HENT DE VRIES: Let me begin by thinking Amanda Anderson for her kind, generous invitation to be a participant among this year's School of Criticism and Theory. It has been a wonderful experience, very rewarding. And I suspect that this week, for obvious reasons, if I can start talking without moving this thing all too much, will be even more rewarding.
Without much-- OK. I've never been this wired in my entire life. OK.
Without much further ado, let me begin. Arguably, no recent text has done more to spawn interest in the so-called Weimar Moment in political theology, and generally, the rhetoric of religion in Germany in the period spanning the two World Wars than Jacob Taubes' [SPEAKING GERMAN], The Political Theology of Paul. The transcript of his 1987 seminar at the fest, the [SPEAKING GERMAN] which is the Protestant Institute for Interdisciplinary Research in Heidelberg, and a noteworthy testament to his writing and teaching. The transcript of the audio recordings of these lectures were published posthumously in 1993 by Jan and Aleida Assmann together with Wolf-Daniel Hartwich, and marked the beginning of much renewed interest in this controversial thinker.
To give an example, Giorgio Agamben salutes Taubes' reading at the very opening of his The Time That Remains, his interpretation of the Letter to the Romans. And while other recent philosophical readings of Paul, such as the ones published by Alain Badiou Stanislas Breton, Bernard Sichere, Jean-Michel Rey, and others find their sources of inspiration in different contexts and problems, there is no doubt that Taubes' legacy stands out, and that the publication of his seminar anticipated, inspired, and in some cases, simply coincided with a turning point in Paul scholarship undertaken by thinkers not formally trained in, or limiting themselves to, biblical and systematic, that is, dogmatic theology per se.
At the same moment, no contemporary reading of Paul and his modern interpreters has proven more fraught with ambiguity, sweeping, and often quite violent statements, and no small amount of bad faith that is impromptu, improvised, final commentary, not Taubes' first, but his last word on the matter-- he gave the seminar as he was dying from cancer-- represents. Taubes switches back and forth between contentious claims about the so-called "messianic logic," which were summarized and analyzed, he acknowledges, first of all, by Gershom Scholem-- my teacher, he says, although the respect was not mutual-- especially in his 1938 Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, the book dedicated to the memory of Walter Benjamin, on the one hand, and a host of hasty, now exuberant, then scathing comments on a whole series of thinkers in critical theory, biblical hermeneutics, philosophy, and psychoanalysis on the other, whose name, like Scholem's, are still very much with us-- Nietzsche and Freud, Buber and Karl Barth, Adorno and Harkheimer.
Yet amidst these debris and wisecracks that his apodictically formulated lecture notes, beautifully rendered by Donna Hollander in her translation, leave us with-- they leave us with genuine insights that can be found among them, and that merit, and indeed, stand in dire need of further and far more systematic commentary and extrapolation. For while Taubes' contribution seems first of all that of a remarkably sharp, and deeply personal, at times outright idiosyncratic, not to mention outrageous portrait of a whole generation whose legacy still largely defines the terms of contemporary reflection on the academic, and more broadly political turn to religion, capturing our imagination in recent years, it is also clear that much in his thought, in his own observations, suggests a deeper underlying logic, one whose at times extreme rhetoric and messianism, or more precisely apocalyptic, is conceived by Taubes "from the bottom up." And it has lost absolutely nothing of its philosophical, theological, and indeed, political relevance.
Bringing out some of this logic's guiding themes and overall structure and arguments, understanding the historical context and meaning in which it emerged, was used and abused, while attempting to sound out its conceptual limits, so as to intuit what step beyond we ought to take next, no doubt also in light of contemporary experiences and the new questions these impose-- this is the task whose partial fulfillment I have set myself in a larger project, of which I can present only a fragment today. It is not only due to my limited time, for it is needless to say that a much broader and sustained execution of such an ambitious agenda requires the joint efforts of intellectual historians and philosophers, specialists in close literary reading, as well as scriptural exegesis.
As we will see, Taubes, his main trusted sources, and the contemporaries that irritate him most all engage in extensive, at times hyperbolic religious phrasing, more precisely in the logic of theological exaggeration and exasperation in which universalizing totalization goes hand-in-hand with exhaustion, indeed, with a risky, apocalyptic [? vabank ?] that is, I think, deeply instructive in itself. In any case, it is crucial for our understanding of the philosophical Renaissance of interest in Paul at the moment of which a forthcoming book due out this coming October that I co-edited with Ward Blanton documents some notable instances.
Not the least captivating aspect of Taubes' work is the way in which it characterized several intellectual constellations in the period that interests me here. I'm thinking, first of all, of his brief portrait of two "zealots of the absolute and of decision", namely Karl Schmidt and Karl Barth-- perversely put together in one breath, with the typical broad gesture and sweeping claim that Taubes masters like no one else-- but also of the contrast between "nihilism as world politics and aestheticized nationalism" epitomized by Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno.
To be a zealot, Alain Badiou, yet another reader of Paul, might call this a militant. To be a zealot of the absolute and of decision, in its most uncompromising expression, would result, Taubes' claims, in nihilism as a global political maxim, as rote politics, that is. And of this, an aestheticized, that is, merely hypothesized and imagined version, would strip messianism of what is left, and perhaps always its weak or weakening force, its [SPEAKING GERMAN], as Benjamin's thesis on history formulates so suggestively.
How could what from a distance seems, well, so distant, here especially the juxtaposition of the names of Schmidt and Barth have become so entangled and amalgamated in Taubes' latest account? And conversely, how can he separate so violently, for instance, nihilism and aestheticism, Benjamin and Adorno, what no matter how accurate or inaccurate these conceptual attributions and personal characterizations form part of one and the same intellectual configuration, that is, of early Frankfurt School theory or neo-Marxism, no matter how much one dramatizes and spins undeniable tensions and conflicts between its first representatives after the fact.
