The Later Heidegger's Apocalyptic Marcionism

Christian thinkers continue to deal with Heidegger just as they continue to deal with Hegel. Just when both seem to be escaping our consciousness, they reemerge and trouble our intellectual conscience as to whether we have thought deeply enough and have fully understood how baleful the influence of Christianity—on their trenchant reading—has been on the West with respect not only to truth, but also its practices, and forms of life that for both communities and individuals should bear the character of ecstasy and authenticity. Of course, in order to get a handle on thinking as complex and sibylline as Heidegger’s diagnosis of the pathology of Christianity and its antidote, and to find the still point of Christian recollection of revelation and tradition from which we might reply, we realize that we are obliged to make distinctions between early and later texts that bear upon Heidegger’s understanding of historical Christianity and his outlining of alternatives. Making such distinctions regarding the work of Heidegger has over time become something of a cottage industry.

There have been weaker and stronger versions of this distinction. The weaker version is that Heidegger’s so-called “turn” (Kehre) is an anticipated development that simply involves the loss of privileges for Dasein vis-à-vis Sein indicated already in the Introduction to Being and Time (1927). The stronger version argues for an actual rupture in Heidegger’s thought in the emergence of a new form of radical mythopoetic thinking open to the event-character of the disclosure of Being. While choosing one or the other of these two options bears on how we understand Heidegger’s critical relation to Christianity, it is not, in my view, decisive. Either version poses difficulties for the kind of argument I wish to prosecute here, namely, that not only, as I have shown recently, does the early work of Heidegger admit of apocalyptic and Marcionite ascription, so also does his later “later” work, even if there are changes rung on the apocalyptic and Marcionite registers. This essay, then, should be seen as the complement of the previous one.

In what follows I can only provide very broad indications regarding this far-from-self-evident claim. That said, let me outline the issues that need to be dealt with to make an apocalyptic as well as a Marcionite ascription of Heidegger’s later work plausible.

First, it is necessary to provide some indication that despite the fact that in Heidegger’s “later” work one does not come upon the kind of explicit engagement with Christianity that one finds in his 1921 lectures on Paul and which is echoed in Being and Time (1927). Nonetheless, the engagement with Christianity, and derivatively with Judaism, continues in his later work, even as Heidegger constructs a mythopoetic alternative to Judaism’s and Christianity’s embrace of a hyperbolically transcendent divine that drains the world of meaning and truth.

Second, we need to sketch an argument that, despite its contemplative veneer, the pious doxological thinking of the “later” Heidegger is better described as apocalyptic rather than mystical, and that the change from the earlier to the later Heidegger is usefully described as a shift in apocalyptic register from the existential to the chthonic. Third, and relatedly, there is the issue of whether Heidegger’s chthonic apocalyptic, which bears a critical relationship to historical Christianity, admits of antecedents such that it would make sense to inscribe the “later” Heidegger in a Marcionite genealogy. I will deal with each of these desiderata in turn.

Continuing Importance of Judaism and Christianity as Foil

Though it is undeniable that in the work of the “later” Heidegger there is a more or less constant dealing with Christianity as a baneful Western historical heritage, the forms of his criticism are variously implicit and explicit, as well as being variously high-flying and low-flying. Heidegger’s characterizations of Christianity—especially Catholic Christianity—and Judaism in his Black Notebooks are explicit and low-flying. I will neither delve into the sordid details nor rail against the presence of anti-Semitic ideological fumes shamefully inhaled by a self-described critical thinker. Still, it is hard to ignore the figuration of the deracinated Jew—which essentially repeats a medieval stereotype—though even this shibboleth has a distinguished German high-culture pedigree. It is found everywhere in Hegel’s work, even if Hegel laminates it as a primordial metaphysical orientation. Equally, however, it is hard to ignore the stereotyping of the Jesuits as power-hungry, conniving, disingenuous, and disloyal to the particular communities they are supposed to serve, attributes that appear to be taken straight out of Voltaire, for whom we might reliably have presumed Heidegger has unbridled contempt.

