Christianity As A New Humanism – Historical, Theological, And Philosophical Reflections On The Bible, Hegel, And Robert Musil, Part 3 (Kurt Appel)

The following is the third installment of the second contribution to 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 first installment of this article can be found here, the second here. The introduction to the series by Kurt Appel can be found here.

In Hegel’s work religion is thought to be the loss of the self, in so far as the self seeks to find its reflection in its world. This view is the exact opposite of Feuerbach’s.   For Feuerbach, religion was a human projection.  However,  in Hegel’s work all religious forms become metaphors of a loss of projections(s) and thus of the self-conception of the self. Religion’s way of configuring things are necessary because they ensure that the self still has some way of  bridging the gap it finds between itself and any form of objectivity (projection).

The first way — especially in Kant’s account of the sublime[1] — in which the self’s relocation and loss of self is given religious form, is the experience of the emergence of a “light-essence” (Lichtwesens). The light symbolizes the pure movement, the pure transition, as which the self experiences itself when it ceases to maintain itself. The self will subsequently manifest its downfall as a representable entity (what Hegel calls negativity) in an even more radical form.

I would like to mention a few examples.  When the numinous is portrayed metaphorically as God in animal form it is the disconcerting character of the creature that represents the self’s detachment from itself (its relocation out of itself), and it is this disconcerting character that makes such an image a worthy “bearer of God”. In more abstract symbolism the self encounters its own strangeness in the edges of the pyramid, which symbolically express the self’s boundaries and its finitude as marked by death. In other words, the edges of the pyramid represent the barriers that stand in the self’s way within its self-conception.

The pyramid is also constructed to conceal death. It is the enigma of death through which the self suffers its radical self-detachment and which affirms in a further transformation as the impenetrability of the sign, as in the hieroglyph. In subsequent religious forms the element of the negative and the contingent, or death as absolute separation of the self from all forms of self-projection, move to the fore. We might say that the metaphor of death represents the self’s passage or transition to “becoming other to itself” as the end of all projection.

The gods as expressed in statues should not be understood as unmediated forms of a general self in the sense of idolatry. Instead these representations “freeze” the moment immediately before the onset of the numinous.other They are the ossified run-up (like the terror of God) that occurs before the event. H.D. Bahr remarks that this is the moment before the possible onset of the gods’ laughter, this laughter being the bearer of a alienating meaning that humans are unable to cope with.[2]

So rather than depicting the self, they depict its alienation. Another distinctive location within the framework of religious figurations is language or song, as expressed in the hymnos. As Hegel remarks in his System of Ethical Life,[3] language maintains the power of the negative, that which withdraws, and is in a sense the creature’s scanned death-cry. So if religion represents the self’s transition into its no longer projectable other – literally, in as much as religion seeks to cling to this very moment of transition that it undergoes as it breaks with itself (that is, with its projections) – it experiences another expression of this transitionality in language.

Language not only stands at the junction of organic sound and meaning, but is on a deeper level itself an expression of the rupture of the human self. In language the self does not depict a nonlinguistic reality, that is, language is not the symbolon of this reality. Rather, language symbolizes the rupture that self and reality undergo at each other’s hands. The human being is never in reality in any unmediated sense, nor is it ever immediately present with its self. Instead the human is internally fractured (it is one with neither world nor itself) and the speech sound manifests the self’s detachment from any unmediated unity with world or itself. This means that language, whether it takes the form of articulated words or the sounds of an instrument as simulacrum of the voice (or the articulated movement of sign language), is a superb medium for representing the rupture that the self undergoes as it is detached from its own images, a rupture that is, so to speak, absolutized through death.

Another form through which the religious sphere is symbolized is physicality as expressed in the movement, for example, of the game. It is the Olympic Games that Hegel initially has in mind. In movement, the body becomes a reference to a second body, and one could view the mastery in dance and of the body as a mastery of the transition between the two bodies, the “real” and the “referenced”. Also, the deepest motive for medieval representations of the dance of death may lie in that the first body consists of eventually being seized by the second body, that is, to make the final transition!

