx on one side and Søren Kierkegaard on the other. But this solution to a deadly problem lost Hegel’s intersubjective dynamism. Tillich’s ontology operated on the polarity of self and world. His career had nearly ended when he realized that he did not improve on Hegel by casting aside the fluid language of being-as-becoming Spirit. Alfred North Whitehead recovered Hegel’s relational dynamism by conceiving creativity, not God, as metaphysically ultimate. Whitehead’s God is a being, an actual entity that lures the universe into ever-greater complexity, novelty, value, order, and beauty. But what sort of God is not ultimate and is not free to be terrible?1

Religious idealism from Augustine to Jonathan Edwards fixed on the participation of all knowledge in the movement of divine self-knowledge. Immanuel Kant and Johann Gottlieb Fichte cast idealism in Cartesian terms by making a revolutionary claim about the agency of the human knower. The...


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