An Atheism that Is Not Humanist:

An atheism a theologian can love

posted by James K.A. Smith

“Before the end of the eighteenth century, man did not exist.” So claimed Michel Foucault in his intellectual archaeology of modernity, The Order of Things. Indeed, “man,” he continued,

is a quite recent creature, which the demiurge of knowledge fabricated with its own hands less than two hundred years ago: but he has grown old so quickly that it has been only too easy to imagine that he had been waiting for thousands of years in the darkness for that moment of illumination in which he would finally be known.

“Man,” on this picture, is not only a new idea, a new creation, but also a fleeting one: his time is past. He’s quickly grown old and is already fading away, like the grass. “Strangely enough,” Foucault mused, “man—the study of whom is supposed by the naïve to be the oldest investigation since Socrates—is probably no more than a kind of rift in the order of things.” He is “only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge” who “will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form.”

Foucault’s flippant requiem for “man” reflects a midcentury antihumanism in European thought, which, in the wake of two World Wars in the heart of Europe, had become suspicious of the “anthropotheism” of humanism wherein “Man” replaced the God who had died. And it is this story that is told so brilliantly by Stefanos Geroulanos in An Atheism That Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought. For these antihumanists, humanistic atheism had never really gotten over its theological tendencies; so the result of the death of God was the divinization of Man. But having witnessed the atrocities committed in the name of such anthropocentrism, midcentury theorists sought to displace humanism. Antihumanism, in a strange sense, was out to protect humanity. (See, for example, Geroulanos’s discussion of Emmanuel Levinas, pp. 194-205.) But the effect was to downplay or even diminish the role and agency of “the subject,” emphasizing the impersonal systems, forces, and structures that conditioned human behavior. Thus, structuralism can be seen as “the single most influential inheritor of this early antihumanism,” later influencing a more naturalistic understanding of the human species and pressing a certain “biologization” of human action as understood in the social sciences.

I have greatly profited from Geroulanos’s careful account, though my work focuses on the later developments in French thought broached in his conclusion (can we hope for a sequel?). I can now see behind Foucault and Derrida a background milieu that I had previously failed to appreciate. Indeed, it’s striking how differently Geroulanos’s frame illuminates French thought into the ’60s and ’70s—like casting black light over a previously familiar room, disclosing all sorts of hitherto invisible features. While Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism” is an essential part of the canon in twentieth-century continental philosophy, Geroulanos’s historical work makes me think we’ve underestimated how central these concerns are for understanding later twentieth-century debates.

But as a philosophical theologian with a deep interest in philosophical anthropology, I found myself struck by another theme: what might seem a surprising camaraderie between this atheism and a stream of Christian theology. Indeed, one could argue that both this atheism and a strain of twentieth-century theology share the same antihumanism. Such an antihumanism, of sorts, can already be heard in Barth’s fulminations against liberal Protestantism in his early commentary on Romans. In this respect, there might be room for a little more nuance in Geroulanos’s discussion of “Catholic humanism.” While it’s certainly true, for instance, that Henri de Lubac (in an odd echo of Sartre) claimed that “Christianity is a humanism,” I do wonder whether Geroulanos too quickly elides de Lubac to the project of Jacques Maritain—whose Catholic humanism did tend toward a conception of the human that generated an emphasis on human rights. But in this respect, one should note that Maritain accorded much greater weight and autonomy to “the natural”—and hence to “the human”—than de Lubac. In other words, I think the mid-century debates in Catholic theology about the relation and distinction between the so-called “natural” and “supernatural” are directly relevant to the status of “the human” in humanism. And given that there were important differences between de Lubac and Maritain on these matters, we should be careful not to assume that there is one “Catholic humanism.”

Here again, I think there is a trajectory of a kind of antihumanist theism—or better, Christian theology—which runs from Barth, through Hans Urs von Balthasar, up to the Catholic thinker Jean-Luc Marion, and which shares many concerns with the atheism that Geroulanos documents. Appropriating the critique of ontotheology for theological reasons, Marion’s Idol and Distance (published in French in 1977) celebrated the Nietzschean death of god as an idol well lost. This sensibility was further developed in God Without Being (1982), which articulated a theological critique of theism, drawing explicitly on the later Heidegger, including the important “Letter on Humanism,” which plays such a crucial role in Geroulanos’ account. But I think one can also find a correlate critique of what we might call (rather clunkily) “ontoanthropology” in Marion’s work on “the subject,” particularly in his essay “The Final Appeal of the Subject” (though one can find similar themes developed in Being Given). In a way not unlike the “negative anthropology” discussed by Geroulanos, Marion is critical of the “autarchy” of the subject and sketches a philosophical anthropology, in the spirit of Levinas, that decenters the human—as one who is claimed rather than makes claims. The human is marked by a dispossession that cannot be reified.

So, one could identify a theological strain that, precisely for theological reasons, is antihumanist while also embracing the critique of ontotheology. In other words, this is not just a reversion to a pre-humanistic theism, a retreat from Man back to God. This is a strain of theological thought marked by both a negative theology and a negative anthropology. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that such a theological sensibility is also critical of “rights talk” in just the way the French antihumanist atheists were. (We’ve had some discussion about this at the Immanent Frame before.) Thus, it should be no surprise, also, that both this antihumanist atheism and the theological sensibility I’ve noted share a critique of liberalism.

I don’t pretend to have made a case here; nor do I mean to oversimplify and ignore the obvious differences between an antihumanist atheism and an antihumanist theology.  These are just notes toward a more proper argument and analysis—sparks sent up while reading Geroulanos’s comprehensive, careful, and provocative history, which got me thinking about an atheism that even a (certain kind of) theologian could love.

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