Main content | Sidebar | Links

Monday, April 13, 1998

The object of religion.

Christianity suffers at times from the unknowability of its God. When God's transcendence and otherness seem to separate the divine completely from the concerns of people in the world, they are likely to sympathize with Alexander Pope:

Know then thyself! Presume not God to scan
The proper study of mankind is man.

G.W.F. Hegel and Ludwig Feuerbach address the problem of God's unknowability by revising basic conceptions of religious knowledge — turning their attention, in other words, to the study of the human capacity for knowledge. Hegel introduces a dialectical method that treats consciousness as an aspect of Spirit, effectively making human life and the world manifestations of the divine mind. Not only is God knowable, Hegel argues, but all forms of human knowledge must be understood in theological terms. Dialectical analysis of the manifestation of Spirit (involving the objectification and subjectification of Spirit) preserves the knowability of God and explains consciousness. Feuerbach adapts Hegel's approach in a radical way, arguing that the dialectical method by which the mind comes to recognize God is incomplete if it does not eventually recognize that all the attributes of God are in fact objectifications of attributes which belong to the human species. Feuerbach transforms Hegel's Geist into a generalized human species-nature, transforming the union of consciousness with Spirit into the union of individual consciousness with species consciousness.

While it would appear on one level that Feuerbach redirects all of theology to "the proper study of mankind" in his turn toward anthropology, he recognizes that theology is, in fact, already the study of humanity — although operating with an incomplete dialectic. Feuerbach believes that theology has yet to re-integrate the objectified attributes of humankind into the true object of human commitment, which is human nature itself. Because Feuerbach treats all objects of human consciousness (or experience) as "revelations of human nature" (5), he treats all of human experience (including experience of objects in the world) as psychological phenomena. Because Hegel treats psychology, sociology, and science as phenomena mutually coordinated through the metaphysical category of Spirit, however, Hegel might object that Feuerbach shortchanges the dialectic of consciousness by mistaking the scope of the object of religion.

For Hegel, religious knowledge does not simply manifest the infinite attributes of the human species; the mind does not merely reflect itself. Rather, by virtue of its participation in the activity of Spirit, the mind also knows and participates in the rest of the world. If religious knowledge were limited in the ways that Feuerbach suggests, the process of objectification would simply involve the unconscious projection and conscientious retraction of attributes. Hegel would argue, however, that metaphysics is necessary to any understanding of science, psychology, or religion if we are to demonstrate how the mind participates in processes beyond itself.

Hegel writes, "Everything that people value and esteem, everything on which they think to base their pride and glory, all of this finds its ultimate focal point in religion, in the thought or consciousness of God and in the feeling of God" (76). Hegel analyzes the process by which values find ultimate focus in religion, identifying a dialectic of "manifestation" or "objectification" in the nature of religion. Against Schleiermacher , Hegel argues that religion is not merely the feeling or the immediate knowledge of God. Religion is also the cognitive knowledge of God because even immediate knowledge must include "knowing not only that an object is but also what it is" (88). Further, religion is also an internal relation to God, "having God in one's heart" (106). These three aspects of religious knowledge — the immediacy of God, the definiteness of God, and the union with God — are for Hegel related aspects of the manifestation of Spirit.

In order to understand religion, Hegel distinguishes three moments or phases of Spirit (Geist). We can only know what God is by recognizing, in the first place, that "consciousness of God is conjoined with self-consciousness" (87). This recognition is the first part of Hegel's dialectic of religion: in the first "moment" of religion, Spirit "realizes itself in consciousness" (104). The first moment is awareness of the universality of Spirit, which Hegel identifies as the "Concept of Religion." In the first moment, the subjective consciousness is not aware of itself or of another; in fact, it seems imprecise to speak of the subjective consciousness as such at this point. The "self-manifestation" of Spirit does not involve any distinction between consciousness and Spirit: they are, in fact, indistinguishable at the general level of the concept of religion.

The unity of Spirit is the first moment. However, the first moment is strictly abstract: its only content is universality. In the second moment, religion finds an object as the self-manifestation of Spirit becomes the manifestation (or "becoming for an other") of Spirit as the relationship of the subjective consciousness to a distinct object in God. The self-manifestation of Spirit in the concept of religion has become the manifestation of God as a definite object of knowledge. The crucial point about the second moment is that the subject becomes aware of its distinction from its object: both the object of consciousness (whether God or the self) and the subject acquire definition in relation to each other.

