Abstract: Martin Heidegger denied that he was writing theology. Yet the language he uses clearly owes a great deal to the ‘mystical’ or ‘negative’ tradition of theology, a tradition which deconstructs itself even as it writes. By examining the recently published Contributions to Philosophy (on Enowning) this paper contends that Heidegger is the most negative of negative theologians, one who searches for a theological language which has not yet come into being.
Heidegger went to great lengths to point out that his thought was not a theology, not a thinking about God or about any of the other great themes of faith. In making this claim, however, he managed to say quite a lot about both theology and God. Indeed, it is possible to read some of Heidegger’s texts as a thinking about God. Not, certainly, from within the circle of confessional Christian faith; nor from the tradition of metaphysical speculation. For Heidegger’s whole project is rightly said to fundamentally problematize both of these trajectories. Whence, then, his talk of God? In this paper I risk the notion that Heidegger might be characterised as the most negative kind of negative theologian, one who writes a theology which responds to the trace of a memory of a voice it has never heard. Theology in this mode is highly critical of theology as such, even its own theology. Instead, it imagines a theology to come, whose breadth of vision belongs to a language we have not yet learned to speak.
Onto-theology and the divine god
In Identity and Difference Heidegger argued that dogmatic theology is inseparable from the whole tradition of Western ontology. As ‘onto-theology’, it represents a mode of thinking which privileges the activity of human subjects in objectifying knowledge and temporal presencing over Heidegger’s alternative categories of being and ecstatic time. According to Heidegger, onto-theology has departed from its existential origins in the New Testament and, since the earliest Fathers, taken its lead from the metaphysical tradition of the Greeks. (Modern theology, he quips, would do well to stick more closely to its own origins in New Testament faith. Only then will theology be theology pure and simple, largely free of metaphysical distortions). This analysis leads Heidegger to reject the divinity of the Christian God. The God of the Christian churches, says Heidegger, is nothing more than Leibniz’ prima causa, the first cause which functions, in metaphysics, to ground every other proposition. As such, the Christian God is not a real god. A truly divine god, if he exists, could not be objectified or thematized according to the concerns of the metaphysical tradition. To do so would be to create God in our own image. The real god, says Heidegger, is a god ‘beyond’ the god of the Christians. A god who cannot be thought according to the dominant paradigms of Western thought.
Heidegger and the ‘god beyond God’
John Caputo has argued that while we must respect Heidegger’s claim
that he is NOT writing an onto-theology, one cannot help but recognise
a ‘mystical’ element in Heidegger’s writing, especially as it relates to
his comments about God. Heidegger shares a certain sensibility
about God with the ‘negative’ theology of, say, Meister Eckhart, whom Heidegger
studied intensely in the early period before Being and Time. ‘Negative’
theology, as Kevin Hart has argued, is theology written under the sign
of God’s double-bind on human beings: ‘Represent me, but by no means
represent me’. It is a theology which deconstructs itself even
as it is being written, in the belief that God is ultimately ‘Other’, totally
impassable and unthinkable by human minds:
Negative theology [records] . . . the referential transcendence of language: to say God such as he is, beyond his images, beyond this idol that being can still be, beyond what is said, seen, or known of him; to respond to the true name of God, to the name to which God responds and corresponds beyond the name that we know him by or hear (Jacques Derrida, On the Name).
Negative theology cannot be characterized, therefore, as onto-theology pure and simple. It does not presume the self-grounded knowledge of reality in the Cartesian ‘I think therefore I am’. Nor does it presume that God may be co-opted to the metaphysical project of reasoning from first causes. Negative theology posits, instead, a ‘God beyond God’, a persistent and permanent surplus of theological meaning which may never be mastered by human discourse. As such, the figure ‘God’ is analogous to (but not the same as) Derrida’s unrepresentable ‘differance’ which both creates the possibility for meaningful discourse, but also destabilizes its tendency toward mastery.
So I would go one step further than Caputo and ask the question ‘could it be that Heidegger is on his way to writing a kind of negative theology?’ To answer this question I would like to examine the extraordinary text known as Contributions to Philosophy (from Enowning), which only appeared in German thirteen years after Heidegger’s death.