Before turning to Hegel’s interpretation of Christianity I would like to conclude this selection of religious images with two forms, namely tragedy and the comedic consciousness. The most striking feature of the former is the necessity of fate, whose mask conceals death in all its inexorability. Death swallows up gods and human beings and thus emerges as the nothingness of all previous mask-like symbolizations. It thus expresses the truth of ethos itself (as manifest in the ethical community and family). Above all, however, the self now experiences its complete contingency and its rupture with the world and with itself as it faces the final mask, the death mask, which reflects back no positive self-understanding.

The question that now arises is whether there is still “something” behind this mask. And it is at precisely this point that the comedy begins: the masks fall away as all previous forms and even death are laughed out of existence, (so perhaps Nietzsche is the great comedian of our times). What remains is the naked[4] self. In contrast to the self-related insight, which in Hegel’s interpretation places itself behind its behind its intellectualist validity claim, the naked self has obliterated every mask and (self-)projection protecting it. Because it has shed, in other words worked through, every mask, the comedic consciousness can say of itself: “The self is absolute being”.[5] This detached and naked self is marked by total contingency and singularity and one might ask whether it is not in fact the laughter that simulates[6] an original crack in every mask-like reality.

In any case, an element of contingency seems to on the brink of this comedic laughter, an element capable, without warning, of taking off the masks  of our existence, perhaps even those that make up present day “virtual reality”. So does God laugh? But why, we might ask, is the Christian God not depicted laughing? Why do we never hear that Jesus laughed (however convinced we may be that this “glutton” and “drunkard” was a source of amusement)?

In the story of the fall, death cloaked the unfathomable nothingness that concealed the infinite desire for the (re-)presentability of God, while this nothingness in turn obliterated the original clothes of grace, that is, the decentering of one’s own power of disposal. In its anarchical attitude towards all projections, laughter now signifies such decentering. But – at least in Hegel’s interpretation of the comedy – laughter remains ambivalent, since there is no way to determine whether it offers the self an ultimate refuge and, and, so to speak, replaces death as a form of clothing, or whether it ultimately has the potential to jeopardize itself by making itself tangible to the other. In this sense, according to Hegel, the self (or all its projections and objectifications) must be sacrificed in a more radical way, namely on the cross, which emerges as necessary for salvation.

Laughter, with its anarchic significance, becomes the springboard for a re-locationary step to a place of radical exposure and tangibility. In Hegel’s work, unhappy consciousness, as the “birthplace of the absolute”, referred to the attempt – which we encounter through the fall – to unite the finite human being with the immutable, in other words with God. The unhappiness resulted from the fact that this attempt failed because God remained, so to speak, transcendent of human desire and the union was only ever with one’s own desire. Through revealed religion, in other words through the revelation of the cross of Christ, this union now paradoxically occurs through a contingency that is radically exposed to the temporal world.

The pain of the self is no longer the pain of unfulfilled longing but stems from the vulnerability, openness and exposure of one’s own existence, in which God becomes present. It is crucially important that the event of the cross is a singular, absolute event. This is because there is no valid (reflexive) image of it that might serve as a reference point for any kind of  repetition that would allow us to tone down the contingent element and bring it under our control.[7] It goes so far that the singularity of immediate sensibility and objectivity, that is, body, comes to the fore in the cross as paradoxically the (reflective) language itself is overridden in this place, and thus this event is described as an off- meaning, is detached from all dispositions, attributions, masks, and clothes[8].

No symbolization, then, can do justice to the absoluteness of this event in its most radical externalization. The subject is deprived of the option of constructing in the other a new projection screen to save itself from this externalization, oor once again to elude the contingency of being, to evade contact with the other. What vanishes in this instance is an objectifiable God of any kind into which the self might project itself in order to distance itself from its own materiality.

Jesus thus is neither an unmediated manifestation of the transcendent God in a modalistic sense, nor the second person in a heaven of three gods, as tritheism would suggest. Instead he points the way to a relocation out of oneself, a shift that indicates not an external “other” (the world-transcending God) as a mirror of one’s own distancing from the other, but to a sphere of absolute tangibility and vulnerability that becomes the only “abode” of God, as the skin of the absolute, so to speak.[9] The story of the Fall endows the tree of life with a deeper significance. It is the place of absolute tangibility, vulnerability and exposure (in this sense, the old iconography was brilliantly intuitive in depicting the tree as a cross) in the middle of pure, affective communication with the rest of the world.[10] The tree of life is the bare body, the divine garment of “second” skin that clothed the human being “before” the fall.