So again, as far as Schmidt and Barth are concerned, are the decisive differences between these thinkers historically in that time, and conceptually-- that is theologically and theologically speaking-- perhaps not so significant as we often like to believe. And as to Benjamin and Adorno, are the differences between them really as big as Taubes claims them to be? To complicate matters even more, do these suggested pairs of similar or distinct thinkers not also cross over into each other, and indeed, partially overlap so that the genealogy of early 20th century German-Jewish thought, at least in its reception of Paul's epistles, needs further revision in its silent premises and accepted outcomes still?
To give an example, of Benjamin, Taubes remarks in passing that his much-debated theological political fragment should be understood from the point of view of Karl Barth's second 1922 edition of his Commentary on the [SPEAKING GERMAN], The Letter to the Romans, Epistle to the Romans, that is "as dialectical theology outside the Christian church." That is to say, we should read Benjamin's Theological-Political Fragment not so much as "dogmatics and so on," but as "dialectical theology of 1920 in its very first phase in lay theologies as a [? lying ?] theology."
Taubes praises Benjamin for having "a hardness similar to that of Barth." And he adds that, "just as in the letters' commentary on Paul's Epistle to the Romans, so also in the former's Theological Political Fragment, there is, strictly speaking, nothing there having to do with immanence. From that, one gets nowhere.
The drawbridge comes from the other side, and whether you get fetched or not, as Kafka describes it, is not up to you. One can take the elevator up to the high rises of spirituality. It won't help.
Hence, the clear break. You can't get anything out of it. You have to be told from the other side that you're liberated."
Adorno, on the contrary, in these final notes, is merely ridiculed for having treated redemption as a [? "come see ?] affair," that is to say as a fictionalized aesthetic, as if, [SPEAKING GERMAN], as a matter that one can hypothesize about, but that doesn't lead further. This is not to say that Adorno, on Taubes' reading, thinks of redemption in terms of a religion a priori as the neo-conscience such as Hermann Cohen, and most notably Hans [? Feinger ?] had proposed. Rather, Taubes sees in Adorno, an in his eyes dubious and hesitant stance of a mere softening and flattening out of the more daring and authoritative, not to mention authoritarian, Benjamin, and he suggests of [? Pauline ?] and Barthian perspectives, and one that results in a wrongly headed aestheticized messianism of sorts.
Paul's invocation, in the first Letter to the Corinthians of the so-called [INAUDIBLE], [SPEAKING GERMAN] the "as if not" indeed the adjunction to have one's possessions and place in the world as if one does precisely not have them, is, Taubes assumes, a fundamentally nihilistic operation. It is a New Testament invocation that will find one of its strongest as it echoes in the second century figure of the excommunicated bishop Marcion of Sinope, especially his Gospel of the Alien God as Adolph von Harnack had documented in his 1921 study with the same title, [SPEAKING GERMAN].
A book which had cited and reconstructed words from Marcion's lost work, The Antitheses as follows-- this is the cover of the book that, actually Benjamin studied in much detail, namely Adolph von Harnack's three volumes voluminous [SPEAKING GERMAN] The History of Dogma. And this is the first these that Harnack devoted to Marcion. And this is what we know of Marcion.
So Taubes cites this from Harnack's work. "Oh, wonder of all wonders, [SPEAKING GERMAN] that in spite of this world, there is redemption." And in a slightly different wording a few pages later in the text, Taubes puts every emphasis on what he calls Marcion's very first sentence in the book that we don't have, but that is reconstructed by Harnack out of various sources.
Here, the gospel is understood as gift, and is introduced as follows-- "Oh, wonder upon wonder, [SPEAKING GERMAN] what amazement and overpowering astonishment it is, that people who have not a thing to say about the gospel, that they do not think about it, nor that can be compared with anything at all, that is, certainly not with anything of this world. It is alien [GERMAN], the alien God, an expression of Marcion's Deus Alienus, meets with something equally alien in us."
Now, to say this is not to claim that Marcion follows Paul, or that Paul anticipates Marcion on all counts. Taubes' claim, and Taubes' aim is far more limited here, and revolves around the question of a certain messianic, and more specifically apocalyptic or nihilistic logic, presumably shared by both early Christian authors, Paul and Marcion. It's not a question of showing pedantically where Marcion diverges from Paul. That is easily done.
The fact that Marcion rejected the Hebrew scripture and its God as inferior, as the non-loving creator god, whereas Paul, obviously did not, being the clearest difference between the two. "The question," Taubes goes on, "is where does he, Marcion, capture unintention? Where does Marcion capture Paul's intention?"
In one word, how is it that Marcion could take himself to be Paul's through disciple? And what explains that others so easily took his word for the truth? Indeed from Harnack's opening salvo in his monograph, and in the earlier prize-winning essay or [SPEAKING GERMAN] which I showed earlier, which offered a further elaboration many years later, is telling, because it places Marcion, in Harnack's own words, "his very first love in Church history," in the role of the "most significant phenomenon in Church history between Paul and [? Augustine." ?] And that's no small matter.
As Harnack formulated himself-- this is from the preface about the alien god, of the book About the Alien God-- "Marcion affords us the key for unlocking a number of the difficult problems that are presented by the tradition of the Church from the post-apostolic to the old Catholic period. Here, one can dismiss every individual gnostic without loss. But we cannot omit Marcion if we wish to understand the dynamic development, indeed the metamorphosis that occurs in the time of that transition, not only because Catholicism is constructed as a defense against Marcion, but in a still higher degree, because it appropriated, from this heretic, something fundamental.
