Kiess, John. “Hannah Arendt and Theology”, (Philosophy and Theology), Bloomsbury, 2016.
Theology and Thought
Hannah Arendt is regarded as one of the most important political philosophers of the twentieth century and she has kept that standing even with the controversy that came as a result of her coverage of the trial of Adolph Eichmann for “The New Yorker” magazine. She is famous for her work on totalitarianism and her book about it is still required reading in history degree programs on many campuses. However, her real came with her coinage of the term “the banality of evil” and I am sure there are those who are familiar with the concept without knowing that this came from Arendt who is found at number 38 on the list of women read today in academia. She is also noted for her work regarding the Holocaust, statelessness and human rights, revolutions and democratic movements as well as for her studies on the various challenges of modern technological society. She went through a period in which the world seemed to be angry at her but in recent years, we have seen a growing appreciation of her work especially concerning the complex relationship to theological sources, namely Augustine, the subject of her doctoral dissertation and a thinker with whom she contended throughout her life.
This new book explores how Arendt’s critical and constructive engagements with theology inform her broader thought, as well as the on-going debates that her work brings about in contemporary Christian theology on such topics as evil, tradition, love, political action, and the life of the mind. What we see is a very unique interdisciplinary investigation that brings together Arendt studies, political philosophy, and Christian theology. “Hannah Arendt and Theology” looks at how the insights and provocations of this public intellectual aid in setting a constructive theological agenda for the twenty-first century.
Although I have not always agreed with her, I must state that there is no doubt in my mind that Arendt was a brilliant mind that certainly advanced philosophical thought. She was gifted with the ability to be able to reframe questions about how we should live and thus pushed us into rethinking that which we thought we knew. I cannot even begin to think about how many discussions I have had in my life about Arendt and I see her work as essential. One would probably suppose that if her work is so essential, then she must be easy to understand and that is simply not true.
This is where the value of this book comes in. Writer John Kiess gives us clear understandings of Arendt’s theological thought and leads us clearly to understand the interrelation between Arendt and the importance of her work in the fields of religion and theology.
Just a year old ago I taught a course on Arendt and her banality of evil as it affects and effect the Jewish community and had I had this book then, my class preparation would have been so much easier. However, one of the pleasures of dealing with Arendt is the ideological arguments I would have with myself about what she had to say. One thing I learned years ago is that contrary to what some members of the Jewish community have said— that she was an anti-Semitic Jew is most definitely not true. She never left her Judaism and she acknowledged it especially with the brouhaha that came into being with the publications in the New Yorker about the Eichmann and trial and later with the publication of “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil”. And do not think that I have not been chided by members of my own Jewish community for standing up for Arendt when few others dared to.
In looking at theology, Arendt is difficult to stay away from and it is very easy to distort what she had to say. She was complicated and she was implicit when it came to traditional matters and concerns. A book like this has been needed for a long time and Kiess gives us a comprehensive, well integrated, and dialogical reading of Arendt and theology and I sure that is especially welcome for readers of Christian theology. There is a lot to think about and to me that is what makes a book worthwhile. Below is the table of contents:
Ch. 1 A Public Philosopher: The Life and Thought of Hannah Arendt
Ch. 2 The Problem of Evil Reconsidered
Ch. 3 Amor Mundi: Worldliness, Love, and Citizenship
Ch. 4 “That a Beginning Be Made”: Natality, Action, and the Politics of Gratitude
Ch. 5 In the Region of the Spirit: Thinking Between Past and Future