Enowning, Being and negative theology
Heidegger’s biographer, Safranski, says that the Enowning book was written during the late 1930s when Heidegger had become disillusioned with the Nazi Party. Heidegger kept the book secret, and instructed his brother to publish it only after Heidegger had died. Why? Because even more than in Being and Time, Heidegger here tries to create a new kind of language to carry and convey his new kind of thinking. Here, more than ever, we find a Heidegger who speaks in a mode analogous to the metonymic foldings of both poetry and mysticism. Here Heidegger frees himself to talk more directly (and thus more indirectly?) about the relationship between human and divine realms. According to Safranski, Heidegger did not publish the manuscript in his lifetime because he was afraid that his critics would dismiss the book as sheer mythology. And it is true that the book possesses a mythological flavour. But this is entirely in keeping, I think, with Heidegger’s late contention that the poets knew more about Being than the philosophers.
In Enowning Heidegger begins to flesh out his conviction that Western thinking must somehow make a new beginning. Why? Because the onto-theological tradition has studiously avoided the question of being: why there is something rather than nothing. It has tried, unsuccessfully, to ground its inquiries in a firm sense of either the causa sui or the ergo sum, thus reducing Being to the status of extant beings, that is, objects of human representation. ‘Absolute knowing, unconditional thinking, is now the authoritative being that at the same time plainly and simply grounds everything’. The ‘new beginning’, which Heidegger wants us to leap towards, is thus a correction of this mistake. An attempt to think the ‘truth of being’ as ‘enowning’, the reclamation of a mutual belonging-together of being and Dasein in its ‘there’. The choice of phrase is revealing. It echoes Heidegger’s discussion of ‘worldliness’ in Being and Time. There he argued that the metaphysical distinction between the knowing subject and the object of thought was completely artificial in the sense that a subject in always already en-worlded, embedded in the ‘objects’ it seeks to know. A human mind is therefore simply unable to step ‘outside’ of the sensible world in order to represent that world from the point of view of some kind of omniscient interpreter. The world is always already rendering the human mind according to its own inscrutable structures, even as the mind explores that territory very much from within. ‘Enowning’, then, is about the way in which Dasein (‘we ourselves’) is always already claimed by the givenness of our being in the world. We wake to ‘thrownness’, finding ourselves ‘enowned’ by Being. And to this thrownness we are ‘called’ to make some kind of response. To ‘enown’ or not to ‘enown’ that givenness in a foundational act of freedom.
Now it is particularly at this point that Heidegger’s thought begins to sound suspiciously like negative theology. Negative theology has a version of the doctrine of revelation which might be rendered thus. ‘We come to consciousness in a world which is something rather than nothing. And we ourselves are part of this ‘something’; we are not separate to it. But the being of the ‘something’ cannot be simply reduced to our various representations of it. To describe is to flatten, to objectify, to distance. And so we become aware that there is some kind of ontological difference between our conscious being and the ‘something’ in which we live, move and have that being. And the distance is felt most keenly in the failure of our thinking to deliver the fullness of that something to consciousness. Nevertheless, we do feel some kind of ‘call’, or ‘claim’ which emanates from the sheer givenness of the ‘something’, something like a call to honour the givenness as a gift. A call to cease the drive towards representation, description, intellectual knowledge. To wonder at the gift, to silently contemplate its givenness, and to render some kind of response which is commensurate with the mode of its giving, its gratuity. The ‘call’ is therefore experienced as a moment of decision. Either to receive the gift and give oneself over to the gratuitous nature of its being, or to reject the gift and work against the manner of its giving’. A similar account can be found, I submit, in Heidegger.
