Theism and Atheism after Auschwitz: A Dialogue between Fackenheim and the Frankfurt School - by Daniel Mullin

2008 Summer-Fall -A peer-reviewed article from an Issue of the Academic Journal "Fedelitas" of The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars

Theism and Atheism after Auschwitz: A Dialogue between Fackenheim and the Frankfurt School
Daniel Mullin is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto, ON.

The first generation of critical theorists, consisting as it did of Jewish thinkers, was compelled to address the radical evil and suffering resulting from the Holocaust and its consequences for religion. In general, these thinkers agreed that no valid moral or philosophical response to such evil could involve an appeal to outmoded ontological conceptions of God or morality. In the words of Max Horkheimer, “the slaughtered are really slaughtered,”1 and we can do no more than adhereto Theodor Adorno’s revised categorical imperative: to arrange our thoughts and actions so that nothing similar to Auschwitz will ever happen again.2 Indeed, a hope other than a purely humanistic one will not ameliorate suffering but dishonor the martyrs. Emil Fackenheim agrees that Auschwitz has imposed a new moral imperative upon humankind, which he calls the “614th commandment” – an addition to the 613 found in the Torah – which forbids post-Holocaust Jews to give Hitler posthumous victories.3 To this end, Jews must hold fast to

1 Cited in Jürgen Habermas, “Faith and Knowledge,” in The Frankfurt School on Religion, Eduardo Mendieta, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2005), 333.2 Theodor Adorno, “Meditations on Metaphysics” in The Frankfurt School on Religion, 178.

3 Emil Fackenheim, To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought (Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994), xix – xx.



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faith, despite horrific evil which would militate against it. Not being Jewish, I will not presume to address the question of how post-Holocaust Jews should respond; however, I would like to explore the interplay between the Frankfurt School’s critical, atheistic approach to radical evil and Fackenheim’s sometimes skeptical, yet hopeful, appropriation of the resources of theism in a post-metaphysical philosophical context. Is the Frankfurt School’s atheistic approach to evil a ‘faithful’ response or does it violate Fackenheim’s 614th commandment? Although an exhaustive treatment of this question is beyond the scope of one paper, through an engagement with Fackenheim and the Frankfurt School, I will attempt to sketch a response to radical evil which may reveal some common ground and allow some horizon of hope to be explored.

Fackenheim’s formulation of the 614th commandment as a new imperative for post-Holocaust Jews emerges from dilemma. On the one hand, he recognizes the human impulse to repress such horrific evil, the attempt to eradicate it from memory. Perhaps more than any other philosopher, Nietzsche gives an explicit defense of this human impulse.4 He is aware of the inherent historicity of humanity; we are not the product of an exclusively natural or divine act but are forged through history. We have no permanent nature but engage in a process of self-making.5 Such an historical anthropology makes history necessary; however the remembrance of things past can also prove existentially debilitating. When knowledge negates life,

4 See Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, Peter Preuss, trans. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980).5 See also Fackenheim, Metaphysics and Historicity (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1961).



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it defeats itself, for knowledge presupposes life. Thus, Nietzsche encourages a purposive forgetfulness when it comes to life-negating truths. Indeed, Fackenheim acknowledges this latent Nietzschean impulse in his earlier thinking. At onepoint, even the naming of ‘Hitler’ felt forbidden as though it represented a demonic inversion of the ancient Tetragrammaton. However, forgetfulness and silence are no longer options, as Fackenheim explains:

As honesty with the facts and fidelity to the victims was making something new – the naming of Hitler – unavoidable, along with it emerged a new necessity. It was forbidden to allow the posthumous destruction of the Jewish faith in Man, God and – this even for the most secularist of Jews – the hope which is the gift of Judaism to all humanity. To deny Hitler the posthumous victory of destroying this faith was a moral-religious commandment. I no longer hesitated to call it the 614th commandment: for post-Holocaust Judaism it would be as binding as if it had been revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai.6

