THE IMPOSSIBLE POSSIBILITY OF ETHICS
Thomas J. J. Altizer
Edith Wyschogrod is our deepest and most serious contemporary ethical thinker, surely the one who has most comprehensively explored our ethical crisis today, and explored it with such decisive finality as seemingly to foreclose all possibility of a real and actual ethics for us.
Although most deeply inspired by Levinas, she nevertheless has not succumbed to his absolute and absolutely primordial or pre-primordial ethics, and could not so succumb if only because she will not abandon the actuality of our world. That actuality is most powerful for her in a uniquely contemporary ďdeath-world,Ē a death-world ending everything that we have known as ethics, an ending which is even the ending of history itself, thereby realizing a unique apocalypse, and one finally promising life as well as death. This is the supreme challenge which Wyschogrod has chosen, calling forth life out of the depths of death, a life inseparable from the ultimacy and finality of death, but likewise inseparable from a uniquely contemporary nihil, a nihil exposed by mass extermination, a void that cannot be named but which constitutes a unique moment, the entry of the nihil into time. Never before has such a nihil been actually manifest, and never previously has nihilism been so all pervasive, as most openly present in postmodernism, a postmodernism that is a primary arena of Wyschogrodís critical investigation, and one inseparable from a uniquely modern history and consciousness. It is in this investigation that she most conclusively demonstrates the impossibility of ethics for us, but that is the impossibility which she has chosen as possibility, a possibility which theologically could only be named as an absolutely free and an absolutely unconditioned grace.
Wyschogrod is perhaps our most ecumenical or most comprehensive thinker, as most fully manifest in her ethical investigations, and not only are these phenomenological and analytic at once, but they occur within a truly universal perspective, one comprehending Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and a uniquely modern atheism, and while Wyschogrodís own theological identity is here veiled, it is nevertheless a genuine theological identity, and one perhaps offering a decisive clue to her deepest quest. One arena that she never explicitly enters is theological ethics, perhaps because she knows how banal and shallow theological ethics has become in our time, but perhaps more deeply because at bottom she is creating a theological ethics, one unnamable as such in terms of our established categories, an ethics which she can call forth in our great saints, where holiness is inseparable from a total self-giving, and that self-giving is a primary model for her of a genuinely ethical life. Her book, Saints and Postmodernism, investigates saints in the very context of our nihilism, thereby bringing a unique illumination to each of these opposites, and perhaps holiness is only possible for us by way of a reversal of nihilism, just as a nihilistic realization of absolute emptiness or absolute nothingness could be a full parallel to an absolute self-emptying, thus offering the possibility of an ultimate coincidentia oppositorum.
Now even if Wyschogrod is a genuine theological thinker, nothing is more absent from her own discourse than the very word ĎGodí, except insofar as she speaks forcefully of the death of God, a death which she certainly understands theologically, as most manifest in her critical investigations of Hegel. Nor does she divorce the death of God from her own quest for a new ethics, here most deeply differing from Levinas, and while she has absorbed Levinasí discovery of the il y a, an il y a that Levinas defines as Being in the absence of beings, Wyschogrod can apprehend an ethical role of the il y a, which is to de-nucleate the self as a complex of mental acts, one rendering the self receptive to alterity. Alterity seemingly vanishes in postmodernity, and this is a fundamental ground of our ethical crisis, but this is an emptying which is the very opposite of self-emptying, and one inseparable from the modern realization of the death of God. Now if this is a realization which Levinas totally refuses, Wyschogrod herself refuses such a refusal, and does so if only to open herself to our deepest contemporary actuality, and while this is indeed a nihilistic actuality, it is nevertheless essential to a contemporary as opposed to a primordial or pre-primordial ethics. While Wyschogrod retains a primordial ground in her ethics, one preceding all historical judgment, she balances it by accepting an apocalyptic ground as well, thereby not only differing from Levinas, but just thereby opening herself to our new apocalyptic actuality.
While apocalypse has become a pervasive category in contemporary literary theory, just as it is in Heidegger and Derrida, it has been refused by our theological orthodoxies, and nowhere are Jewish, Christian, and Islamic orthodoxies more united than they are at this fundamental point. Already in Spirit in Ashes, Wyschogrod can know that the religious roots of the death-world lie in Jewish and Christian apocalypticism, and just as the philosophers whom she here focuses upon, Hegel and Heidegger, are apocalyptic philosophers, it is precisely apocalyptic thinking which most deeply unveils the death-world. Of course, an apocalyptic imagination goes beyond all such thinking, and above all a uniquely modern apocalyptic imagination, as decisively manifest not only in a Blake or a Joyce, but even more purely in a Kafka or a Beckett. While Wyschogrodís focus is more philosophical than imaginative, she follows Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger in incorporating the imagination into thinking, thereby not only decisively differing from her ethical compeers, but from the whole world of analytic thinking, and her continual critique of that thinking is deeply sustained by an imaginative ground. While that ground for Wyschogrod cannot be separated from the death-world, our uniquely modern imagination from Dante through Joyce and beyond is profoundly grounded in the ultimacy of death, an ultimacy inseparable from everything that here can be envisioned as life itself, and even inseparable from the ultimacy of eternal life.
