Heidegger for Christian Thinkers 2: Morality, Truth, and New Ways to Think about Both

Just to remind folks, I published these essays at another site several years ago, but I figured that rewriting the poorly-written passages and reposting them here might be of some value to our readers.  So here they are.

Heidegger is at his most amusing, I think, when he denies what he’s patently doing.  In Being and Time, influenced (if Hubert Dreyfus and Michial Farmer don’t lead me astray) by Kierkegaard and Buber, Heidegger does spend a fair bit of time talking about certain ways of Dasein (there-being/existential being) that, despite his repeated denials of doing evaluative ethics, nonetheless start sounding like Kierkegaardian condemnations of modernity. They do rely on Heidegger’s structure of being (in other words, read the first post of this series first), but they’re undeniably interested in pointing to ways of being that are worse than others.

The Forms of (Im)Morality

To set up the structure of Heidegger’s reflections, dealing with other people always must involve a different disposition towards Dasein than one has towards ready-to-hand equipment and merely present-at-hand objects.  Because every other person is also Dasein, the sort of being that takes a stand on its own being (more on that in a moment), other people, ontologically, can never be mere objects in my world; they’re always neighbors in a common world.  Or, perhaps even better, they are neighbors in whom am the other-Dasein.  (Heidegger does not use the Christian vocabulary of neighbor, but this is not a commentary but a reflection upon Being and Time.)  Heidegger’s philosophy makes solipsism almost unimaginable.  But these are not free-floating Cartesian subjects beholding an inert objective world of atoms and elements; rather, everyone involved, because we are beings with pasts and futures, always takes a stand on being that’s already constituted by the world and is part of a world.  Our equipment and our practices and our memories form the irreducible being on which we take our stand, either by falling to the complex work that the world would set before us or by being in the world in some other way that, inevitably, fits the world into which we are thrown, even when we stand against parts of it.  (The rebel, as Dante reminds us, in this world never severs relationship to the power against whom the rebel rebels.  And as Dante reminds us, that can be good or bad depending on the power against whom one rebels.)  Thus there is never any absolute separation-from-the-world; there are only different ways of being-in-the-world.

Taking that structure into the relationships that constitute morality, Heidegger points to a certain range of Kierkegaard-flavored inauthentic social realities that make a fair bit of sense inside the framework that he builds (I’m using Macquarrie’s translation of these labels, knowing full well that I’m relying on someone else’s German):

  • Anxiety is the fear, not of something in-the-world, but of being itself. The anxious person, attempting to flee the reality that one must stand on one’s own being, always takes a stand on her or his own being but does so in privative manners, experiencing the world through one’s own inward-turning.
  • Idle Talk happens when talk, always ready-to-hand, becomes unmoored from the particularities of this or that Dasein’s particular need to communicate something authentic and becomes instead a context within which people, who have no depth of involvement with that-which-they-talk-about, nonetheless form an atmosphere of talk by means of which one can avoid the threatening world in which one more immediately exists.  To quote Macquarrie’s translation of Being and Time, “Idle talk does not have the kind of Being which belongs to consciously passing off something as something else.  The fact that something has been said groundlessly, and then gets passed along in further retelling, amounts to perverting the act of disclosing into an act of closing off” (213).  What should be bringing truth to the concern of those hearing actually immunizes us from truth.
  • Curiosity is neither a restful contemplation of the immediate world nor the sort of understanding that one brings to bear on a task at hand but rather a state in which “Dasein lets itself be carried along solely by the looks of the world; in this kind of Being, it concerns itself with becoming rid of itself as Being-in-the-world and rid of its Being alongside that which, in the closest everyday manner, is ready-to-hand” (216).  Looking everywhere but contemplating nothing, beholding all but not dealing with none, curiosity allows a Dasein to be in-the-world without ever having to confront it theoretically or actively.
  • Ambiguity happens when one lives in a world full of idle talkers and curious lookers.  When anyone can use the same ready-to-hand tools of talk, irrespective of whether that talk is grounded in real concern or ungrounded and idle, and when anyone can use the same ready-to-hand vocabularies irrespective of whether a given Dasein has real know-how or insight or mere curiosity, the intellectual atmosphere becomes one in which one can never tell until it’s too late where insight is and ain’t.  (If this sounds like the Internet, it only shows that Heidegger still has something to say.)

