I just rediscovered this strange document [below the fold] which is an abbreviation of the most important chapter of perhaps my best book, Godhead and the Nothing. Why did I do it? I have forgotten, and even though apocalypse is absent here, this motif of the Self-Saving of God may be my most vital one. This also unveils the ultimate challenge of Gnosticism which we so commonly evade, for Jonas maintains that the Self-Saving of God was created by Gnosticism and may well be its most ultimate challenge.
Even if my original studies of Blake and Hegel mute or disguise this motif, I can now recognize their dominance for Hegel and Blake, and perhaps for all of our most radical vision.
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This paper is an all too limited inquiry into the possibility of a truly new theology for us, and one revolving about the thesis that now theology can only finally be an unveiling of the “self-saving” of God. Let us proceed from Heidegger’s great treatise, perhaps his greatest treatise, on “Nihilism as Determined by the History of Being,” the conclusion of his primal study of Nietzsche, which was written in the time of perhaps his greatest crisis, 1944-45. Here, Heidegger speaks with unusual force of “the default” (das Ausbleiben) of Being, a default that is the very destiny of Being, and yet Being saves itself in its default. Now this is the very treatise in which Heidegger, in response to Nietzsche, gives us his deepest understanding of nihilism, a nihilism which he can now identify as the history of Being, and this is the very history in which Being saves itself. For Heidegger this history is the history of metaphysics, one which determines the history of the Western era, but metaphysics thinks Being only in the sense of “the Being” as such, therefore Being itself is necessarily unthought in metaphysics, and as such metaphysics is nihilism proper. This is the history which comes to an end in Nietzsche’s thinking, even if Nietzsche is the last metaphysical thinker, and it comes to an end in the “self-withdrawal” of Being, yet this self-withdrawal is the very advent of Being, and the abode of this advent is: “das Sein gibt.” That giving is finally the self-saving of Being, one proceeding from the withdrawal or self-concealing of Being, and the advent of the default of Being is the advent of the unconcealment of Being, one which is an essential occurrence of Being itself. This occurs in the final or apocalyptic age of the destitution of Being itself, wherein a closure of the holy occurs, and while Being itself now fails to appear, the disclosure of its default is an ultimate sign and seal of its own self-saving.
Let us first note that the symbol of the self-saving of God or Being is extraordinarily rare until the full advent of the modern world, perhaps it can be fully found in the ancient world only in Gnosticism, and Hans Jonas, a former student of Heidegger’s, and surely our greatest Gnostic scholar, could identify a uniquely Gnostic redemption as the “self-saving” of God. This self-saving is necessitated by the fall of Godhead itself, wherein a “devolution” of deity occurs, and a devolution reversed by a redemption effecting the reintegration of the impaired Godhead. Gnosticism, for Jonas, is the most radical movement in the ancient world, one that not only reversed classical culture, but shattered the pantheistic illusion of the ancient world. The Gnostics were the first speculative theologians in the “new age” of religion superseding classical antiquity, and they created the ideas of an antidivine universe, of humanity’s alienness within it, and of the acosmic nature of the Godhead. Thereby they also created the first mythical-speculative history of descending emanations from the primordial Godhead, revolving about an inner “divine devolution,” and one embodying an ultimate tragedy within Godhead itself, a tragedy wholly unknown in the ancient or pre-Gnostic world.
We might also note that nihilism realizes its first open theoretical and mythical expression in Gnosticism, which is yet another reason why Gnosticism has been so deeply reborn in our world, and if the Hellenistic world was an ever more fully nihilistic world, Gnostic theologians were deeply influential in that world, as witness their impact not only upon Plotinus but indirectly upon Augustine himself. While we still lack a history of Gnosticism in the post-ancient world, it would be difficult to deny that the symbol if not the actuality of the self-saving of God is deeply present in that world, as perhaps present in the depths of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mysticism, and as surely present in the circles surrounding Meister Eckhart and Jacob Boehme. This is a mysticism that is reborn in German Idealism, and the self-saving of God is at the very center of the thinking of Schelling and Hegel, just as it is in the visionary depths of Hoelderlin, Blake, and Goethe. At no other point has such a deep modernity been a more profound threat to theology itself, and if Christian theology was born in Paul in response to a primitive Christian Gnosticism, a uniquely modern Christian theology could be understood as having been born in response to a uniquely modern self-saving of God.
