Symposium Introduction

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?

Jonathan Tran

Response

Tran’s Commentary on Kiess

This is a splendid book, among the best in this series and representing a high-water mark for this genre of theological analysis. It spans the range of Arendt’s considerable corpus (from the densely theoretical and systematic to the popular and occasional) and presents its diversity in a marvelously integrated and engaging fashion. This is no small achievement because as with any mind as protean and nuanced as Arendt’s, we are talking about a corpus that both developed over time and sustained certain motifs and commitments over the course of its long life. To do what he has done, Professor Kiess had to get a handle on both facets, in turn requiring mastery of not only the primaries but also the vast secondary literature. The result is a text that is impressively effortless in its handling of notoriously difficult concepts. For example, the book’s presentation of Arendt’s singular theoretical contribution of natality is handled with finesse, situating that concept within a host of neighboring concepts (for example in relation to Heidegger’s “being toward death” and Augustine’s creation ex nihilo) so that both its genesis and genius are clearly evident for the reader.

When I say that the book represents a high-water mark for this kind of analysis what I mean is that any attempt to relate some important thinker to the grammar of Christian theology should do at least three things, all of which Hannah Arendt and Theology does in spades. First, it should not only introduce readers to the thinker and help us understand her but also invigorate and inspire a return to the primary texts. I have been reading Arendt for nearly two decades, yet so often while reading Hannah Arendt and Theology, I went to my shelf and pulled an Arendt book, having forgotten, apparently, just how interesting and important is her work. Kiess helped me understand things I hadn’t before, invited new connections I would have never made on my own, and encouraged new questions previously unentertained or unformulated.

Second, theological works in this genre should make careful judgments of where and when to bring the theology in. The usual mistakes from this genre stem from bringing in the theological bits too early, and not allowing the thinker her own integrity of thought, or too late, and so giving the naive impression that readers come to texts without prior questions and interpretive lenses and detrimentally allowing the philosophical text to set the criteria and agenda for theological analysis. Hannah Arendt and Theology steers clear of either mistake, markedly allowing Arendt’s thought to be hers, while still allowing Kiess’s agenda to set the stage for the presentation of that thought. What results is a set of patient, careful, and fine-grained arguments where Kiess engages, contends with, and advances Arendt’s work for the cause of Christian faithfulness. All of this is done with a light touch (as I said, seemingly effortless) made possible by Dr. Kiess’s exceptionally lucid and beautiful writing (this, I cannot emphasize enough).

Third, and related, the work should put significant pressure on both respective discourses, so that, in this case, Arendt presses theology into new zones of understanding (including self-understanding), making theology do “work” in ways unimagined prior to running into Arendt, and making Arendt accountable to theology’s own logical and experiential constraints and entailments. Done well, one gets not just theology and Arendt running parallel to one another (“compare and contrast” in the older vernacular) but a whole new thing, a type of conversation that profits the relevant parties in ways they themselves never anticipated, in a sense creating a new discursive public. As a brief example of how Hannah Arendt and Theology accomplishes this sort of thing, consider how Kiess’s offering of Arendt’s amor mundi presses into service, rather than simply puts into conversation, tensions that arise whenever a mature Platonist rendering of bodily desire confronts the out-and-out rejection of material life that Arendt had to contend with in the Nazis. Theologians like Willie James Jennings and J. Kameron Carter have shown us how the latter can outstrip all other considerations as the former gets appropriated. What Kiess does is: (1) Acknowledge the problematic tendencies of a thusly outstripped Christianity, locating them in the long inheritance of one of its chief progenitors (namely, St. Augustine); (2) Allow that acknowledgement to generate alternatives that answer the concern; and (3) By pushing Arendt’s thought toward an account of hope it did not already possess or imagine, make it do new things. What is accomplished is an account of material qua political life that travels through these specific concerns and arrives at totally new conceptual territory. As a Christian theologian who has written some about radical democratic theory it never occurred to me that such work could illumine for us those kinds of matters (closing the gap between the practical and the metaphysical). Or more precisely, it was through Hannah Arendt and Theology’s constructive vision that I came to realize how important such work is.

Now, as a way deeper into the book, which I obviously think highly of, let me pick up on what Professor Kiess calls “Arendt’s theory of action” and ask him to develop a thought he begins but does not, from what I can tell, complete; or, at least maybe he can identify for us where in the book he does complete the thought.

As the point where he is working out his interpretation of Arendt’s natality concept, that which I already said he finesses to great effect, John leaves us hanging, doubly so. At the time, he had been refuting Charles Mathewes’s critique of Arendt, namely that Arendt’s conception of freedom fashioned freedom as fancifully undetermined. To answer the charge, Kiess shows how for Arendt freedom is determined precisely in the two ways Mathewes thinks so important: the push forward from the conditioning determinants of the past and the future’s realization of the self through action. This answer to that specific charge of Mathewes I find to be convincing and decisive. It is, from my own reading, the whole point of Arendt’s Between Past and Future.

But there is something else raised by Mathewes that I don’t know if John quite gets to. And this critique is similar but not quite the same. Let me quote from, as John does, Mathewes’s Evil and the Augustinian Tradition: “Arendt recognized that for Augustine the ‘outside’ force of natality was not ultimately human will, but always human will under the direction of divine providence. She thought that interpretation of natality was not essential to the structure of willing; so she sought in her own work to ‘demystify’ it, to strip it of its theological pretenses and show it to be solely a human capacity—properly miraculous, to be sure, but not in need of any supernatural powers to back it up” (167). Notice how John’s answer to the first critique will not satisfy this second critique, which I think ultimately illumines the stakes of the initial critique. The first is that Arendt is committed to that fanciful notion of action as undetermined, and John answers it by showing how for Arendt action is determined. But this second critique is different, and charges Arendt’s notion of human action with leaving God out of the list of things that determine human action. So even if John showed how for Arendt action is determined, both from the past and toward the future, he hasn’t quite answered the second charge. Indeed, the way he answers the first critique, by showing the determining conditions of the past to be things like birth or memory and alluding to an account of being as becoming, he actually adds fuel to the fire of Mathewes’s second charge, that human action for Arendt seemingly has only confirmed Mathewes’s worries. Read from the perspective of that second critique, John seems to be saying, “God really doesn’t have anything to do with us; you know this because we cannot be expected to be ‘blameless and innocent’ or ‘without blemish’ as scripture calls, and we cannot love neighbors or forgive as discipleship demands, and we should not be motivated by love of an otherworldly God.” So he leaves Mathewes hanging.

But then, as if we weren’t already so rudely stood up, he goes on to leave us hanging! That is, when he seemingly addresses the second critique in that section called “The Grace of Natality” he hints at something that would not only answer Mathewes but as importantly develop something quite original. In this section, he first shows how even in the conditions of sin, human action can still do some pretty cool things; this is what the “grace” of this section indicates, that sin will not stop us from doing cool things. He then qualifies this with the old Augustinian adage that even the cool things turn out to be disordered things. Again, confirming Mathewes’s second worry. And then, and this is the teaser part, he invokes Aquinas, “who can better account for the dignity of such actions” (197; Kiess references his earlier mention of Aquinas, but that only relates Aquinas’s belief in a non-vicious self-love to “imperfect virtue”). Here I think John is hinting at something like a natural theology of action that shows how God is present in human action—hence bestowing a residually divine dignity to human activity—by hard-wiring nature so that human action is continuous with God’s action. This would to my mind not only exposit Arendt’s theory of action, not only answer Mathewes’s second charge, but more so help us to see how human action, which Arendt does so well to lay out, shows us something about God. This theology of action would delineate how created nature—which would on this score become the necessary architecture of human action—is graced for human action. But John doesn’t ever get to fully developing it, and so I am hoping he will do so just a little more fully.

I should say, I don’t think it’s just a passing or throwaway point for John. There are other clues for it in the book. The closest he gets to relating the natality of human activity to graced nature is when he quotes Arendt saying, “If the creation of man coincides with the creation of a beginning in the universe . . . then the birth of individual men, being new beginnings, re-affirms the original character of man in such a way that the origin can never become entirely a thing of the past” (Kiess, 152). Following, he talks about the idea of miracles, and quotes Arendt, “It is a ‘counsel of realism,’ she observes, ‘to look for the unforeseeable and unpredictable, to be prepared for and to expect ‘miracles’ [in the realm of human affairs]’ (170)” (160). Would at this point Kiess venture past what he sometimes refers to as Arendt’s immanentism and advance Arendt’s notion of natality toward a conception that envisions human action qua creaturely action as having to do with God and the way God has made the world? Rather than go the way of those who, as he describes, “dismiss miracles in the realm of nature as superstition,” might John describe the realm of nature as the site of God’s miraculous activity? He seems to hint at this, and I wonder if he intends it, or whether I am just wanting him to, especially as I see this as one of the big forward edges of Christian theology, the ability to engage and theologically describe discovered features of natural life (e.g., human action, but many other things besides, including discoveries that force us to reformulate what we believe about humans). Given all that I already like about the book, maybe asking for this in addition just makes me a beggar and a chooser. Or maybe not.