Still greater is Marcion's hitherto sadly neglected significance in the general history of religion. For he is the only thinker in Christianity who took fully seriously the conviction that the deity who redeems one from the world has absolutely nothing to do with cosmology and with cosmic theology. The new life of faith and freedom was for him something so alien as over against the world that he based its emergence upon "the same doubtful or daring hypothesis by which Helmholtz proposed to explain the emergence of organisms on the Earth."
The claim would seem to anticipate a later, and indeed, deeply Augustinian claim by the political philosopher Hannah Arendt in her essay "What Is Freedom?" in the book Between Past And Future-- that there is a striking resemblance between miracles which capture or name the very possibility for human agency, for human beginning, that define birth of beginning as Arendt puts it in The Human Condition, and the "infinite improbabilities of the genesis of cosmic formations, organic and eventually intelligent life that make up our universe." It is, by the way, a conception that, if I'm not mistaken Quentin Meillassoux adopts almost verbatim in the few published fragments that we have of his major work, [SPEAKING FRENCH] "The Inexistence of God," or "The Divine Inexistence," an essay about the virtual God, albeit without reference to Arendt, to my knowledge. But then, of course, Arendt follows the Gospels rather than Paul's letters. And Meillassoux ignores, or in any case fails to reference both.
Taubes takes von Harnack's intuition yet a step further, bluntly noting that "Creation has no role in the New Testament," and adding that on the contrary, there is "only one thing there-- redemption, or more carefully put, that the thread that links creation and redemption is a very thin one, a very, very thin one. And it can snap. And that's Marcion.
He finds an echo another echo in Bateman's adoption of a radically [? Pauline ?] notion of creation, a notion that emphasizes the "labor pains and futility" of creation, as announced in Roman 8-- "the groaning of the creature, the idea of creation as decay, since it is without hope." Indeed, Taubes writes, I see Benjamin "as the exegete of the nature of Romans 8, of decay and of Romans 13, of nihilism as world politics."
In this respect, then, as Taubes' characterization of Benjamin in an essay [SPEAKING GERMAN] "A Modern Marcionite" makes abundantly clear, this Marxist messianistic, or this Marxist messianic, or messianic Marxist author's theological political view resembles not just this most formidable among all Christian heretics as read by Adolph von Harnack, but it also echoes and resonates with early 20th century attempts to situate the [? Pauline ?] corpus, and notably Paul's Epistle to the Romans squarely within the context of Jewish messianism in all of its apocalyptic and theocratic dialectic, as well as revolutionary democratic aspects.
For in different ways, starting out from distinct premises, and with an alternative ulterior theoretical and practical aim in mind, this much had also been intimated by a variety of thinkers, such as Martin Buber and Ernst Bloch, Theodor Adorno, and at a greater distance, as we will see, Max Harkheimer, but also Erich Auerbach and Hans-Joachim Schoeps, Karl Schmidt, and, we found, Jacob Taubes. We do not know whether Benjamin was familiar with Harnack's writings on Marcion. But we have a source for the fact that in the spring of 1918, he was immersed in the reading of Harnack's three-volume work, [SPEAKING GERMAN] The History of Dogma.
And lest we forget, Benjamin at that time was deeply steeped in the reading of Martin Heidegger, as well, and whose "nihilism" Taubes' later wife, [? Susanna ?] [? Anima ?] Taubes, would detect Gnostic foundations in an interesting, and well-researched article that, in the end, perhaps does not fully convince, but that captures something of the spirit of the times in which [INAUDIBLE] was received and categorized.
On Taubes' account, then, against the background of modern Marcionism, the only way out of the predicament of both nature and empire, of creation and what we might call second nature, the second nature of the social, cultural, normal, and normative order as a whole, the only way out would be nothing short of a wager or miracle, a terrifying gamble and throw of the dice, the fatality of divine Providence and predetermination, no less than a stroke of good luck denying and defying scientific laws and the logics of probability, and untying the age-old knot between determining causes and the proportionate effects. But with a remarkable reversal of Albert Einstein's well-known dictum, "God doesn't play dice," Taubes also inscribes a necessary contingency in the very heart of the divine. In the God of love, the other, or alien god, who unjustifiably, by any standard, just so chooses or elects to acknowledge only some, while avoiding, that is, affronting and perhaps immobilizing, most others.
"Paul's God," Taubes writes, "plays dice." He elects and condemns. In the Calvinist forum, this is a game of dice. One is born to election, and born to damnation. And we, just as the pot cannot ask the potter, can't ask why he created us in this way. The stakes are high, then.
And Taubes writes, "It's a different matter whether one decides, in whatever way, to understand the cosmos as imminent and governed by laws, or whether one thinks the miracle is possible, the exception. The question is whether you think the exception is possible. And it is on the exception, after all, that the whole law of natural science runs aground, Because natural science is based on prognosis."
By contrast, the wager, the miracle, the divine throw of the dice, escapes our very understanding and experience of causality and finality, probability and randomness, relation and correlation, the analogy of being, the analogia entis, and perhaps even the analogy of faith, the analogia [? fidi. ?] In fact, there's nothing quite like it. It's effect is special in the most emphatic, paradoxical, and [? operatic ?] of ways.
