Heidegger for Christian Thinkers 1: Being and Time and Living in the World

Three years ago, give or take, in the days before we had launched this blog or started the podcast, I published a series of essays on Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time on another website.  Because I’ve been thinking about Heidegger and his impact on my own thinking the last few days, I’ve reworked and revised those essays for The Christian Humanist.  I’ll publish them on Wednesdays for the next few weeks.

Why Heidegger?

Heidegger was himself an atheist and for a span of time a member in good standing of the German Nazi party, yet he demonstrates time and again significant influence from Augustine and Kierkegaard among other Christian writers.  As I hope to show in these posts, I see in the shape of his philosophy not a system into which Christianity must shape itself uncritically but nonetheless a source for illuminating certain points of Christian thought. In particular his analysis of “world” as a philosophical category, his moral examination of everyday life (and his denial that he’s doing morality), and his insistence upon of classical alternatives to modern correspondence theories of truth stand to be helpful to Christian thinkers.

But not all Christians will be all that excited to receive help from a Nazi.  Thus first I should explain why I’m reading Heidegger at all and why I think that Christians would do well to do so.  One could reasonably ask why I’m so concerned with Christian uses of such philosophy–after all, when I read and teach Hume or Diderot, I have little interest in synthesizing them with Christian revelation.  Part of the answer, of course, is that among others, John Milbank and Graham Ward have undertaken what I see as helpful attempts to do post-Heideggerian (again, not slavishly conformist but creatively corrective) theology, and now that I’ve read this book, I can see some of what they’re seeing.  Another part of the answer is that, given Heidegger’s particular kind of atheism and affiliation with one of the most monstrous political regimes in recent history (I’m always torn on whether to call Nazi or Stalinist life more horrific, though both of them pale next to Genghis Khan), a reading of his philosophy necessarily participates in a debate about the relationship between writers’ biographies and the goodness or badness of their ideas.  As will become evident soon enough, I tend towards the side of that debate that would allow for bad people’s ideas to be true, something that tends towards a bodiless idealism if I go too far but ultimately, I think, more fair in a universe in which a good God can make even Balaam’s ass to speak truth.

Theologically, I also would draw an analogy from Israel’s history (and at the same time implicitly critique a common reading of Romans, but that’ll come in a moment).  Ancient kingdoms imagined their gods in terms not dissimilar to the ways that we moderns imagine our relationships with our philosophies: they were in a zero-sum game, and if one kingdom defeated another in battle, that meant a corresponding defeat for the conquered kingdom’s deity or deities.  So if the Moabites took on the Edomites and took over their cities, then Chemosh, by the theories of the day, would have also defeated Moloch.  One of the many theological and ethical revolutions of the Israelite prophets was to situate their own God not in that contest but above it. So when Assyria marched armies on Samaria, according to Isaiah, those idolatrous soldiers were not the bearers of some foreign god fighting against YHWH in a pitched battle; on the contrary, Isaiah says that they are the agents of YHWH himself, punishing wayward nations, including Israel, and woe to Assyria should its king become so arrogant as to set himself up as the Morning Star who sits above the heavens.  (If that sounds familiar, look at Isaiah 14 and for a moment try not to let John Milton into your head.)  And in the ensuing chapters and centuries, the theology got even more revolutionary: when Jerusalem falls to the goyim and they’re taken from the land that YHWH promised, this is not any kind of defeat but a lesson for Israel, and after a spell, a new oracle comes to Israel saying not that reinforcements have arrived in the grand struggle of gods but that Israel’s punitive sentence is over.  (If that sounds familiar, look at Isaiah 40.  I still know the text of Isaiah better than any of the prophets other than Jonah, and I have Chris Heard to thank for that.)  In other words, when the visible Israel seems to have lost out, often the case is that down the pike, for those looking down the pike, comes a new kind of Israel, perhaps even an anointed one of Israel.  In fact, in the Christian New Testament Paul picks up this line of reasoning when he tells the Christians in Rome that, although vengeance is ultimately the Lord’s and that they should not take up arms, nonetheless the godless Roman magistrates receive the sword from the Lord, and not in vain but to punish evildoers.  So although they still stand as an empire tempted to arrogance (and few empires did arrogance better than the Romans, save for Genghis Khan), nonetheless they play a role in God’s scheme of things not identical to the Church’s but nonetheless ordained.

