Emergentism | Lineage: 2. German Idealism
With the advent of modernity, the religious worldview’s belief in an immaterial, eternal supernatural realm became no longer tenable (as we have seen). Reality had proven itself to be inescapably naturalistic and subject to change over time. Whatever “God” might be, it was clear that he could no longer be cognized in such mythic metaphysical terms, but needed to be understood in light of time and flux like everything else. Mysticism, too, then, needed to be reconceived.
The first modern philosopher to radically re-imagine religion along these lines was G. W. F. Hegel, a German thinker writing in the early 1800s. According to Hegel, history exhibits the unfolding development of Spirit—or “Geist” in German, an untranslatable word that straddles the conceptual overlap between “mind,” “spirit,” “consciousness” and “God.” Evolving through a series of stage-like “shapes,” Spirit progresses towards “absolute knowledge,” the goal and aim of all history.
Hegel’s famous book, The Phenomenology of Spirit, can thus be read as an attempt to chart
the path of the natural consciousness which presses forward to true knowledge; or as the way of the Soul which journeys through the series of its own configurations as though they were the stations appointed for it by its own nature, so that it may purify itself for the life of the Spirit, and achieve finally, through a completed experience of itself, the awareness of what it really is in itself.
This Self-awareness of Spirit is not graspable except by considering the entire process of its emergence, at whose culmination its true Identity is revealed:
The True is the whole. But the whole is nothing other than the essence of consummating itself through its development. Of the Absolute it must be said that it is essentially a result, that only in the end is it what it truly is…
Put most succinctly, says Hegel, “The goal is Spirit’s insight into what knowing is.”
This can only be fully accomplished when the conceptual Notion that Spirit has of its Self is in no way distinct from the subjective experience of its Self. Thus, “everything turns on grasping and expressing the True, not only as Substance, but equally as Subject.” This is the goal of existence: the fusion of objective and subjective in an absolute knowledge of Spirit:
[T]he goal…is the point where knowledge no longer needs to go beyond itself, where knowledge finds itself, where Notion corresponds to object and object to Notion. Hence the progress towards this goal is also unhalting, and short of it no satisfaction is to be found at any of the stations on the way.
In all of this, Hegel’s insight was astoundingly acute, his intuition unparalleled—at least at the level of the broad contours of this cosmic story. He was also prophetic in appreciating that this evolution of consciousness played out at both the macro- and the micro-level, as a process both cultural and psychological. He writes:
The single individual must also pass through the formative stages of universal Spirit so far as their content is concerned, but as shapes which Spirit has already left behind, as stages on a way that has been made level with toil.
Having grasped and articulated the general outlines of this cosmic drama with unprecedented clarity, Hegel then attempts to detail the precise nature of consciousness’s evolution, showing how each stage led logically and necessarily to the next. Here, unfortunately, his vision falters a bit. With zero knowledge of Darwinian evolution, developmental psychology or genetic epistemology (which would not arise for another 50 and 100 years, respectively), Hegel could only imaginatively conceive how the process might have unfolded, presuming it progressed akin to how logical thoughts unfold one into the next (that is, according to Idealist terms). His reconstruction is ingenious, but nowhere near perfect. Indeed, much of it lands as arbitrary and rather far from logical.
Today, we know much better the “formative stages” that the single individual must pass through in their recapitulation of the collective consciousness’s advances. They are the worldviews fashioned by the different dimensions of consciousness we have already considered.
Writing long before these were formally investigated and articulated, Hegel could only theorize. Still, in many remarkable instances, his phenomenology can be argued to track in meaningful ways with the distinct shapes of consciousness known to developmental science.
Speaking of the first emergence of self-consciousness at the 0D level, for example, Hegel writes: “It is true that consciousness of an ‘other,’ of an object in general, is itself necessarily self-consciousness, a reflectedness-into-self, consciousness of itself in otherness,” which might be read as a recognition that the emergence of self-consciousness requires other selves to occur; self-consciousness is a linguistic, and thus Cultural, phenomenon.