  • John Kiess

    John Kiess

    Reply

    Response to Jonathan Tran

    I am grateful to Jonathan Tran for his generous and thoughtful response to the book. His summary captures much of the spirit of the project, and I learned a great deal from his description of the kind of objectives that he thinks should animate works in this genre. I’m also grateful for the careful attention he brings to my discussion of Charles Mathewes’s critique of Arendt’s theory of action, and for his invitation to say more about my response to this critique and the broader theological implications of this discussion.

    In his summary, Tran notes the book’s commitment to “allowing [Arendt] her own integrity of thought,” and I’d like to underscore this feature of the book before venturing further. This project grew out of my own difficulty trying to sort out the integrity of Arendt’s thought from the various conflicting appropriations and criticisms her work has generated in Christian theology. Claimed and rejected by Augustinians, cited by realists and pacifists alike, it was not clear to me what tied the various strands of her thinking together. The book is my attempt to put a fuller picture of Arendt on the table, with a view not only to better appreciating where she stood on contested questions, but bringing into sharper focus the deeper logic of her thinking.

    As Tran observes, one consequence of focusing upon the deeper logic of her thinking is that it makes theology “do work” in ways it couldn’t otherwise. It is easy to find parts of Arendt’s work that confirm any number of existing theological ideas or positions; as I note in the chapter on evil, Augustinian theologians have identified parallels between Arendt’s account of the banality of evil and Augustine’s account of evil as the privation of the good. But if we come away from Arendt’s thought merely with the impression that she confirms traditional theological outlooks, we miss something fundamental about her thought.1 Whatever parallels exist between Arendt and Augustine on evil, Arendt understood herself to be reflecting upon a kind of evil that broke the thread of tradition. She did not see herself thinking within any tradition, but on the other side of the breakdown of tradition. One cannot engage her views on evil or any other topic without wrestling with the deeper methodological commitments informing those views.

    As Tran notes, I don’t think acknowledging this cuts off conversation between Arendt and Christian theology. On the contrary, part of wrestling with the deeper logic of Arendt’s thinking entails recognizing what it demands from readers. Arendt, as I attempt to portray her in the book, was a public philosopher, someone whose thinking arose out of the wonder and horror generated by the events through which she lived. Her thought remained bound to incidents of lived experience as its primary compass, as she endeavored to inhabit “the gap between past and future” and “think what we are doing.” As Arendt repeatedly emphasized, the gap between past and future is unique to each one of us, something that cannot be passed down or inherited. Each of us must inhabit it for ourselves. This is why she often characterizes her essays as “exercises in how to think,” and was determined to find modes of writing that could effectively witness to the space she ultimately wanted readers to step into themselves. Arendt did not want disciples. She did not want readers to think like her. She wanted to teach them how to think.

    This means Arendt invites us to do more than exposit her positions. We are invited to think with her. And we are invited to think against her. We are invited to receive her criticisms, test her claims, reevaluate our assumptions, rearticulate our positions, in short, to enter into a dialogue with her, not with a view of developing Arendt’s thinking or to make Arendt say new things or to make Arendt’s positions more adaptable for theology, but to embrace Arendt’s challenge to make our own thinking more responsive to the world around us.

    I recognize that a book with these kinds of aims does not always make it easy to tell when I am expositing a position I attribute to Arendt and when I am trying to develop a thought that was provoked by my dialogue with Arendt but is not attributable to her. Tran’s response helps me appreciate how my discussion of Mathewes’s critique of Arendt may be one such occasion, so I am grateful for his invitation to say more.

    On the matter of Mathewes’s first and second critique, I think Tran and I may be reading Mathewes differently. As Tran is aware, Mathewes himself does not distinguish between a first and second critique. Instead, he advances a single charge: that Arendt’s theory of action is “Pelagian.” By Pelagian, Mathewes means different things. For most of his discussion, he has in mind any sort of voluntarism that minimizes or removes limits upon human action. Accordingly, I concentrate most of my attention at this level, the level I believe Tran has in mind when he refers to Mathewes’s “first critique.” There are places, however, where Mathewes does appear to have something else in mind, something closer to the views associated with the actual historical phenomenon of Pelagianism. At the end of the passage that Tran quotes, Mathewes again presses the Pelagian charge, saying that Arendt “effectively Pelagianizes Augustine.” I proceed to examine if this is actually what Arendt is doing, taking seriously the terms in which Mathewes frames the charge. Recalling that Pelagianism was an extreme form of moral perfectionism that attributed to human beings the power to achieve perfect righteousness without the grace of God, I conclude that Arendt can hardly be accused of this. By natality, she had in mind a more modest set of actions, actions that I think Augustine himself would have seen as within the power of any human being, even if he thought such actions were ultimately tainted by self-love. I mention Aquinas only to remind us that he did not think such actions were always so tainted. No one accuses him of Pelagianism; I don’t think we should accuse Arendt of the same.

    It’s possible that I have misread Mathewes. Perhaps he does intend to charge Arendt with leaving God out of the list of things that determine human action. But that would not be to charge her with Pelagianism. That would not even be to charge her with semi-Pelagianism. It would be to charge her with something like being insufficiently theistic. If that is the case, I confess that I find it a strange charge to level at a philosopher. Do we read the philosophers for their insights on God? I suppose we can, but I’m not sure what is gained if we raise this as an expectation of all philosophers. Arendt herself worked with a healthy sense of the limits of philosophy, content to leave most such questions to the theologians. Her reflections on the elusiveness of human nature in The Human Condition, and her description of the difference between theology and philosophy in her correspondence with Karl Jaspers, are instructive in this regard.2 She does not so much eliminate God as a determinant for human action as say it’s not something that a philosopher could determine one way or the other. That seems right to me.

    Tran is right that I hint at the possibility of a relationship between grace and action at the end of the chapter on natality. I would hasten to say that at this point in the chapter, I am no longer expositing a position I attribute to Arendt, nor am I trying to defend her against Mathewes. I am trying to do a little thinking of my own, following up on an insight that Arendt attributes to Augustine. Tran quotes Arendt’s summary of this insight towards the end of his response, where she suggests that for Augustine, the birth of individual human beings reaffirms the original character of creation as a new beginning. Whether or not it is an insight Augustine actually espoused is not my primary concern at this stage; as I put it in the book, his creation theology may have simply contained more riches than he knew. The particularly suggestive possibility for me is that if one accepts that each human being is ontologically new, and one locates the source of this newness in our being created, then creation itself provides the ground for a great deal of newness in the world. When we experience the arrival of a newcomer as a blessing, when we find our life together enriched by the unexpected gifts that such newcomers bring and which none of us did anything to deserve, it makes sense to speak of this arrival as a kind of grace.

    Now, whether this amounts to a “natural theology of action” I’m not so sure. I suppose I’ve read too much Barth to overcome my wariness about venturing too far down the path of natural theology (although Barth does give us his intriguing concept of the “lights of creation,” which may be relevant in this case, more relevant perhaps than his more well-known concept of “parables of the kingdom”). The language of creation being “graced for human action” comes closer to capturing the idea, and if I use the phrase going forward, it will only deepen the debt I have already accumulated to Jonathan Tran for engaging the book with such thought and generosity.


    1. Dana R. Villa makes a similar observation in response to Aristotelian readings of Arendt. See Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 3–14, as well as his introduction to Politics, Philosophy, Terror (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), cited by Kiess, p. 10.

    2. See The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), 10–11n2. For her exchange with Jaspers on the differences between theology and philosophy, see Hannah Arendt Karl Jaspers: Correspondence 1926–1969, ed. Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1992), 221–22.

Esther Reed

Response

Reed’s Commentary on Kiess

“She is the intellectual companion who challenges us not to be content merely to repeat what our predecessors have said but to do the thinking that our predecessors now demand of us” (8). John Kiess thus concludes his introduction to Hannah Arendt and Theology. The book engages Arendt as public philosopher for whom thinking has the power to condition us against evil, to play a gadfly role with respect to all established criteria, values and measures, and to direct how we befriend fellow citizens whilst together tending our world. Weaving biographical and contextual factors into the weft and warp of every chapter, this book puts the lie to any who suppose an unproductive opposition between Arendt and theology.

The main suggestion that I take from John Kiess is that Arendt’s work on thinking remains one of the most suggestive, if still largely unexplored, areas of her thought (212), and that Augustinian practices of meditation inform her contemplation. We find in Arendt, says Kiess, someone “profoundly invested in healing divides between theory and practice . . . a voice that is eminently public and engaged” (8). A theme runs throughout, namely, what is entailed for Arendt in thinking and its absence, thoughtlessness. “No man can keep his conscience intact,” Kiess cites, “who cannot actualize the dialogue with himself, that is, who lacks the solitude required for all forms of thinking” (204, citing LMT, 25). Kiess’s concluding foci in “In the Region of the Spirit: Thinking between Past and Future” include the spirit of wonder that opens the self to nature, and how Arendt seeks to extend this wonder to the realm of human affairs, notably with respect to plurality amongst humankind. Thinking, for Arendt, says Kiess, can unfreeze our minds from all established criteria, values, measurements of good and evil, etc. (203), and is necessary for a well-functioning political community. Kiess’s portrayal of Arendt is as public philosopher for whom thinking frees us to judge, which then frees us to act (41).