But definitely, the concept, the metaphor of the miracle stands here not only for the fact that God and faith, that is the Messiah's arrival, resurrection, and all the rest, condemn and shipwreck not just the premises and organizing concepts of natural and dogmatic theology, indeed, of all traditional metaphysics and the ontology that has been built upon it, but also modern historicism, psychologism, and everything we might now call culturalism and lingualism, scientism, and cognitivism. It limits, strictly speaking, their possibility by imposing, suggesting an impossible possibility, and similarly, challenges that by the presumed consistency of every more genuinely biblical and ecclesial, dogmatic, or mystical theology and theocracy that deserves its name.
Not even the so-called critically realist, crisis-oriented, dialectical theology finds a way out, but at least knows that it stands condemned, and assumes the negative, the nullity of it's all-too-firm affirmations, including that of the positivity, let alone the positivism of its concept of revelation, its so-called [SPEAKING GERMAN] with which Karl Barth often was associated. As Karl Barth, following Harnack, notes in the preface to the second edition of his The Epistle to the Romans, Paulanism has always stood on the brink of heresy.
And yet we should, he writes, Karl Barth, quite famous in his days, "We should reflect whether the persistent covering up of the dangerous element in Christianity is not to hide its light under a bushel. Perhaps Oswald Spengler was right when he told us that we were entering upon an Iron Age, [SPEAKING GERMAN] If this be so, theology and the theologians are bound to bear the marks of it."
What, then, is the dangerous element? And how does Barth succeed in keeping some of its strongest and most suggestive historical and contemporary interpretations, such as those proposed by Marcion, initiator of the early Church's greatest challenge, as read by von Harnack, or by the radical reformer, Tomas Muntzer-- instigator of the bloody Farmers Revolt, as he eventually would come to be read by Ernst Bloch-- how does he keep this heretical tendency in Paul at bay, as he had to do, and as he stated was also his explicit intention? After all, it was with both of these figures, Marcion and Tomas Muntzer, with whom the author of The Theological Commentary, The Epistle to the Romans, already in his first and far less radical first edition, was quickly compared by detractors and sympathizers alike.
And Barth comments on this in the preface to the second edition, the most influential one. "Harnack's book on Marcion appeared while I was immersed in the writing of my commentary. Those who are familiar with both books will understand why I am bound to refer to it. I was puzzled, on reading the earlier review of Harnack's book, by the remarkable parallels between what Marcion had said and what I was actually writing. I wish to plead for a careful examination of these agreements before I be praised or blamed hastily, as though I were a Marcionite. At the crucial point, these agreements break down."
What then, are these crucial points in which Barth, Barth's Paul, and Harnack's Marcion seem to converge, intersect, overlap, in any case, to touch upon each other, tangentially, as it were, if only to depart in altogether different directions as the apparent agreement also breaks down? No doubt it is a reference to the "nothing," the Nichts, to which the New Testament gospels and a fortiori, Paul's letters, reduce the powers that be, whether the power of nature and the cosmos, of the political and of empire, of the flesh, and of sin-- in short, the very order of fallen creation or of the creator God, as Harnack's Marcion had gone even further to suggest.
All of which is exposed, on Barth's reading, to a crisis. And the dialectical theology, as Barth formulated in these early commentaries, is a theology of crisis, if nothing else. No doubt it is also the insistence on the paradoxical nature of the redemption in Christ, and nowhere else for Barth, affecting yet a further crisis in Christianity that in Marcion's case, in the years 150, 190 of the Christian era, as Harnack had reconstructed them, that is the most simple important event between the conversion of Paul narrated in Acts and the confession of Augustine as recounted in the latter's book with the same title.
But it also resembles that of a Luther, even though it constituted a far more significant and deeply consequential challenge of the Church than the one represented by the Reformation, by the Luther's, Calvin's, or Muntzer's, for that matter. Already in his early dissertation, von Harnack had identified Marcion as the "modern believer of the second century, the first reformer," indeed, as a "radical modernist" whose present actuality could be found in the widely felt need to refuse both syncretism and compromise. It is no accident, therefore, that Marcionite elements have been detected in modernist authors.
In addition to the ones that I mentioned earlier, there is Charles Baudelaire, who has elements of Marcionism La Fleur du Mal. There's Thomas Mann in his Doctor Faustus, who makes several arguments in the Marcionite tradition. You might mention Paul [? Tillman ?] and Samuel Beckett, who have been cited in this particular context as well.
This said the difference between von Harnack's and Barth's view of Marcion's place and significance in the history of the Church is mirrored in the unbridgeable distance between Harnack's and Barth's respective conceptions of the essence of Christianity and more importantly, of the task of Religionswissenschaft, the science of religion, steeped in the 19th century conception of liberal culture Protestantism, [SPEAKING GERMAN] that bore von Harnack's signature, and so-called dogmatic biblical theology. The eventually critical realistic [SPEAKING GERMAN] or Church dogmatics that would become Barth's resolutely radical response to it.
The fundamental contrast between the two defining projects in Protestant theology became publicly manifest with the official break between the two, when von Harnack, like most of the revered teachers of Barth's generation, sided with the belligerent policies of the emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II at the outbreak of the First World War, provoking the need for a new start and a new re-orientation. On Taubes' account, Barth's dialectical theology, then, is a modern expression of the so-called messianic logic, that is to say, of the view that the internal logic of events in Barth's days-- no less than in our days and in Paul's-- requires "a faith that is paradoxical, that is contradicted by the evidence," a faith that is paradoxical, contradicted by the evidence, aside from a few references in passing in his book, [SPEAKING GERMAN] translated recently as Occidental Eschatology, which recall that for Barth's revelation is not a predicate of history, but history is a predicate of revelation.
This diagnosis is further elaborated in a series of essays published in the American Journal of Theology in 1954 and republished in Taubes' From Cult to Culture, and entitled "Dialectic and Analogy," the first essay, and "Theodicy and Theology, the Philosophical Analysis of Karl Barth's Dialectical Theology." Here, Taubes makes several observations relevant to our purposes, albeit in terms that seem always slightly off or imprecise, as was his rhetorical style.
