Hegel 1795 (Berne)
The Positivity of the Christian Religion

[Part III: Revised form of Sections 1-4 of Part I]

[ 1. Preface]

The conception of the “positivity” of a religion has originated and become important only in recent times. A positive religion is contrasted with natural religion, and this presupposes that there is only one natural religion, since human nature is one and single, while there may be many positive religions. It is clear from this very contrast that a positive religion is a contranatural or a supernatural one, containing concepts and information transcending understanding and reason and requiring feelings and actions which would not come naturally to men: the feelings are forcibly and mechanically stimulated, the actions are done to order or from obedience without any spontaneous interest.

It is obvious from this general explanation that, before a religion or any part of it can be set down as positive, the concept of human nature, and therefore man’s relation to God, must first be defined. In recent times there has been much preoccupation with this concept; some have believed that with the concept of man’s “vocation” as their standard they had a tolerably clear field for proceeding to sift religion itself.

A long series of stages in cultural development, extending over centuries, must have been traversed before a period could arrive in which concepts had become abstract enough to allow of the conviction that the infinite multiplicity of manifestations of human nature had been comprised in the unity of a few universal concepts.

Because these simple concepts are universal, they also become necessary concepts and characteristics of humanity as a whole. Since these characteristics are fixed, the variations in national or individual manners, customs, and opinions become accidents, prejudices, and errors, and thus the religion consistent with any of these variations is a positive religion because its bearing on accidental things is itself an accident, though as part of the religion it is also a sacred command.

The Christian religion has sometimes been reproved, sometimes praised, for its consistency with the most varied manners, characters, and institutions. It was cradled in the corruption of the Roman state; it became dominant when that empire was in the throes of its decline, and we cannot see how Christianity could have stayed its downfall. On the contrary, Rome’s fall extended the scope of Christianity’s domain, and it appears in the same epoch as the religion of the barbarians, who were totally ignorant and savage but completely free, and also of the Greeks and Romans, who by this time were overcivilized, servile, and plunged in a cesspool of vice. It was the religion of the Italian states in the finest period of their licentious freedom in the Middle Ages; of the grave and free Swiss republics; of the more or less moderate monarchies of modern Europe; alike of the most heavily oppressed serfs and their overlords: both attended one church. Headed by the Cross, the Spaniards murdered whole generations in America; over the conquest of India the English sang Christian thanksgivings. Christianity was the mother of the finest blossoms of the plastic arts; it gave rise to the tall edifice of the sciences. Yet in its honor too all fine art was banned, and the development of the sciences was reckoned an impiety. In all climates the tree of the Cross has grown, taken root, and fructified. Every joy in life has been linked with this faith, while the most miserable gloom has found in it its nourishment and its justification.

The general concept of human nature admits of infinite modifications; and there is no need of the makeshift of calling experience to witness that modifications are necessary and that human nature has never been present in its purity. A strict proof of this is possible; all that is necessary is to settle the question: “What is human nature in its purity?” This expression, “human nature in its purity,” should imply no more than accordance with the general concept. But the living nature of man is always other than the concept of the same, and hence what for the concept is a bare modification, a pure accident, a superfluity, becomes a necessity, something living, perhaps the only thing which is natural and beautiful.

