Nathan Gilmour has (publicly and privately) referred several times to Emergent theology—or, so I’m sure not to oversimplify a complex and varied intellectual movement, to the version of Emergent theology set forward in Brian McLaren’s latest book—as a sort of Neo-Hegelianism.
Nor is he the only critic to make that claim. McLaren’s friend Scot McKnight, writing in the March edition of Christianity Today, remarks that “Brian, though he is thinking more systematically, has fallen for an old school of thought. . . . For me, Brian’s new kind of Christianity is quite old. And the problem is that it’s not old enough.” (McKnight, it must be noted, connects McLaren not to Hegel directly but to Adolf von Harnack, but the nineteenth-century liberalism represented by von Harnack owes a big enough debt to Hegel that in making such a comparison McKnight is in effect calling McLaren a Neo-Neo-Hegelian.) The Neo-Calvinist Kevin DeYoung, meanwhile, notes that McLaren’s theological forbears are “a lot of process theologians from the last century”—another movement that never could have existed without Hegel’s progressive and evolutionary view of history.
I can neither confirm nor deny these claims; I’ve not yet read A New Kind of Christianity, nor have I read Hegel. My notions of what it means to be a Hegelian have been formed mainly from people like Kierkegaard who write in conscious rebellion against him—hardly the most accurate or charitable way to learn a person’s ideas. I still haven’t read him, but at least I’ve now read a sympathetic reader’s account of him (Walter Kaufmann, in From Shakespeare to Existentialism), and I am going to attempt to delineate what I think Gilmour and others mean when they call McLaren a Neo-Hegelian.
First, a disclaimer. My knowledge of Hegel is, obviously, second-hand and limited. Kaufmann himself would be disgusted at this project; he notes scornfully that of the “analysts, pragmatists, and existentials” who criticize Hegel, “very few indeed have read as many as two of the four books that Hegel published.” He spends more than thirty pages savaging Karl Popper’s chapter on Hegel in The Open Society and Its Enemies, a masterpiece, we’re told, of shoddy scholarship that relies not on primary texts but on Scribner’s Hegel Selections.
I am even worse, so I will attempt to keep my criticisms of Hegel himself to a minimum. My perceptions of the Emergent Church’s utilization of Hegelian thought is less ill-informed, but they by no means come from an expert. Input from actual experts in Hegel and/or McLaren would be much appreciated.
I should also note that I have nothing in particular against McLaren, that I read A New Kind of Christian in graduate school when I was struggling with reconciling Christianity and poststructural philosophy and that I found it quite helpful. If I’ve turned away from my interest in such a reconciliation now, it doesn’t imply any particular judgment on those who have not; I think what the Emergent Church is doing has value, even if it’s only as a dialectical tension for more traditionalist forms of Christian theology. So I hope no one reads this as an attack on McLaren or anyone else.
I was surprised how complimentary of Hegel Kaufmann is, given his many connections to existentialism. (His are the canonical translations of Nietzsche and Buber, and he edited the excellent anthology Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre.) But he seeks to destroy the myth of Hegel that has built up in academic and popular circles at least since Kierkegaard and Marx revolted against him. He admires Hegel because of Hegel’s attacks on Christianity, frankly, which means that the relatively religiously conservative among us may be biased against Hegel for entirely different reasons after reading Kaufmann’s account.
But the connections to the Emergent Church come rather naturally. Hegel is one of the great proponents of what we today would call political liberalism, positing that “man’s freedom to develop his humanity and to cultivate art, religion and philosophy” is made possible by the State, in fact “are possible only in ‘the State.’” This does not seem to me a ridiculous idea—though it could easily result in a blind liberalism, especially once you throw religion into the mix. (In its rebellion against the “religious right,” the “religious left” strikes me as equally infantile and reactionary.)
One of the major tenets of the Emergent Church—one of its most attractive tenets, in my view—is so-called narrative theology, the belief that (to put it simply) the Bible should not be understood as a series of propositions to be affirmed or denied but rather as a story told by God. McLaren himself notes on his website that narrative theology has much in common with process theology, and he’s right: they both flow forth from Hegelian views of history.
“Hegel,” says Kaufmann, “like Augustine, Lessing, and Kant before him and Comte, Marx, Spengler, and Toynbee after him, believed that history has a pattern and made bold to reveal it.” He is separated from these other thinkers mainly by two components of his thought: (1) the idea that history is steadily improving; and (2) his refusal to make real predictions about the future. Kaufmann notes that Hegel lived totally in the present, which in his case meant that he viewed the 6,000 years of recorded history were aiming directly at him, his time, and his thought. (Neither Kaufmann nor I mean this to sound as self-centered as it probably does.)
