Gianni Vattimo’s Religion

By Noëlle VahanianNovember 10, 2016

Gianni Vattimo’s Religion
WEAK THOUGHT is undoubtedly the mark of this great thinker in the European tradition. It is, moreover, the essence of his oeuvre, a work of love — of friendship — agape or charity. In this way, weak thought is religious. It is religious rather than philosophical. It is a strike against — a nonviolent turn of the other cheek toward — Greek philosophy as love of wisdom, where truth and first principles reign supreme, where man [sic] should know to bow in wondrous adulation, in contemplative ignorance before the Being of all beings, and where courage (tinged with hubris) means the willingness to die in the name of the glorious Truth. At the same time, weak thought is also nonreligious, a secular, humanistic strike against sacrality, utopian otherworldliness, and dogmatic fideism. In short, weak thought is a secular/religious strike against religious fundamentalisms and the irreconcilable identitarian localisms that they foster.

As such, weak thought is not objective — nor does it aspire to be. Just the opposite: it is molded by its (Christian, Eurocentric) perspectivalism at the same time as it call that perspectivalism out, just as one who says “I believe that I believe” willfully exposes the nihilistic lightening of Being found dwelling within her own heart. We cannot backpedal ourselves out of the cultural and historical horizon — the Eurocentric muck — in which we’ve all been steeped, but weak thought wallows, and finds emancipation, in this nihilism, taking a Heideggerian “leap in the liberating abyss of tradition,” to unabashedly and unsardonically ironize. This is the irony of Vattimo’s “Thank God, I am an atheist” — which is another way of saying that it is “thanks to the history of the revelation, the salvation, the dissolution of Being that I’m an atheist and this history actually is my paradoxical foundation” (After Christianity [2002]).

The dream of a post–World War II 10-year-old boy to “contribute to the formation of a ‘new Christian humanism’” is part of this paradoxical foundation. It appears as the triumphant constant, albeit in a new and (metaphysically and dogmatically) lighter guise, but one no less universal in its ambition: Vattimo’s is a vision for a universal Christianity that acknowledges the Christian roots of the Eurocentric project of civilization, which was enacted through violent Western colonialism, modernity-driven imperialism, artificial nation-building, and first world-dependent global economic development. Secularization and European modernity have dispensed with a superfluous God — a moral God of the philosophers whom the faithless know to be a lie, as Nietzsche would say and as Vattimo reminds us. Secularization and European modernity, which Vattimo describes in terms of the “dissolution of the sacred distance between God and the world,” are thus witnesses to the Christian incarnation, revealing the truth of Christianity — specifically, Christianity’s destiny to develop into postmodern nihilism.

Vattimo dispenses with the metaphysical, onto-theological scheme of traditional Christian thought. His story of Christianity is not that of a sovereign and omnipotent God, but of the kenotic incarnation of Christ who dies on the cross, sharing the fate reserved to the least of these. God’s act of self-emptying (kenosis) is a lightening of Being. This interpretation does not make us righteous, divine, or less capable of violence, but it does mean that we should not die for God. Instead, we are free to love. This death of the moral-metaphysical God has rendered to humanity what belongs to it no less than life and its beating impulse — namely, the condition for its being, which is its being-there. In short, this human, all-too-human condition, is nothing but God’s condition. Up to a (significant) point, Feuerbach would be sympathetic with this obligatory transformation of theology into anthropology: a dissolution of God into the interiority of a rational mind severed from the ether of the spirits, a rational mind whose concept and nature are the product of its Western cultural environment’s idea of history — which is a Christian history. Feuerbach would be sympathetic, except that he would not foresee the task of this history as that of revealing the weakness of existence; as Vattimo explains in After Christianity, the meaning of kenotic salvation, “kenosis is not a means of ransom but ransom itself.”

The arc of Western history would have a grand teleological motif if it were not also folded into the emancipatory nihilism of weak thought and revealed as just another interpretation. Yet, as Vattimo writes in The Future of Religion (2012), quoting Benedetto Croce, “we cannot not call ourselves Christian,” not because Christian revelation is “tied to a natural metaphysics,” but instead, “because we are unable to speak our language and to live out our historicity without responding to the message transmitted to us by the Bible.” We can’t read Plato without Plotinus and Augustine. We can’t read Aristotle without Aquinas. We can’t read Hegel without Kant and Kant without religion. We can’t read Nietzsche without Christianity. And that remains the case even if this history is only an interpretation, even if the West bulldozes over, for instance, the not insignificant contribution of Islam to the inheritance of Greek philosophy, even if it traces its history back to Roman and Byzantine Empires that did not view today’s modern Europe as their center, and to a Hellenic world that knew even less of this Europe. This same could be said of Christianity, for its history, too, does not trace a straight line from Jerusalem to Rome, and from Wittenberg to the shining city on a hill.

