Nicholas Adams and G.W.F. Hegel on God, Community, and the Endurance of Difference

Molly Farneth
Haverford College


In Eclipse of Grace: Divine and Human Action in Hegel, Nicholas Adams argues that in order to understand Hegel’s relevance to contemporary theology, one must read his theological engagements as logical investigations rather than ontological claims.  Hegel’s most important contribution to both philosophy and theology, on this reading, comes from his efforts to repair the false oppositions that he inherits from the Western philosophical tradition.  These efforts are logical in the sense that Hegel proposes to overcome the subject-object divide (and others like it), not by absorbing one into the other or by positing a third, all-encompassing being, but rather by rethinking the nature of subjects and objects in light of the irreducible relationship between the two.

Adams calls this pair-talk. A pair involves two terms, each of which cannot be properly understood independently of the other and whose relation to one another constitutes a third term of a different kind.  Two people in a marriage are a pair.  Adams explains:

[If one considers a married couple,] one can describe each of the persons who has been married for twenty years, and it is not a mistake to try to describe just one of them.  An adequate description of that one, however, will involve some account of his or her relation to the spouse – the other, and also some account of his or her being a married person.  Pair talk is triadic…  In the case of the married couple, there is the husband, the wife, and their relation in marriage.  If one subtracts the third term – their relation – one has two terms and not a pair.[1]

In a marriage, the spouses are neither opposed to nor collapsed into one another.  They remain different, distinct, and yet in irreducible relation.  Again, Adams argues that pair-talk is logical, rather than ontological, talk.  To describe the spouses as a pair is to indicate how the relation between them ought to be understood.  The third term – the marriage, in this example – is not a third being in the same sense that the two people in the marriage are beings, but rather the word or title for the character of the relation between the two terms.

Adams argues that when Hegel uses words like “opposition,” “mediation,” “sublation,” “unification,” and “reconciliation,” he is alerting his readers to a logical operation that he is undertaking. These words describe the nature of the perceived or actual relationship between two terms.  As Adams suggests, “these logical terms are ways of relating ‘two’ in ‘one,’ where ‘two’ remain distinct but are inseparably in relation.”[2]  Hegel repairs errant logics that oppose subject and object, as well as thinking and being, subject and substance, and divine and human.  On Adams’s reading, Hegel’s account of reconciliation is an account of how the errant logics that oppose subject and object, thinking and being, and divine and human are diagnosed and overcome at a formal, or cognitive, level through a logic of pairs.

This paper considers two implications of Adams’s logical interpretation of Hegel’s account of reconciliation.  First, following Adams’s own interpretive strategy, I disagree with his reading of Hegel’s claim that “God appear[s] in the midst of those who know themselves as pure knowing” at the end of Chapter VI of the Phenomenology of Spirit.  I suggest that we should read “God” here as Hegel’s term for the relationship between two individuals who have overcome their opposition.  Second, I consider Adams’s brief suggestion at the beginning of Eclipse of Grace that the logic of distinction-in-inseparable-relation (that is, the logic of pairs) is the logic that ought to govern religiously-diverse communities, and I suggest what Hegelian reconciliation requires in such communities.

Now, it might not be obvious what these two implications of Adams’s reading of Hegel have to do with one another, but I will argue that, when we take Hegel’s broader epistemological project into consideration, these two implications are closely connected and, moreover, that Adams, who I suspect will initially like the second point much more than the first, ought to accept both.


God appears at the end of Chapter VI of the Phenomenology of Spirit.  Hegel has described two opposed consciousnesses who act in the world, come into conflict over a judgment about the nature of those actions, and eventually reconcile through acts of confession and forgiveness.  Their confession and forgiveness, Hegel suggests, express and embody their realization that each depends on the judgment and recognition of the other.  Hegel then writes:

The reconciling ‘yes’ in which both I’s let go of their opposed existence, is the existence of the I expanded into two-ness [Zweiheit], which therein remains selfsame and which has the certainty of itself in its complete self-emptying and in its opposite. – It is God appearing in the midst of those who know themselves as pure knowing. (§671)[3]

Adams’s emphasis on Hegel’s repair of false oppositions can help us focus on what is happening in this passage.  The two I’s, the two individuals, let go of their perceived opposition and recognize their relation, their two-ness.  Each comes to recognize itself and the other as a pair, in Adams’s words, two terms in irreducible relation.  The “yes” that expresses and achieves their reciprocal recognition and reconciliation, Hegel writes, is God appearing in their midst.  Here is Adams’s gloss on this passage: “Hegel associates this transformation from ‘two terms’ into a ‘pair’ with God appearing in the community.  This is striking.  It is not merely that two subjects have come to discover their mutual relation; it is that this mutual relation is participation in God.”[4]

This passage is indeed striking.  But I wonder if Adams follows his own interpretive principle far enough here.  What is most striking to me is that at the very moment that the two individuals become a pair in Adams’s sense, Hegel brings up a third term – God.  Is Hegel saying that the two individuals’ mutual relation is participation in God, as Adams suggests, or is he saying that their mutual relation is God?  On my reading, it is the latter.  God is Hegel’s noun for expressing the non-oppositional logic that guides the confessing community’s thinking about individuals – a relation and a logic that comes onto the scene only with the mutual recognition and reconciliation of these two individuals.