The following invective for example, made only in passing, is illustrative in this respect. Here's Taubes in one of these essays-- "What today is not "theology, apart from theological chatter, [SPEAKING GERMAN] is [INAUDIBLE] less theology than Rudolf Bultmann or Emil Ruder, the two main other representatives of dialectical theology in the early phase, Franz Kafka less than Karl Barth." Barth's theology, then, at least at the period of the second fully revised, 1920's second edition of the [SPEAKING GERMAN] is set to completely subvert scholastic and Thomist philosophy, and all so-called natural theology based as these remain upon the principle of the analogia entis, the analogy of being, and what Taubes calls the "double bookkeeping of the so-called duplex ordo."
Barth replaces the presumed hierarchical order of things and the chain of being with an altogether different model. "As the theology--" here's Taubes on Barth-- "as the theology of actualism, Actualismus, dialectical theology contradicts the Thomistic philosophy of theology on the basis of the basic notion of being. The symbols of creation, sin, and redemption are not interpreted in the pattern of natural/supernatural, but in a temporal trans-historical scheme.
Its categories are not the unfolding of the nature of things, but the unfolding of a sequence of events, Ereignisse. Only such an ontological philosophy would be adequate to express the basic schema of dialectical theology that could develop the temporal structure of its categories. Most probably [INAUDIBLE] or Heidegger's anti-Aristotelian philosophy would provide the epistemological and ontological foundation of Barth's historical categories as a kind of eventlessness [SPEAKING GERMAN] or, in a contradictory move, as the English published version had it, as a logic of events."
And yet in spite of the suggestive comparison, the comparison with Bergson and Heidegger, Barth's theological universe seems eons removed from the philosophies of a Bergson and Heidegger, who, by the way, are in different ways neither anti-Aristotelian nor quite on the same page with Barth on much else, either. Nor does Barth's thought strike one as being based on a "basic notion of being." Moreover, if actualism is really the term one wants to invoke here, then it's hard to see how this would sit well with either eventlessness or any logic, for that matter.
This said, Taubes is certainly right to comment that Barth may very well have written an altogether new chapter in the history of dialectics-- that is to say, in the very history of method and ontology that Heidegger claims, in Being and Time, Aristotle himself had already overcome in its platonic variety, and that Heidegger, in turn, dismisses in its Hegelian expansion, as well. "In other words, Barth," so Taubes, "would have offered a theology without theodicy, thus opening the possibility of a religious language in an age of the eclipse of the divine."
The language of dialectical theology seems able to absorb even the atheism of Nietzsche and Franz Overbeck as stages in the purification of Man's image of God, and could accept the realm of necessity as the veil of the divine. Karl Barth opened the gate to a trans-theistic stage of consciousness. But he opened the gate to the stage as a theologian."
Taubes quickly gives in to the temptation to read these general statements as a specimen, not just of political theology as he claims throughout, but of political Marcionism, or of a political demonology premised upon the doctrine of an alien god, as von Harnack had interpreted the early Christian heresy with unveiled sympathy. In Barth's and Taubes' hands, it undermines the cultural symbiosis and complacency of liberal [? politicism ?] and hence anticipates the very crisis out of which Barth's, Friedrich Gogarten's, Emil Ruder's, Rudolf Bultmann's dialectical theology would consequently emerge.
And yet, dialectical theology, somewhat like the inverse or other theology about which I will say more now, engages the order and powers that be, including the events that inevitably come to interrupt them in ways that are more hesitant and paradoxical than the dualisms of Marcionism, old and new, political and/or aesthetic. And together with the so-called [? anti-novianism ?] of all stripes-- [? anti-novianism ?] being one of Taubes' favorite notions. An altogether different explanatory the model, an alternative messianic logic, if you like, seems thus to be called for.
Instead of an ontological dualism, what is at play here, it would seem, is rather an ontological theological prioritization, an inverted hierarchy, as it were, a novel optics of aspects of the absolute as opposed to merely relative, and hence, ultimately unimportant, sinful, and dying values, under whose gaze all things can be seen as set aright-- creation and revelation, history and its fall, messianic redemption and the restitution of all in all-- the restitutio in integrum-- in which the origin, the [INAUDIBLE], as Barth has it, call it the paradisaical state and atomistic language, is once again [INAUDIBLE].
Taubes summarizes things aptly when he sides with Barth-- as with Benjamin and Kafka, as we will see-- against Adorno, whom he somewhat unfairly again accuses of reducing the messianic optics to a mere idea, and eventually, to the purely aesthetic "as if." "If God is God--" this is Taubes, summarizing the dialectical theology of Karl Barth as formulated in the Commentary on the Letter to the Romans-- "if God is God, then he can't be coaxed out of our soul. There is a [? prius ?] here, an a priori. Something has to happen from the other side.
Then we see, when our eyes appear open. Otherwise, we see nothing. Otherwise, we ascend. We strive until the day after tomorrow."
To put things differently and apodictically, adopting a formulation used by Bruce McCormack in his big commentary on Karl Barth, and supposedly undermining all fictionalism, every reduction of redemption to a mere "as if," a mere [? come see ?] of what would be better for us to believe, as a mere hypothetical, as it were. If God is God, then he must not be, McCormack suggests, then he must not be a possible god, but a God who is. In other words, neither an an-atheistic god who may be, nor a speculative, materialist, inexistent and virtual god must still be produced, but a critically realist-- and in that sense, precisely dialectical-- conception of God, who Is what He Is and what He Will Be, is in place in Barth's commentary.
