The “Specific Shape” of Stories (Notes on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit §§678-679)

Image is from Pixabay

For Hegel, the limitation of religion is that it relies on “picture-thinking.” A religion is based around the interpretation of a number of stories, images, and rituals designed to show the human spirit the truth about itself and its place in the world. Whether or not you believe the story of the Resurrection to be literally true, it is likely that the story will resonate in some way as it touches on the themes of suffering, death, re-birth, and hope.

But stories are created through a process of condensation and simplification, while reality is broad, free, and complex. The metaphor will never be large enough to encompass the reality. Having a “specific shape,” the picture of spirit in the story lacks the freedom of spirit itself.

The only thing that has the freedom of the human spirit is the human spirit itself, which is to say: “absolute spirit,” or spirit that is wholly and absolutely spirit. But to talk of such a thing is to talk in abstractions. The religious mind says: abstraction is useless, and the closest the human mind can get to the mystery of spiritual existence is to tell the stories, interpret them, and live by their lessons.

The stories are interpreted, as are the images and rituals. And these interpretations are themselves stories, simplifications of the reality of spirit, specific shapes designed to capture something of absolute spirit which, being absolute, has no shape.

Religion deals with the “beyond” because its goal is self-consciousness, and self-consciousness seems to be something beyond the mere consciousness of “spirit in its world.” Consciousness, through its endless interpretation and story-telling, pictures the world to itself but this continuous stream of pictures never amounts to the full realisation of self-consciousness that religion is striving for. Religion’s method – story-telling and picture-thinking – is never adequate to religion’s goal, which is a true awareness of the self that is perceiving and interpreting. Religion is “sublated” – cancelled to give way to something higher – because it fails, on its own terms, to achieve its own aims. Religion gives way to philosophy.

And yet the human spirit still craves stories and, in the Hegelian view of the world, religion will always have a place in any human society. But in the modern age it should never claim the highest place. Though it might sound ironic, Hegel believes that a real understanding of God lies beyond the scope of religion.

(I’ve been reading A.V. Miller’s translation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.)

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