Nihilism and Belief in Contemporary European Thought
Originally Appeared in: New German CritiqueNo. 119  Published: Summer, 2013

Forced Conversations

The stark differences in political sensibility might make a dialogue between Gianni Vattimo and Rene Girard seem even more implausible than the one between Jurgen Habermas and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in 2004. There one expected an uncompromising duel between Germany’s most comprehensive advocate of secularism and democratic proceduralism and its most conserva­tive theologian and, at the time, head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the institution within the church that traces its roots to the Inquisi­tion. The expectation was disappointed. Habermas, it seems, had gone a bit soft. Not from any loss of intellectual acuity or wavering of commitment to rationality and secularism. Rather, he had convinced himself that Western cul­ture has finite moral resources that, rather like oil and gas reserves, were deposited long ago and cannot be created anew. Those deposits lie in religious traditions. Habermas’s newfound reverence for the unrepeatable past exposes the weakness of his own moral-political theory by acknowledging that an ethic of undistorted communication- with the built-in norms of sincerity, transpar­ ency, fairness, dialogue on a par with others, and the supremacy of the better argument- lacks the capacity to generate moral motivations and perhaps even to stir emotional attachment to its own norms.

Though Habermas could not put it this way, his communicative rational­ity ethic does not meet the test of Friedrich Nietzsche’s call for a transvaluation of all values. His position is perhaps simply the rationalist’s inevitable world­ weariness, as it becomes so very clear that the rationalism and Kantian ethic to which I am passionately (i.e., irrationally) attached will never become the supreme value of das Man (though of course I would never slander my compa­triots with such a label). So (out of sheer prudence and to protect universalism itself), I must now hedge my convictions just enough to affirm the incalculable value of religious moral traditions. They alone provide the West with its finite source of resistance- much like the body’s limited immunity to bee stings-to consumerism, nihilism, and individualism. Only their god will save us now!

The Vattimo-Girard dialogue erects an edifice of shared conviction and philosophical rapprochement, but the underlying differences in political sensi­bility and intellectual principle eventually show through. The point of contact is that Vattimo apparently saw the path to connecting Christianity and Martin Heidegger’s deconstruction of metaphysics thanks to his reading of Girard. Sometime before 1996 he encounters Girard’s notion that the Christ story undid the form of sacrifice underlying the sacred in archaic religions, myth, and ritual, where the victim is blamed for whatever upheaval and disorder is rife within society. The New Testament story transvalues the archaic “victim­ hood mechanism.” With Jesus’s crucifixion, the scapegoat is revealed to be innocent. The guilty ones are the crowd and officialdom, who are unjust in the very way they exact justice; they no longer embody the renewed unity and unanimity of society, for they are opposed by a dissenting minority made up of the scapegoat’s disciples, who point out where real innocence and guilt lie and then spread the scapegoat’s universal message of forgiveness and loving one’s neighbor as oneself. The resulting gospel not only reverses and deconstructs the archaic logic of scapegoating but also dissolves the violent knotting of jus­tice and injustice on which the social bond was hitherto founded, a violence buried and forgotten in primitive and ancient myth and ritual.

That Habermas, Girard, and Vattimo, three of Europe’s most original and ultimately irreconcilable thinkers, attempt to make explicit the relation between their philosophical projects and Christianity is undoubtedly con­nected to the European project and the question of European identity. The brief debate over whether a European constitution should affirm Europe’s Christian origins arose against the backdrop of Turkey’s potential member­ ship in the European Union, and the flare-up of tensions in western Europe over the growing immigrant population and its Muslim origins, has been tinged with fears growing out of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. A tacit consensus among intellectuals affirms “three formative fac­tors or themes that come together in the creation and re-creation of what we call Europe: Judeo-Christian monotheism, Greek rationalism, and Roman organization.”‘ How these traditions are braided together, however, is a source of historical and contemporary conflict. Medieval theology synthesized Chris­tian ritual with Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy and secured institutional dominance on the model and footprint of the Roman Empire. Renaissance humanism and the Reformation and then eighteenth-century Enlightenment shook the church’s synthesis and dominance by rebraiding belief, reason, and politics and so bequeathed a vibrant strife to modern European thought down to the present.

