Hegel, and even Nietzsche see the Christian Ethic

Hegel, Nietzsche, and Christian Ethics

In studying ethics, it is important to recognize that ethics develop out-of larger philosophy or belief systems. Ethics are like a surface that reflects the movement in underlying thoughts. Thus, understanding the sources of modern Christian ethics helps us to move forward; if we know where we have been, we can understand where we are going.

Intro to Hegel

Georg Hegel was a German philosopher, who lived from 1770 to 1831, and in his publication Phänomenologie des Geistes created a metaphor that has influenced Christian ethics and theology ever since. In Phenomenology of Spirit Hegel describes what is commonly referred to the “master-slave dialectic.”1 My purpose here is to explore how Hegel’s dialectic metaphor has shaped modern Christian ethical reflection, explore the relevancy of that metaphor after Nietzsche’s postmodern critique, and confirm that it is in keeping with biblical thinking. I feel that after some theological refining, absorbing some necessary criticisms, and refocusing through the light of Scripture, Hegel’s metaphor will make possible new directions and ethical insights for tomorrow.

Hegel’s metaphor

The basic premise of the master-slave dialectic is that when two individuals, cultures, or groups meet, one comes out the dominant master and the other the submissive slave.2 This results in those who are submissive ultimately serving those who are dominant. For Hegel slaves subconsciously cooperate with their slavery. Slaves, because they are forced into the submissive position, must labor. However, Slaves can improve their self-definition with and through their labor such as dividing into labor divisions and increasing skills.

Hegel sees a paradox though, because the master is “dependent” upon the slave’s labor and goods. Because of this dependence the slave’s identity becomes the source and symbol of the master’s identity as well. Masters need slaves and slaves need masters in order to maintain these external “roles” that they play. Hegel highlights that both the slave and master do not have an individual self-identity, because they both are defined by their relationship and roles. Hegel concludes that only through reconciliation and the denial of slave and master roles can people have independent self-consciousness, peace, and real relationships.

Hegel’s ethic of reconciliation has as its ultimate goal self-consciousness.3 He maintains the Enlightenment ideal that a complete and free individuality is life’s goal or “the good.” For Hegel, the duel identities of master and slave are unethical primarily because the definition of self comes from the outside, coercing the mind into a set definition. The definitions of master and slave are unethical because they arise from an external source of conflict. Thus, Hegel shows that reconciliation and self-definition must work in concert to defeat negative external factors.4

Hegel’s lasting Influence

Hegel’s influence is recently visible in Glen Stassen’s and David Gushee’s joint work, Kingdom Ethics. The authors take the approach that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus’ teachings are “not impossible ideals but transforming initiatives” (pg 141). The logic that flows through their reading of the passage is thoroughly Hegelian but in different terms. The authors take violence or conflict (dialectic) as a cycle of abused (slave) and abuser (master) and conclude that only by the abused and abuser re-approaching one other as equals can issues be morally corrected. This allows them to translate turning the other cheek as, “Saying, nonviolently, you are treating me as an unequal, but I need to be treated as an equal.”5 Stassen and Gushee believe that by treating each other as equals “the cycle” or person-to-person dynamic can be resolved.

Surveying recent theological history, I find Hegelian views of conflict resolution normative among Christian theologians. Even those writers who are often seen as ground-breaking innovators are heavily influenced. For instance, Rabbi Martin Buber may be perceived as having views that conflicting with Stassen and Gushee, yet there is still in Buber an underlying Hegelian logic. In Buber’s Ich und Du real freedom comes from the rejection of objectifying others. 6 Buber’s strong emphasis on two self-defined individualities “I” and “Thou” who, in complete realization of their own independence and their inability or lack of desire to control each other, find reconciliation reads like a page right out of Hegel’s playbook. Many famous German theologians, even if they do not admit to following Hegel, have openly admitted familiarity with Rabbi Martin Buber. Barth, Brunner, and Bonheoffer all publically acknowledged being influenced by Buber.

Focusing on Bonheoffer’s view of the Sermon on the Mount and his promoting renunciation of self it is possible to see the influence of Hegelian thought. Bonheoffer is an extreme example of the master-slave dialectics malleability derived by combining the ideals of reconciliation with self-definition. In Bonheoffer’s work, The Cost of Discipleship, his oft-quoted phrase, “When God calls a man, he calls a man to die,” sums up his exegesis. Bonheoffer thus defines a Christian self-awakening as total self-renunciation. People are to deny their will (evil internal desires, a.k.a. desire to be master) while simultaneously refusing to submit to evil outside wills (slavery) for conflicts to be resolved. Bonheoffer expanded the idea of external definitions to add the dynamic of evil as an external and internal force exhausting itself as long as it found no “counter-evil” against which to push.7 The mechanics of Bonheoffer closely mimic Hegel’s; however, the inclusion of both internal and external tensions plus Christian phrasing show what is perhaps a deeper theological understanding albeit a more simplistic reconciliation mechanic.

