Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Scheitern, part 2

Thornhill shows the congruity of Jaspers' conception of foundering communicative reason as a decisive ‘hermeneutic of possible transcendence’, with the Weimar socialist theologian Paul Tillich’s theorization of revelation. For Tillich as for Jaspers, revelation involves ‘the shattering of reason’ (in Thornhill’s words); precisely as such however, revelation ‘is not the negation of reason’, because it is ‘the moment where reason experiences its highest degree of transcendent and unconditioned truthfulness’. Both Jaspers and Tillich conceive of revelation as being ‘not solely a fact of faith, but also a philosophical possibility of human reason’, which presents itself wherever reason founders, or ‘encounters the limits of its formal processes’. Thornhill also explains how Jaspers’ theory of the limit, or of a decisive hermeneutic operating in existential limit-situations, parallels Tillich’s conceptualization of kairos, and how both thinkers thus theorize a ‘decisive moment of responsible transcendence’.

Tillich used the concept of kairos to capture what he called ‘fulfilled time’; the moments in human life ‘in which eternity breaks in’ on the usual conditions of human history. In Thornhill’s words, kairos is thus ‘a moment of historical time in which human life reflects upon its possibilities at the limits of its historicality’; in a way recalling Jaspers’ theory of the limit, Thornhill notes, Tillich could therefore assert kairos as a ‘historical consciousness […] whose ethos is unconditioned responsibility for the present moment in time’. Thornhill stresses that – and whilst Heidegger simply ‘interprets the moment of human decision as the awareness of the immutability of the historical forms in which human life is placed’ – Tillich and Jaspers alike understand ‘true kairological decisiveness’ to be an ‘ethical position’. This is because they both sense that genuine ‘transcendent(al) self-knowledge’ articulates itself in ‘acts of active self-choice, self-disclosure and, in the strict sense, historical responsibility towards others’. Both Tillich and Jaspers assert, Thornhill clarifies, that ‘kairos provides the grounds for an innerworldly ‘metaphysic of responsibility’. Quoting Tillich, Thornhill emphasizes this point:      
‘It is only in the kairological specificity of historical responsibility, not in the compliance with “universal law”, that human life explains and enacts the possibilities of its transcendence. The decisive moment of responsible transcendence (kairos for Tillich; Grenze [limit] for Jaspers) does not effect here (as for Barth) an absolute crisis of the human realm. Rather, in quasi-Kantian, or even quasi-Weberian manner, both Tillich and Jaspers see the kairos of responsibility as an ethical intrusion into the existing conditions of human life, and as an unconditioned position of accountability towards these conditions.’

It is important to note, finally, that when (what Thornhill calls) Jaspers’ ‘ethical kairology’ enables him to posit an innerworldly metaphysic of responsibility, he is thereby nonetheless thinking towards a true non-secularity; for Jaspers, as Thornhill writes, ‘the truth of history, although interpreted in history, cannot be reconciled with the present conditions of historical life’. Thornhill underlines this point by explicating the shared foundations of Jaspers’ and Karl Barth’s ‘eschatological hermeneutic as the guarantor of the historicality of history’.

Jaspers and Barth, Thornhill sees, ‘share the conviction that revelation cannot be objectified in a particular set of worldly imperatives, and that revelation cannot be cemented in any system of legal or political obligation’. Both assert that, as Thornhill puts it, ‘No order within history itself, […] can arrogate the authority of transcendence to itself. Any attempt of this kind is merely an example of bad secularity, or bad metaphysics.’ Hence both thinkers claim that ‘the disclosure of transcendence occurs at all times at the limit of history, and that it cannot be incorporated into the fixed orders of everyday history’. Moreover both Barth and Jaspers indicate that ‘human life can only interpret itself adequately insofar as it interprets itself and its products under the index of their limits and their possible otherness’. Barth and Jaspers’ shared argument that ‘humanity interprets its own transcendence only as it brings into suspension the forms in which it exists, only as it knows itself external to the forms of its worldliness’, Thornhill stresses, is precisely why Barth (from a christological viewpoint) and Jaspers (from a hermeneutical viewpoint), ‘retain a far stronger attachment to the eschatological basis of Christianity than their opponents amongst liberal and conservative theologians’. Jaspers’ identification of a truthful hermeneutic of transcendence with a self-hermeneutic of individual crisis or failure, means that for him – as for Barth – transcendence is, in Thornhill’s words, ‘merely a decisive possibility at the limit of the temporal’; for both thinkers ‘true interpretation must take place at the limit of objective self-awareness’, and ‘all attempts interpretively to integrate transcendence into a historical synthesis inevitably fall into the trap of false objectification’. Jaspers and Barth’s shared conviction that, as Thornhill writes, ‘the interpretation of revelation is never final’ is therefore what brings both Jaspers and Barth to suggest ‘an either explicitly or implicitly eschatological hermeneutic as the guarantor of the historicality of history’: both thinkers hold ‘the essentially eschatological belief that human history in its present condition cannot provide for final truthfulness, and that the truth of history, although interpreted in history, cannot be reconciled with the present conditions of historical life’.      

Thornhill thus pays considerable attention to the way in which Jaspers, like Barth, argues that ‘the interpretation of transcendence cannot be historically fixed as a reflex within any continuum of culture, politics or doctrine’. Yet, crucially, Thornhill also suggests that the type of non-secularity established within Barth’s thinking, is distinct from the true non-secularity established within Jaspers’. The truth of the non-secularity thought by Jaspers, Thornhill’s argument hints, hinges on his proposal of a self-hermeneutic of individual failure. Jaspers, Thornhill sees, charges Barth and the dialectical theologians with interpreting revelation as ‘the unique source of authority against human history’; precisely in their opposition to secular legitimacy, they ‘succeed only in recreating revelation at the limit of human history as a new source of objective authority’. Thornhill writes that when Barth in this way insisted on the objective authority of revelation, and so ultimately aligned himself with the Lutheran theologian Emanuel Hirsch and Barth’s other reactionary adversaries, he became ‘complicit in the process which secularizes and materializes religious contents’.

Crucially, Thornhill stresses that, viewed from Jaspers’ perspective, Barth’s thinking of radical anti-secularity necessarily creates an ‘objectivizing system of belief’, precisely because it fails to recognize ‘the human relativity of all truly transcendental interpretation’. Thornhill maintains that when the Lutherans, viewed from Jaspers’ position, ‘crudely press revelation into service for the authority of the nation state’, and Barth poses revelation at the limit of history as a new source of objective authority, this is because – so Jaspers’ thinking intimates – they all obscure ‘the absolute relativity of revelation’. ‘In this respect, both eliminate the genuine transcendence of revelation, which is its uncertainty, and both falsely concretize transcendence as authority – as law.’ Thornhill’s work suggests that, in opposition to this juridical tendency of Weimar theology, Jaspers’ identification of a truthful interpretation of transcendence with a self-hermeneutic of individual crisis or failure, recreates the relativity of truly transcendental hermeneutics, and so establishes a true non-secularity – one which ‘relies on an interpretive component of humanity, secularity and liberality ’.  

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