Heidegger, Apocalyptic Philosophy, and the Specter of Marcionism

Introduction: The Theological Value of the Genealogical Plotting of Modernity

Any ascription of value to the genealogical plotting of modernity and the assigning of place to representative figures must face two difficulties. Though these difficulties sometimes take the form of objections, more often they are revealed in general reservations and hesitations regarding the genealogical enterprise. First, and more generally, surely Christian theology can have no truck with genealogy since in its most influential current forms (Marxist, Nietzschean-Foucauldian, post-structuralist) it in general sacrifices history and singularity to invariant non-discursive or discursive strata, and in addition routinely submits Christian discourses, practices, forms of life to a critique that would make illusory its claims, relativize its central figure, and delegitimate its own self-understanding by exposing it to be in the thrall with its own reproduction and logic of exclusion.

Second, and more modestly, Christian theology should avoid genealogical discourse because genealogical construction is external to the real business of theology, namely, to reflect on the givens of Christian faith and to speak boldly to this faith in the broader intellectual and cultural environment that, in equal parts, challenges it and remains aggressively indifferent to it.  

Now, the first difficulty touches on something that Christian theology should attend to on pain of being a Trojan horse victim of a discourse that it welcomes and with which to some extent it is prepared to identify itself. Certainly, it seems careless at best and to indicate a form of self-hatred at worst for Christian theologians to supply room and board for a discourse calculated to behave with violence towards it. At the same time, however, it might be going too far to insist on a complete embargo against such self-styled “explanatory” genealogical discourses. In particular, reservations about the nature of genealogical discourses and the extent of their utility do not proscribe calling on such modern/postmodern discourses from time to time to deflate the pretensions of modern rationalism and its gilded story of progress.

Similarly, the second difficulty and/or reservation should give the Christian theologian pause. Even if one could borrow, develop, or construct a genealogical discourse that was less noxious regarding Christianity and did not so obviously invalidate its alethic claims, and was less toxic towards its practices and forms of life—indeed, a form of genealogy that might reasonably be thought to assist it in creating space for its claims, practices, and forms of life—this would not mean that genealogy can ever be primary in Christian thought and practice whose main obligations are respectively to hand on, expound, clarify, and test Christian faith at every point in history and in every cultural location and equally to hand on the practices that are defining for it and the forms of life that enact and identify it.

Yet, even if genealogy is necessarily secondary when allowed into Christian theology that does not suggest that it is entirely dispensable. The most superficial of historical scans show that genealogy has functioned in Christian theology from the very beginning in figures such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, and even in Augustine, only to be consistently renewed throughout Christian history and to become a stock-in-trade of all three major Christian confessions. Importantly, however, genealogy, as it has been practiced throughout the Christian tradition, seems to differ both in nature and function from the modern and postmodern genealogies that strut their wares and shout for recognition and deployment within Christian theology.

With regard to nature or type, genealogies developed within Christianity—in contradistinction to genealogical modes of discourse essentially invited into Christianity on the grounds of their prestige—do not function in an explanatory fashion. Rather they function as illumination, more specifically pointing to a historical origin as a poisoned root of a development “seen” to be invidious to Christian truth claims, practices, and Christian self-understanding. Thus, the tendency towards nomination, for example, proper names such Simon Magus, Valentinus, Marcion, and Pelagius, etc., or broader “-isms” presumed to be traceable back to particular historical figures. Whatever the difficulties of such tracing a form of thought back to an identifiable “historical” source, the obvious purpose of such naming is to deflate the authority of discourses perceived to subvert Christianity (Valentinianism, Marcionism) or at least divert it in substantial ways (Arianism, Pelagianism).

In terms of function then, Christian genealogy is essentially apotropaic or exorcistic. To the extent to which genealogy has been carried forward by Christian theology into the modern period and used against forms of discourse, practices, and forms of life that are deemed either to be insufficiently Christian or extra-Christian, these polemics can be said to be a subset of Christian apologetics related to but not identical with dogmatic theology in the strict sense.  

Given the extent and intent of the assaults against the credibility of Christianity in the modern period, it should not surprise that genealogy of this Christian apologetic type—sometimes but not always supplemented by genealogy of the other kind on an ad hoc basis—has gained a significant degree of prominence within theology. Yet, by and large, as currently practiced, Christian genealogy is reactive (rather than active or constructive), and, more often than not, responsive to specific dangers presented to Christian self-understanding by particular renderings of Christian discourses, practices, and forms of life. Genealogical interrogation is the naming of the deviant discourses, practices, and forms of life that, at a limit, are understood to constitute a Christian ersatz.

