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Waiting for New Gods in a Time of Danger: A Lecture

The world's darkening never reaches
  to the light of Being.
We are too late for the gods and too
  early for Being. Being's poem,
  just begun, is man.
                --Heidegger "The Thinker as Poet"

In “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger says that while modern technology enframes beings by challenging them to present themselves as things which may serve our own purposes, modern technology, he asserts, is nevertheless a way of revealing. That is to say, even when man sets upon beings his own will and intentions, man nonetheless participates in the unfolding of truth, in its unconcealment.  Aletheia—the name the Greeks gave to that dynamic disclosure and concealment of truth—happens even today in our dark times, although for the most part only in a technical way. Just the same, truth is still able to manifest itself, even in a distorted and hidden manner. This is so because the truth of Being, whatever time it may be, and even in the hour of greatest danger, will always unfold itself to the human being, beyond his own willing and wanting.
But this precisely according to Heidegger is the danger of dangers: that even if Being calls on us to help in the unconcealment of truth, we turn a deaf hear to that call, choosing instead to listen to ourselves and create our own “truths.” For what is the value of truth nowadays?—What could it even mean, or what could its worth be, when we always have the choice to stay with our own convenient truths, cling to what is most readily-available for us to understand and use? Whereas truth is always difficult, shifty, and always loves to hide, it is but understandable on our part to stay with what we already know, keep on repeating what works and works best, and remain in a world which reflects our own image and likeness. That we have managed to make the world our own little global village, that we have been able to turn nature into “a giant gasoline station,” and have even objectified our fellow human beings by turning them into “human resources”—all of this is the accomplishment of the human being’s ability to create its own splendid truths. And outside these human truths, beyond the horizon of man’s wants and needs, no truth can anymore exist or show itself. Hence this world where all the gods have fled, hence this silent homelessness no one wishes to admit, this forgetfulness of what life or existence can really mean.
It is interesting to note that even in his later writings, Heidegger did not offer us any “viable” and “concrete solutions” on how to confront the danger not only of modern technology but also of modern man. While he does tell us, if you recall, that we should keep meditative thinking alive at this time when calculative thinking has been accepted as the only way of thinking, that really doesn’t say much at all. In a 1966 interview for a magazine article, Heidegger himself was straightforwardly asked what philosophy can particularly do to address the dangers of modern technology and the destruction it leaves in its wake. And this was Heidegger’s ambiguous and rather disheartening reply:

Philosophy will not be able to effect an immediate transformation of the present condition of the world. This is not only true of philosophy, but of all merely human thought and endeavor. Only a god can save us. The sole possibility that is left for us is to prepare a sort of readiness, through thinking and poetizing, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god in the time of foundering; for in the face of the god who is absent, we founder. (1)

Heidegger, who was interestingly a philosopher who almost never talked about God or gods, as he was according to himself concerned all his life solely on the question of Being, here all of a sudden tells us that only a divine being can spare us from the harm we have set upon ourselves—that no human effort can rescue us, and that all we can do now is to be ready for either the appearance of a new god, or finally accept that no other god is coming. This “readiness” for the god to come he speaks of is similar to what we had discussed in class as that “openness to the mystery”—an openness to the meaning which hides itself in the disclosure of truth as modern technology. Such readiness, however, and such openness, again really do not say anything much to us: what are we to wait for then? What are we to prepare for? What are we supposed to look for precisely when the truth to come is a mystery, a mystery which by definition is something we cannot define or envision? And how do we even know if the god that is to save us has already come, is already among us, if we do not even know the face with which it is to appear?
The difficulty of being totally open is that you welcome all possibilities without really knowing which one is supposed to be true, or the one you are to actualize. The trouble with waiting for something without being able to anticipate or expect it is that you wouldn’t even know if what you were waiting for has already arrived.
As we wait for the coming of a god, whenever or if ever it does come, what are we to do then? How is one to prepare and ready one’s self for that unforeseen arrival? Perhaps Heidegger isn’t really telling us to give everything up, to stop acting and living, as we wait for another manifestation of truth. Another aspect of authentic waiting, aside from that painful experience of not being able to anticipate or control the arrival of that which is to come, is that it also gives you the chance to see the things around you, an occasion to once again notice the things that have been too familiar to you. Take this example: Whenever we wait for our ride home, whether it be a jeepney or a train or a friend, we pass the time by looking around, taking notice of the things close to us (like the carved names of lovers on benches, the faces of the passersby as they go about their business, or the way the sky turned violet as the sun set). When we can do nothing but wait, we become aware of the things around us, things that may have for so long been ordinary to us, so ordinary that we now wonder if they even existed at all. It is when we have the time to give them “a second look,” though, that things may once again appear as they are as if for the first time, now able to capture our attention in the way that something stunning and new can arrest our gaze. In a word, it is in the open region of waiting where beings can once again show themselves as something amazing and astonishing—an event which for the Greeks signaled the beginning of thinking and philosophizing.
While we cannot, and should not, simply go back to the time of the Greeks and superficially reproduce in ourselves that original wonder that they experienced, there are other paths available to us as we wait for what Heidegger called “the other beginning” of philosophy. And in his “Memorial Address,” Heidegger gives us a clue as to where these paths toward a new kind of thinking can be found. To recall, regarding the question as to where we could perhaps find a new ground and foundation for our works to flourish, Heidegger answered thus:

Perhaps the answer we are looking for lies at hand; so near that we all too easily overlook it. For the way to what is near is always the longest and thus the hardest for us humans.(2)

And what could that be which lies nearest to us, so near that we fail time and again to take notice of it? What, in other words, are the beings which dwell closest to us, beings which we can again see if we simply look around us?
Such beings are nothing else but our fellow human beings, our neighbors. As Heidegger points out elsewhere, the word “neighbor,” which in German is Nachbar, originally referred to something that “dwells near” us, or literally a “near-dweller.” Thus human beings are essentially related to each other as we are to our neighbors, as people who live and dwell close to each other as in a neighborhood. And this neighborhood, to be sure, is nothing like a global village (where villagers never really get to see each other in the eye); nor can it be found in cyberspace (which is really a placeless place); and finally, neither can this neighborhood be built through a social network (a network which, if you really think about it, should be called an anti-social network). No, my true neighbor is the real human being which dwells nearest to me, here next to me, one that has a face which I see and also looks at me—one that has a face that according to the French philosopher Levinas I can never objectify, handle or comprehend, calculate or enframe. For the face of my neighbor is by itself, like truth, also mystery—one able to disclose and conceal its own holy truth.

And perhaps, if we are to follow Heidegger’s clue that we must look once again at what is nearest to us while we wait for the coming of the next god, it would be best to once again take a look at our neighbors—that is, to look after them in this time of danger, see to their needs, watch over them in the way that neighbors keep watch for one another at night. Maybe the face of the god that is to save us is a familiar face. And that it is when we first learn once again how to dwell and live in peace with our fellow human beings that we can begin building a new home in this age of homelessness.

July 12, 2011
Synthesis Lecture

1 Heidegger, “Only a God Can Save Us,” Der Spiegel Interview, in Richard Wolin, ed., The Heidegger Controversy: A Critical Reader (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1993), 106-107.
2 Heidegger, “Memorial Address,” in Discourse in Thinking, trans. John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 53.


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