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A good book on Heidegger

November 17, 2010 5 comments

The scholarly reception of Heidegger’s work is enormous.  A quick look at shelves dedicated to him in a research library will reveal dozens upon dozens of monographs concerning: Heidegger and phenomenology, Heidegger and Nazism, Heidegger and aesthetics, Heidegger and Nietzsche, Heidegger and Asian philosophy, Heidegger and God, etc.  The formula “Heidegger and X,” where X is anything under the sun, does not always correspond to the title of a work, but more often than not it does shape its content.  “Heidegger studies” is not only a niche market, it is a market of niches. 

Amid the overwhelming sway of publications, the amount of one’s own being and time which might be devoted to figuring out what is really going on with Heidegger can begin to feel daunting.  And yet, for those interested in thinking through the implications of contemporary philosophy in a non-analytical vein–and this includes theologians who feel a need to situate their reflections on faith within the challenges and opportunities opened up by the critiques of modern metaphysics or modern subjectivity–Heidegger cannot be bypassed.  His influence is just too great.   

As some of my other posts may suggest, I’ve been trying–and trying for awhile–to decide what to think about Heidegger.  Let’s just say my reactions remain ambivalent.   But if I could recommend one piece of secondary literature to read, for those interested in getting a sweeping but nuanced sense of the twists and turns of Heidegger’s thought, I have found none better than Bret W. Davis’ recent Heidegger and the Will: On the Way to Gelassenheit (Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP, 2007). 

One could easily see this book on the shelf and pass it by with an air of exasperation: “Another niche book on Heidegger!”  But, in this case, the particular thematic of the will actually provides a backbone for a deeply researched, thoughtful, and amazingly readable narration of Heidegger’s corpus as a whole.  As it turns out, the question of the will figures centrally in all of Heidegger’s major works.  His various formulations, appropriations, and critiques of the will reveal a great deal about what is at stake in different moments of his thought.  This idea had not occurred to me before, but Davis’ text has convinced me that the question of the will–from its radical promotion in the ominous Rectoral Address to its renunciation in the letting-be of Ereignis–provides an important perspective from which to consider the relevance of Heidegger for today.        

In short, for whatever it’s worth, I think this is a really helpful book.  It may help to keep you afloat on the sea of Heidegger-related scholarship.

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Lacoste on care and restlessness: or, the irreducible difference between phenomenology and theology

September 7, 2010 4 comments

Jean-Yves Lacoste draws an analogy in several of his works–including both Note sur le temps and Experience and the Absolute–between Heideggerian “care” and Augustinian “restlessness.”  The analogy identifies a similarity located within a greater dissimilarity.  On the one hand, both care and restlessness express the unavoidable unease that comes with living in a temporal world of transience and death (the similarity).  On the other hand, Heidegger’s concept of care presupposes that the meaning of being which is manifest in the structures of human experience is definitive, whereas Augustine’s account of restlessness aims at an ultimate horizon of divine freedom which subverts the hold of any supposedely manifest finality in the here-and-now (the greater dissimilarity). 

This analogy might help to explain the attraction which Christian thinkers have had to Heidegger’s philosophy and other similarly rich descriptions of human-being-in-the-world which have emerged from the phenomenological tradition.  For there is a common concern to acquire a more nuanced understanding of what might loosely be called the “human condition.”  And yet, the analogy also demonstrates why these dialogues, these relationships, will always be strained.  Ultimately, the relation between theology and phenomenology is more dissimilar than it is similar.  The address to God, the hope in God, the existence lived before God–these primary theological practices have their final significance in things not-yet seen, in realities beyond manifestation, in a future without the apparent definitiveness of death.  Theology’s concern are just different. 

I realize that this point may be obvious to some, perhaps to most.  But it is something which occurred to me with a sense of refreshing newness today.

Univocity of being–a cliche?

August 22, 2010 1 comment

For those who have taken to heart the works of Jean-Luc Marion–or Martin Heidegger, for that matter–it goes without saying that the history of the concept of being, particularly of the univocal concept of being which begins to gain prominence after Scotus, has been detrimental to theology.  I do not dispute this claim.  But I do wonder to what extent it has, over the years, become a cliche.  At least, it strikes me that more time could be spent thinking about why this claim might be true than simply reiterating it as something obvious. 

