An Ethical and Theological Appropriation of Heidegger's Critique of Modernity

Unframing Existence

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Zohar Atkins
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , October
     235 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


After a penetrating exegesis of key elements of the philosophical thought of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), in An Ethical and Theological Appropriation of Heidegger’s Critique of Modernity, Zohar Atkins deploys his interpretation of these tenets as a platform from which to launch his own religiously oriented ethics.

Many regard Heidegger as the foremost philosopher of the 20th century. However, his doctrines evolved in distinctive stages and his writing style is dense, paradoxical, rife with neologisms, and arguably over reliant on etymology. This density accounts for the sixty-four-page introduction (30 percent of the book) that examines pertinent features of the Heideggerian corpus. A close reading of this section is essential for a thorough comprehension of what unfolds in the balance of the book. However, here I review only certain leading postures of Heidegger.

First, Heidegger rejects traditional metaphysics, with its set of fixed generic concepts, as unduly “framing” us in a subject-object environment where we pragmatically concentrate on answering the demands of the technological routines that inevitably result.

Rather, from his existentialist—and ultimately poetic—perspective Heidegger urges that we commence philosophizing with his more expansive version of what constitutes an ontology. For him, this is the often-unspoken stance we presuppose in confronting recurring problem: what is Being and our relation to it? In dealing with our actual concerns and relations with other things that are existent in our world (the ontic), we nevertheless ask metaphysical questions.

Being, as Atkins explains Heidegger’s view, stands for “meaningfulness,” which is general in nature, so that we finite humans can only experience it in isolated occurrences, and then partially. Ideally, humans over their lifetimes create themselves by means of an enhanced participation in “meaningfulness,” exercising a wide-eyed mode of authenticity.

Instead of an anthropology of human nature, Heidegger offers his concept, Dasein. In German this means “being there” and connotes for him our being thrown involuntarily into a world wherein we dwell with others. Atkins interprets the hyphen as indicating a bridge that pairs us with Being, yet keeps us distinct (179), a “paradox of our simultaneous intimacy and alienation from Being” (128).

If humans shun the conceptualizations of metaphysics and discredit or ignore recorded revelations (e.g., Scripture), then our approach to Being (or God) can only occur by means of a quasi-mysticism of poetry. Thereby, we enter the domain of the holy, a sphere of divinity, or a dimension where we might encounter Being (God) (110).The poet’s task is to “name” and “embrace” the holy (167).Jointly with our fellows, our task is to open a clearing for this dimension and via imagination experience glimpses of the transcendent “meaningfulness” (or God for theists). Here we encounter Being as it both reveals and conceals itself on episodic occasions. Poetry consists of words but language, even if the “House of Being” (136), stands as “necessarily insufficient” (169), thanks to being an invention of our finitude.

Because Atkins employs Heidegger’s ontology as the foundation for the ethical model he constructs, he must address the philosopher’s glaring moral flaw. Heidegger actively supported the Nazi regime and failed to repent post-war. Such conduct cannot be ethically justified.

Instead, Atkins tactically shifts the discussion to a theoretical level where he ponders the relation between ontology and ethics, which presuppose each other. These two are “categorically distinct, yet existentially and phenomenologically imbricated” (66).Nonetheless, Atkins contends they are severable for his purposes. Because a unique merit of Heidegger’s ontology is to insist on an open and questioning attitude toward meaningfulness (Being), it does not directly dictate maxims for our ontic ethical life. Therefore, Atkins can enlist Heidegger’s ontology, which he ardently commends, as the undergirding for his own ethical quest and prescind from the philosopher’s villainy.

When Atkins transitions to his own constructive moral theology he concentrates on explicating three paramount areas of inquiry: (1) thinking and listening; (2) being needed; and (3) anxiety and gratitude.

Regarding the first matter, Atkins stresses not talk about God, but a possible encounter with the deity. Ontology assists us here because it opens a clearing for our experience of Being, which resides in the divine realm of the holy. Because Being both reveals and conceals, its mystery must be approached poetically. Such endeavor initiates with listening prior to an attempt to speak, even figuratively.

Second, Being itself needs finite humans for the sake of revealing its meaning to us (173-74).We are thrown into existence and dwell with others (Mitsein) to whom we must generously bestow the dignity of the essence of being a person (183).Then, mutual love and assistance can follow, as we journey collectively toward more intense, if intermittent, apprehensions of Being.

Third, Atkins importunes us to move beyond the anxiety we feel in the face of our inevitable demise, as well as our concerns about whether we can actualize our innate potentiality to the fullest. We need to adopt a sense of gratitude, even in our finite condition, for our individual existence with our ability to think about what lies available to us—namely, an opening to the meaningfulness of Being in each moment (205).

Atkins’ achievement is a timely rehabilitation of Heidegger’s non-theistic ontology through his perspicuous and congenial interpretation which valorizes our opening a clearing for Being (meaningfulness).Then, he overlays his own parallel constructive theology to generate the outline of a plausible ethical system for theists with a faith that tolerates questioning.

One could surmise that Heidegger would applaud Atkins’ undertaking, before the fact, because in a 1926 lecture he affirms that the ontic science of theology may draw on an ontological substructure, but only if it so decides. Although, if it aspires to be a conceptual system theology requires philosophical categories to be rigorous.

Atkins’ keen insights into Heidegger’s complex philosophy and his own innovative theology make the book most appropriate to serve as a reading in a graduate seminar. It should also reward those with a studied appreciation for philosophical theology and a willingness to explore this clearly written and extensively researched work in depth. Its rich bibliography and explanatory footnotes are especially noteworthy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Charles G. Conway is an Independent Scholar.

Date of Review: 
May 19, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Zohar Atkins is Founder of Etz Hasadeh and a Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. He holds a DPhil in Theology from Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He is the author of Nineveh (2019).


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