When Theology’s God Rushes In. . – Books – Heidegger’s Atheism: The Refusal of Theological Voice – book review
Laurence Paul Hemming
Heidegger’s Atheism: The Refusal of Theological Voice.
University of Notre Dame Press 2002, $45.00 (cloth).
IN THIS PONDEROUS, thorough book, Laurence Paul Hemming faces an acute problem: to determine the status of God in Heidegger’s thought, even though Heidegger refused to speak of Him explicitly. “Heidegger reeks of God,” Hemming exclaims, “and yet at no point does he say who or what God is”(p. 2). Heidegger insisted that “philosophical research is and remains atheism,” but what that far-reaching assertion means, exactly, he didn’t explain. This is hardly unexpected. Anyone who has read the opening sections of Being and Time knows Heidegger’s answer to the query, “Does God exist?” The question itself must be questioned, he would claim, It is not properly framed, for it predetermines God in ontic (object-like) form. Better, he counseled, to follow the hermeneutic method and reformulate the question in terms of how God enters into the structures of Being–whether through an affirmation of his existence or a denial-which is to say, to ask of God’s place in ontological difference, the difference between Being and be ings.
This is a different kind of inquiry, Heidegger maintained, and Hemming agrees, raising Heidegger’s silence about God into a decisive interruption of theology’s wrongheaded tradition. The mistake theologians make when discussing God is that they begin with God Himself, not with Dasein. Dasein is, Hemming writes, not consciousness, mind, or thought, but rather “the standing open of humans to whatever is” (P. 7). This is an idiosyncratic formulation, a bit of Anglicized Heideggerese, but it still imparts a fundamental condition. Phrased less elliptically, Dasein is what finds itself in a world of beings-literally. It takes its surroundings as present beings, and discovers itself in that place. Heidegger: “it questions, looks upon, considers as, relates, etc….It is that being, which we ourselves are”(quoted p. 52). Dasein always occupies a point in a world and projects itself into a future condition, another point in a more or less rearranged world. This is why Heidegger claims Dasein’s root motive is care. anx iety, dread. From that mood derive, he argues, all of the stable realities of experience–ideas judged by truth, time measured in hours, life governed by habits–and the grounds and ideals of philosophy: the ego, the Good. God.
Heidegger called his inquiry the “existential analytic” of Dasein and executed dense readings of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Descartes to give it the form of a “history of being.” Hemming reproduces the analytic in scrupulous, generous detail, touching controversial matters such as whether Heidegger’s thought fills into two parts, the “early” and the “late,” and the philosopher’s embrace of Nazism. But in relation to God, Heidegger’s argument (or reorientation) comes down to a single objection: in the way it addresses God–that is, understands God’s existence–theology reduces God to objective properties and causal powers. God is defined as First Cause, the thing that grounds all beings, the negation of finitude, etc., and hence, Hemming says, theology “produces God as a’ being, even if highest and best” (p. 199). Although he criticizes only metaphysical versions of theology, which in their best forms render theistic doctrines, in their worst “reduce God to the kind of commodity that technology routinely m anipulates” (p. 213), the objectification of God haunts metaphysics from Plato onward. Indeed, the fate of God in human hands parallels that of every other genuine apprehension by Dasein: what begins as a profound beholding of ontic-ontological difference declines into a routine way of seeing, as Heidegger puts it, “conceptual schemes and habits whose roots, in lived experience, from which they once emerged, have long withered away” (quoted p. 54). What once was originary insight is now cognitive bent. The “motive-sources” of thought become philosophical abstractions.
The philosopher who seeks the wellsprings of knowledge and faith must devise a method to get around these deep, grooved habits of understanding. The goal is to recover the dynamic elements of lived experience before they settled into a world view, an outlook. In returning to the fundamental structures of Dasein, Heidegger believed, we begin to dismantle the sedimented, object-oriented notions of metaphysics and recuperate a primal encounter with existence. The method applies to God, too, who must be interrogated, approached derivatively through the questioning of the care-ridden questioner, Dasein.