If we have now entered a postmodern age of theology, this is a new theology or atheology embodying the impossibility of naming God, so that a refusal to pronounce or write the name of God is characteristic of the whole body of truly contemporary theologians, just as it dominates contemporary biblical scholarship. We might even say that nothing is more forbidden in our world than what we once knew as theology, and most forbidden by theologians themselves, who can unveil any actual language about God not only as illusion but also as blasphemy, as an assault upon the Godhead of God. This is an assault which the Protestant and Jewish theologian can know to be present in every philosophical theology, as most deeply unveiled by Levinas, but it likewise can now appear to be present in every full expression of our imagination, so that now all ideas and images of God are theologically condemned as they have never been so before. Never previously has the very name of God been so deeply forbidden, or so deeply veiled, as though it is this name alone that calls forth the most ultimate and the most absolute abyss of darkness.
Yet this condemnation is fully consistent with any genuine understanding of the “self-saving” of God, for God can be saved only from God’s own darkness, and if that darkness is inseparable from every act of God, or every epiphany of God, or even every name of God, then not only is darkness itself ultimately a divine darkness, but that “light” which is the opposite of darkness is inseparable from darkness, and inseparable in this opposition itself. We know that the Book of Job is the most heretical book in the Bible, and despite its deep transformation at the hands of priestly editors, it remains inconceivable how this book could have become canonical, but perhaps it did so precisely because it so deeply names the darkness of God, a naming which is here revelation itself. This occurred in the first exile of Israel, but now a new exile is at hand, an exile now of all humanity, of the world itself, and if ancient Gnosticism first knew a universal exile, and one creating an absolute world-negation, this occurs only by way of an absolute redemption, a redemption which is the self-saving of God. This and this alone makes possible what the Gnostic knows as the perfection of the elect, a perfection that is an absolute deification, one surely echoed in deeply Christian quests for deification or Godmanhood, and if these have their origin in a primitive Christian Gnosticism, as recorded in the earliest strata of Q and of the Gospel of Thomas, they are surely present in the depths of Christian mysticism throughout its history, even if they are seemingly absent today.
Yet certainly the presence of the darkness of God, and of the ultimate darkness of God, is not absent today, as witness our deep condemnation of the very pronunciation of the name of God, for even if this is a response to the emptiness of the name of God for us, that could only be an alien emptiness, an alien emptiness impelling such a condemnation, and one that can be known as the very opposite of a Buddhist emptiness. Ancient Gnosticism could name the biblical God or the Creator as Satan or Ialdabaoth, a naming seemingly renewed by both Blake and Nietzsche, and just as Nietzsche finally unveiled God as the deification of nothingness or the will to nothingness pronounced holy (The Antichrist 18), that very unveiling is inseparable from the full and final advent of an absolute Yes-saying or an absolute redemption. Heidegger could finally know such a redemption as the absolute event of Ereignis, and all too significantly Ereignis is the very word which Goethe employs in envisioning the final redemption of Faust in the conclusion of the second part of Faust, that very Faust who embodies a uniquely Western damnation, or a uniquely Western “soul.”
Here, salvation is impossible apart from damnation, but already this is true in Augustine’s mature theological thinking, a thinking which became the foundation of Western theology, and a thinking calling forth the first philosophical and theological understanding of “subject” or self-consciousness. Heidegger can follow Hegel in understanding that subject as the very center of modern metaphysics, and Heidegger can even understand Nietzsche’s Will to Power as revolving about this subject, which is just why Nietzsche for Heidegger remains a metaphysical thinker. But if metaphysics has now truly ended, and with it has ended everything which we once knew as theology, darkness has certainly not ended. Indeed, it has become more universally abysmal than ever before, so that Heidegger himself can actually name Being only by naming an ultimate and final abyss. Therein Heidegger remains in large measure an Augustinian and perhaps ultimately Christian thinker, and does so precisely by knowing the self-saving of Being, for even if this is not an overtly Augustinian theme or motif, it certainly is so in the deep underground of Augustinianism, as fully present in an Occam, a Luther or a Kierkegaard, and if this underground is a profound influence upon the Heidegger of Being and Time, it continues to affect the late Heidegger, who could so deeply know the “default” of Being. Only by knowing that default can Heidegger know the “self-saving” of Being, and if he finally knows this self-saving as the event of Ereignis, this is certainly a deeply anti-Gnostic understanding, for it occurs fully and wholly in the world, and in the very worldliness or finitude of the world.