As a “moral-religious commandment” this imperative has characteristics lacking in Adorno’s secularized counterpart, which reads: “A new categorical imperative has been imposed by Hitler on unfree mankind: to arrange their thoughts and actions so that Auschwitz will not repeat itself, so that nothing similar will happen.”7 Despite the differences, however, both agree that silence is not an option in the wake of such an event. As Adorno says, “In silence we simply use the state of

6 Fackenheim, xix – xx. 7 Adorno, 178.



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objective truth to rationalize our subjective incapacity, once more degrading truth into a lie.”8

Although united in this anti-Nietzschean move, might the differences outweigh the commonalities? Whereas Fackenheim retains traditional theological language, Adorno leaves little doubt as to the immanent, secular origin of his commandment. Moreover, he rejects any moral-religious commandment that takes for granted metaphysics that considers itself innocent of the horrors of the Holocaust: “After Auschwitz there is no word tinged from on high, not even a theological one, that has any right unless it underwent a transformation.”9 Nevertheless, there is interesting potential for dialogue between these two thinkers. Fackenheim may consider Adorno as belonging to “the most secularist of Jews” and therefore in transgression of his imperative. Arguably, however, there is a veiled eschatological hope in Adorno and other critical theorists which may yet redeem them. Conversely, Adorno may consider Fackenheim’s retention of traditional religious language and categories as failing to be metaphysically transformed by Auschwitz. Arguably, however, his religious conception has been transformed and may yet serve as a legitimate resource for an emergent hope in a post- metaphysical, post-Holocaust world.

Firstly, we should look at the theological responses that are considered illegitimate from both sides. Both would reject traditional theodicy as a valid response to radical evil. The dependence of theodicy on metaphysical speculation fails to take our historicity seriously. The flight from history into a timeless realm has no purchase in a world where the demise of

8 Adorno, 179. 9 Adorno, 180.



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metaphysics is a fait accompli. It is precisely our historicity which belies any retreat into metaphysics. Traditional theology, with its conception of God borrowed from Greek metaphysics, places God outside the realm of contingency and human suffering. Such a deity outside time cannot redeem history. Dialectically self-conscious philosophy and theology struggles with the question of how to redeem history. Unfortunately, the eschatological hope offered by such efforts often proves moot. Even if one succeeded in redeeming the future, how does one redeem the past? As Benedict XVI recognizes, something valuable has indeed been lost by the Frankfurt School in its rejection of the resurrection:

Horkheimer radically excluded the possibility of ever finding a this-worldly substitute for God, while at the same time he rejected the image of a good and just God. In an extreme radicalization of the Old Testament prohibition of images, he speaks of a “longing for the totally Other” that remains inaccessible—a cry of yearning directed at world history. Adorno also firmly upheld this total rejection of images, which naturally meant the exclusion of any “image” of a loving God. On the other hand, he also constantly emphasized this “negative” dialectic and asserted that justice —true justice—would require a world “where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone.” This, would mean, however—to express it with positive and hence, for him, inadequate symbols—that there can be no justice without a resurrection of the dead. Yet this would have to involve “the resurrection of the flesh, something that is


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totally foreign to idealism and the realm of Absolute spirit.”10

However, might not the effort to find meaning in apparently gratuitous suffering itself be wrongheaded? Fackenheim asserts that finding meaning in the screams of murdered children is “a human impossibility and – so one hopes – a divine one as well.”11 The attempt to impute meaning to seemingly meaningless suffering still has linkages with traditional theodicy. Truly gratuitous suffering in the world is not acceptable within a theistic metaphysical framework. Logic dictates that either there is gratuitous suffering or God exists; God exists, therefore, no gratuitous suffering. Regardless of its ties to theodicy, the symbolic power of religious language should not be underplayed. To understand this as more than symbolic, however, would be, for Adorno, to capitulate to a pre-modern understanding of the universe. The daughters and sons of modernity are, perhaps unfortunately, no longer innocent of modernity’s critique of religion. However, could not a more liberal conception of religion utilize the resources of traditional Christian language without embracing pre- modern metaphysical commitments? Might not religion provide “semantic potential”12 even in a secular, post- metaphysical world? Although I believe, with Habermas, that such latent potentiality exists, Adorno gives a very poignant critique of such religious demythologizing. Without a metaphysical anchor, such symbols have no substance and

10 Spe Salvi - Encyclical Letter of His Holiness Benedict XVI on Christian Hope, paragraph 42: _ben-xvi_enc_20071130_spe-salvi_en.html.

