Christianity As A New Humanism – Historical, Theological, And Philosophical Reflections On The Bible, Hegel, And Robert Musil, Part 4 (Kurt Appel)

The following is the fourth 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 third here. The introduction to the series by Kurt Appel can be found here.

The Forms of the Time and their Transition to Scripture – the Book of Revelation

We can conclude, therefore, from the foregoing that God, as manifested in the Scriptures, furnishes the contact points for our contingent existence. Scripture also has the shape of a universal canon for making sense of our own unique and individual stories, for the infinite variety of our particular and personal re-enactments of the Biblical paradigms. Today we are on the lookout for an ideal body in which our injuries, celebrations, and stories are inscribed. That is the meaning of the Church in the deepest sense. Words such as “Body of Christ”, incarnation, etc., however,  threaten to degenerate into a farce, and therefore these inscriptions are done on organic skin. Like omnipresent tattoos, they bring with them an infinite longing for real experience of our own individuality in a tangible encounter with others to express what can hardly penetrate the veil of our virtualities.

I would like to draw on ideas that have to do with the philosophy of history by looking at the finals texts – scars, inscriptions – of the Bible, the Book of Revelation. I will make a few brief remarks.

Through its inscriptions the Bible reaches out into space and time at a universal level.  Spatially, the Book of Revelation extends, starting with the island of Patmos and the seven churches of Asia Minor, over all the earth and beyond to heaven and hell, to the sphere of the dead, the living, and the heavenly court. Temporally speaking, the Book of Revelation completes the canon, expands the Bible to the whole of human history from its very beginnings, or even from a time before the beginning (as in the first chapters of Genesis) to the end and even beyond. The Christian scriptures in this manner became the transformation of the whole of history through a text, the introduction of history in this second body of total tangibility and exposed-ness, where the scars of creaturely existence are engraved.

The scripture also divides human, or at least Western history, in accordance with a certain knowledge. After Hegel, time is no longer the succession of mere moments; it is not simply a physical phenomenon. Time is the manifestation of the forms of spiritual consciousness, so that world that is no longer to be considered simply as an object, but as the conjunction of subject and object, of what is immanent and what is transcendent. In the transition of these forms of consciousness time takes shape in certain forms of knowledge and religious figurations  in specific periods.  In each instance a certain form of consciousness lingers in the foreground.

The focus of these eras is the transitions that take place, which is why they never represent a sequence that might be apprehended by employing any kind of “positivist” methodology.  The decisive transition was the one between the absolute and the contingent, which was viewed by the church as happening with the event of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, conceived from such an angle of vision that  “chronological” history recedes backwards without stopping.

The transition between absolute and contingent is made manifest in the tree of life in its total tangibility, vulnerability and complete exposedness with all its shields, masks and projections.  The tree provides in this way a kind of textual tissue – a second skin or second body – of which the Church Fathers spoke as a “dress of grace” in which the human being is clothed.  This finds paradigmatic expression in the structure of the Bible as an embodiment of this “tree of life.” Hegel’s Phenomenology, like the Bible itself, represents the end point as well as its reference point.

A second important consideration is the position of the Book of Revelation within the canon, which it completes. Scripture embeds the canon in a universal temporal structure within which the entire cosmos is canceled (in the Hegelian sense of the word). In addition, Revelation also is distinguished by the fact that it recapitulates the entire canon. It provides a kind of textual collage of previous scriptures, which are never quoted verbatim, but now are re-read at the end of the entire story (or must be). The canon is translated into images; it becomes a collage-like review of  history as seen through the lens of Scripture, marked by diverse refractions of the original grammar.[1]

As a result, God can no longer be detected linguistically or grammatically, but is only is able to come into view in a broken idiom and through transitory images. My colleague Jacob Deibl drew my attention to the fact that the Christian’s canon begins with stories, but concludes in the form of letters at the end. The fact that Jesus addresses the seven churches and their angels (Rev. see. 1:5b) is no exception. So the canon ends with a personal, friendly mode of address, which is amplified by a proclamation of the seven  beatitudes (where seven is the number of fullness), the last of which refer back to the tree of knowledge. So last dimension is the transformation of speech into prayer.

