In the interest of honesty, I must admit that sometimes philosophers earn the bad press that follows them. Close study of some of the most villainized books reveals that their main points are not nearly as pernicious as evangelicals would make them, but others among those infamous books deserve their horns. This series of short essays will deal not with books (I love books too much to squeeze them into blog posts) but with some of the ideas that, over the relatively short span of time during which Christians have called themselves Evangelical, have undeservedly caused panic among the faithful. The overarching message should be an angel’s: do not fear.
Dialectic: Not a Three-step Dance
“The Helgian Dialectic” has become nothing short of an inside joke over at the Ooze.com. In recent months someone whose intentions I cannot honestly estimate as good swept into the message boards, accusing the good folks there of apostasy, heresy, and all sorts of ugly things. Among those uglinesses was a misspelled version of Hegelian, and with that a joke was born. Whatever else happened when those battles were going on, certainly the word dialectic came to the fore and along with it some misconceptions about what kinds of flexibility the word has.
Some college introduction-to-philosophy books attempt to lay out Friedrich Hegel’s project in terms of three stages: a thesis, a system of philosophy or politics positively articulated; antithesis, the negation of that system; and synthesis, the higher truth that arises from the interaction between thesis and antithesis. Such a concept is not alien to the history of philosophy, but ultimately I must place it historically not in the philosophical toolbox of Hegel but of Marx. The latter philosopher is the one who laid out the very schematic picture of history, the one in which primitive communism gives way to master/slave conflict, which gives way to lord/subject conflict, which gives way to bourgeoisie/proletariat conflict which gives way to communism. Marx is also the one who insists that such changes in historical epoch tend to happen through revolutionary changes in consciousness, often accompanied by military violence.
All of that is not a preamble to an unqualified apologia for Friedrich Hegel. A responsible Christian must note at the very least that Hegel posits Christian doctrine as a developmental stage to be overcome on the way to philosophical consciousness. Beyond that, his treatment of world-historical men such as Caesar, though clearly a descendant of Augustine’s defense of the Patriarchs in Confessions, still stands as relativistic and thus needs serious critique. Given all of that, the concept dialectic itself is not only older than Hegel and Marx but has enough range that it is not only a permissible but potentially quite a useful tool for the Christian thinker.
Trinity: The Laboratory for Dialectic
The Greek word dialegomenon and its variations appear several times in Acts (19:8-9, 20:9, 24:25, etc.), and in each of these instances, English translations usually render the word as “dispute” or “argument” or “reason,” usually in the context of Paul’s reasoning with or disputing against people for the sake of the gospel. Acts borrows the word from Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical traditions, who in turn derive the practice and the word from the life and practices of Socrates. In Plato’s “Apology,” Socrates at his own trial narrates his own philosophical career that has earned him so many enemies. He says that, while searching for true wisdom, he would approach all those who claimed to have wisdom, whether poets or politicians or laborers, and question the content of their wisdom. As he traveled, he discovered that while he had no real knowledge but knew it, they had no real knowledge but didn’t know it, thus his greater wisdom.
The point I wish to emphasize here is not Socrates’ skepticism but where the truth of Plato’s dialogues happens. Although Socrates is always the main character, he never initiates the philosophizing; someone else does. And while Thrasmychus or Crito or someone else gets the ball rolling, the wisdom of the dialogue does not come from these characters. Instead, the wisdom (that which a philo-soph-er, a wisdom-lover, seeks) comes when the two come together. The wisdom is between them and around them, not located in either. One does not define the other so much as they define each other.
Christian theology picked up on this dialogic or dialectical character of wisdom when theologians theorized about the persons of the Trinity: when the Father relates to the Son, the Father is Father; when the Father relates to a creature, the Father is God. Nothing has changed in the Person of the Father, but Christian theology still treats of God-relating-to-creature differently from Father-relating-to-Son. Thus for the sake of teaching Christians, the truth about the Father, the first Person of the Trinity, happens in relationships with the other Persons and in relationships with the creatures of the Creator.
The Helpfulness of Dialectic
Dialectical thinking immediately appears helpful in the tired debates over doctrine and practice. When people assume that one can exist without the other, or that one unilaterally determines the other, they ignore the dialectical character of the pair. The teaching that God is love defines and is defined by practicing love concretely towards God’s creatures. Christian life-together defines and is defined by teachings about God’s sovereignty. Dialectical, mutual definition happens when Christians partake of the eucharist and teach about God’s common love for all nations.
Such a move does not simplify relationships between teaching and action, but it does render the complexity of the relationship more truthfully. Likewise, the relationship between action and identity is truthfully a complex relationship, much more honestly rendered dialectically than unilaterally. To demonstrate, we can look at the third chapter of the letter of 1 John:
4 Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous. 8Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. 9Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; because the children of God abide in him they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. 10The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters. (NRSV; borrowed from the Oremus Bible Browser)
Before I make my point, please note that 1 John’s grammar has act functioning as cause and identity as son functioning as effect in verses in 7 and 10, identity causing act in 9, and some of both in verses 6 and 8. In other words, the grammar of the Scriptures themselves, before someone overlays an ideology of ethics and determinism on it, seems to know something of the complexity of the dialectic relationship between act and identity. Such is not equivocation or indecisiveness on 1 John’s part but rather an acknowledgment that the reality of Christian life in a sinful world is always going to involve dialectic, the truth of Christian identity defining and being defined by Christian action.
With regards to Friedrich Hegel, a Christian theology must ultimately reject his uniformly progressive historiography and his rationalism, and a wise Christian would likely also turn away from his tendency to render historical action in relativistic terms. However, his development of philosophical dialectic and its deployment in questions of sociology seems right on and ultimately in line with much Christian theology. So to wrap up this foray into dialectics (at once clumsy, too brief to treat things fully, and too long to justify the attention you my kind reader have paid to it), I will say that Socrates did ’em, Paul did ’em, and Christians who would seek wisdom in a complex world should continue to do ’em.