This ultimate conjunction, and even coincidentia oppositorum of eternal life and eternal death, could be a paradigm unveiling Wyschogrodís quest, where only an eternal death makes possible an apocalyptic eternal life, or only the deepest darkness makes possible the deepest light. Hence only an ultimate crisis of our ethics could make possible a truly new ethics, and an ethics that could be real in our nihilistic world, and if the great bulk of Wyschogrodís ethical investigations are a fundamentally negative critique, that is essential to her project, for light can now come forth only out of the shadows of our darkness. A primary challenge here is calling forth a genuine ethical possibility in our darkness, for Wyschogrod such a possibility is inseparable from what Levinas knows as the Infinite, an infinite that is the radical, the absolutely other, one that cannot be contained in thought, and which disempowers all selfhood. This is that infinite which is the ultimate ground of alterity, an alterity truly veiled in our world, and veiled or disempowered if only as a consequence of the death of God, with the result that there is no longer a primordial ground of alterity or otherness, and no longer an absolute ďbeforeĒ at all. True, that absolute before may only be veiled to us, may only be eclipsed or silent in our abyss, but that eclipse is a primal if not the primal source of the crisis of ethics, a crisis in which no actual ethics appears to be possible for us.
Now it is not insignificant that Levinas, the greatest ethical thinker of the twentieth century, should have called forth a primordial or pre-primordial Ethics that ends every possible ethics, nor insignificant that the thinking of Levinas is so deeply Neoplatonic, one initiating a new and deeply Neoplatonic philosophical movement in France. While Wyschogrod is drawn to Plotinus, she nevertheless resists Neoplatonism, and therein inevitably resists Levinas as well, and perhaps most clearly so in opening herself to a genuinely apocalyptic horizon. It is not commonly realized that the most ultimate struggle in early Christianity was between the absolutely primordial and the absolutely apocalyptic, for Christianity was born with an absolute apocalypse, but it almost immediately gave birth to Gnosticism, the most absolutely primordial of all ultimate ways. We can see an absolute war between the primordial and the apocalyptic most clearly in Paul, that Paul who was the creator of Christian theology, and whom we now know to have been a deeply apocalyptic theologian, and perhaps most profoundly so in his ultimate struggle with a primitive Christian Gnosticism. This is most clearly recorded in his Corinthian correspondence, a correspondence that cannot possibly be understood as a coherent whole, and if here as elsewhere Paulís deepest ground is the crucified Christ, that ground is silent in Paulís ecstatic celebration of eternal life in I Corinthians 15, and it is precisely here that Paulís own language is most pagan or Gnostic. This is the Pauline language that most deeply influenced Christian orthodoxy, and despite that orthodoxyís apparent victory over Gnosticism, Christian orthodoxy has never succeeded in negating or transcending a Gnostic horizon, a purely pagan horizon which has never been more powerful than it is today.
The prophetic revolution of Israel created the ultimate goal of an absolute future, an absolute future which is finally apocalypse itself, and this revolutionary movement towards an absolute future is an inversion or reversal of the archaic movement of eternal return. Nothing is more characteristic of a genuine paganism than is the movement of eternal return, and while this movement was reborn in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, its most powerful expression occurs in Christian orthodoxy itself, which at this crucial point truly parallels all forms of Gnosticism. But genuine Gnosticism is inseparable from a Judeo-Christian-Islamic horizon, it is never found as such in the East where a truly backward movement is impossible, and impossible if only because in the East all ultimate distinctions between past and future disappear. Indeed, if it was Christianity which created Gnosticism, this could be understood as a reversal of an absolutely apocalyptic movement, one only possible for a Christianity that was born as an absolute apocalypse. That apocalypse is certainly in deep continuity with the prophetic revolution, and most clearly so in reversing every distinction between high and low, a reversal which Nietzsche discovered as the slave revolt of morality, and which he knew to be most profoundly embodied in Christianity. Hence Nietzsche could know the uniquely Christian God as the deification of nothingness, the will to nothingness pronounced holy (The Antichrist 18).
