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Part Two: Representatives of an Alternative Tradition
Twentieth Century (2): Heidegger
At the beginning of this historical interlude in which I have been reviewing the philosophies of some representatives of what I have been calling ‘dialectical theism’, I felt it incumbent on me to offer some defence of the choice of Plotinus as the first representative figure, for some would question whether he was a theist at all. Even more do I feel obliged to defend the choice of my last representative, Martin Heidegger.1
Some people have regarded him as an atheist, even a nihilist. Such judgments could come only from those who have the most superficial acquaintance with his teaching. Certainly, Heidegger could not be described as a theist in the mould of classical theism. But still less could he be called an atheist. John R. Williams, in a study of Heidegger’s philosophy of religion, suggests that ‘“panentheism” accords well with the elements in Heidegger’s thought that are relevant to religion’.2
Although I have not myself made much use of the term ‘panentheism’, I have acknowledged its kinship with what I call ‘dialectical theism’,3
and I think it may be claimed that however the contours may have changed, there remains a discernible resemblance between the thought of Heidegger and that of most of the earlier thinkers we have considered, all the way back to Plotinus.
It is surely not an accident that no recent philosopher has exercised such an influence on the theology of the twentieth century as has Heidegger. Bultmann, Tillich and Rahner, to name only three of the most eminent names, are among the many theologians deeply in Heidegger’s debt. One could hardly understand these thinkers in any depth without knowing the Heideggerian background to some of their ideas.
But here is the irony of the situation. It is not very difficult to point to what theologians have owed to Heidegger, but what is much more difficult is to say with any confidence just what Heidegger himself thought of theology and of religion generally. Clearly, for instance, he must have influenced the way in which some very important Christian theologians have thought of God. But did Heidegger himself have any concept of God? Is there any place for God in his philosophy?
Of course, we may remember that in his youth Heidegger spent some time in a Jesuit seminary. Many years later, he frankly declared: ‘Without my theological origin, I would never have attained to the way of thinking.’4
It should be noted that in much of his writing Heidegger prefers to speak of ‘thinking’ and ‘thinkers’ rather than of ‘philosophy’ and ‘philosophers’, so in the sentence quoted, he is acknowledging that his theological beginnings were an essential step on the way to philosophy. But over against this, one has to set the fact that during most of his career he kept theology at a distance, and several times declared that the tasks of the theologian and of the philosopher are quite different. In another writing, not much later than the one in which he confesses the indebtedness of his thinking to theology, he takes a very different stance and says: ‘Someone who has experienced theology in his own roots, both the theology of the Christian faith and philosophical theology, would today prefer to remain silent about God, when he is speaking as a thinker.’5
Admittedly, the reason for this silence might be that the name of God has been so much abused and misunderstood. When Heidegger died in 1976, his former student, the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, gave a memorial lecture with the title ‘An Invocation to the Vanished God’.6
In it he declared: ‘It was Christianity that provoked and kept alive this man’s thought; it was the ancient transcendence and not modern secularity that spoke through him.’ Later in the lecture he asked why someone who was as deeply stirred by theological questions as he believed Heidegger had been, had not himself become a theologian but had, on the contrary, deliberately avoided direct involvement in theology. ‘Because’, Gadamer answered, ‘he was a thinker, it was thinking that was at work in him. He felt no empowerment (Ermächtigung
) to speak of God. But what would be needed to speak of God, and that it would not do to speak of him as the sciences speak of their objects, that was the question that stirred him and showed him the path of thinking.’
Gadamer’s remarks do not remove the ambiguity in Heidegger’s relation to theology. Throughout Heidegger’s writings, early and late, there are many scattered allusions to the themes of God, religion and theology.7
Many of the allusions are brief, some are obscure, and they are not all easily harmonized. But there are more than enough to show us that Gadamer was correct in seeing in Heidegger a man deeply interested in theological questions, even if he did not think that a philosopher ought to be drawn wholly into them. It was surely again no accident that after Heidegger’s death the popular German magazine Der Spiegel
featured a commemorative article based on an interview that Heidegger had given ten years earlier, on condition that it would be published only posthumously, and the title chosen for the article was ‘Only a God Can Save Us’,8
an expression which Heidegger uses in the course of the interview and which is said to have been on his lips several times in his later years.9
But the expression is vague enough. What did he mean by this indefinite phrase, ‘a God’? What God? Probably not the God of traditional Christian theism, but if not, then what? We must examine his works in hope of finding an answer.