Feuerbach follows Hegel's dialectic so far, although with different implications. "In religion," he writes, in essential agreement with Hegel, "consciousness of the object and self-consciousness coincide" (12). Because Feuerbach does not accept Hegel's concept of a metaphysical Spirit, he interprets the unity of religious consciousness differently, but in its first moment, religion is a universal unity for both Feuerbach and Hegel. Feuerbach claims that "Consciousness of God is self-consciousness, knowledge of God is self-knowledge" (12). Like Hegel, Feuerbach rejects the romantic idea that immediate feeling of God constitutes religious knowledge, but Feuerbach disagrees with Schleiermacher by claiming that any identification of religious knowledge with feeling makes feeling itself into the object of religion (9). Consciousness of God is not immediate feeling, nor is it the self-manifesting of metaphysical Spirit. It is, instead, consciousness aware of itself. "The consciousness of the infinite is nothing else than the consciousness of the infinity of the consciousness; or, in the consciousness of the infinite, the conscious subject has for his object the infinity of his own nature" (2-3).

In the second moment of religion, Hegel identifies the distinction of religious subject from religious object. Feuerbach also observes such a distinction, but writes: "Man — this is the mystery of religion — projects his being into objectivity, and then again makes himself an object to this projected image of himself thus converted into a subject" (29-30, my emphasis). Rather than manifest Spirit for an other, religion in Feuerbach's view manifests human nature to itself.

The third moment for Feuerbach accomplishes implicitly what he believes should occur explicitly in religion: "In the religious systole man propels his own nature from himself, he throws himself outward; in the religious diastole he receives the rejected nature into his heart again" (31). The religious dynamic seems to provide greater emotional satisfaction than simple self-consciousness, however: "What man withdraws from himself, what he renounces in himself, he only enjoys in an incomparably higher and fuller measure in God" (26). Feuerbach argues that human beings will find even greater effects and emotional satisfaction in realizing explicitly that our religious knowledge is actually about ourselves as a species. Hegel's analysis of the third moment of religion also involves a movement from implicitness to explicitness. "The third [moment] is [Spirit's] manifesting of itself according to its concept, taking its former, initial manifestation back into itself, sublating it, coming to its own self, becoming and being explicitly the way it is implicitly" (102-103). The third moment involves something new, for the distinction of Spirit into object and subject ceases to be a relationship of otherness insofar as the subject discovers its relationship to its object within itself while maintaining the distinctness of both subject and object. The unity of Spirit (real but not particular in the first moment of religion) now becomes real, particular, and also internal for the subject.

Feuerbach must see Hegel as unnecessarily dependent on a spiritualized metaphysics, because Feuerbach seems to see no need for a "concept" prior to human nature. Hegel would see human nature — or the nature of consciousness — as emerging from the manifestation of Spirit in the determinate or second moment of religion; anthropology is dependent for Hegel on metaphysics, and human nature follows from the concept that makes its appearance possible. Feuerbach, however, treats human nature as the sufficient origin of consciousness and religion. Where Geist generates both human consciousness — human nature — and religion in Hegel's view, human nature generates consciousness and religion for Feuerbach.


Written for "Modern Theology and Its Critics," Professor David Lamberth, Harvard Divinity School, April 13, 1998. This essay is the intellectual property of Christopher L. Walton and must be fully and properly cited when used as a source in your own writing or you are committing plagiarism. The proper citation is:

Walton, Christopher L. "The Object of Religion." Philocrites. 13 Apr. 1998. <>.

Works cited

Ludwig Feuerbach. The Essence of Christianity. [1841] Trans. by George Eliot. Great Books in Philosophy. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1989.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: The Lectures of 1827. One-Volume Edition. Ed. by Peter C. Hodgson. Trans. by R. F. Brown et al. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Copyright © 1998 by Philocrites | Posted 13 April 1998 at 5:00 PM

Previous: Schleiermacher on true religious fellowship.
Next: The critical faith of Doubting Thomas.