Here, however, I am more interested in the analytic core of the figuration of Judaism and a certain kind of Christianity and how what Heidegger says in the unfiltered jottings in the Black Notebooks confirm prejudices that leak into the texts published in his lifetime. Of course, Judaism and Christianity are objects of critique because of their commitment to plenary forms of transcendence. As with German Idealism and Romanticism, Heidegger can only conceive of the relation between transcendence and immanence in Judaism and historical Christianity in competitive terms. In addition, he was convinced that, looked at historically in terms of its basic vision and life orientation, historical Christianity is simply Judaism by other means.

Proximally, it is Nietzsche who will make these points. What is original to Nietzsche, however, is less the content of these avowals and disavowals than the tone. Heidegger’s critique of Judaism and Christianity is similar to that of German Idealism and Romanticism in being two-pronged. On the one hand, Judaism and historical Christianity represent the supreme intellectual misadventure of regarding a divine sphere entirely separated from the world, indeed, incommensurate with it. On the other hand, Judaism and historical Christianity illustrate imperfect forms of worldliness, the former a worldliness that is at the basis of the horror of modern technology and its construction of the world as a set of resources (not excluding humanity), the latter essentially playing the game of the formation and reformation of secular culture on a religious basis that under examination reveals itself to express a libido dominandi. This critique of worldliness, however, cannot be separated from the critique of both Judaism and Christianity as regimes of thought and practice in bondage to a construal of a transcendent entity that necessarily bleeds the world of its significance.

The linkage between unworldliness and false worldliness is also to be found in Nietzsche, though Heidegger may very well be closer to Hegel than Nietzsche in thinking that the terrible knot between unworldliness and worldliness is best tied in Catholic Christianity. This is not to conspire with Heidegger in his desperate and frequently wildly implausible attempts to create daylight between himself and the most self-consciously prophetic of prophetic thinkers in the nineteenth century, whether the subject is art, mission, exceptionality, the history of philosophy, or the distinction between inauthentic and authentic nihilism. Nietzsche exercises significant influence in all these areas that Heidegger veils as he tethers his later mythopoetic thought to Friedrich Hölderlin whose philosophical importance he elevates to the same extent that he downplays the importance of Nietzsche.

Not every criticism of Judaism and historical Christianity in Heidegger’s later works is quite so explicit and quite so sordid as those expressed in the Notebooks. Heidegger is usually a little better behaved rhetorically speaking, if not necessarily more circumspect. Indeed, he is often positively ethereal in his criticism: the primary error of metaphysics is routinely identified as “ontotheology,” that is, mistaking Being for the ground of beings, whether the ground is understood to be ontological or logical, causal or non-causal. This error, established already in the classical philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, and carried forward in the misbegotten misalliance of religion and thought in the West, is the poisoned root of the Western intellectual tradition.

This identification of the Being with the ground of beings is often regarded as the clarion call to philosophy and theology to remove metaphysics from Christianity. It would seem to follow that the removal of a metaphysical/logical apparatus from the thinking of Christianity would essentially immunize it from Heideggerian critique. There has been any number of takers of this advice for Christian self-purging. And it would seem that among other textual sites that might support this view is Heidegger’s 1954 Zurich lecture to Protestant pastors, which seems to follow closely what he wrote much earlier in “Phenomenology and Theology” (1927): keep theology bound to Scripture and all will be well.

While it may be convenient, given Heidegger’s philosophical authority, to accept him at his word that, in contradistinction to his aversion to the God of metaphysics—an aversion that he shares with the likes of Pascal—he is free of prejudice regarding the biblical God, there are good grounds to suspect that the biblical God does not enjoy the kind of protection sought by Christian theologians when they accept the binary of the God of the philosophers and the God of Christian faith. In fact, Heidegger gives the interpreter good reason to suppose that the sovereign and legislative God of the Bible is a divinity to be foresworn, since this God has productionist tendencies similar to the God of metaphysics who finds expression in efficient causality, and who in addition bleeds the world and human being of modes of transcendence and ecstasy proper to them.

