‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 2:I: Heidegger and the Overcoming of Metaphysics

Symbol and Sacrament Posts: Introduction, Chapter 1, Chapter 2:IIChapter 3Chapter 4:I, Chapter 4:IIChapter 5Chapter 6, Chapter 7

[I have split this chapter into two parts, as it is rather dense and philosophical, but worth spending time over.]

Having highlighted the problematic character of the metaphysical approach of Thomas and others to the sacraments in his first chapter, Chauvet proceeds to the question of whether an alternative approach is possible for us. Is our very language so infected with metaphysics that we cannot step out of its frame? In fact, we have to be very wary of the way that we pose our question, lest we simply adopt an inversion of the metaphysical theme, rather than a true alternative to it, shaped by a completely different theme. This requires attention not merely to the question that we ask but also to the way that we, as ‘questioning subjects’, constitute the ‘mode of questioning’ (47).

Being in Heidegger

Heidegger argues that the forgetting of ‘ontological difference’ (the difference between being and entities, something that should become clearer in the course of this post) should be understood ‘not as a failing but as an event.’ Metaphysics involves a form of revelation of being, yet a revelation of which it is ignorant. This metaphysical stage reaches its climax in technology, which establishes the dominance of man’s subjectivity (‘bringing nature to reason’), reducing being to a ‘reservoir of energy’ at humankind’s disposal, yet at the price of our oblivion to being. The history of metaphysics as an ‘Event’ ‘reveals the very essence of a human behavior that demands accounts, gives ultimatums, compels the real to adjust itself to human needs “from the perspective of what can be calculated”’ (48). This ‘Event’ is not the ‘result of human contrivance’, but is the destiny of being itself.

Given the character of metaphysics as an ‘event’ of being, it cannot just be laid aside in favour of something else, as it will always reappear in some other form. Metaphysics can only be overcome as we ‘reascend to the very source of its life’ and forgotten foundation – the ‘truth of Being’.

What is ‘being’? For Heidegger being is not an entity, nor is it like an entity. Being is not a genus. Being ‘is neither God nor a foundation for the world’. Being is that which is closest to us, yet simultaneously furthest away. Being cannot be contained, calculated, or defined. Like a gift, being ‘at once bestows and withholds itself’ (49).

Perhaps it might be worth taking a brief excursus at this point, to clarify some aspects of Heidegger’s understanding of being (Chauvet capitalizes ‘Being’ in his treatment of Heidegger’s thought, but I have chosen to employ the uncapitalized form throughout). For Heidegger, being should be distinguished from beings, and is not itself a being. This is what Heidegger means when he speaks of the ‘ontological difference’. Being is that to which the word ‘is’ refers, a reality of which we can have a meaningful understanding, without being able to articulate it in conceptual terms. If this ‘being’ keeps slipping through our fingers, this is only natural, for being is no ‘thing’. Rather being is known in the event of self-disclosure or ‘presencing’.

Being is known in and as a play of presence and absence. Every event of disclosure and arrival involves a simultaneous movement of veiling and retreat. What Heidegger means here could be illustrated by the manner in which the being of a silver chalice is revealed in the context of the celebration of the Eucharist. In this ‘presencing’ of the chalice there is also a veiling, as the aspect of the chalice as a work of artistic metalwork (or as an object with a peculiar historical significance or provenance) is veiled. Conversely, it is the artistic or historic character of the chalice that is disclosed as it is placed on a pedestal within a glass cabinet, while its Eucharistic function is veiled. No single form of presencing exhausts the being of the chalice. As one aspect is cast into relief, another is thrown into shadow.

Metaphysics loses sight of this play of being in presence and absence, light and shadow, asserting a solid presence and permanent foundation in its place. The being of the chalice is no longer encountered in a dance of arrival and retreat, but is regarded in terms of a pure presence. Being is treated as though it were a solidly present entity itself, a fixed substratum underlying all else, rather than as something that is open. Grasping the relationship and difference between the play of being and the existence of beings is crucial for understanding Heidegger’s thought.