Due to its relevance and its malleability Hegel’s metaphorical constructions command the field in modern ethics. When comparing the transforming initiatives of Kingdom Ethics and the concept of renunciation in Bonheoffer, there is the Hegelian ideal that external definitions forced upon and into situations limit individual’s potential and prevent reconciliation. Hegel’s metaphor provides a solid conceptual critique that encapsulates many contemporary issues and shapes most contemporary thought.

Rejecters of Hegel

Yet, there are traditions that have actually grown out of these “conflicts-zones” that have tried to shrug off Hegel’s metaphor or denied its utility: one liberation theology. Liberation theology takes a position that that the slave as the oppressed is morally superior to the master. Susan H. Lindley reacts to liberation theology in her article, A Crucially Necessary Risk: “it is always demonic, in whatever age, to divide the visible world into two classes—the open and the uptight, the saints and the sinners, the oppressed and the oppressors—and consign one group to Hell.”8 It is worth pause to note that Liberation theologian Frederick Herzog’s Origins of Liberation Theology openly states:

The Christian God is not found in the depths of the soul primarily…God as God becomes relevant in his involvement in the struggle for the survival of the oppressed. And the hermeneutical problem gets disentangled in the praxis of the identification with the oppressed through God in Christ.9

Also, in the Duke Divinity Schools, Kearns Seminar on Liberation Theology many of the writers expressed concern that liberation theology is a doctrine that makes the liberation of the oppressed the only concern of God and seems to equate those deemed “masters” in the Hegelian sense as evil.

This reaction may be due to the fact that it appears that liberation theology is actually reinforcing the slave mentality for those already under the influence of Hegel’s thought. Because there is such a stress on identification as a “slave” (poor, colored, etc.) someone believing in reconciliation will see the under-privileged as reinforcing their own “vicious cycle” by identifying themselves as such. If the idea is to renounce evil Liberation theologians using the oppressive evil to count themselves as blessed is a strange paradox. At the same time, as Lindley pointed out, by forcing the identity of master/abuser onto opponents there is the impression that forgiveness and reconciliation are being withheld. If one truly follows Hegel it would seem that liberation theology refuses to allow people self-identity by separating obtaining it from reconciliation to others.

Nietzsche (Who studied Hegel)

After pointing out the long term influence of Hegel, it is important to discuss a pertinent philosophical corrective. Frederick Nietzsche was a very controversial figure who claimed that he rejected the Hegelian strand of German scholarship. He perceived a harmful over-emphasis on the righteousness of being downtrodden and on the goodness of helping the weak in Christianity, specifically the Roman Catholic majority of southern Germany.10 Nietzsche saw Hegel as an outgrowth of this community and rejected his ethics while retaining his metaphorical construction. Because he retained the structure which was based in Hegel’s own nominally Christian ethics, a careful investigation of Nietzsche can actually reinforce and strengthen the Hegelian metaphor.

Keeping the concept of slaves versus masters, Nietzsche diverged from Hegel’s view that these where two divergent moralities. Nietzsche, in keeping with the Darwinian “Zeitgeist” of his time, believed that a struggle for survival and power motivated both mentalities. He saw that there was a master morality maintained by those who had power over others, fashioned to help them maintain it. He described master morality as essentially pragmatic, “what is good for me is good and what is bad for me is bad.” He never denied the subjectivity of such morality. He felt that a culture or at least an educated “Ubermensch”11 should hold the morality of masters if possible. Nietzsche felt master was a position conferred upon the genetically superior, so they had a “divine mandate” to actually fulfill their “will to power” as masters. Anything else would be hypocritical.

Nietzsche often contrasted this master morality to the slave morality. Understanding that Nietzsche felt the weak were “naturally” inferior and thus unable to be masters, he still felt they were equally motivated by a genetic lust for power and survival. Nietzsche felt that since slaves where naturally inferior, slave morality was simply more a subversive outlet for a frustrated Wille zur Machte12 for it “does not intend to overthrow masters but to make them slaves too.” 13

Historically, this master morality holds manifest danger; it rejects all pity as evil emotion, because it holds back the progress of the strong for the sake of the weak. This made ample philosophical fertilizer for Hitler’s National Socialism and has since made it popularly anathematized. Nevertheless, the master morality is a wedding of pragmatism and the scientific view (at that time unproven) that genes pass hereditarily, both aspects of our current society, so popular or not, they retain continued subconscious relevance.