The crucial question here remains, of course, after all, is what we call God God? Or is the phrase, "if God is God," much more than an empty, mere formal tautology, whose formulation and formalization-- if A then A, or A equals A-- can yield no content, or meaning, or force worthy of the name of the divine name that Is.
Karl Barth's probing meditation on Anselmas, and notably on the so-called ontological argument for the existence of God published in 1931 under the title [INAUDIBLE], and often described as Barth's [INAUDIBLE], offers somewhat of a response to these questions. And interestingly, other than Taubes suspects, Adorno's own dictum that all philosophy revolves around our understanding and giving of the ontological proof for the existence of God, even after Kant had destroyed it, is another.
Now, as my title indicated, I would like, in the final part of my talk, to limit myself, and venture an hypotheses regarding Barth and Adorno in particular, helped by a concept, a rather enigmatic formula, namely that of an inverse theology, inverse theology. The concept at the letter Adorno first uses in his correspondence with Benjamin, discussing the reception of Franz Kafka's writings in particular, but then a concept that he also gave a much broader relevance in his later conversations with Max Harkheimer, speaking now of the other theology, die Andere Theologie, more abstractly. So inverse theology and the other theology, asking ourselves what marks the distinction between the theology of the other-- that is Karl Barth's "dialectical theology" in an easy proximity to Marcion's "alien god."
It is in the latter, broader use of the idea of an "other theology", and by implication also in the earlier, inverse theology motif, without which, I think, the latter cannot be understood. It's that conception that I believe still concerns us today, even though its theoretical premises had practical assumptions, especially in their presumed contrast with the dialectical, and as some have said, neo-orthodox theology of the wholly other that Barth inaugurated.
It's this complex that merits closer scrutiny, and I think, if I'm not mistaken, stands in need of drastic reformulation. And this for two reasons at least-- first of all, because in its earliest formulation, the putative contrast between the idea of an inverse or other theology and that of dialectical theology is not at all that clear. Just how, one should ask, does Adorno's idea of an inverse or other theology relate to the need for a wholly other theological foundation, that Thurneysen suggested to Barth in their weekly correspondence, when both were pastors in adjacent villages, and about to initiate the revolution in Protestant thought?
In other words, how exactly does one differentiate between the other theology, die Andere Theologie, and the theology of the holy other, of the Ganz Andere, given that their respective object or subject is precisely absolute, indeed the absolute, and hence, absolves itself from every conceptual determination, from every divine nomination, from every image or picture, all of which Barth and Adorno will insist, risk blasphemy and idolatry, as they reach beyond the tangential, infinitesimal, and disappearing, fleeting point upon which they touch, if only vainly?
And second, I think it's important to return to this distinction and early debate between Adorno and Barth, because a fateful development and painful consequence has imposed itself on the notion of inverse or other theology, one that would ultimately find one of its most influential-- in any case far more widely discussed-- expressions in the later Max Harkheimer's Sehnsucht nach dem Ganz Anderen, the desire, the longing for the Totally Other, the famous interview that he gave in 1970 to Der Spiegel, the major German periodical. And it makes all too clear that the semantic and political force of its concept seemed at that time all but lost. Harkheimer's later thought has been subject of an increasingly recent study by [? Pascal ?] [? Eidler ?] on the politicization of religion in Germany during the late '60s. And I think it deserves fuller attention in this context, and I can now give it.
But my hypothesis is that the misinterpretation, or the running out of steam of the other theology, of the inverse theology, explains precisely why especially the second generation of the Frankfurt School moved beyond its evident impasses, as is found precisely in Harkheimer's later writings, thereby obfuscating a much more interesting and necessary debate early on in the contrast between inverse and dialectical theology. Harkheimer-- and it is fully consistent with the negative Schopenhauerianism of his early essays-- would reduce to a simple impasse what in Adorno and Barth, coming from different angles, but converging and intersecting, however tangentially, in a single and minimal point, was somehow dialectically and paradoxically and indeed, rhetorically forged and kept together, thus inviting philosophy and theology in their respective use, autonomous and dogmatic thinking, to enter a new constellation and conversation that each, to its own detriment and merely speaking on its own terms, had seemed to avoid.
The term "inverse theology" appears in a letter, as I said, to Benjamin dated December 17, 1934, in which Adorno reports on his readings of Kafka, whose later, somewhat elaborate documentation we find in the [SPEAKING GERMAN] to Kafka, the Notes on Kafka, first published in 1953 in the "Neue Rundschau" and then reprinted in 1955 in Prismen. It is in this text that we find the most extensive indications as to what Adorno's-- and we are led to believe Kafka's own-- conception of an inverse, as opposed to, say, straight, or rather dialectical, or in particular Christian dogmatic and, as it turns out, Jewish national theology might mean, both in light of a general and specific presuppositions and orientations, be they aesthetic or existential, political or religious. "For all we know," Adorno suggests, "inverse theology may call for the representation of something altogether different and unheard of, something not of this world, but for that very reason, not otherworldly per se, something not of this world-- but for that very reason not other worldly per se."
Yet the concept and deeper motivation had been long in preparation in Adorno's own writings, just as they cast a long shadow well beyond the interpretation of Kafka in this context. We find echoes of inverse theology in the essays that Adorno devoted to Arnold Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, in his reading of Beckett's Endgame and also in the recently published series of lectures, courses, that lead up to the actual publication of Adorno's magnum opus, The Negative Dialectics, in 1966.
