‘Only A God Can Save Us’
So said Martin Heidegger, in an interview with Spiegel near the end of his life, in 1966. He’s talking about technological society and the danger it poses to our civilization:
HEIDEGGER: … Philosophy will not be able to bring about a direct change of the present state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all merely human meditations and endeavors. Only a god can still save us. I think the only possibility of salvation left to us is to prepare readiness, through thinking and poetry, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god during the decline; so that we do not, simply put, die meaningless deaths, but that when we decline, we decline in the face of the absent god.
SPIEGEL: Is there a connection between your thinking and the emergence of this god? Is there, as you see it, a causal connection? Do you think we can get this god to come by thinking?
HEIDEGGER: We cannot get him to come by thinking. At best we can prepare the readiness of expectation.
I thought about that when I read this essay by Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Great Britain, decrying the facile and stupid atheism of the Ditchkins crowd, which destroys more than they know. Excerpt:
[R]eligion has social, cultural and political consequences, and you cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact. That is what the greatest of all atheists, Nietzsche, understood with terrifying clarity and what his -latter-day successors fail to grasp at all.
Time and again in his later writings he tells us that losing Christian faith will mean abandoning Christian morality. No more ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’; instead the will to power. No more ‘Thou shalt not’; instead people would live by the law of nature, the strong dominating or eliminating the weak. ‘An act of injury, violence, exploitation or destruction cannot be “unjust” as such, because life functions essentially in an injurious, violent, exploitative and destructive manner.’ Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite, but there are passages in his writing that come close to justifying a Holocaust.
This had nothing to do with him personally and everything to do with the logic of Europe losing its Christian ethic. Already in 1843, a year before Nietzsche was born, Heinrich Heine wrote, ‘A drama will be enacted in Germany compared to which the French Revolution will seem like a harmless idyll. Christianity restrained the martial ardour of the Germans for a time but it did not destroy it; once the restraining talisman is shattered, savagery will rise again… the mad fury of the berserk, of which Nordic poets sing and speak.’ Nietzsche and Heine were making the same point. Lose the Judeo-Christian sanctity of life and there will be nothing to contain the evil men do when given the chance and the provocation.
Rabbi Sacks goes on to say that the idea that “individualism and relativism” can defeat Islamic fundamentalism “is naive almost beyond belief.” More:
Humanity has been here before. The precursors of today’s scientific atheists were Epicurus in third-century BCE Greece and Lucretius in first-century Rome. These were two great civilisations on the brink of decline. Having lost their faith, they were no match for what Bertrand Russell calls ‘nations less civilised than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion’. The barbarians win. They always do.
You don’t necessarily have to be religious to be moral, Rabbi Sacks says, but, quoting historian Will Durant, the rabbi says there’s no historical example of a society holding on to moral life absent religion. He goes on:
I have no desire to convert others to my religious beliefs. Jews don’t do that sort of thing. Nor do I believe that you have to be religious to be moral. But Durant’s point is the challenge of our time. I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other. A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also. That should concern all of us, believers and non-believers alike.
I return to Heidegger from that same interview:
From our human experience and history, at least as far as I am informed, I know that everything essential and great has only emerged when human beings had a home and were rooted in a tradition.
If, by the way, you missed Damon Linker’s column earlier this year on the naivete of the New Atheists, who, in his view, lack the philosophical and moral courage of Old Atheists like Nietzsche, Camus, Larkin, Beckett, and Cioran, be sure to read it.
The problem is that knowing that culture requires a cult, that civilization needs a religion, is not sufficient to make one acquire a religion. Nobody believes in God because they find it helpful. Notice that Heidegger didn’t say that “only God can save us,” but only “a god” can. We are going to have a god, one way or another. Which one?