Christianity As A New Humanism – Historical, Theological, And Philosophical Reflections On The Bible, Hegel, And Robert Musil, Part 1 (Kurt Appel)

The following is the second 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 constitutes represents one of the major works in the new Catholic “cultural humanism” from Central Europe.  The introductory essay by Kurt Appel can be found here. “Christianity as a New Humanism” is published in three successive installments.

Preliminary Remarks

In the following essay I attempt to lay bare a certain perspective on humanity itself, which must precede any approach to the question of “humanism”.  The perspective I seek to develop here combines a highly specific understanding of the “sacred” with a distinct conception of time and history. My aim is to unify the understanding of God, man, and time, and to this end I will cite excerpts and ideas from three significant texts that deal with the history of humanity – the Bible, Hegel’s Phenomenology, and Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities.

This project involves the three disciplines interwoven with these texts, and also includes three temporal eras (linked to specific regions).  First, time from its beginning to its end (connected with the cosmos and heaven), second, Europe’s history insofar as it extends to the Enlightenment and its distortions and thus the present day, and finally, Austria or Vienna for the first half of the twentieth century (Freud, Schönberg, Gödel, Schrödinger, Klimt, Wittgenstein, etc.) as what we will discover to be a paradigmatic epilogue to history. All three approaches will be intertwined by a category which I will refer to as transition. Together with the theme of the body (or of a sphere which forms the body[1]), and the question of time, this will provide the key to a great understanding of God, history, and the human condition.

First transition: From World Time to the Feast and Death

The seventh day

The first great story of the Bible, the so-called priestly creation story, (Gen 1, 1-2, 3/2, 4a)[2] tells of seven days’ work. This cantus firmus cof the entire Bible thematizes time in the sense that sacred history is located within time and the understanding of who is God and who is man becomes clear with the correct understanding of time. This is evident in the face that the topic of time frames the entire pericope. Day One as the beginning of time, demonstrates its basic structure:

God called the light “day” and the darkness he called: “night”. And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day. (Gen 1: 5)

Day as the basic element of the time begins with the evening. The structure of the day indicated a sequence that moves from this evening, in other words, a period that leads to death. Through the nightly interruption of day as an expression of the sphere of death, and finally to morning as a new beginning, a symbol of the recreation of the Earth (this three-part structure also alludes to the resurrection of Jesus on the third day, making not only chronological but also theological).

As a result, both the content of this time and the cantus firmus of the Bible manifests man’s path from deadly decay to the (festive) new creation of the earth, and ,is coupled with a new political and human beginning. The Fourth Day as the center of creation story symbolizes the festive season determined by sun, moon, and stars not only as a time structured by human life, but also as it makes life worth living. The Seventh Day finally ends the creation story and highlights the eschatological dimension of the time.

By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done (Gen. 2:2-3)

The Sixth Day preceding the seventh,  contains God’s final work of creation, namely the creation of man and woman. In their embodied likeness they are YHWH’s image and representation, and their creation completes earth as the home for all living things.[3] The world appeared on the sixth day as a festively adorned “good” and “completed” cosmos. In this sense, the seventh day is “superfluous”. It brings neither new works nor any chronological extension, and yet it is this day that concludes the work of creation and paradoxically that completes the world – and because of that it is “superfluous”. Its purpose lies in an open[4] transcendence of the six days’ work that prevents time from being a totality that is to be filled by works and available under the control of man, and that time is exhausted in the “world time”.

The biblical conception of time also highlights the great shortcomings of many creationist and evolutionist understandings of time. These conceptions transcend the sphere of the seventh day by redefining time and constructing it as an uninterrupted chronology, an unbroken sequence observed by God in the former and the scientist in the latter case. Time becomes the chronologically representable object and framework of our knowledge.

However, such a conception fails because the narrator and observer of this representation can never include himself in this picture. Unable to add himself to the equation, the narrator and observer must always leave himself out. Even if we could create a perfect and casual chronology up to the moment of narration there would be a distance between this moment and the narrator, a gap that could never be bridged.

