Christian Philosophy as a Paradox

What follows is neither a criticism nor an endorsement of the passage it discusses. It is simply an attempt to start thinking about the relationship of Christianity to philosophy through the implications of the following claim:

A “Christian philosophy” is a round square and a misunderstanding. (Heidegger, p.8)

The important thing to immediately note is that this comment is situated within a wider context that is both interesting and important for understanding what it means. You might ask me why I took it out of context in the first place, and that would be a good point. But really, a claim like that takes itself out of context.  It’s the sort of sentence that jumps out at you in a first reading, hiding it’s context (which you didn’t really understand anyway) and yelling at the top of its voice. It jumps out as a problem (if you’re philosophically inclined), as an insult (if you’re inclined to be offended) or as an opportunity if you really don’t like religion. It jumped out for me as a problem. What is Heidegger saying about Christianity and Philosophy here? Is he arguing for a deficiency in Christians, such that they aren’t smart enough to do philosophy? Is he kicking the Christian out of the academy? Is he saying that Christianity is illegitimate?

The obvious thing to do at this point is to reframe the claim within its context, then we realise that he is saying none of these things. Instead, he is trying to highlight something about the nature of metaphysics itself that implies that it is not open to someone “for whom the Bible is divine revelation.” (Heidegger, p.7) The consequence being: if we think a Christian is a philosopher, then either we are in error or he is a square circle. Now, depending on which Christian you talk to (viz. not the ones who want to insist that Christianity is rational), they might quite like the idea of being a square circle:

Faith is just this paradox, that the single individual is higher than the universal, though in such a way, be it noted, that the movement is repeated, that is, that, having been in the universal, the single individual now sets himself apart as the particular above the universal. (Kierkegaard, p. 84)

For Kierkegaard, if you’re not a paradox you’re not a Christian. However, the paradox of the Knight of Faith (having resigned to the infinite and won the finite back on the power of the absurd) is not the paradox that Heidegger is talking about. This comment on Christianity is within a set of arguments that claim that the ultimate question of philosophy is “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” (Heidegger, p. 1)

The question “Why are there beings at all instead of Nothing?” is first in rank for us as the broadest, deepest and finally as the most originary question. (Heidegger, p. 2)

Heidegger does clarify what he means by broad, deep and originary, but it is beyond the scope of the discussion here. All that need be said that it is a contentious claim, in that it isn’t necessarily successful. However, it is, beyond doubt, a philosophical question even if it is not the first. So, irrespective of whether or not Heidegger convinces us that the broadest form of the principle of sufficient reason is the ultimate question of philosophy, Heidegger will have still shown that there is at least one philosophical question that the Christian cannot ask:

[…] anyone for whom the Bible is divine revelation and truth already has the answer to the question “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” before it is even asked: beings, with the exception of God Himself, are created by Him. God Himself “is” as the uncreated Creator. One who holds on to such a faith as a basis can, perhaps, emulate and participate in the asking of our question in a certain way, but he cannot authentically question without giving himself up as a believer, with all the consequences of this step. (Heidegger, pp. 7-8)

The claim is that the Christian already has an answer to the question ‘Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?’, or at least a preliminary one. They might not case it in Heidegger’s metaphysical terminology and it is, in fact, probably better if they do not. However, it remains that the answer to this question is a theological one. Perhaps the most genuinely Christian formulation of it (as opposed to a metaphysical formulation) would be something like “Why did God create us?”, the answer perhaps having to something to do with God’s Love. In any case, it is firmly within the rubric of theology. The ‘ultimate’ question is meaningless in its philosophical formulation, as Heidegger puts this: “What is really asked in our question is, for faith, foolishness. Philosophy consists in such foolishness.”

But has Heidegger really said anything new here? He’s certainly brought it to light in his own way, and situated it within the particular instance of Christianity, but as a general issue it is something the tradition has been aware of since Socrates and probably earlier. The issue is this: that everything that isn’t philosophy thinks that philosophy is foolish! Why are philosophers foolish? Because they sit around talking about trivia instead of getting on with life! Why do non-philosophers think that the philosophical questions are trivial? Because the Problems that the questions address are not available to them, or at least not in the way that they are to the philosopher.

However, there is a difference between the Christian and the ignorant interlocutor. The ignorant interlocutor can’t see the Problem because he is convinced that it is meaningless to ask such questions, but the Christian doesn’t have access to the Problem because he already has an answer to it and can’t be swayed in his conviction. Both can only mimic the motions of the question in a hypothetical mode (Well if this sort of thing wasn’t a load of rubbish / God didn’t exist then I suppose…), they do not authentically ask it. However, these differences are alongside what they have in common: trust; trust in the self-evidence in the world, in the former case, and trust in God in the latter case.

Philosophy has always been, and as long as it exists it will be, fundamentally opposed to trust. Trust is philosophy’s mortal enemy, the tyrant against which it incites revolution, the imposter claiming to have what it seeks and the seductress tempting it to cheat on Sophia. Philosophy’s very existence is a reaction to undeserved trust, or rather, as it is more traditionally expressed: philosophy is opposed to preconceptions. However, pre-conception implies that the trust is invalid only because it hasn’t been checked over by philosophy, and that the trust that comes after it is more legitimate (knowledge). However, the trust that comes after is still a preconception because we can’t rule out the philosophy-to-come which will show us we were wrong to trust; that philosophy always comes. Knowledge occurs when philosophy stops, but that stopping is never the completion of its task. It is only a short break in a service station on the never ending motorway to Sophia. We might think we’ve reached the destination, but then some young upstart steals our car and proves that we’ve still got a long way to go, leaving us behind.

More on track, it is not that the Christian can’t do philosophy it is just that some specific philosophical Problems are unavailable to him in any genuine way. (Actually, if Heidegger is right and “Philosophizing means asking: ‘Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?’”(Heidegger, p. 8) then Christians, by definition, can’t be philosophers, but he hasn’t sold this claim to me.) Philosophy is wide awake in questioning, but starts to get drowsy in the answering. It finally goes to sleep when we have an answer that is trust-worthy. The philosophy-to-come, when it arrives, works away like the Socratic gad-fly to wake everybody up. But some people, on some issues, cannot be awoken.

The case with the Christian is that, while he has faith in God, certain philosophical questions are already answered before they are asked. Aside for the question Heidegger talks about, the question of ethics and morality would be another good example. It is not that Christians are bad people, but the question of appropriate action is not genuinely within the philosophical tradition that asks questions like: ‘What is the summum bonum?’ or ‘What is Justice?’ Rather, it is within a theological context of ‘How do I bring myself and others closer to God?’ (or in the case of Johannes de silentio: ‘How to do what already know I have to?’)

Christians might frame theology within philosophical categories and concepts, but this is simply picking up philosophy’s left overs and seeing if there is anything theologically helpful in it. Similarly, philosophers might find things of philosophical interest in theological/religious works, but neither are they doing theology, nor were the religious thinkers necessarily doing philosophy. Heidegger himself does this, given his treatment of Kierkegaard in Being and Time, for example, and his hobby of borrowing religious concepts, such as when he lifted Gelassenheit from Eckhardt. Though, through acknowledging what he is doing and comporting himself towards the concepts appropriately, he doesn’t seem to fall into the trap of theologising his doctrine, as is the case with humanism, for example.

To close, The philosophical mode of enquiry requires there to be a Problem present, that Problem can emerge only with the absence of trust. So, it is not that a Christian philosopher is a paradox, but believing in God and asking ‘Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?’ in a philosophical mode would be to square a circle.


Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Fried and Polt, Yale Nota Bene.

Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Hannay, Penguin Books.

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