Joe Paul Kroll completed his PhD thesis, A Human End to History? Hans Blumenberg, Karl Löwith and Carl Schmitt on Secularization and Modernity, in 2010 at Princeton University.
A great deal has been written, not least in these pages, of the ‘monstrous phrase’, known also as der ungeheure Spruch: the Latin motto preceding the fourth book of Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahrheit, nemo contra deum nisi deus ipse.
Carl Schmitt, in Politische Theologie II, attributes a Christological meaning to this saying, tracing its roots to a fragment by the dramatist J.M.R. Lenz, in which a girl invokes the image of Christ against an overbearing, God-like father with the words: “Gott gegen Gott!” Schmitt interprets this as the revolt of the Son against the Father, of the redeemer God against the creator God.
Blumenberg appears to share Schmitt’s conviction that the source would reveal the meaning, his contention being that the phrase Goethe himself was the originator of the Spruch and its meaning a polytheistic one. A monotheistic reading would not, however, just be at odds with all that Goethe believed (and all he did not). To imagine a deity divided against itself, Blumenberg argues, would be to imagine a scenario of eternal futility. Blumenberg understood Goethe as having alluded to the existence of a plurality of gods in a state of rivalry, with none being in a position to make an absolute claim on man. This, to Blumenberg, was the whole point of the mythical mode of thought as a means of keeping the absolutism of reality at bay.
The conflict between the self-preservation of God and the self-preservation or self-assertion of man is the guiding theme of Blumenberg’s interpretation of Christian theology in the form of a work on myth. The ungeheure Spruch was, as Blumenberg wrote in Arbeit am Mythos, “the basic formula of myth in all its figurations”, and thus of the need to keep overbearing forces at a distance.
Monotheism, however, precludes the parity of forces which the Goethean reading of nemo contra deum nisi deus ipse presupposes. Schmitt’s interpretation, Blumenberg suggests, was in any case at odds with a Christian orthodoxy which had sought to banish the “dualistic temptation” in the Trinity, without ever being wholly successful, for the Son could not but appear as, to some extent, the rival of the Father and the advocate of man in his fallen state.
In the short text translated below, Blumenberg adds a new dimension to the Schmittian, i.e. Christological, interpretation of the apophthegm, turning his gaze on the moment at which the relationship between the Father and the Son seems to be at its most desperate: the Crucifixion. The origins of the text are unclear – it appears not to have been published during Blumenberg’s lifetime, whilst its thematic preoccupations seem to place it squarely in the context of Matthäuspassion (1988). Its conclusion, if one were to take it as Blumenberg’s last word on the ungeheure Spruch, would seem to contradict his rebuttal of any attempts at endowing it with a Christological significance. On closer inspection, one might conclude that what Blumenberg is really doing is to underscore the sheer heresy of pitting Father and Son against each other. But leaving aside the problems of drawing such inferences from unpublished texts, it should be remembered that Blumenberg’s original interpretation was based on what he thought Goethe meant by the motto. In this short piece, it figures (subtly rephrased, moreover: nihil instead of nemo) simply as a phrase (mis-)remembered – though remembered, no doubt, by Blumenberg himself, in the context of his debate with Carl Schmitt.
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Hans Blumenberg: The Paradox of Jesus’ Last Words
In uttering, as recorded by Mark and Matthew, his words of abandonment by God – this: Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani –, the dying Jesus quotes the beginning of the 22nd Psalm. There is no point in searching questions as to why Jesus should have quoted rather than spontaneously exclaiming his own lines of despair – he was saturated with knowledge of the scriptures or, at any rate, his evangelists were.
The unbelieving reader of scripture – or the listener to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion – is left untroubled by the quotation. It is worth having a quotation at the ready for those unknown and unforeseeable moments when the right words fail one.
It is a different matter for the faithful, reading these words as rendered by the evangelist or the passionist. To him, it will evoke not only this dying moment of his savior, but also the origin of this last word in the same Bible, in the other testament of which it may be found. The word of God here, the word of God there – this is the ever-invoked identity of the God of both testaments as well as of the two articles of the creed. It is the achievement inherited from the overcoming of gnosticism.
Yet Jesus’ last word is an accusation made against ‘his’ God for having forsaken him. Whatever else this may mean, it certainly does not mean that the word of God should have escaped or been withdrawn from him. In God’s own words, he accuses him of disloyalty – and with this accusation adds to the words of the same God and the same, one revelation.
The composer of the St. Matthew Passion does not leave his listeners in the lurch. All he is doing is to prepare them for the pain of the extreme exacerbation of their savior’s suffering and dying, for the realism of an actual dying. The quotation is not, as the diligence of the evangelists would otherwise have it, introduced with the phrase As it is written in the prophets or That the word might be fulfilled. Whoever is nonetheless unable to forget the quotation from the psalmist will also notice an undertone by which Jesus not only addresses himself to his God, but also against him. This already in omitting, just this once, the filial Abba. To use God’s words against God – that gives the faithful an unexpected flavor of Goethe’s ‘monstrous phrase’: Nihil contra deum nisi deus ipse – Only a God against a God.
Source: Hans Blumenberg, Goethe zum Beispiel. In Verbindung mit Manfred Sommer herausgegeben vom Hans Blumenberg-Archiv. Frankfurt am Main: Insel, 1999, p. 88. Translated by Joe Paul Kroll.