The strife is not only among thinkers but within each one’s thought. The three at issue here exemplify the multifaceted drama in which the narratives, symbols, doctrines, and convictions of Christianity reverberate, whether in dissonance or consonance, with secular reason and modern politics. European philosophy from Rene Descartes, Blaise Pascal, and Thomas Hobbes to Jean­ Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant sought to diminish the open, often vio­lent conflict between Catholics and Protestants by arguing that the precise nature of God could not be known even as they affirmed his existence. Neither Vattimo nor Girard nor Habermas ventures into theology in that sense. Vat­ timo and Girard turn, rather, to the interpretation of Christ as a crux of Western civilization, a key to morality and the dangers of mass society for Girard, a preparation for the relinquishing of the metaphysical need for divine author­ity for Vattimo. Habermas, by contrast, looks to the religious tradition for images and symbols that might translate into a secular conception of global justice and solidarity. The conflicting values in European politics- libertarian, traditionalist and socially conservative, social-democratic and cosmopolitan­ can be felt in these three thinkers’ reflections, along with an implicit but nag­ging anxiety about how European philosophy’s engagement with religion might enlighten the West’s interaction with Muslim societies and immigrants.

Girard diagnoses the current age as in danger of self-destruction unless the fear of annihilation is voiced as a moral-apocalyptic warning that only Christianity can properly deliver by at once invoking brotherly love and insti­ tutionally imposing moral strictures to discourage the masses from erupting into violent unanimity. Vattimo, on the other hand, affirms Christianity’s death of God in the humbled mortal Jesus as the very figure of a brotherly love that can do without the institutionalized moral powers of the church and fits with the postcolonial dissolution of Western culture’s false belief in its possession of universal truth. Habermas, who echoes Max Weber in describing himself as “religiously tone-deaf,” undertakes a philosophical reflection on religion’s relation to political theory, from reproductive technologies to immigration and geopolitics. A rising Muslim population within Europe, the continent that oth­erwise seems the exception to the global resurgence of religion, calls for a clarification of the “public use of reason” and the “burdens of tolerance.” The task that “secularized citizens” supposedly share with “believers” is “to trans­late relevant contributions from the religious language into a publicly accessi­ble language.”


To avoid the potential clash of civilizations that threatens to polarize the West and the Muslim world, Habermas calls on Western thought to demon­ strate that modernity and democracy need not have a violent and traumatic effect on faith. “Only if we realize what secularization means in our own post­-secular societies can we be far-sighted in our response to the risks involved in a secularization miscarrying in other parts of the world,” he warned in his acceptance speech on receiving the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade just a month after 9/11. “This self-reflection is one among several steps neces­sary if we want to present a different image of the West to other cultures. We do not want to be perceived as crusaders of a competing religion or as sales­ people of instrumental reason and destructive secularization.”

3 The overarch­ing problem, according to Habermas, is the disparity of wealth between the global North and the global South, and the only hope for squaring globaliza­tion and justice is a cosmopolitanism that would exercise “political control over the dynamic of the global economy and global society.”


Religion is politically ambidextrous, polyvalent, plurivocal- choose your metaphor. Yet these thinkers yoke religion to their particular political concerns and passions as an indispensable support. In Habermas’s case, it is a question of political faith in need of more resonant, motivating expression. His cosmopolitan vision of a globalized social democracy has taken on increas­ingly utopian overtones, as its differences from the American and Chinese versions of globalization become ever starker; in response, he looks to religion as a possible resource to articulate his secular political and social values more forcefully. Is this effort a mere instrumentalization of religion, a reinvigoration of secular discourse, a misapprehension of the symbolic underpinnings of politics? I return to this question after analyzing the dialogue between Vat­timo and Girard, whose philosophical engagement with religion, in contrast to Habermas’s, derives from their experience of Catholicism and the imprint of that experience on their respective intellectual vocations. Despite conven­tional references to the Judea-Christian tradition, all three thinkers draw almost exclusively on Christian symbols, narratives, and doctrines in their probing of religion and belief.