At the age of eighteen Heidegger read a treatise by Brentano on the various meanings of ‘being’ in Aristotle, and it was this that set the direction of his own philosophy. He conceived the task of philosophy to be an inquiry into the meaning of being, and his first major work, Sein und Zeit
(1927), was an ambitious attempt to lay the foundations for a general ontology or science of being. One might suppose that a philosophy of being would raise the question of God, but this does not happen in Sein und Zeit
, which concentrates on the analysis of human existence as the locus
in which the question of being is raised. Nevertheless, the book does make some mentions of theology. Quite near the beginning, there is a densely packed passage which runs as follows: ‘Theology is seeking a more primordial interpretation of man’s being towards God, prescribed by the meaning of faith itself and remaining within it. It is slowly beginning to understand once more Luther’s insight, that the “foundation” on which its system of dogma rests has not arisen from an investigation in which faith is primary, and that conceptually this foundation not only is inadequate for the problematic of theology, but conceals and distorts it.’10
The remark occurs in a discussion of what constitutes progress in a science. Heidegger holds that it is not the accumulation of information that counts as progress, but the capacity of a science to undergo a revolution in its basic concepts. He then gives examples of fundamental changes that were even then taking place in mathematics, physics, biology, the historical sciences and, finally, theology. When we remember that the words were being written in 1926 and that Heidegger was at that time teaching in the University of Marburg where he had among his colleagues both Bultmann and Tillich, then it is not difficult to identify the profound theological changes to which he is referring. Barth, Gogarten, Tillich, Bultmann and other theologians of what was still the younger generation were asserting the independence of their subject, recapturing the insights of the Reformers, going back to the New Testament sources and, generally speaking, finding the foundations of theology within faith itself. In particular, they were discarding the old natural theology and the metaphysics that went along with it, in the belief that these were alien importations and damaging to the true task of theology.
Heidegger knew the work of these men and was sympathetic to it, but the full implications of what he was saying can hardly be grasped from the brief passage I have quoted. Fortunately we have from the year 1927 a lecture entitled ‘Phenomenology and Theology’.11
This gives a much fuller account of Heidegger’s thoughts on theology at that time, but because of his reticence on matters theological, this lecture was held back from publication for forty years. Heidegger stresses as strongly as he can the difference between philosophy and theology. Philosophy, we are told, has to do with the question of being, but theology is a special or positive science, and this means that it deals not with being, but with a special area of beings. ‘Theology’, says Heidegger, ‘is a positive science, and as such absolutely different from philosophy.’ A positive science (also called an ‘ontic’ science) deals with a region or specific area of beings or objects. ‘Ontology, or the science of being, on the other hand, demands a fundamental shift of view: from the beings to being’. So Heidegger makes the extraordinary assertion that ‘theology, as a positive science, is closer to chemistry and mathematics than to philosophy’. Its closest neighbour, however, is said to be history. ‘Theology, as the science of faith, that is to say, of an intrinsically historical mode of being, is to the very core a historical science.’ There is not much encouragement here for philosophical theology!
There are a few other mentions of theology in Sein und Zeit
, and they vary between hostility and a kind of patronizing friendliness. Thus, while Heidegger approves of the theologians who seek to reconstruct their subject on a foundation drawn from faith itself, he is equally approving of efforts to purge philosophy of any theological influences. He speaks of ‘residues of Christian theology which have not as yet been radically extruded from philosophy’.12
He cites as an example the idea that there are ‘eternal truths’—an idea which he rejects in favour of a more dynamic, existential understanding of truth as the event of uncovering. On the other hand, we find him acknowledging that certain ideas that are of importance for his own philosophy have their origins in Christian theology. So he observes that ‘transcendence’, understood as the human being’s reaching out beyond itself, has its roots in the Bible,13
and he declares it to be ‘no accident’ that the phenomenon of anxiety, so important for his own early philosophy, has been studied chiefly by Christian thinkers.14
Finally we should not omit a footnote in which Heidegger criticizes the traditional understanding of God’s eternity which, he thinks, has been derived from our common understanding of the permanence of objects within the world. This would be inappropriate if applied to God. If we are to think of his eternity at all, then it must be on the analogy of our human temporality. God’s eternity would then be understood ‘only as a more primordial temporality which is “infinite”’.15
Though this is no more than a hint, it is one of the very few constructive remarks that Heidegger makes about God, and we shall return to it at a later point.