This groundwork is important because of how Nietzsche viewed Christianity. Christianity rejected the idea of master morality with concepts such as the least shall be first, the leader as servant to all so the danger of developing a slave morality is greater. The tendency is to see the oppressed as synonymous with the blessed. Nietzsche explains this tendency in Christianity as a product of the Jews growing weak; they had to explain the fact that God had not saved them. If they are the people of God and weak, then being weak must somehow be good/godly. It follows then that if God favors the weak, he probably condemns the strong. Nietzsche saw Christians as “slaves” who were unable militarily to destroy Rome yet still hungry for power. Their moral system then had to destroy the master morality, and “used pacifism as a weapon. They stood against defense because they were weak and wanted to make the weak the good.”14 Ultimately, Nietzsche foresaw liberation theology. For him this type of Christianity was an “inversion of values (with which is involved the employment of the word for ‘poor’ as a synonym for ‘holy’ and ‘friend’) that the significance of the Jewish people resides: with them there begins the slave revolt in morals.”15 Nietzsche interpreted Christianity as a bitter revenge plot of the Jews against the Romans.

While I disagree with Nietzsche’s worldview, he made it clear that there is a very real possibility for some to use of the best Christian intentions to cloak very bitter resentment. What is most important to take away from Nietzsche is that resentment can serve as a singular in lust for Wille Zur Machte as well as in his master morality. Added to the core ethic of an “outside force,” Nietzsche suggests a universal internal motivation that even causes persons to define themselves in divergent moralities. This recalls Bonheoffer’s synthesis of Hegel magnificently but with a twist.

Biblical Views

With even Nietzsche onboard, I believe the final evaluation of this developing neo-Hegelian metaphor is to examine if an ethic based on self-awareness and reconciliation is biblically sound. In Richard Baukham’s commentary, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, he explores the conquering and violence metaphors that seem to put off many readers, and highlights that Christians are not called to conquer Babylon but to come out of her.16 There is a need for self-identification as Christians. This self-identification will cause tension, because it drives Christians to start reconciling people, to pick up abandoned children in Rome, to treat slaves as people, to care for the poor and sick, and to elevate individual to equality, all of which causes resistance. This reconciling others is thus tied with identification with Christ.

Opposite this positive movement, the opponents of the church start to self-identify as those who resist Christ’s message. They act out this identity through oppression and evil, but Revelation does not sink into a slave morality. Baukham points out that while Christians are called “to conquer,” it is not until the satanic trinity of the “Dragon or Serpent (the primeval, supernatural source of opposition to god), the Beast or Sea Monster (the imperial power of Rome), and the second Beast or earth monster (the propaganda machine of the imperial court)” is introduced.17 Thus, the church is not placed in conflict with those who have identified against it, but against the “external force” that is motivating the division. Revelation thus takes the fight to the evil Wille Zur Machte itself.

Paul gives manifold witness to Jesus as a reconciler of all people to his Father (Col 1:20, Roman 5:10). Yet, Jesus seems at times to deny a focus on reconciliation between people, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10:34). Jesus coolly says to “let the dead bury the dead” (Matt 8:22) or to be willing to end relationships between kinsfolk (Luke 14:26). We need to take care when talking about simple reconciliation as the goal of Jesus. When Jesus says he gives a peace, “not like the world gives” (John 14:27), there is a realization of the value of tolerance, but he seems to desire something more.

In Jesus we see the Hegelian dynamic embodied. Jesus rejects the temptation for worldly power (Luke 4:1-13) and “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage” (Phil 2:6). The Master even “lays down his cloak,” that is laying down all externals, he washes feet (John 13:4-5), and he demands of Peter that he allow him to do so (vv. 8). Jesus is self-identified “Lord” as he serves his servants (vv. 9). Jesus washes feet then claims to be “Lord and Teacher” (vv. 14). Jesus retains the title “Lord” and the position of master, the slave is now defined by the master not the other way around.

In the biblical portrayal of believers, we can see a similar dynamic as well. They go from enemies to friends in relationship with God (Col 1:21). They are transferred from enslavement the world, to reigning with God over it (Rev. 22:5). We do not see a slave morality based resistance to outside evil, a violent the toppling of Rome or even condemnations hurled. Being “in-Christ” provides a central self-identification that serves to unite and reconcile the community. While not in total agreement, the Hegelian metaphor seems to approximate this new master as slave relationship rather well.

Concluding Reflections

The Hegelian system calls for a balance and warns us that we can actually oppress the downtrodden further by retaining the terms and conditions of their oppression as part of their identity. Nietzsche expanded onto this tendency and saw it was possible to codify them into subjective moral worldviews. This can go so far that persons make weapons out of morals.

