Symposium Introduction

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.

Michael Behrent


Derivative Products

We do not live in existentialist times. The earnest gloom that popular opinion associated with existentialism and which once permeated movies, music, and fashion has receded from our vernacular. To be sure, despair runs deep in our culture: we are haunted by the prospect of ecological disaster, senseless mass murder, seething political resentment, and the persistence of racial and sexual violence. Yet terms like “anxiety,” “dread,” the “absurd,” and “nothingness” no longer belong to our dominant idioms of despair. “Anxiety” has become a medical, not a human condition. Even the existentialist warning that we must never renounce our boundless freedom for a fixed and fated identity now strikes us as embarrassingly quaint. We like our identities: to “find ourselves” does not mean to grasp our irreducible freedom or transcendence, but to discover the community, beliefs, and nature that truly define us. We prefer essence over existence.

Though it rarely indulges in cultural criticism, the contemporary forgetting of existentialism makes Noreen Khawaja’s excellent new book particularly welcome. Its main virtue is to remind us of the truly radical nature of existentialist ideas about subjectivity. Rejecting the romantic tradition of “expressive selfhood,” existentialists challenge the notion that there lurks in each of us a “true” self that would appear in all its uniqueness if only the social pressures and psychic insecurities restraining it could be overcome. Existentialists teach us the far more unsettling lesson that we have no stable self to speak of.

The reason lies in the dilemma that Khawaja places at the heart of existentialist thought: to exist is to have had no say in the fact of one’s existence; it is to live in an intrinsically derivative state. Kierkegaard captured this idea with characteristic irony: “How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it, why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrown into the ranks as if I had been bought from a seller of souls? How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality?” (80). We are always trying—and failing—to make our own this being that we had no choice but to be. And the only occasion for this endeavor is an ever receding present, which relentlessly destabilizes our commitments and sense of self. One of Heidegger’s “tiniest but hardest-working words,” Khawaja notes, is “je” (“in each case”) (186): “always” or “forever” are never the modes in which we live; our identity is never settled; at every instant, it is once again up for grabs.

Khawaja develops this reading of existentialism by considering three themes: personal identity (chapter 2), the place of “self-explication” in existentialism’s method (chapter 3), and the question of authenticity’s ethical status (chapter 4). Each of these themes provides an occasion for delving into a different philosopher: Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre, respectively. The most striking conclusion of her analysis, however, is the recurring framework she identifies across the work of these thinkers.

Kierkegaard’s reinterpretation of what it means to be a Christian leads him to contend that human despair arises from the fact that the “self is derived from something other than itself.” The Christian concept of sin refers to the residue of our being that we never truly recognize as our “own.” We experience sin because we “can never fully catch up with givenness” (88). Yet sin also points the way to repentance: assuming responsibility for “one’s existence as derived” (98) becomes, for Kierkegaard, Christianity’s essence: it requires a conversion, in which we joyfully embrace the derived existence that previously so burdened us and welcome it as an opportunity for spiritual labor.

The basic pattern of Heidegger’s thought is, in Khawaja’s reading, remarkably similar to Kierkegaard’s. Like the Danish philosopher, Heidegger also grapples with givenness or, as he calls it, “facticity,” which he sees as an a priori condition of human existence. Heidegger’s crucial concept of “authenticity” (Eigentlichkeit) refers to the fact that I am always in a position to grasp these a priori conditions in explicit terms. Authenticity is a formal possibility of existence. Yet while it may be a more “fundamental” attitude than other ways of being, it can in no sense be called “better.” Indeed, as Khawaja notes, Heidegger maintained that one of the most decisive traits of being, with which human existence is always entangled, is self-concealment. If being’s meaning is fated to elude us, authenticity, far from entailing triumphant insight into being’s hidden truths, means little more than a mindful repetition of being’s inevitable occlusion. As Khawaja puts it, authenticity is “the ever-to-be-renewed struggle to remember the self-concealing origin of appearance” (155).

Though Sartre is often seen as having vulgarized Heidegger’s thought, Khawaja sees the French thinker as retracing his predecessors’ steps. Through an original reading of his war diaries, Khawaja explains how Sartre formulated his ideal of authenticity (authenticité) as an alternative to stoic resignation and André Gide’s quest for a “true self.” For Sartre, authenticity means accepting the hand that fate has dealt us, but treating it as if it were a hand we had chosen. Since you can’t be the self you want, you should love the self you’re with. As with Kierkegaard and Heidegger, it is not the claim that existence is contingent, but the attitude one adopts towards contingency that defines, for Sartre, the existentialist mindset.