Now this gives quite a different appearance to the criterion for the positivity of religion which was set up at the start. The general concept of human nature is no longer adequate. The [concept of the] freedom of the will is a one-sided standard, because human manners and characteristics together with the accompanying religion cannot be determined by concepts at all. In every form of cultural life, there must have been produced a consciousness of a superior power together with ideas transcending understanding and reason. If man’s common life does not afford the feelings which nature demands, then forcible institutions become necessary, to generate these feelings, to which, of course, some remnant of force still adheres. So too the actions demanded by the most natural religion come to be done only to order and out of blind obedience, but in times when everything has become unnatural they would likewise be left undone. Of course religion has become positive at this stage, but it has only become so; it was not so originally. Religion has to become positive at this stage, or there would be no religion at all. It survives in these circumstances only as an alien inheritance of, bygone times; its demands are now respected, and perhaps all the more honored and feared, the more their essence is unknown. To shudder before an unknown Being; to renounce one’s will in one’s conduct; to subject one’s self throughout like a machine to given rules, to abandon intellect altogether in action or renunciation, in speech or silence; and to lull one’s self into a brief or a lifelong insensibility – all this may be “natural,” and a religion which breathes this spirit would not on that account be positive, because it would accord with the nature of its time. A nature demanded by such a religion would doubtless be a deplorable one, but the religion would have fulfilled its purpose by giving this nature the only higher Being in which it found satisfaction and with which it was compatible. When another mood awakens, when this nature begins to have a sense of itself and thereby to demand freedom in and for itself instead of placing it in its supreme Being, then and only then can its former religion begin to appear a positive one. The universal concepts of human nature are too empty to afford a criterion for the special and necessarily multiplex needs of religious feeling.

The foregoing paragraphs will have been misunderstood if they are taken to contain a justification for all the pretensions of established religions, for all superstition, all church despotism, or all the obtuseness generated or encouraged by pseudo-religious institutions. No! The most stubborn and weak-minded superstition is not positive at all for a soulless being in human form; but if a soul awakens in him, then should the superstition persist in its claims, then, it becomes positive for him though he had submitted to it till then quite ingenuously. To the judgment of someone else, however, the superstition is of necessity something positive all the time, simply because he could not make his judgment at all unless an ideal of humanity hovered before his mind. An ideal of human nature, however, is quite different from general concepts of man’s vocation or of man’s relation to God. The ideal does permit of particularization, of determination in detail, and therefore it demands appropriate religious actions, feelings, usages, demands an excess of these, a mass of excessiveness which in the lamplight of general concepts seems only ice and stone. Only if this excess annuls freedom does it become positive, i.e., if it has pretensions against understanding and reason and contradicts their necessary laws.

The universality of this criterion must therefore be restricted, because understanding and reason can be judges only if appeal is made to them. What never claims to be intellectual or rational cannot fall under their “jurisdiction.” This is a crucial point, and it is its neglect which produces such opposite judgments. Understanding and reason may claim to sit in “judgment” on everything; they readily pretend that everything should be intellectual and rational. Hence they descry positivity easily enough, and the screams about mental slavery, superstition, and suppression of conscience continue without end. The most ingenuous actions, the most innocent feelings, and the most beautiful imaginative pictures all experience this harsh treatment. But its effect accords with its inappropriateness. Intellectualistic people believe that their words are true when they address feeling, imagination, and religious needs in intellectualistic terms; they cannot conceive why their truth is resisted, why they preach to deaf ears. Their mistake is to offer stones to the child who asks for bread. Their wares are useful if it is a matter of building a house. But anyone who claimed that bread was fit for housebuilding would also be properly contradicted.

Actions, passions, and associations may all count as sacrosanct in a religion. Reason proves their accidentality and claims that everything sacrosanct is eternal and imperishable. But that does not amount to a proof that these religious matters are positive, because imperishability and sacrosanctity may be linked with accidentality and must be linked with something accidental; in thinking of the eternal, we must link the eternal with the accidentality of our thinking. It is another thing altogether if the accidental as such, i.e., as what it is for the understanding, makes claims to imperishability, sacrosanctity, and veneration; at that point reason’s right to speak of positivity does come on the scene.

The question whether a religion is positive affects the content of its doctrines and precepts far less than the form in which it authenticates the truth of its doctrines and requires the fulfilment of its precepts. Any doctrine, any precept, is capable of becoming positive, since anything can be proclaimed in a forcible way with a suppression of freedom; and there is no doctrine which might not be true in certain circumstances, no precept which might not impose a duty in certain circumstances, since what may hold good universally as truth unalloyed requires some qualification, because of its universality, in the particular circumstances of its application; i.e., it is not unconditionally true in all circumstances.