Revelation provides not only a great historical arc and recapitulates the Scripture, it also comprises the epilogue, an epilogue to the story, already evident in its transmission to John the Revelator on the eighth day, Sunday, the Lord’s day (Rev. 1:10). For this purpose it is in its main parts retrospective, which also includes the future. It is in this context that we as Christians neglect to take into account that our own existence represents such an epilogue. Christians perhaps have not seriously understood life as a sacrament, as a transition  to “life” which leaves death behind. One’s ordinary life thus represents a transition from life to death, but then there is a transition from death to life in baptism, eventually becoming a transition between death and death, as a radical splitting of this enigmatic event that we know as “life” in the ordinary sense. Christian time is threshold time, and in the literal sense completes or “full-ends” (vollendet) life and death.

The structure f the Book of Revelation conveys the significance of this “epilogue.”  The great arch extends from the letter to the seven churches, the seven seals, seven trumpets and seven bowls, and finally back to seven visions in which the suffering and violence of human history is described retrospectively in a staccato of images. After this history of violence has gone up to the complete disappearance of the previous sites of action (heaven, earth) and invokes a vision that involves a description of the New Jerusalem before passing over in a voice that blesses those who participate in the tree of life, those who are affected by the stories of suffering in the world. An analogue can be found in Revelation 18:7. This auditory account finally disappears in favor of a testimony of the book, in which the tree of life is transformed finally into a liturgy that includes prayer for the coming of the Lord Jesus and concludes with a blessing for all ( “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all!).

Thus Revelation, construed as epilogue to the Scripture, successively dismisses all images in which we are reminded of the horror of human history and reconfigures the entirety of history, including the utopian final vision into a blessing that transitions us to the final blessing of the time, the tree of life, the Book and the second body as the manifestation of the kyrios.

Moonbeams by Daylight

The epilogue of the history combines these things to dismiss them, that is,  the dominance of certain forms,  and thus allows it to relate freely to the individual forms, without having to dissociate itself from them at the abstract level. According to the Revelation, this epilogue opens into a festival, and finally into a blessing. It seems now that the initial question asked can be answered – what is celebrated on the seventh (or eighth) day? It is the transformation of the external event, a seemingly senseless world history as mere chronology into a meeting space where the human being, in affirmation of its contingency, becomes nothing but sensitivity, that is, a second body of tangibility at the intersection of the human and the divine. In a sense, the festive encounter and the vitality and creativity contained in it, far from being the repression of death and an oblivion of contingency – that would be their farce – turns out to be the most profound expression of that “body”.

In a particularly profound manner, it puts us also to one of the great works of world literature, Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities[2]“. The chronological framework already gives us something to think about. The whole work takes place immediately before the outbreak of World War I, before the great apocalypse in Europe.  There is a parallel in the age of the protagonist, Ulrich. He is 32 years old, right at the threshold of the age of Christ when he (at least according to tradition) was crucified. At the same time the work points beyond the Apocalypse, which unfolds — true to Austrian style —as a farce.

The plot is centered around the so-called “parallel / collateral campaign”, which is to “bring to bear the full weight of a seventy- year reign, so rich in blessings and sorrows, against the jubilee of a mere thirty years”.[3] This is a reference to the government anniversaries of the Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and Wilhelm II of Germany. We know that this anniversary of Franz Joseph never took place, because he had died in the 1916 (that is, after 68 years of reign).  In this sense, the parallel action is something doubly absurd because it will be first of the anniversary of a death, and secondly also coincides with the fall of the Austrian Empire.