For Khawaja, our derivative nature—the fact that we can never be the cause of our being—thus becomes existentialism’s core problem. It is no coincidence that Heidegger, whose notions of facticity and thrownness she sees prefigured in Kierkegaard and reconfigured in Sartre, is her book’s center of gravity. Particularly important to her account is Heidegger’s rejection of the concept of subjectivity, which, he believed, failed to capture the way existence is always already involved with being. In this way, Khawaja reads back the postmodernist critique of the “philosophy of the subject”—which is frequently synonymous with phenomenology and existentialism—onto the very target of its critique. This claim is hardly surprising as it relates to Heidegger himself, given his widely acknowledged influence on so-called postmodernists like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Jacques Lacan. But Khawaja argues that this skepticism towards traditional conceptions of subjectivity can even be found in Sartre, who, in the eyes of the postmodern generation, had ignored Heidegger’s radical insights by reviving the Cartesian subject. For Khawaja, Sartre in not making the quest for true selfhood philosophy’s primary task so much as he is trying to “ri[d] himself of the illusion that there is a self to find” (191).

The idea that authenticity is no more than a deliberate and self-conscious position vis-à-vis our own thrownness leads Khawaja to describe it as an ascetic concept. For all three thinkers, authenticity, in varying degrees, depends on a conversion experience: though we carry on with our daily lives as before, we do so with a dramatically altered outlook, in which we embrace our thrownness as an occasion to live in a new way. This is why Khawaja maintains that existentialism is so often bound up with religious concerns. She analyzes how Kierkegaard’s thinking is rooted in Pietism, and tracks down the Pauline and Protestant themes that recur throughout Heidegger’s and Sartre’s work. She sees a fluid relationship between secular and religious concepts: ideas like conversion, guilt, sin, and redemption influence and are recast by existentialist thought, which, in turn, allows the Christian experience of faith (the main religion Khawaja considers) to be understood in a new light.

Khawaja wants her study to be about religion, and the religious underpinnings of existentialist thought she identifies are always illuminating. Yet one wonders if the argument from religion is not ancillary to her magisterial exegesis. An intriguing subtheme of the book is the role that economic concepts, particularly relating to property (“appropriating,” “owning,” and so on), play in existentialist discourse. Yet is it so obvious, based on her analysis, that Protestant theology is more central to existentialism than this language of property rights? The book is not entirely convincing on this front, and both these themes seem subordinate to her compelling and persuasive analysis of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre.

An issue that particularly concerns Khawaja is whether existentialism is tied to secularization. Pushing back against the view, she argues that “modernist stories underestimate the implications of existentialism’s engagement with religion and leave us ill equipped to explain the more explicit appeals to religion” in twentieth-century thought (233). But Khawaja’s concern that attempts to think of existentialism as a distinctly modern phenomenon will downplay its religious significance may be exaggerated. In The Order of Things—a book that is in many respects a polemic against existentialism and phenomenology—Foucault describes the modern episteme as founded on a dilemma: it wants to study human beings as empirical phenomena, while at the same time finding a transcendental foundation of knowledge in the human subject. This outlook emerges on the ruins of the early modern episteme, which is premised on the conviction that there exists a rational supranatural order that can be adequately captured only by perfected systems of representation—exhaustive tableaux of knowledge or a mathesis universalis. Both epistemes have implications for religious as well as secular thought. Could one not argue that existentialism (precisely because it seeks to found a transcendental outlook on the basis of immanent existence) as well as various schools of modern religious thought are grounded on the intellectual assumptions Foucault finds in the modern episteme, just as they foreclose the theological notions that would have seemed self-evident under the early modern episteme? Even if one does not endorse Foucault’s specific claims, this way of thinking—seeking the intellectual paradigm shared by modern forms of thought, in ways that straddle the religious-secular divide—seems to offer fruitful solutions to Khawaja’s concerns.

It is in the nature of book reviews to raise such scholarly issues. But what could ultimately be more inauthentic than a book review? It is a task worthy of Hilarius Bookbinder, or another of Kierkegaard’s alter egos. But when he was pondering more weighty matters, Kierkegaard asked: “What does it mean to say: the world? . . . Who tricked me into this whole thing and leaves me standing here?” (80). It is in reminding us of the powerful ways in which existentialists grappled with these questions that the great merit of Khawaja’s powerful book lies.

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    Noreen Khawaja


    Response to Behrent

    I thank the writers of these four generous and stimulating essays for engaging with my work, for the effort to clarify what it does and does not do, and for the conversations that will continue from here, whatever forms they may take.