For this reason the following essay does not profess to inquire whether there are positive commands and doctrines in the Christian religion. An answer to this question in accordance with universal concepts of human nature and God’s attributes is too empty, the frightful chatter, endlessly prolonged in this key and inwardly vacuous, has become so wearisome that it is now utterly devoid of interest. Hence what our time needs instead perhaps is to hear some one proving the very opposite of what results from this “enlightening” application of universal concepts, though of course such a proof would not proceed on the principles and the method proffered to the old dogmatic theologians by the culture of their day. On the contrary, it would derive that now discarded theology from what we now know as a need of human nature and would thus exhibit its naturalness and inevitability.

An attempt to do this presupposes the belief that the convictions of many centuries, regarded as sacrosanct, true, and obligatory by the millions who lived and died by them in those centuries, were not, at least on their subjective side, downright folly or plain immorality. If the whole fabric of dogmatic theology is expounded, on the favorite method of using general concepts, as a relic of the Dark Ages, untenable in an enlightened epoch, we are still humane enough to raise the question: then, is it possible to explain the construction of a fabric which is so repugnant to human reason and so erroneous through and through?

One answer is an appeal to church history, which is made to show how simple and fundamental truths became gradually overlaid with a heap of errors owing to passion and ignorance, and to prove that, in this centuries-long and gradual process of defining the several dogmas, the Fathers were not always led by knowledge, moderation, and reason; that, even in the original reception of Christianity, what was operative was not simply a pure love of truth but, at least to some extent, very mixed motives, very unholy considerations, impure passions, and spiritual needs often springing solely from superstition; and that in short the faith of nations was formed by circumstances alien to religion, by selfish purposes, by force and cunning, and in accordance with the ends of these.

But this method of explaining the matter presupposes a deep contempt for man and the presence of glaring superstition in his intellect; and it leaves the main problem untouched, namely, the problem of showing religion’s appropriateness to nature through all nature’s modifications from one century to another. In other words, the sole question raised on these lines is the question about the truth of religion in abstraction from the manners and characteristics of the nations and epochs which believed it, and the answer to this question is that religion is empty superstition, deception, and stupidity. Most of the fault is imputed to sense [rather than to reason], and it is supposed to have been to blame for everything. But however much dominion is ascribed to sense, man still does not cease to be a rational being; or, at any rate, his nature always and necessarily has religious feeling as one of its higher needs, and the way he satisfies it, i.e., the system of his faith, his worship, and his duties, can never have been either stupidity unalloyed or that impure stupidity which leaves room for immorality of every kind.

The avowed aim of this essay is not to inquire whether Christianity includes doctrines which are positive, but whether it is a positive religion as a whole. These two inquiries may coincide in so far as the thesis that Christianity is (or is not) positive might, because of the inferences to be drawn from it, impinge on matters of divinity, and thus there would in fact be an inquiry into the positivity of a particular doctrine. To be sure, consideration of Christianity as a whole may be pursued separately and in juxtaposition to consideration of particular doctrines, and this would make it only one part of the whole inquiry; but its content would nevertheless always concern the whole rather than the parts. Moreover, as was mentioned above, the question about positivity does not affect the content of a religion so much as the way in which the religion is conceived, i.e., whether as something given throughout or as something given qua free and freely received.

Further, this essay excludes from consideration not only the infinitely varied forms which the Christian religion has had in various epochs and in various nations, but also the character which the Christian religion might bear in our own day. Nothing has so many different meanings as the modern conception of what Christianity is, either in its essence, or in its particular doctrines and their importance or their relation to the whole. No, the aim of this essay is to examine (a) whether in the first beginnings of the Christian faith, in the manner of its origin on Jesus’ lips and in his life, there were circumstances which might provide a direct inducement to positivity, so that mere accidents were taken to be things of eternal validity; and (b) whether the Christian religion as a whole was founded on an accident of this kind, a thesis which would be rejected by a reasonable man and repelled by a free one.

The accident from which a necessity has been supposed to proceed, the transitory thing on which man’s consciousness of an eternal truth, and his relation to it in feeling, thinking, and acting has been supposed to be grounded, is called, in general terms, “authority.”