In a famous passage in Identity and Difference Heidegger complains that one cannot pray to the Causa Sui. One is tempted to analogize this statement with similar statements in Luther or Pascal. Yet, there is the difference that while Luther and Pascal would think not only of prayer as appropriate with regard to this God in whose hands our salvation lies, but also that this personal and sovereign God provides the very condition of the possibility of prayer, and does so not by his neighborliness but by his alterity. The final feature of this complex claim is one that Heidegger seems anxious to avoid. Even in those texts from the 1930s and 1940s in which Heidegger does not seem to be explicitly dealing with Christianity, his basic figurations of the divine, salvation, eschatology, and apocalyptic are dependent on the prior scripts within Christianity. While this seems to suggest, on the one hand, that Heidegger cannot do without Christianity, on the other, it seems to suggest that these prior scripts need to be worked over and altered if they to be meaningful to authentic thinking or and/or facilitate the reception of Being (Sein) or Being in an archaic mode (Seyn), that is, Being as it might be received by human being cut open and capable of taking on the stance or mission of the “shepherd of Being.”

Lastly, one should mention a critique of Christianity—it also applies to Judaism—of a very implicit but powerful kind that functions at a very high degree of abstraction. I am speaking here to Heidegger’s articulation of the Holy which, in Heidegger’s more or less phenomenological view, provides the horizon for divinity, which in turn provides the horizon of all gods, not excluding the biblical God. One of the effects of such a hierarchical scheme is that it relativizes the truth claims of all religious groups as well as historicizing the emergence and perpetuation of their belief system and attendant practices and forms of life.

All of this is done, however, with the relativization of Christian truth claims and historicizing of Christianity, especially in view, and is accompanied by an implied denial that the domain of the Holy corresponds to the biblical God as the Holy One and his sphere of influence. A decade prior to Being and Time, Heidegger read Rudolph Otto’s text, Das Heilige, in which he showed that though he was open to the numinous wherever and however it appears, whether in art as well as religion, in the final analysis, the norm for all theophanies is provided by the biblical theophanies. The later Heidegger definitively renounces what he would regard as a mischievous closure in interpretation: theophany is proper to all human reception of truth, whatever the moment, whatever the expressive discourse that serves as its vehicle, whether myth, religion, art, or philosophy. The experience of mysterium tremendum et fascinans is radically democratic.

The Later Heidegger and the Chthonic Inflection of Apocalyptic 

This brings me to the second of the three major issues, that is, whether Heidegger’s thought continues to be apocalyptic after the manner of the early Heidegger who first seemed to engineer a secular apocalyptic through his interpretation of Pauline texts such as Thessalonians 1 and 2 and Galatians. The prominence of the language of mindfulness and Gelassenheit in Heidegger’s later texts, the references to Buddhism, the evocations of Taoism, not to mention the attack against the violence of Gestell or enframing, cumulatively appear to suggest that the appropriate taxon for Heidegger’s later work is that of mysticism. Heidegger’s elevation of two mystical connoisseurs of Gelassenheit, Meister Eckhart (1260–c.1328) and Angelus Silesius (1624–1677) in his later works appear to confirm this, even if Heidegger’s thought displays highly unusual features, not the least of which is his expression of disdain for the Neoplatonic metaphysical tradition that funds much of Christian mysticism, especially its dualisms of essence and appearance, eternity and time, and its studied preference for the former over the latter.

Still, this critical judgment is forced to deal not only with the prophetic-apocalyptic tone of the “later” Heidegger—so decried by Adorno—but also the apocalyptic language of Ereignis or event and the way Dasein is appropriated or expropriated to be the mindful and memorial site of the giving of Being (es gibt). Ereignis is the cut in time that constitutes an ecstatic temporality that marks authentic Dasein. Nor is it purely a matter of accident that, as in the Christian and Jewish apocalyptic texts, both the language of event (or advent) and its articulation are the other side of a diagnosis of a “destitute time” (durtifige Zeit), that is, a time marked by the non-appearance of the gods and our lack of courage to peer into the absence, look for traces of appearance, and wait in suspension for the ever postponed arrival of the God or gods who would save by making us whole.

