Heidegger and Christianity
By John Macquarrie.
Continuum 144 pages, $19.95


Of the seven lectures (each of which comprises a separate chapter in the text), the first is biographical, covering Heidegger’s career and early attempts at philosophical interpretation. The next two analyze Being and Time , each referring to one of the two main sections of Heidegger’s magnum opus. Three chapters then follow that cover themes from Heidegger’s more mature period, such as the threat of technology, the truth of art, and the revelatory powers of thought and language. And thus, despite the title of the book, only the seventh chapter is devoted specifically to Heidegger’s religious position (or lack thereof). It is here that Macquarrie the theologian shows his real strength. He sets his analysis amidst a discussion of Heidegger’s final acts of public communication. It was in this period that Heidegger uttered the famous phrase, so characteristically full of ambiguity, that became a kind of epithet after his death in 1976, “Only a god can save us.”

Macquarrie has added to the public lectures a final chapter in which he tries to “tie up some loose ends.” And it is probably this last that readers with a penchant for closet-skeletons will be tempted to turn to first, for it is only here that Macquarrie touches on the question that has plagued Heidegger scholarship ever since the 1987 publication of Victor Farias’ Heidegger et le nazisme . This is not to say that Farias was the first to raise the issue of Heidegger’s relation to and brief membership in the Nazi party. Heidegger’s friend and colleague Karl Jaspers had published ten years prior his own rather detracting account. But since 1987 questioning the extent to which National Socialism entered into Heidegger’s equations has been de rigueur among those wishing to treat him with any sort of seriousness. If held up to the present standard of criticism, Macquarrie disappoints. His handling of this thorny issue is cursory and dismissive and in my opinion all-too-defensive. But more on this below.

Although the seven chapters, generated initially as separate lectures, are relatively self-contained, they each refer in their own way to a single question that unifies the whole. It is in fact the same question that underlines the entire Heideggerian corpus (now over 100 volumes): “What is Being?” Or, to put it in Heidegger’s own terms and thus more darkly, “What kind of ‘thing’ is the is-ness of things?”

A strange question this, for is not Being, though underscoring every genus, a genus-less “entity” and therefore indefinable? And, moreover, is not the meaning of Being for reasons of its absolute ubiquity so self-evident as to be beyond articulation? Yes, yes, yes . . . but Heidegger is a strange man who is most at home among strange, impossible questions.

He points out, following Aquinas, that an understanding of Being is always already included in everything we apprehend. This is an insight that had been grasped by Parmenides when he speculated, half a century before Plato, that Being and thinking were the same, that human thought cannot fail to be a thinking of Being, can only think what can exist. But ever since Plato’s logocentric determination of the Being of beings, the Question of Being has been “forgotten” in favor of more rigorous, scientific modes of description. And the questioning of Being is far from scientific. Heidegger calls the search for the meaning of Being a “project”-by which he means that the human mind constantly projects its own meaning, possibilities, and expectations onto the nature of existence. Hence if any meaning is to be made of Being at all, one must go back, way back, behind centuries of projectional forgetfulness to recover the essential Parmenidean insight-an insight Heidegger contends is basic to human nature. On the strength of that insight we must posit human nature afresh, and this time be sure to posit it authentically.

Like Edmund Husserl before him, Heidegger makes human nature ( Dasein ) his methodological starting-point. For amid all the beings that together constitute the existing aggregate of things, there is one being that is ontologically privileged: the human. And the advantage consists precisely in the fact that humans alone experience existence as problematic, as angst-ridden in the span between an unwilled birth and an inevitable death. Only humans can rise to question Being, can endeavour to “think Being” and then voice what is thought.

But human being qua Dasein is literally a “being-there” ( Da = “there,” Sein = “being”), with the Da signifying the already interpreted world into which humans are “thrown.” The essence of human nature, proclaims Heidegger in a phrase later exploited by Sartre, is always a product of existence, of being-in-the-world, which is to say the public world of societal norms and rituals. This “publicness,” this “being-with-one-another,” may be essential to the societal fabric, but it has devastating consequences for human nature as such. For in our “thrownness” into the groupthink of society we come to exist not on our own terms but on those of what Heidegger calls das Man (German for the generic subject)-the “they” whose beliefs and behaviors make up the “average everydayness” of human existence. Most of us prefer and thus naturally “fall” into this tempered mode of existence, are happy not to think for ourselves but to follow instead the routines and fashions of those around us.

