In this phenomenological reading of Luther, Marius Timmann Mjaaland shows that theological discourse is never philosophically neutral and always politically loaded. Raising questions concerning the conditions of modern philosophy, religion, and political ideas, Marius Timmann Mjaaland follows a dark thread of thought back to its origin in Martin Luther. Thorough analyses of the genealogy of secularization, the political role of the apocalypse, the topology of the self, and the destruction of metaphysics demonstrate the continuous relevance of this highly subtle thinker.rabbi
About the Author
Marius Timmann Mjaaland is Professor for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Oslo. He is author of Autopsia: Self, Death, and God after Kierkegaard and Derrida.
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The Hidden God
Luther, Philosophy, and Political Theology
By Marius Timmann Mjaaland
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2016 Marius Timmann Mjaaland
All rights reserved.
History, Hermeneutics, and Political Theology
Authors from the early sixteenth century have often been interpreted along confessional lines of division. In this book such differences play only a minor role, when any at all, and I have no ambitions of continuing or enhancing the old confessional discussions on Luther and Erasmus. Since Oberman, it has become more common to see both the Reformation (Lutheran, Calvinist, Radical) and Counter-Reformation as parts of a major historical and intellectual shift in the history of Europe, and thus to transcend the more narrow-minded apologetics in favor of one side or the other. I even find it necessary to transcend the more or less strictly theological approach outlined by Oberman, in order to study the close relationship between theological ideas, philosophy, and political changes that occurred in this period, like James Tracy and Carter Lindberg do with their more general approach to the history of ideas.
Five centuries after the texts were published, Martin Luther's writings still cause polarization and controversies. One reason is the confessional polemics that have been going on for centuries and the quasi-normative status of these texts among the Protestants. Another is their extremely sharp and polemical tone. They bear traces of an author who was witty, pointed, and sarcastic, although not exactly fair to his adversaries. His Bible translations contributed to the formation of a common German language, and he was the first author who was able to apply the printing medium to mobilize a wider public readership. His series of pamphlets was extremely popular and has been characterized as the first successful mass media propaganda in world history. Even today his texts are astonishingly readable, mainly due to a large number of lucid examples, humor, polemics, and sarcasms, and a vivid and precise prose.
The unexpected success of the Reformation movement is not explainable by Luther alone, let alone by theological issues. A number of social issues and political tensions in Europe contributed to the schism of the church and the subsequent political destabilization of Europe. Because of general dissatisfaction with the popes in Rome and abuse of power within the ecclesiastic hierarchy, the discussions on church authority and dogmatic issues had already been going on for centuries. Moreover, a number of philosophical questions that came up during the Reformation have their roots in the long academic debates at the universities, from Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventure, via John Buridan, John Wycliffe, and Duns Scotus, up to the so-called modern thinkers (following the via moderna), William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel. In a certain sense, all the significant problems Luther discusses are traceable back to other thinkers in late-medieval theology. Hence, some church historians see it as an anachronistic misconception to read Luther in the light of problems coming up in modernity.
They have a point, but there are also limitations to the historical approach, which often reflect modern reconstructions of late-medieval academic debates. In Germany, a sharp debate was provoked by Volker Leppin's biography on Luther (2006), which demonstrated how deep the controversy between systematic and historical approaches still runs. Such inner-theological disputes, predominantly written in German, have contributed to the alienation of scholars from other disciplines, including philosophers, who rarely discuss Luther's contributions to the history of philosophy. Contemporary or more-systematic philosophical readings of his work are so rare that they are virtually nonexistent, at least in the English-speaking world. This shortcoming is all the more surprising if Luther played a key role in the political and philosophical development of modernity.
For myself, it has been necessary to take one step back from the ideological conflict between church historians and systematic theologians, which seems to have reached an intellectual dead end. The analytical and textual approach of contemporary Continental philosophy appears to be more promising for the development of new perspectives on the works of Martin Luther. A few recent publications in German indicate that there might be an intellectual shift coming up prior to the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. Not that the historical studies have become superfluous; but the post-secular debate on the significance of religion for understanding contemporary society and its basic structures of thought has opened new interdisciplinary fields of discussion in metaphysics, politics, culture, values, and belief systems.