Now, to see why Hegel might make such a claim, it is important to place Adams’s emphasis on Hegel’s logical operations into the context of Hegel’s broader epistemological project in the Phenomenology. In the Introduction, Hegel states that the Phenomenology concerns consciousness’s search for the standard [Maßstab] against which truth-claims can be measured and judged.[5]  The examination of consciousness’s knowledge of its object, Hegel writes, “is not merely an examination of knowledge but also that of the standard of knowledge” (§85).  This standard must be absolute – that is, non-one-sided, neither merely subjective nor merely objective.

Each episode in the Phenomenology presents one possible account of such a standard – beginning with the immediate consciousness of objects expressed by what Hegel calls “sense-certainty,” and gradually developing into more complex forms of socially and historically embedded self-consciousness.  This development takes place through successive attempts to specify the standard of knowledge, each of which falls apart on its own terms.  Each finds itself unable to account for its own authority and is replaced by an account that builds on the strengths and overcomes the weaknesses of the previous one.  By the time Hegel gets to Chapter VI, titled “Spirit,” he is presenting accounts of the standard of knowledge that involve social practices and historical context.  The episode at the end of that chapter, in which the two consciousnesses confess to and forgive one another, brings about mutual recognition that is, Hegel writes, “absolute spirit.”  Finally, the Phenomenology of Spirit arrives at a standard that overcomes one-sidedness.

This is the context in which I read Hegel’s claim about the appearance of God.  Adams points to the oppositional logic that is overcome in this section of the Phenomenology of Spirit, and he links this logical repair to the appearance of God.  I want to go a bit further than Adams, however, in suggesting that we ought to read this logical claim in light of Hegel’s broader epistemological project.  To say that the reconciling “yes” is God appearing in their midst, is, I take it, a claim about the emergence of an absolute and self-sufficient standard of knowledge.  That standard overcomes subject-object dualism, because the standard inheres not in one or the other but in their relation.  To be absolute, such relations must be relations of reciprocal recognition, in which each person in the pair recognizes the authority and accountability of the other, as the two consciousnesses do in their confession to and forgiveness of one another.

To call this relation God, which is what I believe Hegel does here, is to specify that this relation is worthy of the title reserved by Christians for the absolute and self-sufficient standard.  As the following chapter of the Phenomenology of Spirit (titled “Religion”) argues, however, Hegel’s contemporaries have not recognized this.  Revealed religion realizes the standard of knowledge in practice – for instance, when Christians confess to and forgive one another – but insofar as it continues to represent this standard of knowledge as an entity outside of itself, in the person of God, it has not yet actualized the absolute and self-sufficient standard in its conceptual form.  Revealed religion recognizes the standard in practice, but not in concept.

I recently heard Adams speak about why we ought to reject Hegel’s “sublation” of religion in philosophy.  What I am proposing here, however, is that this sublation amounts to an epistemological claim.  What philosophy realizes, that religion (as Hegel characterizes it) does not, is that the absolute and self-sufficient standard of knowledge appears in our midst when we act, judge, confess to, and forgive one another in social life.  This realization, in which the standard of knowledge that emerges in social practice is recognized and reflected upon as such, is philosophy’s advance over religion.

Adams notes with approval Hegel’s contention that the search for a God’s-eye view of truth ought to be abandoned.  That is, Adams seems to agree with Hegel that whatever the absolute standard of knowledge turns out to be, it will not involve the perspective on truth that one might attribute to an omniscient deity.  On Adams’s account, Hegel is metaphysical in the way that a pragmatist might be said to be metaphysical, in a way that “begins in the middle, and wants to make headway outwards, to make sense of more and more things.”[6]  Insofar as Adams, too, abandons the search for a God’s-eye view of truth, he implicitly agrees with Hegel’s sublation of revealed religion’s standard of knowledge.  Adams might well want to say that Hegel has it wrong when he attributes this account to religion; certainly, many Christian theologians since Hegel have accepted the idea that the standard of knowledge is socially and historically embedded and generated through social practice.  We must remember, however, that each episode in Phenomenology represents an account of the standard of knowledge, and each shape of consciousness or shape of spirit is overcome by the next in that particular sense.  Philosophy’s sublation of religion consists of this – a better account of the very standard of knowledge that religion already expresses and embodies in its practices of confession and forgiveness.  If theologians conceptualize and articulate the absolute standard as social-practical in this way, then religion has now absorbed the insight that Hegel attributes to philosophy.