If this is the Heideggerian diagnostic, what then is his proposed therapy? As Macquarrie lays it out, it is straightforward: salvation consists in the fundamental realization that “truth” exists not in the people and institutions among which we are thrown, but is in us as beings who question and think the nature of Being. For Heidegger, famously, truth is aletheia, the Greek a-privative signifying the “un-” as in “un-coveredness” or “un-concealment,” meaning that truth is an “event” which happens-in Macquarrie’s words-”when something is presented to us as it really is, without any concealment or distortion.” The accent rides on the “to us,” meaning that “the locus of truth is not the proposition, but Dasein, who is . . . the clearing within which Being presents itself.” Truth is thus not the correspondence of propositions to what is the case, as it has been traditionally conceived, but is inextricably linked to human existence as a whole. “Before there was human existence,” writes Heidegger, “there was no truth.”

But not just any Dasein proves facile enough to clear space for truth’s disclosure. It must be an authentic expression of human being, of human being in its freedom from das Man. In Heidegger’s phrasing, “to forego normal choice and to adopt those offered me by the world or other people” is the essence of “inauthenticity.” Inauthentic Dasein is most at home in the world of publicness-the world of rules, rituals, and conventions that disburdens existence of its personal responsibility for choice. In such a world, “everyone is the other and no one himself.”

How then must we act to recover the authentic self we have lost by living in the world of the other? The therapy is simple: We must turn from living by the other’s rules and habits and project a world of particular significance to ourselves. We must insist upon our right to be creative and free in our questioning and articulating of Being. True selves are such creative projections, existentially modifying the world into which they find they have been thrown. True Heideggerian selves emerge in their authenticity only on the basis of the continual possibility of recovering themselves from being lost in the world of things that are of no concern, and of creating worlds of meaning around those things that are.

Macquarrie describes this Heideggerian soteriology with such deft transparency that one finds oneself moving easily within the folds of his tacit agenda: namely, that the Heideggerian paradigm of original connection to Being, fallenness, and recovery through authentic choice plays well into the hands of theologians looking for an up-to-date vocabulary with which to clothe their dogmas. To this end Macquarrie suggests connections between Heidegger’s doctrine of truth and the Gospel of John, “inauthenticity” and original sin, and “authenticity” and a doctrine of grace.

This is not a critique: Macquarrie is free to do what he wants with Heidegger, just as Tillich, Rahner, and Bultmann had done before him with highly original results. But it is to issue a caveat: we may not be getting the full Heidegger, the Heidegger who was rejected by both the Jesuits and his local bishop when he sought orders-who abandoned the faith of his birth for Protestantism, then abandoned faith altogether for Nietzsche, Holderlin, and the Greek gods. Macquarrie does expose the more atheistic inferences one is likely to draw from Heidegger’s attempt to question Being, and especially highlights the famed Heideggerian identity-against most orthodox formulas-of Being with time. But he does not stress enough the fact that Heidegger wished throughout his corpus to discourage any sort of transcendental interpretation. His teachings on Being, on fallenness and authenticity, on being-towards-death and freedom, are forms of post-theological discourse following on modernity’s eclipse of God. There is a theological legacy here, to be sure, but Heidegger’s world is strictly extra-theological and should not be treated otherwise. For Heidegger, as for Nietzsche before him, God is dead, or at least mortally wounded. It is the task then of “fundamental ontology” to find a suitable replacement.

With what then did Heidegger replace God in the wake of God’s departure? Art, for one thing. Macquarrie’s commentary on Heidegger’s seminal essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1950), is one of the clearest discussions I have read on the work that marks the break between Heidegger’s early and later periods. The famed Heideggerian Kehre or “turning” is more the product of scholarship than reality, but following 1945, the year the Americans imposed a half-decade teaching ban on Heidegger, there is a distinct change in both style and emphasis. One hears less and less of Dasein and more and more of Being. Being is the answer that is implied in the essay’s title: Whence comes art? In the work of art, asserts Heidegger, the truth of Being “sets itself to work”; through the skilled hands of the artist, through the material causes of pigment, clay, and marble, through the ecstatic observance of art’s appreciators, Being “gives itself,” makes itself known, dwells among us in all its grace and truth.

In a celebrated passage that Macquarrie cites at length, Heidegger details his impression of Van Gogh’s painting of a pair of peasant shoes. It illustrates well what Heidegger means when he says that a work of art “draws out into the open . . . the manifold reference of the thing it portrays”:

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind . . . . [The shoes] are pervaded by uncomplaining worry as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death.