Among the pioneers of intellectual history, we find the by now classical contributions by scholars like Alexandre Koyré and Norman Cohn dealing with this fascinating period from a historical point of view, while focusing on the interplay between theological ideas, philosophy, and political movements. Cohn gives an intriguing argument for the influence of apocalyptic ideas and movements from this period on the imagination of political movements in the twentieth century, including communism, fascism, and liberal capitalism. Lucien Goldmann belongs to the same strand of historical inquiry, although with a more explicit Marxist agenda, and his study on The Hidden God (Le Dieu caché) from 1955 represents a significant point of reference for the analyses presented here, not only because of its title, but also because of its novel approach to Pascal as a tragic thinker. Although it is easy to criticize his programmatic and ideological Marxism (thinking "from below" and rephrasing all ideas in terms of social and political class structures) and his somewhat confusing methodological considerations, his original approach to the concept of God as politically and sociologically decisive remains relevant to our inquiry, in particular when it comes to understanding revolution and political theology.
Secularization and Post-Secular Political Theology
The historical process commonly referred to as "secularization" has been the topic of a number of studies since the turn of the millennium, arguing for a more differentiated understanding of secularization. Rather than being a process which simply determines various discourses of politics, philosophy, law, and religion, secularization has itself become an object of study, and many of the premises that were taken for granted have been jeopardized. A secular interpretation of political processes serves particular power interests, whereas others are disadvantaged. Claims of secularism as a "neutral" and rational sphere, as opposed to the prejudices and myths of religion, are therefore hardly defensible any longer. When studied from different perspectives, secularization turns out to be a complex process involving religion, politics, law, philosophy, theology, literature, and sociology. Hence, the so-called secularization thesis dominating the social sciences since the beginning of the twentieth century, indicating that religion will be marginalized, privatized, and eventually disappear, has been jeopardized in favor of more-complex approaches.
The so-called post-secular condition proclaimed by Jürgen Habermas in 2001 has been followed by a number of significant contributions by, for instance, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, Arab-American anthropologist Talal Asad, and German sociologist Hans Joas. These three contributions reject the presumption that secularity represents some neutral common sphere, whereas religions represent superstitious or anti-modern survivals from a remote time. On the contrary: A scholar like Hans Joas underscores that a number of significant modernizing changes are driven by religious movements and depend on a sacred rationale. Moreover, historical analyses show that a period of secularization is often followed by a period of resacralization. Asad argues that these opposite processes may even be intertwined, and more-detailed comparative studies demonstrate that they do so within different religious contexts. He demonstrates that just as there are different religions, there are also different secularities, which often depend on the religious context of their origin.
Paul W. Kahn raises significant methodological questions concerning the relationship between religion, law, and politics in Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, while continuously referring back to Carl Schmitt's celebrated and controversial book from 1922. His argument is not normative but descriptive. He argues that when concentrating exclusively on pre-modern political theologies, we miss the entire problem of political and cultural imagination, which dominates political decisions without any institutional foundations. Hence, this is not a question of state and church but of the politico-religious rationale for the question of sovereignty. Kahn returns to the question of sovereignty raised by Schmitt and concludes that it remains a religious issue even within Western, so-called secularized, societies when it comes to the question of sacrifice. Most of his examples refer to the United States, where political rhetoric and discourse have always been open to religious perspectives and sacred values. Yet even European democracies have the tendency to construct their own sacred sphere in order to justify their sacrifices, he argues, which demonstrates the ultimate values, the paradoxes, and the limits of the political decisions.
Other intellectual historians, such as Mark Lilla and John Gray, have chosen a different path for their studies of secularization, politics, and apocalypticism. They intend to develop a more subtle historical understanding of the relationship between religion and politics in the West. Both contribute with interesting historical cross-references to the discussion and demonstrate the intimate relationship between politics and theology — which still is the rule rather than the exception from a global perspective. Both authors warn against a future collapse of the limits between the religious and the political spheres, with the possible consequence that religious ideas, including the apocalypse, once more will dominate our political imagination. This fear of religion seems to dominate their approach normatively, though, and apparently it hinders more-audacious and innovative theoretical discussions concerning a redefinition of the relationship between secularity and religion in the post-secular society.
