Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Hannah's natality and Jürgen's novum

In his short essay "Natality or Advent: Hannah Arendt and Jürgen Moltmann on Hope and Politics" (in The Future of Hope. eds. Miroslav Volf and William Katerberg. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 125-143), David Billings, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, discerns a hidden-yet-implicit advent in the political eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann. He does this using concepts found in the naturalistic philosophy of Hannah Arendt. Arendt taught in The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt Brace 1973) and other works that political hope requires a concept of natality which sees in each new generation something altogether new. The enemy is a repetitive, circular understanding of time in which nothing new has ever been or will ever be. It is true that, like all living things, human beings live and die. This is the fore and aft of their being. Nevertheless, as Moltmann and Arendt agree, such circularity deflates political motivation.

Hannah Arendt defines natality as "the fact that we all begin this life in birth and that each birth represents something radically new—a new beginning—a newcomer and an individual the world has never seen before." (127) Natality requires linear time. Each individual is an unrepeatable subjectivity that transcends the sameness of the animal world. Natality also suggests a foothold for political hope. In each new person, there is the prospect of actions that have not been before, there is the hope of change that may come. (Contrast this against Martin Heidegger's "throwness" and "being unto death".) "With natality we have an opening of future horizons and the possibility of hope" (132).

Hannah Arendt developed her concept of natality based on an argument in Augustine's Civitas Dei (though Augustine talks about creation rather than birth.) In this particular section of the Civitas, Augustine argues against reincarnation and with it any belief that what seems new in nature is but the product of what has previously existed. This entire wheel of fate, in Augustine's mind, must be broken simply because it denies redemption. If there can never be a new, then there is no possibility of redemptive escape from calamity and evil.

Hannah Arendt's natality takes up the threads of this debate. She seems to bring Augustine's insights constructively to bear on twentieth century political action. Yet, there is a fatal flaw: naturalism. Hannah Arendt was a naturalist, and therefore she could not with Augustine affirm a future eschatological redemption. As Billings begins interrogating the superstructure of Arendt's natality–the basis of her political hope - it crumbles. "Taken by itself and stripped from a context of eschatological ends, natality provides little hope. Yes, the future may be different because of the implicit promise of "the new" in each new birth; this difference may, however, be evil" (134). Political hope demands a surer foundation than what might be. It requires meaning which is grounded in absolute transcendence.

At the same time there is a weakness in Augustine. Denying the circularity of the ebb-n-flow living world in its natura naturans, Augustine sets his sight on redemptive apocalypse. Yet, he skews too far toward into the immaterial, a by-product of latent Manichean neo-platonism. Augustine holds out hope, but not political hope. It is hope that does not suggest action in the world. Billings turns to Jürgen Moltmann.

Jürgen Moltmann's eschatological program, as set out in a dozen or so books between his Theology of Hope and Coming of God, understands a thoroughly proleptic apocalypse. His eschatology is not futurist (not-yet), nor presentative (now-already), but adventus (that which is is coming, but is not yet here). Moltmann teaches this according to his category of the novum. The novum is the breaking open of linear time by transcendent, eschatological time (there is significant borrowing from Karl Barth's understanding of God's temporality). In his promises, chiefly incarnated in the Christ-event, God has begun to arrive. These advent-points open up a history of God, whereby the One who is and was, is also to come. "God's future is not that he will be as he was and is, but that he is on the move and coming towards the world. God's being is in his coming, not his becoming" (137). God's arrival, too, is not an end, but a taking up, a fulfilling. Not a destruction, but a reconstruction in an altogether better way.

The novum provides a powerful political category that corrects Augustine and suggests Arendt. The novum cannot be anticipated by anything that is already here, freeing history from the past. Its entry creates new possibilities against the promise of God's ultimate redemption when he arrives and becomes all-in-all. The novum enters history as advent, and stimulates human social hopes toward the resistance of faith and the patience of hope. Its penultimate example is the resurrection of the Christ. The resurrection "lets us look beyond the horizon of this world's end into God's new world. Life out of this hope then means already acting here and today in accordance with that world of justice and righteousness and peace, contrary to appearances, and contrary to all historical chances of success" (138). Here is Augustine corrected. But what about the suggestion of Arendt?

There are many similarities between Hannah Arendt's natality and Jürgen Moltmann's eschatology. Billings notes that both desire political action on the basis of the radically new. Yet, Arendt's naturalism cannot take in Moltmann's eschatology. The novum is a miraculous inbreaking ex nihilo that has no analogue in Arendt. But what about the other way round?

Moltmann avoids language about birth because the birth-process resembles so much that old idea of nothing new under the sun. The infant comes forth from its mother, there is nothing new after all. But, as Billings says, "It is the new, utterly unique life inaugurated by birth that can astonish us, not the mere fact that a birth follows labor," leading him to conclude that "the new of natality could be incorporated into Moltmann's thought" (140).

This is a charming and human insight. Natality has a lived humanitas about it, which the abstract novum lacks. Whereas novum only exists as one of two opposing points vis-à-vis reincarnation, natality reveals a continuum between them. Natality finds a middle-way so that it is a new beginning toward the future that does not completely jettison the past. "Natality's newness comes from within. The newcomers that form the new generation are always our children" (141). Note the parallel between natality's newness, which arrives outside of expectation but not outside of being, and the new which politics requires, because it is always immersed in context and tradition.

David Billings suggests that a "Moltmannian natality" enhances the power of political hope beyond that created by the novum. It does so because it does not deny or condemn the past. Both of those options are dangerous in every context. It does so because it sounds the most like redemption and renewal and denies eschatological annihilation. Indeed, writes Billings, "we must not forget that this coming of God is a return. The one who is returning is the one who was born unto us. A stranger is not coming but one of us, a part of the human community" (142). Billings concludes by suggesting that Moltmann's christological perspective should include natality. A union of advent and natality is not unlike the incarnation itself, he says. "When natality is understood in the context of a christological eschatology, the new thing of which I am capable may be a reflection of the birth of Christ within time and within me" (145).
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