It bears remembering, for instance, that for Scotus and Suarez, to say that being is, at least in one respect, univocal is not to imply that God and creatures are the same.  God’s being is infinite, simple, absolute, necessary; ours is finite, composite, relative, contingent.  But the fact that we use the word “being” in each case suggests that something unites these radically dissimilar . . . . what can one even call them?–realities?  beings?–language breaks down here.  But in order to go on speaking, a provision will have to be made, and the concept of being could be read precisely as such a provision. 

But if God and creatures are not the same, then has not God been reduced to an element within a larger horizon, and thereby dethroned?  This objection would also be hard to sustain for Scotus and Suarez, insofar as God is nothing other than the simple fullness of being, upon which all other beings depend.  The same question, moreover, could be repeated with respect to any alternative name that is used theologically: e.g., love, beauty, goodness, grace, holiness, power.  Any divine name comes with the risk of subordinating God to a concept, but this is certainly not Scotus’ or Suarez’s intention, even though they have recourse to concepts. 

Is the problem, then, that scholastic writing in general is not overtly prayerful?  Is it that scholastic theology is divorced from spirituality?  Perhaps.  And yet, how can we be sure that the appearance of such a divorce does not stem from a failure of interpretation on our part?  After all, Suarez was a devout Jesuit; Scotus was a faithful Franciscan.  Arguably, their religiously vowed lives indicate the influence of an admirable spiritual practice.  Who is to say that their theological systems did not emerge out of  daily participation in the liturgy of the hours or (at least in Suarez’s case) the practice of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius? 

I, myself, have a preference for speaking of being in more explicitly analogical terms, because I think that this preserves the God-creature difference more effectively.  And yet, I cannot help but wonder whether a relatively uninformed prejudice has started to inform our assessment of the great representatives of scholasticism.

What’s in a rose?

April 30, 2010 3 comments

In contemporary culture, we often give flowers as gifts.  On my better days, a thought may cross my mind: “Maybe I should pick up some flowers for my wife, perhaps some roses, to recall our wedding day.  She’d like that.”  And on my really good days I listen to this prompting of the Spirit.  But lately I’ve been wondering, what is the theological meaning of the flower or the rose?  What does it say, finally, about who we are before God?       

Consider, if you will, two rather floral theological passages.  The first is from Origen’s treatise On Prayer: “‘All flesh is grass’; and its glory, which is shown in the so-called beauty of women and boys, is compared to a flower according to the prophetic word [of Isaiah]: ‘All flesh is grass, and all its glory like a flower of grass.  The grass has withered, and the flower has fallen; but the Word of the Lord stands forever” (XVII.2). 

The second is from Angelus Silesius’ much-discussed mystic poem, Without Why: “The rose is without why; it blooms because it blooms; it cares not for itself; asks not if it’s seen.”

The flower, in Origen’s reading of Isaiah, is a figure of the ephemeral quality of earthly glory, a symbol of decay, of  nothingness.  It is only a pale and evanescent shadow of true divine beauty.  In Angelus, the rose comes forth as a nonchalant and yet wondrous appearance, which refuses rational or utilitarian explanation.  Angelus’ blooming bloom is retrieved by Heidegger as an icon of his theory of truth as disclosure, of his sense of being as phenomenal (see John Caputo’s study, The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought, pp. 60ff).  I’m not totally sure what to make of these diverse reflections.  But I will say that, in each case, a flower is never merely a flower.  It unfurls the truth of our condition, as delicately posed between being and nothingness, or as a vulnerable flourishing which impossibly embraces both. 

To challenge Origen a bit, one might suggest that the creaturely conversion to divine beauty cannot forget the rose which passes away, the life which lives in the shadows of being.  God loves the flowers of the field, and not only the immaterial soul (if there is such a thing).  What would heaven be without a single rose?  But in response to Heidegger’s reading of Angelus, one might inquire whether another forgetting of being  may be discerned here, of being in its permanence, in its eternal logos, for the “Word of the Lord stands forever” (Isaiah 40:6).  There is something, then, to Origen’s contrast, which distinguishes the beauty of being more carefully from nothingness, but also something to a discipline of thinking which locates beauty precisely in its fragile and fleeting occurrences.

To give a flower is nothing, or almost nothing, and yet in another sense it’s everything, all that there is to give.

Who is Bernhard Welte?

April 19, 2010 3 comments

His is not a name you hear often in the English-speaking academy.  And yet, Bernhard Welte was a fairly prominent philosopher and theologian living in Germany during the second-half of the twentieth century, who has been the focus of several book-length studies elsewhere.  Anthony Godzieba’s Bernhard Welte’s Fundamental Theological Approach to Christology. New York: Peter Lang, 1994 is the notable exception to this non-Anglophone rule.   

