Ideality, Divine Reality, and Realism

Idealistic theologies are oriented to the question of truth, realistic theologies are oriented to the question of reality, and I believe that theology is inherently idealistic, where the greater danger lies. I take for granted that my concepts do not correspond univocally to divine reality or any reality. Thus my starting point for thinking about divine reality is Augustine’s: Anything that one understands is not God.


“Theology is inherently idealistic,” Dorrien writes. “Every theology, to some degree, seeks deliverance from normal actuality and harm.” Freedom by Rafael Lopez (

But I do not spurn metaphysical audacity on that account, for faith is a form of daring. A religion that lacks religious daring, a sense of the Spirit of the whole, or the struggle for social justice does not interest me.

The great “I AM” of Exodus 3:14, God telling Moses, “I AM WHO I AM … tell the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me,’” is a sign of the identity of thought and being, the keynote of idealistic thought. All knowledge participates in divine self-knowledge. Reality is ultimately self-directed will, which has its primordial ground in God, and reason develops as the self-revelation of God. On the level of Spirit, subject and object are identical, each involving the other. A subject becomes a subject by the act of constructing itself objectively to itself. But a subject is not an object except for itself. Spirit realizes itself as a perpetual self-duplication of one power of life as subject and object, each presupposing the other despite contrasting with the other.

Idealistic theologies theorize this self-reflection of Spirit overcoming the dualism of subject and object. In subjective idealism, “the ideal” refers to spiritual or mental ideality: There is no reality without self-conscious subjectivity. There is nothing in matter that does not imply mind. Space is composed of relations, a meaningless notion without a mind that relates one thing to another and for which things are related—holding together both terms of a relation. Idealistic theologies, especially of the subjective type, reason that because matter is unintelligible without mind, matter must never have existed without mind. But since matter as a whole does not exist for our minds, which know only a tiny bit of the universe, there must be a divine mind that knows the whole.

By beginning with the only thing we know directly—our own experience, “I know myself”—we are led to the absolute “I AM.” The logic of subjective idealism, however, presses toward Berkeley’s denial of matter, or its objective idealistic flipside that everything is a manifestation of the ideal, an unfolding of reason.

Saint Augustine in His Study

“My starting point for thinking about divine reality is Augustine’s: anything that one understands is not God,” Dorrien writes. Saint Augustine in His Study by Sandro Botticelli (Creative Commons).

In objective idealism the ideal is normative, as it is in the theories of Plato, Leibniz, and a long line of neo-Platonist theologians: all reality conforms to the archetypes of an intelligible structure. Most of the Greek Orthodox and Anglican traditions of logos theology drew on the ideas of Plato, who constructed the world out of abstract universals, and Aristotle, who taught that the knower and the known come together in the thinker and the thinker’s thought.

Postmodernity and Hegelian Idealism

The apostles of postmodern anti-theology famously countered that logocentrism is the fatal disease of Western thought. Nietzsche said God is an enemy of freedom and subjectivity. Heidegger sought to liberate being from Western theism, which wrongly took being for God.
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