Christ Interpretations

Vattimo appropriates Girard’s Violence and the Sacred , Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, and The Scapegoat with a decisive shift in emphasis. The idea that Christ’s sacrifice dissolves the violence at the core of society hitherto under the sway of natural religion is associated by Vattimo with the one moment in Paul’s letters that refers to kenosis, as Christ is said to have emptied himself in passing from “being in the form of God” and lowering himself into mortal flesh. The Vulgate: “sed semet ipsum exinanivit.”

5 Revised Standard and Douay-Rheims: “But emptied himself.” New Jerusalem: “But he emptied himself.” King James: “But made himself of no reputation.” The full passage reads: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:5-8). In Christ, divinity emptied itself by becoming mortal. For Vat­timo, Christianity’s God incarnate is thus “the death of God [in the sense of ]the dissolution of the sacred,” that is, the death of divine Being as a being, a judge and power over humankind.

Girard, according to Vattimo, is one of the authors “who most influenced my nihilistic rediscovery of Christianity.”

6 Heidegger’s critique of Western metaphysics on the grounds that it reduces Being to a being neatly dovetails with Girard, who in Vattimo’s view “has persuasively demonstrated . . . that if a ‘divine’ truth is given in Christianity, it is an unmasking of the violence that has given birth to the sacred of natural religion, that is, the sacred that is characteristic of the metaphysical God.”


The Heideggerian dovetail ruffled Girard’s feathers. In Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, he argues strenuously that while Heidegger alone among philosophers recognized that the logos of Heraclitus and the Logos of the Gospel according to John are absolutely divergent, he discarded the Christian Logos and took the Greek logos as the guidepost of his entire philosophical project. What, then, do Vattimo and Girard share? The short answer, I suppose, is Christ. But just how is Christ to be understood? For are not the shared and unshared understandings of Christ precisely what give Christianity itself its complexity historically and in the world today? Are the Christ of Vattimo’s postfoundational philosophy and the Christ of Girard’s metaphysical anthropology the same? Or the Christ of Mel Gibson and that of liberation theology, or Benedict XVI’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s or Calvin’s Christ and the Grand Inquisitor’s?

The challenge is to recognize the rich, conflicting array of Christ inter­ pretations that weave their way through contemporary experience, politics, and institutions. Vattimo’s and Girard’s differences are a significant instance of this conflict of interpretations within contemporary thought. The unwaver­ing rationalism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens is of no help here. However forcefully they articulate one form of modern nonbelief, they are utterly incapable of shedding any light on belief itself, except to qualify it without further qualifications as unfounded and irrational. The intellectual poverty of their approach to belief leaves their profession of nonbelief as shal­low as it is forceful. The problem is to discern the different Christs that have emerged from the same textual matrix, the same weave of narratives and met­aphors. Manifestations of Christ’s essence are characterized by enigma and secrecy in the Gospels. Leaving aside the miracles- loaves and fishes, walking on water or turning it to wine, reviving Lazarus-three manifestations of Christ’s holiness have fired the imaginations of poets and painters since the Middle Ages: transfiguration, resurrection, ascension. In each case, enigma and secrecy are accompanied by an intense disorder of the senses.

In the transfiguration, three of Jesus’s followers see him light up as though illumined from within while Moses and Elijah, the lawgiver and the prophet, appear and speak to him, until a cloud sweeps down and a voice is heard to say, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him” (Matt. 17:5). Jesus then instructs the three, “Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead” (Matt. 17:9). But they do not understand: “And they kept that saying with themselves, questioning one with another what the rising from the dead should mean” (Mark 9:10).