In this perspective, only the uniquely Christian God is an absolute No-saying, and only a uniquely Christian ethics is a true and pure ethics of ressentiment, and if Nietzsche only discovered ressentiment after he had discovered the death of God, that is the death of a uniquely Christian God, hence one unknown apart from a Christian horizon. Already Paul could know the death of God in the crucifixion, a death apart from which no absolute sacrifice is possible, and a renewal of that death is at the very center of a uniquely Pauline ethics, an ethics revolving about a continual sacrifice of our ownmost ďIĒ or selfhood, and an ethics which can be understood as a purely apocalyptic ethics. Here, a new Adam can only be understood as a consequence of the death of the old Adam, but that death releases an absolutely new imperative which is an absolutely new indicative, then every distinction between the imperative and the indicative disappears, but only as the consequence of an actual ending of an old world or old creation. Remarkably enough, there is a realism in Pauline ethics which soon disappears from the great body of Christianity, and a realism inseparable from an apocalyptic horizon, an horizon which itself all but disappears from Christianity, except insofar as it is recovered by truly revolutionary movements. Alone among the great religions of the world, Christianity almost wholly transformed itself in the first three generations of its existence, but Christianity alone was born with a profound conflict at its very center, a conflict between its apocalyptic and its non-apocalyptic or primordial poles, a conflict fully manifest in the New Testament.
No tradition has so profoundly transformed itself in the course of its history as has Christianity, but no other tradition embodies such deep dichotomies within itself as does Christianity, dichotomies fully manifest within the ethical realm, a Christianity which has been profoundly conservative or reactionary and profoundly revolutionary at once, and a Christianity which has been deeply destructive and deeply creative simultaneously. Of course, these dichotomies ever more fully diminish within modern Christianity, just as does the life and power of Christianity, but with the ending of Christendom such dichotomies pass into the greater body of humanity, and uniquely and profoundly Christian heterodoxies have seemingly become embodied in our new world. This is clearest in philosophy and the imagination, as in Hegel and Nietzsche, and in Blake and Joyce, but it is also manifest in our uniquely modern political and social revolutions, and perhaps even in a uniquely modern science and technology. Certainly a deeply forward movement is manifest throughout modernity, one beginning with the prophetic revolution of Israel, and one ultimately embodied in Christianity, and if a forward movement has apparently now ended in all manifest or established Christianity, this itself is a deep transformation of Christianity, and perhaps one making possible its transmutation into a fundamental ground of modernity.
Nothing is clearer in Wyschogrodís work than her calling forth not simply the groundlessness of all established ethics, but the very vacuity of our given ethical categories, thus placing in question all of our ethical language, and inevitably raising the question as to whether any ethical language at all is possible for us. Concretely, this can be observed in many of our common presumptions, for it is commonly assumed that Heidegger is not a genuinely ethical thinker, this despite his profound impact upon Levinas, and despite the apparent truth that Being and Time embodies the deepest and most powerful ethical language of any twentieth century philosophical work, and is unique in Western philosophical literature in the very primacy and centrality of this language. Is it because this is a deep and extraordinarily difficult language that it is presumed that it could not possibly be an ethical language? Can only a truly simple language be a truly ethical language? And despite the dominant presumption that modern ethics wholly transcends theology, is there a lingering even if unconscious doubt that a non-theological language could be a genuine ethical language? Being and Time is bereft of all open theological language, and perhaps the very category of God is more missing here than in any philosophical work, yet recent analysis is drawing forth the profound theological ground of Being and Time, and it is now manifest that Heidegger is a deeply Pauline thinker, and most clearly so in his primary focus upon an absolute death, and an absolute death that is an apocalyptic death.
Just as Paulís ethical thinking is now alien to virtually everyone, the same could be said of Heidegger, and of Nietzsche, too, and it has even become true of Spinoza, surely the purest ethical thinker in our history. Is this not a decisive sign of our profound alienation from a genuine ethical thinking? Now it is true that Heidegger in withdrawing from the language of Dasein in his later work withdrew from all open or manifest ethical thinking, but this can be understood as a reflection of an ultimate or apocalyptic crisis, one central to Heidegger throughout his major thinking, but only all consuming in his last or final thinking. So, too, the death of God is more primal for Heidegger than for any other twentieth century philosopher, yet the death of God in modern thinking and vision is an apocalyptic death, and it ushers in an absolute apocalypse. Certainly Heidegger knew that apocalypse, even if he is all too reticent in openly speaking of it, yet he gives us a profound witness to it in his critical investigations of modern German poetry, just as he does all too indirectly in his investigations of modern technology, and this has deeply affected Wyschogrod. Perhaps it is only in an all consuming contemporary technology that we can openly see such an apocalypse, and even if it is a deeply negative apocalypse, it is nevertheless apocalypse, and one whose overwhelming impact is simply undeniable.