More impressively, Hegel observes that an early and formative movement of self-consciousness occurs soon after this, through the process of radical differentiation from the collective and its subsequent subjugation—the movement to 1D consciousness. Ego emerges, and is a fragile ego, which only knows how to affirm itself by dominating others:
[S]elf-consciousness is thus certain of itself only by superseding this other that presents itself to self-consciousness as an independent life; self-conscious-ness is Desire. …[I]t destroys the independent object and thereby gives itself the certainty of itself as a true certainty…
The Imperial worldview thus arises, in which the group is made subservient to a heroic ego. Hegel calls this dynamic the “lord and bondsman” stage. Of this despot and his subjects, says Hegel,
[T]hey exist as two opposed shapes of consciousness; one is the independent consciousness whose essential nature is to be for itself, the other is the dependent conscious-ness whose essential nature is simply to live or to be for another.
But it is precisely out of this oppressive dynamic that a new shape of consciousness emerges—2D consciousness. For the subjected consciousness, in response to the suffering of its subjugation, finds relief by turning inward and discovering therein an inner freedom through the life of the spirit.
Regarding the bondsman, says Hegel,
[A]s a consciousness forced back into itself, it will withdraw into itself and be transformed into a truly independent consciousness…a new shape of consciousness which…is aware of itself as an essential being, a being which thinks or is a free self-consciousness. …[W]hether on the throne or in chains, in the utter dependence of its individual existence, its aim is to be free, and to maintain that lifeless indifference which steadfastly withdraws from the bustle of existence, alike from being active as passive, into the simple essentiality of thought. …[This] could only appear on the scene in a time of universal fear and bondage, but also a time of universal culture which had raised itself to the level of thought.
Such was exactly the case with the rise of 2D consciousness out of the 1D worldview of imperial dominance and amoral subjugation. Exemplary of this turn inward are the very “Axial Age” religions that formed within and as response to Imperial cultures. According to the 2D worldview, escape can indeed be found from this vale of tears—by turning away from the material world of suffering towards the immaterial world beyond all suffering.
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This new shape of consciousness succeeds in articulating a response to the terrors of Imperial culture—but, ultimately, at a great cost. That “free world” of immaterial thought it put above the material world of here-and-now becomes all-consuming.
Soon, the ideal overtakes the real, and 2D consciousness quakes in self-loathing beneath the impossible standards of the very ideal realm it concocted as its salvation. In this decadent, pathological stage of 2D consciousness’s evolution, Hegel sees a unique state of being he calls the “Unhappy Consciousness,” a pallid, ascetic, nihilistic world-view that “forever sees itself as defiled” and “casts upon the mediator or minister [priest] its own freedom of decision.”
Eventually, this sick, unhappy 2D consciousness breaks through to a higher level—to 3D consciousness’s discovery of Enlightenment Reason. From its self-abnegating withdrawal, consciousness grows confident once more in its self and seeks to re-assert itself. “Reason,” writes Hegel, “now has, therefore, a universal interest in the world, because it is certain of its presence in the world, or that the world present to itself is rational.” And so “the individual is sent out into the world by his own spirit to seek his happiness.”
From here, Hegel describes the 3D consciousness’s turn towards hedonistic narcissism and the justification of individualistic pleasure-seeking through a kind of laissez faire rationale that what is good for the individual is good for the collective—just as indeed became characteristic of liberal modernity.
This development, however, soon meets its own limitations. The premises it defined itself by become the seed of its own dissolution and transcendence. Despite claiming to have moved beyond naive faith in some immaterial Beyond, 3D Enlightenment consciousness realizes, through scrutinizing self-reflection, that its religious aims are far from fully exorcized and secular. Enlightenment science has its own immaterial God—the mathematical, totally “objective” reality known to pure reason.