In a real sense, Christian genealogical production in contemporary theology very often functions as a counter-genealogy provoked not only by the authority and persuasiveness of discourses, practices, and forms of life that are more properly seen to be Christian declensions but also by the narratives in which the rise and demise of traditional forms of Christian belief, practices, and forms of life are told and in the process either evacuated or demonized, or sometimes both.

One of the fundamental features of counter-genealogy is diagnostic, and it is logically possible that declension alone would provoke a genealogy in the absence of a narrative of legitimation. I want to suggest, however, that Christian genealogical narrative is best understood as a form of counter-narration that arises when the prescribed new forms of Christian discourse, practice, and form of life are attended by a narrative that legitimates them and correspondingly delegitimates more traditional forms of Christianity that have been crucial to its historical identity.

Section 1: Ethical and Apocalyptic Forms of 20th-Century Marcionism

The particular kind of genealogy of which I want to speak here is that in which the historical and heresiological figure of Marcion is central. A Marcionite genealogy may well lack for well-known contemporary proponents. Yet, this is not because of the phenomenon to which it attends—the essential cleaving of the biblical canon into two and judging the New Testament (parts of) as alone Christian (with Hebrew scripture assigned to an entirely different dispensation) and the concomitant recognition of the God of Jesus Christ as totally different from the God of the Old Testament—is not far more widespread than speculative forms of philosophy and theology that represent a rewriting of the biblical narrative (e.g. Hegel and his epigones) and which, accordingly, might justify Gnostic ascription.

This phenomenon has drawn attention time and time again, both inside and outside biblical studies. The liberal Protestant theologian von Harnack, the great propagator of the Hellenization hypothesis, who intended to seal once and for all the deforming nature of Catholic Christianity, provides the central node around which any Marcionite genealogy is to be constructed, since his sympathies for Marcion are manifest in his reconstruction work on the thinker, and in the fact that he attends in more than passing fashion to the relationship of Marcion with both the Reformers, with Immanuel Kant, and with Schleiermacher as providing the basic lineaments of a Marcionite genealogy. Of course, there is a significant difference between these two Marcion-leaning inheritances: in the case of the Reformers we are dealing with a Marcionism implicit in the emphasis on Paul as a hermeneutic lens to interpret the whole of scripture (even though this does not result in a “mutilation” of the canon), whereas, by contrast, in the case of Kant and his reception in Liberal Protestant theology, we are dealing with a repetition that in the final analysis despite its scriptural orientation, or precisely because of it, is extra-biblical.

The migration of Marcionism outside biblical discourse can be seen clearly in Religion within the Boundaries of Reason Alone (1793). In that extraordinary text, Kant translates the biblical narrative into ethical categories, essentially sloughing off what cannot be so translated as historical or dogmatic leavings or remainders that can be left to the theologians. In addition, though in Religion Kant does not eschew entirely the order of creation (see Bk. 1), it functions as a mere presupposition. The emphasis falls on redemption and the construction of the kingdom, though against the background of the intransigence of moral wills that are, in some cases, corrupted all the way down. In any event, Kant put into circulation a philosophical reading of Scripture that has significant intellectual prestige and far more existential and general social import than the kinds of reading he allows among theological readings. In summary, Kant more or less exported a Marcionite reading of Scripture into philosophy, while at the same time, because of the deep connection between moral philosophy and the Bible, set the stage for its reimporting back into theology, especially in the form of Liberal Protestant theology, of which von Harnack was a prime instance.

These two inheritances, one internal to reading the Bible, and the other establishing an ethical form of Protestantism in which Marcionite interpretation of Scripture seems to have migrated beyond the Bible provide the complex profile of von Harnack – one to which I will have occasion to return to in the next section. More important at this juncture is the necessity to underscore that despite his positive though not uncomplicated avowal of Marcionism, von Harnack is not a Marcionite genealogist in the strict sense, since he is not objecting to the repetition of Marcionism in modern discourse but rather, albeit with caveats, praising and recommending it. As already indicated, his importance for a Marcionite genealogy lies in the fact that he provides indispensable material for the Marcionite genealogist in drawing the above lines of connection between Kant, the Reformation, and modern avowals of a truncated rendering of the Christian narrative entirely into the order of redemption that has its ancient prototype in Marcion’s textual mutilation.  