So where has Heidegger gone in all of this?  As I read the history of philosophy, Heidegger is in the intellectual sphere one of those people who tears down arrogant philosophical kingdoms.  (Nietzsche and Marx did their share as well, let the record show.)  What Descartes and Kant and Hegel constructed they did with the idea that the human mind, whether that mind be a detached eye or a manifold that categorizes phenomena or the world’s apparatus for thinking about world’s self, was ultimately intelligible through a lens of radical, secularizing doubt.  While Nietzsche and Heidegger are no Christians, nonetheless they call radically into question the metanarratives (that word, of course, comes later in the game) that would elevate universal–sometimes mathematical, sometimes not–reasoning and purportedly eliminate the need for particular experiences, particular articulations, and (for Christians) especially particular moments of revelation.  At the end of division one of Being and Time Heidegger does say that true philosophy needs to eliminate the last vestiges of Christian theology, but along the way he’s broken down the assumptions that Descartes and Kant used to reduce the rich theology of the Church to a flat theism.

Living in the World

Certain words have such broad ranges of connotations that they can inspire entirely different stories depending on who uses them.  Ask an environmentalist and an evangelical about “the world,” and you’ll get two very different answers, both of which will differ from the answer you’ll get if you ask an evangelical who’s also an environmentalist.

Heidegger’s first big project in Being and Time begins with an investigation of what it means to live in a world.  To begin with, he says that there is not merely one sort of being, thing-ness, but that in human experience there are three orders of being, namely being-ready-to-hand, being-present-at-hand, and there-being, each kind related to the last one, the human kind of being, that Macquarrie leaves transliterated as Dasein.  (I realize that my lack of German stunts this somewhat, so if anyone can correct these Macquarrie phrases, go right ahead.)

Ready-to-hand being has to do with standing in relationship to a system or totality of equipment, so that a hammer (Heidegger’s favorite thought experiment) is what it is because it stands alongside nails, wood, houses, and the rest of the system within which hammering makes sense.  Houses are equipment-for-abiding.  Bridges are equipment-for-crossing-rivers.  Ready-to-hand entities are in normal circumstances unobtrusive, each being for the sake of some intelligible activity in the world and working along with all the other entities in that system in manners that do not require theoretical thought about what the entities are so much as practical know-how (also not always at the fore of the consciousness) to do things within the system.  So to negate Descartes (which Heidegger is doing with his philosophy), a carpenter does not apprehend a thing extended in space and then note that it has a certain heaviness, a certain color, a certain shape, and so forth, and only then decide that said extended object might be good for whacking a nail.  The carpenter rather knows that there’s a house to build and builds it, exhibiting a know-how towards houses.  The hammer is simply a part of that equipment-world that’s part of being a carpenter.

Present-at-hand being is the sort of extended-in-space being from which Descartes started.  Heidegger does not deny the reality of this order of being so much as relocates it, insisting that scientific measurement is not our primary mode of apprehending objects but the result of certain kinds of intellectual practices.  Those practices are the sorts that high school science classes deal with: a certain mass of a substance will have a certain height, length, and depth; a certain mass and density and corresponding weight in particular gravitational fields; and other properties such as smell, color, shape, and so forth.  None of these are the normal ways that we interact with objects but come about because of certain practices of thought.  Heidegger very carefully does not deny that such properties are valid; instead he notes rightly that people usually do not journey about in the world thinking about extension and weight so much as about the task at hand and that those properties really only disclose themselves in relatively marginal moments: if a hammer is too heavy for me to use for a given job, I suddenly become aware of its heaviness.  (I know, back to hammers.)  If a traffic light switches not from red to green but from red to nothing, I become aware of brightness.  And if a door opens so easily that, despite its weight, it feels light, I’m aware of smooth motion.  Because there-being is capable of interpretive relations with present-at-hand entities, we are certainly capable of devising scientific systems of naming and relating those entities, but before we ever get there, we there-being beings (Heidegger does invent terminology with abandon) live in the world that they constitute as ready-to-hand.

“There” in there-being is not the opposite of “here” (Macquarrie generally uses “yonder” to translate the opposite of “here”) but the sort of “there” in statements such as the following:

  • There are worse things that could happen.
  • There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
  • There’s a person named Nate Gilmour who writes a blog.

None of these sentences, unless one gets absurdly deictic (Look!  She’s buying the stairway!  Right there!), connotes any directional pointing.  Instead, and perhaps as an outgrowth of Heidegger’s and other existentialists’ philosophy, folks generally call this the “existential there.” In other words, the sort of being that exists is ours.

As you certainly have picked up by now, the terminology in Heidegger (not differently from German philosophers’ in general) gets thick.  Here “to exist” is a particular subset of “to be,” and the upshot for Heidegger is that human beings (a phrase that he avoids for the sake of precision, but I’m not German) are not simply things-that-think as Descartes would have it but uniquely exist in the world.  Thus the world for Heidegger has to do with existent beings operating in systems of equipment that, in moments of rupture and sometimes as a result of systematized interpretation, become entities to be beheld rather than dealt with in terms of equipment.  That complex of entities and their systematic relationships Heidegger calls “world.”