Now if Paulís apocalyptic thinking ends every possible distinction between the indicative and the imperative, and does so as a consequence of the advent of an absolute apocalypse, does our contemporary technology embody such an advent, even if only in a wholly reversed form? Paulís profound hostility towards what he was the first to know as ďLaw,Ē is an hostility towards an imperative that is and only is imperative, one wholly other than the Torah of Judaism, and one only released by an apocalyptic ending of history. Is not such a ďLawĒ manifest to us today, and is it not a fundamental force behind our pervasive anarchism, an anarchism inexplicable in our common understanding, and even inexplicable in our established philosophical thinking? Paul could know a pure imperative that cannot possibly be obeyed, one inducing an ultimate and even absolute guilt, and a guilt wholly other than any possible fault or failure. While a profound guilt has seemingly disappeared among us, is the only genuine imperative which we can know one beyond all possibility of obedience, and beyond all possible appropriation? But if a totally technological world is now our destiny, does not such a world end every possible imperative, or end every imperative not embodied in itself? Then every other form of the imperative would be wholly alien and lifeless, very like that ďLawĒ which Paul knew, and just as Paul and the Augustinian tradition itself could know a faith liberating us from all ďLaw,Ē is our new technological world liberating us from every imperative which is simply and only imperative?
Wyschogrod can know this destiny as a profoundly aethical or anti-ethical world, indeed, the most aethical world in history, and itself a decisive sign of our history having come to an end. But just as ancient apocalypticism could know its own historical world as an absolutely anti-ethical world, and none more so than Paul, is this a condition absolutely necessary for an apocalyptic ethics, or an apocalyptic life? Note that to know that the world is anti-ethical in this sense is to know that the world has come to an end, and in full apocalypticism the ending of the world is the ending of the old creation, the ending of the cosmos itself. Yet Paul attains a genuine realism in his apocalyptic faith and action, one going beyond even the Qumran communities, and going beyond them in engaging the fullness of a collapsing history, thus making possible the historical victory of an originally tiny Jewish apocalyptic sect. Nothing is so apocalyptic in Paulís writing as is his Corinthian correspondence, but this is just where his fullest ethical writing occurs, a truly new and apocalyptic ethics , and one grounded in the realization that ďeverything has become newĒ (II Cor. 5:17). Ever since Schweitzer, New Testament scholarship has narrowed the distance between the ethics of Jesus and the ethics of Paul, for both are apocalyptic ethics, or ethics of the Kingdom of God, and now even the Sermon on the Mount can stand forth as a realistic ethics, and realistic as a consequence of the advent of the Kingdom of God.
It is tempting to think that such realism could only be fantasy, just as an apocalyptic advent is fantasy, too, but we know the overwhelming consequences of the enactments of apocalyptic advents, and not only in the ancient world but in the fullness of the modern world. If postmodernity is either the ending or the consequence of the modern world, it, too, is apocalyptic, and perhaps above all so technologically, and if our destiny now promises to be a totally technological destiny, here we can see a full reversal of the apocalyptic ethics of the New Testament, and a reversal preserving even if inverting an original apocalypticism. Is everything even now becoming new, are we not being called to a truly new creation, and a new creation only arising out of the ashes of an old world? Yes, this new Adam could only be the consequence of the death of an old Adam, a death fully enacted in the late modern world, and if now world itself is inseparable from a ďdeath-world,Ē nothing could be more realistic for us. Hence the pervasive numbing of our world, the diminution if not collapse of everything which we once knew as sensibility, the virtual ending of everything that we once knew as the imagination, and a new politics and a new society of emptiness and illusion. Yes, a brave new world, and a seemingly passionate religious world, even if it is the most fundamentally illiterate religious world in our history, one in which theology has all but disappeared, and one in which a religious thinking or imagination is apparently impossible. Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Dostoyevsky foresaw this, and a host of other visionaries as well, but who could have foreseen the brute realism of our vacuity?
Perhaps Edith Wyschogrod is now the only thinker engaged with this crisis, or ethically engaged with it, but is this finally a quixotic venture, and even an illusory one? Realists among us might think this, but if she is forcing us truly to re-think ethics, this is surely a genuine blessing, and it does raise the possibility of a new ethics for us, even if this could only be an absolutely impossible ethics. Could that very impossibility be a decisive clue, after all an apocalyptic ethics has always been an impossible ethics, and yet it has nevertheless not only been indubitably real, but has profoundly transformed our history and consciousness. ďBe perfectĒ is a summary of the Sermon on the Mount, but this call is not a true imperative, it is an imperative which is an indicative, or an imperative reflecting an absolutely new world. And in the perspective of that imperative every other imperative can be known as what Paul knew as the ďLaw,Ē the Law of God, yes, but a Law which is now a curse, and if we are coming to know every ethics in our history as now being either empty or a curse, this crisis could be a genuinely apocalyptic crisis, or a darkness that is finally light. If we can but name our darkness, we can be open to that light, and surely Wyschogrod has decisively named it, and if we cannot yet know a new ethics, we can know what it is not, and it is not anything which we can actually know as ethics. But that, too, may well be a blessing, and a blessing which we do not deserve, but if a genuine blessing is a true grace, it could only be a free and unconditional grace.
