Heidegger for Christian Thinkers 4: History and Temporality


Some people, I realize, think that philosophy is an insidious pastime that makes muddy what was perfectly clear before.  I happen to be one of those people who thinks that many of the schemata I once thought clear were actually inadequate to the realities they purported to explain.  This discussion might just remind you, O Reader, which sort of person you are.

When Heidegger has set up Resoluteness as the authentic mode of being-towards-death, he has embarked upon the discussion of temporality that is the Time in Being and Time.  In moves analogous to his treatment of distance and place in division one, Heidegger here starts to articulate what an existential treatment of time, one that does not pretend a false transcendence but remains rooted in actual human existence, might look like.  His segue into this topic is to explore the character of authentic resoluteness, noting that a Dasein‘s resoluteness, because authentic Dasein is authentic being-towards-death, must be anticipatory resoluteness.

Conventional, das Man conceptions of time, in Heidegger’s view, untruthfully flatten out time so that past, present, and future are all the same sorts of “spans” on a unified line.  Heidegger insists that there is no discrete “past” for Dasein precisely because we do not exist in such an order that we can behold all three at the same time, in the same manner.  Instead Heidegger articulates a human being’s sense of time to the human being’s existence as “having-been” here or there and, on the other hand, having the moment of responsibility in front of every present moment.  In other words, since human existence, as long as the human being exists, stands before every moment with the responsibility for its own authenticity or inauthenticity, and since what Dasein “has been” is an element of the whole rather than a segment that has passed (“past”), temporality for Heidegger means the authentic anticipation of non-existence, alongside a responsible engagement with what one has been, resulting in a holistic being-towards-death.

So anticipatory resoluteness in Being and Time means living as the particular-at-root Being that one is because of where one has been (and that includes all of one’s acts and all of the times one has been acted upon), and it also means seeing the particulars of the moment rather than looking for easily applicable “rules” and taking responsibility for the ways that one will next approach the call of conscience. In the philosopher’s translated words, “In resoluteness, the Present is not only brought back from distraction with the objects of one’s closest concern, but it gets held in the future and in having been” (387).

It’s a sense of the world that inspires some fear and trembling, and Heidegger has no illusion that most people will approach or even desire this potential. Heidegger insists that every Dasein always lives ahead of itself (386), that inauthentic, das-Man life is not a different kind of being but simply a refusal to take as one’s own the order of being common to Dasein.  When human beings live inauthentically, they still stand responsible to do something with the empty moment in front of them; they just don’t own responsibility for it.  Or, to cite Heidegger and his translator, “Factically, Dasein is constantly ahead of itself, but inconstantly anticipatory with regard to its existentiell possibility” (386).  You can see why I wanted to paraphrase.

As Heidegger wraps up his discussion of temporality, he returns to the formal vices that he first lays out in Division One and which I discussed in a previous post in this series.  Here Heidegger continues to explore the structure of the vices, noting the ways that they remain the same order of being as Dasein but refuse to take responsibility for it:

  • Because genuine fear is couched in having-been in encounters with beings that can do harm, anxiety, the fear without an object, refuses the fear couched in concern and with responsibility for the moment, preferring to fear the invisible (394).
  • When Dasein casts its concern everywhere (and therefore nowhere), preferring constant distraction in the present without any attention to having-been and without any genuine attention to the moment in front, curiosity still relates to the having-been and the future but does not give them any resolution or anticipation, instead looking for perpetual novelty in the present (398-99).
  • When discourse abandons authentic having-been and ignores the futurity of the people involved, it slips into what Heidegger earlier called idle talk (401).

As with before, Heidegger denies that these ways-of-being are vicious any any moral sense, but the scorn is hard to miss.

Because Dasein is temporal existence, the differences between entities ready-to-hand and entities present-at-hand have necessarily to do with this or that person’s having-been involvement with everyday, equipment-relations and the related (inseparable, really) later shift to beholding them as objects.  Neither the equipment-character nor the object-character goes away, but the standing of the Dasein encompasses both of them in the present moment and stands responsible for them in the coming moment (412).  Before he moves on to a discussion of what being-historical means in this framework, he takes one last opportunity to note that self-assertion of the Romantic and later the Nietzschean variety always happens inside of a structure of Being that the Dasein does not create, that taking a stand on one’s own being always means having a Being to stand upon.  That does not take away responsibility, but it does avoid the solipsism into which Romanticism so often threatens to slip (417).