Narrative and process theology seem also to take this viewpoint, especially once one incorporates progressive revelation into the mix; if the world is not getting steadily better for the narrative or process theologian, we at least know more about God and Christ than any generation that came before us—again, not necessarily in a self-centered way. What else would “narrative” and “process” mean? As the story progresses, there is more story to consider, and if this is indeed a narrative or a process, we’re headed toward a particular end, which God either knows (traditional Christianity) or can make a pretty good guess about (openness theology).
There appears to be a blithe optimism in Hegel’s view of history that I’m not sure I can accept. Says Kaufmann:
His attitude depends on his religious faith that in the long run, somewhere, somehow freedom will and must triumph: that is Hegel’s “historicism.” Those of us who lack his confidence should still note that he does not believe that things are good because they succeed, but that they succeed because they are good. He finds God’s revelation in history.
So do I, obviously, but the revelation I see in history is primarily negative; what seems to triumph on earth is not what is good but what is ugly, unjust, and debased. (Tune into MTV any given night and let me know what you think.) This is the reason behind the traditional Christian belief in the Second Coming of Christ—this world is not, in fact, steadily improving, but staying the same or getting worse, and we need a deus ex machina to rescue us. I believe this; the Emergent Church seems to believe it less and less as time goes on. I think there’s a steady Hegelianism behind that disbelief.
McLaren’s alleged Hegelianism may also explain the curious fact that, as many reviewers have noted, his “new kind of Christianity” is in fact not all that new, that it rings strikingly true with traditional nineteenth-century liberalism. But if we believe in progressive revelation, McLaren must claim that his thoughts are new—otherwise, he wouldn’t be a progressive theologian. Hegelianism demands a denial of Hegelianism.
The most interesting section of Kaufmann’s Hegel discussion, for me, was the chapter on “The Young Hegel and Religion,” which examines a series of early essays by Hegel collected under the title Early Theological Writings, a title which Kaufmann dislikes:
Are these early papers really theological? Only insofar as Webster defines one meaning of theology as “the critical, historical, and psychological study of religion and religious ideas.” By the same token, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, Nietzsche’s Antichrist, and Freud’s Future of an Illusion could also be called “theological writings”—which would certainly be most misleading.
Hegel’s essays are not antireligious but consistently depreciate theology in any customary sense of that word.
I don’t think it would be fair to call most of the Emergent writings I’ve read “anti-theological theology,” but many of the things Kaufmann reports about Hegel’s religious beliefs seem to apply strikingly to many Emergent thinkers. Allow me to quote Hegel himself: “Objective religion is fides quae creditur, . . . can be systematized, presented in a book or a lecture; subjective religion expresses itself only in feelings and acts. Subjective religion is all that matters.” In this assertion we see the common Emergent distaste for systematic theology—always opposed against narrative theology—which reaches its apex in a pitting of Christ against Paul. (I am not, please note, accusing McLaren or any other individual of such a move.)
Notice also that Hegel’s attack on theology leads to his own “new kind of Christianity”; Kaufmann notes that “he is opposed not only to theology but also to all Christian institutions—not only to the Catholic Church, for which he never developed any sympathy, but also to the Reformation.” Certainly we see a similar opposition in the three-tiered view of history McLaren suggests in A New Kind of Christian—the Catholic Church represents the premodern world; the Reformation represents the modern world; and that “new kind of Christianity” represents some form of Hegel’s “subjective religion,” freed from the strictures of intellectual or systematic theology.
In the end, Hegel’s attack on traditional Christianity comes from the same place as all theological liberalism; for Christianity to be valid in Hegel’s eyes (and in von Harnack’s, Whitehead’s, Schleiermacher’s, Tillich’s, et al), it “must not contain anything that universal human reason does not recognize—no certain or dogmatic claims which transcend the limits of reason, even if their sanction had its origin in heaven itself” (Hegel’s words). In other words, for Christianity to be valid, it must conform to the premises of the Enlightenment—nearly every heresy of the past three hundred years has flowed forth from this pronouncement.
To their credit, I don’t see this attitude in Emergent theologians, which may be where their progressive theology differs from the progressive theology of past movements. The postmodern mind is no great friend to the Enlightenment. With this in mind—and if McKnight and DeYoung are to be believed about A New Kind of Christianity—it may be more correct for McLaren to refer to A New Kind of Hegelianism. From what I’ve been told, it takes an old view and makes minor tweaks to an existing critique of traditional Christianity.
And again, if I’ve got Hegel or McLaren wrong, please let me know. I am open for correction.