That’s not an exhaustive catalogue (though some of you might already be exhausted), but it does give a certain flavor for this morality (which Heidegger will not call morality) that makes sense in terms of Heidegger’s ontology.  According to Michial Farmer, who knows Kierkegaard far better than I do (which is to say he knows Kierkegaard), the Danish influence is undeniable.

To return to Heidegger-is-not-a-Christian point, not only does he return over and over to a denial that he is evaluating anything, but he also assumes that in any of these cases, the better way to be-there (Dasein) is the road of authenticity, self-making in terms of one’s world rather than resusing to take a stand in terms of Man (not a male human being but a word whose analog, also man, I learned when I learned Old English and whose range of modern English equivalents runs from “people” to the generic “they” to “one” to “everybody”).  Although a certain man-ethos is inevitably a part of social life (e.g. when we eat at roughly the same times, wait our turn in line, and recycle our newspapers rather than throwing them in the neighbor’s yard), and although the antitheses of such practices are always available, Heidegger always warns readers that following the ways of “the non-conformist” forsakes authenticity just as readily as does the “normal” life.  The only difference between the two, for Heidegger, is what part the “square” and the “non-conformist” are playing different parts in the same play.  The person who goes to work on each time every day might well be the authentic one, and the person who refuses the same might be doing so because that’s “what one does” as a member of the counter-culture.  But the actual content of acts is largely irrelevant, so far as Being and Time would have it.

That said, the man-structure of immorality is a goldmine for Christian reflection, from the grand “banality of evil” of Hannah Arendt to the grandly banal “peer pressure” that’s a staple for youth ministers’ Sunday-night talks.  Moreover, the structure of man (forgive me, German readers, if I should be capitalizing that consistently–pretend I’m using the Old English rather than the German word) provides a helpful springboard for ecclesiology–assuming, as Christian theology often does, that Church stands as a body politic in its own right and a culture in which cult cultivates caritas (I just had to do that bad alliterative riff), a reflection on Heidegger’s being-in-the-world should ring as a golden opportunity to start thinking about being-in-the-world-but-not-of-the-world, and since taking a stand on one’s being always happens in-the-world, rich Christian practices of prayer and eucharist start to taste much better than flat cognitivist “worldview” thinking that often passes for “apologetics” in Christian catechesis.  (For a good treatment of Heidegger’s usefulness for thinking about faith, see Jamie Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom.)

To return for a moment to the New Testament (which I said I’d do), when the epistle of James talks about taming the tongue and in the same breath counsels that real piety is care of widows and orphans (that’s chapter one, if you want to look it up), and when the text goes on to say that faith without works is as useless as a screen door on a submarine (that’s in James, right?), we Christians in a post-Kierkegaardian age should hear an anticipation of this sort of thinking.  In other words, James might stand as a warning against contributing to the atmosphere of ambiguity that does not yield genuine care for the helpless.  The best sort of piety towards the God of the Exodus does not involve simply becoming part of the culture of noblesse oblige, the folks who say “social justice” a lot, but an active stand on one’s being that acknowledges one’s inheritance while bringing that inheritance to bear for the benefit of the other.  Talk of faithfulness without concern for those other Daseins is ultimately idle talk.  In other words, although I’m not going to stir up the Calvinists of the world by saying that “works save” or anything else so foolish, nonetheless a Christianity that is ultimately just a pale imitation of celebrity culture, a marketing of a “message” to bored “consumers” without any expectation that the faithful might act, cannot ultimately rise above this sort of criticism.  (I will note that the Torah of Moses comes not as a guilt-inducing prelude to salvation by faith.  The Law only comes in the wake of God’s delivering the Hebrews through water at the Red Sea.)

