The Alternative to a Perverse and Dystopian Christianity – Part III: The Quest for Certainty and the Promise Of God

To arrive at a New Testament understanding of certainty one has to pass through the Old Testament’s full acknowledgement of mortality and death (see Part II).  The various death denying systems of certainty presume either an innate immortality (e.g., the platonic or Cartesian rational soul) or access to the absolute (a Babel like ability to storm the heavens or Buddhist notions which reify death) which would nullify the need for a sure and certain word from God.  The difference between the two kinds of certainty is captured in the contrast between Abram (in Genesis 12) and the Babelites (in Genesis 11). The Babelites would create a city and tower which would secure their name while Abram is given a promise that his name would endure. The tower ascending to the heavens is aimed at transcending and preventing scattering and dissolution.  As Paul spells it out in Romans 4, Abraham was as good as dead, Sarah’s womb was dead, and Abrahams entire life journey is a prolonged scattered condition (leaving his family, home, and country) of facing the reality of death.  Hebrews, in describing Abraham’s offering of Isaac, concludes along with Paul in Romans that Abraham’s death acceptance constituted his resurrection faith.

The difference between the concrete reality of a fine brick tower and the illusive nature of a word (though it be a promise from God) gets at the essential difference of the two certainties. Bricks are not subject to death – and with really good mortar are unlikely to be scattered.  Animate (living) words, in that they arise from the realm of personhood, suffer from but are also carried by the dynamism of time and history. The Babelites, as with their modern heirs, would ascend to the heavens to get a god’s eye point of view.  As Ludwig Wittgenstein describes it, only a god can escape the weight of embodied reality so as to grasp infinity.  Abraham’s journey does not resist or presume to by-pass embodied finitude as it is his seed and Sarah’s womb which will enflesh the promise.  God’s word made certain does not by-pass embodied reality but it is an incarnate Word exposed to death which secures the promise.  This is described as an unchangeable certainty by the writer of Hebrews, but it stands in sharp contrast to the platonic forms, Anselm’s greatest thought, or a brick tower.

The difference between being joined to the body of Christ and striving to attain to the heavens or the absolute entails a philosophical difference traversed in the life and philosophy of Wittgenstein.  What characterizes the man and his philosophy is a lifelong attempt to divest himself and his philosophy of the pride of place.  He gives away his vast wealth, takes up teaching in a country school, quits teaching at Cambridge so as to pray in his cabin, and passes from the presumptions of a modernist analytical philosophy to a full acknowledgement of the embodied characteristics of language. The Japanese translator of Wittgenstein’s diaries, Akio Kikai, characterizes his philosophical quest, given the spiritual journey detailed in his diaries, as more of a theological quest to rid himself of pride and to become a humble follower of Jesus. The diaries reveal his continual struggle both at Cambridge and then alone in the cabin in Norway to rid himself of his arrogant tendencies and it is in his philosophy that he puts forth his greatest effort in this regard.  His final work, On Certainty, takes on G.E. Moore’s notion that, given the ground of pure reason, Moore could doubt his own hand is his.   Wittgenstein prescribes a therapeutic philosophical humility for this Cartesian-like distinction between the rational soul or mind and the body.  He concludes, “Nothing is more wrong-headed than calling meaning a mental activity” as it is a social/embodied activity. One can only doubt his own body or hand on the basis of a web of meaning inclusive of embodiment.  To imagine otherwise is to miss the material nature of the language with which one would take flight from the body. Whether or not his personal striving to become humble was successful, it seems that it is here that his philosophy succeeds and perhaps is most Christian.

Wittgenstein, though, may not adequately address an alternative strain of certainty that is now making its way into Christian circles through the Emerging Church.  The modernist quest to ascend to the heavens, from Descartes to Kant, is straightforward in its striving for a disembodied (god’s perspective) transcendence and Wittgenstein’s philosophy serves to bring us back to earth.  From Hegel to Heidegger to Tillich, however, there is the quest for certainty in an alternative direction. Attaining transcendence, as one Japanese philosopher has characterized it, can also be by way of transdescendence. I believe this describes the peculiar genealogy of thought coming from Heidegger.

Martin Heidegger comes to a philosophical understanding, which in its acknowledgement of human situatedness (Dasein) and its turn to “language as the house of being,” seems quite close to the focus on ordinary language in Wittgenstein.  Yet the man, with his enthusiastic anti-Semitism, his little Hitler moustache, and his embrace of National Socialism, indicates the reality toward which his philosophy is bent.  Where Wittgenstein is aiming at the realities and relative certainties of embodiment, Heidegger would extract absolute certainty from nothingness.  “If in the ground of its essence Dasein were not transcending, which now means, if it were not in advance holding itself out into the nothing, then it could never be related to beings nor even to itself. . . without the original revelation of the nothing, no selfhood and no freedom” (“What is Metaphysics”).  Heidegger will ultimately turn to the blood and soil of Germany for a sort of literal groundedness that manifests itself in a distilled form of evil. Paul Tillich absorbs Heidegger and imports a version of his existentialism to the U.S. where his flame is not dimmed by the luminosity of his German contemporaries.

The Heidegerrian/Tillichian/dystopian form of the turn to the Ground of Being or to Dasein (Heidegger’s determinate Being) holds out death itself as an absolute through which true authenticity (in a return to Hegel) is realized.  This form of mysticism, best formulated in Heidegger’s “What is Metaphysics,” is so akin to Zen Buddhism that Kitaro Nishida (the Kyoto Zen Buddhist thinker) and Heidegger can copy from one another (as seems to have literally happened).  Peter Rollins, a recent spokesman for this dystopian Christianity, fails to notice or comprehend how he has formulated Christianity so as to resemble Buddhism (read this as more Gnosticism).  Rollins seems to miss the fact that his guide, Slavoj Žižek, avoids the slide into Buddhism or the worst parts of German idealism (persistently present in both Heidegger and Tillich) by a clean break with any notion of the transcendent.  The attempt to fuse Žižek’s system with some form of the Christian God means a return to a Lutheran reading of Hegel’s Geist or World Spirit – which is to posit the perverse form of deity which Žižek would disavow. Heidegger, who never disavowed either his enthusiasm for Hitler or his belief in God, seems to have always maintained hope in this perverse god. “Only a god can save us” was his final word but it was consistent with his passage into National Socialism by way of Hegel.  If Hegel could pronounce Napoleon the World Spirit on a horse, Heidegger could proclaim Hitler as embodying the German Ground of Being.  This god has already proven to be radically evil so it is unfortunate he is once again emerging.

New Testament certainty no more fulfills the human quest for certainty than Christian hope fulfills desire (an understanding which Žižek cannot attain in his pure materialism and atheism).  The pursuit of certainty, in fact, seems to name the same search for final resolution to the absence, loss, angst, and agonistic struggle driving desire. The dystopian form of Christianity in elements of the Emerging Church simply refuse, as Jacques Lacan commanded, to give way on desire. Absence and loss, or the agonistic struggle of Romans 7, is presumed to be the permanent hysteric struggle which must be engaged. Fusing this with notions of Tillich’s Ground of Being seems to be a return to the worst sort of final solution.

Hope and Christian certainty describe the humble acceptance of earthly embodied realities in which we have a sure Word from God. This is the certainty of faith which does not refuse the reality of evil, darkness, and death but accepts them given the certainty of the promise of God.  “And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (II Peter 1:19, NIV).

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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