In asserting that the Christian religion is grounded on authority, two parties speak with one voice. They agree that of course it rests on man’s natural sense of the good or on his longing for it and presupposes that man looks up to God, but they go on to hold that, with a view to giving men a faith in the possession of God’s favor, Jesus requires not simply that pure and free obedience to the infinite God which the soul possessed of a pure religion demands of itself but also an obedience to specific precepts and commands about actions, feelings, and convictions. The two parties who agree in this opinion differ, however, in this respect: one of them holds this positive element in a pure religion to be inessential and even reprehensible, and for this reason will not allow even to the religion of Jesus the distinction of being a free virtue religion. The other, on the contrary, puts the pre-eminence of Jesus’ religion precisely this positive element, declares this element to be the truly sacrosanct one, and proposes to build all morality thereon.

The question “What directly induced the religion of Jesus to become positive?” cannot be raised by the second party, because it claims that Jesus’ religion issued from his lips as a positive doctrine. On this view, faith in all his teaching, in the laws of virtue, in the relation of God to man, was demanded by Jesus solely on his authority and on the upholding of that authority by miracles, etc. This party holds that what Sittah says in Nathan of the Christians is no reproach: “The faith their founder seasoned with humanity the Christians love, not because it is humane, but because Christ taught it, because Christ practiced it.” The general possibility of any positive religion this party explains on the ground that human nature has needs which it cannot itself satisfy, that indeed its highest needs are of this sort, and that this entails contradictions which it cannot resolve and which have to be resolved out of compassion by a Being who is alien to man.

To pronounce to be equally positive not only the religious teachings and commands but also all the moral laws which Jesus gave, and to find the validity of the latter and the possibility of coming at a knowledge of them solely in the fact that Jesus commanded them, betrays a humble modesty and a resignation which disclaims any native goodness, nobility, and greatness in human nature. But if only it is willing to understand itself, this humble attitude must at least presuppose that man has a natural sense or consciousness of a supersensible world and an obligation to the divine. If nothing whatever in our own hearts responded to an external challenge to virtue and religion, if there were no strings in our own nature from which this challenge resounded, then Jesus’ endeavor to inspire men to virtue and a better religion would have had the same character and the same outcome as St. Anthony of Padua’s zeal in preaching to fish; the saint too might have trusted that what his sermon could not do and what the nature of the fish would never have allowed might yet have been effected by assistance from above, by a Being completely outside the world.

This view of the relation between man and the Christian religion cannot in itself exactly be called positive; it rests on the surely beautiful presupposition that everything high, noble, and good in man is divine, that it comes from God and is his spirit, issuing from himself. But this view becomes glaringly positive if human nature is absolutely severed from the divine, if no mediation between the two is conceded except in one isolated individual, if all man’s consciousness of the good and the divine is degraded to the dull and killing belief in a superior Being altogether alien to man.

It is obvious that an examination of this question cannot be thoughtfully and thoroughly pursued without becoming in the end a metaphysical treatment of the relation between the finite and the infinite. But this is not the aim of this essay. I am here assuming from the start that human nature itself of necessity needs to recognize a Being who transcends our consciousness of human agency, to make the intuition of that Being’s perfection the animating spirit of human life, and to devote time, feelings, and organizations directly to this intuition, independently of aims of other kinds. This universal need for religion includes in itself many specialized needs: How far does their satisfaction devolve on nature? How far can nature itself resolve the self-contradictions into which it falls? Does the Christian religion contain their only possible resolution? Does their resolution lie altogether outside nature and can man grasp it only via a passive faith? These questions together with their development and an examination of their true significance may perhaps find a place elsewhere. The solution which the Christian religion propounds to these riddles of the human heart or, if the expression be preferred, of the practical reason, may be examined by reason superficially or from an external point of view, i.e., isolated specific doctrines or isolated specific actions may be examined instead of the solution as a whole. If after such an examination reason declares these doctrines or these actions to be merely contingent, we must make the general comment that it must not be forgotten that the contingent is only one aspect of what counts as sacrosanct. If a religion attaches an eternal significance to something transient and if reason fixes its eye on the transient element alone and cries out about superstition, then reason is to blame for setting to work superficially and overlooking the eternal element.