This apocalyptic structure seems to be relatively continuous with what we uncovered in our treatments of the “early” Heidegger. There are, however, a number of distinguishing features. In his lectures on Paul and in a more abstract and general way in his articulations of the primacy of the un-anticipatable future and the impossible possibility of death in Being and Time, the form of apocalyptic moved towards degree zero. Not so in the texts of the “later” Heidegger. His discourse of the Holy, and correlatively the topology of the “Fourfold” (das Geviert) of earth-sky, mortal-divine, suggest that Heidegger now is moving through the detour of myth in general and hierogamy in particular with a view essentially to displace Christianity as the dialogue partner with this new and elemental thinking, and in the process dispense dialogue with apocalyptic forms of Christianity.

Even if myth is translated into something like logos, at the very same time it is being asserted, nonetheless, Heidegger manages to make it abundantly clear that the tension-relation between earth and sky and mortal-immortal has replaced the God-world relation of standard forms of Christianity that continues to be a major feature of biblical forms of apocalyptic in terms of heaven and earth, even if it continues to have something of its spousal signature. While the formality of “event” remains in place, as well as a mode of intuitive “seeing” (apokalypsis), the absolute separation between the divine and the world is replaced by a throbbing, epiphanic, though evanescent divine milieu, a space of between in which the divine and the world are imbricated and mutually constitutive, in which transcendence is immanence and vice versa, and the very coming and nearing (also flight) of the gods is the appropriate mode of transcendence in a world that suggests in equal parts elemental belonging and being sheltered and being acutely out of sync and unsheltered.

It is this functioning of earth and mortality as a base of relation that recommends one speak of a “chthonic” inflection of apocalyptic discourse. Of course, as an apostle of the “untimely,” Nietzsche sets a precedent for what Heidegger lays out in his “later” texts. Still, one should not ignore the phenomenon of German Romanticism and figures like Hölderlin and Novalis who assumed the prophetic role and whose poetic works have an apocalyptic cast. Hölderlin, whom Heidegger constructs as an unrepeatable singularity, in standard literary historiography is rendered as a poet whose work has a very prophetic-apocalyptic inflection and this prophetic-apocalyptic cast, one that shifts registers from his early utopian exercises in Empedokles and Hyperion (which despite their Greek affiliations demonstrates their roots in Christian apocalyptic) to the more muted apocalyptic of the great odes and hymns that defer the disclosures of the divine, but also render ambiguous—if not ultimately unnamable—the identity of the One to come who, like Kafka’s messenger, may never arrive.

In Heidegger’s non-standard interpretation Hölderlin is an inceptual thinker whose memorial thought (Andenken) shears time. Hölderlin is the poet of the ever-delayed coming of the divine that demands everything of the poet-prophet-seer who is (com-)missioned to announce and track the hints of appearing. As inceptual, Hölderlin is untimely; he does not belong to the age of German Romanticism and German Idealism. Thus, interpretive and historiographical categories generated with the entire discursive field of Romanticism in mind are, from Heidegger’s point of view, illicit. Heidegger figures Hölderlin himself as an apocalyptic event and the bearer of an apocalyptic message. Of course, this doubling of apocalyptic as literary content and event brings Heidegger very close to the apocalyptic core of Christianity. If Hölderlin is the name of a truly inceptual form of thinking, then Heidegger’s task becomes the obvious one of removing all traces of Christianity from the German poet’s writings. He treats the reader to a variety of interpretive moves that effectively rinse Christianity from Hölderlin’s texts.

First, there is the issue of the selection process regarding which poems are interpreted, thus effectively the constitution of the canon within Hölderlin’s poetic canon. In terms of what is excluded, it is noticeable that Heidegger pays no attention to the utopian explosions of Empedokles and Hyperion, Hölderlin’s earliest and longest texts. Of course, the Sturm und Drang character of these texts does not favor the kind of heroics of patient waiting that the later Heidegger—with Eckhart’s Gelassenheit as its motto—so admires. At the same time, these major poetic dramas tend both to identify Hölderlin as belonging to a period in which Christianity is being reformulated in Germany after having been contested first in France and reaching a climax in the French Revolution.

One might have thought that the biblical lineage of the eschatological gestures of a writer who had attended the Stift (seminary) with Schelling and Hegel would be well-nigh impossible to ignore. Heidegger’s silence is eloquent. Similarly, Heidegger, pays relatively little attention to Patmos, which recalls the contested but still most important expression of apocalyptic in the Christian tradition, that is, the book of Revelation.

