Christopher Barnett on Judith Wolfe’s Heidegger and Theology
The opening sequence of Terrence Malick’s 1998 film, The Thin Red Line, is not so much a prelude to action as an invitation to thought. It begins with a crocodile’s descent beneath the algae-covered surface of a lagoon — an eerie sight, punctuated by Hans Zimmer’s droning score. Then a voice is heard. It does not belong to a scholar or to a statesman but, as we will learn, to a soldier, his accent thick with a Southern drawl:
What’s this war in the heart of nature?
Why does nature vie with itself?
The land contend with the sea?
The camera rotates upward, revealing light as it breaches the forest canopy, and soon we are introduced to Private Witt (Jim Caviezel), an American soldier who is AWOL from his company and hiding on a remote Melanesian atoll. It is Witt who ultimately emerges as the center of The Thin Red Line. Yet, unlike heroes in other war movies, Witt is more notable for his quest for transcendence than for his exploits on the battlefield. He desires what he calls the “calm” of immortality, and, in this way, he contrasts with the angst-ridden soldiers trying to secure the island of Guadalcanal from Japan.
As is typical of a Malick release, the reaction to The Thin Red Line was mixed. Many casual filmgoers were put off by the movie’s ponderous tone and religious questions, which seemed gratuitous in juxtaposition with the violent realism and patriotic values of Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998). Yet many critics lauded the film — Malick’s first since 1978’s Days of Heaven — and it ultimately garnered seven Oscar nominations. Of course, it was not long before scholars too entered the fray, hoping to shed light on Malick’s distinctive approach to filmmaking — an approach that was said to stem from his interest in the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger.
On the one hand, Malick’s connection to Heidegger might seem surprising. After all, Malick is a filmmaker, not a philosopher. Besides, the religious sensibility of The Thin Red Line (not to mention subsequent films such as 2011’s The Tree of Life) would seem a far cry from Heidegger’s so-called “methodological atheism” — a commitment to doing philosophy beyond the confines of Christianity and its theological “answers” to ontological problems. At the same time, however, Malick studied Heidegger as an undergraduate at Harvard, and, upon receiving a Rhodes Scholarship, he intended to complete doctoral work on Heidegger (along with Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein) at Oxford. That plan did not come to fruition — Malick’s supervisor, Gilbert Ryle, was unimpressed with Heidegger’s philosophy — but Malick nevertheless published the first English language translation of Heidegger’s Vom Wesen des Grundes (1969). It was to be one of his last gestures as a scholar. Soon he would enter the AFI Conservatory and ultimately launch one of the most significant careers in the history of American cinema.
Thus Malick’s connection to Heidegger is, in fact, unambiguous. But how might have Heidegger’s thinking influenced his films, particularly in their religious interests? Indeed, aren’t the words “Heidegger” and “theology” mutually exclusive? This latter question is the subject of Judith Wolfe’s recent book, Heidegger and Theology, which aims to clarify Heidegger’s peculiar relation to theology and, ultimately, to show that Heidegger “cannot sustain his own claim to conceptual priority in its fullness.” This conclusion not only casts new light on Heidegger’s thinking, but also suggests how an interest in Heidegger — and, therefore, in “a-theistic” philosophy — might nevertheless lead one to sorts of religious questions evinced in the works of Malick and others.
Heidegger and Theology begins with an exploration of Heidegger’s upbringing in Meßkirch — a small town in the state of Baden-Württemberg, located in southwestern Germany. Like most in this area of the country, Heidegger was raised in the Catholic Church, though, during his formative years (1889-1915), Catholics were largely marginalized from the region’s socio-political leadership. But changes were afoot. Heidegger’s youth saw the Catholic Church begin to protest its status, launching a Kulturkampf that “stoked a political and intellectual backlash in which the young [Heidegger] became directly caught up.” For example, Heidegger contributed to the conservative Catholic newspaper Heuberger Volksblatt, where he decried modernism in both church and culture, and he intended to join the Society of Jesus, which was then ultramontanist in orientation. Indeed, as Wolfe points out, Heidegger’s earliest extant publication is not a treatise about Aristotelian ontology or Nietzschean nihilism but a short story about the conversion — on All Souls Day, no less — of an atheist to Christianity.