Heidegger is here thinking deeply into the nature of what is presented in Van Gogh’s painting, thinking to experience the deep inner quiddity, the “existential inscape” of a simple pair of shoes. But this more active element in interpretation only follows on the initiative taken by the painting itself. As Heidegger expresses it, “the painting speaks.” “If there occurs in the work of art a disclosure of a particular being, disclosing what and how it is, then there is here an occurring, a happening of truth at work.” What Heidegger seems to suggest, comments Macquarrie, is that the discovery of truth is not just the result of human striving, does not involve ridding the psyche of all distorting influences so as to hear the truth plainly, but is an event “above and beyond our willing and doing” in which Being gives itself to be known. This is especially so in such a heightened mode of existence as art. “The essence of art,” writes Heidegger, “is this: the truth of beings setting itself to work.”

Macquarrie goes on to show that Heidegger considered poetry to have first place among the arts, and poets to be modern incarnations of Hermes, busily running messages between heaven and earth. If God has withdrawn from creation to some safer enclave, the poet boldly attempts “to grasp the Father’s lightening-flash / And to pass on, wrapped in song / The divine gift to the people” (Holderlin). We are all called to be poets, says Heidegger, not necessarily in the sense of producing literature but rather of “dwelling poetically on the earth.” While the major part of human existence is taken up with the routine affairs of work and family life, to be authentically human something more is needed. This “poetic dimension,” as Macquarrie calls it, is a state of mind in which things are seen in the light of their Being, much as Van Gogh portrayed, and Heidegger understood, an entire world of human involvements in a simple pair of farming boots. We are each of us called to “name the holy” for ourselves and thus create spaces for God’s return.

Macquarrie goes on-and I think rightly-to speculate just what sort of God might be expected to appear in the spaces we create with our poetic interpretations. Certainly not the God of orthodox Christianity. For if Being is in Heidegger’s description a kind of ersatz divine principle-a debatable premise it must be said-and if Being, as noted above, is in some sense temporal, then this implies that God is also bound to time, to change, to the enigmatic whims of destiny. The Heideggerian God, if there is such a thing, is the result of a continual event of appropriation that itself reflects the evolution of human understanding. As human thought comes to comprehend the world with greater depth and sense of connectedness, so God becomes more. “God,” wrote Rilke in similar tones, “is the final fruit of a tree whose leaves we are . . . . As bees collect honey, so we take what is sweetest out of everything and build Him.” If Heidegger’s project was never intended to build a conception of God, and certainly it was not, it at least establishes the philosophical justification for thinking that we, as authentic human beings, have at our disposal the means by which to do so. Apropos to Macquarrie’s argument is his use of John Taylor’s famous maxim to say that Heidegger’s God “is not a God of all certainty but a God of all hope.”

Still, if one brackets the nonetheless important question as to where, if anywhere, Heidegger’s substitute divinity resides in the registers of historical religion, there remains the perhaps more urgent query about the relation of his system to those ethical decisions that his-and our-time demands. In his “loose ends” chapter Macquarrie addresses the role the rise of National Socialism played in Heidegger’s thought and, as I have said, treats it all too cursorily. It is true that in May of 1933 Heidegger joined the Nazi Party upon his appointment to the Rectorship of Freiburg University, succeeding a vehemently anti-Nazi colleague. It is true that his speeches during that period, though expressing support for the regime, contain nothing explicitly anti-Semitic. But it is not true to imply, as Macquarrie does, that Heidegger was neither aware of nor favored the more extreme policies of Nazism. In fact, evidence from the recently published Heidegger-Jaspers Briefwechsel suggests just the opposite. What is more, it appears from this evidence, as certain scholars have been suggesting all along, that it is the philosophy as well as the man that is to blame.

It is beyond the scope of this review to pursue the connections between Heidegger’s philosophy of Being and his ardent if brief flirtation with National Socialism. I wish only to state that despite Macquarrie’s fine presentation of the major themes in Heidegger’s work, and despite his often engaging if not always successful argument that those themes “can be interpreted in a way that is compatible with Christian faith,” there remains the nagging question whether a God who is thrown into the rough mix of human destiny is enough to prevent us from repeating the horrors of the Holocaust and Hiroshima. “Whether God is God,” writes Heidegger, “is determined from and within the constellation of Being.” But when the constellation of Being, one wants to ask, twists and turns into shapes too wicked to countenance, to what resource is one able to turn for aid if not to a Source who is in some sense beyond all twisting and turning?

Thomas K. Carr is Junior Dean of Oriel College, Oxford, and is presently an Adjunct Lecturer in Philosophy and Theology at Westminster College, Oxford.