Correlatively, the issue of what odes and hymns Heidegger includes for analysis raises significant issues concerning the principle of selection. Hölderlin’s great river poems, for example, The Rhine, The Ister, The Danube are the recipients of lavish attention, largely because they function to establish a German identity and destiny as the inheritor of a Greece that retreats into the recesses of time, while also serving as a source of life and gravitational pull for habitat and a people. Second, there is the issue of Heidegger’s actual interpretation of Hölderlin’s poems and the performed excision of the Christian elements which, independent of the question of whether or not they are constitutive, are important. I am thinking of Heidegger’s failure to mention Christ in his reflections on The Holy One, and his problematic decision to focus on Dionysus.

Nor does Heidegger spend a great deal of time with another of Hölderlin’s poems that has an unmistakable Christian surface, that is, Bread and Wine. Heidegger, indeed, captures the connection between the Eucharistic center of the poem and apocalyptic expectation. Nonetheless, he concentrates on the time of the between and community and effectively de-theologizes the poem. Nervously, he denies that the poem involves any evocation of transubstantiation, while not exactly suggesting that table fellowship should be regarded as a memorial of Christ. Memory seems to have become functional: it is less the content recalled than the effect on an actual or virtual community, that is, the community that is called into being by the memorial of event. To the extent to which memory is more nearly transformative rather than informative and empowers questioning and questing human beings against the leveling and banalization that mark the twilight of the West, what is recalled is a divine presence of an earlier—presumably Greek—provenance.

One might also mention in passing that on the rare occasions on which Heidegger speaks to Patmos, the most apocalyptic poem in Hölderlin’s canon, Heidegger figures John of Patmos not so much as a ratifier of Christ’s sublime status, but more of a John the Baptist figure via-à-vis Hölderlin, an apocalyptic poet with an apocalyptic message that is Greek rather than Jewish/Christian, worldly rather than unworldly, and a prophetic voice that blesses time rather than eternity. This seems to suggest that, for Heidegger, Hölderlin is the creator of nothing less than a scripture that replaces the Bible. His poetry is the fruit of inspiration and fire whose words instaurate a holy world from which a transcendent God, a creator and legislating God, has been banished. He is nothing less than the condition of an emancipated philosophy that has smote the dragon of Christianity. For this to be so, however, Heidegger must erase Hölderlin’s Christian debts and in his transumption of Hölderlin’s poetry into philosophy be constantly on guard against the return of Christian apocalyptic that has been repressed.

Toward a Marcionite Genealogy of the “Later” Heidegger

This brings me to my third and final issue, that is, the prospects of inscribing this form of chthonic apocalyptic in a Marcionite genealogy. By invoking German Romanticism I have in fact already made gestures toward a solution. When speaking of Harnack’s Marcionite ancestry in an earlier essay, it was necessary to point to Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone as a proximate source. Kant’s particular rationalistic-ethical form of Marcionism, which excludes divine commands and disallows any rules that would not be vetted by ethical reason, is both carried over and modified in German Idealism. It is not by accident that Schelling’s first philosophical production is a dissertation (pamphlet size) on Marcion (1795). Nor is it by accident that the early Hegel in his theological-political writings abjures Judaism and historical Christianity, accusing them of laundering the “positivity” or the brute-fact status of a personal God whose behavior is willful, capricious, and requiring of human beings unquestioned allegiance and service obedience that wounds and truncates them.

The Hegel of the political-theological writings operated in the Marcionite frame handed down from Kant. He modifies it by suggesting that the solution to the deformations introduced into the West by Judaism and historical forms of Christianity might either be (a) Greek religion that focuses on the human flourishing of the community, or (b) a form of Christianity modified by a community paradigm that has the Greek religion/state as its template. I should point out that I am making no claim here that Hegel’s thought as a whole is Marcionite. At this very early stage of his intellectual development Hegel has not yet become a philosopher. More specifically, he has not yet become a philosopher who sees Christianity as anticipating his speculative philosophy.

