A pair of grad students recently discovered a cache of papers from the famous Drew colloquium that revealed a sinister chapter in the life of the iconic German philosopher.
It was, it seems fair to say, an assignment that might best be characterized as grad student grunt work.
On an October day in 2011, Drew doctoral candidates Jaclyn Harte (literature) and Peter Mabli (history and culture) found themselves in the dusty basement of S.W. Bowne Hall—also known as the morgue—charged with picking through boxes of papers and piles of abandoned books and assorted pieces of obsolete office equipment and tossing out anything that wasn’t needed, which looked to be pretty much everything.
But then they came across a plain cardboard box on which was written the word “ancient.” They opened the box and looked inside, and the first item to catch their eye was a 1964 letter written in German on onionskin paper and signed “Martin Heidegger.” Neither Mabli nor Harte knew a lot about Heidegger, but each recognized the name of one of the foremost philosophers of the 20th century. Their intellectual curiosities piqued, they kept digging. The box revealed more letters, dozens of letters, in fact, from academicians across the country, all inquiring about a gathering of distinguished scholars at Drew in April 1964, a conference that neither Harte nor Mabli knew anything about. They kept digging. They found that the three-day conference was the first such assembly ever convened in North America for the purpose of discussing and dissecting the work of Heidegger.
They kept digging. They learned that the attending scholars included some of the day’s most eminent theologians and philosophers from Europe and America, including Fritz Buri and Heinrich Ott from the University of Basel in Switzerland, John Cobb from Southern California School of Theology and Schubert Ogden from the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. In time, Harte and Mabli would discover that the papers they unearthed from the basement of Bowne Hall pertained to one of the most important colloquia of its time.
Officially titled “A Second Consultation on Hermeneutics: Theological Discourse and the Proclamation of the Gospel,” it was organized by Stanley Romaine Hopper, dean of the Drew Graduate School, who invited participants to explore the relevance of Heidegger’s philosophy to Protestant theology. Heidegger was best known for his seminal 1927 book, Sein und Zeit (Being and Time), which changed the course of 20th-century philosophy. While the Second Consultation was heralded for its collection of scholars and their dynamic exchange of ideas, its lasting legacy would rest in the dramatic presentation delivered by a former student of Heidegger’s, who stunned the audience by revealing a shadowy chapter in his mentor’s past.
“That’s when we found out that we had stumbled upon something pretty significant for Drew’s history,” Mabli says.
“Dear Professor Heidegger:
I am writing to you as Professor of Philosophy and Letters of Drew University and as Dean of its Graduate School. I expect to be in Europe during the first part of September, attending the Eranos Conference at Ascona, Switzerland. Following the Conference (which adjourns September 5th) I should like to talk with you briefly, if at all possible …”
So began a letter from Dean Hopper to Martin Heidegger on Aug. 9, 1963. The letter, which Hopper wrote at his summer home in Lakeport, N.H., represented the first step in Hopper’s determined effort to recruit Heidegger to travel to Drew from his home in Germany to attend the conference Hopper was planning.
“I do not know quite how to express this next point. But there is a time when conditions are right for the word to be spoken. The time is right now for your coming. Drew University is the prepared place, by reason of its theological and philosophical interests; also closer study has been given to your works here than elsewhere in this country, so far as I know.”
The 1964 consultation would be the second of three such gatherings organized at Drew, the others occurring in 1962 and 1966. “They were the theological events in America at the time,” says Charles Courtney, a retired philosophy of religion professor who taught at Drew for four decades and who attended the ’64 conference. All three focused on the subject of hermeneutics, traditionally defined as the theory of Biblical interpretation. “Hermeneutics seemed aptly designed to represent the core values and scholarship that Drew’s Graduate School (less than a decade old at this time) wished to espouse,” Harte and Mabli wrote in a 2,400-word report on their findings from the morgue. “The study of hermeneutics was most famously articulated in the works of scholar Martin Heidegger. If Drew’s Graduate School was to convene a conference on hermeneutics, it was only proper, therefore, to contact and invite the man who introduced its study to the world.”
For at least a decade before the Second Consultation, Drew had gained a reputation as a hotbed of new philosophical and theological thought. In 1956 Charles Scribner’s Sons published Christianity and the New Existentialists, a compilation of public lectures delivered at Craig Chapel during the 1953–54 academic year, part of a series of lectures on Christian biography arranged through a foundation created by the late Drew President Ezra Squier Tipple.
Courtney recalls first learning about Drew’s reputation when he was a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School. “Drew was a major site for the discussion and introduction of French and German European thought to the United States,” Courtney says. “I had never heard of Drew, but one day several carloads of people from Harvard drove to Drew because Rudolf Bultmann, one of the great New Testament scholars, was lecturing there.”
Drew scholars such as Robert Funk, Carl Michalson, Ray Hart and Hopper himself had begun to expand the definition of hermeneutics to encompass, according to a New York Times account of the Second Consultation, “the entire task of interpreting and presenting the Christian message to the ordinary man.” The newspaper described Drew, with its young, “avant-garde” theology faculty, as “one of the centers of the New Hermeneutics movement.” In his August 1963 letter to Heidegger, Dean Hopper emphasized the influence Heidegger wielded in this field of thought. “Your presence and participation could make all the difference,” Hopper wrote, “in the unfolding of theological thinking in this country over the next years.”