11 Fackenheim, xlvi. 12 Habermas, 334.



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fade into infinite regress. As Adorno says, “If every symbol symbolizes nothing but another symbol, another conceptuality, their core remains empty – and so does religion.”13 Symbols, then, cannot save us. If literal understanding of theological doctrines results in seemingly insurmountable conceptual difficulties and symbolism is inadequate, perhaps one can do nothing more than invoke divine mystery. Such fideism, however, is denounced by Adorno as a sinful act: “The theological conception of paradox, that last, starved-out bastion, is past rescuing – a fact ratified by the course of the world in which the skandalon that caught Kierkegaard’s eye is translated into outright blasphemy.”14

What type of philosophical or theological response would be acceptable to Fackenheim and the Frankfurt School? JohannBaptist Metz has suggested “anamnesitc reason” which “opposes the oblivion of past suffering.”15 We must revisitNietzsche’s thesis about existential forgetfulness. According to Nietzsche, “[I]t is possible to live with almost no memories, even to live happily as the animal shows; but without forgetting it is quite impossible to live at all.”16 As we saw above, Nietzsche sees humanity as thoroughly historical, but sometimes purposive amnesia is necessary for our existence. Although Metz does not engage Nietzsche explicitly, his anamnestic reason opposes this Nietzschean argument while acknowledging its seminal insight. Metz differentiates between memory and history. Nietzsche is correct in his claim that

13 Adorno, 202.14 Adorno, 186.15 Johann Baptist Metz, “Anamnestic Reason” in The Frankfurt School on Religion, 287.16 Nietzsche, 10.



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positivistic history can be a disadvantage for life; he is mistaken in equating it with memory. It is precisely in being historicized that memory is domesticated and the past is no longer allowed to speak. The task for Metz is to somehow reconnect memory with historical reason, recovering the past and letting it speak in an authentic way. In Metz’s own words:

[O]ur coming to terms with Auschwitz is so uncertain and discordant because we lack the spirit that was to have been irrevocably extinguished in Auschwitz; because we lack the anamnestically constituted Spirit necessary to perceive adequately what happened in that catastrophe .... In place of remembrance, there is an evolutionary colored history that presupposes that what is past is past and that no longer considers it a challenge to reason that every time a part of our past is successfully historicized, it is also forgotten in a sense. Memory, which keeps track of this forgetting, is split off from historical reason and reduced to a compensatory category removed from history and pregnant with myth; it becomes the museum piece of traditionalism and counterenlightenment – or it drifts off into the postmodern fictionalization of history.17

There is much to unpack in Metz’s reflections. This passage, in my judgment, contains a wealth of resources with which to engage the specter of Auschwitz in a manner acceptable to both Fackenheim and the Frankfurt School. However, there are also limitations to the anamnestic approach which will be taken up below.

17 Metz, 287.



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It is important to note that Metz also implicitly wants to deny Hitler posthumous victories. According to Metz, one of the intended casualties of the death camps was the anamnestic Spirit. Inasmuch as we have lost this Spirit, we acquiesce to the triumph of evil. Therefore, the recovery of the anamnestic Spirit comports well with both Adorno’s and Fackenheim’simperatives. How does one go about reconstituting this Spirit? Metz, as a Christian theologian, finds the resources for his project in the spiritual inheritance of Israel. The anamnestic history of the Hebrew biblical tradition does not make the mistake of trivializing the past through an overly reductionistic process of historicizing, a mistake of which modernity – and Christian theology insofar as it has been influenced by Greek metaphysics – is guilty. The Hebrew memory was constituted historically, although history was existentially grounded rather than attempting to be scientific. The past was thus never permitted to become an abstraction. Neither was memory divorced from history as in Platonic recollection. The model of Platonic anamnesis in Christian theology needs to be replaced by Hebraic anamnestic reason.