If the Phenomenology (1807) is regarded as the point of intellectual arrival in which the Christian narrative provides the subtext of “absolute knowledge” (absolut Wissen), it should be noted that the Christian narrative is essentially deranged in that each of the distinct points in the narrative, whether the intra-trinitarian God, creation, fall, redemption, sanctification, and eschaton receives an interpretation just the opposite of that provided in the theological tradition. Thus, cumulatively, Hegel’s Christianity is a metanarrative that corrects and surpasses the historical Christian narrative. Moreover, the norming function of the Bible is dispensed with, since for Hegel, the biblical text is simply a “wax nose” capable of any impress. Hegel’s speculative philosophy, which is a philosophy that fully explains reality and our grasp of it, therefore, demands a different taxon. As I have argued elsewhere in any number of venues, Hegel’s speculative discourse belongs to a Gnostic genealogy.  

Yet Hegel and German Idealism constitute only one side of the reception and modification of Kant’s Marcionism. German Romanticism constitutes the other. Hölderlin and Novalis are the two most pertinent examples. My sketch of Hölderlin’s poetry will more or less have to stand proxy for a fuller account of the poet and the intricacies of his relation both to Kant and Fichte, as well as his critical understanding of Christianity and his fashioning of a more palatable and life-producing alternative. All that I would add in the case of Hölderlin is that German Pietism continues to be a flavor throughout his poetry and plays a role in his easy acceptance of the ministrations of the spirit and the confidence that human beings should be comprehended less under the order of sin than the mutually related orders of redemption and sanctification. Appropriated also is the figure of the Father who is far less terrifying than Luther’s God of Wrath and who in Romantic reception illustrates the capacity of being blended with the more earth-oriented Zeus in an amalgam figure whom the radically exposed poet can address as “Father Aether.” Christ shares space not only with Dionysus, but also with other chthonic deities or semi-deities such as Demeter, Ceres, and Persephone.

In the case of Novalis, in addition to his famous essay on the declension of Europe into rationalism and utilitarianism, in his poetry, but especially in Hymns to Night, he mints a religiousness that finds its deepest roots in the earth, dream, and rules as secondary at best—and deforming at worst—any religiousness dominated by propositional discourse, divine commands, and institutional management and observance. More than Hölderlin, Novalis has an affection for the Catholic Middle Ages and more energetically draws attention to Mary as the feminine power that mediates between heaven and earth. None of these Catholic affinities recommend Novalis to Heidegger. Nor does Novalis’ genealogy of modernity in which the Reformation is named the culprit. As with Hegel, in Heidegger Luther is an unimpeached figure. Unlike Hegel, however, in Heidegger Luther is never associated with Descartes who for both is the father of modernity, for the greater honor and glory of Spirit in the case of Hegel, for the deepest and darkest phase of erring in the West in the case of Heidegger. In any event, Heidegger’s display of favoritism notwithstanding, it seems clear that for both German poets, a full-blown departure from institution, rule, and ritual is the condition of a viable form of post-Christian religiousness.

After the manner of Marcion, and proximally Kant, in neither Hölderlin nor Novalis is the transcendent God of Judaism and Christianity left standing. Nor are the gaps between the divine and the world and the divine and human being allowed to stand: as if there is a horror of a vacuum, both are filled in with theophany or its possibility. In neither case also is the God of commands vouchsafed: the God of Hebrew scriptures is not the God of Jesus Christ. To the extent to which the God of Jesus Christ continues to be in play, in these Romantic poets he is reshaped on the model of the Father of Jesus Christ of Marcion, who is other than the creator and legislator God of Hebrew scripture given to diktat and rule, exercised by punishment, and prone to caprice and violence. What is different in this post-Enlightenment situation relative to the second century is the consensus judgment that should Christianity continue to persist it would require a demonstration of a divine that comes near humanity and the world, and the conviction that this can only be achieved if this relatively emptied form of Christianity blend with more this-worldly modes of religion and patterns of thought and feeling that Christianity had supposedly displaced.