Interestingly, in contrasting a certain, but not necessarily every theological interpretation of Kafka's overall oeuvre, namely the one that describes this author in terms of a religious position, perhaps even the religious [? archeposition ?] as such. Adorno issue here not so much with Barth, or, as one might have expected, with Max Brod who, after all, was the main proponent of the Jewish theological interpretation of the literary legacy that had been entrusted to him directly. But Adorno takes to task Hans-Joachim Schoeps.
Barth and Brot are mentioned in passing, yet Schoeps' appropriation of what Adorno calls "dialectical theology" here, more in particular, it is Schoep's interpretation of Kafka in terms of a Barthianism without mediator, Barthianismus ohne Mittler, that is to say, without Christ, or for that matter, any other intermediary instance or connecting instant bridging, however tangentially, heaven and earth. That provokes Adorno's ire and dismissive gesture.
Schoeps had sent his 1931 [SPEAKING GERMAN], Jewish Faith in This Age, subtitled Prolegomena [SPEAKING GERMAN], Prolegomena for the Foundation of a Systematic Theology of Judaism. Schoeps had sent this book to Barth. And he had met him in person as well. The correspondence in which Barth responded critically to Schoeps' theses followed roughly a year later.
And yet, if Schoeps is somewhat apologetic in choosing these words, "Barthianism without a mediator," "Barthianismus ohne Mittler," or in the plural, "without mediators," which "Mittler" indicates as well, then this hesitancy concerns precisely the very choice of these words. "If we want to typify," Schoeps says, "Kafka's world view, then it is sit venia verbo, may there be forgiveness for the world, that Barthianism without mediator or without mediators, not only the path from Earth to Heaven, but also the one from Heaven to Earth, is too low to ever be followed."
Adorno's reservations against dialectical theology, then, must be directed not so much against Barth, but against a certain interpretation of Barth, namely the one by Schoeps. They seem aimed not so much at the theology of the entirely other, the theology laid out in the letter, in a Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, a theology that he takes to task elsewhere, but never quite convincingly. Indeed, his de facto target is the afterword to the posthumous edition of Kafka's Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer, The Building of the Great Wall of China, published by Schoeps together with Max Brod in 1931, which announced a forthcoming monograph in which Schoeps would seek to present "a detailed interpretation of Kafka's entire work as ultimately expressing a negative actualisation of the Judaic understanding of revelation, and one conditioned by the advancing process of secularization."
This phrase, "negative actualization," "Negative Actualisierung," is deeply puzzling and downright paradoxical. After all, is a negative actualisation not precisely an active deactualisation of sorts? Or is a negative actualisation of the Judaic understanding of the revelation a de facto Christian understanding of that very same revelation, and one that is brought about-- but one wonders how exactly-- by "the advancing process of secularization?"
This suggestion, I suspect, is precisely what may have troubled Gershom Scholem in his open letter to Schoeps, in which he categorically, but politely, rejected this author's position in his main work, Jüdische Glaube in dieser Zeit, A protest against the letter's abundant and uncritical use of "Protestant terminology." This much is clear, though-- Schoeps claims that for Kafka, the human soul needs a mediator or a series of mediators, and that without such mediation, transcendence remains final and our distance from it without hope.
"The path to the next human heart, even the road between Heaven and Earth as well as the one that leads back from Earth to Heaven is otherwise, simply too long to ever to be followed. Revelation may be given, and indeed, may be continually given." And Schoeps cites a fragment, which goes as follows, "through the words, through the words remains of light transpire, [SPEAKING GERMAN] but the ultimate and full redemption nonetheless ever fails to arrive. The miracle, the Wunder of God's unfathomable act of love, then, which alone is capable of bridging the gap, of crossing the bridge, has, in Kafka's eyes, in his worldview," Schoeps claims, "simply not happened."
His Barthianism, then, remains without mediation, without a mediator, without mediators. There is the absolute, no doubt. Call it an infinity of access to infinite hope, but none of it quite accessible to us, just as, conversely, nothing in and of Heaven finds its way back to Earth, if ever it got there in the first place.
And still, one wonders what a Barthianism without mediator could possibly mean. Since [? Vollbart, ?] the theological concept of revelation remained centrally tied to the figure of Christ-- that is, to the positive actualisation of revelation, so to speak, and more precisely to his resurrection, which, in Barth's view-- everything but the worldview, come to think of it-- is the soul instance, the single word that puts all powers, all gods, all of history, every culture, each anthropology, including the natural theologies that have built upon them, to shame, once and for all rendering them all nil-- nothing less, nothing more. And this is Barth. And I'm going to cut to my conclusion.
The gospel of the Resurrection is the power of God, his virtus, the disclosing and apprehending of his meaning, his effective preeminence over all gods. It's the action, the Supreme Miracle, Wunder alle Wunder, by which God, the unknown God dwelling in light, unapproachable, the Holy One, Creator, and Redeemer makes himself known. What therefore ye worship in ignorance, this I set forth unto you-- no divinity is remaining on this side of the line of Resurrection, no divinity which dwells in temples made with hands, made of with hands, or which is served by the hands of man, no divinities that need any one-- that is to say any human being that pretends to know them-- can be God.
God is the unknown, and precisely as such, he bestows life, and breath, and all things. Therefore, the power of God can be detected neither in the world of Nature, nor in the souls of Man. It must not be confounded with any high, exalted force known or noble.