Now, this construction of von Harnack represents both a challenge and an opportunity for a theologian who is inclined to think that Marcionism represents the most apt genealogical category for the “earlier” Heidegger and possibly, though not as obviously, the “later Heidegger” also. One should recognize, however, that readers of Heidegger, even those resolutely opposed to him, might not be sympathetic to hoisting Heidegger on the genealogical petard despite Heidegger’s own propensities in that direction and, in particular, his plotting of the history of metaphysics from Plato to Hegel and Nietzsche as the history of a fall with deep implications for our understanding of the gap between who we think we are and who we actually are. To the extent to which Heidegger has been genealogically plotted, the defaults seem to be either inscribing him within in a narrative of voluntarism that has trans-human as well as human dimensions (and that crucially includes Nietzsche as a precursor) or inscribing him within a genealogy of Gnosticism, though assuming that the modern repetition of ancient Gnosticism bears unique features given the general progressivism of modernity in contrast to the ancient world and perhaps a different ontology, one more developmental than static in nature. Here I will confine myself to giving a brief word concerning the latter.

As is well known, the authoritative voice regarding a Gnostic genealogy in which Heidegger is inscribed is provided by one of Heidegger’s own students, Hans Jonas, who, it just so happens, is also the foremost scholar of Gnosticism in the first half of the twentieth century. In the epilogue to his classic The Gnostic Religion (1963), titled “Gnosticism, Nihilism and Existentialism,” Jonas attempts a genealogical complement to his long wrestling on a substantive level with Heidegger’s thought, which in the 1930s deeply informed his historical work on Gnosticism and which eventually issues in his ethics of responsibility and philosophy of life that are deeply opposed to Heidegger. In any event, in that essay, written in German a decade earlier, Jonas saw the analogies between Being and Time’s discussion of “throwness” (Geforfenheit) and the Gnostic ensemble of images that speak to exile from the Gnostic pleroma, that is, the realm of divine perfection antecedent to the emergence of the demiurge, who is essentially identified as the creator and legislator God of the Hebrew scriptures. Together with other fundamental existential counters of Heidegger’s account of human beings as unaccommodated before an uncanny reality, counters such as “angst” and “being-towards-death,” for Jonas, this was sufficient to label Heidegger a “nihilist.” Here, however, Jonas was not being especially original. He was preceded in this designation by another Jewish student of Heidegger: Karl Löwith.

I suppose one could think of “nihilism” as a genealogical category in an "inverted comma sense," when the origins are not considered to lie deep in the premodern field of discourse. To an extent, Jonas uses this more general genealogical strategy when he argues that Heidegger’s thought has roots in prior forms of modern thought. Again, however, this way of proceeding was itself anticipated by Löwith. Where Jonas goes beyond Löwith is in thinking that there is a premodern source for Heidegger’s thought (largely identified with the thought of Being and Time), that is, ancient Gnosticism, which, he makes clear in The Gnostic Religion, part 3, largely undoes classic Greek philosophy. In a number of other essays, Jonas also makes a point of underscoring how Heidegger’s thought surpasses Christianity, which he takes to be more adequately rendered in the likes of Origen and Augustine than in Valentinus or Basilides.

In Jonas’s case, the genealogy of Gnosticism is subsequent, maybe even consequent, to a kind of existential analysis of ancient Gnosticism (very broadly conceived). At the same time, however, there is a sense that the existential analysis is itself a reflection of the intuition that Gnosticism is far from being hermetically sealed and has its own underground history of effects. More than twenty years after the publication of his first volume on Gnosticism in 1933, Jonas draws the conclusion implicit from the beginning: Heidegger’s existential categories, which Jonas deployed in analyzing ancient texts during the first centuries of the Christian period, are so apt because they themselves reflect the very phenomenon of Gnosis that they interpret.

For better or worse—and probably for worse—this became the standard model of Gnostic return in the twentieth century and was largely repeated by Eric Voegelin and his followers. Of course, the subsequent historicist turn in the study of Gnosticism, the predilection towards micro-analysis, as well as the general assumption that the discovery of ancient texts at a monastery at Nag Hammadi in Egypt exposed as tendentious construction the characterizations of the Gnostikoi by Christian heresiologists such as Irenaeus, Tertullian, Epiphanius seemed to vitiate Jonas’s interpretive account.