Heidegger is a certain kind of realist. He believes that something exists which is more original than human thought or consciousness. This ‘something’ he calls ‘being’. As early as Being and Time he explicitly adopts a phenomenological method of investigation, which assumes not only that being exists but also that ‘things’ manifest themselves in ways appropriate to their own being. Although much of Heidegger’s work is concerned with the ways in which the being of beings is distorted through human thinking, there can be no doubt about the primordial reality of being: ‘Being and its structure transcends every being and every possible existent determination of being. Being is the transcendens pure and simple’. Human beings, according to Heidegger, first come to consciousness in the midst of this ‘already’, in belongingness to being. We are ‘thrown’ into the world; we cannot choose not to be. Immediately we become aware of this fact, we are faced not with an open-ended set of options for how we might live, but with the ‘call’ of enowning being to a reciprocal enowning on the part of Dasein (‘we ourselves’).
The idea of the call, is, perhaps, Heidegger’s most theological concept. He defines the call in Enowning as the ‘essential swaying of the truth of be-ing in the shape of the last god’, a phrase which calls for careful exegesis. ‘Truth’ for Heidegger is something which is always in a state of becoming. It is the ‘there’ [Da] of Dasein: that which is, at once, closest to Dasein’s own authentic being, but also furthest away and most difficult for us to grasp. ‘Truth never “is” but rather holds sway’. As such, it is neither something ‘out there’ to be discovered, nor something ‘in here’, created by subjective and arbitrary opinions, but rather the ‘midpoint’ in a mutual mirroring of call and belonging. Truth is that kind of being which is most fitting to a being in its originary givenness. It is genuineness, ‘a creative strength for preserving what is given along with . . . creative strength for effecting what is given as a task’. This last point touches upon Heidegger’s views about how one way aspire to being truthful. Certainly not by the assertion of opinion or perspective. Certainly not by assuming the powers of a Cartesian subject, which makes itself the measure of all things. No. For Heidegger, truthfulness has more to do with the capacity for a ‘deep awe’ in the face of the inscrutability of being. And this is not a comfortable thing at all. Because awe requires that we relinquish our onto-theological passions for objectification, possession and mastery. It requires a recognition that the truth of being actually withdraws from us in proportion to the force of our desire for mastery. Rather than the desire for mastery, Heidegger recommends an aptitude for contemplation: ‘We must give up the habit of wanting to secure this essential swaying of be-ing as representable for everyone at any time one chooses . . . Rather, we always achieve the uniqueness of the resonance . . . [in the] essential sway of stillness, the most finite and the most unique’. In silence, says Heidegger, there is both a capacity to ‘listen’ for the call of authentic being, and an appropriate reticence to name the content of that call with too much inflated certainty. And silence, he says, is ‘nearness to the last god’. But who, or what, is this ‘last god’? And what has ‘god’ to do with the call to truthfulness?
The ‘last god’ and negative theology
Here we return to our earlier discussion about the nature of Heidegger’s thinking: is it theological or not? The Enowning book tends to confirm our thesis that while Heidegger may not be writing metaphysical, onto-theology, he is certainly very interested in both the idea of divinity, and the role of divinity in human history. Clearly Heidegger believes in some kind of divine realm, populated by ‘god’ or ‘the gods’. And, in truly apophatic style, he defines the being and action of this realm negatively: ‘God is neither “a being” nor a “not-being” - and also not commensurate with be-ing’. God, it seems, is utterly unique and indescribable save for one feature shared in common with human beings: god needs be-ing in order to be god. ‘Be-ing’, says Heidegger, ‘is the enquivering of god’s godding’. What could be meant by this strange phrase? Safranski says that Heidegger’s God is like that of Meister Eckhart and Jacob Bohme: the emptying of human hearts and minds of all that is known in order to be filled with a god who is not ‘something’, but an ecstatic ‘event’. God, in other words, needs being in order to become part of human history and experience, which is the way in which being grounds and comes to its ‘ownmost self’, its ‘there’. We can now see why Heidegger might have been afraid to publish these notes while he was still alive. A deconstructive theology it might be, but this is a theology all the same. A negative theology. Here ‘god’ withdraws in the history of metaphysics along with being. And here a returning of ‘god’ is promised beyond metaphysics, when hearts and minds have finally been emptied of all that rational mastery which Heidegger so deplores. Instead of self-grounded knowledge as the basis for a human future, Heidegger proposes ‘faith’, faith as a ‘holding for true’ of that which ‘is withdrawn for knowing’. Faith, then, is not holding to an already-given truth, but a ‘projecting open’, a ‘questioning’ by which human beings ‘put what is ownmost up for decision’.