Herein lies the core of Heidegger’s atheism, Hemming argues. The existence that has been granted God by theology limits God to categories of time, space, power, and identity. Moreover, theology’s God grounds beings, including Dasein. Both attributions are false. “God does not in this sense exist,” Hemming asserts (p. 289). for God is “radical otherness”(p. 261). Moreover, Dasein’s authentic starting point is ungrounded-ness. Only atheism–a “methodological atheism”–can unleash God from objective predicates, allowing Dasein to realize its grounding in nothing but concern for its own existence. Concern itself is empty, an opening of the abyss; theology’s God rushes in to fill it up. Atheism restores our inaugural concern, through not a renunciation of God, but a recognition of God’s inappropriateness to our existential origin. It does not deny the existence of God, but rather denies that God has an existence, that God could possibly exist as other beings do. As Hemming sums it up, “To think God without being simply means, to accept in its fullness God’s radical other-ness from me. It does not mean that God is without being, but rather, I am (at first, in the order of being) without God” (p. 261). Hence, when Nietzsche declares “God is dead!” he announces only the death of one, false God, hailing “the end of the God of metaphysics and a renewed possibility of experiencing God” (p. 222).
That hope ends Hemming’s study on a redemptive note. Heidegger’s atheism opens “the possibility for an entirely renewed and original…eventuation of God” (p. 214). If Heidegger is silent about God, he has his non-atheistic reasons: “To say nothing, that God might speak” (p. 290). Hemming adopts the tactic himself: “To come to my-self and seek union with God demands, at every step along the path, that I say nothing of God” (p. 290). When others take up the voice of God, our best reply is atheism, for the God they deliver is in fact a repression of authentic faith, which keeps itself in silence.
This is the thesis of Heidegger’s Atheism, and Hemming pursues it with the vigilance of a dedicated explicator. But nowhere in the exposition does Hemming consider the difficult position in which Heidegger places subsequent inquirers. On one hand, Heidegger asks us to enact a rigorous, uncompromising interrogation of the history of being, “destructuring” the tradition from Plato to Husserl. And yet, when it comes to Heidegger himself, we are to behave as true believers, questioning not the philosopher but ourselves. From the very start, Hemming adopts a servile posture, particularly in connection to Heidegger’s silence about God. He wonders, “is there a sense m which Heidegger’s silences are concerned with our capacity to hear?” (p. 2). Three pages later: “Hearing Heidegger’s voice is not easy. Too much is written of what Heidegger says, ignoring the patience he demanded and the willingness to remain with what he attempts to speak of.” This is too credulous.
The problem has arisen before. In the past, commentators have objected to Heidegger’s language as a Teutonic fogbank, one hard to criticize in its particulars because it is so hermetic. The only way to broach its terms is to enter the system, to assume the general angle of vision. Heidegger encouraged this either-you-understand-me-or-you-don’t attitude at the verbal level, and Hemming adopts it wholeheartedly. When a participant in a 1951 symposium in Zurich asked Heidegger a question about “being,” he gave a lengthy clarification which Hemming relates as:
When the questioner names being, he asks about it within the province of metaphysics….When Heidegger says being, he says it as already in a questioning relation to the way it is thought in metaphysics…Heidegger knows this; the questioner does not. The riddle of the reply is precisely Heidegger’s attempt to make the questioner ask a question about himself, not about a question for Heidegger. The riddle of the answer is a device, at once pedagogical–think again!–and disciplinary: think more thoughtfully! (p. 185)
The only way not to see Heidegger’s non-answer as not a bullying maneuver is to concede to Heidegger’s superiority before the debate even begins. Hemming asks us to be doubly accepting in that he relates it not only to Heidegger’s words, but to Heidegger’s silences. Will this convince anyone who isn’t already a Heideggerean?
This is not to say that Heidegger’s Atheism is flawed in its readings. Rather, the book is limited in its audience. Heideggereans will find it thoughtful and learned, well-schooled in the corpus and commentaries. But non-Heideggereans will find it off-putting, too enmeshed in the thinker’s manner and language. Hemming acknowledges straight off that “This book concerns itself with the memory of Heidegger” (p. 2), but when he adds, “How adept we are at remembering ourselves affects how the memory lives,” we shy away. When Hemming composes this sentence: “Being ‘trues’ because it is the place which is Dasein’s being-worlded,” then follows with “I make no apologies for this dreadful piece of ‘Heideggerizing'” (p. 265), he loses everyone but the initiates.
Mark Bauerlein is Professor of English at Emory University. His last book was Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 2906 (Encounter Books, 2002).
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