The new dispensation in Gnostic studies showed almost no openness to relating ancient “Gnosticism,” to the degree to which “Gnosticism” can be used as a concept (e.g. Williams, King et al.), to any species of modern thought, whether philosophical, literary, or religious. It is not only the questionable nature of the application of existential structures to these ancient texts that prove to be a problem, but the lack of distinction in Jonas’s own analysis between Valentinianism and Hermeticism, Valentinianism and Manichaeism, and Valentinianism and Marcionism. 

From a theological point of view, the lack of distinction between Valentinianism and Marcionism is the most problematic since it bears directly on the construction of—one might even say the invention of—Christianity. On the surface, Jonas follows the ancient Christian heresiologists who seemed to lump them together. In another sense, he falls well beneath the level of heresiological diagnostics in that he constructs Marcionism as “mythological” or speculative and thereby implies at least that its mentality is exogenous relative to Christianity. This failure becomes all the more obvious when one compares Jonas’s dealing with both and that of Tertullian who, with Irenaeus, essentially draws the boundaries regarding the general horizon and particular content of Christianity.

Though on the level of polemic, Tertullian might lump Marcionism and Valentinianism together as Irenaeus does; when it comes to actual analysis, he makes it perfectly clear in his five-volume refutation of Marcion that Marcionism is not mythological. In nowise does Marcionism provide a causal explanation of how the world came to be the place of darkness that would necessarily include an account of how the creator God, figured as the careless and juridical God of the world, came to be. From Tertullian’s point of view, it is enough for Marcion to distinguish between two gods, and more specifically identify the god of Hebrew scriptures as the prince of the world who is totally different from the unknown and merciful God intimated in the Pauline epistles and the Gospel of Luke.

Whereas Valentinianism expands the Christian narrative by having an elaborate prologue to the drama of creation and redemption, Marcionism shrinks the Christian narrative by cutting off its relationship to biblical Judaism and determining that the order of creation is a fallen reality to be resolved only by the inexplicable revelation of Christ in whom is vested our inexplicable redemption.

What has this distinction got to do with a diagnosis of the thought of the early Heidegger and the prospects of a Marcionite genealogical inscription? More specifically, what has the distinction between Marcionism and Valentinianism got to do with Heidegger, who provides the existential categories to Jonas that assists in his unlocking what he believes to be the essence of Gnosticism? The short answer is that, given the relative simplicity and ascesis of its discourse, which promotes a deep engagement with a narrow band of the biblical text that favors the Pauline material and that relativizes regular religious practices and forms of life, Marcionism is in a far better position than Gnosticism with regard to functioning as a label for the thought of the early Heidegger.

Of course, a condition of the possibility of ascription is how we understand Heidegger’s 1921 lectures on Paul and to what extent we can see their shadow cast in Being and Time. I suggest that the Lectures provide the interpretive lens in and through which to interpret the fundamental ontology of Heidegger’s masterpiece and, more specifically, his analytic of Dasein as the way of access to Sein.

Still, for Marcionite ascription of the early Heidegger to be plausible, it has to deal with two related difficulties. First, if Harnack’s particular brand of liberal Protestant theology provides the standard model for the return of Marcionism in the modern period, and given the manifest differences between the Heidegger of the Lectures on Paul and Harnack’s What is Christianity?, it is hard to see how Marcionism could be ascribed to both forms of thought at the same time. Heidegger’s thought at this stage is radically eschatological, indeed, apocalyptic, in a way that Harnack’s thought is not.  

If Heidegger’s presentation of the transformative key for existence is thoroughly eventual, Harnack’s is progressive, meliorist, and largely heuristic after the fashion of Kant and Ritschl before him. Second, there is the problem that even if one were successful in sustaining the claim that Marcionism can cover the Heidegger of the Lectures on Paul and Harnack’s Liberal Theology (with which Heidegger would have no truck), there is still the problem that, very soon after his Lectures, Heidegger shifted from an analysis of religious texts (and their regional ontologies) to philosophical texts, especially those of Aristotle, as providing the groundwork of a fundamental ontology and the sketch of an anxious human being dizzily toddling and tottering on the razor’s edge.

