Hegel, Love and Truth

Chalybäus, Heinrich Moritz, 1796-1862

Many Christians – and churches – are more concerned with endoctrines than doctrines. (As we know, the endoctrine glands regulate emotions).

Whatever we think or do – they say – we must make sure that we are loving, unifying, non-confrontational, non-divisive; in a word, relational. As my Anglican priest friend told me, it’s not about doctrine as much as about relationships (I think that is a reasonable summary of the book “The Shack“).

We should – they say – deal with concrete feelings and emotions and less with abstract thoughts and words; make people feel better about themselves. Don’t tell them they are sinners and under condemnation. Make people feel fulfilled and satisfied in their life. Make them feel comfortable. And if you’re going to use words from the Bible, emphasize the loving parts, the non-threatening parts. Emphasize happiness and self-fulfilment. Then point them to the nearest user-friendly church near you – a church that won’t bite, that is, a troothless church.

What is important to most people today is not what is true, but what is regarded as true. Many professing Christians, like most people, live in a Hegelian universe, always aspiring towards truth, the truth of love.


Hegel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is Hegel’s Dialectic (Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis) theory.

Thesis – my point of view. Antithesis – Your point of view. Synthesis: We find a common meeting ground.

Here is the great German philosopher (whom hardly anyone, including most philosophy graduates, like me, never heard about), Heinrich Moritz Chalybäus (1796-1862; translated by Edersheim, Alfred, 1825-1889. Historical development of speculative philosophy, from Kant to Hegel (1854). (Thanks to all the marvelous resources on the Web).

From a painting of Immanuel Kant

From a painting of Immanuel Kant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“We observe that every object in the economy of nature presupposes what we would term its antagonist; the leaf on the branch seems to call forth another on the opposite side, as if to preserve the equilibrium. The same law manifests itself also in the growth of mind and in the organic development of consciousness. While progress in the formation of the whole is the aim, the alteration in the individual parts is due to the appearance of contraries ; for it is noticeable, that, whenever any philosophical fundamental view was pronounced in a decided form, it also stood forth, ipso facto and necessarily, as one-sided. But immediately an opposite statement, roused up by contradiction, made its appearance, and criticism entered the lists on both sides of the question. But both these extremes only served to call forth a third view, to add a new sprout on the branch, which in turn was destined to pass through the same process of development.”

“Whether and when this development shall result in that blossom, which would at the same time be its termination, we feel to be an enquiry to which, as yet, we cannot return a reply. Such an actual perfection of consciousness, were it attained, would also mark the end of the development within the reach of our species ; and our globe, in its present form at least, would then have also served its purpose for the general economy of intelligences. Its ulterior fate would be long to a period yet future in the history of the world; nor shall we hazard any speculation thereon.” (Italics and underlining added).

I focus on “Such an actual perfection of consciousness, were it attained, would also mark the end of the development within the reach of our species.” The upshot: once we think we’ve found THE truth, which in its most radiant manifestation is LOVE, we would have reached our ultimate destiny. Christians agree. The difference between the Christian and the philosopher is that the latter does not believe that we can ever know THE truth (which Jesus says we can, and which is the only thing that can make us free). But there is more to the philosopher’s scepticism-cynicism; more perverse. “If the Messiah, as the embodiment of truth, were to be found, says the philosopher, Jacques Derrida, for example, there would be no point to life, because WE would no longer have any more intellectual clout; we would lose our role as the measure of all things. There would be no more secrets to uncover.” See The Deconstruction of Messiah: Always Arriving Always Departing).

But what did Hegel, in the last flickering moments of his pantheistic life, think? He “would have no book read to him but the Bible ; and said that if God were to prolong his life he would make this book his study, for in it he found what mere reason could not discover. His favourite hymn during those dying days was a German hymn of which the bearing is, ‘Jesus, draw me entirely unto thyself'” (Adolf Saphir, “The divine unity of scripture”). I wonder whether Hegel found his ultimate synthesis.I’m thinking of the face of God.