One of the abiding questions for Adorno and Fackenheim is: how did reason fail? How is it that the culture of Enlightenment progress failed? The Third Reich revealed a dark side of modernity fraught with contradictions. Reason, as construed by Enlightenment thinking had failed; the optimism with which it had been trumpeted was one of the many casualties of the ‘final solution.’ Enlightenment conceptions of reason failed precisely in the same way as did Christian theological conceptions; allowing historical reason to become abstracted and detached from memory. As Metz says, “Only as anamnestically constituted does reason prevent abstract understanding from taking lack of recollection,


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progressive amnesia, for actual progress. Only anamnestic reason enables enlightenment to enlighten itself againconcerning the harm it has caused.”18 These moves take seriously the Nietzschean critique of historical reason while overcoming the identification between memory and positivistic history. It is also a line of reasoning attuned to many of the concerns of critical theory. Adorno, Horkheimer, and their successor Habermas, have all struggled to articulate a defense of rationality while recognizing the plurality of ways modernity has become pathological. An anamnestic conception of reason aims to allow us moderns to remember the harm that has been caused in the name of reason and to“oppose the oblivion of past suffering.” The historicizing of the past and the separation of memory it entails must be resisted. Otherwise, as Metz asserts, the divorce of memory from historical reason will result in myth, traditionalism, or worse. Anamnestic reason, although it cannot undo the past, allows it to speak authentically and diagnoses the pathology of Enlightenment rationality in the hopes that Auschwitz will never happen again. Again, such a project follows the categorical imperatives of both Adorno and Fackenheim.

However, there may be shortcomings to Metz’s approach. As mentioned, despite its advances over approaches considered thus far, it cannot fully redeem the past. At most, it overcomes historicizing, allowing the past to remain a present reality, as it were. Ultimately, however, it is an eschatological solution oriented toward the future as are the respective imperatives of Adorno and Fackenheim. It aims to replace the false progress of forgetfulness with real progress, and thus a future hope. Again, this is commensurable with the critical theorists’

18 Metz, 287.



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concerns; however, some like Horkheimer and Habermas have expressed dissatisfaction with a philosophy that cannot reclaim the damage of the past. Indeed, such damage seems irreversible. Refusing to compromise with a metaphysical escape into timelessness, however, what recourse is left? Nevertheless, the desire to redeem past suffering transcends mere sentimentality.19 In the face of such existential struggle, the two impulses to be resisted are theodicy on the one hand and despair on the other. I have attempted in a modest way, using the resources of critical theory, to resist the former. How does one resist the latter?

Ironically, the very anamnestic approach we have been considering as a legitimate response to radical evil may render such efforts problematic. Even as the Hebraic conception of history resists the abstraction of history-as-science from memory, it also precludes the separation of God from history, unlike Greek metaphysics. As such, theodicy is impossible and an effort such as Metz’s even more difficult. Fackenheim uncovers this obstacle through two parables about madmen:one told by Nietzsche, the other by Elie Wiesel. In Wiesel’s story the madman bursts into a synagogue in Nazi-occupiedEurope and exclaims: “Shh, Jews! Do not pray so loud! God will hear you. Then he will know that there are still some Jews alive in Europe.”20 In Nietzsche’s tale, the madman declares that “God is dead” and we are the murderers. Despite the initial similarities, the two stories are very different. One incites fear because God is dead; the other, because God is alive. More surprising still is another contrast noted by Fackenheim: the juxtaposition between Christian/Platonic and Jewish conceptions of history implicit in the two tales.

19 See Habermas, 333.20 Fackenheim, God’s Presence in History, 67.



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Nietzsche’s story, although announcing the death of God, is still a ‘Christian’ tale, as God’s death takes place internally asit were, in the hearts and minds of people, rather than in any objective, historical sense. The death of God is a metaphor, rather than an ontological statement. Thus, history is ‘spiritualized’ in Nietzsche’s parable. Wiesel’s madman refuses to spiritualize history. Indeed, his insanity results from this fact. Unable to separate God from history, he is unable to see the Holocaust as anything but God’s action in history. Whereas Nietzsche’s madman, in the wake of God’s demise, would at least be able to see Auschwitz as accidental to history, Wiesel’s counterpart is unable to do so. Ironically, as Fackenheim notes, “[I]n the story in which Auschwitz is accidental God is dead, and in the story in which it is essential He is alive.”21 Thus, in Platonized Christianity it is at least possible for evil to be relative, and in atheism it is random, but in Judaism it is necessary. Therefore, the Hebraic conception of history, considered so promising by Metz for restoring anamnestic reason, appears to have problematic entailments of its own. How then can one avoid despairing of God and thus violating Fackenheim’s imperative?

It would seem that critical theory, insofar as it embraces atheism, is antithetical to the 614th commandment. Surrendering faith in God would seem to transgress this imperative. However, Fackenheim allows that even the most secular Jews may keep alive that “hope which is the gift of Judaism to all humanity.” Does the Frankfurt School qualify under this criterion and could an atheistic response be ‘faithful’ even while taking leave of God? Notably, the atheism of the critical theorists is not absolute as evident from

21 Fackenheim, 68.



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Horkheimer’s essay “Theism and Atheism.” He argues that “The opposition between theism and atheism has ceased to beactual.”22 Throughout history, the two positions have been oscillating poles of a dialectical movement, at various points coming to convergence. For example, the materialism of the eighteenth century took for granted some absolute and simply hypostatized ‘Nature’ in place of God. Conversely, twentieth century religious liberalism has surrendered the transcendent God of traditional theism for an immanent source of ultimate meaning. Although he is sharply critical of theism’s abuses, his critique of atheism(s) is equally incisive. The dialectical materialism of Marx was itself transformed into an ideological tool for the maintenance of power. Interestingly, Horkheimer identifies National Socialism as a “national atheism” to which theism is a legitimate protest. As he explains:

Atheism was once a sign of inner independence and incredible courage, and it continues to be one in authoritarian or semi-authoritarian countries where it is regarded as a symptom of the hated liberal spirit. But under totalitarian rule of whatever denomination, which is nowadays the universal threat, its place tends to be taken by honest theism.23

When religion exercised power in totalitarian ways, protest atheism acted as an emancipatory influence. However, wherever the subversion of dialectical materialism, or national atheism, becomes totalitarian, the protest is being led by theists. Again, the two poles of the dialectic are not absolute; both are at different times and places emancipatory weapons

22 Max Horkheimer, “Theism and Atheism” in The Frankfurt School on Religion, 222.23 Horkheimer, 222.



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against oppression. In my judgment, Horkheimer’s assessment of the relationship between theism and atheism leaves ample room for something like Fackenheim’s ‘protest theism’; forbidding unbelief to deny Hitler posthumous victories. Therefore, the atheism of critical theory is not mutually exclusive of faithful expressions, such as Fackenheim’s, that draw explicitly on more traditional theistic sources of meaning. Indeed, there is a ‘religious’ dimension to Horkheimer’s atheism that could be termed ‘secular messianism.’ As he says: “The popular figure of atheism, metaphysical materialism, was too barren to become a serious threat to Christianity as long as it lacked a dialectical and idealistic – or in reality, a utopian and messianic – theory of history.”24 It has often been observed how much Marx’s dialectical materialism borrows from Jewish and Christian messianic and eschatological conceptions. It comes as no surprise, then, that members of the Frankfurt School would retain such conceptions, albeit in secularized form. Do such considerations suffice to qualify critical theory as a faithful response to the Holocaust in Fackenheim’s sense?

The above discussion has touched upon some major points of agreement between Fackenheim and members of the Frankfurt School, notably Adorno and Horkheimer. Firstly, both camps would agree that theodicy is no longer a viable response to suffering in our post-metaphysical, post-Holocaust world. Secondly, both would side against Nietzsche in affirming the importance of remembrance as an integral response to such tragedy. Using the resources afforded by Metz’s formulation of anamnestic reason, I attempted some measure of reconciliation between the two camps. Metz’s

24 Horkheimer, 217.



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approach dovetails nicely with either the religious or secular formulation of the revised categorical imperative, or 614thcommandment. Thirdly, critical theory allows room for both theistic and atheistic responses to suffering, making the‘protest theism’ of Fackenheim a live option in a post- metaphysical world in which secular ideologies can be sources of oppression. Perhaps this acknowledgement qualifies members of the Frankfurt School as secular Jews who nevertheless keep alive the Judaic gift of eschatological hope.

