Hegelian Logic and the Gospel of John

Ever since my undergraduate days I have had an interest in epistemology, but I always felt like the standard ways of dividing up the terrain philosophically (rationalism, empiricism, etc.) never did justice to religious knowing, especially as exemplified in the gospels. One of my early heroes in this regard was Sören Kierkegaard with his emphasis on an individual’s relation to the truth; the “how” you live as having priority over the “what” you believe; orthopraxis vs. orthodoxy. Kierkegaard naturally led me to Hegel, but not right away. Influenced by Walter Lowrie and others who took Kierkegaard to be opposing Hegel’s philosophy at every turn, even while borrowing Hegelian language (apparently in mockery), I avoided Hegel, assuming him to be a rationalist not worth the time.  It has not been until more recent times that people like Jon Stewart have questioned whether Hegel was the real source of Kierkegaard’s jabs or perhaps only certain “Hegelian” pastors and professors, Danish Hegelians. I’m still working through this. For more about this topic, see Stewart’s Kierkegaard’s Relations to Hegel Reconsidered (2003). Stewart also did a MOOC with Coursera through the University of Copenhagen on Kierkegaard a couple of years ago where some of this material comes out, but the book would be a better place to begin if you are already familiar with Kierkegaard.

One important aid to my re-evaluation of Hegel has been Nicholas Adam’s The Eclipse of Grace: Divine and Human Action in Hegel (2013). Adams is careful to note that Hegel’s doctrinal positions can often be heterodox (Adams calls them “doctrinal experiments”), but he presents a convincing case that his logical tools arise from the Christian tradition. Adams, building on Charles Pierce and Peter Ochs, interprets Hegel’s logic as being both binary and triadic. Binary logic (x or y) is the logic of common sense and the natural sciences. Triadic logic is introduced when we ask “for whom”? It is an historical logic (x and y as separate but in a relation that implies each other). The relationship alters the understanding of the two terms. Some things in the world require the binary logic of common sense, while others require us to think things together. Adams suggests that this has deep resonances with the Chalcedonian formula, which might be conceived as an answer to Pilate’s question in John’s gospel, “What is truth?”

Truth, life, and love are three principal themes in John’s Gospel, and they are the three principal themes in Hegel’s Phenomenology too. They are accompanied by the subsidiary themes of recognition, reconciliation, and service – also obviously Johannine themes. Hegel’s more peculiar terms (e.g. representation, concept, sublation) are entirely in the service of these principal themes…His development of these Johnannine themes is done philosophically, as one would expect, and the philosophy Hegel uses is broadly Aristotelian, with a strong emphasis on motion, teleology, and an attempt to account for the difference between investigations into things and investigations into thinking … Hegel’s concern with truth might not strike anyone as particularly Johannine…were it not that it is very frequently connected with life from the Preface onwards, and also with love.

Adams develops this interpretation of Hegel by appealing to the fact that triadic logic is the foundation of the Chalcedonian definition and the logic of the Trinity. In both, “pairs” are distinct but in an inseparable relation instead of opposition. Hegel calls this Begriff/the Concept. It cannot be applied to everything, but it is a necessary mode for understanding some things such as thinking and being, the individual and community, or even divine and human action.

Truth is one of the most interesting and evocative words in the Phenomenology … For Hegel, truth is in motion. Hegel’s conception of the task of philosophy is dynamic … One encounters a claim and one asks, “True or False?” It is guided by what I here call Manichean logic. But in philosophy, especially Hegel’s kind of philosophy that is attentive to history, one notices that conceptions of truth change, and a logic of opposition is unable to account for that change. One needs a logic of relation … Hegel famously uses the example of a living organism (thus displaying the relation, in his thinking, between truth and life…) …

But if truth is organic, if it is produced and not just brutely given, then one is dealing with things analogous to buds, blossoms, and fruits. Truth, in a different account of this kind, is something in which one discerns shapes, moments, and – in a word – life. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6) … The task is to discern how shapes displace each other in ways that new shapes preserve some relation to the old through a relation of loss and gain, and that is the task Hegel discharges in the Phenomenology