Most often, scholarly work related to Martin Heidegger and theology discusses either the influence of Christian theology on Heidegger’s work or makes use of Heidegger’s philosophy with theological goals in mind. It is less common to not only put Heidegger in conversation with a theologian, but also to present compelling evidence that the theologian in question was directly influenced by Heidegger’s thought. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christological Reinterpretation of Heidegger, Nik Byle undertakes that very task, arguing that “[Bonhoeffer] theologically transforms central elements of Heidegger’s philosophy, especially fundamental and essential elements of his existential analytic of Dasein,” and asks “What, if any, influence did Heidegger’s early philosophy have on Bonhoeffer” (3)?
Byle’s argumentation relies on detailed readings of Bonhoeffer (primarily Act and Being  and Sanctorum Communio ) and Heidegger (primarily Being and Time ). Byle begins with an explication of the problem of act and being and its place in Bonhoeffer’s thought, followed by an explanation of the key ideas in Heidegger’s thought and his influence on Bonhoeffer’s work. He then offers a Christological synthesis drawing on Heideggerian temporality, and then moves finally to an investigation into the effects that Heidegger’s work had on Bonhoeffer’s later thought.
From the beginning, Byle’s deep understanding of both Bonhoeffer and Heidegger is apparent. This is absolutely critical to the success of the overall project. When drawing out the influence of a philosopher on a theologian, there is always the risk that one discipline may seem to become a passive participant while the other does the “heavy lifting.” In a project like Byle’s, it would be easy for someone to view Heidegger’s philosophy as a mere building block that retains little of its intended meaning or force. Fortunately, Byle’s understanding of Heidegger allows Heidegger’s philosophy to retain its integrity throughout the text, and the same is true of Bonhoeffer’s theology. Byle refuses to let either stream of thought become diluted in his analysis. Of course, the very fact that Bonhoeffer and Heidegger retain their full force necessitates not only a personal understanding of the ideas, but also an ability to skillfully explain those ideas to readers who may be less familiar with them. This is another area in which Byle excels, and much of the first half of the book showcases his ability to explain ideas that are often somewhat abstruse in a way that makes them more immediately intelligible to the reader.
Byle’s skill in this area is demonstrated exceptionally well in chapters 3 and 4, where Byle unpacks the key ideas found in Being and Time, a text that is infamous for its difficulty. Byle’s command of the material and skill in explaining it lead up to the constructive dimension of the text, which is found in chapter 5, where Byle argues that “Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein is instrumental in Bonhoeffer’s formulation of Jesus Christ as person” (129). Here, Byle makes the compelling argument that were it not for Heidegger’s influence, Bonhoeffer’s theology would likely be more in line with the thought of someone like Karl Barth. In a sense, this chapter, which is titled “Divine Temporality: Christ as Ur-Dasein,” serves as a testing ground for what Byle has argued for up to this point: that Heidegger’s existential analytic of Dasein had a clear and meaningful impact on Bonhoeffer’s thought. Throughout the chapter, Byle’s contention is shown to be not only on the mark, but also more incisive than it at first seemed: earlier in the text, Byle argued that a full reading of Bonhoeffer requires an understanding of the various levels of meaning – philosophical, anthropological, and theological – that build upon each other within the text, and play a crucial role for solving the problem of Act and Being. In Bonhoeffer’s view, by fulling engaging with the philosophical and anthropological levels, Heidegger had greater success than philosophers such as Kant or Hegel in reaching a solution. In this chapter, the engagement with the person of Christ, and its interrelationship with Heidegger’s philosophy, clearly demonstrates the formative role that Heidegger’s anthropological and philosophical role played in Bonhoeffer’s work, which went beyond philosophy and anthropology to reach theology.
Byle’s text is an impressive work of scholarship, but it is important to note that this is most definitely a work designed for specialists. While Byle does an excellent job at illustrating the thought of both Bonhoeffer and Heidegger, the reader will more readily appreciate the value of Byle’s work if they have some prior knowledge of Bonhoeffer and Heidegger. Another point that should be mentioned here (though it is addressed by Byle early in the text) is that the use of Heidegger may be considered controversial by some. Heidegger joined the Nazi party in 1933 and neither left nor offered apologies for his membership. While Byle in no way endorses Heidegger’s abhorrent politics, it is worth noting that the use of Heidegger has become increasingly controversial, especially in the Anglo-American world.
Overall, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Christological Reinterpretation of Heidegger offers an incisive analysis of not only the interplay between Bonhoeffer and Heidegger, but also between theology and philosophy as disciplines.
Benjamin Cail is a PhD student in philosophy at Institut Catholique de Paris in France.
Date Of Review:
April 30, 2023
Nik Byle is professor of philosophy and religious studies at Arizona Western College.
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