It has been a good year for Heidegger scholarship. Two new English translations released this summer provide readers unprecedented access to seminal periods of Heidegger’s philosophical development. Andrew J. Mitchell’s translation of the Bremen and Freiburg Lectures: Insight Into That Which Is and Basic Principles of Thinking includes key selections from Heidegger’s later, postwar period, while Richard Rojcewicz and Daniela Vallega-Neu’s Contributions to Philosophy (Of The Event) offers personal notes and journal entries dating from the years after Being and Time and leading up to the Second World War. Both editions are excellent new renderings of previously published works and represent major contributions to the field.
Yet not everyone will be celebrating. Heidegger’s reputation has suffered in recent years, with several prominent voices calling for a ban on his works from libraries and universities. Emmanuel Faye argued in a 2009 book that Heidegger not only fully understood the terrors of National Socialism during his active endorsement of the fledgling regime, but that his philosophy is indelibly marred by Nazi ideology. In his review of Faye’s book for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Carlin Romano asked, “How many scholarly stakes in the heart will we need before Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), still regarded by some as Germany’s greatest 20th-century philosopher, reaches his final resting place as a prolific, provincial Nazi hack?”
Given the debate over Heidegger’s philosophical and ethical legacy it may seem excessively generous to suggest that his work holds interest for Christian theologians. Even those defending his intellectual status admit that Heidegger acted despicably in betraying his Jewish students and colleagues during the purge of the German university system by the National Socialists. Why, in view of his personal failings, argue for a theologically relevant Heidegger?
Even during the troubling episodes of the thirties and forties and amid mounting evidence of his hostility toward Christianity, Heidegger’s work drew intense interest from many renowned theologians. John D. Caputo writes that, “Ironically, and in testimony to the power of Heidegger’s thought as opposed to the smallness and perversity of the man, Heidegger was to exert enormous influence on Catholic theology precisely during this time.” Karl Rahner, Gustav Siewerth, and Johannes Lotz all attended Heidegger’s lectures during the thirties, Caputo notes, and Protestant thinkers Rudolph Bultmann and Paul Tillich both drew heavily from Heidegger’s Being and Time, published in 1927.
The most sensitive treatment of Heidegger by any theologian of the day came from Heinrich Ott, a student of Karl Barth, who saw in Heidegger’s postwar output profound implications for theology and worked to systematically clarify the relationship in a series of publications culminating in a collection entitled The Later Heidegger and Theology. “The thinking of Martin Heidegger,” Ott wrote, “performs the inestimable service of teaching us to see in a more primal way the nature of thinking, of language, and thus of understanding.” In applying Heidegger’s analysis of language to theology, Ott would do more than anyone to show that the secular thinker supplies fruitful philosophical paradigms for examining the life of faith.
To develop his reading Ott relied heavily on Heidegger’s work after Being and Time, in which Heidegger largely abandoned the term Dasein in favor of a more obscure and mystically charged poetic idiom. Whereas before Heidegger seemed intent on unfolding an existential hermeneutic of Dasein, his later work considers humankind’s primordial relation to Being and language, a project Ott saw as providing an analogous exploration of the believer’s relation to God and the Gospel.
This turn in Heidegger’s thinking toward Being was fully evident by his 1947 essay Letter on Humanism, in which he recapitulated his critique of Western metaphysics while advancing new motifs that would recur throughout his later period. The historical development of Western philosophy, Heidegger wrote, can be best understood as the progression of metaphysics, a pernicious and impoverished conception of humankind’s place among nature that perpetuates forgetfulness of Being.
Rooted in the ancient philosophy of Plato and Aristotle and reaching potency in modern times with Descartes’ radically anthropocentric subjectivity, metaphysics, Heidegger argued, takes as its flawed departure point the assumption that humankind stands at the center of all beings. Because we understand ourselves to be privileged observers of the material world, he said, we erroneously define truth as a measure of correspondence between our inquiring minds and the reified phenomena around us. But this shortsighted formulation closes humankind off to what does not appear as a being, namely Being “itself.”
“The oblivion of Being,” Heidegger wrote in the Letter, “makes itself known indirectly through the fact that man always observes and handles only beings.” For Heidegger this tendency of humankind to incline towards beings reaches a zenith in the modern era’s obsession with scientific progress and with what he labels elsewhere “calculative thinking.” So long as humankind remains enamored of scientific efficacy, of the dazzling usefulness of calculative thinking in the fulfillment of technological ambition, it will remain, Heidegger claimed, “homeless,” alienated from its primordial relation to Being.
Against the dominance of calculative thinking in the age of technology Heidegger prescribed Gelassenheit, openness or attunement, that cues in thinking to the forgotten question of Being. For Heidegger this meant restoring our sensitivity to language and to poetry specifically, for it is in language, he argued, that Being first reveals itself to us. “Language,” he wrote, “is the clearing-concealing advent of Being itself.” We cannot seek the truth of Being under our own initiative as subjects reaching out to grasp objects, but instead must discern its “call” in language and respond poetically. The poet then, for Heidegger, is one who attunes herself to Being’s call and transcribes the experience into poetry, thus bearing witness to the encounter.