Thus Heidegger’s intellectual formation lies very much in the traditional Catholicism of his hometown. What, then, led him away from this heritage and toward the a-theological character of his later thinking? For Wolfe, this is a complicated question, to which a number of answers might be given. On the one hand, there were personal factors. A heart condition made it impossible for Heidegger to seek priestly ordination, and the change in vocational path encouraged him to study philosophy and mathematics at the University of Freiburg, rather than theology. Initially this move kept him within the ambit of Catholic thinking: his 1915 Habilitationsschrift was on the philosophy of the medieval Franciscan scholar, John Duns Scotus. However, his loyalty would be tested in the coming years. As Heidegger’s engagement with philosophy deepened, he became increasingly concerned with the Catholic Church’s stance against “Modernism.” As Wolfe notes, this concern was “less perhaps in substance than in methodology,” but, for Heidegger, the methodological question was decisive. The Neo-Scholasticism promoted by the Church was, as he saw it, too quick to soft-pedal intractable philosophical problems. It sought, in other words, to expedite theological answers to the deepest questions of human experience.
During the years 1916-19, this concern led Heidegger away from the Catholic Church, but the bulk of Wolfe’s text shows that this move hardly ended his engagement with theology. First, there was his interest in Protestantism, which brought him into contact with a number of thinkers, including Luther, Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and Overbeck. What he found in these figures was an emphasis on the experience of religion, rather than on traditional metaphysics — an approach that accorded with Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre (1821-22), whose starting point was the human being’s “feeling of absolute dependence.”
Yet, Heidegger’s understanding of religious life, at least in his early years, did not resemble the quiescent spirituality of a Schleiermacher. Rather, as Wolfe details, it was rooted in the experience of affliction. Here he borrowed a great deal from the Pauline-cum-Lutheran emphasis on Christ’s suffering on the cross, albeit with a repositioning of the “centre of the revelatory significance of suffering from the passion of Christ to the passion of man in and from his own finitude — a finitude revealed particularly in the ascent character of religious experience.” In this connection, Heidegger began to look beyond dogmatic theology to the thematization of affliction in poetry, especially in that of Friedrich Hölderlin, who would become Heidegger’s muse in later years.
Initially, notes Wolfe, the aim of this reworking of traditional Christian theology was to provide a “phenomenological groundwork for understanding the existential situation of man into which God irrupts.” But this changed in the 1920s, as Heidegger worked on and finished what would become his magnum opus, Being and Time [Sein und Zeit, 1927] — a text that would mark Heidegger’s emerging view that philosophy, rather than religion, is best suited to facilitate authentic selfhood. Wolfe gives a number of reasons for this view, but they seem to boil down to an essential point: religion in general, and Christianity in particular, rightly understands that temporal life, inasmuch as it is finite and therefore oriented toward death, is permeated by “eschatological affliction or anxiety;” however, as Christianity developed and became an institutional power, it largely exchanged this experience of affliction for theology, which prefers systematic responses to intractable philosophical questions. For Heidegger, in other words, theology runs ahead to the answers that philosophy, burdened with the ontological ground of being itself, must continue to think through time and again.
Heidegger would use this line of reasoning to distance his project from those of Christian thinkers such as Augustine of Hippo and Søren Kierkegaard. And yet, as Wolfe points out, that did not mean that Heidegger forswore theology altogether. Being and Time is replete with theological categories, including fallenness (Heidegger prefers the term Verfall, meaning “decay” or “lapse”), guilt, and the desire for wholeness (“authenticity”). Of course, that is not to say that Heidegger understood these categories in the terms of Christian orthodoxy — for he insists, in Wolfe’s words, “that life is a question that can never be answered, or a possibility that can never be fulfilled, and [this] is the basic condition of an authentic existence” — but that he adapted them from the theological sources on which his thought relies.
Nor would this trend end in the wake of Being and Time — in some cases, with disastrous consequences. In an infamous decision, which has inspired more than a little scholarly discussion and even a recent film, Heidegger became involved with National Socialism in the early 1930s, culminating with his appointment as rector of Freiburg University in 1933. In this capacity, Heidegger aimed to reform the modern German university and viewed the rise of the Nazi Party, which “had not yet developed a unified educational policy,” as the vehicle through which he might accomplish his goals. It was, according to Wolfe, a lamentable confluence of interests. Central to the Nazi movement was an eschatological consciousness that called on Germans to nutze den Tag and to claim the Aryan victory that was their destiny. This message all too neatly overlapped with Heidegger’s “de-theologized eschatology,” which stressed that existential fulfillment only emerges through hardship and toil. Initially, Heidegger viewed this fulfillment through the lens of the individual, but, around the time of his Freiburg appointment, he began to entertain the possibility that the Nazi state might offer the simultaneous realization of “national and individual destiny.”
