I. Historical Amnesia, “Excessive” Individualism, & The Road to Christian Nationalism
As we have previously seen,1 the anthropology and political philosophy that is currently being used by many Christians as a corrective to the West’s cultural degradation are, in reality, part and parcel of the identitarian thinking eating away at the West. Carl R. Trueman’s mistaken genealogy of the “modern self”2 has played a significant role in injecting Hegel’s thinking on these matters into professedly Christian groups that do not always share the same theological and political views. For example, Roman Catholics3 and Eastern Orthodox4 authors agree with Trueman’s general analysis and have promoted the book for their respective audiences. More narrowly, among Reformed Presbyterian and Baptist evangelicals those who lean left share an appreciation of Trueman’s critique of “modernity”5 along with those who are on the right.6
Yet Trueman’s lauded “timely” diagnosis of our current dilemma merely repeats, albeit with some modifications, Hegel’s criticism of fourth century Athens. J. Glen Gray explains that
…Hegel…[believed]that Athens went to ruin because of her democratic system [which was eventually]…undermined by the pressure of a new conception of the individual. …Athens stood under the individualistic sign of the modern world, and the principle of morality…came as a presage of ruin to the harmonious, unreflective social ethic.7
Athens’ new conception of the individual, Hegel believed, led to a form of “excessive individualism” he called “…atomism, since it fragment[ed] social life, and [made] individuals feel disconnected and adrift from meaningful social life.”8 And while “Christianity had passed beyond the insights of Greek humanism in its evaluation of the individual,” according to Hegel, “it was his lasting conviction that modern Christian civilization had gone to an extreme in placing supreme value on the individual and his subjective claims, to the serious detriment of culture as a whole and higher truth.”9
Given that Trueman’s criticism presents neither an accurate nor contemporary assessment of what is happening in the West, but mostly regurgitates what one finds in Hegel, Marx,10 and other prominent counter-enlightenment thinkers, why has his work been so influential among Christians? Some, it seems, have wholeheartedly accepted Trueman’s Hegelian criticism of modernity because they have forgotten, for one reason or another, the history of philosophy and its relationship to politics. Others may be ignorant of the basic outlines of Hegel’s abstruse anthropology and political philosophy. There is another group of professing Christians, however, who have celebrated Trueman’s criticism because it is one they have heard from other trusted theological sources who also derived their ideas from Hegelianism and Thomism.
II. Hegel & Thomas in Dutch Reformed Thinking
Among the more prominent theologians among Protestants, one finds Hegelianism and Thomism mixed in the work of Dutch Neo-Calvinist theologian, Abraham Kuyper. Stephen Wedgeworth explains that Kuyper “was trained in [German Idealist, counter-enlightenment philosophy] and continued to appeal to its major thinkers throughout his career,” and “…was also a promoter of Romanticism.”11 While praised by many today as a thoroughly biblical thinker, “Kuyper…promoted…a form of Idealism which was heavily indebted to modern German philosophy, particularly Kant and Hegel.”12 In our own day, Kuyper’s Hegel-influenced thinking can be seen in his successors’
…insistence that Christianity has its own unique philosophical system, based upon a rejection of natural philosophy (ie. “Greek” thought) in favor of a positively “Biblical” one, and a prioritization of epistemology and its accompanying subjectivist elements: worldviews, paradigms, and values.13
Rather than being deeply rooted in the Reformed tradition, Kuyper’s “philosophy was actually a species of the larger German thought of the 19th century.”14
This is likely due to the widespread and profound influence Hegel’s philosophy had on many Reformed theologians in the 19th century. As J.V. Fesko explains —
..Hegel influenced a generation of theologians and historians to believe that they were living in the period of the kingdom of the Spirit. Combined with scientific developments, such as Darwin’s theory of evolution, nineteenth-century people believed they were riding the crest of the wave of progress. Even Kuyper, for example, contended that Calvinism was the highest evolutionary form of Christianity.15
Harry Van Dyke further notes that counter-enlightenment philosophy in general, and Hegel’s philosophy in particular, likewise influenced Kuyper’s understanding of politics. In line with these thinkers, therefore, we see that Kuyper, too, rejected individualism, and favored a form of communitarianism in its place. Van Dyke writes —
…Kuyper…was a nineteenth-century thinker accustomed to thinking in the paradigm of organisms. According to this paradigm, created reality, including human society, is a vibrant unity, a living whole. …He emphasized that society is organically interwoven, creating an intricate fabric in which the various elements, while retaining their distinctiveness, are linked by a thousand threads. When that fabric is respected, things go well; when ignored, individual ambition and anti-social behavior take over. The blame for these evils he laid squarely at the foot of modernity — at the atomism and conventionalism of the Ages of Reason and Enlightenment.16
Kuyper reiterated the counter-enlightenment notion that the individual subject emerged from, depended upon, and was inextrciably and necessarily morally bound to the whole organism of society for the sake of its “common good.” As Mariëtta Van Der Tol explains, “Kuyper certainly did not applaud liberal individualism; he rather wanted individuals to participate and contribute to society for the benefit of the family, the tradition, and the nation as a whole.”17 Philosophically, therefore, it is clear that Kuyper rejected the basic ideas undergirding what is now known as “classical liberalism.”
