Byron Belitsos on Gary Dorrien
Gary Dorrien’s lengthy In a Post-Hegelian Spirit offers reliable, turnkey, and tour-de-force coverage for anyone seeking a big picture account of the generations of liberal theology derived from Kant and Hegel.
When I first came to Dorrien’s new masterpiece, I had not forgotten what I had learned from wrestling with The Phenomenology of Spirit and Hegel’s later works. For a decade, I stewed over my conviction that Hegel’s holistic method had nearly disappeared in the wake of the fragmenting, politicizing, and secularizing postmodernism that besets today’s humanities and social sciences. Anyone who takes into account the rise of academic specialization, the polarization of our politics, or the degradation of the American educational system, would be justified in concluding that Hegel’s many-sided dialectical reason is truly finished. And one can add to this the apparent triumph of “one-dimensional” instrumental reason, the very blight we had been warned about by Marxist Hegelians like Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse.
I had put all of this behind me when I retired from a book publishing career in 2018 and became a student at Union Theological Seminary, where Gary Dorrien has taught since 2005. Sitting in Dorrien’s social ethics class along with an overflow crowd of eager students in the Bonhoeffer Room, I found myself marveling at the generosity of the man’s lectures. Our course text was another of his sprawling masterworks, Social Ethics in the Making: Interpreting an American Tradition (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), widely acclaimed to be the field’s definitive history. And I soon learned that Dorrien’s work was broader in scope. His mastery of the entire expanse of America liberal theology is on display in his three-volume history, The Making of American Liberal Theology, completed in 2003. It too is the undisputed guide to this topic.
Word then came around that Dorrien’s scholarly reach was even wider. He sometimes offers a course on Hegel, I discovered, this being the very topic I had given up for dead. He had written Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealistic Logic of Modern Theology , his first take on how Kantian and post-Kantian idealism were instrumental in the development of modern Christian theology, both American and European. Philosopher Samuel J. Loncar, Editor of Marginalia, praises this work as a “profound depiction of the philosophical foundations of theological liberalism, its rise and fall, and the ironies, contradictions, and importance of its history. . . Dorrien has shown us that the future of a vital modern theology may depend on nothing less than a return to its nineteenth-century foundations.”
But Dorrien takes a new turn in his monumental reprise of his previous work on the post-Kantian epoch in theology. In a Post-Hegelian Spirit elevates Hegel’s status as the indispensable philosopher, and we even hear Dorrien say that, like himself, “Adorno, throughout his career, and Derrida, in his later career, similarly grasped that we are never done with Hegel.” But Dorrien’s new tome has another broad mission, that of highlighting his “discontent” with the present moment, which is advertised right up front in his subtitle: Philosophical Theology as Idealistic Discontent. But why an idealistic discontent?
Dorrien makes clear in the book’s opening page that he is “making an argument for a liberationist form of religious idealism” while also critiquing post-Hegelian theologians like Karl Barth who may have been “penetrating” thinkers but were “one-sided compared to Hegel.”
Dorrien’s life-long commitment has always been to social justice “in the prophetic key,” as he would put it. This was in part inspired by an early collaboration with Michael Harrington, founder of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), that led to one of the earliest of his eighteen books, The Democratic Socialist Vision. Dorrien’s subsequent tenure at Union Theological Seminary then brought him into proximity with many of the world’s leading liberation theologians, most notably James Cone, founder of black liberation theology; womanist ethicists such as Katie Cannon and Emilie Townes; and Latina feminist theologians such as Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz—all of whom he depicts and celebrates in Social Ethics in the Making. Even today Dorrien sits on DSA’s Religion and Socialism Commission.
Thus, in this reassessment of his previous work on Kant’s and Hegel’s legacy, Dorrien calls for a Hegelian religious idealism that is informed by a liberationist impulse. This intention will manifest, he says, as a postmodern theology that is simultaneously Hegelian in philosophic scope (that is, processional, holistic, dialectical, and deeply grasping the tragic dimension of history) and post-Hegelian in its idealistic discontent, for it rejects the triumphalist Eurocentrism of Hegel’s thought as its very point of departure.