A new form of Marcionism comes on the scene, one in which Marcionism is chthonically—I resist saying paganly—inflected and thus seems to be the opposite of mainline Christianity rather than the derivative that it is. Thus, if a modern form of Marcionism provides the necessary condition for a new and wholesome form of religiousness, in the aftermath of historical Christianity essentially having run aground the sufficient condition is provided by the chthonic surcharge that deepens and anchors human beings and alleviates the oppressive “lightness of being,” to invoke Milan Kundera’s great diagnostic phrase that sums up our modern inheritance.

Not forgetting the apocalyptic register in both Hölderlin and Novalis, this is precisely the form of Marcionism that is repeated in the work of the “later” Heidegger, which is not mischaracterized as a long conversation with the poetry of Hölderlin, even if from time to time Heidegger mentions other poets, for example, Hebel, Rilke, Trakl, and Celan, and never allows Hölderlin to be truly Hölderlin insofar as Heidegger consistently translates Hölderlin out of his historical environment, all the time insisting on the definitive nature of his particular interpretation. Two centuries on, two centuries of critiques of Christianity—especially that of Nietzsche—two centuries also of searching for more worldly and life-affirming alternatives, one should not be surprised that the Christian element becomes weaker and the chthonic element stronger.

This can be clearly seen in Beiträge, which if completed by 1938, was only published posthumously. This text seems to deeply engage Nietzsche, despite the fact that throughout the 1930s and 1940s Heidegger continually throws us off the scent by dilating time and again on the differences between himself and Nietzsche when it comes to understanding modernity, first crystallized in Descartes’ ego cogito, the capacity to escape the gravitational pull of metaphysics and its history, and the understanding of the threshold of nihilism, which is simultaneously an immense opportunity and a danger. This is not to deny, however, that in a text that is routinely referred to as Heidegger’s second magnum opus, it is Hölderlin who is the dominant interlocutor. While Heidegger does not argue explicitly for the preeminence of Hölderlin as a describer and auger of the Holy, nor declare that his musings on the “Last God” are dependent on the greatest of German poets, the fact that he does not do so and seems to meld Hölderlin’s voice with his own makes the presence of the German poet all the more powerful.

This is not to deny that Heidegger wants the last word with respect to the chthonic apocalyptic of Hölderlin, just as Hegel wanted the last word with respect to Christianity, even if or especially if we are talking about the lavishly revised form he presents in texts such as the Phenomenology and Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. As Heidegger takes up Hölderlin into his work he essentially cleans up the muddle in the great German poet of his conflicting allegiances to Christ and Dionysus, just as in his “strong interpretation”—read “misreading”—of Hölderlin he removes the connections to a Christianity in which spirit, proximity to the divine, and community were prominent.

The works of the later Heidegger involve, then, a step beyond such the Romantic blending of Christianity with religious dimensions to which historically it was opposed towards the manufacture of a distillate that is purely chthonic. In doing so, Heidegger enacts a substitution suggested, but not enacted by Romanticism in general or by the historical Hölderlin in particular. Heidegger contrives even in this period to suggest that a biblical Christianity might be viable. This suggests at least one of two things, either that the conditional affirmation of even a non-metaphysical and non-doctrinal form of Christianity is disingenuous or that the eradication of all vestiges of Christianity is more program than actual realization, given the historical connection between a severely shaved Marcionite form of Christianity that encourages, in a way that traditional forms of Christianity do not, commerce to forms of religious language and spiritually aspirated forms of life, especially the languages of praise and lived belonging that mark alternate dispensations. Perhaps it suggests both.

Surely, Heidegger’s God—if, indeed, we are ever allowed to capitalize it—is not the God of the entire Bible, but one in which not only the Hebrew Bible is cast off, but all remnants of the creator-legislative as well as redeemer God excised from the New Testament. Heidegger seems to recall—although also pluralizing—this God who is a redeeming God without remainder when in his famous Der Spiegel interview, he gnomically says, “Now only a god can save us” (Nur noch ein Gott kann urs redden), it is difficult not to recall Marcion’s God, who is precisely not the creator-legislator as well as redeemer God of the entire Bible, even if this God is now primed to take on unimaginable colors and dimensions.


