As I write this, thousands of young people—many of them teenagers—are taking the National Mall in Washington, DC, filling the streets of capitols, town halls, public squares, and parks around the country, in the National #MarchForOurLives. Spurned to action by a group of high schoolers in the wake of the killing of 17 of their friends and classmates, thousands of American young people are going public with their demand that #NeverAgain should they fear for their lives in school. These young activists are not “crisis actors” as some have erroneously claimed, but rather are normal kids living in a nightmare: the world that adults have built for them is not safe. It is evil, violent, and corrupt, and when they raised their voice in protest, no one responsible for their wellbeing and care showed the political courage or the moral wherewithal to do anything. They are left with few options but to remake the world themselves so that it is safe for them and their friends; they are literally marching for their lives, for the right to live in peace, free from gun violence, and from the corruptive forces of fear and hatred.
If theology is meaningful at all, it must make sense of this world. It must sense of what we are to do. It must help us all give rise to thinking that matters in the streets, that resonates with the cries of children for a peaceful and loving world. Can Arendt help us?
It is in this context that I find myself reflecting on John Kiess’s Hannah Arendt and Theology, tasked with the privilege of introducing this book and the four essays in this symposium. One of the better iterations in the popular Philosophy and Theology series from T&T Clark, this book undertakes an admittedly lofty project. It wants to offer a “fuller, more integrated picture of Hannah Arendt, one that situates her engagement with theology within the broader contours of her thought.” (3) Her thought. Thought and thoughtfulness—thinking—is a key conceptual part of what Kiess brings to the picture he so artfully paints of Arendt as a public philosopher for whom theology figures into what she says we ought to do when faced, as she was, the major crises of human experience, whether in her time or our own. (Are they all that different after all? Have matters improved enough to make a meaningful distinction between the challenges of 1951 and 2018?) As the essays that follow remind us, Ardent is no theologian, nor is it obvious that her understanding of theology is helpful for Christian thinking.
One might be forgiven about feeling a bit dubious about the prospect that Arendt may be pressed into service for such a project. Jonathan Tran notes that Kiess puts “significant pressure on Arendt and theology,” and yet this combustibility gives rise to a “whole new thing—“a new discursive practice.” To explain what he means, Tran turns to Kiess’s treatment of Arendt’s “theory of action” vis a vis his treatment of Chuck Mathew’s critique of how Arendt understands freedom as undetermined. Tran triangles Arendt, Mathew, and Kiess in this way to show how productively Kiess works Arendt’s insights into theological concerns without departing from her thinking. But does Kiess balance pressing of Arendt’s thinking into theological service with the need to not get out in front of Arendt and make her work more helpful to theology than she wanted it to be?
Esther Reed also picks up on Kiess’s treatment of Arendt’s theory of thinking, on the political power of thoughtfulness in a context where so little thought, so little care goes into political speech and acts. What kind of thinking is required to engender the kind of freedom that liberates the political subject to act? What kind of thinking leads a 15 year old high school from a small town to travel hundreds of miles in order to take to the streets outside her state capital with a hand-written sign that reads: “I’m tired of living in fear.”?
The power of thinking lies in the first moment of its negative immanent critique: “Thinking, for Arendt, says Kiess, can unfreeze our minds from all established criteria, values, measurements of good and evil, etc. (203).” This is the value of Arendt’s public philosophy for theology: it teaches us to think in such a way that we are freed to make judgements and then to act responsibility. Reed reminds us that “Arendt herself is not optimistic about Christianity being able to grasp or function with such an understanding of the political life and the responsibilities it entails,” and I is hard to disagree: “Thoughtlessness in the church as elsewhere remains one of the most pressing threats of our time.”
Celia Paris is also thinking this way about Arendt’s thinking. She cannot get past the challenges we face. She cannot read Arendt without confronting the crisis we find ourselves in: one of our own making. The haunting question she faces as a self-proclaimed progressive Catholic (how brave!) is “whether the Christian churches can orient and channel response to those challenges.” She draws on Arendt’s insight that the measure of action’s strength is not how effective it is, but rather its “revelatory power” (what wonderfully theological language!). Its intrinsic significance lies in its formative force on our imaginations about what is possible in our world, and whether it teaches us to develop the scripts, model, and frameworks not merely to enact change, but to rethink the conditions of our collective life. “We want to teach our students to think deeply and seriously about the political world,” Paris says, and so the usefulness of Arendt for theology is in the way that “Arendt seems to offer us a deeply needed language for thinking through problems related to worldly belonging and alienation.”
Ted Smith shares this concern. He speaks of Arendt’s own method of thinking when raising the question of how Christian theology should engage her work. There is something rather unsettling, disturbing, about Arendt that Smith wants to preserve when considering the relationship between her thinking and Christian thinking. He exegetes her discussion of her own method reading of Augustin as “diving for pearls”: Augustine “has been buried for so long—he is so lost to us, and we to him—that it has been transformed into a pearl. The richness and strangeness of this pearl can create a shock that makes new kinds of thinking possible.”
Perhaps, Smith opines, we ought to focus on citation as the best strategy for using Arendt’s thinking. When properly used, citations “function not as building blocks, but as interruptions…they do not authorize new lines of Christian argument.” Theologians should cite Arendt in order to interrupt our thinking and so demand something “otherwise”, but her thinking should not be used to sanction theological thinking. This is for the sake of preserving the integrity of Arendt’s thinking, not to protect theology from some kind of foreign incursion.
I am grateful to John Kiess for Hannah Arendt and Theology because it gives me hope that Arendt’s thinking may indeed be an “intellectual companion who challenges us not to be content merely to repeat what our predecessors have said, but to do the thinking that predecessors now demand of us.” (8) And to that I must add, on this day of all days, citing Arendt may lead to the thinking that thousands of 14 and 16-year-old high school students who fill our streets desperately need from us. Can citing Arendt help us think a theology that will build a safer world for them?