Following a critical review of previous theological scholarship on Heidegger and a survey of North American philosophy of religion, the book examines Heidegger's philosophy of religion and its influence on the North American variety of the same.
John R. Williams, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Memorial University of Newfoundland, has published articles on Heidegger, Whitehead, and Hartshorne.
Heidegger and the Theologians
I. Previous Evaluations.
The philosophy of Martin Heidegger has been a major factor in the development of Christian theology in the twentieth century. Heidegger himself has claimed repeatedly that he is not competent to deal with matters theological, but his works have nonetheless evoked spirited responses from the leading theologians of this era. The early and widespread characterization of Heidegger as an 'existentialist', and indeed an atheistic existentialist like Jean-Paul Sartre, occasioned a vigorous attack against him by Protestant theologians such as Karl Earth and several Catholic theologians too. On the other hand, a closer acquaintance with Heidegger's lectures and writings has convinced many others that his philosophy can be used with profit for the elucidation of the Christian faith in the twentieth century. Of this latter group, some theologians, notably Rudolf Bultmann, have felt that Heidegger's philosophy as such is theistically neutral, but that certain of its elements, such as its description of man, are better suited for the translation of the biblical message than is the language of traditional theology. Others, like John Macquarrie, believe that Heidegger's philosophy is positively theistic in import, and can serve as the basis of a valid contemporary natural theology. These different interpreters of the relevance of Heidegger for theistic thought have themselves entered into direct confrontation, and this debate has engaged many of the foremost theologians of this era. Any adequate treatment of the religious significance of Heidegger's philosophy must first situate itself with regard to a representative selection of these previous interpretations of his thought.
It is to be noted that almost all of the interpretations of Heidegger's philosophy with regard to its religious import have come from theologians rather than philosophers or historians of religion. And when non-theologians have offered evaluations of Heidegger's religious significance, they have generally done so from a theological, rather than a philosophical, perspective. The philosopher A. de Waelhens, in his widely circulated introduction to Heidegger, entitled La philosopie de Martin Heidegger,1 states categorically that Heidegger's description of human existence is totally incompatible with "Christian experience" (which he does not define):
.we believe that we have shown that the theses of Heidegger's philosophy are, in fact, the mere transposition of a strictly personal experience of existence, experience which is, without a doubt, the exact contrary of Christian experience....Thus one could demonstrate without difficulty that the Heideggerian ideas of thrownness, of guilt and especially of transcendence (ideas which are major elements of the notion of existence for Heidegger) constitute the experience of the refusal of Christian existence....The philosophy of Heidegger can serve no other end than its own, and that end is the acceptance of finitude and the exaltation of contingence.2
De Waelhens does not attempt a philosophical analysis of the Christian experience of existence as he has done with the Heideggerian description of existence, and so his judgment of the total incompatibility of the one with the other is evidently based on some unexpressed preconceptions of Christian theology which colour his thinking. (In fact, as will be shown in chapter 4 below, Heidegger's description of human finitude and the contingency of being are extremely valuable for religious thought, including that of Christianity.)
Another example of a philosopher evaluating the religous import of Heidegger's philosophy from a naive theological standpoint is the otherwise perceptive book by Helmut Danner, Das Göttliche und der Gott bei Heidegger (The Divine and the God in Heidegger).3 After giving a fairly thorough description of Heidegger's use of the terms God, the God, the divine, the divinities, the holy, etc., Danner concludes that Heidegger's concept of God is inadequate because it is incompatible with the description of God given in the Bible:
.with regard to the God and the divine in Heidegger's thought, it must be stated unequivocally that, except for the word itself, they have nothing in common with the Jewish-Christian God....
Insofar as Heidegger reveals himself in his thinking about the (divine) God, and he indeed asks and seeks after a God, after 'the' God, he comes only to the declaration of 'God's' absence; the God of the Old and New Testaments does not in the least enter into his horizon-which is consistent insofar as the God of Revelation cannot be experienced by thinking.4
Danner speaks quite freely of the "God of the Old and New Testaments" without indicating any awareness of the theologically (not to mention philosophically) problematical character of the Biblical concept (or concepts) of God. To speak of the "God of the Old and New Testaments" without any further description implies that there is general agreement as to the meaning of this expression. One need only think of the differences between Judaism and Christianity, not to mention the variety of concepts of God within these two religions, to realise that this assumption is mistaken. For Danner to argue convincingly that Heidegger's concept of God is incompatible with that of the Bible, he would have to be much more precise about his understanding of this latter term.
The final philosophical evaluation of the religious import of Heidegger's philosophy to be noted here is at the same time the shortest and the most influential. It was offered by Jean-Paul Sartre, the French 'existentialist' philosopher. He was responsible for many of the atheistic interpretations of Heidegger because of his celebrated remark that "there are...the existential atheists, amongst whom we must place Heidegger as well as the French existentialists and myself."5 The extensive use which Sartre made of Heidegger's ideas in his own major philosophical work, Being and Nothingness, served to verify in the minds of many of his readers this declaration that Heidegger's philosophy is thoroughly atheistic, and Heidegger's name has been linked to Sartre's in many books on existentialism as an unrepentant atheist.6
Apart from these three exceptions, Heidegger's philosophical interpreters have generally avoided a direct evaluation of the religious significance of his thought. Their attitude towards this question is well expressed by William Richardson, who states only that Heidegger is not incapable of a religious interpretation. But as regards which interpretation is most adequate, "here the matter is difficult and it must be left to the theologians themselves."7 As will become evident in the following pages, this view seems to be shared by most theologians as well.
Theological interest in Heidegger's philosophy has not been exclusive to Western Christians. The significance of his thought for the Buddhist and Taoist religious traditions has been the subject of lively discussion among some oriental scholars,8 and well-known representatives of other phases of the Judaeo-Christian tradition have offered religious evaluations of his philosophy.9 However, it will be advisable in this chapter to limit our treatment to representatives of the principal Western Christian theological traditions, since it is Western Christianity which is most closely related to Heidegger's philosophy.
The theological interpreters of Heidegger can be divided easily enough into those who consider him and/or his philosophy atheistic and those who believe that he can be interpreted theistically. There are, however, two important twentieth-century theologians who resist this manner of classification, despite their extensive use of Heidegger's philosophy. The first of these, Paul Tillich, has acknowledged Heidegger as one of the major influences in his theological development:
When existential philosophy was introduced into Germany, I came to a new understanding of the relationship between philosophy and theology. Heidegger's lectures at Marburg, the publication of his Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), and also his interpretation of Kant were significant in this connection.10
Tillich adopted from Heidegger both his concern for Being-the ontological perspective which had been absent from theology as much as from philosophy in the early twentieth century-and his approach to Being through a description of human existence, which Tillich developed as his method of 'correlation' (in which the questions posed by the human condition are answered by divine revelation).11 In addition to the overall structure of his theology, Tillich has been influenced by Heidegger's philosophy in many specific aspects of his theological system, such as his concept of death.12 All in all, Heidegger's influence on Tillich has been very extensive,13 and yet Tillich has generally avoided a direct evaluation of the religious significance of Heidegger's philosophy. Apart from occasional references to "Heidegger's emphatic atheism,"14 Tillich seems content to regard Heidegger as just a philosopher, and he is not surprised that Heidegger does not attempt to give religious answers to the questions raised by his philosophy, questions which Tillich feels can be answered only by the theologian.
The second major theologian...