Yet while he was heavily indebted to the counter-enlightenment philosophers, he also based his thinking on the teaching of various thinkers in the broad “Christian” tradition. One of his greatest Christian influences was Guillaume Groen Van Prinsterer, a man who, like Kuyper, also opposed individualism and capitalism, and viewed them as corrosive to the very fabric of society. Van Prinsterer’s political thinking, as Dirk Jellema notes, bears an uncanny resemblance to that of Marx and Engels, his contemporaries. In his article “Abraham Kuyper’s Attack on Liberalism,” Jellema “compare[s] [Van Prinsterer] in 1850 (cited by Kuyper…) and The Communist Manifesto”,18 demonstrating how closely aligned their thinking is —
Groen: “It is this freedom, this unchecked competition, this removal as much as possible of the natural relationship of foreman and workman, which is tearing away the social bonds; it is this which ends in the tyranny of the rich and the rule of the bankers.”
The Communist Manifesto: “The bourgeoisie, whenever it got the upper hand, put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations, pitilessly tore asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’ and left remaining no other bond between man and man than naked self interest and callous cash payment.”19
Troublingly, beyond their shared criticism of individualism and capitalism, Van Prinsterer and the Marxists viewed the history of man as one marked by political revolutions that would continue until their respective utopias were reached (the former by Christ’s establishment of his kingdom on earth, the latter by means of the violent over throw of the bourgeoisie by the proletariats).
As Van Dyke notes, Van Prinsterer believed that men are “living in a condition of permanent revolution,” revolutions which “will grow much worse in scope and intensity unless men can be persuaded to return to Christianity, to practise its precepts and to obey the Gospel in its full implications for human life and civilized society.”20 This view of man’s history mirrors the notion of “permanent revolution” found in Marx, which Leon Trotsky defines as
…a revolution which makes no compromise with any single form of class rule, which does not stop at the democratic stage, which goes over to socialist measures and to war against reaction from without; that is, a revolution whose every successive stage is rooted in the preceding one and which can end only in complete liquidation.21
Given that Van Prinsterer’s thinking in these regards is nearly identical to that of Hegel, Marx, and Engels, and given that some of Van Prinsterer’s key ideas find their way into Kuyper’s thinking, it is not surprising that Kuyper’s admirers would not immediately pick up on his use of counter-enlightenment philosophy in general, and Hegel in particular. It is also not surprising that Kuyper admirers would also fail to identify the Hegelian roots of Trueman’s criticism of modernity, individualism, and capitalism.
Additionally, among other “Christians” with whom Kuyper is in agreement, we find Pope Leo XIII., whose encyclical Rerum Novarum shows the degree to which the two thinkers’ ideas overlapped. As Adam J. MacLeod explains, Kuyper and Leo shared a “common anthropology.” Indeed, their
…criticisms of both atomistic individualism and collectivist socialism turn on the Christian vision of the human person created in God’s image for communion with him and community with one another. …Kuyper and Leo perceived the same truths, though they expressed those truths in different languages and for different subsets of the Christian community, and sometimes emphasized different aspects of the vision.22
Their “common anthropology” was that of Thomas Aquinas who, like Hegel, believed that man is brought into existence through, sustained by, and lives for the community in order to achieve the “common good.” Kuyper and Leo’s criticism of individualism and capitalism23 were based on the deduced belief that “untethering individuals from their natural associations and familial bonds leaves only the individual and the state, which… ‘serves as the nexus of identity and the enforcer of social progress.’”24
On the surface, combining elements of Hegelianism and Thomism into a “Christian” philosophy might seem impossible, considering the antipathy that existed between Hegel and the Roman Catholic church. What needs to be remembered, however, is that it was for his Idealist philosophical and cultural religious reasons that Hegel was not a Roman Catholic.25 Hegel’s opposition was not religious or biblical, but based on what he perceived to be incommensurable philosophical differences between his philosophy and Roman Catholicism. That he was wrong about this is evident from the degree to which Kuyper finds Roman Catholic social teaching to be in accord with his own. And while Kuyper’s synthesis of Hegelian and Thomist ideas seemed more pragmatic than systematic, later in history French Left Catholic philosophers such as Jacques Maritain would blend the two in a more efficient manner.26 The combination of these two philosophical systems would result in the school of thought called Personalism, later to be accepted and promoted by Pope John Paul II27, a personalist who published the encyclical Centesiums Annus, which commemorates, reiterates, and reapplies the teaching found in Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum.