The main reason for this neglect is that most of Welte’s work remains untranslated.  His collected writings have only recently appeared in German (Herder, 2006).  But two of the pieces which do exist in English–“God in Heidegger’s Thought.” Philosophy Today 26.1 (Spring 1982): 85-100 and “Search and Find: An Address on the Occasion of Martin Heidegger’s Funeral.” Universitas 19 (1977): 301–may give you a sense of his potential significance. 

In short, as Bernhard Casper (the editor of much of Welte’s work) suggests in the introduction to Briefe und Begegnungen (Klett-Gotta, 2003), Welte may be one of the key sources for understanding the religious implications of Heidegger’s philosophy in the future.  This seems plausible not only because Heidegger himself has acknowledged that Welte was a faithful interpreter of his thought but also because Heidegger entrusted Welte with the task of saying a few words at his own Christian (!) burial.  Thus, the thinker of the “being-toward-death” resolutely selected Welte to mark the occasion of his “ownmost possibility.”  The philosopher who in later work turned to language as the “house of Being” invited Welte’s words to shelter his own being-laid-to-rest. 

Welte reads Heidgger piously–as a religious seeker, as a reverent person who gave utmost respect to the “high God” and who obeyed with great rigor the biblical prohibition of idolatry.  And this is what makes Heidegger’s evident endorsement of Welte so remarkable.  Is there more piety in Heidegger than his Nietzscheanism would lead one to suppose?  But even so, the question remains whether such a “religious” Heidegger has much to offer a Christian theological tradition with which he seemed quite disenchanted.  In sum, more work needs to be done to determine (1) whether Welte got Heidegger right and (2) what difference this makes.

Ways to be theologically Heideggerian (French edition)

February 6, 2010 5 comments

1. Jean-Luc Marion. The general strategy is to move from being to givenness.  First, construe Heidegger primarily as a thinker of being–more precisely, of the ontological difference as it has been concealed in the onto-theo-logical constitution of metaphysics. Second, accept this analysis but argue that it does not apply to crucial figures in the theological tradition (Dionysius, Bonaventure, Aquinas, et al).  Third, posit a more extensive horizon of givenness (phenomenologically) or grace (theologically), which exposes the conceptually idolatrous limits of Heideggerian thought and makes way for the icon.

2. Jean-Yves Lacoste. Basic approach: subvert world and earth with liturgy and the eschaton.  First, characterize Heidegger in terms of a dialectical tension between two horizons of experience: world (structured by the anxiety of being-toward-death) and earth (structured by dwelling natively in the Fourfold of gods, mortals, earth, and sky).  Second, define liturgy (or being-before-God) as an alternative mode of experience which symbolically subverts the play of world and earth while factically retaining them.  Third, present liturgy as a form of eschatological anticipation which abolishes Heidegger’s equation of the definitive with the initial/originary.

3. Jean-Louis Chretien. In short: take Heidegger’s ideas of language as response to the call of being, as the house of being, and as poetic, and transpose them into a prayerful key.  First, make explicit the religious traditions (Hebrew, Greek, patristic, and medieval) undergirding Heidegger’s theme of the call: it is not just being but God who resounds in language, which is always already a response.  Second, replace the image of a house with that of an ark: the home which speech gives to creatures is a vessel in transit toward God.  Finally, think of hymn as the telos of poetry: the point is not just to disclose being in its truth but to sing the whole of creation to the glory of God.

4. Louis-Marie Chauvet. Identify a homologous relationship between Heidegger’s philosophy and Christian sacramental theology, in which the attitude is similar but the object is different.  First, use Heidegger to define metaphysics as a problem affecting humans in general–a problem in which one attempts to grasp presence objectively without acknowledging its inevitable historical, cultural, textual, and bodily arrival, and the absence which this implies.  (It may help to relate Heidegger’s account of metaphysics to a psychoanalytic  theory in which the desire for presence without absence is expressed in terms of a neurotic attachment to the Thing and a refusal to mourn the loss of immanence.)  Second, argue that Christian theology addresses the problem of metaphysics by attending to the fundamental sacramentality of the faith (i.e., its ritual mediation, which is historical, cultural, etc.).  Finally, clarify that the presence/absence which the sacraments mediate is not only of being but of God through Christ in the Holy Spirit, and received by the celebrating church.