Heidegger contended that although the objectifying thinking of science and technology is dominant in our time, it is not the only legitimate way. Critical thinking distinguishes between what is justified by proof (objectifying) and what requires simple perceiving and receiving for its confirmation (non-objectifying). Heidegger believed that poetry, which responds to what shows itself in experience, is non-objectifying. Hopper wanted to explore with Heidegger whether theology might be another example.
Heidegger consented to Hopper’s request for an audience, and on Sept. 11, 1963, Hopper and Drew theology professor Karlfried Froehlich, a native German, arrived at Heidegger’s cabin in the Black Forest mountains of southern Germany. Alas, four months later, Hopper would learn that his quest to bring to Drew the world’s foremost authority on hermeneutics would not be successful. In a letter, Heidegger, who was 74, wrote that his doctor had advised against making the transatlantic trip.
Though Hopper must have been disappointed, he was not deterred. He moved forward with plans for the Second Consultation. In lieu of Heidegger, Hopper invited Hans Jonas, a professor at the New School for Social Research who had earned his doctorate in philosophy in 1928 at the University of Marburg, where he studied under Heidegger. Jonas’ invitation to Drew, Harte and Mabli wrote, “ensured that the conference would stay grounded in Heideggerian philosophy.” By 1933, with Hitler in power, Jonas, a Jew, had left Germany, settling first in Palestine, then in London. He served in the British military for five years, returning to Germany at the end of the war, part of the victorious army, only to learn that his mother had been killed at Auschwitz.
The Second Consultation began at 9 o’clock in the morning on Thursday, April 9, 1964, inside S.W. Bowne’s Great Hall, whose architectural grandeur was modeled after the hall of Christ Church at Oxford University. The subject of the conference was “The Problem of Non-objectifying Thinking and Speaking in Contemporary Theology.” Heidegger had written a 13-page paper that was read, in absentia, as the first order of business. Jonas then stepped to the lectern to deliver a lecture he had titled simply “Heidegger and Theology.”
It was expected that Jonas would offer praise for the philosophical canon advanced by his revered mentor. He did not. “Few were prepared for the unyielding, yet sober, polemic that Jonas delivered from the podium,” wrote CUNY philosophy professor Richard Wolin in Heidegger’s Children (Princeton, 2003). Over the course of some 8,000 words, Jonas invoked Heidegger’s participation in Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party before and during World War II. Historians believe that Heidegger’s support of the National Socialist German Workers Party enabled him to be appointed rector of Freiburg University in 1933, where he took steps to remove Jewish professors and students from the university.
Jonas told the scholars assembled in Great Hall that Heidegger’s actions during Hitler’s rise could be directly attributed to the “fate-laden” philosophy he championed in Being and Time. Jonas warned the theologians that an uncritical posture of receiving what is experienced could lead to disastrous decisions, such as Heidegger’s. “Neither then nor now did Heidegger’s thought provide a norm by which to decide how to answer such calls,” Jonas said. “Heidegger’s own answer is on record. Here it is, spoken to the university students of Germany: ‘Not theorems and “ideas” be the rules of your being. The Führer himself and alone is the present and future German reality and its law. Learn ever deeper to know: that from now on each and every thing demands decision, and every action responsibility. Heil Hitler!’”
Surely those who witnessed Jonas’ takedown of Heidegger—and, by extension, of the great philosopher’s thought—must have been taken aback. “With Jonas’ paper,” Robert Funk would write later that year in The Christian Century, “fires were lit on a hundred hills.” Courtney, then a young scholar, attended the conference because he had come to Drew to interview for the professorship for which he would be hired. “I don’t have any sense that the audience was angry or was ready to hiss Jonas,” he says. “I think we all just realized that something of gravity happened here today.” In fact, on April 11, The New York Times reported, “Dr. Jonas received a standing ovation in the Great Hall of the School of Theology after his talk.”
It is not clear just how much was known, in 1964, of Heidegger’s wartime affiliations, yet even those who deplored Heidegger’s Nazi sympathies did not discount the importance of his work. “It doesn’t make me less interested in how Heidegger reshaped philosophy in the 20th century,” says David Miller, a former chair of the religion department at Drew who attended the ’64 conference. “Anybody who uses that as an excuse not to read Heidegger is sticking his head in the sand.”
It is undeniable that Jonas’ revelations inside Great Hall ignited a cottage industry surrounding Heidegger’s conduct that thrives to this day. The 2009 documentary Only a God Can Save Us takes its title from a dispiriting answer Heidegger provided in a 1966 interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel published, at his request, after his death in 1976. In Heidegger’s Children, Wolin refers to the Second Consultation at Drew as “an intellectual event of international magnitude.”
Having immersed themselves in the history of the conference, which the plain cardboard box they found in the basement of Bowne Hall had only hinted at, Jaclyn Harte and Peter Mabli came away from their experience wanting to resurrect the sort of interdisciplinary colloquium that Stanley Hopper had orchestrated nearly a half-century earlier. This spring Drew will do just that. Inspired by Harte and Mabli’s find, the Graduate Program in History and Culture will sponsor “Thinking Publicly,” a conference on public intellectuals, on June 7–8. “Through this conference we hope to provide a space for emerging scholars to voice their perspectives on public intellectualism,” read an email publicizing the event and calling for proposals.
“Just the idea of working together and having an interdisciplinary community among the graduate students would be really great,” says Harte. Especially, she adds, if “that’s something that comes from finding a box of files in the basement.”