Despite these agreements, however, there are irreconcilable differences. Fackenheim cannot historicize the God of history. God cannot be subsumed by the historical process nor can the truths of Judaism be dialectically appropriated into some“post-religious truth.” Consequently, the particularity of the Jewish people must be maintained; to do otherwise would beto grant Hitler another posthumous victory. Fackenheim’s denial of the “death of God,” like the madman in Wiesel’sparable, leaves him unable to account for radical evil as other than an ‘impossible possibility,’ an incomprehensible, butnevertheless essential, aspect of the divine plan for history. The living God of Wiesel’s parable is perhaps a far morefrightening reality than the dead God of Nietzsche. Critical theory may well reject such a position as fideism, but perhaps more charitably, it would allow it as a legitimate expression of ‘protest theism’ and as an expression of the “impulse to change what cannot be changed any more.” But perhaps Fackenheim has a resource the critical theorist lacks. We haveseen Horkheimer’s skepticism regarding the reparative power of anamnestic reason. Indeed, it seems impossible to redeem the past even if one maintains hope for the future. The God of history, however, unlike his immanent counterpart, has the power to restore that which has been lost. The eschatological


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hope for traditional theism, Jewish and Christian, consists not merely of a future hope but the redemption of all history.

At this point, we come to the crux of the disagreement between the two camps. Above, we began with the differences between Adorno and Fackenheim. If the two were to confront one another, Adorno would likely consider Fackenheim’sreligious position as insufficiently transformed by the death camps and the death of metaphysics. Fackenheim would likely consider Adorno as too transformed, to the point of having surrendered the very identity the death camps intended to destroy. Both could accuse the other on the basis of their shortcomings, but there is space, in my judgment, for mutual transformation. Despite the mutual exclusivity of many aspects of our respective protagonists’ positions, there are “semantic meaning potentials” to be found in each. Habermas is willing to allow that the semantic potential of religious language is not yet exhausted even in a post-secular, post-metaphysical context. Although I cannot speak for Fackenheim, I would suggest that religionists – Jewish and Christian for our purposes here – should not disallow the possibility of meaning potentials in the secular soteriology of critical theory. Indeed, liberation theology provides an example of precisely such cross-fertilization. Perhaps the language of critical theory could yet constitute a ‘faithful’ response to suffering and oppression insofar as it contributes to an existential and eschatological hope that is the common goal of both Fackenheim and the Frankfurt School.


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Adorno, Theodor. “Meditations on Metaphysics,” in The Frankfurt School on Religion, edited by Eduardo Mendieta, 175 – 209. London: Routledge, 2005.

Fackenheim, Emil L. To Mend the World: Foundations of Post- Holocaust Jewish Thought. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994.

-------- God’s Presence in History: Jewish Affirmations and Philosophical Reflections. New York: New York University Press, 1970.

-------- Metaphysics and Historicity. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1961.

Habermas, Jürgen. “Faith and Knowledge,” in The Frankfurt School and Religion, edited by Eduardo Mendieta, 327 – 336. London: Routledge, 2005.

Horkheimer, Max. “Theism and Atheism,” in The Frankfurt School and Religion, edited by Eduardo Mendieta, 213 – 223. London: Routledge, 2005.

Metz, Johann Baptist. “Anamnestic Reason,” in The Frankfurt School and Religion, edited by Eduardo Mendieta, 285 – 289. London: Routledge, 2005.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, translated by Peter Preuss. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980.


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Spe Salvi - Encyclical Letter of His Holiness Benedict XVI on Christian Hope: documents/hf_ben-xvi_enc_20071130_spe-salvi_en.html (Accessed November 7, 2008).