But how for the Christian ethicist and political theologian is Arendt a public philosopher for whom thinking frees us to judge, which then frees us to act (41)? In a book called Hannah Arendt and Theology, my question is how to engage with Kiess’s portrayal of Arendt as public philosopher for whom thinking frees us to judge, which then frees us to act (41, emphasis added)—when 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.

As Kiess reminds us, Arendt cites Tertullian more than once:

Nec ulla magis res aliena quam publica—“no matter is more alien to us than what matters publicly.”1

Early Christianity refused to become associated with the public affairs of Rome, she says, because rival gods were operative, and because of expectations of the eschaton. Early Christianity took a step back from practical, political concern for the world. Kiess mentions behavior does not labour Arendt’s repeated statements about Christian morality, from earliest times, urging everyone to mind their own business whilst regarding political responsibility as a burden to be shouldered by some to ensure the well-being of the people.2 Jesus’ exemplifying of goodness was that it should be hidden from the world:

A community of people that seriously believes that all human affairs should be managed according to goodness; that is therefore not afraid at least to attempt to love its enemies and repay evil with good; that, in other words considers the ideal of holiness to be its standard of behavior, not only to save their individual souls by turning away from mankind, but also to manage human affairs—such a community has no choice but to retreat from the public arena and avoid its spotlight.3

As Kiess is aware, Arendt does not perceive early Christianity as turning away altogether from the realm of human, political affairs but is alert to the charge of hypocrisy that will inevitably fall against a community that strives for holiness. The Christian focus on privacy and the inner life, the call to love neighbor does not lend itself to public observance. While, for Augustine, a few might be called to honorable public service and the ordering of human affairs, the main concerns of Christian life unfold amongst the society of the faithful. For Arendt, the Christian message was always ambiguous with respect to politics and its followers poised to flee into seclusion where the life of love can at least be attempted meaningfully. In the Augustinian tradition, political responsibility is envisaged in patriarchal terms as analogous to the head of a household providing for the welfare of those in his care:

Obviously, this kind of responsibility resembles the responsibility of the household head for his family more than political responsibility, properly speaking. The Christian precept to mind one’s own business is derived from I Thess. 4:11 “that ye study to be quiet and do your own business” (prattein ta idia, whereby ta idia is understood as opposed to ta koina [“public common affairs”]).4

The Reformation, she says, represents a success in removing everything connected with public affairs from the appearance and display of churches, turning churches into places of assembly for seclusion, and was itself a preparation for the secularization of public life that followed in its wake.5

How, then, is the theologian to read Arendt as public philosopher for whom thinking frees a person to judge, which then frees them to act (41)? Kiess’s reminder is that, for Arendt, “our very ability to remain political actors depended upon our willingness to continue to think” (190). Do not Arendt’s observations about the patriarchy, individualism, apoliticism, and focus on the private of Christianity preclude this? What options does Kiess find for the theologian to serve the good functioning of the polis? Kiess’s book has no chapter on responsibility, and relatively few sections on thinking the political, the relationship between ethics and politics, theory and practice, plurality, human rights, empowerment and freedom, and so on. The one subheading in this area, “Political Freedom and the Limits of Action,” is about action as an ongoing relationship of the thinker with “‘who’ we are” (168), becoming what we are, beginning something new, and as antidote to the tyranny of thoughtless know-how (176). Can we, then, put the “and” in Kiess’s title to work with respect to the meaning and practice of responsibility?

Three answers emerge from Arendt and Theology and I propose to add two more.

The first is Kiess’s reminder in the final pages of the book that Arendt deems Augustine to be one of the most astute observers of the representational nature of thought that facilitates healing between theory and practice (205). Augustine’s account of “vision in thought” (206) explains how the person who thinks is at least two steps removed from the immediacy of the world and its objects of sense, which creates space for the work of imagination to increase, diminish, alter and put together differently. “It is this distance” for Arendt, says Kiess, “that gives thinking its character of being ‘out-of-order,’ not entirely in step with common sense, which is what enables it to disrupt our established routines and open up the possibility of critical distance” (206). This mode of thinking yields the power “to make present what is absent, to summon individuals or places from across vast distances . . . to move from this deed to Justice, from a courageous person to Courage” (207). Future and past operate as active forces weighing upon the ego in the present, or the question of “the Now” (208). Arendt uses a range of theological metaphors to describe this kind of thinking, including Augustine’s notion of hodiernus or “lasting ‘todayness’” that distinguishes God’s eternity from human temporality and allows expressions of the three tenses of time to be co-present in the mind that thinks (209). She learned this representational thinking at least in part from Christian tradition and so can, perhaps give back the gift to Christian theology again.

The second answer is Kiess’s recalling of Arendt’s notion of natality and how, in the process of thinking, ontological newness manifests itself “as the unique point at which past and future meet” (210). This too is a phenomenon available as much to the theologian as to anyone else. The mind’s dis-ease and irritation about the present opens a space into which the new may be born. Again, Kiess shows that Arendt draws upon Christianity when giving voice to this miracle that saves the world (138, citing HC, 247). He further shows how Arendt is mindful of Augustine’s reflections upon every moment of the human’s life being present in God when explicating her own account of willing and wonder (216). Kiess’s Arendt appreciates how prayer, and the particular kind of dialogical thinking that it entails, is the kind of activity from which newness can emerge.

The third answer is a greater challenge for some aspects of Christian tradition today. Here there is more friction. But it is a point that she makes well and needs to be heeded. Arendt locates responsibility beyond the personal life of individuals in the public realm. Neither freedom nor responsibility is reducible to an attribute of thought, quality of the will, or property of the soul but demand public space to make their appearance. Critical of early Christian suspicion of and hostility against the public realm as such,6 Arendt expounds the interdependence of freedom, responsibility, and politics. Witness her writings on education, authority and personal responsibility under dictatorship. Responsibility for children is inseparable from a wider sense of responsibility for the world.

Anyone who refuses to assume joint responsibility for the world should not have children and must not be allowed to take part in educating them.7

Responsibility must be understood in political terms if to mean anything in individual, personal terms. Individuals support governments unless they take a stand against their policies and actions. Even under dictatorship, it is not enough to claim obedience to orders.

These three answers emerge clearly from Kiess’s book but two further points might be ventured.

First, Arendt problematizes traditional, Western philosophical emphases on freedom as a phenomenon of the will, with its focus on both inner motivations and outer influences that can cause a person to act in a particular way, and shifts attention toward the freedom to act. In her 1961 essay “What Is Freedom?” Arendt writes:

In its simplest form, the difficulty may be summed up as the contradiction between our consciousness and conscience, telling us that we are free and hence responsible, and our everyday experience in the outer world, in which we orient ourselves according to the principle of causality.8

Freedom, as commonly understood in Western philosophical and theological traditions, is a mirage. Each of us is subject to a host of forces and motivations that are hidden to onlookers and to ourselves, but that bear upon our actions. Responsibility cannot be thought apart from the realization that mere attention to human motives is inadequate to access the truth of agency. Merely the will to freedom does not effect freedom. Freedom is not an attribute of thought or quality of the will but, rather, something relational and demanding the company of other people.9 In contrast to the social theories of the modern world in which the will to act is primary, Arendt’s claim is that freedom is not predominantly intercourse with oneself, whether as a quasi-Socratic inner dialogue of the mind, Pauline-Augustinian reflection of heart and soul, or Nietzschean will-to-power.

Second, Arendt employs the concept of vicariousness when describing the responsibility that citizens bear for acts they have not themselves committed:

This vicarious responsibility for things we have not done, this taking upon ourselves the consequences for things we are entirely innocent of, is the price we pay for the fact that we live our lives not by ourselves but . . . in one of the many and manifold forms of human community.10

Familiar to Jewish and Christian traditions, Arendt’s insistence that the person who lives publicly in community is never excused their part in the collective responsibility of that community is clear. Responsibility is exercised in the public arena, if only by refusing to support the exploitation of others and having the courage to accept whatever follows from taking a stand because one simply cannot support the continuance of evil. The individual reaches a point of saying “This I can’t do” rather than “This I ought not to do.”11 Only the former is likely to result in this individual’s holding of a moral line. To fail to accept this responsibility whether from sheer thoughtlessness, fear, or a sense of powerlessness is, says Arendt, to despair and live in impotence. Arendt has a knack, as Kiess implies, for “calling theology back to its true self” (221). This is especially true, I suggest, in connection with vicarious responsibility.

If developed along these lines, Christian thinking with Arendt about theology and responsibility would resonate with curious similarity to writings by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (born in the same year as Arendt). Such a line of thought would understand responsibility in political terms as for the tending, care and protection of our planet, and be mindful of “the strange interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil.”12 Such an understanding of responsibility—if lived ecclesially in our societies—would show Arendt’s critique of Christianity to be outdated and no longer applicable. Her complaints against Christianity as apolitical would be overcome in the living. But my fear is that Arendt’s critique of Christianity might still be correct. Thoughtlessness in the church as elsewhere remains one of the most pressing threats of our time. John’s book renews the challenge of Hannah Arendt, theology and responsibility, however, and for this I am grateful.


  1. Tertullian, Apologeticus, 38, cited by Arendt, “Collective Responsibility,” in Responsibility and Judgment (New York: Schocken, 2003), 152; see also Arendt, The Promise of Politics (New York: Schocken, 2005), 84 and 136.

  2. Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 60.

  3. Arendt, Promise of Politics, 137.

  4. Arendt, Human Condition, 60.

  5. Arendt, Promise of Politics, 140.

  6. Arendt, “What Is Freedom?,” in Between Past and Future (Penguin Classics, 1968), 149.

  7. Arendt, “Crisis in Education,” 186.

  8. Arendt, “What Is Freedom?,” 142.

  9. Ibid., 147.

  10. Arendt, “Collective Responsibility,” 157–58.

  11. Arendt, “Some Questions of Moral Philosophy,” 78.

  12. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, 288.

  • John Kiess

    John Kiess

    Reply

    Response to Esther Reed

    My thanks to Professor Reed for her stimulating engagement with the book. She raises a central question that any theological reader of Arendt’s work must confront: namely, how one can accept Arendt’s challenge to assume the burdens of thinking and acting when, as Reed puts it well, “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.” Professor Reed generously identifies three points in my book that speak to this concern, and adds two points of her own. I particularly appreciate her appeal to Arendt’s notion of vicarious responsibility, the timeliness of which has only grown in the years since Arendt first articulated it.

    Let me begin by affirming that if theological engagement with Arendt were limited to the terms in which she portrays the Christian tradition, there would be little hope of Christians practicing the kind of political responsibility she envisions. Arendt’s reputation as a critic of Christianity is well known, and nearly every part of her work is informed by some attempt to avoid mistakes and pathologies she associates with dominant patterns of Christian thought and practice. As I detail in the book, this is most clearly the case in her writings on worldliness and citizenship (see ch. 3, esp. 106–12), but it can also be witnessed in her work on evil (see ch. 2) and thinking (see ch. 5), among the other areas Professor Reed mentions.

    Arendt, of course, was more than a critic of Christianity. She was also a pearl diver whose creative retrieval of resources neglected or marginalized by the Western political tradition included theological thinkers and concepts. This is what makes reading Arendt at once so bewildering and fascinating. Rarely does she completely dismiss a thinker whom she critiques, and one finds her routinely appealing to the foundational experiences and primary sources that she thinks various traditions have alienated us from. Thus alongside Arendt’s doubt that the Christian tradition has room for the kind of political responsibility she espouses comes the acknowledgment of alternative paths, countervailing tendencies, and forgotten possibilities. Professor Reed mentions some examples that come up in the book: Augustine on the nature of representational thinking and the ontological newness of each new human being; the nunc stans of medieval meditation; and the dialogical quality of prayer. One could mention others: Arendt’s discussion of Jesus and forgiveness or the worldly significance of religious art and architecture. These are moments where I do indeed think Arendt has gifts to give back to theology.

    Still, there remains the sweeping scope of Arendt’s critique of Christianity. It has not gone unnoticed or uncontested by Christian theologians. As I discuss in the book, theologians come to her work eager to vindicate particular thinkers or ideas against her critique, pointing to places in the tradition where they believe Arendt painted with too broad a brush, and putting forward stronger versions of the positions she criticizes. These responses have much to teach, but they are often ventured in the same polemical spirit as Arendt’s criticisms, intended primarily to shift the critical burden to her. For me, this misses the opportunity to explore how such reconstructed versions of Christian thought might motivate the kind of worldly citizenship that Arendt enjoins, opening more possibilities for democratic alliance and partnership than either side considers. It also misses the opportunity to do the creative thinking that Arendt’s work demands, particularly in those areas where she identifies genuine conceptual gaps and political phenomena that require new forms of understanding and judgment.

    Arendt’s thinking on freedom and responsibility is a case in point. I find Professor Reed’s summary of the way Arendt unsettles the largely individual, personal, and private terms in which most Christian thinkers conceive these concepts just right. These are points I attempt to highlight myself in my discussion of Arendt’s understanding of political freedom (see 170–73). In further support of what Reed proposes, let me point to two additional areas of the book where responsibility emerges as a key theme, and then say a word about how these points might help us heed Arendt’s insights on vicarious responsibility.

    One is the discussion of Arendt’s portrait of Adolf Eichmann in chapter 2. For Arendt, Eichmann poses the problem of responsibility in the modern age, just to the extent that he renders transparent the way bureaucratic actors increasingly avoid responsibility through thoughtless deference to reigning legal, moral, or ideological conventions. Arendt recognizes that insisting upon greater accountability means that we must look for alternative sources of responsibility. Dialogical thinking and self-examination emerge as keynotes in her work because they lie at the heart of the questioning spirit that finds the courage to take a stand when others are content to conform. Arendt notes that Eichmann’s thoughtlessness is manifest most tellingly in the failure of his imagination, particularly in his failure to imagine himself in the place of another. As Arendt insists, it is the imagination that helps us envision meaningful forms of solidarity beyond the narrow boundaries our society has set for it.

    This connects to another important dimension of Arendt’s thinking on responsibility, her notion of amor mundi, or love for the world. As I detail in chapter 3, amor mundi is the civic virtue that Arendt regards as indispensible for preserving the deeper material conditions that sustain democratic life. For Arendt, responsibility is exercised not just in active political resistance, but also when we tend the world in more ordinary, everyday ways. In a passage that speaks with particular power to those of us who are educators, Arendt writes, “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable” (quoted on p. 119). Arendt’s notion of responsibility is not cold or devoid of passion, as some of her critics allege, but motivated by an authentic love rooted in concrete practices of care. I think this attentiveness to the deeper conditions of politics helps bring a needed material dimension to theological discussions of responsibility.

    I find especially helpful Professor Reed’s appeal to vicarious responsibility. It is a concept that has a particular timeliness for those of us thinking and writing in the United States at the present moment. As Reed mentions, vicarious responsibility for Arendt has to do with things one has not done oneself. Arendt distinguishes it from personal guilt, which is connected to the actual performance of wrongdoing and adjudicated in a court of law. Vicarious or collective responsibility is political, a consequence of our membership in political communities and our association with things done in our name. Vicarious responsibility is especially relevant with regard to those broader legacies and systemic injustices that were set in motion before our appearance in the world. Its burden is captured in those lines of Hamlet that Arendt liked to quote: “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite / That I was ever born to set it right.”

    In the American context, this concept speaks with particular power to the abiding legacy of slavery and racial injustice. It suggests that professions of innocence regarding past injustice are irrelevant to the question of assuming responsibility for setting things right. Reparations for slavery, Jim Crow segregation, housing discrimination, and other forms of racial injustice is a question that has been renewed by the recent work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, and is one place ripe for thinking about vicarious responsibility. So too are the recent controversies over Confederate memorials.

    In the latter case, Arendt’s wedding of responsibility with worldliness offers particularly valuable insight. The debate over memorials concerns not just how we remember the past, but the shape of the world we will share in common, understood in the material terms of the enduring human artifice that forms the backdrop to our life together. At stake is whether our material world will in fact be common to all. Confederate memorials, most of which were erected during a period that sought to revitalize ideologies of white supremacy and reinforce segregation, give material shape to racial ideology; they allow race to define how we experience place. To the degree that these memorials continue to define our lived sense of place, they marginalize some citizens from experiencing the world as common, perpetuating the very injustices they memorialize. Arendt’s link between vicarious responsibility and worldliness suggests we take responsibility for addressing the injustices of the past in part by how we define common space in the present. Judgments about Confederate memorials incite such powerful passions because they define the shape of our common world. That is why making judgments about them matters so much.

    As I mention in the book, Arendt appreciated how cathedrals, as forms of religious architecture built not for our own needs but for the glory of God, shape part of this enduring world (see 126–27). That the debate about Confederate memorials extends to cathedrals themselves, most notably the Lee and Jackson windows at the National Cathedral, is an illustration of this point, revealing one more way that ecclesial judgments are also political judgments. We can assume vicarious responsibility for the world in the very way we make ecclesial space more hospitable to the demands of justice.

    Finally, I agree with Professor Reed that such a vision of responsibility resonates deeply with the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In a March 1, 1964, letter to Arendt, Karl Jaspers mentions Bonhoeffer as someone she should consider investigating further.1 To my knowledge, she never had the opportunity to follow up, but as I mention at the end of chapter 3, there is a strong affinity between Arendt’s vision of amor mundi and Bonhoeffer’s notion of this-worldliness (130). Professor Reed is right to suggest that Bonhoeffer’s sense of responsibility was “mindful of the ‘strange interdependence of thoughtlessness and evil.’” Like Arendt, he did not have much confidence in the capacity of rule-based ethical approaches to motivate sufficient moral strength to resist Nazi evil. He believed acting responsibly required thinking anew, which took the form of his own kind of “thinking without bannisters” that considered what the Word of God may be calling citizens to do in unprecedented times. Arendt notes that even in dark times, we can expect some illumination from the words and deeds of men and women who have the courage to resist. Arendt and Bonhoeffer give us light by which to think about how each of us can act responsibly in the dark times in which we live.


    1. See Hannah Arendt Karl Jaspers: Correspondence 1926–1969, ed. Lotte Kohler and Hans Saner (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1992), 547.

Celia Paris

Response

Pearls for a Shared World

It feels a bit strange to be publicly joining this conversation, as my familiarity with Arendt is partial at best and my familiarity with theology as a discipline is even more minimal. Despite this, when John Kiess first mentioned his book to me, I was immediately drawn to it. As a scholar of American politics and public opinion, with a deep interest in political theory, I’ve known for years that I would be the richer for spending time wrestling with Arendt’s thoughts on democracy.

In the rare moments when I’ve been able to carve out a little time for Arendt—reading half of On Revolution in grad school, perusing sections of Origins on Totalitarianism, delving into the first hundred pages of The Human Condition while on the beach one summer—the experience has felt rewarding, but I’ve never been sure exactly what to take away from it. Additionally, as a progressive Catholic, I’ve yearned to better understand the theological resources within Christianity for developing responses to the marginalization and alienation that so many experience in society today.

Add to these two motivations the challenges of the current political context—the risks inherent in Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency and the threatening racist and xenophobic energies unleashed by it—and you may begin to see why I in fact desperately wanted to read this book as soon as John asked me, and have read it twice through since. The political questions that haunt us these days seem to demand that we reencounter and reengage with much of what we thought we knew about democracy, modernity, inclusion, and morality, and Hannah Arendt and Theology is ideally suited to help us do just that.

While Arendt may liken her method to pearl diving, here we have a veritable farm of pearls shimmering just below the surface. John brings these pearls closer to our reach and carefully illuminates a few of the brightest. Hannah Arendt and Theology offers a remarkably clear and thought-provoking discussion of Arendt’s thought in four key areas: the problem of evil, the profound importance of worldly belonging, the concept of natality (the human capacity to make new beginnings), and the nature of thinking.

For me, the most powerful lesson of this book has to do with the deep challenges to worldly belonging and the ways that Christian churches can orient and channel responses to those challenges. Other key insights that shone through pertain to the underappreciated power of what Arendt calls “the fearful imagination,” the intrinsic value of political action, and the particular kind of thinking that we strive to promote in college classrooms. Let me take each of these in turn.

As I read John’s analysis, Arendt seems to offer us a deeply needed language for thinking through problems related to worldly belonging and alienation. This is apparent first in her analysis of the problems of statelessness and lacking citizenship. The “paradoxical nature of human rights” means that in the absence of a citizenship claim on a state, many refugees are in a sense denied “the right to have rights,” as “there is no framework in which these rights are binding and no one who feels obligated to enforce them” (Kiess, in part quoting Arendt, 23).

This insight can be directly applied to the deepening refugee crises in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa today, but this part of Arendt’s thought also bring to my mind the related challenges we face when the rights of some are overlooked or rejected by the very institutions expected to enforce those rights, as in the case of African Americans shot by police or the victims of extrajudicial killings under Duterte’s rule in the Philippines.

I found it especially interesting that for Arendt, the problem of citizenship is only one facet of the broader problem of worldly belonging. As she writes, “What makes mass society so difficult to bear is not the number of people involved . . . but the fact that the world between them has lost its power to gather them together, to relate and to separate them” (Human Condition, as quoted in Kiess, 104). Challenges to worldly belonging thus include not only the disintegration of previous forms of social capital and the turnover and disposability enforced by consumer society, but also the clear risk that we may become habituated to non-worldliness through the many distractions available through the Internet, including social media and ever-proliferating entertainment media.

Through this lens, crises that previously appeared barely related—the refugee crisis, police killings of civilians, the opioid epidemic, and the rise in death rates among middle-aged whites in the United States—now seem to be at root deeply linked. Human beings suffer in myriad ways in the absence of worldly belonging. The essential protections of citizenship, the tangible assurance of an enduring material world, the ease and trust that comes with sustained communal relationships—these not only protect us and beat back loneliness, but motivate us to provide “the ongoing care that the world requires that it is to last” (97).1

On the question of how precisely we can motivate this care, Kiess affirms critiques made by several theologians of Arendt’s rejection of Augustinian love. Because “the love of God plays a mediating role between self, others, and world” by promoting a certain kind of “neighbor-love,” Arendt’s failure to appreciate this role means that she “excludes the very motivational dispositions that are required to fund her commitment to the public world” (115).

As Kiess argues, such motivational commitments are indispensable given the scope and nature of the difficulties we face. The kind of worldly belonging we require is not only not self-sustaining but is also undermined in various ways by institutional injustice, global capitalism, inequality, and consumerism. As such, it is an uphill battle to fight “the varieties of worldlessness that can exist within modern society—unemployed workers, pariah peoples, and the growing alienation of most citizens from public life in general” (123). It is precisely because the challenges are so overwhelming that the contributions of Christianity are so needed. Arendt’s writings on amor mundi, worldly belonging, and plurality suggest a “vision of political community that is inherently open to the arrival of strangers and newcomers” (123), and this vision aligns with and draws strength from the call of the Gospels.

Kiess offers a few inspiring examples of how our churches can “contribute to the civic task of world-building” (126), pointing to the physical space of cathedrals, the configuration of inclusive worship practices, the Sanctuary movement, and the work done in coalition with community organizations like the Industrial Areas Foundation and the Christian Community Development Association. However, the question of “who is denied a place in the world today” (129) pushes us to look more broadly at barriers that constrict the role of Christian churches in inclusive world-building.

First, there are the institutional impediments—many churches are subject to the same social patterns that undermine belonging in society, including racial segregation, consumerism, and habituation to non-worldliness. Then, there are the theological complexities—including the resistance in some denominations to seriously grappling with certain forms of human plurality, including plurality in sexual orientation and gender identity. Just as “Arendt’s work can teach us how the resources of the Augustinian tradition can be fruitfully developed and extended to meet these new challenges” (77), so too can this book inspire us to dig deeper to faithfully develop and extend the resources of the Christian tradition to welcome and fully include all in the life of the church, especially refugees, immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ+ people.

In addition to these institutional and theological factors, there are also psychological factors inhibiting how we respond to injustice. In our increasingly networked, interconnected, and globalized world, we have more access than ever to information about the many evils threatening human life all over the globe, including state oppression, ethnic cleansing, torture, and genocide. And yet, rarely does it seem that this increased access to information leads to more action in defense of those who are threatened. Kiess shows us that Arendt’s psychological insights can help guide us here. He writes, “For Arendt, it is the imagination that allows us to entertain new solidarities beyond the boundaries that regulate our affections, and the fearful imagination that enables us to do so beyond the specific disciplines that regulate our horror” (83–84).

Pointing to the role of the imagination is a critical contribution. Often when discussing political psychology, we talk about the role of emotions, motivations, and moral judgments in provoking action, but without recognizing the role that imagination plays in generating, binding, and giving life to these components of ethical engagement. A greater awareness of the power of imagination encourages us to pay more attention to richly textured narratives, whether in the form of fiction or nonfiction, audiovisual or the written word, that can draw in readers and viewers and guide them toward grappling meaningfully with the world’s many injustices. This raises the question: what models can we find for communication strategies, literary works, and dialogical interactions that effectively trigger the fearful imagination?

When it comes to confronting injustice through political action, Arendt has lessons for us as well. Political action in an Arendtian sense has “revelatory power” as citizens are revealed to one another through their actions in the public sphere (158). Kiess points out that “for Arendt, this means that action may realize its internal end even if its various external aims (say, bringing about a political reform) are not successful” (158).

This emphasis on the intrinsic significance of political action seems right, but may not be widely appreciated by many who seek to participate in the political realm. What would a corresponding political psychology look like? That is, what sorts of beliefs and attitudes do people need to hold in order for the internal goods of action to be made manifest? Would a broader appreciation of the internal end(s) of action help minimize cynicism and burnout? What lessons might this hold for, say, the various resistance movements that have sprung up in reaction to Trump administration policies?

Finally, regarding my own academic specialty, I found that Kiess’s discussion of Arendt’s theory of thinking helps remind us of a crucial element in political science education: we do not just want our students to learn facts about the world, or develop a new conceptual vocabulary, or master a body of literature, or become adept at inductive and deductive reasoning. We want to teach our students to think deeply and seriously about the political world.