Paradoxically, the “death of God” also involves a re-evaluation of death, the “death of death” in a sense. This was expressed as either the annihilation of the self (as expressed in the Phenomenology in paradigmatic form in the chapter “Absolute Freedom and Terror”) as in our culture, in which a hopeless nothingness that destroys all meaning (nihil negativum) and takes the place of the deceased[11] (where the deceased becomes “nothing”), or in the more “favorable” case, as an ambivalent mask intended to limit human beings’ infinite desire from a divine perspective. On the cross death no longer means the absence of “something,”.

Instead it signifies both the absence of all images and projections of self-concepts and conceptions of the other in which we reflect, and the final seal of this absence. The ancient gods and religious forms as death-figurations disappear in this absence  as do all mundane attempts at self-locating. As a result, Europe stands in the field of tension between two figures of dis-apparition, namely the deadly terror of one’s own self-projection and the life-giving cross. While the first one leaves the empty nothing, the second means the absolute openness to otherness.

In John 20:11-18 Mary experiences a “turning away” at the grave, at the place of emptiness of all images. She turns away from the horror of the empty tomb that she has expressed to the two messengers of God (“They have taken away my Lord”).  It is a horror into which the world has retreated , a horror that makes it impossible to sustain any imagery. Instead she embraces her arrogant determination, conveyed to the “gardener”, to retrieve her kyrios from the place of mere absence (“tell me where you have put him, and I will get him”).  Does not the impossibility of recognizing Jesus in the form of a gardener not indicate the absence of the image?  She is willing to descend into hell, or make the journey into the void. She hears her name spoken by a voice, whereby she recognizes her kyrios, in a second turn, which the final certainty, namely death as absolutely different non-place, disappears. Jesus’ tangibility (“Do not touch me”) requires postponement, inasmuch as the sphere of the second body must first develop also as a sphere of absolute tangibility.

According to Hegel, the lack of the revealed religion, that is, of the historical Christianity, consists in the fact that it places the transition of the cross as a paradigmatic transition between the body and the sphere of its absolute tangibility into a past or future event, into a contingency which is devalued as evil.  In the latter case the liturgical event, which celebrates this transition, is not taken seriously.

Absolute Knowledge and the Body of God

At the end of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, a chapter on absolute knowledge emerges as a key category that of the transition, the pure, and truly holy, spirit manifests itself. Even thinkers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who no one would suspect as being  religious, or practicing theology, emphasize the importance of this category — beyond its reduction to a mere shift of location — expressed when he highlights that we “must conceive a world that is not made up of only things, but also has pure transitions.[12] In the Phenomenology the transition is found in religion itself, inasmuch as it forms symbolizations of the transitions as re-locationary steps of the self out from its projections (that is out of itself).

The most radical point in which the transition occurs can be seen and witnessed as the divine event in itself, on the cross of Jesus. In this event HIS crucified body is seen as an absolute reference within a zone of pure tangibility, one in which the transition as such by Christ and the Father, contingency and absolute, man and God, the singular and the universal, matter (thing) and spirit (self), the psychical body and the second body that Mary beheld and that was prefigured in the Olympic Games. The decisive factor is also that in such a transition any causal chain is broken, and every beginning is succeeded by the beginning of another.[13]

It is particularly important to address the transition between the absolute and the contingent. The absolute has divested itself completely in what is given as a separate sphere, and showed up in the sensory palpability of the contingent self. The transition, which is incorporated into absolute knowledge, is that of a self which wanted to locate itself in the previous stages of its projections, or tried to cope with its loss of self, still employing forms or masks, in the total exposed-ness that serves as a “second skin” or second body, which is the embodiedness and the palpability of the absolute in relation to itself.  Concretely, we now must come to the vexing conclusion that God reveals himself in the randomness of a tangible, suffering exposed-ness and (naked) existence.