Two publications by Giorgio Agamben add to the methodological complexity of the field: his analysis of Paul and political theology in The Time That Remains (2005) and his considerations on method from 2009, where he defines the secularization of the West as a generic signature changing the way we perceive the world in modernity — including society, history, and philosophy — rather than a new set of ideas that presupposes a rejection of the previous ones. Agamben's approach is based on Foucault, in particular his genealogy of knowledge and power, but it also corresponds to Heidegger's understanding of modern philosophy as repetition of earlier topoi within a new context. Heidegger's notion of repetition is closely connected to the problem of a destruction of metaphysics.CHAPTER 2
The Grammar of Destruction
The destruction of metaphysics is a favored topic in twentieth-century philosophy, in terms of a positivist critique, an overcoming, an Abbau, a rejection, or a deconstruction of traditional metaphysical notions and concepts. But where and when does this discussion of a general destruction of metaphysics start? I argue that the Heidelberg Disputation plays a key role here. In this short disputation, Luther presents forty theses giving a principal justification of his position, twenty-eight of them theological and the other twelve philosophical. In the explanation to thesis 21, he argues that the cross is a good thing, since it destructs (destruuntur; destructus) the good works and thus crucifies old Adam. A double work of destruction is thereby indicated: first, a self-centered and inflated (infletur) ego is demolished until it realizes that it is nothing (nihil esse), and second, the speculative metaphysics of scholastic theology is unveiled as a seductive illusion when confronted with the notion of God as crucified in Jesus Christ.
Heidegger and Luther on Hiddenness and Destruction
The double process of destruction, including the notion of human being (Dasein) on the one hand and traditional metaphysics on the other, is picked up four centuries later by Martin Heidegger, first in his lectures on phenomenological interpretation and then in a guest lecture on Luther and the concept of sin. The notion of destruction is again applied somewhat differently in Sein und Zeit (1927) and later works. Heidegger's reading of Luther had major influence on his general philosophical orientation, as recent research has shown. In a lecture from 1922 on phenomenological interpretations, he writes:
Hermeneutics carries out its task only on the path of destruction, and [...] the Graeco-Christian interpretation of life [...] determined the philosophical anthropology of Kant and that of German Idealism. Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel came out of theology and received from it the basic impulses of their speculative thought. This theology is rooted in the theology of the Reformation, which succeeded, only in very small measure, in providing a genuine explication of Luther's new fundamental religious insight and its immanent possibilities.
The relationship between hermeneutics and Luther's insight is the path of destruction, which means a repetition of the immanent possibilities of Luther's thought in a different philosophical context, in particular by Kant and in German Idealism. The final claim, that the theology of the Reformation was unable to provide a genuine explication of Luther's insight, is also significant. Heidegger sees a surplus in Luther's texts that was not quite understood, perhaps not even considered significant by the subsequent theology, which soon returned to Aristotelian metaphysics. The unacknowledged possibilities recurring in the period of the Enlightenment and German Idealism are not merely found in Kant's ethics or his religious reflections. It is a more general question of the structure and place of his thought: Is Kant's critique of metaphysics, and thus the basic structure and critical consequences of his transcendental turn, included in this path of destruction? Has Luther identified a site of reflection which is further explicated by Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel? However this relationship may be analyzed in detail, we see indications of a genealogy in this remark. Heidegger's comment could also be viewed more critically: If he is basically right in this regard, should Luther even be called a speculative philosopher in the sense of German Idealism? That would indeed be an irony of history, since Luther harshly criticizes the speculative theology and philosophy of his time, the so-called theologians of glory.
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Table of Contents
1. Topology of Texts and the Destruction of Metaphysics
2. Sola Scriptura
3. The Hidden God
4. Modernity in the Making
5. From Revelation to Revolution
What People are Saying About This
Mjaaland reveals a radical Luther whose break with prior metaphysics sowed the seeds for deep cultural stuggles into the future in ways that came to frighten even Luther himself.