So we come to something very much like 4D consciousness’s reflective critique of the Enlightenment project and the hidden faith commitments disguised as universal truth. “Faith has, in fact, become the same as Enlightenment,” says Hegel, “viz. the consciousness of the relation of what is in itself finite to an Absolute without predicates, an Absolute unknown and unknowable.” Science and faith are not so different after all:
The two…are absolutely the same Notion; the difference lies not in what they actually are, but simply and solely in the different starting-points of the two developments… If they could disregard their own starting-points they would meet and would recognize that what to the one is, so it pretends, an abomination, and to the other, a folly, is the same thing.
The pale noumena of a de-subjectified reality—reality “in-itself”—is revealed as the 3D God-concept it is. Yet, compared to traditional religion, such a God is hardly satisfying. The richness of spiritual life lost to modernity becomes a source of instability and desire. “We shall see,” says Hegel, “whether Enlightenment can remain satisfied; that yearning of the troubled Spirit which mourns over the loss of its spiritual world lurks in the background. Enlightenment itself bears within it this blemish of an unsatisfied yearning…”
All of this dialectical back-and-forth finally culminates in the depth of insight afforded by the breakthrough to a truly developmental 5D consciousness. For Hegel, this relentless evolution of Spirit leads at last to the truly satisfying recognition that Spirit itself is developing, shifting, changing.
In Hegel’s dialectical philosophy, Spirit gains awareness of this fact, as the philosopher considers the evolution of religions and their God-concepts: from early conceptions of God as light, to “flower religion” and “animal religion” (i.e., Animistic spirituality), to the highly artistic polytheistic religions of antiquity (Imperial religion), to revealed religion—specifically, Christianity (Traditional religion).
But such revealed religion is at first but the “picture-thinking” of myth: stories of God becoming man through the incarnation and thereby bringing salvation. Such story remains to be lived, says Hegel; for knowledge comes by “grasping and expressing the True, not only as Substance, but equally as Subject.” The objective picture of the incarnation must become subjective experience.
This, according to Hegel, is the final turn, the last stage of Spirit’s journey to absolute knowledge. The identity of God with humanity, presented as the substance of Christianity, becomes a lived reality for the individual. Christ’s claim that “I and the Father are one” becomes the claim of all souls. In this way, God becomes one with Self, distinction between object and subject disappears, and Spirit attains to absolute knowledge.
The totality of this knowledge is not only in the consummated God-Self, but also in the knowledge of all the stages that led up to this apotheosis. The true nature of God can only be fully known with reference to all the Gods God has been along the way. “This Becoming presents a slow-moving succession of Spirits,” says Hegel, “a gallery of images, each of which, endowed with all the riches of Spirit, moves thus slowly just because the Self has to penetrate and digest this entire wealth of its substance.”
With this “gallery of images,” we get something akin to the spiraling metamorphosis of God-concepts across the shapes of consciousness such as we have already encountered:
“The realm of Spirits which is formed in this way in the outer world,” writes Hegel, waxing poetic,
constitutes a succession in Time in which one Spirit relieved another of its charge and each took over the empire of the world from its predecessor. Their goal is the revelation of the depth of Spirit, and this is the absolute Notion. …The goal, Absolute Knowing, or Spirit that knows itself as Spirit, has for its path the recollection of the Spirits as they are in themselves and as they accomplish their organization of their realm.
Such is, in sum, Hegel’s amazing and prophetic message—a grand Bildungsroman (“coming-of-age story”) of God. The resonances with the Emergentist narrative are clear and profound. An Emergentist reading, done in light of that narrative, yields deep connections—though, admittedly, there is still much dross in the mix. Nevertheless, Hegel is unparalleled in terms of pioneering a theoretical framework for evolutionary spirituality, and his system stands as a robust philosophical lens through which to consider Emergentist religion.
The same could be said about other German Idealists such as Fichte and Schelling. Schelling, for instance, famously saw material Nature as “slumbering Spirit.” The evolution of Spirit was a coming-to-consciousness of God. Or, as he writes: “I posit God as both the first and the last, as the Alpha and the Omega, as the unevolved, Deus implicitus, and the fully evolved, Deus explicitus.” We will find a similar idea when we consider the “process theologians.”
NEXT: Lineage 3. Analytic Psychology
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