The philosophical dimension of the “seventh day” is that of an addition, a space of opening, a leap and a withdrawing form of transcendence, to the point that this day is no imaginable. It cannot be fully known by one particular discipline. Is the relationship between Kant’s “causality of freedom” and “causality of nature” not essentially the same as that between the seventh day and the six days’ work? The first six days seem to be represented, the seventh day is withdrawn from objectivity, and thus at first creates the space for the subjectication of man and for all living things, which, without this addition, would exist as mere zombie or machines, as the living dead.

The seventh day is therefore not a chronological appendix of the other six days. When the verb shabbat (resting, to cease) is also translated as “celebrate” (by Buber for instance), which expresses a profound truth because it is the feast in all of its exuberance – whose spirit subverts every chronology and every form of feasibility – that brings time in its true sense and transforms chronos into free and human time ( a festival envisioned and planned to the very last detail would be the opposite of a true festival, a charade). In the Sixth Day, the whole world comes into view both temporally and locationally, but its meaning is acquired in the transition to the feast when it is opened to the feast.

Time, that is, world time, is therefore fundamentally more than the accumulation of moments. It becomes human only when chronos is lifted in favor of the no longer represented feast. Preparations are made for this feast down to the smallest detail in the time preceding it, but its power comes from a non-projected and predictable addition, that is a contingent one. Perhaps at this point we might start to ask whether the expression “superfluous” (excessive) chance qua chance is not a key part of the feast[5].

The addition of the seventh day expresses Sunday in a particularly clear way. In the liturgical understanding of Christianity, it has always been regarded as an “eighth day”, which transcends the time and reinforces the motif of the seventh day. The Sabbath was inserted into the chronological framework as a day of leisure, which was of cultural origin as an uninterrupted flow of everyday life but also as a contradiction. Sunday as the eighth day signified the “exceeding” of the sabbath and returns it to its original meaning as the day that “transcends” all other days, it transcends them and overrides them.

In this way, Sunday is not simply a day without work, but a start for the feast, which can extend to every day, but can also be made to disappear at any time  because it is almost invisible and inaccessible in its superfluity. Insofar as the eighth day also coincides with the first day – the day of creation- it expresses another dimension of it, namely, the fact that the world is created in the feast, the festival itself is not only the goal but also the origin of the world.

The interpretation of the “seventh day” (or the eighth day as its continuation and radicalization) as a messianic overflow and feast day seems to me also important, with regard to the sabbath debate between Jesus and his theological opponents. It was not a question of interpreting the sabbath more or less liberally. Even the Pharisees, Jesus’ most frequently mentioned theological opponents, were) open to the necessary means to salvage this day. Rather, the core issue is about the messianic claims made by Jesus. The Sabbath is that temporal and festive (but not ascertainable) gate, through which the Messiah enters and in which the world is newly created. Therefore, when Jesus heals on the Sabbath, he claims to regenerate the world through an act of pure creativity as a Messiah and “finger of God” (in a comparable and striking way this is evident in the multiplication of loaves, which we must interpret what it means to be radically creative)[6

The seventh, or eighth, day, therefore, signifies the transition to the “superfluous” messianic time, more celebratory than the wedding, which is assigned to the fourth day. The question remains open as to what is celebrated. In the Biblical text an examination of key words suggested a connection with Ex. 39:32, 43[7] and thus connect the seventh day with the encounter of God at the sanctuary.

However, the question raised has not yet been adequately answered.  While the encounter with God expresses the temporal time of God in the feast, but it is not yet explained what is celebrated. In my opinion, an interpretation of the seventh day requires a reading of the next Biblical pericope (which in this sense is not to be thought of as a next pericope, but completely with the first), that is, of Genesis 2: 3, 24, the so-called Yahwistic History of creation and sin[8].

The Gown of Grace and the Nakedness of Existence

The interpretation of the so-called sin predominantly takes place in two perspectives, which are opposed to each other: the classical interpretation places an innocent man in the paradise garden, from which the he falls by the infringement of a divine commandment. The results are sin, death, alienation, and the transition from God’s eternity into time. In this interpretation, man before original sin is conceptualized as an infant,  which is still beyond “good and evil”. This makes difficult to understand how sinlessness could be thought of as infantility.