Kiess, drawing on Arendt’s discussion of Socrates, emphasizes “thinking’s role in interrupting our established routines and questioning our unexamined judgments, loosening the hold of reified concepts and getting our minds moving again” (200). With the novelty that humans constantly bring into the political realm, our minds must be moving, stretching, straining, and turning over again and again to keep up. This is a wonderful fleshing out of the much-vaunted “critical thinking” that we hear so much about. Social science is perhaps more commonly associated with “the more instrumental activity of knowledge production” (200), but ultimately our deeper and more essential contribution may be in what we do to equip our students to regularly engage in the “sheer activity” of thinking (201).

Now more than ever in American politics, we are called upon to truly think about our political and social world, to move outside our established routines, to uncover our unquestioned assumptions, to push and prod our intuitions, to speak and listen and build and act together, and to “think what we are doing” (Arendt as quoted by Kiess, 189). This book is an immensely valuable spur to all of the above.


  1. Parenthetical references are to John Kiess, Hannah Arendt and Theology (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

  • John Kiess

    John Kiess

    Reply

    Response to Celia Paris

    Hannah Arendt read widely across the disciplines. In addition to being an expert in political philosophy and political theory, she demonstrated an unusual command of disciplines further afield, including international law, history, Jewish thought, literature, art, and, as we have seen, Christian theology, among other areas. None of us can keep up with her, which is why interdisciplinary conversation about Arendt is so important. We need each other’s vantage points to understand how she thought and in order to more fully grasp the implications of her work for our respective disciplines and the shared task of tending our common world.

    This is why I am grateful to Celia Paris for participating in this symposium and for so generously engaging the book. The richness of her response confirms the kind of fruit that interdisciplinary exchange about Arendt can yield. I am heartened that she thinks the book speaks to concerns shared across our respective fields of Christian theology and political science, and I appreciate her specific reflections in the four areas she identifies: worldly belonging, the relevance of the fearful imagination, the intrinsic value of political action, and the nature of thinking, particularly in the college classroom.

    As Paris notes, I think Arendt provides a needed vocabulary for thinking through the problems of worldly belonging and alienation. One advantage commending Arendt’s approach, as Paris observes, is that it allows us to see the linkages between crises that initially seem unrelated. Viewed through the lens of worldly belonging, the plight of refugees abroad is related to the consumerism, unemployment, racism, and marginalization of minorities at home. Paris shows how the point extends to further examples, including police killings of civilians, the opioid epidemic, and the rise of social media. As she notes, given the overwhelming nature of these challenges, I think the contributions of churches are more important than ever, despite Arendt’s doubts about the capacity of churches to play this role. Paris mentions some examples of church-based world-building that I provide in the book that I think effectively speak to Arendt’s concerns, but there are many other obstacles inhibiting the church that Arendt does not mention. Paris discusses some of the most formidable, including institutional complicity in societal patterns of exclusion and theological resistance to plurality. Any attempt to promote inclusive world-building will have to reckon with these obstacles, and Paris points to some insights from the book that might help us in this task.

    One is Arendt’s notion of the fearful imagination. Arendt is not often recognized for her insights into political psychology, but as Paris notes, she is an astute observer of the interconnection between the imagination, emotions, and moral responsibility. Information alone does not usher in change. Arendt teaches us that there are disciplinary holds upon our moral sensibilities which if not unloosened will numb us to the plight of others. She first came to an appreciation of the importance of the fearful imagination in her study of the concentration camps. As I discuss in the book, Arendt draws attention to the fact that the Nazis stripped Jews of their citizenship before deporting them to ghettos and camps, knowing that our sense of moral obligation powerfully correlates with our sense of who counts as a citizen, and more deeply, who counts as my neighbor. Arendt observes a similar dynamic among refugees and stateless people, and the phenomenon extends to a variety of groups within political communities, including those reduced to inferior status due to racial discrimination, segregation, a sense of economic superfluousness, and other forms of marginalization. For Arendt, it is the fearful imagination that allows us to entertain new solidarities beyond the disciplines that regulate our horror, reigniting our moral sensibilities and stirring us to act. At a time when renascent anti-Semitism, racism, heteronormativity, and Islamophobia attempt to close American minds to the claims of others, the fearful imagination remains urgently necessary, raising Paris’s essential question of what strategies might trigger this imagination.

    Arendt herself employed a variety of strategies, including thick historical description of political oppression, engagement with the morally-charged poetry of Brecht and Auden, and her absorbing accounts of political movements that imagined new bonds of affection across deep divisions. As she emphasizes in the latter case, the diversity of such movements is what allows their participants to see the common world from a variety of perspectives, deepening their identification with those denied a full place within it.

    This was brought home to me this past summer when, at the height of a historically high murder rate here in Baltimore, community activists organized a 72-hour ceasefire. “Nobody kill anybody” was their slogan. The ceasefire was daring on many levels, but it was not the success of the ceasefire that changed imaginations; it was how the organizers dealt with failure. About halfway into the ceasefire, a gang-related homicide was reported in the city. One of the organizers, Erricka Bridgeford, later recounted:

    At the time we were all at different places in the city, celebrating life. . . . It took the wind out of us, like it did when I found out my brother was killed, my step-son was killed, and my cousin was killed. You know, it was personal. . . . So we went there. They were still washing the sidewalk, and some of us sat down on the ground, purposely, and connected our bodies with the pavement, to pour light from our bodies into the ground where this horrible thing had just happened.

    Later, after a second homicide was reported, she reflects:

    On the way home, I was just devastated. I was broken . . . but we still felt something in the air, because we now dealt with murder differently, together, as a city. It wasn’t just like, “Oh, rest in peace, that’s so sad. Glad it wasn’t my son, cousin, brother, uncle, nephew.” It wasn’t that. It was everybody felt that two people lost their lives today. We lost two people today. You could feel that shift in the air. . . . We can say we’re not numb to the violence, but I must have been numb, because two weeks ago when I found out that people got killed, it didn’t make me feel this way. . . . There’s a name and a face and a family, and we’re having conversations about who that person was now.1

    This is the kind of dialogical interaction that I think helps trigger the fearful imagination and meaningfully challenge the psychological norms and disciplinary mechanisms that too narrowly circumscribe our horror.

    The example of the ceasefire also speaks to Paris’s other central question about what a political psychology that appreciates the intrinsic significance of political action might look like. Viewed through the lens of political instrumentality, the ceasefire was a failure. But viewed through the lens of the intrinsic goods of self-disclosure, it was revelatory. The ceasefire was about more than the absence of violence; it was a celebration of the ordinary things that make for peace. During the weekend, the organizers took to the streets with vigils, peace walks, and prayer circles. They hosted cookouts, basketball tournaments, neighborhood cleanups, and poetry readings. The ceasefire made visible the practices that most of us take for granted, and it powerfully demonstrated the role that each of us play in holding together the delicate fabric of our city. In this respect, I think it offers a helpful frame for understanding the intrinsic significance of the other resistance movements that have sprung up in recent years, from protests over Trump’s immigration policy to #MeToo, which render visible the deeper, rarely acknowledged conditions that underlie our society and the agency of those who will no longer be silenced.

    This brings us to the question of how we educate the next generation of citizens to appreciate these kinds of intrinsic goods and how we expand their moral sensibilities to include a commitment to building a more inclusive world. As Paris puts it well, Arendt’s understanding of thinking reminds us that a crucial element of political science education, and indeed, all education, is “to teach our students to think deeply and seriously about the political world.” In a previous response, I quoted from Arendt’s remarkable essay on education, where she writes, “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable” (quoted on p. 119). For Arendt, part of education entails initiating students into the world we share in common, and showing them that it is a world worth loving. It also entails teaching the next generation how to think critically about it, which as Arendt tirelessly emphasized, means learning to keep friendship with oneself and others, committing to maintaining an ongoing dialogue that questions, examines, imagines, loves, and begins again. I can think of no higher calling than to help our students learn to do this, and no more fitting way to honor Arendt and all that she gives us.


    1. “An Evening with Erricka Bridgeford and Ellen Gee, Co-founders of the Baltimore Ceasefire,” Loyola University Maryland, September 21, 2017.

Ted Smith

Response

Diving for Pearls

Hannah Arendt and Christian Theology

John Kiess has given those of us who try to think about Christian theology and ethics an important gift—and one that I, at least, did not know how much I needed. It is all the more valuable a gift for that. The most fruitful Christian theological engagements with Hannah Arendt in recent decades, I think, have come on the way to other projects. Arendt’s own work is not the subject matter of these books and essays. Her work is important rather because it helps illumine some issue or figure along the way to the real goal, which is thinking about Augustine, or church-based community organizing, or the nature of authority in contemporary life. I think this is a fine way to proceed. It’s the mode in which I have engaged Arendt myself when I have done so.

