What sort of problem is a human?

What sort of problem is a human?

I was at work on a summer afternoon in 2018 when I received a surprising email.

It was the editor from a journal I had forgotten I'd submitted a paper to. I only let that trip me up for a moment though, because he was saying that the committee liked my paper, and they wanted to publish it in their next issue.

Unbeknownst to me, their next issue was slated to focus on world philosophies, so my paper on the encounter between Heidegger and the Kyoto School perfectly fit what they were looking for.

Update: I've released this paper for free, which you can download here.

I had finished the paper about 6 months earlier as a part of the Phenomenology seminar I was taking in the fall semester of my senior year at Wheaton College. It was taught by Dr. Sarah Borden (an Edith Stein specialist), and the class was mostly composed of peers who had been my friends for years. It was a formative experience for all of us, and I still think back to it even today.

I had started studying the Kyoto School in summer of 2017 when I happened to pick up Nishitani's Religion and Nothingness at a used bookstore in Seattle. I was living and working in a lodge on Mt. Rainier that summer, and I remember sitting at the tiny tables in the catwalks above the main lobby just pouring over that text underlining and taking notes. I had never encounter something which felt so foreign and yet simultaneously so familiar. It was as though a fox had looked me in the eyes, opened its mouth, and begun talking about philosophy.

I went into the school year wanting to study the thinkers of the Kyoto School in greater depth, so I bought more books (of course), enrolled in as many Japan focused courses as I could find, and also decided to use my Phenomenology seminar's weeks spent wth Heidegger's Being and Time as a touchpoint to bring in the Kyoto School for my final paper. In order to do that, I needed to find the right angle for the dialogue.

I eventually identified a fruitful point of convergence – the concept of anxiety.

Heidegger defines anxiety by contrasting it with fear – fear has a specific object (clowns, spiders, homework) whereas anxiety has no particular object towards which it is oriented. It's an abiding fear of... nothing? But simultaneously, everything? It's almost a fear in search of an object. Anxiety is born from the vague sense that there must exist something out there which is causing this dread in here. This diffuse nothingness becomes for anxiety its object-cause.

Nishitani talks about this as the experience of nihility in which we realize that our existence lacks a stable ground, being instead built on nothingness. He believes that religion as a personal need arises precisely at this point where we become a question to ourselves. Thus, Nishitani and Heidegger both see anxiety as a way into the question of what sort of problem a human being poses, both to themselves and for the world generally.

While my paper points out some ways that their concepts are more similar than Nishitani lets on – the notion of ekstasis functions at the heart of both their work – I do believe that ultimately the two thinkers arrive at an impasse which I attribute to the differing religious traditions which they are coming out of. Heidegger may not be a Christian, but his thought is ineluctably Christian nonetheless, I claim, and this comes out clearly when put in contrast with Nishitani's Zen Buddhism.

Buddhism and Christianity disagree about what sort of problem a human constitutes. Masao Abe provides an accessible introduction to this, and I draw on his formulations in the paper. Abe points out that the thing which makes human beings different from other natural phenomena is self-consciousness, and that this self-consciousness is the source of our suffering. Despite the comic I posted at the beginning of this piece, birds do not experience self-consciousness. Birds bird. Rivers river. In the words of a notorious Heideggerism, nothing noths.

This means that the Buddhist diagnosis of human suffering identifies self-consciousness as the disease, and consequently, the transcendence of this self-consciousness is prescribed as the cure. This is what Zen strives to do – to eliminate consciousness of the self through the practice of zazen ("just sitting.") In sitting zazen, one realizes nothingness within and throughout one's existence, finding one's being in accord with all other phenomena through participating in the nothingness which undergirds all the shifting appearances of consciousness.

However, Heidegger's concept of Dasein presupposes a deeply Christian commitment which I do not believe he is conscious of. Even as Heidegger grapples with Dasein's "being itself in being outside of itself," and especially in Dasein's continual projecting of itself and its world, he never stops to consider that Dasein itself could be eliminated. He never questions the necessity (dare I even say, goodness?) of this uniquely human way of being in the world.

Heidegger displays along with the Christian tradition a stubborn attachment to the vicissitudes of human subjectivity. While the Christian also looks the problem of suffering squarely in the face, we find our answer not in the elimination of self-consciousness, but instead in the death and resurrection of God. As God emptied Himself to become a human subject, and underwent a humiliating death on the cross for our sin and shame, He gathers us into a new life, a consciousness which is transformed into something both other and yet strangely still the same.

In the book of Revelation, St. John has a number of visions of heaven, and one of the most curious details, I think, is that Jesus the Lamb still bears his wounds. His identity goes from merely "the Lamb" to "the Lamb who was slain," thus bearing in the body and spirit of God the reality of death for all eternity. He is no longer simply God, but rather has become the God who died.

In this way, I believe that Christianity proposes a different path than the Buddhism of the Kyoto School. Both agree that our minds are a wound continually producing all manner of suffering. Like a good doctor, Buddhism proposes to heal the wound. Christianity, on the other hand, announces instead the imperative that we must labor to inhabit the wound.

Inhabit the wound. We'll talk again soon, friends.

Free weekly emails in your inbox every Friday morning