If there is one topic that Wyschogrod has centered upon throughout her work, that could only be death, and even an absolute death, thereby she is in continuity not only with Hegel and Heidegger, but also with our deeper imaginative traditions. While she seemingly ignores a Biblical ground in these investigations, we may presume that one is nevertheless implicitly present, and it could be enlightening to draw forth such a presence. Heideggerís deep impact upon Wyschogrod is clear, so it is appropriate to remember that Heidegger was all too actively engaged in Bultmannís seminar on Paul while writing Being and Time, just as it is fundamentally significant to note that Heideggerís lectures on the phenomenology of religion in 1920 called forth the apocalyptic Paul, and this at a time when New Testament scholarship had not yet discovered that identity. Nowhere in the Bible is an absolute death more primal than it is in Paul, not only is the crucifixion for Paul the sole source of redemption, but it is the inauguration of apocalypse itself, an apocalypse which alone makes possible an absolutely new life. The advent of apocalypse is the ending of a world that is world, so that being not as the world in action is the expression of being made free from the world, through suffering and dying with Christ. Nothing is more primal for Paul than dying with Christ, only that dying makes possible a sacrificial life, but in that dying Christ lives in us, and that life is both a free and an absolute grace.
Is it possible to believe that this profoundly Pauline motif did not fundamentally affect the Heidegger of Being and Time? If authentic existence is ďbeing towards death,Ē is that not an echo of Paul, an echo resounding throughout this work? Nor is this primal thesis isolated from the ultimacy of fall and guilt which are called forth here as they are in no other philosophical work, that is the condition making possible being towards death, and if Dasein is essentially being-in-the-world, the basic mode of Dasein's being is Sorge or solicitude. Sorge is inseparable from the facticity of being-in-the-world, but also inseparable from fall and guilt, and that is the condition in which Dasein realizes itself, for Dasein is futural in its very being (325). Such an understanding of the primacy of the future also bears a Pauline echo, and whether Heidegger understood it or not, it is also an echo of the prophetic revolution, and if Hegel and Heidegger are those philosophers who most ultimately embody an absolute future, it is just thereby that they are truly apocalyptic philosophers. Yet what we can only understand as ethical thinking is primal in Heideggerís ontological thinking as it is not in Hegelís, and even if this only occurs in Being and Time, that is Heideggerís most influential work.
No philosopher has such an absolutely negative apprehension of the condition of the world as does the late Heidegger, here he does truly differ from the early Heidegger, even Wyschogrodís negative judgments pale in this perspective, and if this is an ultimate philosophy of ending, it is just thereby open to an absolute or apocalyptic beginning. Heideggerís primal word for that beginning is Ereignis, a truly untranslatable word, but it is tempting to correlate this word with the most untranslatable of all Christian words, the Kingdom of God. We know that Kingdom of God is at the very center of the words and praxis of Jesus, but we also know that nothing has been more ultimately transformed in Christianity than this center, and most transformed in the dominant Christian apprehension of God. This is an apprehension against which Heidegger deeply rebelled, as is most manifest in his posthumously published, Beitrage, but this is the very work in which he most fully calls forth Ereignis, where Being itself is finally known as Ereignis. Yet it is so known only against the transcendent God of Christianity, for there is a deep emphasis in Beitrage upon the abandonment of Being, one that first happened in Christianity and its absolutely transcendent God, an abandonment in which Being abandons beings, but this abandonment is the fundamental event of our history, and one that is now being reversed in the apocalyptic advent of Ereignis. Could this be an apprehension of Kingdom of God, or an apprehension of apocalyptic Godhead, one truly reversed in Christian orthodoxy, and only called forth in the most radical Christian heterodoxy? Perhaps Heidegger can best be understood theologically in the context of such heterodoxy, and if Heidegger is our only major philosopher who was initially a truly orthodox Christian, was his life work an ever more gradual but an ever more decisive reversal of that orthodoxy?
Indeed, is it possible that a truly new ethics is only possible for us through such a heterodoxy? Commonly it is thought that ethics is the simplest of all disciplines, that everyone knows what ethics is, and that all share a common conscience. But could the very opposite of this be true, could it be that here lies one of our greatest illusions, and that nothing is a deeper mystery to us than ethics? Wyschogrodís analysis would certainly sustain such a judgment, so that if a genuine ethics, or a genuine ethics for us, is wholly other than everything that we commonly know as ethics, and can only be real with the collapse or deconstruction of that ethics, then such deconstruction is fundamental to the possibility of ethics itself. No one has more profoundly deconstructed our ethics than Nietzsche, but no other thinker has so deeply or so purely called forth an absolute affirmation or an absolute Yes-saying, and an absolute Yes-saying to the depths of our darkness. Nietzscheís understanding of ressentiment is an understanding of a no-saying that is the very opposite of such yes-saying, a ressentiment wholly isolating and enclosing its enactor, thereby giving birth to everything that we know as selfhood. Such selfhood or self-consciousness is our deepest prison, and it is the source of our deepest hatred and violence, yet it is ended with the death of God, or ended in its deepest ground, even if this death, the most all important event in history, is the source of that nihilism which has overwhelmed us.
The truth is that no ethics can be actual or real for us which cannot act or be enacted in a nihilistic world, hence once again the importance of Paul, for he surely knew his historical world as a nihilistic world, and his ethics is finally meaningless apart from that horizon. Indeed, it is the very collapse or ending of that historical world which makes possible Paulís apocalyptic ethics, so that we must inevitably ask if something comparable could be true for us? Could an apocalyptic ethics of any kind be real for us, and is such an ethics essential for Wyschogrodís quest? If a truly new ethics could only arise for us out of the ending of our ethical worlds and horizons, then an ultimate ending is certainly essential for such an ethics, and that ending could only be an apocalyptic ending. Yet a truly apocalyptic ending is inseparable from an apocalyptic beginning, a genuinely apocalyptic ending of the world is inseparable from the advent or dawning of an absolutely new world, for here the advent of a new creation is inseparable from the ending of an old creation. Hence genuinely apocalyptic seers who envision or enact the ending of an old world precisely thereby enact the absolute beginning of a new world, and just as this occurs in Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, so, too, does it occur in Dante, Milton, Blake and Joyce, all of whom are thereby in continuity with Paul, even if this entails a full reversal of a uniquely Christian consciousness and history.
Is not such a reversal essential to any genuinely apocalyptic enactment? In this perspective, we can see why Christian orthodoxies are so opposed to apocalypticism, but so, too, are Jewish and Islamic orthodoxies, and if our deepest heterodoxies are apocalyptic heterodoxies, this can be understood as being essential to genuine apocalypticism, with the consequence that an orthodox apocalypticism could not possibly be a true apocalypticism. All of our apocalyptic visionaries, even including Dante, have been condemned by our ecclesiastical authorities, and just as Joachism was the gravest theological threat to the medieval Catholic world, modern apocalypticism has been the most ultimate threat to the modern Christian world. Perhaps the ultimacy of this threat is most manifest in the ethical realm, for genuine apocalypticism not only ultimately challenges all established authority, but all given or established values as well, inevitably calling for a reversal of all such values, hence assaulting every given principle or identity. For what Hegel knows as the ďgivenĒ is the most ultimate enemy of apocalypticism, a given comprehending every established ground, and only a reversal of that given makes possible a genuine apocalypticism, or a genuinely apocalyptic ethics. Hence an apocalyptic ethics is a truly subversive ethics, and its actual enactment is inevitably a profound assault, and a profound assault upon our most deeply cherished ďideals,Ē or upon our most deeply established mythology or religion, and finally a profound assault upon everything that is given to us as God.
All of our apocalyptic thinkers and visionaries have assaulted God, or our most deeply given God, hence the ultimate offense of genuine apocalypticism, an offense first known by Paul, but one which is ever more fully enlarged in subsequent apocalypticism. Is this a fundamental reason why Wyschogrod is so reluctant to employ the word ĎGodí in her own discourse, is she fully aware of her own apocalyptic ground, but must disguise it theologically, even if she commonly employs it in her critiques of our world. Certainly the ďdeath-worldĒ for Wyschogrod is an apocalyptic world, one realizing the end of history itself, and ushering in a final darkness which is most manifest to us in the ethical realm. Yet is it impossible to speak of God in our darkness? And is that a fundamental reason why our ethics is in crisis, for despite a common confidence that modern ethics has wholly left theology behind, does not theology recur in our greatest ethical thinking, even if it recurs in disguised and cryptic forms? This is surely true of Nietzsche, and of Heidegger, too, Nietzscheís ethics is simply impossible apart from a proclamation of the death of God, and while Heidegger brackets all God-language in Being and Time, he is clearly profoundly affected here by both Kierkegaard and Paul. Indeed, can Nietzscheís Eternal Recurrence or Heideggerís Ereignis truly be understood non-theologically, is not each either a call to or an enactment of a final redemption, and a final or apocalyptic redemption that was born with Christianity? True, both Nietzsche and Heidegger ultimately assault the uniquely Christian God, but is not that assault a theological assault, and an assault in the service of what can only be known as redemption?
Can we truly know the darkness of our world without knowing the darkness of God? And can we truly know the emptiness of our ethics apart from knowing the death of God? While Wyschogrod is open to the death of God, she seldom employs it in her ethical analysis, and the question must be asked if the new ethics which she seeks can be realized apart from a theological ground, even if only a negative theological ground. It cannot be denied that Levinas is a theological thinker, and while he has a Jewish reluctance to write the word ĎGodí, that Infinite which is his deepest ground is clearly God, a ground which Wyschogrod, too, accepts, but has that ground yet been actually realized in her ethical thinking, and must not this occur if she is to effect a breakthrough to a new ethics? At most the late Heidegger is only on the threshold of a new ethics, and perhaps this is true of Wyschogrod, too, and while such a threshold is overwhelming important, it cannot indefinitely be sustained, just as it cannot stand alone. This is a threshold that must be passed, and even if this will entail innumerable missteps and bypasses, and innumerable labyrinths as well, we are certainly called to such a voyage, and most clearly so called by Wyschogrod herself. Yet such a calling demands that we free ourselves of all restraints, most certainly including our deepest inhibitions, and perhaps the deepest of all inhibitions in thinking today is the refusal of theological thinking. This is clearest in theological ethics today, one bereft of all actual theological thinking, but it is manifest throughout the whole spectrum of our world, a world which is truly in crisis.
Perhaps our deepest theological restraint derives from our truly contemporary condition, a condition which is not only a nihilistic condition, but a condition in which our only possible genuine theological thinking would be a truly heterodox thinking, one wholly inverting everything that is given to us as theological thinking. Hegel is the great model of a totally heterodox thinking in our world, and Hegel is alone philosophically, unless he is rivaled by Nietzsche, in creating a comprehensive thinking which is a purely and totally theological thinking, as most clearly manifest in his primal category of an absolute self-negation or an absolute self-emptying. That self-emptying or self-negation, as Hegelís own language reveals, is inseparable from a Pauline kenosis, or the absolute sacrifice of Christ, and it is all too significant that Hegelís is our only philosophical language which decisively embodies the full spectrum of Christian dogma, moving from creation through fall, judgment, incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection or apocalypse. Yet the center of Hegelís philosophy is the crucifixion or the death of God, a death of God which Hegel was the first to know, and this can be understood as that revolutionary breakthrough first making possible a fully or purely apocalyptic philosophy. Thus we have the paradox that our most totally heterodox thinker is seemingly our fullest or most totally Christian thinker, hence Hegel has become the deepest enemy of the whole world of theology, and even an all too partial theological incorporation of Hegelian thinking has inevitably issued in grave and deeply threatening heresies.
Yet the truth remains that Hegelian thinking is most profoundly grounded in an absolute self-negation or self-emptying, one that can be understood as being not only grounded in but only made possible by the absolute sacrifice or the absolute self-emptying of Christ, and if it is not until Hegel that thinking can comprehend this sacrifice, that not only entails a revolutionary transformation of thinking, but a revolutionary transformation of theology as well. Here, lies the deepest ground of Hegelís ultimate heterodoxy, one inseparable from the death of God, and inseparable from the death of God in the absolute sacrifice of Christ, a death ending absolute transcendence itself, and inaugurating an absolute immanence which is a final and apocalyptic immanence. Consequently, the death of God and an absolute apocalypse are inseparable, and just as Paul knows that the crucifixion inaugurates apocalypse, Hegel knows this absolute death not only as the ultimate center of history, but as the ultimate center of thinking itself. Hence a truly apocalyptic philosophy is not born until Hegel, a birth demanding a total transformation of historical Christianity, and thus demanding a pure and comprehensive heterodoxy as the innermost necessity of Christianity itself. Yet in Hegelian thinking Christian thinking for the first time becomes a universal thinking, as the sacrifice of Christ becomes the ultimate ground of thinking itself, and even the ultimate ground of consciousness itself.
Nevertheless, Hegel was never able to incorporate this thinking into a full and genuine ethical thinking, and perhaps Hegelís ethical legacy is the impossibility of a purely or genuinely ethical thinking, one that is even manifest in Kierkegaard and Marx, who can be known as his deepest inheritors, unless this is true of Nietzsche and Heidegger. Accordingly, Wyschogrodís ethical dilemma was born with the fullness of modernity, its postmodern expression is in full continuity with this source, the great difference is that originally it was only manifest to a few, and now it is universally actual. Can our ethical dilemma constructively be approached by seeking a purely heterodox ethics, Marx and Nietzsche certainly accomplished this, but now their revolutionary thinking is once again and even more comprehensively forbidden, and it appears to be hopelessly removed from the brute actuality of our condition. Is there no possibility of a truly heterodox ethics that could be actual for us? And could it be actual apart from being an apocalyptic ethics, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and Heidegger are all apocalyptic thinkers, and their ethical thinking is surely impossible apart from their apocalyptic thinking, could that be true for us? Yet it was Hegel among these thinkers who is the least ethical thinker, as so purely comprehended by Levinas, unless it is implicitly present in his deeply theological thinking, one wholly alien to Levinas, and perhaps alien to us all.