And a decision there must be. In Being and Time Heidegger talked about the choice between ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ Dasein. Dasein becomes authentic when it becomes attuned to the call of being in its ownmost ‘there’ [Da], and acts accordingly. Heidegger spoke of a ‘resoluteness’ in authentic being, a holding of oneself in an absolute openness to the possibility of death. Inauthentic Dasein is that which Heidegger believes most of us actually are: people attuned, instead, to the voice of the ‘they’, or the rule of the mob. Heidegger thought that inauthentic being was essentially about running away from the one certainty of life, which is death, and he interpreted this running away existentially, as a refusal of Dasein’s ownmost destiny. Here the philosopher was concerned to encourage a re-embracing of finitude and historicity as the bedrock of the real. In the wake of the Great War he wanted to pull the Romantic dreamers of the Weimar Republic back to earth. We must choose for the real, he says, not for an idealism which wants to escape the facts of bodily life. Life, he thought, could only be really grasped in its creative fullness if it was lived in total cognisance of death’s inevitability. Such cognisance, he said, frees human beings to take full responsibility for their lives. To choose freely what is already given, and to work creatively within the limits imposed in that givenness.
Ten years later, Heidegger uses a different kind of language to discuss the same basic apprehension: ‘the decision of truth in every respect is made by leaping into the essential swaying of be-ing’. This time around, Heidegger is less existential. It is not ‘death’ which is the limit, but rather ‘being’ itself. Yet he is still wanting to stress all that limits our freedom, insisting that we would do well to work with those limits rather than against them (which is futile). And so we come full circle. We are back with the fact of our ‘thrownness’, that we can never really become the Cartesian masters of our own destinies. Interestingly, Heidegger uses the word ‘mastery’ only once in a more positive key, and that, rather paradoxically, in relation to a kind of submission: ‘Da-sein is the turning point in the turning of enowning, the self-opening midpoint of the mirroring of call and belongingness, the ownhood or “own-dom” [Eigentum], understood as king-dom, the mastering midpoint of en-ownment as owning the belonging-together to enowning, at the same time owning the belonging-together to Da-sein: becoming-self’. Here the only mastery which is deemed desirable or possible for human beings is the free acceptance of a selfhood which is ‘enowned’ in that mutual mirroring of call and belonging which is the ‘there’ or destiny of Dasein. Or, as Heidegger famously wrote in the concluding sentence of The Principle of Reason, the key question of life is ‘whether and how we, hearing the movements of this play, play along and accommodate ourselves to the play’. The gift is given and received in freedom. Human beings are called to relinquish their egos in order to be filled with the godding of god. A classically formulated negative theology if ever I saw one.
A theology to come
I close with an interesting remark from Derrida, a reflection on Heidegger’s work with the poet Trakl. Even without the benefit of having read Contributions to Philosophy, Derrida is able to say: ‘It is with reference to an extremely conventional and doxical outline of Christianity that Heidegger can claim to de-Christianize Trakl’s Gedicht. What is origin-heterogenous would in that case be nothing other - but it’s not nothing - than the origin of Christianity: the spirit of Christianity or the essence of Christianity’. This is precisely the point I have been making throughout the present essay. That Heidegger adopts the language of a distinct theological tradition - negative or ‘mystical’ theology - in order to deconstruct and ‘purify’ the onto-theological world of contemporary thinking. And he does so in much the same way as his mystical predecessors: by pushing language to its limits, by confronting our dulled sensitivity to the oldest of stories which is ever new, a story which may be signed with just a few simple words: creation, sin, grace, surrender, salvation. In doing so, I contend that Heidegger began to write the theology which he never wrote, a theology which is still to come, a negative theology which, to recall a saying of Derrida once more, is everywhere present as the innermost necessity and secret of thought as such.