Christian communities always relate in some way (usually in multiple ways–that’s what makes them communities rather than bee hives) to the traditions that constitute their having-been, and any given Christian within those communities does likewise.  Although Heidegger’s tendency to prefer structure to comment makes for tedious reading, the same tendency makes his examination quite useful for remembering that the most progressive/liberal community, convinced that some or most of the old ways constitute unconscionable repression and stifling legalism; and the most traditionalist/conservative community, setting up walls against the encroachments of modern and postmodern license, share with one another the basic structure of having-been and future-looking.  There is no community that does not live at once in the moment-to-come and as the community-it-has-been.  Although that structure does not itself recommend this or that order for any given community, it does serve as a handy conceptual tool for talking about communities as different without forgetting the common ground without which nobody could even compare them.  To be “stuck in the past” and to lack “historical memory” are not different kinds of phenomena but two possibilities of the same kind, and when Christians talk to one another (to determine whether the other counts as Christian, if nothing else), we would do well to remember that by definition we share certain ways-of-having-been, and in order to convince one another to live differently, we must share certain possibilities for anticipatory resoluteness.

Such complications of time-language, as I noted at the outset, stand to give us tools more adequate than clock-time to the complexity of living in tradition, and I for one prefer this kind of harder-thinking to a simplicity that can’t say much.


Once Heidegger has established anticipation (the engagement of particulars in the upcoming moment as a being having-been part of a robust world) as the character of authentic resoluteness, the next logical step is to talk about how that resoluteness might relate to history as a philosophical category.

“Only that entity which is ‘between’ birth and death presents the whole which we have been seeking” (425).  So Heidegger summarizes the being of Dasein, and from there he starts to trace out what, if anything, Dasein can retrieve of “the past” that he denied at first.

The double meaning of “the past” is the key: on one hand, the life of the agora in Socrates’s Athens is not meaningfully part of anyone’s having-been existence in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries.  On the other, people living even in 2012 have ready-to-hand translations of Plato, can behold as present-at-hand the ruins of ancient Athens, and might even learn enough Attic Greek to make it part of our equipment for thinking.  So even as the molecules in the marble in Greek temples’ columns persist (some of them anyway), the continuities that actually mean something to Dasein are still rooted in our being.  Such is not to say that there are no objective columns or even that human beings cannot say anything about objective columns; it is to say that any statements about the columns will necessarily be framed by the particular beings of those human beings saying something about them.

Although the columns, I imagine, are something to behold (I’ve never been), questions with some more pertinence for us Christians have to do with traditioned communities, and Heidegger has something to say about them.  Everyone, maintains Heidegger, because we are thrown onto existence, is part of some kind of “handing down” of custom and tradition, and most people, he maintains (sounding like Kierkegaard), live among those traditions for the most part accidentally.  In other words, everyone faces the changes and events of fortune, but most people, because they do not face the particulars of those events resolutely,  “can ‘have’ no fate” (436).

So “having” a fate for Heidegger means taking a stand on one’s being, locating one’s self in a history and owning one’s cooperations with and resistances against the particulars of every tradition.  Once again, Heidegger avoids passing judgment on the content of any given person’s ownership; he simply says that the prior condition for good ownership is ownership itself.  To be loyal to the best of one’s traditions, he insists, is to repeat authentically, to do as a member does on purpose.  Such “repeating of that which is possible does not bring again something which is ‘past’, nor does it bind the ‘Present’ back to that which has already been ‘outstripped’” (437).  Such repetition, of course, has-(already)-been part of every Dasein’s Being before that Dasein becomes able to take a stand on it, so the difference is not the repetition but the stand.

This has probably been the easiest section to translate into Christian thought.  As people who worship a man who lived, died, and rose in a particular place and a particular time, we Christians are historians to the extent that we meditate on the real Jesus of Nazareth, Messiah of Israel. As people who have received and who pass down traditions from generation in the face of persecution (ancient and modern), apostasy (ancient and modern), heresy (ancient and modern), and scorn from the educated (ancient and modern), we Christians know full well that our Being as Christians is not of our own making, despite some people’s conversion “testimonies” that try to minimize the work of our forebears.  And because we claim (rightly, I think) artists such as Dante, Milton, Eliot, and O’Connor, we know that loyalty to the Christian Way as often as not means taking a stand on things that das Man, even Christian das Man, would disregard or even oppose.

I honestly don’t think that such taking-a-stand necessarily happens first, best, or most notably among academics like me.  I think that we do our best work when we keep our eyes open and our mouths still, watching and listening for the stories of the saints who teach us to be Christians in history and to own the history of the Church.  Our training is not in sainthood (there’s no Ph.D in sainthood), but God has, through channels as sullied as anything else in human history, the training to articulate what saints do.  Such is not to say that there are no saints in classrooms, just that there’s no necessary connection.



1 comment for “Heidegger for Christian Thinkers 4: History and Temporality

  1. Ken145
    28 October 2012 at 6:02 PM

    I guess I jumped the gun on the 3rd Heidegger piece being the last one, and I’m glad I did. I found it very interesting reading your section about his concept of history after (earlier today) listening to the Literary Genesis podcast episode. It makes me wonder what Heidegger would have commented on the Hindu’s concept of time/history in regards to their origin story. Again thanks for posting these articles.

Leave a Reply to Ken145 Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: