In “Being Towards Death: Heidegger and the Orthodox Theology of the East”, Sylvie Avakian (19) considers Martin Heidegger’s thought in relation to Orthodox Christianity by dealing with the “early Fathers of the Church”, as well as the “religious existentialism” of Nikolai Berdyaev (19).
Heidegger’s most central themes of “being, openness to the Mystery, freedom, the human being, the human condition, death, letting be, authenticity, existential falsehood” are all compatible, according to Avakian (17), with central theological concerns and especially with the works of Berdyaev and the Orthodox theological heritage. Avakian emphasises also that methodically, Heidegger and Berdyaev share a style of writing that “challenges the abstract-speculative constructions of most philosophical and theological enterprises and aspires to attain meaning and inner (spiritual) freedom” (1).
Indeed, Berdyaev’s strong focus on personal freedom and human creativity made him a very “unorthodox” Christian thinker. In a footnote (49) that should perhaps be in the main text (19) of her “Introduction”, Avakian states that Berdyaev was a critic of conservative approaches in Orthodoxy. For Berdyaev, no institution (secular or sacred) and no fact (psychological, sociological, scientific or historical) can grasp or explain the unique mystery of the human personality. As a personalist philosopher, Berdyaev had an intense belief in the unique and absolute value of every person, which is the cornerstone of his philosophy. In Berdyaev’s work, we see the inextricable link between truth and personal experience. Berdyaev saw personal involvement as crucial to theology and philosophy (4).
In her attempt to solidify the relation between Heidegger and Berdyaev, and in a ‘personalist’ vein, Avakian refers to Heidegger’s own close relation to Christianity with the support of a quote drawn from Heidegger’s “Mein Bisheriger Weg” (1937/38). Despite being part of the intricate fabric of his youth and upbringing, Heidegger simultaneously sought to free himself from Christianity (18). Heidegger’s struggle against the dogmas of religion led him to an interminable quest to find an absent God.
On the relation between Heidegger and Berdyaev, Avakian (13) starts by making the following preliminary remarks and assumptions (13):
- both authors shared sources harking back to ancient Greek philosophical writings, towards early Christian thought, Meister Eckhart and Jacob Böhme and to Friedrich Schelling. For instance, both authors followed Schelling’s focus on existence, the primacy of being and the limits of human reason (7, footnote 17; 297, footnote 165).
- Berdyaev referred on several occasions to Heidegger’s works, whereas the same cannot be said of Heidegger.
- Heidegger might not have been “aware of the compatibility of his thinking with the Russian Orthodox tradition; yet several thinkers who influenced him, such as Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), were deeply indebted to Russian thought” (13). In a footnote (38), Avakian mentions that Heidegger also did not acknowledge the “great influence of Rilke” on him (13).
- both thinkers “played the role of spiritual resistance, whether against Soviet Communism or against the highly technical-objectified world of modernity in Europe” (13).
Like the thinkers she tackles, Avakian (32) aims to represent theological claims in a way that is free of the dogmas of religion, the ideologies of politics and the systematisations of science. The main title of Avakian’s own book indicates a resistance to ‘orthodox’ perspectives, considering that Orthodox Christianity is centred on “rebirth” and “resurrection” rather than the crucifixion of Christ. Specifically, the book seeks to open dialogue in contemporary theology by arguing that Heidegger’s phrase “‘being towards death’ is the core and true nature of the Christian faith” (20).
Avakian associates ‘being towards death’ with “becoming”; as a bridge between “temporality and eternity”; a unification of the material and immaterial worlds (2). As Avakian rehearses in her “Introduction”, the Heideggerian phrase ‘being towards death’ is not to be regarded as a journey to a final static destination (2-3). Life and death are intertwined, as phenomena. In addition, ‘being with others’ and ‘being towards death’ are inextricably linked. The human acquires an openness towards others as well as itself, by ‘being towards death’. Avakian says that
“[t]he human being who experiences ‘care’ in the world necessarily experiences ‘being towards death’ and only then does one truly comport oneself towards one’s inner reality” (2).
The person who cares has an increased awareness of human finitude by anticipating threats and recognising the fragility of human existence. According to Avakian’s relational emphasis on Heidegger’s notion of ‘being towards death’, human beings are never alone in dealing with mortality. In addition, ‘care’ and openness to others are important conflictual dimensions of the human being’s trajectory towards authenticity and “inner reality” (2; 181-184).
Central to Avakian’s book is the connection she sees between Heidegger’s ‘being towards death’ and Berdyaev’s path to ‘spiritual freedom’ (303). ‘Being towards death’ is ‘being towards freedom’. Both involve the movement of the self to the unknown, to the Other (God or the other person), or being as such, and then, the return to the free, genuine self. ‘Being towards death’ enables a twofold movement: a mutually dependent move involving the divine and the human (304).
In her conclusion, Avakian takes the liberty of adapting William J. Richardson’s (1962, 75) neologism (“mittence”) for her theological purposes:
“the journey that ‘being towards death’ entails is, then, essentially a mittence, a sending to an Other, which being, or God, conveys to the person as it bestows itself/Godself on him/her. And yet, in order for the journey to occur, the human subject must let him/herself be seized by being, or God, as by offering itself, being, or God, entrusts the person with guarding the Mystery which it itself is” (306).
For Avakian, being a Christian does not mean looking to ‘God’ for stability; it does not involve a purely intellectual endeavour of abstract theorising; it is a gift. ‘God’ is mysteriously and immanently found in the depths of historical life. Avakian claims that the nature of ‘God’ can only be caught sight of in a historical journey of self-disclosure.
Most significantly, throughout her book, Avakian places much emphasis on poetry (also by originally composing her own to close all chapters). She takes care to highlight the importance of the German poets Friedrich Hölderlin and Rainer Maria Rilke on Heidegger’s thought. Thanks to Hölderlin, Heidegger understood that it is only through “letting-be – that is through death – that one can allow being as such to come to presence through beings” (31). Poetry can express what Avakian calls ‘divine Mystery’, or the non-objective, non-empirical presence of God in faith (1). Heidegger saw poetry as a potentially powerful resource for the theoretical project of articulating Christian faith from ‘within’.
Overall, Avakian’s project aims to overcome the rift between religious fundamentalism and what she (32) calls a “fear of religiosity”. Where can the Christian of today stand when faced with the “popular religiosity of the pre-modern – or anti-modern – era and the implicit religiosity of a ‘religious-less’, secular age” (17). The author seeks to find a balance between apparent extremes and to bring
“philosophy and theology together, the West and the East, Europe, Russia and the Middle East, as well as Christianity in its relationship with other religious traditions, so that the Christian is addressed as a free spirit – in the world – and Christianity is perceived as authenticity and freedom” (20).
She wishes to promote dialogue in contemporary theology through an existential focus, symbolic perception and an openness to the “divine Mystery” (20).
Throughout her book, Avakian equates philosophy and theology, as they both, in her view, lack a direct object of inquiry. Neither ‘being’ nor ‘God’ can be scrutinised ‘as such’, and both must accept their own inadequacy regarding the attainment of absolute or certain knowledge (12).
In her first chapter “Openness to the Mystery” (34-78), Avakian starts by sketching how Berdyaev conceives “true theology as mystical and apophatic, as it is about the spiritual perception of divine Mystery” (35). The apophatic view is that God is not objectifiable, because God is the ultimate mystery with no possible rational concept. Apophatic theology accepts that theological language is unable to demonstrate divine truth. Maintaining the analogical-symbolic nature of all theological assertions, it claims that absolute mystery is beyond human grasp (15). Unlike cataphatic theology, apophatic theology “requires the abandonment of all knowledge of beings, so that the divine is truly beyond every affirmative description, namely it is the nothing” (21).
Avakian links the apophatic-mystical approach of Eastern theology to Heidegger’s view regarding the incomprehensible nature of being as such. For Heidegger, the “human being remains incapable of any knowledge of its essence, maintaining that the true path is a mystical path” (36). Avakian emphasises that in Heidegger’s work, ‘pure thinking’ is conceived as openness to mystery and astonishment (52-58), which involves passion, suffering (54-55) and inwardness (57) – this is because things or beings “emerge from their own ground” (73). ‘Being’ or ‘truth’ in Heidegger is necessarily related to an ongoing process of “revelation” or becoming unhidden (45).
In the final section of the first chapter, “The Mystery and the Necessity of the Leap” (71-80), Avakian scrutinises Heidegger’s quest to find a realm free from modern science and reason. With regards to Heidegger‘s reformulation of Leibniz’s “Principle of Sufficient Reason” (“Der Satz vom Grund”), Avakian discusses Heidegger’s play on the German word Grund (which can either mean reason/justification or ground/foundation). According to Avakian (74-5), Heidegger subverts Leibniz’s Principle by claiming that:
“being as such is the ground of every being, and things carry within themselves their own grounds and reasons, without their need to supply any reasons for their existence. Thus, the basic question for philosophy – and theology – is the question of being (or God), which is simultaneously the same as the question of truth. This basic question is, however, of a particular kind, since it has to be approached ‘without why’” (74).
In chapter two, Avakian goes on to delineate Heidegger’s view that a “true understanding of technology, science and art” belongs essentially to the poetic way of being in the world rather than the mere objective perception of the world (83).
Furthermore, regarding especially the question of technology, Avakian says “Heidegger resorted to particular theological language and terminologies, though through an abstruse and veiled framework” (106). The themes of science and technology enable Heidegger to address major theological questions: “God the Creator, the whole of creation as a gift, the human being – the creature – in his/her relation to the Creator, and the question of salvation” (106).
Taking a clear position with regards to Heidegger, Avakian (103) says that his critique of technology is not altogether satisfying. Berdyaev went further than Heidegger, because he saw that when technology is used unreflectively it conceals and distorts the real, and brings “the human being into an illusionary world and forged relations” (104). What Avakian means by “forged relations” becomes clearer thanks to a quote by Berdyaev pertaining to how (104) “the mechanization of life” results in an artificial “collective reality” which inaugurates the end of individual existence (104). For Berdyaev, man now comes second to technology.
Technology does not enable the real (or ‘being as such’) to manifest itself; it does not merely allow the human to control nature. Technology permits humans now to have power over people’s lives. Avakian (104) says that Berdyaev understood the crisis of his day as being a matter of technology, and he saw this as a “primarily spiritual crisis”. Berdyaev calls on Christian theology to wake up to the new human reality by intensifying “the inner spiritual power of the human being” so that the spirit does not “become a tool used for the purposes of technical organizations” (104). In contrast to Berdyaev’s clear verdict on technology, Avakian suggests that several statements by Heidegger seem to be too optimistic (104).
In addition to dealing with Berdyaev and Heidegger’s views on technology (98-106), their critiques of rationality and science (88-98), Avakian also dedicates chapter two to a discussion of art (106-111), freedom (130-5) and poetry (142-6).
Chapter three (“The Human Spirit and the Divine”) goes on to deal with the role of “spirit” in Berdyaev and Heidegger, a notion which Avakian (176) claims permeates all of Heidegger’s work even when not directly referred to. Berdyaev’s immanent conception of the divine also collapses the opposition between the divine and the human, the spiritual and physical world (161). In addition, religious revelation is conceived in his work as an interactive, rather than a passive, top-down experience (166).
While considering the relation between theological language and the poetic, Avakian discusses the distinction between symbols, allegory, signs (168-171), with the overall aim of bringing to light the relation between revelation, art, meaning and spirit.
Avakian concludes (181) chapter three by linking Berdyaev and Heidegger’s analysis on the “fallenness” of the human being (which is defined as the failure to know the self as spirit). Avakian regards “fallenness” as a comparable but a highly preferable alternative to the problematic notion of sin, which she claims in a footnote (129) has a “disadvantageous history” (184).
The subsection “Spirit and Human Consciousness as Care and Resoluteness” (190-201) starts with an important discussion of “care” in Heidegger’s work and reconstructs its Kierkegaardian lineage (191-2). Avakian explains that the “human being in the world is necessarily there for an Other, and, hence, his being is actualized in and though care in relation to that Other” (192). In this respect, Avakian raises the distinction between care and humanism: unlike humanism, care does not simply focus on the “objective existence of the human subject”, it draws persons towards their “essence” (193) As opposed to care, humanism “fails to realize the appropriate dignity of the human being” (193).
Both care and freedom are based upon experiencing life as openness (194). It is in this context that Avakian goes on to discuss how care in Berdyaev is expressed through “the biblical notion of love” (194) – for him, it signifies, also in a Kierkegaardian vein, “carrying within oneself the pain and the injustice that the whole of mankind goes through” (194).
The subsection “The Call of Conscience” (194-199) explores how “guilt” is key to understanding the notion of the “spirit” in Berdyaev. Similarly in Heidegger, the call of conscience is the call to the realisation of guilt (199) which in turn leads to the authentic self. In addition, an authentic being in the world and being-with-the-Other requires a process of resolutely being ready for anxiety. In this resoluteness, “one takes upon oneself one’s utmost potentiality for being, that is one’s ‘being towards death’” (200).
This smoothly inaugurates the next chapter four, entitled “Christianity as Authenticity”, in which Avakian turns specifically to her main theme (and the title of her book) ‘being towards death’, before relating it directly to the central concerns of Christian theology, including the meaning of creation, incarnation and resurrection.
Avakian recapitulates the link between ‘being towards death’, care and authenticity, (203-4) all of which are based upon the importance of the existential acceptance and inner consciousness of one’s death and of the temporality of being. Avakian links Heidegger’s notion of ‘anticipatory resoluteness’ with Berdyaev’s notion of ‘spiritual development’ (205), which both involve a resolve to progress to that which is still outstanding (death). This is the “responsibility of the inner self and the free and creative nature of one’s spirit” (205).
Chapter five (“Temporality and Eternity”) (253) deals with how “movement, repetition, temporality, finitude and eternity – lie in (sic) the foundations of ‘being towards death’”. Avakian starts the chapter with a discussion of how Berdyaev’s work conceives of “eternity” as the guarantor of meaning. Eternity, emphasises Avakian on two consecutive occasions, does not refer to a “natural” realm and cannot be “objectified” (254; 255). Neither is eternity a separate otherworldly dimension, outside of time as it “has its past in every moment…It has its present and future elements in like manner” (255).
Berdyaev’s sense of eternity is Kierkegaardian in Avakian’s eyes as it is not based upon the denial of change and becoming. In the subsection on “Movement and Repetition” (256-265), after a short overview of time and motion in Plato and Aristotle (257-8), Avakian thus goes on to provide an exposé of Kierkegaard’s notion of “becoming and continuous movement” (258-264). Importantly for the purposes of the book, Avakian notes that “Kierkegaard’s thought and philosophical concerns correspond significantly to the spiritual theology of Eastern Orthodoxy, which has the early Greek Fathers of the Church as its foundation” (259).
Avakian makes special references to Clare Carlisle’s work on Kierkegaard’s “philosophy of becoming” (257-8; 260-3) in order to conclude that “Kierkegaard set existential and spiritual becoming in sharp contrast to pure metaphysical speculation, and thereby overturned the dominating philosophical-metaphysical project and gave room for introspection and spiritual passion” (263).
As mentioned above, Avakian dedicates sections of her book to presenting and reconstructing how Kierkegaardian elements are mobilised in the works of Heidegger and Berdyaev, especially with regards to the concept of care and temporality. This is because, as Avakian rightly states (31) in her “Introduction”, Heidegger and Berdyaev’s works do not sufficiently acknowledge the influence of other thinkers, such as Kierkegaard, Eckart and Nietzsche, on their philosophy (see also footnote 18, on page 151). In her “Conclusion”, Avakian again mentions that both Heidegger and Berdyaev do not make the ‘origins’ of their thinking clear. References to previous thinkers are minimised and their importance reduced (301).
As the Kierkegaardian notion of “movement and repetition” discussed by Avakian attests to however, and although it is indeed important to clarify influence (one might even reveal how a work is merely derivative or the effect of an original cause) – this does not say anything of the unity and strength of the work at hand. The character of all significant thought after all is that in repeating the influences upon it, it makes something else of them. As Avakian herself puts it: “after repetition the being no longer remains the same, but becomes another” (271).
Via Kierkegaard’s sense of “movement and repetition”, Avakian links Berdyaev’s notion of ‘eternity’ with Heidegger’s concept of ‘authenticity’, both of which involve the present, past and future. In Berdyaev, when one encounters death without fear or anxiety one “is given to experience eternity” (254). “[I]t is through the willingness of the person to take upon oneself his/her own death that he/she conquers death itself” (255).
Similarly, in Heidegger, “it is only through such being towards one’s end that the human subject exists as ‘authentically whole’, and it is this perception of the self that makes ‘being towards death’, or ‘care’ possible” (274). Authenticity (like ‘eternity’ in Berdyaev) hinges on the resolute acceptance of one’s ‘being towards death’ and nothingness. Ontologically speaking, death is the possibility of no-longer-being-there, and at the same time, it is what makes our being-in-the-world possible. Being towards death opens up possibilities ontically for Dasein because it is the projection to what lies beyond actuality and what is positively there. The human being moves from the past towards his/her self as “authentically futural” (274). This also implies that any understanding or discovery of the self aspires repeatedly to approach otherness.
“Being Towards Death: Heidegger and the Orthodox Theology of the East” is a post-doctoral degree (Habilitationsschrift) completed in January 2018 for the Protestant faculty of the University of Tübingen. In Germany, most candidates qualify for a university professorship by means of such a habilitation process – and this includes writing a habilitation treatise to certify the ability to teach in an academic subject.
In the spirit of ‘personalist philosophy’, Avakian begins her work by emphasising her personal background, involvement and justification for the project (20) and she occasionally intersperses contextual paragraphs appealing to the practical fallout of her work, e.g., regarding her aim of addressing and bridging the divide between what she calls a fear of religiosity vs fundamentalism (17; 190).
The habilitation-turned-book (published by de Gruyter) was not however conceived with a wide audience in mind or even scholars in general. The research is of a tightly knit scope. The insular style intertwines thematic interconnections between Berdyaev and Heidegger, makes explicit the influence of key figures such a Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and establishes original in-depth links between Heidegger and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the 5th century Christian theologian and “father of mysticism” (21-2; 29; 60; 242; 306). Since mysticism is a major theme of her study, Avakian could also have widened her contextual scope by referring to commentators who draw parallels and differences between Heidegger and Asian mysticism.
Carlisle, Clare. 2005. Kierkegaard’s Philosophy of Becoming: Movements and Positions. New York: State University of New York Press.
Gungov, Alexander. 2012. “From Living Tradition to Cosmic Transfiguration: Six Elements of Eastern Orthodox Theology.” Bulgarian in Religiya, tzennosti, ortodoksalnost i interculturen dialog, Idei filosofsko spisanie, Sofia (Religion, Values, Orthodoxy and Intercultural Dialogue, Sofia), a supplement to Philosophical Journal Ideas, pp. 54-63.
Kockelmans, Joseph. 1973. “Heidegger on Theology.” The Southwestern Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 4, No. 3, Heidegger Issue (Fall, 1973), pp. 85-108. University of Arkansas Press.
Law, David R. 2000. “Negative Theology in Heidegger’s ‚Beiträge zur Philosophie.’” International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Vol. 48, No. 3 (Dec), pp. 139-156 Springer.
Miller, James. 1996. “Heidegger’s Guilt.” Salmagundi, No. 109/110 (Winter-Spring), pp. 178-243. Skidmore College.
Richardson, William J. 1962. “Heidegger and the Problem of Thought.” Revue philosophique de Louvain, Vol. 60, pp. 58-78. Peeters Publishers.
Zernov, Nicholas. 1948. “Nicholas Berdyaev.” The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol. 27, No. 68 (Dec), pp. 283-286. The Modern Humanities Research Association and University College London, School of Slavonic and East European Studies.
 William J. Richardson’s (1962, 75) writes: “Being is conceived as sending itself unto its There. We may speak of this self-sending as proceeding from Being and call it a ‘self-emitting’ , or if we may be permitted a neologism to designate a completely new concept, a ‘mittence’ (Geschick) of Being” .