Weak thought — charity — is this avowal without ressentiment or self-loathing. It is the avowal that, even if, as Heidegger states, “only a god can save us” from ourselves, from the historicity of our very being or from the cultural inheritance that made us, the answer is not a return to a strong metaphysics, or a turn to a weaker one, such as a Wholly Other on an ever receding messianic horizon. Nor is the answer to deny or disclaim the cultural situation we are thrown into, regardless of how we interpret our situation: secularity is the vocation of Christianity, not its supplanting. This lightening of Being can seem to be a heavy burden. It tells us that our desire to ground reality, to naturalize laws, to have the last word, to believe that we know is hubris. Consequently, we must weaken thought to the point of love — we must speak love to truth, for truth, it turns out, is all lies.

“Only a god can save us,” and in this sense, we are Christian in spite of our atheism. Only a strong metaphysical God breeds atheism. Do away with this God of philosophers and atheism, too, is done for.

“Only a god can save us” — and so we are Christian in spite of our xenophobic nausea. We cannot imagine how a crucifix or a cross — ubiquitous symbols in all of Europe — could possibly signify a false idol, or by the same token, a strong, oppressive, intolerant Christian culture. And it is on the basis of this unexamined an assumption that French public school girls cannot wear the Muslim veil, but could most readily wear a pendant cross. As Vattimo suggests in After Christianity, in that secular setting, the chador could only signify a strong reading of Islam, a “kind of profession of fundamentalism.”

“Only a god can save us,” so the irony is that we kill him, as Nietzsche said — and in this way we choose Christ the way that the Grand Inquisitor, who knows that we cannot handle freedom, that we need authority, miracle, and mystery, banishes Christ for his silent witness of God’s love. Modernity, as Vattimo argues in The Future of Religion, manifests, even as it conceals, the inward thrust of Christianity, its “denial of the ‘reality principle’” and “dissolution of the (metaphysical) truth concept itself,” which begins with “God’s renunciation of his own sovereign transcendence” in the incarnation. This is why nihilism is the proper expression of Christianity.

But, for Vattimo, the Christianity that Nietzsche reviled and exposed as the greatest lie perpetrated on humanity, with its values of charity and sacrifice, its slave morality, cannot be supplanted without reactivity. Concluding, in After Christianity, that, “in Heidegger’s view, we cannot avoid conceiving of philosophy in Christian terms,” Vattimo interprets this necessity as evidence that we recognize ourselves in what we already are. That is, tradition encircles us; we cannot decide to accept it or not, and this in itself constitutes religious experience. This point is clear enough. But this recognition is then itself understood as necessarily Christian; connecting the Dasein of Being and Time with Heidegger’s own Christianity through his reading of Paul in his 1920 lectures, Vattimo reveals how the tension of “we have already become what we come to know” has the structure of Christian eschatology and temporality. And so we come to see that this very condition of ours — this forgetting of Being with the help of our false idols, our calculative objectification of reality, our dead God — is the very destiny of Christian salvation.

Christianity sows the seeds of its own dissolution, and religious pluralism is its heir. But it is at this point that we choose Christ again. As Vattimo reminds us, Dostoyevsky writes that he would choose Christ over truth even if Christ were outside of truth, while Vattimo himself declares that he would rather be a friend of Plato than a friend of Truth. That is, as he writes in After Christianity, Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead” and Heidegger’s despairing invocation that “only a god can save us” reveal how both thinkers

remain captive to Greek objectivism and refuse to develop fully the implications of Christianity’s antimetaphysical revolution. These cannot be fully developed without recourse to charity. In other words, only friendship […] can prevent the thought of the end of metaphysics from lapsing into a reactive — and often reactionary — nihilism, to use Nietzsche’s expression.

This modern interiorization of the will to power must follow its destiny in love or else be condemned to reactivity or to chasing after the dream of authenticity. Inclining the will to love is the weak choice that finds freedom in tradition, because it is to be found nowhere else.