Today we can understand Gnosticism as being born in the very advent of Christianity, and Gnosticism has ever accompanied the deeper expressions of Christianity, for even when these truly transcend Gnosticism, as occurred in both Augustine and Aquinas, it is Gnosticism which impels or makes possible such a transcendence, a Gnosticism which thereby can be understood to be essential to a uniquely Christian transcendence, and above all so if a uniquely Christian transcendence can be understood as a reflection or embodiment of the self-saving of God. Gnosticism gives us the deepest and purest image of such self-saving in the ancient world, just as Gnosticism gives us the deepest and purest image of the darkness of God in that world, and if the darkness of God is inseparable from the self-saving of God, then the advent of the deepest darkness of God may well be the advent of a truly new self-saving of God, and one certainly known not only by Hegel and Heidegger, but by virtually all of our deepest modern visionaries. Has the time now come for theology itself to incorporate such understanding? Or is ours the time for a new silence of theology, one which virtually all of our contemporary theologians have seemingly chosen, and chosen perhaps because only thereby can theology now be preserved?
Both Hegel and Heidegger know metaphysics or the deepest philosophical thinking as theology, but unlike all ancient or medieval metaphysicians both Heidegger and Hegel finally know “Being” or the Spirit or the Godhead as the self-saving of God, and a self-saving occurring in the deepest darkness and abyss, a darkness only made possible by the death of God. So it is that Heidegger can know that the realization that “God is dead” is not atheism but rather ontotheology, and an ontotheology in which both metaphysics and nihilism are fulfilled. Just as Heidegger can know the history of metaphysics as the history of nihilism, this is the history of a theological metaphysics, a history which Nietzsche, too, knows as the history of nihilism, for it is a history of a deification of “the nothing,” a “nothing” which Western metaphysics knows as Being. Yet only at the end of this history is Being unveiled as “nothing,” an ending already beginning with Hegel, and already called forth in a uniquely modern realization of the death of God, a realization which is at the very center of Hegel’s thinking, and of Nietzsche’s thinking as well. And this is just the point at which the theologian turns deeply away from philosophical thinking, and from the imagination as well, as most deeply embodied in Barth’s Church Dogmatics, even if this is our only dogmatics which can know either damnation or “the nothing.”
Now, and for the first time, the deepest dogmatics can know that damnation is impossible for humanity, or “for us” (II, 2, 346), and impossible because it only fully or truly occurs in the damnation of Christ, a damnation which it is surely possible to understand as the self-saving of God, for Barth here understands the very glory of God as shining outside Himself by God’s becoming guilty in His Son. Clearly there are very few Barthians at this crucial point, perhaps none at all, yet our deeper modern philosophy can think within the horizon of such an orbit, and can do so by knowing and only knowing an abysmal Being or Godhead. Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger all deeply know this abyss, and this ultimate abyss, and they know it as an ultimate event, or body, or kenosis, and a body or event or self-emptying which is finally the fullness and finality of world itself. Thereby world or body or actuality itself is now far more profoundly theological than it ever previously has been, and precisely thereby is wholly closed to everything which we have known as theological thinking.
No theologian has been open to such a world, but no theologian has been open to the self-saving of God, for perhaps in being closed to the fullness and the finality of the death of God, theology has become closed to world itself, and to the full and final actuality or worldliness of the world. Can this most deeply be why theology is so silent in our time, a silence which is the silence of ending or death, but a silence which may pass into speech if theology could become open to the self-saving of God? Doubtless this is a profoundly forbidden path for theology, but it is a path already followed by our deepest philosophical and theological thinkers, and if in their wake theology has regressed to a wholly silent or sectarian form, can theology now be awakened from such a death? For the finality of world itself may well be finally the self-saving of God, a self-saving in which alone God is finally God. If we are now deeply closed to every other image of God, and every other idea of God, and so much so that it is now impossible either to think or to imagine God without imagining and thinking the self-saving of God, then perhaps this is the genuine destiny of theology, and one which can arise only out of the deepest ending of theology, only out of the deepest theological abyss. Certainly such an abyss now abounds among us, and perhaps that very abyss is the self-saving of God for us, and the self-saving of that God who is only in God’s abyss or death, or only in an ultimate “default,” but the advent of that default is the fullness of advent itself.