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Something I’ve been thinking a bit about lately is the status of “orthodox” Christian doctrine. Currently, studying philosophy in a Religious Studies department that has serious affinities to historical orthodox dogma (at least as understood in the Neo-Platonic, Anglican, and Catholic traditions – for the most part at least) has afforded quite a few opportunities for me to discuss with my fellow researchers about the seemingly insatiable need to preserve that thing which is called “orthodoxy.” Why is this? What is there in orthodox Christian doctrinal schemas that is so central that it ought not to be addressed and maybe even reformulated? The obvious answers generally pertain to preserving tradition, remaining faithful to Christian witness as it’s been handed down throughout the centuries, preserving the truth of Scripture, etc. And while I can understand that when something is so close to one’s entire way of life that any thought of restructuring such foundations is simply frightful, it also seems that the supposed desire for the search of truth would almost require a far more willingly progressive theological perspective that might even result in the complete reformulation of formerly held orthodox doctrines.

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of Hegel for a paper that I’m working on and have found much insight regarding the above concern from Peter Hodgson’s great book on Hegel’s Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion entitled Hegel and Christian Theology, as well as two great chapters dealing with Hegel’s concept of Geist: one by RC Solomon entitled “Hegel’s Concept of ‘Geist'” in the volume Hegel, edited by Alasdair MacIntyre and the other by Terry Pinkard in his own volume on German Idealism entitled German Philosophy 1760-1860.

From what I’ve gathered thus far in perusing the titles just mentioned (and others as well) is that, for Hegel, theology in his day had run up against its limits. No more was theology sufficient to provide the appropriate answers, nor even ask the necessary questions, that were required by the process of universal reason. Even though Hegel clearly claimed that religion has an important place in Absolute Spirit’s self-realization, ultimately it falls short of being able to truly reach truth. For Hegel, “truth is the object of philosophy” (From the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences). Religion’s failure to achieve this end is precisely in that religion is the relation of “subjective consciousness” to God. But this relation of the two still does not achieve the identity of identity and difference that is (supposedly) effected in Geist’s self-realization. Therefore, philosophy has to continue the rational project where religion stalls.

According to Hodgson, Hegel’s philosophical system and his “heterodox conception of spirit (Geist) enables him to reconstruct ontotheological claims in such a way as to overcome the negative aspects of metaphysical orthodoxy. Hegelian Geist retrieves the truth of orthodoxy by drawing upon the resources of heterodoxy” (259). As such, philosophy is the necessary next step (after both art and religion) in Geist’s process of self-realization. Hodgson continues:

Hegel’s project is orthodox in so far as it reestablishes the conditions of possibility of knowing God over against the modern doctrine that nothing can be known of God. His philosophy of religion is a response to the challenge of theological agnosticism, which in his view undercuts the central conviction of orthodoxy that God makes godself known, that the nature of God is manifest in the world, and that human cognition is capable of grasping the idea of God. Beyond agnosticism lie atheism and secularism, and Hegel foresees the consequences of living in a godless world. Religion, if still practised, is separated from the rest of life, limited to one day (or hour) of the week, and the truths that it apprehends are judged to be quite different from the truths of everyday life and empirical science. Hegel regards such a bifurcated existence to be deeply dissatisfying, and he longs for a reintegration of religion, rationality, and life, but under the conditions of modernity. To accomplish this is the goal of philosophy of religion, and he is convinced that more of dogmatics has been preserved in philosophy than in theology itself. This is because classical dogmatics, like speculative philosophy, assumes the rationality of faith and gives its doctrines intellectual formulation. Today, he says, the fundamental doctrines of Christianity—Trinity, sin and evil, incarnation—have for the most part disappeared from theology, and philosophy is pre-eminently what is orthodox; the basic truths of Christianity are preserved by it [emphasis added]. (259).

Although this paragraph is loaded and probably deserving of a monograph in itself, the point of interest for me currently is that, for Hegel, in philosophy the basic truths of Christianity are preserved. And that by it’s unstoppable quest for truth, only it contains the possibility of orthodoxy. If such was the status of theology and philosophy in Hegel’s day, is it not moreso for us today? Perhaps the above is the correct path for “theological” musing… Perhaps the bifurcation between theology and philosophy truly does need to be overcome… Perhaps we need to abandon the idea of “orthodoxy” altogether… Perhaps Hodgson is correct: “Theological historicism is interested only in what was once believed and lacks assets of its own, so that philosophy now retains more of the teachings of the church than theology does” (260).

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