Introduction To “The Price Of Our Mortality” (Kurt Appel)

The following is the first of a series of articles corresponding to chapters of the book Preis der Sterblichkeit: Christentum und Neuer Humanismus (Freiburg im Bresgau: Verlag Herder, 2015), edited by Kurt Appel, translated by Rachel Thomas.  English editor, Carl Raschke.  This volume of essays represents one of the major works in the new Catholic “cultural humanism” from Central Europe.

The present volume is titled The Price of Our Mortality. It relies on the ambiguity of the word Preis in German.[1]  On one hand, the word conveys the sense of a “price” as a tribute to be paid, that is, payment for our humanity.

If nothing else, such payment consists in suffering, vulnerability, separation from loved ones, and the brokenness of meaning and language. On the other hand, the word connotes the “praise” that human beings may offer for their mortality, whether that praise is explicitly addressed to God, or articulates a non-specific openness on our part, which grows out of our mortality.

For this mortality is neither to be thought of as a descent into a void of meaninglessness, nor as an eternal nothingness, nor as a pathway to some kind of existence beyond mortality itself, one that somehow fosters a firm self-assurance in the face of the hardships, dangers, injuries, and wounds of history. Rather, it signifies the inexhaustible openness of existence, from which love, mercy, compassion, and meaning emerge.

Such glorification of mortality is combined with a nuanced account of the fragility, vulnerability, sensitivity, and the inaccessibility of human existence in the form of a living, palpable body. This thesis is central to Christianity and can be considered  a contribution to what may be termed “a new humanism.”  Its context is the universal and radical threat that humanity faces today.  The conventional religious and secular enlightenment narratives are in crisis, because the overall ends of human history have been thrown into question.

Is humanity, as many of us suspect, merely a transient episode? Is human existence nothing more, in the final analysis, than meaninglessness and hopelessness?  Are the religious and secular visions for a better humanity not refuted? Is there not a point at which ecological and social destruction cannot be undone?

On the whole, the new challenge lies in the fact that, for the first time in human memory, the existence of humankind as a whole has been profoundly placed in doubt without the vision of a “new earth” at our disposal. Accordingly, apocalyptic visions of doom are nowadays everywhere, in film as well as in literature, from Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia” to Cormac McCarthy’s great novel The Road.

In pop culture, characters such as cyborgs, zombies, or vampires dominate the dais, which is characterized, to say the least, by the fact that they are immortal without being redeemable.  They are unaware of their own death. Is the “last man”[2] therefore an unfeeling, disembodied machine or an emotionless zombie? Is the last “reality” the fantasy of our anesthetic and inviolable virtual worlds? Is the increasing penetration of virtual landscapes a last perverse “festival” in which the downfall of “re-ality” (res aliter, or the “other thing”) is “celebrated” as a kind of death drive?

Needless to say, the “modern”, which has supplied us with the notion of the dignity and “maturity”[3] of the individual, has provided an abundance of resistance to such destructive scenarios. These scenarios must be creatively developed with new alliances to religious and secular forces that desire to remain faithful to life. However, the “eschatological” dimension of these destructive scenarios must not be trivialized by pigeonholing them into familiar crisis scripts for human history.

Christian theologies have presently become largely irrelevant, because they have immunized themselves against having to contend with issues of human mortality. They have attempted to construct their own kind of rarefied special worlds, in which social and cultural developments are ignored.  From the standpoint of culture, it is often the presumed superiority and perseverance of the elect that keeps them secure from such threats.

In such an airy-fairy setting a cultural struggle had already commenced, a struggle which had already been lost from the outset, because the categories employed simply did not correspond to anything of a social nature, all the while giving voice precisely to those very same virtualizations, which are indicative of an oft-criticized postmodern culture. The fight for “trademarks” literally carried such a  fragile inheritance – liturgical, intellectual, aesthetic and ethical – to the marketplace, often proffering them as a ridiculous caricature of what was once consequential.

In the following essays we will attempt to contrast such a sense of sequestered security-mindedness with praise for our mortal and vulnerable existence. Three mutually connected concerns must be taken together. First, there is the question of human beings as susceptible and temporal individuals who also belong to a social “body”.  Secondly, we must engage in a search for traces of the Biblical God, which can be found in the open spaces of the world and as indices of human texture and structure.  And, third, we raise the question of how time is represented beyond its chronological and mechanistic reduction to a simple cause-and-effect set of relationships. The category of “apocalypse” encountered in the Bible can offer a more penetrating understanding and view of these questions, not as an “end of the world” story line, but rather as a disclosure of the world’s own solemn deep structure.

Our account of a Preis (“price”/”glorification”) of mortality in its theological, humanistic, temporal, and theoretical dimensions consists in four parts.

The first part is “God – Man – Time: Historical, Philosophical, and Theological Reflections on Christianity and the New Humanism in Conjunction with the Bible, Hegel and Musil “, which I composed on the occasion of my appointment to the professorship of Fundamental Theology at the University of Vienna under the title “Christianity as a Project of New Humanism”.

The next essay, “Theological, Historical, and Philosophical Reflections”, spans the great arc of the history of theology and philosophy, beginning with the Biblical story of creation, continuing to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, and concluding in Robert Musil’s novel The Man without Qualities. The selection of these writings are not random.

The story of creation in Genesis serves as the cantus firmus that unfolds from the holy scripture of the Jews and Christians into what the “price” of mortality truly is. Hegel’s Phenomenology can be regarded as a reconstruction of the European project of modernism, along with the crises and challenges of modern thinking about freedom with a special sensitivity to the contingency and openness of history.  Musil is ultimately cited as a symptom for a “post-apocalyptic” world at the end of history in the disintegration of our teleological narratives and certitudes regarding salvation. In spite of this, or precisely for this reason, the final passages of The Man Without Qualities prove themselves to be a prodigious illustration of the divine moment in which is revealed the fragile contingency and vulnerability of being.

Kurt Appel is Professor of Fundamental Theology in the Catholic Faculty as well as director of the Center for Religion and Transformation at the University of Vienna.  He is the author amnog many monographs of Zeit und Gott: Mythos und Logos der Zeit im Anschluss an Hegel und Schelling as well as Dem Leiden ein Gedächtnis geben with Johann Baptist Metz.


[1] The word Preis has a variety of meanings, some quite discrepant, in German. It can mean both “price” and “praise,” a double-entendre of which the authors of this volume make routine use.  Other translations are “prize,” “reward”, “value”, “penalty”, or “glory”.  It can also be translated as “glorification,” which in certain contexts work best for our translation.

[2] The figure of the letzter Mensch, or “last man”, can be found in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

[3] The word the editor uses here is Mündigkeit, the antonym of the same term that Immaneul Kant employs in his famous definition of Aufklärung (“enlightenment”) as “the release of humanity from its self-incurred immaturity” (der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbst verschuldeten Unmündigkeit).


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