Monday, March 23, 2009

Reflection on Hamann Conference in NYC

Dr. Zeigler, myself, and Dr. Bayer

This weekend I had the honor of attending a conference on Johann Georg Hamann titled “Hamann and Tradition” an international conference held at Hunter College New York City, NY. Hamann is a rather obscure but highly influential 18th century German philosopher admired by the likes of Goethe, Hegel, and Kierkegaard. He was the intellectual opponent of Immanuel Kant, and his work can be characterized as a critique of the broader assumptions of the Enlightenment such as man’s perfectibility, autonomy, reason, and so forth.

Hamann as a philosopher, was first and foremost a Lutheran. He understood that the speaking of God and the need of the neighbor are more reflective of “self knowledge” than any sort of Socratic inward looking speculation. To know “self” is to be addressed by God – to be spoken to – and therefore to exist and live in and for creation. Language, relations, things, senses, images, symbolism, metaphor, and the natural world are ways that God graciously meets and addresses creation and the means by which creature responds both to God and fellow creatures. The human creature, itself, is God’s text and exists in being addressed and being known by God. There is therefore no great chasm between God and man that must be awkwardly forged. Rather God by his grace and condescension inclines his ear intimately in speaking, hearing, apprehending, and passing on.

Therefore God delights in his children and communion with God is expressed and given in language and community. Real existence – real identity – is relationally apprehended. The “I” is not self evident but is located through God’s speech spoken by creature through creature in the biblical text.

Hamann understood that man’s being is the gift of speech, for at man’s opening of the mouth he is human. This philosophy – this appreciation for God’s linguistic acts – posits that “I am spoken to therefore I become” or “I speak therefore I am.”

Hamann critiqued such philosophical categories as “being,” “belief,” “substance,” and “essence” because they are disconnected from real use of language. Our being, if the word must be used, therefore ought be understood as existing as one whom is “addressed.”

Oswald Bayer’s reflection of Hamann’s influence is centered around not only a theology of the cross but also a theology of creation. Through this loving condescension of God he is author and poet who communes relationally through creation – through speaking, hearing, feeling, eating, and teaching.

This fundamental anthropology of “dignity” presupposes “no worthiness in me” but rather "givenness." The Lord speaks and it happens. This giveness of God as poet and of author testifies to the action of language.

For this reason Bayer sees Hamann and Luther as sharing a robust theology of cross and creation – that God births through speech – creates, redeems, and sanctifies through speech. Hamann’s critique of philosophy involves a brilliant positing of a locating and relational interaction betweent a divine logos and human reason. True reason is not contra God’s revelation but is established by it. For Luther “reason” apart from revelation “knows nothing but the law.” Yet reason, ultimately for Luther and Hamann comes as gift – comes home in the light of the gospel. Listening to the words which proceed from the mouth of God mobilizes reason – purifies it – opens it up to the eternal by resting in the temporal, and creaturely life. “Authentic reason” therefore is not found in rigorous intellectual and contemplative speculation but is handed over as the divine logos - a loving address.

At this Hamann conference were Kantians and defenders of the enlightenment. There were unbelievers, feminist theorists, and philosophers of various stripes. Hamann’s influence in philosophy and the poignant address by Oswald Bayer at the conference testify to the necessity of actively engaging the academic, the philosopher, and the anarchist, for Christ speaks his word and gives himself for the many. Lutheran theology and true philosophy and true reason are compatible and work for one another in faith. The theologian who is equipped with true reason, finds his identity as creature – as one who is addressed – and given the wisdom of God through hearing.

If your interested in more in Hamann, John Henry III at CTSFW has a great paper exploring some helpful Hamann scholarship.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Michael,

    Yours is the only reporting I have found of the Hamann conference. Of the reporting I am extremely gratefully and look forward to any further reporting on other speakers and discussion workshops.

    Introducing Hamann you say that he “was first and foremost a Lutheran”. Following on there is a description of biblical - and Hamannian - culture: “Language, relations, things, senses, images, symbolism, metaphor, and the natural world are ways that God graciously meets and addresses creation and the means by which [the] creature responds both to God and fellow creatures”. To which, again giving a biblical and Hamannian perspective, “[r]eal existence – real identity – is relationally apprehended”. And this is a theology of interpretation and to be applauded.