A year after the publication of Sein und Zeit
, Heidegger was called to the chair of philosophy at Freiburg. His inaugural lecture was entitled Was Ist Metaphysik?
and there are about it a number of features which suggest a religious or mystical interest on Heidegger’s part and which are reminiscent of ideas to be met in Plotinus, Dionysius, Eriugena and other thinkers in that tradition. Heidegger claimed that the way to understand the nature of metaphysics is to take up a definite metaphysical question. The question he proposes to discuss is the question of nothing. In a university, the positive sciences, as we have seen, all deal with some particular area of beings. When these positive sciences have divided up among them the total realm of beings that we encounter in the world, it might seem that there is nothing left for the philosopher. Exactly so, says Heidegger. Philosophy is left with nothing as its subject-matter. But this is not to be understood as nihilism. On the contrary, what is counted as nothing by those who are interested only in the beings that make up the world is said to be ‘beinger’ (seiender
) or more beingful than any being. The nothing is disregarded in our concern with things because it is no thing, no object, no particular being. It is no part of the objective phenomena studied by the sciences, yet it is what makes these phenomena possible. The ancients held that ex nihilo nihil fit
, but Heidegger claims on the contrary that ex nihilo omne ens qua ens fit
For this nothing is being. It is not any particular being or anything that can be objectified—indeed, it is ‘wholly other’ to the beings, and it is interesting that here we find Heidegger using an expression about being that Barth and Otto used about God. The comparison with Otto is apt, for we also find Heidegger saying that before the mystery of being, we experience the sense of awe (Scheu
). The lecture ends with the question of Leibniz: ‘Why are there beings at all, rather than just nothing?’17
Although the lecture deals with metaphysics, it already contains the seeds of what Heidegger was later to call the overcoming of metaphysics. Twenty years after giving his inaugural lecture, he composed an introduction to it and called it Der Rückgang in den Grund der Metaphysik
He quotes from a writing of Descartes, who had compared the whole of philosophy to a tree, of which the roots are metaphysics, the trunk physics, and the branches which come out of the trunk the other special sciences. But Heidegger wants to push the inquiry further back. ‘We are asking’, he says, ‘what is the ground in which the tree of philosophy has taken hold?’ The trouble about metaphysics is that it has never got beyond the roots of the tree and has never inquired about the ground in which the tree is planted. It is at this point that Heidegger distinguishes between traditional philosophy or metaphysics and a more original thinking about being. He writes: ‘A thinking which thinks of the truth of being can no longer be satisfied with metaphysics, though its thinking is not opposed to metaphysics. To continue the metaphor, it does not tear up the roots of philosophy. But it digs and ploughs the ground for philosophy. Metaphysics remains the origin of philosophy, but it does not attain the origin of thinking. Metaphysics is overcome in the thinking of the truth of being.’ Metaphysics, Heidegger thinks, has never got beyond the being of beings; it has not attained to the thinking of being as ‘wholly other’ than the beings. Traditional metaphysical theology falls under the same condemnation. That is why, as we have already seen, Heidegger declares it to be an ontical science, at an immeasurable remove from the original thinking of being. Metaphysics and theology—Heidegger lumps the two together as ‘onto-theology’, always a pejorative expression with him—take one of two forms. Either they trace back the beings to some common underlying substance, or else they trace them to some supreme, divine being. They do not attain to original thinking.
Heidegger’s ambivalent attitude to theology and his belief that it is a completely different kind of study from philosophy is further exposed in his Einführung in die Metaphysik
. This book opens with the question which ends the lecture Was Ist Metaphysik?
, ‘Why are there beings at all, rather than just nothing?’ According to Heidegger, this is the basic question for philosophy, understood as the science of being. But, he claims, it is not a question for theology and is not even seen to be a question by the theologian. The latter thinks he already knows the answer to the question of why there are beings rather than nothing. ‘Everything that is, except God himself, has been created by him. God himself, the uncreated creator, “is”.’19
Now, such an answer is said to miss the point of the question, understood at the philosophical level. The question, philosophically understood, is an ontological question which asks about the relation, or perhaps one should rather say, the difference, between being and the beings. The Christian doctrine of creation has misunderstood the question as an ontical one, so it traces back everything that is, except God, to something else that is, namely God. It follows the mistaken way of traditional metaphysics in trying to account for the existence of beings by deriving them from another being, though admittedly a supreme or divine being.