Ott understood the theological relevance of Heidegger’s analysis of language in terms of a correspondence between the relation of poetic thinking to Being and the significance of faith for the Gospel. Poetic reflection corresponds to faith, Ott suggested, in that both seek a more authentic orientation to what cannot be obtained through human reason alone. The American theologian James M. Robinson reports that Heidegger himself sanctioned this analogy in 1960, calling it an analogia proportionalitatis, a correspondence in the form of A is to B as C is to D. So rather than graft Christianity onto Heidegger’s philosophical project—or claim that Being and God are ontologically equivalent—Ott sought to draw out parallels between the two worldviews that emphasize the limitations of scientific thinking for authentic human comportment.
Theological thinking and poetic thinking, whose authentic subject matters are respectively the Christian gospel and the truth of Being, share a common enemy in the scientism of metaphysics, Ott argued, which overlooks the incorporeal essence of the Gospel and Being. Just as Heidegger’s poetic thinking would attune humankind to Being’s advent in language, so too should theological thinking attune the believer to the Gospel. While neither the Gospel nor Being are present to human subjects as beings, Ott noted, they nonetheless make a claim upon the believer or poet who, alert to the possibility of their self-disclosure, stands ready for the encounter. This readiness, in a theological context, is faith.
Ott offered scripture as an example. “The individual text,” he wrote, “and even connected texts such as the theology of Paul, of John, Matthew, Luke, Hebrews, etc., are as linguistic utterance not already the subject matter itself. Rather they point to the subject matter, witness to it, name it, reflect upon it, call upon it to become present.” What is essential to the Gospel is not exhaustively instantiated in the corporeality of the text, its paper, binding, or ink, Ott insisted. Rather, our experience of those material elements summons and evokes Christ’s work in us. As poetic thinking responds to and implicates Being, so too does the theological thinking of the faithful respond to and point toward Christ who overflows our capacity to locate him in creation.
In Heidegger’s idealization of the poet as one who responds authentically to Being’s call, Ott identified a philosophical interpretation of the relative importance of prayer. For Heidegger, the poet’s ontological awareness of Being provokes a poetic outpouring in recognition of the encounter. Prayer serves a similar function for believers, Ott claimed, in that it constitutes the faithful’s authentic response to an encounter with God. Given the parallels, Ott hoped that further reflection upon Heidegger’s poetic paradigm might advance theological understanding.
But even if the theological community accepts Ott’s contention that Heidegger’s work shares a structural correspondence with Christianity, it remains debatable whether they should promote his work or, like an increasing number of secular academics, suppress his legacy. If his philosophy evinces only a coincidental likeness to Christianity, theologians are perhaps better off distancing themselves from the disreputable thinker. If on the other hand central elements of his thought can be traced back in origin to a philosophical perspective sympathetic to Christianity, a case might be made that Heidegger, despite his failings, merits serious theological consideration. To ascertain the extent of Heidegger’s philosophical indebtedness to Christianity one must return to his conservative Catholic roots.
Heidegger spent much of his early academic career preparing to enter the priesthood, and up until his conversion to Protestantism at age thirty he claimed to be a Catholic professor dedicated to defending his orthodox beliefs in the pending culture wars. He wrote in 1915 that his priority was “making the intellectual riches stored up in Scholasticism available and usable for the spiritual battle of the future over the Christian-Catholic ideal of life.” Thomas Sheehan notes that only after losing the chair of Catholic philosophy at Freiburg University to another scholar and after suffering something like a personal crisis of faith did Heidegger begin to reconsider his religious commitment.
Heidegger distanced himself from Christianity in the late twenties, but it remains plausible that he never fully abandoned his Catholic mindset. John D. Caputo writes that by advancing an eschatological narrative of the “history of Being” in Being and Time, Heidegger was “clearly Hellenizing and secularizing a fundamentally biblical conception of the history of salvation.” Interwoven with his highly original interpretation of Greek and Middle Age mystical works runs a Christian ethos that is difficult to dismiss as purely coincidental. Caputo insists that “Heidegger was giving a reading of the early Greeks that it is impossible to believe was not the result of a transference of the categories of Christianity to early Greek texts.”
While it would be senseless to argue that Heidegger remained devoted to Christian principles throughout his career, it appears likely that his early study of theology informed his philosophical project and imbued it with an essentially Christian interpretation of divine intervention into human history. This indebtedness, so convincingly documented in Heinrich Ott’s detailed exposition of Heidegger’s later works, argues strongly for ongoing scrutiny of Heidegger’s philosophy by professional theologians. Rather than conflate the moral perversity of the man with his work, we should assess the merits of his scholarly achievements on their own terms and consider how Heidegger’s philosophical recasting of Christian themes bears on questions of faith in the age of technology. “Thus one can test from case to case,” Ott wrote, “the extent to which philosophy has perhaps discovered something that the theologian too can acknowledge as suitable and helpful and hence can appropriate.” While Ott’s high opinion is unlikely to redeem Heidegger’s reputation among all scholars, it serves as a reminder that even the most reprehensible of men may bear witness to eternal truth.
Aaron Closson holds an M.A. in Humanities and lives with his wife in Dallas, Texas. He blogs at www.thiswillhold.com.
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