That’s not to say that folks who try to live faithfully (which could stand, I think, as a good analogue to Heidegger’s “authentically”) are going to exist in-the-world entirely consistently, but it is to say that asking how to get bored butts in the theater seats might not be the best way to think about Christian discipleship.

Truth and Disclosure

I first read Norman Geisler in 1995 and heard well the trumpets’ call for Christians to rally behind “absolute truth.”  I hadn’t thought enough, back then, about the connections between scientific and philosophical language to ask what solvent might dissolve a solute truth, so without that snide remark in my arsenal, I became convinced, for a season, that there were people in the world who would claim that “truth is relative” and other such solipsistic things.  I also heard about Allan Bloom’s famous claim that all the students entering the university after the mid-eighties would invariably be relativists.  (As readers here know, I didn’t get around actually to reading that book until well after the eighties.)  Having spent seven years minus one in the English department of a state university, and four in a Christian liberal arts college, I have to admit that I’ve not run into that many relativists.  There are some Lockean tolerationists at the state school, and there are some seniors who decide that “religion” isn’t worth the time at the Christian college, but even those two groups tend to be rather dogmatic about religious particulars’ being adiaphora in the face of genuine spirituality, social harmony, and a good drunken party.

Even after I had my first encounters with Nietzsche in particular and with what I thought was “postmodernism” (since then I’ve decided that there’s nothing so unified in the wild world of the academy), and I became enamored with the social construction of reality as a concept, I never really abandoned some of the core ideas of the Enlightenment.  I still find some merit in that constellation of theories–after all, nobody talked about oxygen until after Priestley and Lavoisier, and even if there were entities called oxygen molecules in the centuries before the Enlightenment, they weren’t of any use to human beings since nobody knew they were there.

These days I don’t spend as much time thinking about theories of truth, busy as I am with teaching lots of composition and writing a book about rhetoric and theology.  But Heidegger’s take on old words and more recent theories of correspondence took me back to the Milligan days, and I was glad for the visit.

Heidegger begins his examination by noting the medieval conception of adequatio, a mathematical metaphor with almost all of “equation” in its name, as the image that most modern philosophy holds to when talking about whether a sentence is true or not.  If the picture that a statement creates in someone’s head, Heidegger rehearses, matches or stands equal to the actual object at hand, then the statement is adequate to the object, and the sentence is a true one.  But given that Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein eliminates the primacy of the picture-in-the-mind as the primary mode of being, he looks to more ancient roots to find a better way to talk about truth.

He then looks to the etymology of the Greek alethia (also the name of a band from Milligan when I was there) and considers the negative quality of it.  The a-prefix, as anyone who’s been under anaesthesia, talked with an atheist, tried to remain apolitical, or gotten apathetic reading this sentence knows, negates the root that comes after, and Heidegger points to the Greek verb lanthano, to be hidden, and notes that, at the risk of what he calls word-mysticism, one can see in the root of the philosophers’ (and the Bible’s) most common truth-word is not a mathematical equation but the negation of hiding (262).  To go literary for a moment, the river Lethe in the underworld is the perfect image for what alethia might mean: what the river covers up for those who dip in it and lose their memory, alethia would disclose and make known.

The obvious Biblical parallel here is with the final book of the New Testament canon, the Apocalypse in older English translations and Revelation in more recent ones.  Although the root words differ, the apokalypsis has in its root meaning an uncovering as well, a disclosing of what (in this book demonic) powers of the world would hide under lies of peace and threats of death.  Truth in Revelation is a dramatic action, an unveiling of a Dragon where Rome would present an Eagle and a false prophet where Jerusalem would set forth a high priest.  There is no boring algebraic equation between “what John says” and “what an objective observer would see.”  Instead, God grants John the Seer with shocking and poetic Truth, a reality that is just as symbolically rich as the lethia, the covering-up, but far more dramatic because it stands against the powerhouse of the historical moment; John’s vision is a true disclosure of the powers-that-be where the powers themselves would hide.