The power of God is the most exalted of forces, nor is it either their sum or their founder, but the crisis of all powers, the totally different-- das Ganz Andere-- that by which all power is measured, and by which it is pronounced to be both something and nothing, nothing and something. So the power of God stands neither at the sight of, more above the limited and limiting powers, not to be confused with them, not to be ranged among them. It can, say, with the greatest caution be compared with them. The power of God, the inspiration of Jesus as the Christ is, in the strictest sense of the word, a presupposition, free from any content that can be grasped.
note that the reference to the unknown God is also taken as a point of departure by von Harnack, who suggested Marcion developed his notion from an eventual God to that of a radically alien god, thus departing precisely from the Hellenizing and the Gnostic tendencies of his time, which Paul, as is testified with the Acts of the Apostles, in the well-known scene on the Areopagus, confronted head on. Note also the idea and introduction of an absolutely presupposition-less assumption or inspiration is an eminently phenomenological operation that brings Barth, like Benjamin, in the vicinity of Edmund Husserl, whose concept of the phenomenologically originally given, together with the so-called "reduction and neutralization of all natural dispositions," with which it shows remarkable parallels.
And yet this is not all. Paradoxically, Schoeps goes on to suggest Kafka's deepest insight and most profound unrest might be much closer to the Christian truth than any faith of the nominally devout Christians who strangely, and often all too quickly, assume and accept salvation on their own behalf first, and that of others second. Moreover, such a truth, had it been taken to heart, would do great injustice to the disturbing fact that on this, and perhaps Kafka's own view, also the position of Heaven vis-a-vis Earth, remains fundamentally off-- that is to say, crooked and warped-- geometrically put, windschief, just as the relationship between God and Man retains an element of pressing uncertainty.
And yet to say, and experience as much, Schoeps intimates, is the original, authentic, and ultimate religious disposition. It is the religious [? archeposition ?] as such.
I conclude-- Adorno, as one might believe, is not so far removed at all from these assumptions. What, then, does it mean to speak of inverse theology? To speak of theology in terms of inversion or otherness, risks on Adorno's view, tying religion back to a putative past that for all we know, may not be behind us after all, or of collapsing into some imaginable, ephemeral quality that must go unnamed, whether for now and indefinitely, or forever.
The inverse and other theology, as Adorno understands it, cannot be the dialectical or as McCormick puts it, the critically realistic theology, that Barth had pursued from his first commentary on Paul's Letter to the Romans onwards. Nor can it come near anywhere the argument, if that's what we should call it, propounded by the later Max Harkheimer in his interview on [SPEAKING GERMAN], "The longing for the Totally Other."
Neither Adorno nor Barth think of the totally other, however, as a mere abstract, negative metaphysical, and hence merely noumenal counterpoint to the phenomenal world as we find it. We saw that for Barth, it's the miracle of faith, and for Adorno, it is the immediacy to which even a resolute negative dialectics, proceeding through determinate negation and respecting the prohibition of images, of all images, well beyond what this [INAUDIBLE] Verbot originally intended, remains answerable and deep down, attuned. More than a thought, then, and perhaps than an afterthought that barely reacts against the enclosing immanence of the totally regulated and administered world, Adorno's negative dialectic, and especially the form it takes in his later writings as a meditation, a, even spiritual experience, geistiger Erfahrung, follows this trace of the other this [SPEAKING GERMAN] that follows it into the most material and corporeal experiences of qualitative instances and instants, whose minimal difference may yet make maximal difference in the world, inviting, demanding, and forcing its total recall and its total make over-- nothing less.
By the same token, Barth's miracle of faith and the miracle of revelation, of God's word and of God speaking, concerns a proclamation that, for all its ambiguous-- and hence, contestable, even revocable nature remains to be heard and obeyed, and likewise leaves nothing untouched. Neither model, the materialist or the ecclesial, the minimal and maximal theological optics that I've described here, however, succeeds in demarcating itself fully from what seemed its clearest opposite.
In fact, I would claim, they find a common agreement in distancing themselves from the gratuitous gesture of all appeals that take that which is than what exists as a mere idea, however critical, but too good to ring true. The [? come see affair, ?] the "as if" perspective, or, as I would be tempted to call it, the dual aspect [? seeing ?] of negative dialectics and its spiritual exercise, is therefore everything but resigned aestheticism, the asceticism of which Taubes unjustly accuses Adorno.
And as it touches upon the aesthetics-- and why should it not-- in Adorno, it does so in Barth to no lesser extent. But differently, the fundamental and merely meditative, contemplative, aesthetic perspectives there are in Adorno's writing, they precisely resemble the very way in which Barth's own massive Church dogmatics paints the whole universe, "from the standpoint of God." In other words, the massive differences in point of departure, not to mention that of putative destinies in their overall oeuvre, cannot hide the fact that for their respective and eminently modern and 20th century sensibilities, the vocabularies and concepts, rhetoric and pragmatics of religion can no longer be kept at bay, just as it can no longer be kept apart from the philosophical discourses that accompany, enable and even criticize it.
Critical theory and dogmatic theology, therefore, in this historical phase, refer to each other and continue to do so for all the reasons given-- that the result is not necessarily conformism or apologetics, naturalism or supernaturalism indicates that the front lines between philosophy and theology, reason and revelation, knowledge and faith run no longer between secular modernity and a supposedly traditional, if increasingly public and global religion, but through each of these domains individually-- in any case, elsewhere, and often where we expect them the least. Thank you.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions about this request.
How did Critical Theorists respond to the challenge of early twentieth-century theologians to diagnose and address an acute sense of modern crisis and political impasse?
The following lecture, entitled "Inverse versus Dialectical Theology: The Two Faces of Negativity and the Miracle of Faith," seeks to provide a partial answer to this complex question by comparing Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Hans-Joachim Schoeps, and Karl Barth as readers of St. Paul.
Hent de Vries is the Russ Family Professor in the Humanities and a Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University, where he also serves as Director of The Humanities Center.
This lecture was sponsored by the School of Criticism &