Jewish scholars and the play dough of interpretation

The Ten Commandments, In SVG

About a month ago I was listening with mind half-cocked to an audio by a (North) American Christian scholar on “Ancient heresies.” I was sure I heard the words “play dough.” Owing to the fact that the discussion touched on Greek philosophy, I thought he was talking of Plato, pronounced by Americans as Plado. In fact, he was indeed talking about how some doctrines were handled like play dough. As I love preying and playing on language especially when the play helps to reveal reality, how I wished I could have used Plado(UGH) somewhere in my writing. Well today my wish is coming true. The occasion is my reading of David Stern’s  Midrash and Indeterminacy. Here is his opening paragraph:

“Literary theory, newly conscious of its own historicism, has recently turned its attention to the history of interpretation. For midrash, this attention has arrived none too soon. The activity of Biblical interpretation as practiced by the sages of early Rabbinic Judaism in late antiquity, midrash has long been known to Western scholars, but mainly as either an exegetical curiosity or a source to be mined for facts about the Jewish background of early Christianity. The perspective of literary theory has placed midrash in a decidedly new light. The very nature of midrash (as recorded in the Talmud as well as in the more typical midrashic collections) has now come to epitomize precisely that order of literary discourse to which much critical writing has recently aspired, a discourse that avoids the dichotomized opposition of literature versus commentary and instead resides in the dense shuttle space between text and interpreter. In the hermeneutical techniques of midrash, critics have found especially attractive the sense of interpretation as play rather than as explication, the use of commentary as a means of extending a text’s meanings rather than as a mere forum for the arbitration of original authorial intention.”

What’s the difference between Stern’s “interpretation as play rather than as explication” and my interpretation of Stern, which is: “interpretation as play dough rather than as explication.” Nothing. Stern hates arriving at final destinations and prefers, like a Derridaring Jew, shuttling from one departure lounge to another through the “dense space (read: playdough) between text and interpreter.”

Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann (Photo credit: On Being)


And what about Walter Brueggemann, the “biblical theoligan?” For Brueggemann, any interaction between 1. certitude, which he considers limited because it is restricted to a single meaning (univocity) and 2. fidelity, should be frowned upon. We should, therefore, be open, as Derrida says to “an unlimited number of contexts over an indefinite period of time,” and thus there should be an unrestricted interaction between suffering persons longing to tell their personal stories. For Brueggemann and Derrida, and all post-modernists (who all believe there is no metaphysical centre, no fixed structures), there exists no such entity as Being, no such entity as essence, no such thing as a True story, but only (human) beings telling their true-ish stories, which are the only stories that ultimately matter. And if the Bible stories are able to buck – and back – them up, thank you God (See Certainty and Fidelity in Biblical Interpretation: The Deconstruction of Walter Brueggemann).

Jacques Derrida

Jacques Derrida (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


And then there’s Jacob Neusner, the most prolific writer on Judaism with about 950 publications. What does his life work come down to? I suggest to this excerpt from his writing:

“l wonder, however, whether in the context of faith-whether concerning Moses, Jesus,or Muhammad, such a thing as “critical history” in the nineteenth-century sense indeed can emerge. I ask myself whether, to begin with, the sources came into being with any such purpose in mind. And I question whether when we ask about history in the sense at hand, we address the right questions to sources of such a character. And, anyhow, what ‘critical historical’ facts can ever testify to the truth or falsity of salvation, holiness, joy, and love? (A counterpart to the problem of the historical Jesus,” in Jacob Neusner, “Judaism in the Beginning of Christianity”, p. 88).

Indeed, “what ‘critical historical’ facts can ever testify to the truth or falsity of salvation, holiness, joy, and love?” (Neusner above). Why indeed do we need, as David Stern says, to dichotomize facts and interpretion? As the French symbolist poets loved to say – and Walter Brueggemann as poet would also love to have said, un poème est un prolongement, a poem is an extension. Extension of what? Why, the longings of the reader. Prolongement means “extension.” I am playing with “prolongement” and “longing” whose only connection is its “historical sedimentations,” as Derrida would say). In postmodern literary (pioneered by Derrida) there is no difference between “critical historical” facts (Neusner above) and a game of shuttlecock.

To return to Stern’s “shuttle” (above): [The] literary discourse to which much critical writing has recently aspired [is] a discourse that avoids the dichotomized opposition of literature versus commentary and instead resides in the dense shuttle space between text and interpreter. In the hermeneutical techniques of midrash, critics have found especially attractive the sense of interpretation as play rather than as explication, the use of commentary as a means of extending a text’s meanings rather than as a mere forum for the arbitration of original authorial intention.” Authorial intention is out. Give me the reader’s intention instead.

Which reminds me of Rabbi Bronstein “crash course in Reconstructionist Judaism. In brief, he said it doesn’t matter whether the Torah is objectively true, as long as it is accepted as true – at a deeper level than objective truth, which is for Bronstein the “obvious” level. What can be less objective than The truth, and more objective than My truth. Recall Neusner’s “what ‘critical historical’ facts can ever testify to the truth or falsity of salvation, holiness, joy, and love?”

What, for Neusner, and everyone else here, can be more obvious than salvation, holiness, and especially pulsating joy. But doesn’t Jonah’s critical historical text say “salvation is of the Lord.” (Jonah 2:9). Shhh – do you want me to lose my tenure! Reconstructionist Judaism (and Reform Judaism, by and large) says it doesn’t matter whether all the Bible stories are just “stories,” myths, folklore; what’s important is that they are shared myths, and it is the sharing of a common heritage that binds a community together. What matters, in Reconstructionist Judaism, is not the Book but the binding – of communal love and joy (Neusner).

Jacob Neusner


The Jews, “the people of the Book.” No, I’ve got it back to front: “The Torah, the book of the People.” That’s better.

Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer, a reconstructionist Jew, believes that the Torah stories, even if not true in the historical sense, are central to Jewish life. The Torah, she says, is one of the “noblest employments of the mind and soul aiming at knowledge and wisdom.” Fuchs-Kreimer – who is a reliable spokesperson for Reconstructionist Judaism says much more: “Perhaps religious experiences provide no new information about the universe. Rather, they give us the emotional impetus to tell certain kinds of stories. We may indeed be nothing but a pack of neurons and our religious experiences may be neurological phenomena; nevertheless, the stories we tell ourselves about those experiences come from our higher cognitive functions. When we choose to link ourselves to a religious civilization, we opt for a narrative tradition that will shape raw experience in particular ways.” The weight of evidence, according to Fuchs-Kreimer, shows that religious experience cannot provide any new evidence – “knowledge and wisdom” – about the universe. But, according to Fuchs-Kreimer we can’t deny that we feel it in our bones that there is something else besides neurons and meat loaves. So, we tell one another stories about how those emotions emerged, but we don’t go overboard to the point of hysteria only to drown in historia. Meaning doesn’t have to be objective for “if there is nothing but matter, all the more do we need stories to make meaning” says Fuchs-Kreimer, and it’s stories – the more evocative the story the better – that make or break a religious civilisation. There’s no “core self” so we need to make up stories – based on authentic emotion, naturally – to “tell us who we are.” And that, according to Fuchs-Kreimer, is the basis of “tradition”, of Jewish tradition, of solid Jewish tradition (See The Torah: shared myths and other stories in Reconstructionist Judaism).

What have all these Jewish scholars have in common? (for all intents and purposes, Walter Brueggeman, a Gentile Lutheran, might as well be a Jew, a Lutheran Jew). Herein lies the genius of the Jew-Ish (Hebrew ish “man”): He rips the the text, the historical – read: “surface” – text, out of the hands of the Holy One of Israel and from his inwormings, he spawns and spins the Holy Israel of One. On earth or in (reconstructionist) heaven, there’s nothing like Israel.

Fellow Jews, if you love wallowing in the sediment of literary theory, then post-modernism, reconstructionism and deconstruction are for you. All I say to you is:

What advantage then hath (you) the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God. For what if some did not believe? shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect? God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, “That thou might be justified in thy sayings, and might overcome when thou art judged” (from Psalm 51:4). Don’t play with God’s word; rather build your interpretations on a surer foundation, and what surer foundation is there than “let God be true and every man a liar” (Romans 3:1-4).

Lost marble in translation


Before I say what I am about to say, I need to warn that what you are going to read here was used (in 1991) as evidence by one of my colleagues to try and convince the Dean of Arts at the University of Fort Hare (South Africa) that I was insane. Six years later the article was eventually published after being rejected the first time for publication in 1995. On that first occasion, there were three referees; one said, publish without changes, the second said, trash it, the third said he didn’t know what to do with it. Remarkable, especially as the article was a lot of BILBOOL (“confusion”) from which we get “BABEL;” or is it the other way round, that is, BABEL causing a lot of BILBOOL . Oh well that’s what the article – and the confusion at the university – was all about.


It’s truly remarkable the kind of internet searches that are directed to my site. Today a search on the words “marble scattering down pyramid” found my “Mind your marbles” post. That’s not what is remarkable; after all, the words “marbles” – “scattering” – “down” – “pyramid” all come together in my post. What is indeed remarmable is that in 1997 I published an article on Derrida’s Babel and the problems in translating (languages – not people; into heaven).. The remarkable thing is that the whole piece is filled with allusions to marble, yet the word “marble” is not mentioned once. The searcher who typed the words “marble scattering down pyramid” into the search engine found my marbles pyramid in my “Mind your marbles” post, but not the marble pyramid in my Babel post, which would have been much more relevant than my description of marbles cascading down a pyramid in the school yard. I know; there are no pyramids, only ziggurats, in Babylon, but at least Babylon is closer to Egypt than Wynberg School, Cape Town. It’s a pity we can’t just have thoughts without the clutter of words. If we can have empathy, why can’t we have telepathy? The only difference is the one is near – very near – the other, far. As a chassid would say: “feel your thoughts, don’t (just?) think them.

Here is an excerpt from the article. It is a parable about the difficulties of translation. When I say “translation”, I don’t just mean translating from one language like English to another language like French, or Hebrew to Greek, but translating from English to English, French to French. The problem is not the words, which the same language shares, but the thoughts that we intend by those same words. For instance, you probably know all the words I’ve used so far in this post – except perhaps “deconstruction” and “remarmable,”  You still need, however, to “translate” – INTERPRET – my thoughts into your thoughts. Enough. Here’s the parable, which I think the internet searcher would have found more relevant to his search than “Mind your marbles,” but not necessarily more gripping. The parable is all about marble, but nowhere is “marble” to be found! Exactement.

The parable (On the difficulties of translation; start with a pyramid and end up with a mosque).

Like Leonardo chipping away at the white stone, the translator/interpreter endlessly chips away at the articulations between the cladding stones, seeking entry into the sacred tetrahedron (pyramid). After each disappointment he gapes in bewilderment at the bavel of bevelled tiles below. Reluctantly, he abandons the hope of ever finding the entrance which would lead him to the tomb of priceless treasures. But he cannot return empty-handed. Exhausted, he sits down on a heap of tiles. The limestone feels cool to the ruptured hot skin. Bemused, he strokes the smooth surface with bruised fingers, fondling its subtle textures. He arises, refreshed, packs his camel high with claddings, and returns home to build a mosque out of past failures. And so, our translator, although he couldn’t move the right stone, is happy; after all, he did save face. (During the previous centuries no one managed to find the inner chamber of the Great Pyramid until Caliph Al Moumon, who upon finding no treasure, planted his own in order to placate his crew of weary diggers. About the year 1000 A.D. the Caliphs of Egypt stripped the polished white casings of the Great Pyramid, which were then used to build mosques and palaces. What made the stripping easier was a great earthquake that shook the casings loose).

You might say that there’s nothing mad about this piece, and ask why my colleague at Fort Hare thought I was insane. Hang on. Here is another excerpt from the beginning of my Babel article:

An expected surprise is not a surprise. The same applies to rhetorical journeys. If one is not all pumped up and ready for a tour (tour in French = “trip”, “excursion”, “tower”, “trick”, “turn”), but instead merely wants to get from point B to point B – Babel to Bethel, the journey that we are about to take will turn out to be merely yet another well-trodden and tedious detour of Babel and its limitrop(h)es.

The journey begins on p.5 of Derrida’s (1984) Signsponge: Consider the translation of the following sentence: Francis Ponge se sera remarqué; “Francis Ponge will be self-remarked.” Is Rand’s translation a good one? Compare the original French with the English translation. The dictionary meaning of the verb remarquer is “to notice”, “to observe”.

Se remarquer “to notice oneself”, “to observe oneself”. Derrida’s object, however, is different to the dictionary meaning. Marque is also the mark, the margin, the step (the step in marching, and the step in ladder, stairway; marche “step”). Se remarquer contains at least the following deconstructable signifieds: 1. The doubling (re-) up of one’s self in the margin-text. 2. The double self in the double mark. The self in this context belongs, it seems, to Francis Ponge.

The title of the article is “Babel: can Derrida’s tour surprisingly translate us anywhere.” You can see why my colleague wanted to translate me out the University.

(marmar – Central Asian for “marble” as in Iran)