There are a number of aspects regarding this second difficulty. First, the move away from Christian texts in general and the biblical text in particular makes it antecedently unlikely that enough of biblical Christianity has been preserved to challenge Heidegger’s own view of the enterprise of Being and Time as being grounded in a mode of phenomenological thought that is methodologically atheistic and thus not a form of Christianity by other means, in this case, Marcionism. Second, and relatedly, there is the general issue of whether it is possible for Marcionism to survive outside a direct relationship to the biblical text.

In reply to these difficulties, I will make only a few general points. First, it would only make sense that Marcionism would allow declension in both the grammatical sense and in the sense of allowing standard deviations from the Harnackian measure. Thus, the apocalyptic reading of Paul as a synecdoche of Christianity or all that is valuable in it admits of being generalized a possibility. To the extent to which this happens, then Being and Time becomes a plausible instance of Marcionism, though in a very different key than that exhibited by Harnack, who appropriated the ethical seriousness that Tertullian thought to be of the two basic features of ancient Marcionism.

If ethical seriousness is one of the basic keys of Marcionism, apocalyptic is the other. It functions as the liminal sense of the event of redemption and the need for a fundamental decision against the world of custom, rule, and procreation. Though there is plenty of ethical seriousness in Being and Time, its register is hyperbolic. More nearly to the fore is apocalyptic in terms of human beings balancing on the edge, unsheltered, and in the mode of decision and decisiveness. In addition, at the very least it is worth hypothesizing that to the extent to which Heidegger’s lectures on Paul continue to exert influence on Heidegger’s thought up to Being and Time, Heidegger’s philosophical thought admits of Marcionite ascription.

Surely, Marcionism cannot survive outside a specifically biblical context. Yet, in Religion, Kant provides good reasons for thinking that this is possible. As mentioned, in that text he provides a reading of the biblical narrative disposed to remove all that is historical, dogmatic, and legalistic from it. Essentially, he extracts the rational core of the biblical narrative—religion within the boundaries of reason alone—a philosophical doublet that essentially repeats Marcionism.

Section 2: Archeology of the Apocalyptic Marcionism of the ‘Early’ Heidegger

Heidegger’s 1921 Lectures on Paul have much to tell us not only about Heidegger’s relation to Christianity, but also about his radical thinking as such. In the Lectures, Heidegger does not attempt a panoramic sweep of the Pauline material but instead focuses on a limited number of texts. If Galatians and Romans come in for discussion, Heidegger more nearly focuses on Thessalonians 1 and 2. Proposing an existential-phenomenological translation, Heidegger ignores the entire raft of issues that are grist for the mill for the exegete; for example, philological details in the text, context, authorial intent, rhetoric, and audience. Heidegger seems to recognize that all of these Pauline texts are apocalyptically inflected, but without drawing attention to the differences in inflection and theme.

For him Thessalonians 1 and 2 function as a synecdoche for the apocalyptic urgency of Pauline literature with its emphasis on crisis. Heidegger highlights in particular the “hour,” which though not a real presence, impacts the community and individual as an event, disturbing social, ritual, and religious conventions that up to that juncture have identified the community and provided the individual with a sense of identity and belonging. The disturbance is not automatic. Rather it bears on the community and individual as a fundamental decision for a reality that cannot be extrapolated out of a shared or personal history. In his interpretation of Thessalonians 1 and 2 there are unmistakable echoes of Luther’s Anfechtung, or spiritual trial. Still, throughout his reflection, while obviously anxious to preserve the ascesis of philosophy in general and phenomenology in particular, Heidegger never resorts to the language of judgment and the surprising reality of grace.

Tonally, of course, Heidegger’s elucidation of Pauline discourse could not be further removed from the Liberal Theology of Harnack that is indebted to the law-gospel dialectic of the Reformers that chastised a more thoroughgoing Marcionism while also correcting it by the Marcionism that they denied. Harnack’s theological discourse, summarily presented in What is Christianity?, entirely lacks the prophetic exigence and apocalyptic character of Heidegger’s reading of Paul. It also lacks the existential tension between past/present and the “hour” as the non-extrapolatable future within whose gap the person of decision lives in waiting.

It is obvious that this in-between of waiting not only bears a close relation to Heidegger’s concept of “care” in Being and Time, but also seems broad enough to provide an outline of authentic existence resistant to the pressures of the “they” and the distraction of “idle speech.” Nor is it going too far to suggest that the mentality excavated through a reading of Thessalonians 1 and 2 provides the form for the apocalyptic nature of “thinking” that Heidegger opposed to Cassirer at Davos (1929), who if he was somewhat indifferent to the preservation of confessional forms of Christianity, was not indifferent to the preservation of the Western philosophical and cultural traditions.