What I have tried to do in this all-too-brief essay is to indicate that the works of the “later” Heidegger, no more than the “earlier,” succeed in leaving behind all varieties of Christianity. More specifically, I wanted to argue that the works of the “later” Heidegger, replete with evocations of Hölderlin, even when not discussing him, are similarly apocalyptic and Marcionite. Now, however apocalyptic is given an actual content, that is, the immanent Holy and hierogamous Fourfold, the newly emergent apocalyptic form of Marcionism—equally Marcionite form of apocalyptic—involves the memory of older forms of religiousness prior to Christianity even as it forecloses on historical Christianity. Admittedly, this complex description seems to make the later Heidegger more rather than less obscure. Yet, it has the ability to explain the works of the later Heidegger far better than speaking simply of mythic regression or the injection of willful mystification into the discourse of philosophy. It also tracks better the apocalyptic tendency of the early Heidegger and the prospects that remain for Christianity that has renounced metaphysics and a sovereign creative and legislative God who has dispatched mystery and culled the enigmatic and uncanny from the world.

Undoubtedly, it would be wonderful if the later as well as the earlier works of Heidegger admitted of simple description after the manner of a Parmenidean reduction to the One. Throughout his career Heidegger never showed himself fully at ease with ascriptions of purity to discourses, his own not excluded. Arguably, the most potent forms of thinking are mixes, a gesture taken over and developed by a postmodern successor such as Derrida. This is despite Heidegger’s natural habits that have tended towards the univocal. Such is the case with his drinking: no cocktails, only wine; no international wines, just local wine; not just local wine but the wine from the Markgräfer region in Southern Germany.

Of course, even with wine, especially Heidegger’s wine, we are ultimately not talking about the simple: besides the grape, there are other fruit flavors in a wine, various degrees of body, different amounts of acidity. Perhaps there is a way to harmonize Heidegger’s drinking habits with his philosophical habits of mixing. The real temptation—and Heidegger no less than Nietzsche would recognize it—is consistency. While Heidegger sometimes thinks that his drinking and philosophical habits are of a piece, they are not. The discourse of the “later” Heidegger is brazenly plural, just as his recall of Christianity is blatant even in its secreting and transmogrification.

Far better, then, to say that the work of the “later” Heidegger is a cocktail of apocalyptic that originally had a Christian provenance, a newly fermented form of ancient Christianity (Marcionism) displaced when historical Christianity began, and a non-Christian content supplied to both that recalls German Romanticism’s regression to pre-Christian forms of religion while recoding them as options for the modern world or at the very least their judgment of it.

In all periods of his thought, Heidegger displayed the capacity to adopt and adapt various cords of Christian discourse, whether mysticism, apocalyptic, or Marcionite Christianity, according to his own philosophical interests and needs, even if—or especially if—this involved no commitment to historical forms of Christianity and certainly to Christian theologies. He demonstrated in his lectures on Paul and in Being and Time that apocalyptic could migrate from Judaism and Christianity to philosophy. Likewise with Marcionism. The work of the “later” Heidegger is a step beyond the work of the “earlier” Heidegger in manifold ways. What I am lifting up here is that as Heidegger adds chthonic content to the apocalyptic degree-zero of his early work that involves the erasure of the figure of Christ, nonetheless, he retrieves the Marcionite frame of Christianity that not only depicts God otherwise than Judaism and Catholic Christianity, but also seems more underdetermined and more porous to other religiously laced forms of thought.

To the degree to which Heidegger feels that he has come upon the scene after the demise of Christianity—though he admits that it remains an anachronism and specter—after the manner of the German Romantics and Hölderlin in particular, his later work involves the gutting of Christian beliefs that have become incomprehensible and the setting aside of Christian practices that are no longer life-giving. Most evidently, his later works involve the substitution of an archaic stratum of religion for Christianity at once moribund and intellectually bankrupt. This chthonic strain promises to protect mystery, democratize the sacred, and elevate the runic and unaccountable happening which human beings either cut themselves off from or when, exceptionally, they open themselves for the encounter with a reality that is chancy and unreliable, they find they are not ready. Christianity becomes a specter. Specters are unforgettable too.

Featured Image: Caspar David Friedrich, Plowed Field, 1830; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100. 


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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