This is what Heidegger calls ‘onto-theology’, a confused mixture of metaphysics and theology. Its confusion lies in failing to differentiate being from the beings; indeed, it assimilates being to the beings. But, says Heidegger, ‘we think of being rigorously only when we think of it in its difference from the beings, and of beings in their difference with being.’20
Indeed, as he had already maintained in his Freiburg lecture, one must think of being as ‘wholly other’ to the beings. Thus, from the point of view of the positive sciences which concern themselves with beings, with what is objectively real, and nothing else, being must be counted as nothing, for it is not a being and, strictly speaking, one cannot say that being ‘is’.
But while he is critical of onto-theology as confusing the issue if it is allowed to influence philosophical inquiry, Heidegger immediately goes on to offer some defence of theology within its own field as an exposition of faith—presumably the type of theology practised by Barth and others and claiming to be free of metaphysical elements. ‘There is,’ writes Heidegger, ‘a thinking and questioning elaboration of the world of Christian experience, that is to say, of faith. That is theology. Only epochs which no longer believe fully in the true greatness of the task of theology arrive at the disastrous notion that philosophy can help to provide a refurbished theology, if not a substitute for theology, that will satisfy the needs and tastes of the time. For the original Christian faith, philosophy is foolishness.’21
In the passage just discussed, Heidegger seems to be saying, much as Hegel did before him, that theology is inferior to philosophy, and speaks out of faith and cannot raise the radical question of being, for it does not rise to the level of a truly philosophical conceptual thinking. Yet, on the other hand, he acknowledges that from the theological point of view, philosophy is mere foolishness. Perhaps that is because philosophy’s quest for conceptual clarity cannot capture the concrete content of faith. So we find Heidegger saying in another place: ‘Causa sui
is the right name for the God of philosophy. But man can neither pray nor sacrifice to this God. Before the causa sui
man can neither fall to his knees in awe, nor can he play music and dance before this God. The godless thinking which must abandon the God of philosophy, God as causa sui
, is thus perhaps closer to the divine God.’22
In this we seem to hear an echo of Pascal’s famous contrast between the God of philosophy and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.23
And like both Pascal and Kierkegaard, Heidegger thinks rather poorly of attempts to prove the reality of God—a God who first of all needed someone to prove his existence would be somewhat less than divine.24
But when one considers Heidegger’s remarks on the relations of theology and philosophy, and his strictures on onto-theology, the question must be raised whether he has not permitted himself to generalize in an inadmissible way about the immensely diversified fabric of Christian theology and even so-called ‘natural’ theology. Has all traditional theology been of the onto-theological variety? Have all Christian thinkers thought of God as another being in addition to the beings of the world, as something else that ‘is’ in addition to all the things that are? Have those who have used metaphysical language about God really been talking about some other God from the God of faith, so that one cannot kneel in awe before such a God? It seems to me that as soon as we ask such questions, we see at once that they must be answered in the negative. Eric Mascall, for instance, is a philosophical theologian who tells us that the way to the conception of God as the ens causa sui
or necessary being is tied in with the ‘capacity for wondering contemplation’.25
The metaphysician F. H. Bradley claimed that ‘with certain persons, the intellectual effort to understand the universe is a principal way of experiencing the deity’—and he did not mean just an abstract concept of God but an experience which ‘both chastens and transports us’.26
Heidegger himself associates the feeling of awe with the intuition of that ‘nothing’ which is wholly other than the beings, yet more ‘beingful’ than any of them. The boundary between a philosophy of being and what Heidegger is pleased to call ‘onto-theology’ is not nearly as clear-cut as he would like us to believe.