Around the same time that Heidegger renders a reading of Paul that completes the process begun by Kant of translating Paul into the more universal idiom of philosophy—in his case an existential-phenomenological philosophical idiom—Heidegger was also in another seminar trying to come to terms with Augustine. Procedurally, Augustine is given the benefit of the doubt, and Heidegger concedes that genuine moments of deep insight are exhibited in Augustinian texts, above all, of course, the Confessions with its emphasis on experience, searching, and learning. Nonetheless, Heidegger’s overall judgment regarding Augustine is negative: genuinely radical thinking is blunted by Augustine’s theological a prioris and stunted by a commitment to Neoplatonic metaphysics. Here Heidegger’s reading of Augustine echoes Protestant polemics against the dogmatism of Catholicism and the hypertrophy of reason, while also portending his later obsessive critique of metaphysics.

Though the contiguity of his readings of Paul and Augustine does not demand that they be read as a pair, on balance it seems best to read them in this way, with Paul ascending and Augustine descending. Reading Augustine against the backdrop of Pauline apocalyptic discloses the extent to which in its dogmatic and rationalist proclivities Augustine’s would-be universalism represents a distortion and narrowing of what is exhibited by Paul. Correlatively, Paul’s discourse, which intimates a universalism without being able to realize it, is really on track in its leaving behind institution, cultic practice, law, and reason.

With Heidegger’s reflections on Augustine as a lens, it is obvious that in his reading of Paul, Heidegger is taking out two provincialisms, not one. One of these, of course, is Judaism against which Heidegger displays a life-long aversion, the other is Catholicism against which the Reformers inveighed and which Kant and the German Idealists constructed as Judaism by other means. Von Harnack shows that he inherits both traditions, even as he feels comfortable transposing the law-gospel dialectic into a more thoroughgoing Marcionism.

Yet, on the basis of his lectures on Thessalonians 1 and 2, this is also true of Heidegger’s reading of Paul, though the Marcionism in this case is more apocalyptic. As is the case in Harnack, for Heidegger, Augustine is far more the disconfirmer than the confirmer of Paul, a position that represents a development of the thought of the Reformers, who, to the extent possible, preferred to think of Augustine as the theological interpreter par excellence of Paul.

Bringing the two texts alongside each other with regard to a concern that is important to both, that is, the relation of time to what is more than time, one can see immediately what is at stake for the early Heidegger. The “hour” is, indeed, more than time to the extent to which time is defined as a succession of “nows” or as the flow of experience with its structures of retention and anticipation that reduces everything, in the end, to the present. The “hour” is the future in the mode of the un-anticipatable. Again, one can see the outline of the temporal ecstasies of Being and Time. This is the measure against which Augustine’s reflections of the self’s experience is judged. The main argument, of course, is that Augustine is bewitched by the contrast between time and eternity and makes the fatal error of giving ontological priority to the latter. From Heidegger’s perspective, his choice represents an extraordinary form of ingratitude with regard to time while also failing to intuit the apocalyptic essence of Christianity.

To fill out my suggestion that the early Heidegger provides a kind of apocalyptic counterpoint to the decidedly non-apocalyptic Marcionism of von Harnack, perhaps a detour through the Barth of the Römerbrief would be in order. This is so for a number of reasons. These include Barth’s own self-understanding, the understanding of his contemporaries, and their mutual confirmation in real-time. Few theologians have been as confident of their originality (despite their not holding it as a value) as Barth and almost none as assertive of their theological radicality that takes the form of the good news/bad news of the meteoric effect of Christ in communal and individual life.

The irrupting, disruptive Word demands a response, indeed, a fundamental decision that defines faith as it is contrasted with religion as an apparatus of belief, practice, and form of life accommodated to secular modernity. Although Barth does not wax etymological in the way the “later” Heidegger of the “de-cission” does, nonetheless, the fundamental choice that is faith enacts a cut in existence and a thoroughgoing relativization of the cultural, social, and maybe even political economies of the reproduction of belief and the production of Christian identity.