Despite its impending collapse, the parallel action is centered around a motto which expresses Austria’s status as the “true location of the world spirit”[4]. Ultimately, the parallel action turns out to be an immense series of meetings, intrigues, discussions, and full participation polls that are only missing one thing – substance.  Absent is any global idea that might address everything. In this sense, the protagonist of the work, Ulrich, is the ideal secretary for this activity because he is a “man without qualities”, a person with no guiding ideas, who has lost the “elementary, narrative mode of thought to which private life still clings, even though everything in public life has already ceased to be a narrative and no longer follows the thread anymore, but propagates in an infinitely interwoven surface”.[5]

Taking a larger view of this profoundly Austrian work, one can say that it has an apocalyptic dimension (if we take the word  “apocalyptic” to imply doomsday, not a new beginning). It is played out toward the end of the old Austria, an era in which the Messiah does not come to full age.  It takes place in a world that exceeds its own demise as farce (as seen by the seventy-year anniversary for Emperor Franz Joseph I that never took place).  It is a world that seems to know, above all, that it has no hope for the future. When one gives an inaugural lecture here in Vienna in the liberal arts context, the nexus of the city should be mentioned with an apocalyptic gesture.

Vienna is not only the city, which originates the world’s intellectual achievements of the world of the 20th century (one should only think of Freud’s psychoanalysis, twelve-tone music of Schoenberg, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, quantum physics Schrödinger, the philosophy of language by Wittgenstein and the art of Schiele and Klimt but also the city with a pronounced apocalyptic literature – that of Musil, Kraus, Horváth and later Bernhard or Bachmann. This is shaped by the fact that it has lost faith in the validity of the old world without being able to confront the world with a new utopian project. It is a world of the vanishing present and the lost future.  As such, it is a world that goes far beyond “Austria” and is now affecting more and more regions of the world culture. One might say that this is a world that has history behind it, so in a sense, a post-mortem world.

What can appear theologically particularly fascinating in this novel by Musil is the fact that this “post mortem”, which, as we have seen, is central to a Christian understanding of time, and is discussed in its religious dimensions. In Christian terms we can say that this “post mortem” time is understood as the time between baptism, where the old man dies, and in which there is a transition from the world of the living dead to life, and the Second Coming of Christ. It is a time that indicates a transition between death and death, in which death no longer means the enigmatic and nullifying nothingness, but a radical step from its own projections and thus into a new capacity to be touched by and swallowed up by life.

Furthermore, it should be stressed that this transition is also a split into “between” death and the death of death itself. Christians in death are thus at the thresholds of the times before and behind them, and of a life that is on the threshold of the future and the past. They stand at the threshold of the realization of the goal of history, which is the resurrection of Christ as messianic event.  These “threshholds”

constantly merge into one another and thus do not express any unilateral passage of time with an increasing accumulation of pasts. The Christian path leads not only from the past to the future, but also from the future to into the past. The world in which we live is both a “past” and a “future” or such of the “interim” from past and future. Our “arrival” in the present takes place in this way “too late” or “too early”, but in any case “a-present”. The futur antérieur that implies the a-presence of Christian existence means that Christian existence signifies one arriving (“after the fact”) in which what is already prepared to be (in view of the Second Coming) is also to take leave of it. Christianity is seen as neither a utopian, nor a future-oriented, nor a retrospective project, which remains rooted in the past.  There is no self-fixing of oneself in the various abodes and images of a firmly grasped present. Rather it crosses the time and is deeply anachronistic. Musil’s protagonist Ulrich gets to the heart of the matter: “God is profoundly un-modern: we cannot simply image him in tails, clean shaven, with neatly parted hair; our image of him is still patriarchal”.[6]

Musil is the guide for anyone wanting to explore the terrain of this anachronism. His work features a transition from an apocalyptic, in the conventional sense, ie a scenario without hope, towards an “anachronistic search for God.” The first book provides a lucid portrayal of this dissolution of ideas and hopeful scenarios.

The grand projects and narratives are exhausted and no longer credible, and the world without following the guiding principle, “principle of insufficient reason”.[7] They break down just like the man without qualities.  They are non-accomplishments in the epic performance of a single story, in a plurality of moments of thought and time-particles.