Has not the very use of an expression such as ens causa sui
already transcended the meaning of ens
, so that the reality it designates cannot belong within the realm of entia
, for the qualification causa sui
seems to indicate that here we are dealing with something that is ‘wholly other’ to what we commonly call ens
? Admittedly, Christian theology has been confused on the point and some of its language has been inadequately analysed and has been used without proper care. But theologians themselves have been in varying degrees aware of the inadequacies of their language. Some have been aware of the tension between the God of faith and the apparently abstract God of philosophy, while some have used for God in relation to created things precisely the expression which Heidegger has used to differentiate being from the beings—the ‘wholly other’. The mystical tradition, as we have already met it in Dionysius, Eriugena and others, has been especially conscious of the difference between God and the beings and of the consequent limitations of their language about God—language which often resembles that of Heidegger himself. Though human language almost inevitably objectifies God, his reality lies beyond the objectification. In a conversation with Heidegger, a Japanese interlocutor says to him: ‘For us, the void (das Leere
) is the highest name for what you like to express by the word “being”.’27
Admittedly, this remark is made from the standpoint of Buddhism, but many Christian mystics, including John Eckhart who has obvious links with Heidegger, could have said the same. They were aware that God is not to be found among the beings; he is nothing from that point of view, and their theology was no onto-theology.
It is not only among explicitly mystical writers but in a much broader stream of Christian theology that there struggles to find expression a way of speaking about God that will respect the unique difference that lies between him and the beings which make up the world. Perhaps Tillich has been most explicit in identifying God with being in something like Heidegger’s sense, but he has not been alone in this, and especially since Nietzsche’s proclamation of the death of God and the decline of the old monarchical concept, many theologians have been searching for an understanding of God that would be neither onto-theological nor a simple reversion to the unphilosophical language of the Bible. But even the older tradition is not to be dismissed as onto-theology. In an earlier chapter, we examined some aspects of the classical theism of Thomas Aquinas. It is true that in the five ways of proving that there is a God, Thomas uses language suggesting that God is a being (ens), even if a highly distinctive being. Yet when one considers what must be implied in notions like ‘first cause’, ‘prime mover’, ‘necessary being’ and so on, one sees that these cannot be additional items of the same order as causes, movers, beings, such as we know them. Rather, each is the ground and condition of all the items that we reckon causes, movers, beings. Though the language is not entirely clear and may even be misleading, what we have here is not an attempt to derive some entities from another supreme entity, but to indicate the ground of all entities, and this cannot itself be an entity. When Thomas says that Qui est
or ‘He who is’ is the most appropriate name for God, this might seem to be a clear proof that he thinks of God as a being or entity—and, indeed, I have earlier indicated a preference for Eriugena’s title for God, Qui plus quam esse est
But Thomas also says that the name Qui est
is appropriate, ‘because it does not signify any particular form but rather being itself (esse ipsum
God is therefore the same as being itself. Here the word ‘being’ (esse
) is understood in an active verbal sense, not as a substantive (ens
I think one has to say very firmly that Heidegger must not be allowed to lay down what it is permissible for theologians to say, or to decide unilaterally where the boundary between theology and philosophy is to be drawn. The affinities may be much stronger than he acknowledged, though clearly he did not want to be drawn into theological discussions himself. In this connection, I may mention that in 1964 I was invited to a conference set up by the late Carl Michalson at Drew University for theologians troubled by the problems of God-language and especially by the problems of whether one can find a way of speaking about God that does not objectify him. Heidegger was invited to this conference, since it was thought that he might have some sympathy with its aims. Although he did not attend, he sent a paper on ‘The Problem of a Non-objectifying Speaking and Thinking in Today’s Theology’.30
In general terms, Heidegger acknowledged the objectifying tendency of language and lamented that in modern times everything seems to be represented as an object for control and manipulation. As against that tendency, he declares his belief that what is most proper to language is ‘a saying of that which reveals itself in manifold ways to human beings’. But typically he declined to draw any implications for theology. He reiterates his view that theology must confine itself within the area of faith, and that it is in this context that theologians will have to work out their own problems of language. This reticence on Heidegger’s part may be thought somewhat inconsistent with his repeated criticisms of onto-theology!
So far, our results are somewhat negative. We have seen that although Heidegger often refers in one context or another to the questions of God and theology, he wants to stand off from these questions. But perhaps we can press the matter further. Is there anything in Heidegger’s philosophy that might properly be called ‘God’, even if he himself avoids God-language? One of his many distinguished former students, Karl Löwith, has declared that Heidegger’s philosophy ‘is in its very essence a theology without God’.31
But a theology without God or without some holy reality corresponding to God is a self-contradiction. If, in spite of all he has said, there is a theology in the philosophy of Heidegger, then there must be an idea of God or of a surrogate for God.