Finally, we arrive at the second implication of Adams’s interpretation of Hegel’s account of reconciliation, which concerns the practices of reconciliation in a religiously diverse community.  At the beginning of Eclipse of Grace, Adams notes that the logic of distinction-in-inseparable-relation is but one logic among others, and that it only applies to certain kinds of cases.  The cases that call for a logic of distinction-in-inseparable-relation include those in which identity and difference are constructed in response and relation to one another.  Adams states that “a community in which different religious traditions live side by side is such a case.”[7]

He does not explore that suggestion any further in Eclipse of Grace, but in a 2012 essay titled “A New Plural Settlement,” Adams discusses the nature of religious diversity and the possibilities of life together in the midst of conflicting truth-claims.  There, Adams writes that “our traditions are concerned, in the most intense way, with truth.  We make different claims about truth.  We think, and say, that truth matters.  If we are to be true to our own traditions, we need to place our concern with truth centre-stage.  This is not popular among certain more liberal voices in Britain, who would rather that we mute our concerns with truth for the sake of peaceful life together.”[8]  Adams argues that interreligious encounters ought to be less concerned with fostering agreement than with clarifying and exploring the nature of disagreements.  Difference will endure.  The question is how we will conceive our differences, and hence, our relations with one another.  We have a responsibility to approach our differences and disagreements – and to live with and bear them – in the right way.

To connect what Adams says in that essay to his suggestion that religiously diverse communities ought to be governed by the logic of distinction-in-inseparable-relation, we might once again consider Hegel’s epistemology.  The religiously diverse community calls for a logic of distinction-in-inseparable-relation insofar as such a logic is connected to a standard of knowledge that is relational without being conventionalist.  The standard of knowledge that emerges at the end of the Phenomenology of Spirit does not specify the content of truth-claims so much as it specifies the processes and practices through which claims are made, judged, authorized, and contested.  When the members of a religiously diverse community shy away from differences and disagreements – if we fear making truth-claims with which others are bound to disagree, or, alternately, we claim that our differences are insignificant – the operative logic is an errant logic of indifference.  The assumption is that the members of the community are not particularly distinct at all, at least in the ways that matter.  At the other extreme, if the members of the religiously diverse community claim to have accessed a God’s-eye view of truth, to the exclusion of others, the operative logic is an errant logic of opposition.  Here, the assumption is that one has nothing to learn from the encounter with and challenge posed by the other.

To repair these errant logics, the members of such communities must overcome indifference, on the one hand, and opposition, on the other.  They must cultivate a logic of distinction-in-inseparable-relation.  Such relation, for Hegel, requires more than mere proximity.  It requires the relinquishment of the pretense to a God’s-eye view and, in its place, the recognition of mutual authority and accountability.  Confession and forgiveness play the role that they do in Hegel’s account of reconciliation because life among people who have abandoned the God’s-eye view of truth, but who insist on making truth-claims nevertheless, are bound to disagree, to err, to require forgiveness, and to be able to offer it.  If we care about truth, conflict is a given, but reciprocal recognition and reconciliation remain possibilities in both thought and practice.  We learn to endure difference, even to recognize the ways in which we are constituted by it, as we give up a logic of either indifference or opposition and cultivate a logic of distinction-in-inseparable-relation.  A Hegelian approach to interreligious encounter, to life in the religiously diverse community, acknowledges the perpetuity of difference and our endurance of it in right relations of tolerance and reciprocal recognition.

To return to an earlier point, it is interesting to think about what it might mean for all of this to be worthy of the title “God.”  If God appears in the midst of formerly opposed individuals at the moment of their recognition of their shared authority and accountability, as Hegel suggests in the Phenomenology, then God refers to the absolute and self-sufficient standard of knowledge, now understood as that social and practical authority that emerges in the midst of our (always-already-in-the-middle-of-things) efforts to articulate the truth.  And that, I suspect, is something that Adams would endorse.


[1] Nicholas Adams, Eclipse of Grace: Divine and Human Action in Hegel (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 9.
[2] Adams, Eclipse of Grace, 23.
[3] Further references to the Phenomenology include the paragraph number of G. W. F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, facing page translation, trans. Terry Pinkard,
[4] Adams, Eclipse of Grace, 63.
[5] See Hegel §81-85.
[6] Adams, Eclipse of Grace, 124.
[7] Adams, Eclipse of Grace, 24.
[8] Nicholas Adams, “A New Plural Settlement,” unpublished paper (2012), 1.

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