Whether one chooses the language of apocalyptic or radical eschatology—I prefer the former—this aspect of Barth’s thought was recognized by just about all of his readers, both those who affirmed his project of repristination and those repelled by it. Given historical distance, it is relatively easy for us to see the commonality between Barth and Heidegger on Paul. It was not so easy in real-time, however, since Heidegger’s reading of Paul was only published posthumously. Scholars had to depend on Being and Time as the Heideggerian point of comparison with Barth. This, however, did not hinder the Catholic theologian Przywara from seeing the connection.

If he did not use the term “apocalyptic,” he was more than aware of the exacerbation of a vertical irruptive dimension—which did not rule out an exacerbation of the “worldly” component—in Heidegger’s philosophy that rendered the world a nullity as it replaced God by an apocalyptic function of interruption. As Przywara made clear in Analogia Entis, however, whichever side of Heidegger one emphasizes, whether worldliness or the interruption of the given by the “nothing” that has replaced God, Being and Time violates both the horizontal aspect of the analogy of being, which thinks of the very essence of human being as ecstatic and self-transcending, and the vertical aspect that represents a genuine relation between human being, defined as the tension between essence and existence, and God defined as their identity.

Analogia Entis is a work of fundamental theology and/or philosophy of religion and one more interested in highly general schemas that non-trivially link thinkers across the ages and in the same period rather than making particular theological judgments (though these are in a sense prepared for in the text). Nonetheless, Heidegger and Barth are considered to belong in the last instance to the same camp. Because the text is neither a work of dogmatic and/or polemical theology in the strict sense, Przywara does not adduce a category such as “Marcionism” either to speak to them individually or together. As already indicated, it is difficult to the point of impossibility to ascribe “Marcionism” to Heidegger in real time, given that his lectures on Paul are not published. Not so with regard to the Barth of the Römerbrief.

Perhaps the most interesting case of such labeling is provided by Franz Rosenzweig. Despite the huge difference between his thought and the liberal theology of von Harnack, Rosenzweig wondered whether Barth, and more broadly “dialectical theology,” provided another Protestant instance of Marcionism. Though this diagnosis of Barth and dialectical theology postdates The Star of Redemption it is not a little interesting that Rosenzweig was anxious to clean the Augean stables of its facsimile in his own tradition in the shape of Cohen and other thinkers who relied heavily on Kant.

This can be seen in Rosenzweig’s insistence in The Star of Redemption that while creation and revelation can be distinguished, they cannot be separated. Among other things, this means that Judaism neither can nor should dispense with law and ritual as the “worldly” means of access to God who is transcendent even or especially as he is a God turned towards Israel. In a move of inversion of Romans 9­–11, it is Judaism that is “catholic” enough to include Christianity even if only as a secondary manifestation that has not grasped the deep relation between the world/human being and God.

In terms of Marcionite ascription of the work of the early Heidegger, as I have said more than once, the missing link is Heidegger’s reading of Paul which is not available for inspection in the 1920s. Furthermore, while my emphasis has been on their commonality, it is necessary but not sufficient to contrast Barth’s and Heidegger’s apocalyptic rendering of Christianity with that of von Harnack. There are also important differences between Heidegger and Barth.

One obvious difference is Heidegger’s reluctance to utter the name “Jesus” or “Christ” as the one whom Christians confess and wait for in a second coming—the presumption being that he has come already. In his philosophical reading of Thessalonians 1 and 2, Heidegger extracts as central a transformative moment that is futural and constructed as advent. Yet, not only is Christ excised, or at the very least put in brackets, it is not clear that there is a redeemer. Heidegger seems to so strongly emphasize the expectation of the redemptive event that the redeemer figure to all intents and purposes is reduced to satisfying a redemptive function that already is in place.

To the degree to which a language of redeemer survives—and it is not clear it does—then there is nothing particularly special about Christ. The redeemer function can be satisfied by other figures, which, of course, is the phenomenon observable in the “later” Heidegger in the Beitrāge and Heidegger’s elaborations of the Holy in and through his multi-various interpretations of the poems of Hölderlin. All of this would be anathema to the equally apocalyptic Barth: redemptive effect is exclusively the operation of Christ as Word.

It could well be that qua philosopher Heidegger is exercising the same scruple demonstrated by Kant in Religion when it came to the redemptive causality of Christ. And we do know that even in the 1920s, especially in his criticisms of Leibniz, Heidegger was no friend of the language of causality, and was especially negative towards the appeal to efficient causality as the privileged means of linking the transcendent God and the world. In “Phenomenology and Theology” (1927) Heidegger can mime Pascal in distinguishing the God of the philosopher and the God of faith. Yet the commitment to faith is not at the same time a commitment to Christ. If anything, Christ has been more eclipsed than he was by Kant in Religion.