Is being a candidate for the role of God in Heidegger’s philosophy? That would mean he had a doctrine of God very similar to the one taught by Tillich, who probably derived his concept of being from Heidegger in the first place. It is in his Brief über den Humanismus
that Heidegger uses the most exalted language about being in its relation to human beings, though we have already noted that as early as the lecture Was Ist Metaphysik?
being (which is also nothing) has a numinous, awe-inspiring character. Now, in the Brief über den Humanismus
, we are told that ‘before he speaks, man must let himself be addressed by being’.32
He is the recipient of being’s self-communication, the being among all the beings that can respond to the wonder and mystery of being. It is true that Heidegger explicitly says that being is not God, but in the very next sentence, he makes it clear that by ‘God’ he understands a supreme being in the onto-theological or metaphysical sense. On the other hand, he explicitly dissociates himself from atheism, and especially from the atheism of Sartre. The latter had quoted a sentence from Sein und Zeit
which says that only as long as a human understanding of being is possible, ‘is there’ being, and Sartre had taken this to mean that man himself is the ultimate and that being is an idea produced by human subjectivity. Heidegger claims that this is a misinterpretation of his thought. In German, the phrase ‘“there is” Being’ is written ‘“es gibt
’, and although the words ‘es gibt
’ are used in everyday German in the weak sense of ‘there is’—Sartre, in fact, had translated them into French as ‘il y a
’—they mean literally ‘it gives’. Heidegger insists that he meant these words to be taken in their literal sense as denoting an act of giving, and in the original text they do indeed appear in inverted commas to show that they have a special sense. We may ask then: ‘Who or what gives?’ Heidegger’s answer is that being gives itself and communicates itself to human beings. Thus, in contrast to Sartre’s existentialism, which is also an atheistic humanism with man as his own ultimate, Heidegger is able to declare: ‘Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of being.’33
At this point we seem to have come very close to the identification of being with God or God with being. But for Heidegger the word ‘God’ is so closely tied to the onto-theological idea of the supreme being that he explicitly denies, as we have seen, that being is God. Again, although he dissociates himself from atheism, he leaves the question of God open. Nothing, he tells us, is decided about God. One would have to move beyond the traditional metaphysical question about God’s existence or nonexistence. Now Heidegger tells us in cryptic terms: ‘Only from the truth of being can the essence of the holy be thought. Only from the essence of the holy is the essence of divinity to be thought. Only in the light of the essence of divinity can it be thought or said what the word “God” is to signify.’34
Can we venture an exposition of the three sentences just quoted? The ‘truth of being’ means the uncovering of being, and according to the lecture Was Ist Metaphysik? this uncovering takes place when, in the mood of anxiety, and in awareness of his own finitude, the human being finds that all particular beings, including his own, lose their definition and are enveloped in a unity in which their separateness is lost—a unity which from one point of view is nothing but from another, being, and which has obvious resemblances to the experiences of some mystics. Incidentally, although Heidegger speaks of the mood of anxiety, Ricoeur points out that this is the reverse side of the sense of belonging, and that the whole experience can be given a more affirmative interpretation, as the sharp lines of demarcation between individual beings disappear in the intuition in and through them of the all-embracing being to which they belong. This uncovering of being is also, as we have seen, the occasion for awe and makes it possible to think the essence of the holy. From this point, Heidegger claims, one may go on to seek the meaning of ‘God’.
As I have said earlier, Heidegger is not a theist in the classical sense. But the description he gives of the passage from the truth of being to the question of God puts him in the succession of those ‘dialectical theists’, mainly mystics, whom we have considered in earlier chapters. There are clear parallels between Heidegger and thinkers, both ancient and modern, who would claim to be theists and even Christians. Being is to God as the thearchy is to the persons of the Trinity in Dionysius or as deitas is to deus in Eckhart or as Transcendenz is to the cipher of the personal God in Jaspers. I do not mean that there are exact parallels here, but there are certainly strong family resemblances.