An example is the idea of separate but equal. In order to maintain this concept, the terms black or white becomes so self-identifying as to effectively eliminate the possible for the groups to reconcile. By maintaining the term white, the privileged group refuses to renounce its feeling of superiority. By maintaining the term black, the second group is forced into a minority position. Following Hegel’s model, as long as even the term minority or black is used, people who are one or the other are socially defined as such. Thus, Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a day when character, not color, was the sole determinate of a person’s social status. It is why historically many efforts at affirmative action have actually sidetracked racial reconciliation by concentrating minorities into projects or allowing them to gain economic benefit by identifying as an “under-privileged” group. The burden for the church in America remains the question of how to move society so that all the labels are removed.

There is within the Hegelian system a tendency to quantify or qualify groups as master or slave. The issue of quantifying master or slave lends itself to subjectivity, particularly for the slavery group that may see slave morality as a tempting alternative to true reconciliation. Additionally, there is no mention of middle-managers in Hegel’s system. The introduction of a third party that is perhaps part-master and part-slave introduces new dynamics.

What groups stand to gain if reconciliation is not achieved? How then are those groups themselves reconciled to the original masters and slaves? Hegel’s metaphor does not provide such answers.

It is towards finding such answers that theologians such have Bonheoffer have historically tweaked or critiqued the Hegelian metaphor. It is the duty of Christian thinkers then, to see how the Hegelian system fits or does not fit into the mission of the church. Hegel in many regards was a believer who was simply heavily influenced by his time. There is a Christological core in Hegel’s thought that has remained even in the secular sphere of western culture. It would therefore be most wise for Christians to build upon that common Christian core as we work to reconcile the world to Christ


Baukham, Richard. The Theology of the Book of Revelation. Cambridge: New York 2010.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship, tr R.H Fuller, revised Imgard Booth. Macmillian: New York 1963.

Buber,Martin. I and Thou, tr. Ronald Smith. T & T Clark: Edinburgh 1950. e-book

Hegel, Georg W.F. Phaenomenologie des Geist German original 1807, Gutenberg e-book version, last accessed 6/4/12. URL: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/6698/pg6698.html

Herzog, Fredrick. Origins of Liberation Theology, ed. Charles K. Robinson, in Kearns Seminar on Liberation Theology, in Duke Divinity School Review 38, no 3, 1973.

Lindley, Susan. A Crucially Necessary Risk, ed. Charles K. Robinson, in Kearns Seminar on Liberation Theology, in Duke Divinity School Review 38, no 3, 1973.

Moran, Phillip. Hegel and the Fundamental Problems of Philosophy. Holland: Grüner, 1988.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Antichrist tr. H.L.Mencken Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1924. e-book

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. London: Penguin Books 1973.

Stassen, Glen., and David Gushee. Kingdom Ethics. IVP Academic: Downers Grove, 2003.

1 Hegel, Georg W.F. Phaenomenologie des Geist Gutenberg e-book, CH IV, A&B last accessed 6/4/12 URL: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/6698/pg6698.html

2 Original terms are Ger: Herrscahft Lordship and Knechstschaft Bondsman-ship.

3 Hegel calls in “Frieheit des Selbstbewusstseins” which translates literally as “Freedom belongs to self-knowing-being”

4 Philip Moran, Hegel and the Fundamental Problems of Philosophy, (Holland: Grüner, 1988) Not a specific page, the overall theme of the book

5 Glen Stassen, David Gushee Kingdom Ethics (IVP Academic: Downers Grove, 2003) pp140

6 Martin Buber, I and Thou tr. Ronald Smith (T & T Clark: Edinburgh 1950) e-book pp99-101

7 Dietrich Bonhoeffer The Cost of Discipleship tr R.H Fuller revised Imgard Booth (Macmillian: New York 1963) pp156-161

8 Susan Lindley, A Crucially Necessary Risk ed. Charles K. Robinson in Kearns Seminar on Liberation Theology found in Duke Divinity School Review 38 no 3 1973

9 Fredrick Herzog, Origins of Liberation Theology ed. Charles K. Robinson in Kearns Seminar on Liberation Theology found in Duke Divinity School Review 38 no 3 1973

10 Nietzsche was Prussian from Northern Germany (Historically Lutheran)

11 German: Lit. an Over-Man, often translated Superman

12 German: Will to/for power (dat.)

13 Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil (London: Penguin Books 1973) pp118

14 Friedrich Nietzsche Antichrist tr. H.L.Mencken (Alfred A. Knopf: 1924) e-book pp58

15 Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil (London: Penguin Books 1973) pp118 (Italics original)

16 Richard Baukham The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: New York 2010) pp89

17Ibid pp89

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