But reading or writing in this mode has often left me unsettled. We do Arendt a great injustice if we read her as a Christian theologian, as if she wanted to do the same thing that Christian theologians do. And yet Arendt writes not only on questions that migrate across many traditions—like the nature of evil, or the right shape of political life—but also (and quite a lot!) about figures and questions that are specific to Christian traditions. This is a great boon to those of us who identify with those Christian traditions. But what should we make of it? How should we receive it?

To answer that question we need to shift our focus, for a moment, to what Arendt herself is doing. To understand what to make of her project, we need to understand what that project is. And John Kiess has given us an essential resource for that task. Kiess’s book promises to offer a “comprehensive overview of her thought, surveying her major influences, the key political experiences that shaped her constructive outlook, the relationship between her various works, and the distinctive method that unites them” (3).1 It does all of this and more. And so it helps frame the question of how Christian theologians should engage her work.

Full Fathom Five

A good first toehold for thinking through these questions comes in Arendt’s introduction to Illuminations, the collection of Walter Benjamin’s essays that Arendt gathered together in 1968. Kiess’s book offers an excellent reading of this essay, and I have learned from it (see esp. 24–25). In the final section of the essay Arendt develops an extended metaphor that illumines what Benjamin was doing, how he worked, and why he worked in the way he did. The metaphor grows out of an epigraph that she takes from The Tempest:

Full fathom five thy father lies,

Of his bones are coral made,

Those are pearls that were his eyes.

Nothing of him doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.2

Shakespeare’s metaphor describes an ancestor, long dead, whose body lies deep beneath the sea. Long immersion and the pressures of the deep have transformed the body of this ancient parent. Bones have been changed into corals, eyes into pearls. There has been a “sea-change / into something rich and strange.” And Walter Benjamin, Arendt writes, is like a diver who goes down into the depths of history, finds the body given up for dead, and returns to the surface with pearls.

Arendt unpacks the metaphor like this: “Insofar as the past has been transmitted as tradition, it possesses authority; insofar as authority presents itself historically, it becomes tradition. Walter Benjamin knew that the break in tradition and the loss of authority which occurred in his lifetime were irreparable, and he concluded that he had to discover new ways of dealing with the past.”3 With modernity—and with the cataclysms and horrors of the twentieth century—has come a break with the past. Thinkers like Augustine are not accessible to us as they might have been to past generations. They have been covered over with history.

Arendt continues:

In this [Benjamin] became a master when he discovered that the transmissibility of the past had been replaced by its citability and that in place of its authority there had arisen a strange power to settle down, piecemeal, in the present and to deprive it of “peace of mind,” the mindless peace of complacency. “Quotations in my works are like robbers by the roadside who make an armed attack and relieve an idler of his convictions.”4

The transmissibility of the past has been replaced by its citability. And the authority of the past has been replaced by its ability to disrupt our ways of thinking and unsettle settled minds. The body of the past can do this work, Benjamin thought, but not through its careful historical reconstruction. Such resuscitation is no longer an option for us now. But the body can exert its influence even in its death and dismemberment. For the sea change has turned living eyes into glorious pearls—pearls so rich and strange they have the power to shock us out of the complacency of our assumptions.

In this view the pearl-diver might go down into the corpus of Augustine and return with a quotation. But the contexts in which that quotation had its first life—not just the context of late antiquity, but the context of Christianity as a concrete tradition that connects us to Augustine—is gone. And so, in Benjamin’s language, the meaning of the quotation cannot be transmitted. But still the quote can be cited. The pearl can no longer see like the living eye. It cannot be revived or restored to that role. But it can shock us with its beauty. And, in shocking us, in robbing us of idle convictions, it can help us see in new ways.

It is important to note two different negative qualities of Benjamin’s citations. First, they depend on a text or figure being dead and buried, full fathom five. This kind of burial happens in time, but the simple passage of time does not accomplish it. It rather depends on a break in which a text or author loses the ability to connect to contemporary readers in genuinely authoritative ways. Benjamin sees that modernity has made this kind of break with figures like Augustine. His authority negated, his transmissibility has been replaced by his citability.

A second negative quality to Benjamin’s citations arises in the ways that they function. They do not establish the basis for an argument. They are not foundation stones. They are rather robbers who steal complacency. They are shocks that disrupt prevailing patterns of thought. They are interjections, not arguments. As Arendt saw, Benjamin’s citations arise from a negation of the past. And then they perform a negation of the present.

Arendt’s Dives to Augustine

Kiess joins Seyla Benhabib and many other commentators who see Arendt as something of a pearl-diver herself.5 Seeing this helps make sense of her relationship to Christian sources. She takes a thinker like Augustine as a body long buried, a body to which no tradition can now connect us. Augustine therefore has no authority, in Arendt’s precise sense of the term. His meanings are not even transmissible. But they are citable. They interrupt a prevailing way of thinking—one that can imagine nothing really new emerging in history, say—and create the space for different kinds of constructive projects. These projects might cite sources identified as Christian, but this does not mark the projects themselves as Christian, nor does it make them continuous with some Christian tradition. For the citability of someone like Augustine for Arendt depends exactly on the death of the world in which he once made sense and the discontinuity of that world from the world into which she is now citing him.

Seeing Arendt’s relationship to Christian theology helps us understand what she is doing when she quotes Augustine as saying “that a beginning be made, man was created.” As Kiess notes (2), the quote is central for Arendt. If once it was Augustine’s eye, a part of his living body, he 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.

Seeing the way Arendt uses Augustine helps us sort through some of the reactions to those uses. Kiess quotes George McKenna’s criticism of Arendt for her lack of fidelity to Augustine’s larger worldview: “Augustine was not talking about any ‘capacity of man,’” McKenna writes, “but the capacity of God to start something new in the universe. . . . To find in his celebration of man’s capacities or even a glimmer of hope for some sort of secular renewal is to find something that is not there.”6 McKenna is right on one level, of course. Even if we cannot perfectly reconstruct the Historical Augustine, it is clear that Arendt is citing him into a very different kind of argument. Arendt, as McKenna says, “find[s] something that is not there.” Exactly. But to think that this observation counts against her argument is to mistake what she is doing. For Arendt is not trying to reconstruct an eye that has ceased, at least for her, to be an eye. She is rather prying loose a pearl, rich and strange.

Thus to seek to discount Arendt’s project by making the historical claim that it has more in common with that of Pelagius than Augustine would reflect a category mistake. It would be like saying that the argument is somehow too orange, or not useful for helping us get from Poughkeepsie to Kalamazoo. For historical fidelity is not her goal. But to say that her project has more in common with Pelagius than Augustine as a rhetorical or normative claim—as part of an argument about human capabilities to break with deep historical patterns, say—could begin to gain some traction. That kind of claim argues against the constructive use to which Arendt plans to put her Augustinian pearl. It argues against a project that stresses human capacities and for one that does more to stress that God alone is the author of new things. It’s not a historian’s argument about what Augustine meant. It’s shorthand in a philosopher or theologian’s argument about divine and human capabilities. But then noting the break with Augustine is not the conclusion of the argument, but the beginning.

Citing Arendt

Arendt’s essay on Benjamin gives insight into her citations of Christian thinkers like Augustine. It also provides a vocabulary for thinking about how Christian theologians ought to engage her work. Her ideas cannot be simply transmitted into Christian projects without doing violence to them. I will leave to others the question of her relationships to Jewish traditions.7 But however she understood herself, she certainly did not think she was doing Christian theology. She surely would have resisted narratives that tried to force her assimilation to that project. Her citation of Christian sources depended on the prior fact of discontinuity.

If Arendt’s arguments should not be transmitted into Christian theology, they can, in the sense Arendt attributes to Benjamin, be cited. In citing them, I think it will be important to preserve the second negative function that Benjamin identifies, letting them function not as building blocks, but as interruptions. They can rob Christian theology of complacency. They can relieve it of superficial convictions. But they do not authorize new lines of Christian argument. The distinction is important not for the sake of preserving some imagined purity of Christian theology, but for the sake of honoring Arendt’s integrity. Her arguments—even her readings of Augustine—should not be subjected to forced conversion.

This distinction between transmission and citation provides a kind of hermeneutical key for reading Kiess’s book. In the introduction he promises to “consider the unmet challenges of her work and how they can help set a constructive agenda for theology moving forward” (3). The book keeps this promise. In keeping it, the book sometimes seems in between transmitting Arendt’s main ideas into Christian theological projects and citing Arendt in ways that interrupt those projects and demand something more, something new. The best reading of Kiess’s book will stress this latter mode, using his excellent exposition of Arendt to open up fresh, critical thinking in Christian theology. That thinking is not authorized so much as provoked by Arendt. It is, as she sees, something new.

When read in ways that stress this dynamic of citation, Hannah Arendt and Theology makes a crucial contribution to contemporary Christian theology. In the present moment Arendt seems more relevant than ever. And Kiess’s book makes possible the kind of smart citations of Arendt that the time demands.


  1. Parenthetical references are to John Kiess, Hannah Arendt and Theology, Philosophy and Theology (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

  2. Hannah Arendt, introduction to Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1968), 38. The quotation is originally from The Tempest I, 2.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Ibid, 38–39.