Of course, the very category of revelation in Christian theology ill suits most of modern philosophy; more often than not modern academic talk falls back on an abbreviated version of one of the metanarratives of suspicion when the topic comes up at all.  The possibilities are fairly simple to anticipate: either claims to revelation are actually projections of anthropomorphic desire onto inhuman reality (Marx) or they’re the outworking of weak people’s resentment of the strong in the form of a pretended power from a “god” (Nietzsche).  They’re projections of the damaged relations between parents and children (Freud) or a psychological device for keeping peace long enough for the species to reproduce and thus self-perpetuate (socio-biology).

My point here is not that these stories are new but to note that, on their own terms, they’re more or less invulnerable to “apologetic” reasoning.  Revelation as a category, although Lockeans try hard to articulate it in terms of second-hand empiricism, presupposes a metaphysics in which, for whatever reason (sin, the unfolding plan of Providence, and several other doctrines contribute to the theo-logic of it), much of reality remains offensive, and thus hidden, to most of humanity.  When “supernatural” became a category of entities instead of a moment when an entitiy rises above its given nature, the game was mostly over already: the Romantics tried to make a case for poets as those who “see the supernatural,” but not long after the Matthew Arnolds of the world stopped believing even in literature, “the supernatural” became at best a hobby for the less-educated and at worst a straw-man for the new atheists of the world to use when they got lazy: Christians, in that story, are no better than people who believe in a flying spaghetti monster.

But to bring Heidegger and theology into conversation again, John Montag’s essay “The False Legacy of Suarez” from the collection Radical Orthodoxy calls for a return to revelation as a supernatural moment in the older sense, a rising-above the natural capacities of human intellect.  According to that view, what John saw on Patmos and what Julian saw on her deathbed are not momentary appearances of “supernatural” entities that may or may not “exist:” instead, the supernatural moment occurs when John or Julian, by divine grace, rises above natural powers of intellection and “‘sees” (I use too many scare quotes in these discussions, I know) what is always there but is beyond humanity’s natural capacity to apprehend.  To make claims about correspondence makes little sense precisely because statements about such realities can only happen in those moments of divine disclosing.  Such does not render those moments more defensible in standard Christian-apologetics terms, but it does make more sense than asserting the existence of and cataloguing angels as if they were zoo animals, which either “exist” or do not and which stand not as creatures with their own natures but as “supernatural” phenomena.

In other words, my suspicion is once more that Heidegger’s account of truth as un-hiding is partaking of an older tradition, one unhindered by a need to make Christianity respectable to natural philosophy and thus freer to talk about the faith in more ancient and ultimately more compelling terms.  To beat this drum one more time, this does not make Heidegger a Christian theologian, but it does point to his dismantling some of the least helpful moments in modern philosophy and clearing some space not only for atheists to be more honest about their atheism but for us Christians to say some more interesting things about the God who saves us.


3 thoughts on “Heidegger for Christian Thinkers 2: Morality, Truth, and New Ways to Think about Both

  1. Can’t get enough, good job. Not goona say I will ever read Being AndTime (though who knows) but I do like your commentaries on it. I stillhave more Kierkegaard to read myself.

    1. Ken145 Sorry about the week-long delay; last week was a booger at the office.  I should have a few moments to get the next segment of the Heidegger essay reformatted and up here this week.

      1. ngilmour Thanks for sharing this. I also notice that you guys are missing a podcast under your link to other podcasts; I highly recommend adding Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy (with no gaps), here is the link to the website: http://www.historyofphilosophy.net/ Ican’t recommend highly enough that you check this podcast out.

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