On one hand Gary Dorrien praises the German sage because Hegel
turned his post-Kantian ontology of love into a theology of intersubjective Spirit fitting his discovery of social subjectivity. God is the intersubjective whole of wholes—spiraling relationality that embraces all otherness and difference. God’s infinite subjectivity is an infinite intersubjectivity of holding differences together in a play of creative relationships not dissolving into sameness.
But on the other hand, Dorrien loudly complains that “Hegel was also the worst of the religious idealists. . . He had overreaching confidence in his concepts, to put it mildly, leaving little or no room for apophatic theology, the intuition of God as the holy unknowable mystery of the world. He recycled racist and pro-colonial conventions with casual conceit, drifting in his later career to the stuffy political right. And he provided an ample textual basis for the many right-Hegelians, existentialists, textbook authorities, and others who construe him as a panlogical totalitarian. Hegel’s intellectualism spurned the emphasis on feeling, willing, and ethical struggles for justice that define and fuel religious idealism at its best. He shunned the types who burned for social justice, finding them boorish company, while his esteem for Prussian civilization became inflated to the point of self-parody.”
But Dorrien is equally vocal in showing that, especially in the nineteenth century when it matters most, liberal theological temples were built out of, or in spite of, or placed directly above Hegel’s idealist synthesis. Almost everyone after Hegel foundered on an incomplete understanding of Hegel’s logic, and the worst of those saw Hegel’s dialectic as a totalizing, closed system, a deterministic ideology that in the wrong hands could leave us with the violence-prone certainties of fascism and Stalinism. Lamenting that critics “completely miss the significance of triple mediation in Hegel’s logic,” Dorrien closes the book with statements like this:
In Hegel’s logic, each of the three elements of universality, particularity, and individuality mediates the other two. . . Hegel’s triad of logic-nature-spirit has no absolute primacy, no founding, and no grounding. Each element of his triadic mediation assumes the middle position and is mediated by the others, and the third term is never the same as the first. Hegel posited no master syllogism and no single order among the members of a dialectical relation. “Totalizing” is precisely what he repudiated when he spurned Schelling’s philosophy of identity, “the night when all cows are black.” Hegel’s God is the luminosity in which colors are discriminated.
Dorrien concludes with an enlightening dialogue between Hegel’s “heterodox” Trinitarianism and the creative contribution to Christianity made by Whitehead’s process thought, highlighting its leading theologians such as Charles Hartshorne, John Cobb, and David Ray Griffin. Dorrien praises the Whitehead school for expounding, much like Hegel, a process theodicy in which God saves what can be salvaged from history.
“But Hegel’s tragic sense of the carnage of history cuts deeper than Whitehead, lingering at Calvary.” He gives the last word to Hegelian theology: “The Whiteheadian God is not moved by ideal subjectivity to enter the suffering and otherness of the world and return to God’s self. Many liberal theologians prefer Whitehead to Hegel on precisely this point. I take the contrary view that liberal theology does not get stronger by eliding the Trinity.
Ultimately, it is the hidden weight of Hegelian cargo, says Dorrien, that should be deeply felt by religious philosophers. Or, at least this is the case for liberal theologians like himself, and we find that this sentiment moves him to admit that “Hegel is both alien to me and distinctly the thinker with whom I am never done.”
Byron Belitsos is an award-winning book publisher who is also an author, editor, journalist, and educator. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Integral Theodicy: A Constructive Christian Theology of Evil, Sin, and the Demonic (Wipf & Stock, 2022). Other recent books include Your Evolving Soul: The Cosmic Spirituality of the Urantia Revelation (May 2017) The Adventure of Being Human (2012) and Healing a Broken World (2014).