In the following essay the doctrines and commands of the Christian religion will not be measured by this criterion of general concepts; nor will this criterion be used to judge whether they are implied in these concepts, whether they contradict them, or whether at best they are superfluities and therefore non-rational and unnecessary. Accidentals of this kind lose their accidental character by having something eternal linked with them, and therefore they necessarily have two aspects. It is the analytic reason which separates these aspects; in religion they are not separated. General concepts cannot be applied to religion, or rather to religious experience, because this is itself no concept. We are not concerned in this essay with accidentals which are first made such by abstract reflection, but only with those which, as the content of religion, are supposed by religion itself to subsist as accidental, to have high significance despite their transience, to be sacrosanct and worthy of veneration despite their restricted and finite character; and my inquiry is limited to the question whether such accidentals were present in the immediate. foundation of the Christian religion, in the teachings, actions, and fate of Jesus himself; whether, in the form of his teachings, in his relationships with other men, both friends and enemies, such accidentals appeared which either of themselves or owing to circumstances came to have an importance not belonging to them originally; in other words, whether in the immediate origin of the Christian religion there were inducements to its becoming positive.

[ 2. Judaism]

The Jewish people, which utterly abhorred and despised all surrounding peoples, wished to remain on its solitary pinnacle and persist in its own ways, its own manners, and its own conceit. Any equalization with others or union with them through a change in manners was in its eyes a horrible abomination; and yet multiplex relations with others were imposed on it by the situation of its small country, by trade connections, and by the national unifications brought about by the Romans. The Jewish desire for isolation was bound to succumb to the pressure of other peoples toward union; it was worsted again after battles made all the more frightful the more the Jews were peculiar, and when their state was subjected to a foreign power they were deeply mortified and embittered. Henceforth the Jews clung all the more obstinately to the statutory commands of their religion; they derived their legislation directly from a jealous God. An essential of their religion was the performance of a countless mass of senseless and meaningless actions, and the pedantically slavish spirit of the people had prescribed a rule for the most trivial actions of daily life and given the whole nation the look of a monastic order. Virtue and the service of God was a life filled with compulsions dictated by dead formulas. Of spirit nothing remained save obstinate pride in slavish obedience to laws not made by themselves. But this obstinacy could not hold out against the fate which was falling on them with ever increasing speed and with a weight which grew heavier from day to day. Their whole polity was dismembered once and for all. Their mania for segregation had been unable to resist political subjection and effective linkage with the foreigner.

In this plight of the Jewish people there must have been men of finer clay who could not deny their feeling of selfhood or stoop to become lifeless machines or men of a maniacally servile disposition; and there must inevitably have been aroused in them a need for a freer activity and a purer independence than an existence with no self-consciousness, than a life spent in a monkish preoccupation with petty, mechanical, spiritless, and trivial usages, a need for a nobler pleasure than pride in this mechanical slavery and frenzy in fulfilling its demands. Human nature rebelled against this situation and produced the most varied reactions, such as the rise of numerous bands of robbers and numerous Messiahs, the strict and monk-like Judaism of the Pharisees, the Sadducean mixture of this with freedom and politics, the anchorite brotherhoods of the Essenes with their freedom from the passions and cares of their people, the enlightening of Judaism by the finer blooms of a deeper human nature in Platonism, the rise of John [the Baptist] and his public preaching to the multitude, and finally the appearance of Jesus.

[ 3. Jesus]

Jesus attacked the evil of his nation at its roots, i.e., their arrogant and hostile segregation from all other peoples. He wished to lead them to the God of all mankind, to the love of all men, to the renunciation of their lifeless, spiritless, and mechanical worship. For this reason his new teaching led to a religion for the world rather than for his nation alone, and this is a proof of how deeply he had seized the needs of his age and how far the Jews were sunk in their frenzied slavery of spirit, in a situation from which goodness was irretrievably absent.