One side of this process of disintegration is expressed in the fact that for Ulrich the world  increasingly disappears into the mirror surface of his own desire and the realization of his own actions, so he must take “vacation from life.” In this scenario, a re-locationary step begins to manifest itself, analogous to the transition of spirit and religion in Hegel’s Phenomenology.  This re-locationary step, for which the ground has already been laid in a man who can no longer locate his “self” in the world, who “is” “qualities without a man”[8], finds its embodiment in the re-encounter of the protagonist with his sister Agathe, from whom was separated into early childhood. The two worlds that can be found in Ulrich (but also in Agathe), namely the world rational-critical insights and the emotional world of a so-called “faith”,  which is nothing short of a lack of knowledge or a doubling of knowledge, enter into a fruitful tension through the relationship with Agathe who, like Ulrich, is also a critical spirit with high emotional intelligence.

In a perilous and passionate love at the border, and in danger of physical love (incest) both enter the “thousand year kingdom”, “where life in a magical silence grows like a flower”[9]  and whose transitions bring heaven and earth to meet. Ulrich and Agathe are in a “garden”, “bright as day mysticism” of contingent and sensuous realms. In their certainty – as in Hegel’s turning back from absolute knowledge into sense-certainty – they experience in a new way the shattering of old images and self-reflections. Invisible and yet uniquely real “moonbeams by daylight”[10] shine down into this day-bright mysticism of everyday perception of the world.

The moonbeams represent a kind of “luster” of the absolute and refer to that “second skin” of pure tangibility and vulnerability at the sight of which the world can arise, at least momentarily, and can arise in a new festive way. And in the permanent loss and the painful devaluation of all images and world concepts, that is in the contingency and transience of temporal forms that give no final stop, is the “face of time”, which at once becomes “cunning, nice, and radiant from a single thought! For, what if God himself would be that which devalues the world? Would it not suddenly acquire meaning and desire? And would be not devalue it when he came closer to it by the smallest step? And would not perceiving even the foreshadowing of this already be the one real adventure??!”[11]

Perhaps this is in our time, the contribution of Christianity to the new perspective. After the great utopias, in the face of a threat to the world, everything exceeds what has previously, veiled by an impenetrable mirror media and intellectual self-reflection that refers to “nothing”, begin to separate from the medial and abstract images in order to “devalue” them. It can help us move on from the large but now empty words produced by none other than theology and the churches (along with politics and the academy). which dangle before us too much love and alterity and salvation but not enough contingency and gestures of mercy. This shift is linked to the adoption of a culture of tangibility and a perception of vulnerability that has as its very being its visible and non-material body, that is celebrated on the seventh day  as an epilogue of creation, in a festival given by HIM. What  is today the Church’s purpose, if not this, but to be network  of such tangibility, to be a universal “second skin”?

I will close with a quote from Musil, “human activities might be graded by the quantity of words required, the more words, the worse their character.”[12]

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] See also G. Biguzzi, Apocalisse, Milano 2005, esp. 60. See also T. Paulsen, On the Language and Style of the Apocalypse of John (manuscript not yet published, kindly provided by T. Nicklas).

[2] In the following quoted after the edition in the Rowohl publishing house. R. Musil, The Man Without Qualities. Roman I. First and Second Books. Hg. By Adolf Frisé, Reinbek near Hamburg 1987 and R. Musil, The Man without Qualities. Roman II. From the estate. Edited by Adolf Frisé, Reinbek near Hamburg 1987.

[3] R. Musil, The Man Without Qualities, 87.

[4] R. Musil, The Man Without Qualities, 185

[5] R. Musil, The Man Without Qualities, 709

[6] R. Musil, The Man without Qualities, 211

[7] R. Musil, The Man Without Qualities, 139.

[8] R. Musil, The Man without Qualities, 156.

[9] R. Musil, The Man Without Qualities II, 1118.

[10]R. Musil, The Man Without Qualities II, 1182.

[11] R. Musil, The Man Without Qualities II, 1189.

[12] R. Musil, The Man Without Qualities, 264.

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