The interpretation of the sins produced by German idealism operates largely in the same premises, but with the opposite consequence. Here sin is associated with the transition from prehistory to history, but it is viewed positively as a departure from the twilight state of human existence. On this reading, as a journey into time, hits means that human beings take on guilt in order to attain freedom (felix culpa).

It seems to me that both perspectives fail to give full justice to the subtlety of the text, because both perspectives try to read the Yahwistic story of sin and paradise independently of the first creation text.  Before focusing on a possible connection between the two texts, I will first concentrate on one aspect of the history of paradise and sin: namely, a view of the explicitly mentioned trees. The tree in the middle of the garden of paradise, the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

In the following passage I will discuss the layout of the garden of paradise, which could be said to be the location of the feast (anticipated in the first pericope); it takes the form of a planting of trees, two of which are explicitly mentioned: first the tree of life, and second, the tree of knowledge of good and evil.[9] It is to be emphasized that in the first setting the Tree of Life is at the center of this festive world, while the Tree of Knowledge as an additive is not localized. Here a parallel to the seventh day is suggested, this was not chronologically definable and crossed the temporal horizon of the other days. It was just “outside” of the order of time (or rather, beyond the inside/outside dichotomy) as the tree of knowledge resides in relation to the garden. Let us consider the second place where the trees appear:

YHWH God took man and set him in the Garden of Eden to work and to take care of it. And YHWH commanded the man, saying, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat it you will certainly die. (Gen 2,15 -17)

At this point man learns his destiny is the creative planting and tending of this utopian place of paradise, which has an openness in the non-localizable tree of knowledge. It is not said that man should not eat from the Tree of Life, which radiates to through the whole garden. It should be noted, however, that the Tree of Knowledge is more strongly centered. This is its first displacement from the “location without place” to a (negative) place of the prohibition. Still, the tree is not localized any further and thus remains isolated from man.

The third passage to thematize trees brings with it another shift:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals YHWH God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die’”(Gen 3,3-4)

What is crucial here is that in this passage, the forbidden tree, the tree of knowledge, has been placed to the center of the tree of life, and is thus placed at the heart of human desire. In this sense, the snake is already the embodiment of desire, the projection of desire, and not merely as an external tempter. Projections also determine what happens next. It is said that the eyes will be opened through the fruit of the tree of knowledge, that the tree is “pleasing” to the human eye and “desirable for gaining wisdom”.

In other words, the tree becomes the abode of the “self”. The nature of the self-knowledge imparted through its fruit is also described. This is the knowledge of the “nakedness” that now catches the human being’s eye. One might point to the fact that man is faced with an almost inscrutable, all-absorbing emptiness (the “evil”).The tree of knowledge (as well as the seventh day, when it is interpreted as a wearisome emptiness) transforms into the pure (self)-absence from which man is seeking to protect himself.[10]

A decisive change of view had already set in before eating the fruit: the tree of knowledge was originally displaced from the human field of view and thus beyond the possibility of direct human projection. In this way he had a status between belonging and non-belonging to the scared, who also touched the profane without being part of it. The tree of knowledge, whose “betweenness” makes it a guest, insofar as the guest stands in the center of the house /the sphere of the “own” without belonging to it.[11]

The tree of life and of the human world – now moves into the center of desire, and thus triggering an attempt to seize possession. Until then, in its extraterritoriality (like the seventh day), as a deprivation of the human concept, he designated a protective layer in which man was certainly clothed. Man did not have to be ashamed of his nakedness because of the self-decentering gap in his field of vision, bestowed by this tree, prevented him from creating an absolute projection for his self. That is to say this projection known as the “dress of grace”[12] in certain patristic traditions, represented nothing but a displacement of the human gaze from its total power of disposal over itself and others. The tree of knowledge then is the symbolization of a self-deprivation (a kind of permanent transition between the middle of life and its margins which transcends the self), which  is crucial if we are to be opened up to the other.[13]

In the extent to which the tree now comes into the center and becomes part of man, in other words, at the moment when man begins to transform the open garden into a delimited horizon of his own desire, he or she begin to locate their self in the sense of a narcissistic projection. The projection of one’s own desire (and self-centered desire), as symbolized by the tree of knowledge placed in the center, is then subsequently formed as the tempting snake, and finally morphing into the terror of absolute nothingness, a knowledge of one’s own nudity, meaning the void, associated with unmediated presence and loss of detachment – for example, the meaninglessness of the pornographic figuration.  The “opening” eyes no longer experience the original self-withdrawal expressed by the non-integrable tree of knowledge (as the encounter-triggering negation of all projections and assimilations) as a “good” difference between man and God. Though on the contrary, through the attempted appropriation of the self-deprivation expressed in through this difference, this experience is objectified and perceived as “evil”.