One of the most striking is Heidegger’s depiction of being as the union of opposites, like God in the thought of Nicholas of Cusa. ‘Being is both utterly void and most abundant, most universal and most unique, most intelligible and most resistant to every concept, most in use and yet to come, most reliable and most abyssal, most forgotten and most recalling, most said and most reticent.’35
So being appears absurd, but in truth it is suprarational. ‘Perhaps being itself does not trouble itself about the contradictions of our thought.’36
Heidegger’s relation to the mystical tradition is further evidenced by what he teaches about thinking.37
He takes over from the mystics the term Gelassenheit
, which might be translated as ‘collectedness’, ‘serenity’ or ‘imperturbability’. This collectedness is attained by meditation, a kind of thinking that is open and receptive. This kind of thinking is seen by Heidegger as the goal to which philosophy leads. It is said to be close to the reflection of the poet. On the other hand, Heidegger contrasts it with the ‘calculative’ thinking of the scientist and technician, and with the assured faith of the theologian. Scientists and theologians, he claims, do not think. At this point again, Heidegger must be accused of prejudice. Many scientists are not merely calculative in their thinking, but imaginative and creative, while theologians do not merely repeat the propositions of faith.
Heidegger’s thinking is also a waiting. At the very beginning of Sein und Zeit
, he had claimed that time is the horizon for an understanding of being. He has always considered being in dynamic, historical, temporal terms, and we have seen too that he speaks of God in terms of a primordial temporality.38
Being is not timeless; it includes becoming and has a history. But Heidegger maintains that in the Western world, from the time of the Greeks onward, there has taken place a forgetting of being in the course of an increasing preoccupation with the beings, culminating in the technological era. He writes: ‘In the beginning of Western thinking, being is thought, but not the “It gives” as such. The latter withdraws in favour of the gift which It gives.’39
Here we come back to the understanding of being as a primordial act of giving (introduced almost casually in Sein und Zeit
). The act is forgotten through preoccupation with what is given. Yet I doubt if Heidegger would attach any blame to this forgetting. He seems to suggest rather that being withdraws itself, and it may be the fate of a whole historical epoch to have forgotten being. ‘What is history-like in the history of being,’ he says, ‘is obviously determined by the way in which being takes place and by this alone… this means, the way in which it gives being.’40
This notion of the absence and then the possible return of being is another echo of the mystic’s experience of God. It also reflects the poetry of Hölderlin, whom Heidegger greatly admired. Hölderlin gave expression to the sense of alienation that was mounting in the nineteenth century, and his language was definitely religious, though perhaps as much pagan as Christian. The gods have departed; they have not ceased to exist, but they are absent. Still, the very perception of the absence of the gods is a tacit acknowledgment of them and of their possible return. But Heidegger does not believe that any effort on our part can bring about that return. ‘Whether God lives or remains dead is not determined by the religiousness of man, and still less by the theological aspirations of philosophy and science. Whether God is God is determined from and within the constellation of being.’41
There is an unmistakable touch of fatalism in this. But Heidegger is not a pessimist. In the article mentioned earlier entitled ‘Only a God Can Save Us’, he declares that he is neither a pessimist nor an optimist. Even the experience of the absence of God is a liberation from complete fallenness into preoccupation with the beings. But we cannot think God into the present, we can only prepare either for his appearing or his continuing absence, but we can hope for a new advent.42
Mention of this dynamic and even mildly eschatological element in Heidegger’s thinking about God and being directs our attention to still another concept that appears in his later writings—the event (das Ereignis
). John R. Williams believes that it is the event rather than being that comes closest to ‘God’ in Heidegger’s thought. What then is ‘the event’? It seems to be the ‘It gives’, whereby being communicates itself to man and, in a sense, entrusts itself to him. This event is the ultimate idea in Heidegger’s philosophy. He writes: ‘There is nothing else to which one could trace back the event or in terms of which it could be explained. The event is not the result of something else but an act of giving that reaches out and imparts like an “It gives”, something which even being needs to attain its own character as presence.’43
These sentences seem to support Williams’ contention that ‘the event is the ultimate concept in Heidegger’s philosophy’, and likewise the idea that God or being is a verb rather than a noun, an event rather than a substance. But I would be reluctant to agree with Williams when he says that the event is ‘beyond being’. It is certainly beyond the beings, but in Heidegger being too is beyond the beings, wholly other to them and transcendent of them. I would say myself that the event is an event within being, or perhaps the event of being or even the event which constitutes being and reveals that the essence of being is giving. If the truth of being is finally uncovered as the ‘It gives’, then surely this ultimate giving, this original event of donation, deserves the name of ‘God’.