  5. Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt, Modernity and Political Thought (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 93.

  6. George McKenna, “Augustine Revisited,” First Things, April 1997, https://syndicate.network.firstthings.com/article/1997/04/003-augustine-revisited; quoted at Kiess, 142.

  7. The literature on this question is voluminous. For one starting point, see Richard J. Bernstein, Hannah Arendt and the Jewish Question (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).

  • John Kiess

    John Kiess

    Reply

    Response to Ted Smith

    The brief but profoundly influential period in which the lives of Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt intersected in Paris in the 1930s is a reminder of the contingency of much twentieth-century intellectual history. If not for their displacement to Paris, we may never have known many of Benjamin’s most famous essays, which Arendt carried with her to the United States for safekeeping. And if not for her friendship with Benjamin, it is difficult to imagine Arendt’s distinctive method of political historiography and textual criticism. A full accounting of their intersecting paths remains to be told, but a growing secondary literature now makes it increasingly difficult to understand Arendt’s thought without accounting for Benjamin’s influence.1 In my view, Arendt’s complex relationship to theological sources is another confirmation of this influence, and I’m grateful to Ted Smith for focusing his response on this aspect of the book.

    As Smith notes, I regard Arendt’s 1968 essay on Benjamin as an important key to understanding the scope of his influence. The essay is, of course, primarily a presentation of Benjamin’s thought, and it’s important to be clear on her understanding of his method before considering how it may have influenced hers. Smith’s response makes Arendt’s understanding of Benjamin’s method masterfully clear, spelling out the core methodological commitments that she believed informed his practice of pearl diving. As Smith notes, this included, first and foremost, Benjamin’s core conviction about the break in tradition, which is what he believed necessitated the search for new ways of dealing with the past; second, the understanding that the past has undergone a “sea-change,” surviving in a form that is different from its previous manifestations; and third, the conviction that the transmissibility of the past has now been replaced by its citability. Tradition may no longer mediate the past to us, but as Arendt’s Benjamin appreciates, we can still access the past as pearls and coral, the effect of which, when recovered and brought up to the world of the living, robs us of our convictions. The purpose of Benjamin’s pearl diving, Arendt’s essay makes clear, is to unsettle our thinking; negation is the watchword. As Smith puts it well, Benjamin’s thinking arises from a “negation of the past” and aims to “perform a negation of the present.”

    Smith observes that I follow Seyla Benhabib and others in regarding Arendt as something of a pearl diver herself. Arendt invites the comparison in the closing section of the first volume of The Life of the Mind, where she quotes the same lines from The Tempest that she quotes in the Benjamin essay.2 As I discuss in the book, Arendt’s characterization of her method closely follows Benjamin in several respects, most notably, in her views on the break in tradition. Like Benjamin, Arendt believed the break in tradition was less an intellectual act of liberation than a consequence of twentieth-century political and technological developments that cut the already worn thread of our traditional moral, legal, and theological categories. This break informs everything Arendt wrote; it can be felt particularly strongly in her writings on evil (see my discussion on pp. 51–54), but it is also present in her explicit criticisms of Christianity as well as her more appreciative readings of Jesus and Augustine, to say nothing of the many other figures and experiences she engages, from Athenian democracy and Aristotle to Montesquieu and the American Revolution. When Arendt engages these sources, she does so with the self-conscious understanding that she is reading them after their “sea-change,” and against their traditional interpretation. Smith captures this just right when he speaks of the fundamental discontinuity between Arendt’s use of these sources and the traditions associated with them.

    Arendt also carries forward the broadly negative function of Benjamin’s pearl diving. The point of Arendt’s engagement with the past is to unsettle our thinking about the present (hence the temporal imagery of the “gap between past and future”); she wants to wake us to the ways contemporary political phenomena resist our thoughtless categorization, and disrupt our assumptions about the very nature of those categories, including freedom, worldliness, and action. In this manner, Arendt’s practice of pearl diving reflects the negative quality of thinking more generally, which as she repeatedly emphasizes, unfreezes our minds from all established criteria and values, arrests thoughtless routine, and “undoes every morning what it has finished the night before” (see my discussion on pp. 198–202).

    In these and other ways, Arendt carries forward much of the spirit of Benjamin’s pearl diving. Yet as with any dimension of Arendt’s thought, there are other influences to consider. In the same essay on Benjamin, Arendt notes the affinities between Benjamin and Heidegger.3 Both took the break in tradition as axiomatic, and both sought to look upon the past with “new eyes.” Yet Heidegger placed greater emphasis upon the possibility of renewing contact with the original “wellsprings” of concepts, those ways of being that have been long repressed by traditional ways of thinking (see my discussion on pp. 16–17). One occasionally hears echoes of this in Arendt, most notably in the preface to Between Past and Future, where she writes, “There is an element of experiment in the critical interpretation of the past, an interpretation whose chief aim is to discover the real origin of traditional concepts in order to distill from them anew their original spirit which has so sadly evaporated from the very key words of political language” (p. 15 in original). This sounds closer to Heidegger than Benjamin, and it indicates a slightly different way of understanding the pearl diving metaphor. Like Benjamin, Arendt believed we only had access to pearls and coral; the era of transmissibility is over, and any past that comes down to us is a past that has suffered a sea change. Yet influenced by Heidegger, it is as if Arendt wanted to tease out the other part of the Tempest metaphor, the part that suggests that full fathom five, it is still “thy father” who lies; his eyes may now be pearls, but “nothing of him doth fade.” In the book, I point to one particularly revealing line in the Benjamin essay where Arendt observes: “The Greek polis will continue to exist at the bottom of our political existence—that is, at the bottom of the sea—for as long as we use the word ‘politics’” (quoted on p. 25). Even if all that we have to work with are ruins, Arendt believed these ruins could still channel something of the original spirit of the experiences that inspired them, precisely the spirit that tradition never transmitted to begin with.

    This may explain why we don’t see Arendt citing sources in quite the same way as Benjamin. As I discuss in the book, Arendt often quotes a beloved line from Augustine’s City of God (“that a beginning be made, man was created”), many times in isolation from engagement with its historical and traditional contexts, in a way that resembles, indeed, Benjamin’s practice of citation. Yet there are other places in her work where the original context matters more, most notably in “What Is Freedom?” where she asserts that Augustine’s identity as a Roman helps explain why he was attracted to the notion of beginnings, as well as the second volume of The Life of the Mind, where she devotes an entire chapter to Augustine’s thought, threading connections across works as early as De libero arbitrio and Confessions to works as late as De Trinitate, as if to substantiate her reading of the quote via the entire corpus of Augustine. It is at such moments when we are reminded that this is the same thinker who devoted her dissertation to exploring Augustine’s views on love in not one, but three conceptual contexts of his thought. This isn’t to say Arendt’s practice of pearl diving is better or worse than Benjamin’s, it is merely to underscore the differences between them.

    An appreciation of these differences suggests that Arendt may not have been so willing to concede McKenna’s criticism that she finds something in Augustine that is not there. She certainly finds something the tradition says is not there, but part of what Arendt is trying to unsettle is exactly our tendency to defer to what tradition says can or cannot be there. The haste with which McKenna dismisses Arendt’s reading of this passage suggests his sense of hermeneutical possibility is still determined by the authority of the Augustinian tradition; that’s what Arendt wants to disrupt. Arendt wants us to confront Augustine on the other side of the breakdown of tradition, Augustine after tradition, before tradition: Augustine between past and future. Of course, we are free to disagree with Arendt’s claims about what the original spirit of Augustine may have been; we can contest her specific attempts to read him as a Roman or as a philosopher and not as a theologian; we can even question her very appeal to his (or any other thinker’s) original spirit. But Arendt first demands that we be unsettled by her claims and think for ourselves about them. If it happens that we ultimately disagree with her, then her method has done what it was meant to do, which is to get our minds moving again, to stir us to question our initial assumptions, to inspire us to return to the sources and listen for the new things they might say against the backdrop of the present, so that our thinking might be more responsive to the world around us.

    Any such thinking, as Smith rightly observes, should be understood as provoked by Arendt, not authorized by her. As I have put it in a previous response, Arendt did not want her readers to think like her. She wanted them to think for themselves. Part of grasping the integrity of her thought means appreciating what it demands from us. Arendt’s thought unsettles us so that we might engage in creative thinking about the dilemmas that presently confront us. She challenges us to think what we are doing. No challenge is harder. Even if we end up falling short of its great demand, no challenge is more urgent, or worth attempting.


    1. In the book, I mention, among others, Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000); Susannah Young-ah Gottlieb, Regions of Sorrow: Anxiety and Messianism in Hannah Arendt and W. H. Auden (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003); and Peter Berkowitz, “The Pearl Diver,” New Republic 44 (June 14, 1999): 44–52.

    2. See Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, vol. 1, Thinking (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 211–13.

    3. Hannah Arendt, “Walter Benjamin,” in Men in Dark Times (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968), 201.

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