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Postmodern Apologetics?—1: Martin Heidegger and Onto-theo-ology


This is the first post in a twelve-part series for Spectrum’s 2013 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of Postmodern Apologetics? by Christina M. Gschwandtner. You can find the reading schedule here.

Although Heidegger and the thinkers featured in the next two chapters did not engage in religious “apologetics” per se, they set the stage for those who develop and appropriate their innovative ideas and arguments for those purposes (xix). Phenomenology, for Heidegger, is philosophy in its purest form. By paying careful attention to our experience of reality, and its conditions, we can come to understand reality itself. Gschwandtner draws out some general themes from his works,[1] beginning with his sharp distinction between theology and philosophy. Theology and philosophy (phenomenology) are distinct modes of interpreting of reality and not to be confused with each other. Theology describes a particular mode of existence and experience, namely a Christian one, while philosophy articulates the more general and primordial experience of reality. This means that for Heidegger, theology is not really about God; rather it is about the human experience of faith, which “is the believing-understanding mode of existing in the history revealed, i.e. occurring, with the Crucified” (22).  

Christianity is not ultimately about doctrines and creeds. For Heidegger, the Scriptures record the first-person experiences of people of faith. Theology is always contextual, and should be interpreted as providing a ‘hermeneutics of facticity’ (25); we always find ourselves within specific circumstances and we interpret every new experience only within this given framework. In her assessment of Heidegger, Gschwandtner concludes that for him: “Meaning emerges not out of objective account of a distant historical past, but from phenomenological engagement with a historical situation as a living present” (27). This opens up a whole new world of reinterpretation of Christian theological/biblical data.

Heidegger critiques traditional philosophy and theology as being onto-theo-logical. Both disciplines have attempted to provide a rational interpretation of Being (ontology), but cognitive and intellectual understanding of reality (metaphysics) and the nature of God (theology) are always elucidated by the prescribed procedures of human thinking (logic). The deity of this system is, therefore, a human construct—“Man can neither pray nor sacrifice to this god. Before the causa sui, man can neither fall to his knees in awe nor can he play music and dance before this God” (29). Heidegger, thus, prefers ‘silence’ about God (28).  The philosophical notion of god is far-off from the God of Christian lived experience. For Heidegger, ‘god-less’ thinking is closer to a genuine experience of the divine (30). Hence, talk about God should be based on an interpretation of God without reference to God being any kind of ground of Being since we cannot find adequate language to express this experience of ‘telling silence’. Language is not able to define and probe the mystery of God.  

All this is related to Heidegger’s redefinition of the concept of truth. For him, truth is not grasped using words or concepts, but through ‘unconcealment,’ (gr. aletheia); truth is something that happens when one opens oneself to it, a type of phenomenological revelation. Calculative or technological thinking does not give us the truth. Heidegger calls for a meditative thinking which provides an “openness to the mystery of Being and about the free relation to it that allows it to reveal itself” (33). For his successors who elaborate on religious phenomenology, truth is more about manifestation than verification (Paul Ricoeur) and more an encounter with love than something mastered through the mind (Jean-Luc Marion). Only poetic language, Heidegger would argue, is capable of opening one to these mysteries of truth and reality.  For Heidegger, the ‘last god’ will be an esoteric and cosmo-poetic one, who transcends the Judeo-Christian’s tradition God-talk. This is the god of poets, an immanent ‘holy’ god of the universe or nature, or the Buddhistic god of silence and meditation (36-37). 

To sum up Gschwandtner’s helpful analysis, Heidegger made a sharp distinction between theology and phenomenological philosophy, offered a new meditative alternative to thinking about the mystery of God, and redefined the concept of truth as ‘unconcealment.’

There is much to appreciate about Heidegger’s criticism of traditional philosophy and theology. Heidegger’s criticism of theology as only a rational science (Wissenschaft) is based on correct assumptions about its reliance on human intellectual constructs. Heidegger’s emphasis on the lived-experience of Christianity is valuable as well. The doctrines of the Christian faith have their proper meaning only if they are situated within a Christ-centered religious experience. Scripture itself testifies that right doctrine is always tied to the way we live our lives. Sound doctrine is an expression of a sound way of living in faith, hope, and charity. We need to think of doctrine as articulating an experiential knowledge of God rather than just being something to one gives an intellectual assent to. Furthermore, we should praise Heidegger’s philosophy for its acknowledgment of truth’s progressivism and dynamism.  Indeed, every new generation needs to be open to the ‘unconcealment’ of God’s truth in their time and place. Heidegger challenges us all to be more self-critical, which will open us to a fuller experience of reality/God. This might trigger the inherent sense of divinity (sensus divinitatus) I believe we all have, which leads to a genuine encounter with the Creator God and Savior revealed in Scripture and opens new vistas and approaches to the Church’s mission through an appreciation of the multiplicity of everyday experiences others have of reality.[2]

However, with this said, I depart from Heidegger on certain significant points. The Christian experience of faith cannot be abstracted from the life and teachings of Jesus as it is revealed in the scriptural deposit of faith (what theologians call the depositum fidei).  The responsible interpretation of Scripture continuously takes account of this historical deposit as the standard/principle of religious thought and experience. Scripture, as the revelation of God, is not just a collection of human’s describing their primordial experiences of Being, which happens to find resonance today.  It is also the living voice of God (vox Dei) that speaks to every new generation as the ever relevant Word of God. Furthermore, Heidegger’s meditative thinking is still a kind of thought.  If we aspire for more than complete silence, which Jesus himself demands (Matthew 28:19-20), we cannot annul the importance of the rational thinking process. The Christian tradition indeed speaks about sanctified/holy reason, but faith is still related to and based upon the rational capacity of the imago Dei to comprehend the content of the living Word of God. 

In conclusion, Heidegger’s radical rethinking about God/religion can motivate a more self-reflective and self-critical relationship to our spiritual and theological heritage. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of spiritual power (not a philosophical, theological or phenomenological conceptualization), is always willing to become the part of our tradition’s (or community’s) reality, confront us with our past failures and limitations, open our eyes to see new spiritual potentials, and our lives to new experiences. I believe that mystery, miracles, and prophecies should be much more present today than in our recent history. Nevertheless, this radicalization of the conceptualization of the God of power contradicts Heidegger’s approach to theology by working within the framework provided by both the existing and renewed Spirit-based pattern of the historic, divine-human life of Christ Jesus and the sacred apostolic authority of the primitive Church.

—Aleksandar S. Santrac, D.Phil., Ph.D. is Professor of Religion, Ethics and Philosophy, University of the Southern Caribbean and extraordinary adjunct [research] professor of dogmatics at North-West University, South Africa.

[1]Post-modern Apologetics? Arguments for God in Contemporary Philosophy (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012), 19-38.

[2]See my A Comparison of John Calvin and Alvin Plantinga’s Concept of Sensus Divinitatus: Phenomenology of Sense of Divinity with Interviews and Comments of Alvin Plantinga (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2011) and/or “Sensus Divinitatis and the Mission of the Church” Dialogue, 21(2), 10-12.

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