The interconnectedness of these thinkers is substantial and undeniable. This explains why it is that so many Christians have not seen, or have not been able to see a problem with, the considerable amount of overlap that exists between the identitarians on the left and the conservative Christians on the right who have begun to oppose them. For instance, the Christian Nationalists to whom we will next turn our attention.
1 Diaz III, Hiram R. “You Can’t Fight Hegel With Hegel”, Sovereign Nations, April 26, 2023, https://sovereignnations.com/2023/04/26/cant-fight-hegel-with-hegel/.
2 See Diaz III, Hiram R. “The Modern” or “Modernist” Self? Examining “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self” [Pt.1]”, Logia, April 4, 2022, https://logia.substack.com/p/the-modern-or-modernist-self.
3 For example, see: “Carl Trueman’s Cultural Tour de Force”, National Catholic Register; “The story of the rise, triumph, and nightmare of the modern self”, The Catholic World Report;
4 For example, see: “Carl Trueman Explains Liquid Modernity”, The American Conservative.
5 For example, see: “In Anticipation for Volume Two: A Review of Carl R. Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self”, The Other Journal; “‘The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self,’ with Dr. Carl R. Trueman”, Mere Orthodoxy.
6 For example, see: “Book of the Month/May 2021”, Blog & Mablog; “Christian Nationalism: A Baptist Heritage of Public & Political Theology”, The Sword and The Trowel Podcast; “A Review of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self”, The Master’s Seminary Blog; “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Book Review)”, The Council on Biblical Mahood and Womanhood.
7 Hegel and Greek Thought, (New York: Harper, 1941),59. (emphasis added)
8 Hegel’s Critique of Modernity: Reconciling Individual Freedom and the Community, (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2009), 13.
9 Hegel and Greek Thought, 92-93. (emphasis added)
10 Trueman actually makes this connection himself elsewhere. For instance, see: Trueman, Carl R.“The Importance of Being Earnest: Approaching Theological Study,” in Themelios 26.1 (Autumn 2000), 34-47, and “Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light,” in Westminster Theological Journal 70, (2008), 1-18.
11 “Kuyper and the German Philosophy”, The Calvinist International, Dec. 26, 2013, https://calvinistinternational.com/2013/12/26/kuyper-german-philosophy/. (emphasis added)
12 ibid. (emphasis added)
13 ibid. (emphasis added)
14 ibid. (emphasis added)
15 The Spirit of the Age: The Nineteenth-Century Debate over the Holy Spirit and the Westminster Confession, (Grand Rapids: Reformed Heritage Books, 2017), Kindle loc. 648-655. (emphasis added)
16 “Kuyper’s Early Critique of Unchecked Capitalism”, in Philosophia Reformata, 78 (2013), 119. (emphasis added)
17 “Raising the Ante”, Comment Magazine, Sept 1, 2016, https://comment.org/raising-the-ante/. (emphasis added)
18 Jellema, Dirk. “Abraham Kuyper’s Attack on Liberalism”, in The Review of Politics, Vol. 19, No. 4 (1957), ftnt.2.
20 “Guillaume Groen Van Prinsterer”, Art & Popular Culture, http://www.artandpopularculture.com/Guillaume_Groen_van_Prinsterer.
21 For more on the permanent revolution, see “The Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects”, Marxist Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/tpr/index.htm.
22 “Kuyper and Pope Leo as Christian Thinkers”, Public Discourse, May 12, 2017, https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2017/05/19247/. (emphasis added)
23 For more on the similarities between Kuyperianism, Socialism, and Roman Catholic social teaching, see Hegnsetmengel, Joost. “The Amateur Economist: Abraham Kuyper and Economics”, in Journal of Economics, Theology and Religion, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2021), 137-158. [https://j-etr.org/2021/06/15/the-amateur-economist-abraham-kuyper-and-economics/]
24 Kuyper and Leo as Christian Thinkers. (emphasis added)
25 See Stepelevich, Lawrence S. “Hegel and Roman Catholicism”, in Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 60.4, (1992), 673-691.
26 See Hellman, John. “The Opening to the Left in French Catholicism: The Role of the Personalists”, in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 34, No. 3 (1973), 381-390.
27 See Bayer, Richard C. “The Personalism of John Paul II”, Acton Institute, July 20, 2010, https://www.acton.org/personalism-john-paul-ii.