    But in ‘The Christian Confession in Post-Modern Times’ you address contemporary issues of “reason” and the “so forth” of objectivity and objective truth - and again in the recent posting ‘Christian Ethic of Address’ . In the former, you urge us that “[w]e ought always to speak a ‘theology of facts’ rather than a ‘theology of interpretation’”. And conclude that these ‘theologians of interpretations’ are “post-Marxist Parisian philosophers…[who are] scatter brained deviants”. But if we follow Hamann’s lead are not the ‘theologians of facts’ the ‘scatter-brained deviants’?

    You say that Lutherans “must part with James’ [Smith] use of Derrida because the philosophical axiom that ‘there is nothing outside the text’ presupposes that the human actor ratifies and enacts reality through a linguistic exchange and elucidation. The suggestion is that we ought to leave behind the exclusively ‘modern’ [Is this ‘modern’ in the sense that it is ‘postmodern’? – Peter.] notion of objectivity and embrace the approach that knowledge of the gospel, Scripture, and church find their own ontological depth and definition wholly through the human interpretive lens”.

    I do not fully agree with James Smith across his writings, for one thing he tries to answer philosophy with philosophy and not with theology: he is not first and foremost a Calvinist. Of Hamann, Smith is dismissive: “They [Hamann et al] are more radical than Luther himself, for they propose a theory of knowledge by faith alone that Luther never entertained…” [Introducing Radical Orthodoxy. Smith. 151]. For Smith, Luther is too much, let alone Hamann. And he also plays philosophy according to the rules of the ‘Philosophy Club’.

    But Smith is nonetheless right with Derrida’s rabbinical aphorism that ‘there is nothing outside the text’. Meaning is in and not outside the text: all is interpretation. This includes what I write here. You have to interpret what I am writing and not seek a ‘pure objective Peter’ interpretation. As with Hamann, I use language and I do not have a ‘pure’ meaning as I am also an ‘impure thinker’. It is, as you say as a theologian of interpretation, in the ‘Language’ of “relations, things, senses, images, symbolism [and] metaphor” where meaning is “relationally apprehended”.

    As a theologian of facts you say that “[t]he result of Derrida’s claim is that reality is a mere construct of the human language and busy interpretive process. Objective truth is dependent solely on the human community – and truth cannot exist and encounter the world extra nos [sic]. This is a fundamentally flawed theory, leaving no room for the more dynamic linguistic interchange from God to man. It ultimately comes by way of revelation which ultimately creates and sustains the communicative speaking of God and the faithful hearing of creation. We ought always to speak of a ‘theology of facts’ rather than a ‘theology of interpretation’”.

    Yet you do not say how a theology of facts “by way of revelation…ultimately creates and sustains the communicative speaking of God and the faithful hearing of creation”. Furthermore, as a theology of fact, it is an unproven assumption that there is ‘objectivity’ and ‘objective truth’. Objectivity and objective truth are myths. Try reading Carson’s ‘Gagging of God’ and ask who is ‘gagging’ God. This is a fundamentally flawed theory; for the theology of facts “leav[es] no room for the more dynamic linguistic interchange from God to man”. Only a theology of interpretation can have this linguistic dynamism of which you speak and seek.

    And although I am grateful for your reporting of the conference, my unsettled and perturbed reading continues with your comments on Oswald Bayer. As you have argued for a ‘theology of facts’ and railed against post-marxists who criticise Enlightenment’s ‘reason’, I am uncertain how you are using ‘reason’. What is true reason? A baptised Aristotle or Kant? And if “[f]or Luther “reason” apart from revelation “knows nothing but the law”, then this is misleading. What “for Luther” did “’reason’” mean? What is said to be ‘revealed’? What type of ‘law’ is mentioned? The implication appears to denigrate this ‘law’ because it is bereft of revelation. If the law of God is implied, then it must not be denigrated for it too is revelation.

    As for your conclusion, I have problems coming to grips with it. It sounds more like Melanchthon than Luther or Hamann: “Melanchthon led the Lutheran Church away from Luther’s position into rationalism [Theology of facts – Peter.]. Most Lutherans should really be called Melanchtonians…True Lutheran[s insist] that men must take their reason captive and follow wherever the Word of God leads, even though what it says may appear to be impossible and absurd to reason” [‘The Foolishness of God’. Siegbert Becker. 230-1]. But then, there is your powerful ‘Pastoral Care of Lament: Life in the Psalmic Community’ with its various calls: to ‘the speech act’, of presumably Rosenstock-Huessy; to an indirect criticism of science [of facts?] and/or Darwinism; and also to Brueggemann and an indirect connection to his derridean ‘there is no Yahweh outside the text’!

    Bon appetite on the boating party,


    Postscript: Please can you put up the link to – or post it here if permitted – the Hamann paper by John Henry III. Thank you.


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