The implications for Christian thought take a bit of cogitation, but revisiting the New Testament (which I try to do as often as possible when I try to appropriate philosophers’ work for Christian use), one can see uses of “world” that make a good deal of sense in Heidegger’s way of speaking.  Various parts of the New Testament deal differently with forms of verb kosmein, to put in order: 1 Timothy 3 holds that the overseer of the Church must be kosmion, orderly in behavior.  On the other hand, Titus teaches that the spirit of God helps us to overcome kosmikas passions, those belonging to a fallen order.  Hebrews uses the adjective kosmikon simply to distinguish the earthly temple from its heavenly counterpart, while Ephesians says that Christians’ struggle is against the kosmokratoras, the rulers of the world’s order.  And that’s before one gets to the gospels.  In Matthew, one should not gain the kosmon if it costs one one’s psychen, but those to whom Jesus speaks in his sermon on the Mount are the light of the kosmou.  And in John, the most famous world-book of the New Testament, the kosmos hates Jesus, but God so loved thekosmon that he sent his only begotten son.

I won’t presume to do an intensive study of world in Heidegger or the New Testament here but will note that Heidegger grasps the complexity of the world in ways that Descartes and his scientific/mathematical heirs did not: the world of physical laws and inert matter is not the most basic kind of “world” but ultimately becomes visible only when one engages in certain interpretive practices, just as an early Christian’s world, inhabited as it is by demons and angels, becomes disclosed at least partly because of an all-encompassing way of life and interpretation.  As William Blake knew through his poetry and the biblical Apocalypse (that’s Revelation for us post-King-James readers) reveals (hence the name), someone has to teach us to see the world in certain ways, be that someone a master craftsman or a science teacher or a choirmaster.  The totality of relationships determines what things “really” are, not simple mass and extension, and although those ways of seeing disclose realities and not simple wishes about objects (more about that in a couple days), their mode is always disclosing-for-us, not the establishment of something super-human.  When Jesus comes to save the world, that world has its own complex and multi-storied reality, and we mortals are not privy to all of those stories.  That’s why any single connotation of “world” will ultimately fall short of all of the complexity of the New Testament, much less the complexity of the whole of Christian existence.   Before I proceed I should note that Heidegger, like me (this is certainly one reason I’ve enjoyed him so much) is intensely interested in word origins, especially those words that come down to modernity from Latin and Greek, so I don’t think I’m necessarily imposing modern meaning on ancient texts so much as learning from a philosopher who’s also a philologist.

I will note at this point that Heidegger, towards the end of division one, holds the doctrine of analogical being, the medieval Christian teaching that God’s being relates to but is not of the same sort as there-being, is an error from Christian theology that philosophy proper has not fully extruded.  (If I misunderstood this dense paragraph on 272 of the Macquarrie paperback, I’d be glad to read corrections.)  Heidegger, I repeat, is himself no Christian and has no stake in articulating a Christian theology.  That said, his return to the depth of being over against science’s occasional flattening of the same does open up space for Christian theology to operate once more, allowing that being is always disclosed in-the-world and that the world is always ready-to-hand systematically before it is atomized into present-at-hand objects.  That space alone should give Christians some room to breathe, intellectually speaking, where before the ideology of the world-as-object had previously ended all discussions of meaning where the brain stops and the world starts. And for that, I could imagine worse responses than a Lenten prayer of thanksgiving.

4 thoughts on “Heidegger for Christian Thinkers 1: Being and Time and Living in the World

  1. Thanks for posting this. I am pretty sue I am your youngest listener, I am a college student in my early 20s. After listening to the podcast episode on Heidegger I was hoping you guys would do more like it (I know the Kierkegaard episode is coming) but for now this will do thanks.

    1. Ken145 
      Thanks for reading and listening, Ken!  
      I’ve certainly
      benefited from my friendship with Michial when it comes to understanding
      existentialism, and in fact these essays I wrote after Michial and I
      read through Being and Time together several years ago.
      (And
      although it’s bad for my academic street-cred to say so, I’m still
      terribly impressed that Michial is one of the most-cited sources in
      Wikipedia’s article on Christian Existentialism.)

      1. ngilmour Ken145  
        I did not know that about the wikipedia article  lol (as a student I actually GAIN street-cred for using Wikipedia among my peers). I may have seen that article a time or two.

  2. Thanks for reading and listening, Ken!  
    I’ve certainly benefited from my friendship with Michial when it comes to understanding existentialism, and in fact these essays I wrote after Michial and I read through Being and Time together several years ago.
    (And although it’s bad for my academic street-cred to say so, I’m still terribly impressed that Michial is one of the most-cited sources in Wikipedia’s article on Christian Existentialism.)

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