In contrast to original nakedness, this nudity is no longer that inviting, non-projectable “companion”, and the “second body”, which is never directly visible, enwraps us and is capable of relationship. We might even see this an an expression of the divine itself. A transcendent companion or body that sheathes man with a protective second skin like a garment of light ,though it will be shown to be vulnerable. This nakedness is consequence of an attempt at absolute self-presentation (accompanied by the desire for a presentable God) in the mirror of one’s own immeasurable desire.

Just as the feast, which is fully inserted into the chronology of a planning, becomes a mere charade, and just as the seventh day, when it particularity becomes objectified, can only function as meaningless time or deathly boredom, this nakedness, which originally clothed the self in his own deprivation as a reference to the divine, now becomes mere absence, an unavoidable emptiness. The protective layer of its own unavailability is lost to man at the moment as the layer is moved into the human horizon and becomes manageable. Hence the divine measures taken by God (e.g., distance from the tree of life and from paradise imposing mortality over man) seem like restitution measures, simulacra of the original protection[14]. In a sense, the relocation out of paradise recapitulates the relocation of the tree of knowledge that allowed only the tree of knowledge into man’s horizon.

A similar parallel exists between death and the “dress of grace”. After the loss of the dress of light, death is the second clothing of man, that ambivalent mask which protects him from the annihilating emptiness of the totality of his desiring gaze, insofar as we are detached from ourselves and each other in death.

In this sense the death masks probably do not ward off any demons that emerge from the dead, They offer no protection of the living from the dead, and fail to protect the dead themselves. Death simulates that original borderline of what can be named, a circumference in which man was enveloped, a limit which when exceeded leads not to God or to a thing in itself, but to absolute nothingness. All further garments are a form of security, which God presents to man as a gift.  They are embodiments and simulacra of this death mask (simulacra of the simulacrum), so that man has no need to be “like God”. This also explains the significance of the separation of man from the tree of life. At the moment when man has acquired absolute penetrative power by partaking of the tree of knowledge, death becomes the last tragic safeguard separating man from his own gaze, a safeguard against total self-objectification as his own double, in which we would face the ultimate horror.

All of this may perhaps suggest an initial attempt to answer to the question of what is actually celebrated on the seventh day, mainly in the realm of the possible.  It is the encounter with God, which expresses a misalignment of the human subject, a misalignment that finds expression temporally in the unfathomable and indisposable time of celebration and locationally as a non-inhabitable garden of paradise. On the seventh day through his encounter with God, man celebrates his difference to God and to himself as a projectable entity, which is already physically represented in both creation stories by the duality of the human being as man and as woman.  Sexual dimorphism is a contingency through which man becomes vulnerable. In this view the feast of the seventh day could be described as anti-pharaonic (cf. the disempowerment of sun and moon on the fourth day) the feast of contingency and vulnerable creatureliness, or as a feast of transition into the sphere of the unavailable, for which death functions as a tragic form of protection.

Death is simultaneously a protection and a distortion; it is the replacement of an original difference of man with himself, a difference man wished to overcome. Perhaps the statement made by the snake,  “You will not die if you eat from the tree of knowledge” (Gen. 3: 4) is really not a lie, but rather the central challenge of God on the part of man. Will man succeed in overcoming his mortality and thus attaining total power over himself and the other? As a result, man will try in various ways to either overcome death and conquer the tree of life or at least conceal its mortality and vulnerability in a series of new masks.

