Rowan Williams and the Hegalian Dialectic: Whitterings, October 2004

Early this summer The Rev’d Dr Giles Fraser, Rector of Putney and Lecturer in Philosophy at Wadham College Oxford, published a critique of the Hegelianism of the Archbishop of Canterbury. I have been haunted by it ever since.

For those of you who do not know the Hegelian dialectic or who need a refresher let me radically simplify. Hegel, the last of the great idealistic philosophers, proposed his dialectic as a tool for the advancement of human civilisation. The dialectic (thesis + antithesis = synthesis) assumes that human civilisation and thought evolves by the constant compromise (synthesis) between extremes (thesis and antithesis). The use of the dialectic ensures that no party wins but that the condition of both parties changes. The important thing is that both sides stay together afterwards. If one side wins completely the losing side will become aggressive and eventually, with renewed strength, attack the winners. Hegel assumes that without the dialectic man will always be at war. The conflict between the two extremes creates the energy for change, when they compromise society progresses. Human advancement is like a phoenix rising from the ashes of its former body. Those who see the bigger picture see this slow march towards the light while most see only their own small fights in their own limited time.

Fr Fraser argues that Archbishop Williams is an Hegelian. “Reflection requires that the plain opposition of positive and negative be left behind. What is thinkable is so precisely because thinking is not content with the abstraction of mutual exclusivities, but struggles to conceive of a structured wholeness nuanced enough to contain what appeared to be contradictories.” This is a quotation from Archbishop William’s essay “Hegel and the Gods of Postmodernity”. I know that Archbishop Williams has Hegelian Tendencies but I am also aware that his emphasis on the outcast and the destructive nature of institutions, found in such books as Christ on Trial, are much more Kierkegaardian. Soren Kierkegaard is one of Hegel most powerful critics. He once described Hegelian thought as “A grand palace in which no man can dwell.” So I am not entirely convinced by Fr Fraser’s argument but I am still troubled.

The dialectic works. It works on all levels of human conflict. The opponents of women priests may think that a long-term peace has been reached. History will show that they are slowly being phased out of the larger system by a dialectical process. My guess is that most liberals, even if only at the back of their minds, believe this will also happen with the issue of homosexuality.

It may work, but the dialectic is cruel and merciless. Hegel himself admitted that his system took no account of the individual and that it was a “slaughter-bench”. Christ was certainly not Hegelian. I think he was probably more of a Kierkegaardian! The individual is paramount. The ninety-nine are left to seek the one who is lost. Canterbury himself points this out when he says that to find Christ you must look at all of the structures in society and then look for the people left out of these structures. There you will find Christ most fully. You will find Him, not with, but in the outcast. Mother Teresa and Jean Vanier’s spirituality is rooted in this truth.

So the realisation that ecclesiology, the theology of the church, even enlightened ecclesiology is often Hegelian in nature scares me. The individuals that are being disregarded by the dialectical process are not just important but are actually the focus of our Incarnational theology as they are Christ for us. “What you did to least of these my brethren you have done to me.” Bishop Trevor Huddleston and Archbishop Desmond Tutu fought against the Hegelian Dialectic in favour of the individual. Archbishop Tutu, with his Truth and Reconciliation Board, challenged the unspoken belief that the Hegelian dialectic is a necessary evil. He showed that the Christian process of repentance, confession, and forgiveness all done in a state of genuine vulnerability can also positively transform society.

So I am afraid. I am afraid that the paramount importance that unity plays in most people’s ecclesiology these days will lead to the persecution of Christ by His own Church. There are times when one must simply take a stand to stand with the weak and fight for them. To do otherwise is to deny Christ and to subject ourselves to judgement. Once you realise that race, gender, and sexuality is irrelevant to a persons humanity to go back is to deny truth and therefore to deny Christ. Simone Weil once said that if you had to choose between Christ and the truth you must always choose the truth. Then you choose more who Christ really is instead of who you think he is. Many of us can not go back because by doing so we will deny Christ as we experience Him and we will lose our integrity and therefore risk losing our souls. Others can not, at this time, come forward without losing the very same things. Is an individual who feel abandoned by the church on either side of this conflict any less an outcast or any less lost? I am afraid that with an Hegelian synthesis we might all find ourselves facing the same danger. Charles Simeon, leader of the Evangelical Revival in the 19th century (Feast Day November 12th), said, “The truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme; but in both extremes.” I am not knowledgeable enough to know what a Kierkegaardian solution or process would be. Nor am I graced enough to know what Christ’s way is. I know that there is one. I wish I knew what it was.

In this monthly column I am not seeking answers as much as I am seeking to ask the right questions. The Fourth Note at the Beginning of The Rule of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd, my Religious Order, is The Labour of the Mind. I leave you with it.
“It’s birth in a University and the learned tradition in religious communities give the Oratory a duty of thought and study. Members will endeavour to worship God with their minds as well as with heart and soul. They will be fearless in following truth, and will constantly try to express it, so that Christ may be fully presented as thought and word allow. They will have a private rule of reading. Each brother will seek according to his ability to bring new thought and knowledge under the discipline of Christ, and to interpret them to a better understanding of the loving purposes of God.”