Heidegger does not simplistically oppose metaphysics, but advocates a certain mode of living within the metaphysical tradition that ‘recalls’ it, while ‘thinking its unthought essence’ (51). To overcome metaphysics we must undergo a continual conversion, whereby we break with its habitual perspectives on being, and forego all attempts to reach an ultimate foundation, starting rather ‘from the uncomfortable non-place of a permanent questioning’ (53). This way of thinking is not merely a road that we furnish before ourselves, but is ‘inseparable from us’ (54). This ‘making of a way’ is a transitive action of self-transformation, an action that is never completed (as it relates itself to the forgotten ‘infinity’ of the event).

Language and Being

Humankind bears a unique relationship to being: the essence of humankind is ‘ec-static ex-sistence’. As an ‘ec-static breach’, humankind will always struggle to give account of itself in the metaphysical manner that it seeks to account for all else. Humankind’s relationship to being should be appreciated in terms of language: ‘Language is the house of Being where humans live and thereby ex-sist, belonging as they do to the truth of Being over which they keep watch’ (50). For Heidegger, language ‘speaks’ us as much as we speak it, and being operates through its mediation. ‘Humans conduct themselves as if they were the masters of language, while in fact it is language that governs them’ (55).

Being comes into presence through language. Words are not mere handles upon reality, or tools for our expression, but ‘summon’ being. Although our words have the instrumental purpose of designating reality in a manner that enables us to act upon it and manipulate it, there is a far more fundamental aspect to language, something which we commonly forget. This aspect is not merely held alongside the utilitarian purpose of language, but belongs to a completely ‘different level’ (56).

As human beings, we do not ‘possess language’, but are ‘possessed by it’ (57). We come into being in a universe that has always already been spoken into a ‘world’ (the meaning of the term ‘world’ was discussed in the previous post in this series). Only within the context of this ‘world’ can things truly ‘come-to-presence’.

The most basic form of language is the poem. Heidegger writes:

True poetry is not just a more elevated mode of everyday speech. On the contrary, it is everyday speech which is a forgotten poem, a poem exhausted by its overuse, whose summons is now barely audible.

It is in poetry that we hear the speech of being. True speaking is first of all listening: we can only speak to the extent that we listen (58). As things are summoned through language, they ‘come-to-presence’, yet this ‘coming-into-presence’ is always marked by absence. It is a ‘trace’, not a fetishizable and circumscribable presence. It cannot be grasped onto, as it melts away as soon as we seek to do so.

The Absence of God

In this context Heidegger speaks about the ‘absence of god’ (59). The god of traditional onto-theology, the First Cause and Supreme Entity, is quite different from the sacred and divine as it functions in Heidegger’s thought. In rejecting the God of the philosophers (adopted by much traditional Christian thought), atheists may in fact be ‘closer to the divine God’. Chauvet summarizes:

Against the invading objectification of things by representation, calculation, and planning, the poet is the one who reminds us of the Openness of being in which we must maintain ourselves; thereby the poet opens us to the Sacred, which is the space of the play of being and of the risk of openness, where the gods may come near to us. (60)

The poet is the one who maintains the posture of openness to being, not seeking to close the doors against its arrival and retreat, circumscribing a pure presence. For Heidegger the gratuitous character of being is to be preserved, involving a forgoing of our attempts at mastery, whether through explanation or calculation, one of the means of which is the god of onto-theology (61). In abandoning the god of onto-theology we come to experience the ‘present absence of the gods’ (62). However, ‘this absence is not nothing; it is the presence of the hidden plenitude of what … is.’ Heidegger sees this understanding of the divine within the Greeks, Hebrew prophets, and in Jesus.

The ‘absence’ is not a ‘deficiency’ of God, and should provide the starting point for our thinking. Our task is that of remaining ‘in a mature proximity to the absence’ of God, enduring the distress, without annihilating this absence in the theism of onto-theology, the atheism of the death of God, or indifferentism, which also seeks refuge from this distress.

This relates quite closely with some of the points made in my recent post on atheism and Christianity: the God that we meet in Scripture is encountered in a distressing presence of absence, eluding the measurement, objectification, control, circumscription, and certainty sought by onto-theology and by most forms of atheism.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in My Reading, Philosophy, Reviews, The Sacraments, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to ‘Symbol and Sacrament’ Chapter 2:I: Heidegger and the Overcoming of Metaphysics

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