Philosophy and Its Existential Values
Reading Noreen Khawaja’s stunning debut, The Religion of Existence, is a special pleasure. Khawaja moves between modern theology and philosophy with remarkable ease. She writes with a keen awareness of what it means to write philosophically.
The Religion of Existence is a book about the place of religion in existential philosophy, most notably in key nineteenth century authors: Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre. Inasmuch as its primary subject is philosophy, it is always already (this is a book about Heidegger, after all!) a book about religion. What Khawaja exactly means by this unfolds throughout the book’s dense but eminently readable pages. The argument stems from a reasoned observation that’s difficult to contest: when looking at existentialism as an intellectual tradition, it becomes hard to understand it, to theorize it properly, without noting the consistent role that religion—specifically Protestant theology—plays in the formation of its values.
Khawaja is quick to differentiate her point from the long-standing strategies that explain the role of religion in the existentialist tradition. She is interested neither in explaining religion away as a mere accentual bug nor in defining it as that which was subtracted by modernity. Nor does she treat religion as the concrete, particularized instance of universal questions, posed by existential struggle of the human to become itself amid the travails of the modern world. For her, the truth about religion and philosophy in existentialism (and indeed, about the “norms within the practice of philosophy” itself) rests in the subthematic values that emerge when philosophy playfully experiment with Christian ideas of, most notably for her analysis, piety, selfhood, sin, conversion, and authenticity. What results a full philosophy of asceticism that not only opens up new pathways to understand what was going on with existential philosophy in the 19th and 20th centuries, but also helps to understand Christianity and its relationship to humanist traditions.
In a piercing and provocative essay, Michael Behrent sees praises Khawaja’s exegetical skill and her deft ability to traverse literary and intellectual traditions with ease, but he asks whether what she uncovers (and its value) goes unrecognized, even by her. If the central thesis of the book is that Protestantism and its theology is at the center of existentialist discourse and culture, her book may not well defend that. What it does elevate is themes of property ownership, a matter of some importance to all three writers that Khawaja explores. Behrent goes on to say really smart things about Foucault, all of which are helpful and worthy of review in their own right.
Kate Kirkpatrick examines Sartre’s underlying Catholicism in order to make the point that “there are reasons to believe that Protestantism, Pietism, and Kierkegaard don’t deserve quite as much credit as Khawaja gives them.” Kirkpatrick specifically names the concept of conversion, suggesting that Khawaja leans heavily on Protestantism when giving an account of what this might mean, both existentially and theologically. She draws rather straight lines between Augustine and the French Catholic intellectual tradition that shaped Sartre, wondering whether there is reason to reconsider the centering of Protestantism featured in The Religion of Existence.
Christopher B. Barnett appreciates the properly Pietist way that Khawaja renders the melancholy Dane, but he wonders if her reading is too flat. Yes, there’s struggle and angst and bitterness in Kierkegaard’s theology of authentic selfhood, and yet there’s also rest. Kierkegaard, like Thomas Aquinas, is rather Augustinian, after all. Sure, Kierkegaard is very Protestant, and there’s obviously a significant Reformed and Lutheran historical character to Pietism, but what about the Catholics? Despite Khawaja’s careful qualification of “Protestantism” as a tradition, Barnett argues that there’s something missed by this narrowing of the discursive field.
Jason Josephson-Storm goes straight to what Khawaja has to say about the narratives of secularism as the fundamental mediating idea that structures the contemporary conversation between religion and philosophy today. He notes that one of Khawaja’s key ways of defining asceticism as existentialism’s key religious values is the way it emphasizes the agency of selfhood: authenticity is “a way of life,” a particularly spiritual form of labor, but he wonders whether it is right to think of this as Christian, religious even?
Readers of this symposium will get the chance to see some of the brightest new voices in religion and philosophy discuss key ideas and methods in the field, taking up rather classic questions with new vigor and fresh perspectives. This book is valuable because of its analysis of classic questions about the relationship between Christianity and existentialism and religion and philosophy. But one of the many reasons why Syndicate is fortunate to host this discussion—and why theologians, scholars of religion, and philosophers alike MUST read this symposium (and buy the book!)— is because of the way it offers what Khawaja called “another sort of concept” that helps us understand what philosophers are up to when taking up theology.
I believe Khawaja is right to say that “Christianity is too important to the project of philosophy to be left to theologians.” (21) You’ll need to read this symposium and (buy the book!) to know why.