Yet, as Wolfe details, it did not take long for Heidegger to sour on the “crass, militant apocalypticism” of National Socialism and, instead, to turn to the almost mystical ruminations of the great German poet, Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843). For Heidegger, particularly as the 1930s gave way to the 1940s, Hölderlin’s poetry offers insight into the true condition of modernity — namely, that it “is the age of the gods who have fled and of the god who is coming” (Heidegger, “Hölderlin und das Wesen der Dichtung” ). This is no longer the “god” of the Third Reich but, rather, one of unknown provenance. From Nazi predictions of the coming German age, Heidegger arrives at what Wolfe calls a “radically apophatic eschatology.”
With this turn, the so-called “later Heidegger” is born. As Wolfe deftly shows, it is not a period discontinuous with earlier stages of his thinking, united as they are by a constant eschatological undercurrent and a marked emphasis on suffering, whether personal or societal. And yet, there are certain themes that emerged during this time that served to reorient Heidegger’s thought — themes that indicate a fresh appropriation of the Christian tradition. Perhaps the most recognized is Heidegger’s critique of “onto-theology,” which is simultaneously an excoriation of theological metaphysics (the “conflation of ‘God’ and ‘being’”) and a defense of “the god” (das Un-geheuere or the “uncanny”) who always already confounds the probing of human reason. Indeed, for Heidegger, the “death” of the god of theological metaphysics lies at the root of modern despair, even as it opens up the possibility of the god’s return.
The latter point hints at another feature of the later Heidegger, which Wolfe describes as an “insistence precisely on the need for openness to a god who must come from without, or doom mankind by remaining absent.” Such an assertion should not be muddled with traditional Christian eschatology — with its belief in the parousia of the risen Christ — but it is, doubtless, another disclosure of Heidegger’s debt to theology. Moreover, in his 1966 interview with the journal, Spiegel, Heidegger goes so far as to say that “[o]nly a god can now save us” from a world given over to technological interests and, in turn, the machination [Machenschaft] of everything. In the face of this situation, the best philosophy can do is prepare “a readiness for the appearance of this god or for the absence of this god in our downfall…”.
Wolfe concludes Heidegger and Theology with a discussion of Heidegger’s various relationships with twentieth-century theologians, as well as a summary of the theological reception of Heidegger’s thinking. These are stimulating, if also brisk, chapters, which further substantiate her basic thesis — that theological categories and issues are not only found throughout Heidegger’s Arbeit but, as in the case of eschatology, involve the core of his thought. Consequently, it is untenable to read Heidegger as sloughing off Christian theology in order to arrive at something ontologically prior, though, at the same time, Wolfe refuses to claim that Heidegger’s concepts are just theology in disguise. With this in mind, she calls the reader to engage in an “independent and critical Mitdenken (thinking-with)” with the philosopher, for, after all, his aim was that his readers might learn to “live philosophically.”
If calling Heidegger and Theology “groundbreaking” would be a stretch — after all, many of its themes have been dealt with before in the secondary literature — it is not an overstatement to say that it is already one of the best books on the subject. Not only does it provide a thorough introduction to the question of Heidegger’s relation to theology, but it does so with scholarly rigor and linguistic clarity. It is hard to see how, after Wolfe’s research, one could dismiss the importance of theology both as an influence on and an interlocutor with Heidegger.
Here, indeed, Terrence Malick might serve as a test case. As a student of Heidegger, Malick knows that art is not a means of entertainment; rather, it is a revealing, even a “shining,” of being. Thus it is not altogether different from philosophy, which, in an eminent sense, attends to the truth of being — that is to say, to the ways in which being is concealed and yet unconcealed from us. At their core, then, both art and thinking open themselves to mystery, and one can see this very openness in Malick’s films, whether in their persistent questioning (“What’s this war in the heart of nature?”), their contemplative attention to the natural world, or, yes, their broaching of theological questions and themes. For, as Wolfe has now made clear, Malick’s indebtedness to Heidegger by no means excludes an interest in theology. On the contrary, it might very well imply it.