Again, kenotic salvation is weak thought, insistently open to interpretation. One could also say, as Vattimo does, that it “is a teleology in which every ontic structure is weakened in favor of ontological Being, namely the Verbum, Logos, Word shared in Dialogue (Gespräch) that constitutes us as historical beings.” If one of the constitutive tenets of Christianity is the claim that Jesus Christ fulfills the law, for Vattimo, who was influenced by the teachings of Joachim of Fiore, the promise of salvation is spiritualization. One “hears” of, and therefore “believes,” in a God of revelation. There is no burning of the ears; instead, there is a community of servants who, in hearing the message of salvation, “assimilate” its promise and are saved or (the same thing) become friends. It is this vision of Christian salvation that makes of Christianity a candidate for a universal religion, which would save us from religious pluralism and sectarianism.

So Vattimo’s vision does betray a teleological interpretation of salvation history as the history of the West and of Western metaphysics. But this interpretation is itself a point of view within history, a postmodern view concerning the possibility of Christian universalism. It presents an alternative to religious pluralism that only makes sense within the current dialogue surrounding religious pluralism. Its virtue lies in avowing its historicity, and its greatness lies in its charitable reading of Christianity.

Here, then, is a redemptive vision of Christianity as destiny, and one may wonder how — or whether — this vision is not a Christian apology. It acknowledges and recognizes the validity of critiques of Western history, which places the West at the apex of human civilization. It acknowledges and recognizes critiques of Christian history, which places Judaism on a Judeo-Christian continuum as a step on the way to salvation. It acknowledges and recognizes that a postmodernism that regards the death of metanarratives and metaphysics as the logical outcome of Western secularization also signifies, in a more entangled way, the end of European colonialism and Eurocentrism. It stands to reason that the philosopher who calls for a universal communism inspired by Latin American experiences and theologies of liberation cannot abide the classic Weberian thesis according to which the ethic of Protestantism is the key precursor to economic and industrial development, absent any consideration of the exploitative racialization and subjugation of non-Christian non-Whites through the civilizing mission of the Church. And in this way, Vattimo’s vision also acknowledges and recognizes critiques of liberal democratic ideals, with their false universality and their neat alignment with neoliberalism.

In seeing all this, one might argue that Vattimo’s vision too readily or easily distinguishes the spiritual aspect of Christianity from its practical tradition of colluding with power. Vattimo might respond that it is the institution of the Church and its role as sole authority after Rome that have pushed Christianity away from its universalizing vocation. Perhaps this is so. And it is in the encounter with the Other — other religions, other peoples — that Christianity recovers its true inclination as “hospitality, and as the religious foundation […] of the laity.” Again, perhaps. This is, after all, a matter of interpretation. So is the position that the crucifix “can claim its right to be accepted as a universal symbol in a lay society,” because it is “unobtrusive” and has nothing more than a “generic meaning.” But is everyone equally suited to embrace a weak identity and to appreciate the generic meaning of the ubiquitous crucifix, the town church, or the glorious cathedral? Would the Martian find these symbols to be as invisible as the one who sees them every day? Would the Syrian refugee? Would the ostracized immigrant? Isn’t that why the Islamic State destroyed the Temple of Bel, or why the Taliban dynamited the ancient statues of Buddha?

Is weak identity, therefore, the privilege of the strong? And for that same reason, might not the one whose identity is already under erasure contest the emancipatory virtue of weakness? Whether “assimilated,” acculturated, marginalized, or simply forgotten, a subject whose identity has been rendered invisible throughout the history of the weakening of Being might prefer the strength of essentialism, in spite of its exclusiveness and potential violence — in spite even of its fiction. If not, then perhaps she will come to recognize herself in what she always already is: neither servant, nor child, but free — to love.


Noëlle Vahanian is a dual citizen of France and the United States. She grew up in Strasbourg, France, and holds a PhD from Syracuse University. She is professor of philosophy at Lebanon Valley College, in Annville, Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses on genocide, world philosophies, and philosophy of religion. She is the author of Language, Desire, and Theology: A Genealogy of the Will to Speak (Routledge, 2003) and most recently The Rebellious No: Variations on a Secular Theology of Language (Fordham University Press, 2014).

LARB Contributor

Noëlle Vahanian is a dual citizen of France and the United States. She grew up in Strasbourg, France and holds a Ph.D. from Syracuse University. She is Professor of Philosophy at Lebanon Valley College, in Annville, Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses on genocide, world philosophies and philosophy of religion. She is the author of Language, Desire, and Theology: A Genealogy of the Will to Speak (Routledge, 2003) and most recently The Rebellious No: Variations on a Secular Theology of Language (Fordham University Press, 2014). She is currently working on a book relating contemporary philosophy to genocide studies, with a special emphasis on the case of Armenia and the problem of denialism.


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