Though Kant denied Christ’s redemptive causality, he did position Christ as the great exemplar of the moral life, thereby setting the pattern for liberal Protestant theology. Of course, in Barth’s commentary on Romans, such causality makes the loudest of returns. In the case of the pre-Being and Time Heidegger, however, not only is Christ divested of causal redemptive status, but also of exemplarity. This double divestment becomes much clearer after Being and Time and especially in Heidegger’s readings of Hölderlin’s poems. Similar to what happens in his readings of Paul, in his readings of Hölderlin’s poems the name of Christ is not acknowledged and his role is played by other exemplars, yet still under the rule that exemplars are signs and ciphers of an event that exceeds them and remains anonymous.

A few things follow from this difference between the Heideggerian and Barthian apocalyptic readings of Paul. First, in contradistinction to Barth, in Heidegger we can see the burgeoning of the nihilism that Stein and Przywara see in Being and Time and that Löwith later characterizes as the essence of Heidegger’s thought. If the identity of the redemptive/apocalyptic figure is crossed out, the incognito moves towards a condition of no-thing. Thus, one can see the trajectory from the “hour” to the “nothing” (Nichts) of Being and Time and beyond.

Second—and more pertinent to the topic at hand—one can draw a distinction between Barth’s fairly minimalist form of (Christian) apocalyptic, divested as it is of the typical spectacular portraiture and theatrical scenes of transumption of the world (as rendered fulsomely in the book of Revelation) and the even more minimalist form present in Heidegger’s reading of Paul and schematically reproduced in Being and Time. Heidegger’s degree-zero form of apocalyptic is reproduced in Agamben in his reading of Romans—even if Agamben’s psychopomp is Benjamin rather than Heidegger—and repeated in French thought from Blanchot to Derrida, both champions of “apocalypse without apocalypse,” that is, a form of apocalyptic in which nothing is disclosed to sight or becomes an object of insight. 

Whatever one’s position on the so-called “turn” (Kehre) from the rigorous application of phenomenology in his early work to a more strategic and interpretive application in his reflections on Nietzsche and Hölderlin, whether the emphasis falls on continuity or discontinuity, the form of apocalypse that has event (Ereignis) as its signature is different. Though Ereignis is the event of Being—or Being crossed-out to prevent it being identified with “Being” as a concept in the metaphysical tradition from Plato to Hegel—features an irrupting and rupturing quality, there is some measure of content, though the content is more intimated than rendered. Of course, that Christ satisfy the redeemer-function seems to be proscribed since the function of any redeemer is to affirm time, rootedness, and mortality rather than eternity, transcendence regulated by the character and attributes of an absolutely transcendent being, and the enervating hope of an afterlife.


The burden of the above set of reflections is to establish the plausibility of providing a Marcionite label to the thought of the “early” Heidegger. The lever for such an ascription is provided by Heidegger’s reflections in a seminar on Paul in 1921, given six years before the publication of Being and Time. The plausibility of such ascription depends, however, on making a distinction between two kinds of modern Marcionism, the ethical kind of Marcionism illustrated in von Harnack and the apocalyptic kind that seems to be illustrated in Heidegger in which the focus is on event and rupture. Of course, even as Heidegger interprets Paul, in his efforts to draw an ontology of the finite self he siphons off the authority of Scripture and essentially erases the figure of Christ who has come and will come again.

The early Heidegger tells a tale or repeats a tale that begins with Kant as to how Marcionism can be exported from Christianity into philosophy and, given the degree of the prestige of philosophical discourses, awaits reimporting back into theology and Christian self-understanding. As it turns out, however, this is only half the story. His peculiar form of apocalyptic Marcionism is also alive and well in the “later” Heidegger, only this time it comes with a kind of Nietzschean twist. The second act needs to be unfolded. I will do so at a future date.

Featured Image: Meßkirch, Heideggerhaus, Gedenktafel, Portrait Martin Heidegger von 1978, Bildhauer: Kretz, photo by Andreas Praefcke; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0.


Cyril O'Regan

Cyril O'Regan is the Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology at the University of Notre Dame. His latest book is the first installment of a multi-volume intellectual history of Gnosticism in modernity, The Anatomy of Misremembering, Volume 1: Hegel.

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