On the interesting question of how Jesus’ development ripened, no information whatever has come down to us. It is in manhood that he first appears, and by that time he was free from the Jewish mentality, free from the inhibited inertia which expends its one activity on the common needs and conveniences of life, free too from the ambition and other passions whose satisfaction would have compelled him to make terms with prejudice and vice. His whole manner suggests that, though brought up among his own people, he stood aloof from them (of course, for longer than for forty days) and became animated by the enthusiasm of a reformer. And yet his mode of acting and speaking carries no traces of the culture or religion of any other people contemporary with him. He comes on the scene all at once with a young man’s joyful hope and undoubting confidence in success. The resistance offered to him by the rooted prejudices of his people he seems not to have expected. He seemed to have forgotten that the spirit of free religion had been killed in his nation and that its place was taken by an obstinate mania for servility. He thought to turn the hearts of his obdurate people by simple addresses and by preaching to multitudes in his wanderings from place to place; he regarded his twelve friends, despite their short acquaintance with him, as capable of producing this result. He regarded his nation as mature enough to be roused and changed by this commission given to men who were immature and who in the sequel revealed ever so many shortcomings and who could do no more than repeat the words of Jesus. Only through the bitter experience of the fruitlessness of his efforts did the ingenuous youth fade away and give place to a man who spoke with bitter vehemence, with a heart exasperated by hostile resistance.

The Jews hoped for a perfection of their theocracy, for a Kingdom of God, in the future. Jesus said to them of this Kingdom: It has come; it is now here; faith in it makes it real, and everyone is a citizen of it. With the peasant’s haughtiness which was characteristic of the Jews there necessarily went that sense of their nullity which slavery to their law must always have given to them. The sole task, a hard one indeed, was to give them a sense of their selfhood, to make them believe that they, like the carpenter’s son, despite the miserable existence they actually led, were capable of becoming members of the Kingdom of God; freedom from the yoke of the law was the negative element in this belief. Hence what Jesus attacked above everything else was the dead mechanism of their religious life. The Jewish law had become so corrupt that a mass of evasions was devised as a means of getting round even its better elements. Of course, Jesus could achieve little either against the united force of a deeply rooted national pride and an hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness interwoven with the whole constitution or against the domination which the leaders of the people had founded on these. Jesus had the pain of seeing the complete failure of his zealous attempt to introduce freedom and morality into the religious life of his people, and the very ambiguous and incomplete effect even of his efforts to kindle higher hopes and a better faith at least in those few men with whom he was more intimately associated and whom he sought to shape for their own good and the support of his enterprise. Jesus himself was sacrificed to the rising hatred of the priesthood and the mortified national vanity of the Jews.

It is very natural to expect that, once the new teaching of Jesus had been adopted by Jewish intellects, it must have turned into something positive, however free it was in itself despite its polemical form. They would be likely to manufacture out of it in some way or other something which they could slavishly serve. We can see that the religion Jesus carried in his own heart was free from the spirit of his people. Anything in his utterances which smacks of superstition, e.g., the dominion of evil spirits over men, is decried by some people as horribly senseless, while others are forced to redeem it by using the concepts of “accommodation” to “contemporary ideas,” etc. For our part, what we have to say about any of these things which have to be regarded as superstition is that it does not belong to the religion of Jesus. In other respects the soul of Jesus was free from dependence on accidental trivialities; the one essential was love of God and one’s neighbor and being holy as God is holy. This religious purity is of course extremely remarkable in a Jew. We do see his successors renouncing Jewish trivialities, but they are not altogether purified of the spirit of dependence on such things. Out of what Jesus said, out of what he suffered in his person, they soon fashioned rules and moral commands, and free emulation of their teacher soon passed over into slavish service of their Lord.

Now what is the accidental element which was present in Jesus’ mode of speaking and acting and which was capable of being taken as accidental and yet as sacrosanct, as accidental and yet as so highly venerable?

Our intention is not to investigate, etc. ...


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