Once again we encounter a theological challenge, and a theological challenge ever more fully manifest as an ethical challenge, a challenge fully to conjoin ethical and theological thinking, one seemingly impossible today, but that impossibility may well be the only possibility of ethics for us. If this can be broached by a new apocalyptic thinking, and a new apocalyptic thinking made possible by our comprehensive nihilism, it cannot occur apart from a full opening to our nihilism, one that Wyschogrod has given us, and given us as a genuinely ethical thinker. But nihilism must not only be reversed by a new ethical thinking, it must be incorporated to make such a reversal possible, and if it is Nietzsche who knows this most profoundly, it is Wyschogrod who seemingly knows this most concretely, hence her immersion in a postmodern nihilism, but an immersion necessary for ethical thinking today. So, too, is such an immersion necessary for apocalyptic thinking today, but a comparable immersion has occurred throughout the history of apocalypticism, and even occurred in our purest apocalyptic thinkers and visionaries. Yes, we are asleep in our apocalyptic darkness, but we are called to be awake, and we can awaken only by passing through that darkness, only by making that darkness our own, for only then can we reverse it, and only then can we know a light that is only possible within it, and only possible as the light of darkness itself. Then perhaps we can truly say Yes, and say Yes to that darkness which is finally light, or that darkness which is finally God, and whose absolute Yes is now only hearable by us as an absolute No.
Here, saying and unsaying become all important, Wyschogrod integrally conjoins these acts in her An Ethics of Remembering, and in chapter four, appropriately entitled ďWired in the Absolute,Ē in response to the problem of speaking about the Holocaust, she speaks of a silent ďSayingĒ anterior to speech, and that such saying is an unspoken covenant between speaker and hearer promising that her language will be marked by alterity. Surely there is no greater problem for Wyschogrod than the meaning and the reality of alterity, these appear to be vanishing among us, and that very vanishing poses an ultimate call. For Wyschogrod the ultimate ground of alterity is the Infinite, but can we say ďGodĒ in response to that ground, and can this be only a silent saying anterior to speech? This could account for Wyschogrodís apparent silence about God, but if this is a silence evoked for us by the ďdeath-world,Ē must we only speak silently about God because for us to speak openly or decisively about God would necessarily be a speaking of an absolute No? And not only an absolute No, but an absolute No wholly removed from an absolute Yes, or before which an absolute Yes could only be wholly silent and unsaid? Have not our most powerful Jewish thinkers taught us that to speak God in response to the Holocaust could only be to speak with an ultimate blasphemy, and did not Kafka realize this even before the Holocaust occurred, thereby realizing and making absolutely concrete that ultimate catastrophe which our existence has become?
Yet Wyschogrod intends finally to evoke an absolute gift, and in the conclusion of An Ethics of Remembering, she affirms that exteriority in its ethical sense cannot be envisioned exclusively in terms of the cataclysmic but rather in its doubleness both as cataclysm and as an exteriority that is the prelinguistic ďSayingĒ that precedes language as a concrete act of communication. Can only a prelinguistic Saying evoke an absolute gift, or evoke an absolute gift for us, and is this a silence that is the only possible grace for us, and a silence alone making possible an ethics for us? But is this an apocalyptic silence or a primordial silence, is it a consequence of our history and consciousness or is it absolutely prior to any possible consciousness and history? This is an ultimate theological question, and it poses the further question of whether the only possible way for us is a way of eternal return, and an eternal return to an unspeakable silence. Is this all that we can know as a true or absolute gift, and is it this silence alone that could make possible for us an actual ethics, or an ethics that we could actually enact? Modern Jewish scholars and thinkers have given us extraordinarily astute critiques of Christian apocalypticism, unveiling it as being wholly unreal but ultimately destructive in that unreality, and one can only wonder if this would not be true of any possible primordial way for us. Wyschogrod is virtually silent about how a primordial way could be actual for us, but she nonetheless evokes it, and even evokes it as an ultimate gift.
Is this our only way of being truly silent about God, and just thereby a way to a genuine ethics, and an ethics only possible as a consequence of catastrophe? If only thereby it would be an apocalyptic way, unless following Lurianic Kabbalism we could know an absolute catastrophe as an absolutely primordial catastrophe, or an absolutely primordial fall. Even Milton knew such a fall, and Blake and Joyce, too, just as it is essential in Hegelian and Nietzschean thinking, so is it possible that there is finally no possible distinction between apocalyptic and primordial ways? If this is true, then perhaps a new ethics could be a truly universal ethics, and even if only made possible by an absolute catastrophe, that is the catastrophe which is now our deepest ground, and the only possible source of an ultimate gift for us. Wyschogrod has silently named that source as God, but that is nonetheless a genuine naming, and even if this is a naming anterior to speech, it is a naming making possible a genuinely ethical speech, and the only possible ethical speech for us. Could such speech only be actual for us as silence, and the deepest possible silence, and only thereby the deepest possible grace for us?