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Hegel’s notion of faith in his own system

Hegel’s understanding of faith is fairly consistent throughout his mature output: faith is always considered to be the perception of the absolute accompanied by the lack of articulate knowledge. This perception is understood as certitude, and thus Hegel continues the long tradition of interpreting faith in terms of individual certainty. In particular, faith is not certainty in a conceptually articulate way, but rather only as feeling, an emotional surety of the fact that God exists:

Certainty is termed ‘faith’ partly inasmuch as it is not immediate sensible certainty and partly inasmuch as this knowledge is also not a knowledge of the necessity of this content ... I do not need to believe what I see before me, for I know it. I do not believe that a sky is above me; I see it. On the other hand, when I have rational insight into the necessity of a thing, then, too, I do not say ‘I believe’.. Faith is a certainty that one possesses apart from immediate sensible intuition, apart from this sensible immediacy, and equally without having insight into the necessity of the content.[1]

Faith in God is grounded on authority: we often accept other persons’ faith as authoritative for us. Second, we accept this faith because others offer witness about their faith: they confess their belief in God. This confession is based on external and historical verification, such as the existence of the Bible and the Church. Ultimately, faith is grounded on ‘the witness of the Spirit’, as Hegel suggests, that is to say, on the direct influence of the Holy Spirit in our soul. This witness is given to each of us in a way appropriate to our spiritual and intellectual position and desires: ‘My spirit knows itself, it knows its essence - that, too, is an immediate knowledge, it is the absolute verification of the eternally true, the simple and true definition of this certainty that is called faith.’[2]

Feeling is an important aspect of faith; it is Schleiermacher’s notion of faith that Hegel targets here. In feeling, we have certainty on a low level and in a subjective way; we know of God emotionally and directly, but this presence of God in our feeling is inarticulate. It is intellectual and volitional, that is, I have a conception of God and I consent to this conception by my will. Yet this is not real knowledge of God. Faith is only the entrance of knowledge; while faith belongs to knowledge, it is still limited and subjective. The content of my faith on this level has objectivity, yet objectivity here is undeveloped. For Hegel, faith must develop into ‘representation’, that is a higher level objectivity. Representation takes many forms, such as pictures, individual and collective acts and works of art, and in this way faith acquires sensible publicity and objectivity. Faith thus develops into a perception of the divine in sensible forms and, already at this point, takes the form of knowledge. Faith and knowledge are not each other’s opposites but rather form separate moments of an identical development, the development of the totality of God. Yet even the knowledge of God is still something indirect and in God’s full totality all these moments - feeling, representation and knowledge - are organically linked to one another.[3]

Faith and knowledge are part and parcel of God’s self-revelation as the full deployment of God’s reality which takes place in God himself and real history at the same time. The history of salvation, as we know it from the doctrine of the Church, is a reflection of God’s self-revelation. This reflection is not a meaningless appearance of God’s reality but is rather constitutive of God. In this way, Hegel’s notion of faith is related to the absolute inasmuch as it is always conceived as a certain stage - philosophical, theological or historical - in the absolute and dynamic reality of God.

Hegel struggles with the correct description of how God’s self-revelatory reality is absolute in itself and, at the same time, has the history of salvation as its own constitutive movement. This difficulty has led to various difficulties in grasping properly Hegel’s notion of faith. One of these difficulties is the charge that Hegel suggested the attainability of full knowledge of God. In fact, Hegel never proposes that such a full knowledge is attainable for any human being. He even points out the secondary character of all knowledge in contradistinction to God’s reality. Yet Hegel could not dispel the suspicion that he considered at least himself, the philosopher, as a person capable of gaining full knowledge of God. This ambiguity rightly raises the impression that Hegel’s notion of faith is a one-sided rationalistic account of what we can properly approach only in the realm of mystery.

Study questions

  • 1. What is the main merit of Hegel according to Gislain Lafont?
  • 2. What are the main ideas of Kant, Jacobi, Fichte and Schleiermacher which Hegel criticizes in his account of faith?
  • 3. How would you characterize Hegel’s notion of faith in his system?
  • 4. Why is Hegel’s notion of faith ambiguous?
  • 5. In your opinion, did Hegel have faith in God?

Further reading

Desmond, William, Hegel’s God: A Counterfeit Double? (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003). Singer, Peter, Hegel: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983). Taylor, Charles, Hegel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975).

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  • [1] Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, pp. 387-88.
  • [2] Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, p. 389.
  • [3] Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, p. 414.
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