The first such attempt is the genealogy, meaning, the attempt to gain immortality through dependents. Cain, as the Bible tells us, is the descendant, the firstborn (“Eve said, ‘with the help of YHWH I have brought forth a man” Gen 4: 1), while Abel is the superfluous breath of wind, that is, a symbol of mortality and impermanence whose side God will stand by accepting his sacrifice.[15] In the following, Abel will assume a similar role not unlike the tree of knowledge and the seventh day. Abel is killed, as the Bible portrays, but he finds a replacement[16] who is named Seth (Gen. 4:25).

Thus, the human line running through Seth will not live for itself as a replacement, but has the function to represent the victims of the Cainite totalitarian will. Abel will no longer come directly into view or be present, but he will “accompany” Seth’s line of humanity as a reference point and prevent him from living for himself, thereby leading a decisive opening to the other like the seventh day and the tree of knowledge. I will now pause in these biblical retellings and turn to a text that develops and reflects upon these fractures, projections, and transitions indicated in previous paragraphs, namely to Hegel’s first great work, the Phenomenology Of Spirit.

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.

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[1]M. Merleau-Ponty captures this wonderful expression for this sphere in his grandiose “Phenomenology of Perception”: He is the node of living meanings, not the law of a certain number of mutually variable coefficients.” See M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of perception, Berlin 1966, 182.

[2]For a detailed interpretation see E. Zenger, God’s Arch in the Clouds. Studies on the composition and theology of the priestly prehistory (SBS 112), Stuttgart, 1983. Furthermore: G. Borgonovo, L’inno del Creatorale per la bellezza della creazione (Gn 1,1-2,4a), in: G. Borgonovo (ea), Torah e storiography dell’Antico Testamento, Torino 2012, 393-428.

[3]This idea represents a democratic revolution in the understanding of the human being and its significance can hardly be overstated. It is no longer the ruler who guarantees the order of creation as God’s representative on earth, but rather the human being as such in the form of man and woman who is appointed to creatively continue God’s creation, with responsibility for the order of society and world.

[4]It is crucial that the final formula is missing. Compare Zenger, God’s Arch, 100.

[5]The utterly sad thing about our world is that there is no more space allowed for this contingent moment. The ideal consists of complete planning and writing, in the complete filling of time. Insofar as there are at least two elements in the living being that escape this “filling”, namely, birth and death, they must also be brought to a standstill by replacing the living by the machine or in a seamless recycling process. This logic actually required that man’s cemeteries be replaced by compost heaps or district heating.

[6] See part IV: The price of prayer.

[7]See Zenger, God’s Arch, 171.

[8]A more detailed exegesis of the pericope is provided by G. Borgonovo, La grammatica dell’esistenza alla luce della storia di Israele (Gn 2,4b-3,24), in: ders. (Ea), Torah, 429 – 466. One of the key insights of Borgonovo’s exegesis is the significance of the seven part structure to this section as well, for example, 2.7-15, where we are presented a settenarium of perfection.

[9]The Septuagint interestingly speaks of a “tree of knowledge of what is good and evil”, and is in this epistemological emphasis probably a subtle point of the Hebrew text.

[10]Think of the phenomenon of the horror vacui!

[11]See also HD. Bahr, The language of the guest. A Meta Ethics, Leipzig 1994; the presence of the guest. Design of a Xenosophy, Nordhausen 2012.

[12]Cf. Augustine, De civitate Dei, XIV, 14.

[13]The Septuagint seems to be aware of the significance of this limitation when it calls the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” as a “tree of knowledge of that which is knowable of good and evil.” Augustine gives a profound interpretation of this structure when he speaks of the fact that the “good” first became visible as something that had been lost and that the tree bears a reminder of it (De civ. Dei XIV, 17). In this sense, the good would be precisely what is accessible to us only in the memory, but not directly.

[14] It would be necessary to ask whether the expression “the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”(Gen 3,22) resonates that God himself is aware of the danger of this all-controlling glance. We might also wonder whether the enigmatic plural in the self-designation of God (beyond a pluralist majestatis) suggests a way out of this danger.

[15]See also K. Butting, Abel stand up !, in: BiKi 58 (2003), 16 -20.

[16]See, in particular, the second part, “From the Name of God and the Opening of New Linguistic Areas.”

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