Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Dueling Hegels / Dueling Barths?

So, as I mentioned before, I'm trying to remedy a longstanding neglect of Hegel's philosophy, with a keen sense of my own limitations. Hegel's impact on modern theology is extraordinary (Hodgson, Moltmann, Pannenberg, Altizer, Küng, the list could go on an on).

I have more than a little ambivalence (as you might have guessed) about this legacy, but I want to do a few more soundings to make sure I'm on solid ground.

I've been perusing this fine article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (This is a superb website, and for a couple years now it has been my go-to when I start to explore a new topic in philosophy. The articles I've read are of a manageable length, very readable, written by experts and peer reviewed.)

I'm learning about a significant controversy in contemporary Hegel studies. Some who follow a more "traditional" interpretation of Hegel read his system as being rooted, basically, in a metaphysical conception of God as absolute spirit. Others, though, read Hegel in a more anti-metaphysical sense, in a way that highlights his emphases on the concrete contingencies in the processes of history. The later, more materialistic way of reading Hegel brings him more into line both with Marxist and postmodernist sensibilities. I'm sure I'm not expressing it that well, but you can read the article for yourself.

The field of Karl Barth studies -- in the United States, at least -- has been embroiled in recent years in a controversy that seems, on the face of it, to have some interesting parallels with the debates over Hegel interpretation. Two major readings -- or, I really should say, two strategies of reading, for there is a fairly wide range of Barth interpretations out there now -- have emerged.

The issues are complicated, and I'm not going to name of the principle combatants here. But one of the central disputes is this: What is the proper place of metaphysical (or better, ontological) concerns in our interpretations of and appropriations from Barth? Should such questions be bracketed out or are they integral to a proper reading of Barth?

These issues are not arcane. Some very old debates about the proper relationship between philosophy and theology, about the very nature of God and about the Creator-creature relationship are surfacing within this debate. I became interested in this debate several years ago, but haven't been able to follow everything that has emerged from it.

But I do find the potential parallels between respective debates over Hegel and Barth interesting. In many ways, it seems, theology still lives in the shadows of the 19th century.

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