The meaning of “man” in the deepest sense thus is disclosed in completely contingent happenstances. The world and our lives are not normally regarded in this manner as a reserve of possibilities, most of which are never achieved, so we can only hope that God in paradise enables all those things that were denied during our lives.[14] Instead they manifest themselves in random and in completely unpredictable moments, wherein the Absolute itself strives to be with us, to the point that we either accept it, or shield ourselves against it. When Hegel speaks of “reason in history”, his point is not to interpret it as an abstract necessity, but rather as a paradoxical justification for the reality of the contingent moment, one which we can not easily cope with and integrate into our own desire. As is so often the case in the Biblical account, these God-encounters can be profoundly hurtful and also life-threatening (see Ex. 4.24) so ​​that they are deeply rooted in our existence as permanent scars and breaks, and there is no ultimate certainty that these encounters will not break us. However, we should also stress that just as little can be said of the routine experience of uncertainty, since general-theoretical statements no longer apply and transcend knowledge in practice and all knowledge in hope.

One more element is to be concluded in this final part. I have pointed out that tbody of pure tangibility, the tree of life in which the time is inscribed, does not identify the, scars of our existence. From the Christian standpoint, this body or the scripture engraved into it, has a particular shape, namely that of a text, which preserves the memory of who are touched or injured, called the Bible[15]. The Bible is flesh of the body that becomes word and signifies the transition between flesh and word.

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]Kant’s analysis of the sublime highlights the fact that through the experience of the ascent of the forces of nature the self is irrevocably cut off from the possibility of peacefully inhabiting the natural world. The sense of the sublime then sets in the moment the self internalizes this loss of belonging to nature and beings to transcend natural phenomena through its reason. The form of human reason is thus rooted in human reality of not belonging, which is experiences in the forces of nature in an eerily beautiful way.

[2]See H.D. Bahr, Sätze ins Nichts. Versuch über den Schrecken, Tübingen: Konkursbuch 1985, 327.

[3]See Hegel, System of Ethical Life and First Philosophy of Spirit, Albany: State University of New York Press 1988. See also G. Agamben, Language and Death, Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press 1991,

[4]While in the case of the fall nakedness reflects the emptiness of the totalitarian gaze and the self-projection that corresponds to it, the nakedness of the comedic self signifies the end of all (self-)projections and thus goes hand-in-hand with a radical knowledge of the contingency and vulnerability of Dasein. Shame, meanwhile, begins with the knowledge of of (self-)projections – which separate the self from its own contingency. In this sense we might say that comedy is shameless because it operates at the end of all projections.

[5]Hegel, Philosophy of Spirit, 545.

[6]Perhaps the canned laughter of present-day sitcoms, as a medium of the virtuality described earlier, serves to simulate the genuine occurrence of anarchical laughter to the point where it is no longer audible.

[7]In this sense Kant is right to state that all doctrinal theodicies are doomed to fail.

[8]Hegel makes the remarkable statement that religion too still dresses reality in the “clothes of its conceptions” (translation modified; Phenomenology, 578). Only the cross-event would constitute a final radical divestment, though the churches rush to create a distance from this by placing it in a past or future.

[9]The cross of Jesus, therefore, is the affective transition from the actual and the habitual body, insofar as Jesus’ body is entirely the reference of God. For a thought of the body as the transition of these two spheres, also the statements of M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, 107.

[10]On the affectivity of God, see P. Sequeri, “‘Nur einer ist der Gute’ (Mt 19,17). Theologie der Affektion als Umkehr der Ontologie”, in: E. Arens, Ästhetik trifft Theologie (QD 246), Freiburg: Herder 2012, 46-72.

[11]34 Cf. H. D. Bahr, Den Tod Denken, Munich 2002.

[12]M. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology, 320.

[13] In Hegel’s work time is the term for that which [daseiend], while Merleau-Ponty states that we must “understand time as the subject, and the subject as time”. See M. Merleau-Ponty, Perception, 490.

[14]Also E. Jüngel, God as the mystery of the world. On the theology of the Crucified in the Controversy of Theism and Atheism, Tübingen, 72001, 293 seems to go in this direction when he speaks of the fact that a “Christian eschatology … would therefore have to think of eternal life as the revelation of lived life with its ever-changing possibilities, that is, not only as a rejuvenation of the possibility from which our life really became, but at the same time as the revelation and enactment of those possibilities in which our lives constantly oscillate without ever having realized them. ”

[15] On this aspect, see M. Neri, Il corpo di Dio. Dire Gesù nella cultura contemporanea (EDB 85), Bologna: EDB 2010.

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