When the resurrection does occur, and Jesus reappears alive in body, voice, and appetite, Mary Magdalene is the first to see him. Thinking that he is the gardener, she fails to recognize him until he addresses her, “Mary,” but he will not let her test her sight and hearing by touching him: Noli me tangere (John 20:17). A bit later the two disciples whom he joins on their way to Emmaus do not recognize him by sight or by voice, even as “he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” It is not until he accepts their invitation to eat with them and breaks and blesses the bread that “their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight” (Luke 24:27, 31), as though a gesture identified him as face and voice could not and as though once recognized he must disappear.

Such dissociations of the senses of sight and hearing, of image and voice, the visual and the discursive, recall the Old Testament conundrum in which God is said to speak to Moses “face to face” (Exod. 33:11) but does not let himself be seen by Moses except from the back: “Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live” (Exod. 33:20). God’s invisibility is itself the condition of Jesus’s mission as the Word of God: “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (Deum nemo vidit umquam unigenitus Filius qui est in sinu Patris ipse enarravit) (John 1:18).

8 This statement, attributed to John the Baptist by John, the only New Testament writer to refer to Jesus as the begot­ ten son of God, evokes the disjunction of sight and sound, vision and word, to designate God’s absence in the very mode of his being made present: God is unseen by man but declared by Jesus.

The third supernatural event in Jesus’s earthly sojourn is the ascension. Forty days after the resurrection he appears to his disciples for the last time, telling them to wait in Jerusalem until “ye shall receive the power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts l :8). Just as the God of our fathers was never seen, so now this Son-and-Word of God will disappear for good, as suddenly as he vanished before the eyes of his two disciples in Emmaus: “And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). Ten days after Jesus ascends the Holy Spirit descends in his place. The disciples, having gathered i_n Jerusalem as he instructed and now numbering tenfold the original twelve, see tongues of flame fall upon them and go out into the city and, trancelike, speak and are understood in all the world’s languages. Here, then, is the sort of reversal-fulfillment of Hebrew scripture that will become a hallmark of Christianity: humanity, which the jealous overpowering God had separated and dispersed into several languages when it tried to reach the heavens by building the tower of Babel, is now reunited-indeed, universalized-by the Word that is henceforth spread not by the Son-and-Word of God himself but by the inspirited followers who call him Christ Jesus. The Holy Spirit closes the circle by transforming Babel and the Supreme Being into universalism and community, and it seals the disap­pearance of the self-emptied divinity by leaving in his place the spirit and ethic of brotherly love.

Through all these moments of transfiguration, resurrection, ascension, and, in T. S. Eliot’s phrase, “pentecostal fire,”the divine being is never grasped by all the senses. It is never heard, seen, and touched all at once. It is manifest in one aspect and concealed in some other. It is unseen when it speaks; when it appears, its voice is unrecognized; it announces its lasting universal presence by disappearing. The divinity is never fully present, as its every appearance misses at least one dimension of humans’ Being-in-the-world and shreds the human sensorium in a cascade of wonder, vision, delirium, and trance. Since the presence of the god in the world is always incomplete or vanishing, the apprehension of divinity is left to interpretation by those who dwell in the world. So, too, Jesus is the Word of God insofar as he was inspired to declare, explain, narrate (enarrare) in parables, metaphors, and analogies to Hebrew prophecy. His worldly followers were left to interpret. In terms familiar from poststructuralism, immersion in a field where neither a perceptual plenum nor a secure knowledge nor a guaranteed meaning stops the differential play of tropes and allusions is, quite simply, the condition of human language. What theology will call the deity’s transcendence is instead, from the hermeneutical perspective, the immanence of the divine in the discourses that evoke it, or indeed that evoke its vanishing. The Christ narrative thus entrusts the divine to human Being-in-the-world and in effect secularizes it….

Download the Full Article