    I am particularly gratified to find in Behrent’s elegant summary of my work the singling out of a small but crucial detail: the book is organized as a study of interlocking themes—or better, as Behrent puts it, of a common framework that can be identified provided that we consider those themes in a certain light—and not as a study of thinkers. I had hoped this way of ordering things might offer its own subtle argument about method in historical-philosophical work, but worries some have expressed about my incomplete representation of Kierkegaard’s or Sartre’s broader oeuvre (a few of which can be found below) would indicate that what Foucault once called the “author function” continues to have a hold on the fields of modern European thought.

    Behrent’s receptiveness to this particular element may have to do with the depth of his own engagement with Foucault, whose work he also draws from at the end of his essay to pose a critical question: “Could one not argue that existentialism (precisely because it seeks to found a transcendental outlook on the basis of immanent existence) as well as various schools of modern religious thought are grounded on the intellectual assumptions Foucault finds in the modern episteme, just as they foreclose the theological notions that would have seemed self-evident under the early modern episteme?” Restating the question, as I understand it: Doesn’t Foucault have an account of modernity that explains the links Khawaja is arguing for between existentialism and religion? And perhaps further: If Foucault’s account of modernity does this explanatory work capable of connecting rather than separating religion and philosophy, should that not moderate Khawaja’s resistance (as Behrent summarizes it) to “attempts to think of existentialism as a distinctly modern phenomenon”? If Khawaja’s problem with “modernist stories” about existentialism is that they can’t explain the connection Foucault’s account of modernity can explain, then maybe Khawaja’s “religion of existence” is a kind of secularizing modernity after all?

    This is a terrific question and I’ll try a response on two levels, the first tedious, the second (hopefully) more interesting. First, I’d distinguish between modern and modernist/modernizing. My pushback was not against an understanding of existentialism as modern or distinctively modern (which is not to say I’d make that claim, either, depending on how we understand “modernity” and “distinctive”), but about a type of triumphal secularizing narrative about existentialism which borrowed its logic from a broader secularizing narrative about modernity. In this kind of story, “secularize” and “modernize” function almost redundantly to indicate a divorce from religion (or at least religion’s substantive differentiation from thought, culture, power, right, etc.). This is not what Foucault means by modernity, as Behrent points out. But it is implied in Sartre’s vision of existentialism as a kind of anthropromethean coup. It is also implied in a number of the “subtraction” stories about existentialism and religion charted in my introduction. As I understand it, Foucault’s modernity of intellectual paradigms “that straddle the religious-secular divide,” should be understood as a critique of this kind of modernizing picture. And if this is right, then Foucault, Behrent, and Khawaja all agree, and the tedious difference between modern and modernizing (or pick some other names) is to be preserved. (I’d be quite happy, for example, to see asceticism as just one of those modern “paradigms,” traversing religious and secular zones.)

    But then the more interesting dimension of this question: what might it have changed about the book’s argument to situate existentialism positively within a Foucauldian notion of modernity, defined as complex fracture resulting from a paradoxical demand (whether: transcendence and immanence, universalism and historicism, critique of fetish and veneration of fact), than to situate existentialism negatively within a triumphal modernism, defined as rationalization or enlightenment or secularization? In part, I fear it might have allowed me to have less purchase on the many midcentury stories about existentialism’s godlessness and rejection of religion, a philosophy for the human being that has outgrown the illusions of faith and is man enough to face the void, than I was able to in my chosen frame. But I also recognize that a modernity characterized as fracture may have helped to emphasize Pietism’s distinctive modernity, its equal share in and sensitization to the fracture. This is a point I repeat in the book, but some readers seem to have missed what I see as its intimate consequence, namely that Pietism cannot function as a kind of non-secular religion that then, through my genealogy, gets to recontain existentialism on its own. We’ll hear more about this point below. But it strikes me that Behrent’s suggestion offers a worthy way of thinking about the outermost rhetorical framing of the work, one which might help chart a clearer path through such potential confusions.

    Behrent’s other question seems to have a sharper edge: Is this book about religion, after all? Doesn’t the analysis also dig up the testimony of another elemental language in which the norms of authenticity operate, namely, the language of property rights? It is hard for me to feel anything other than appreciation for this point, no matter how hard I try to focus on its critical intent. In working on this study, I became increasingly aware of the ways in which property concepts were tied up with the discourse of authenticity. While I tried to highlight these concepts whenever possible, to show how they structure existential approaches to the self, they never became the main focus of my book. I’d agree with Behrent that the history of property rights could provide another angle into the history of authenticity. But I wonder at his disjunctive formulation. Why would such a history be about economics instead of about religion? Are these not overlapping domains of theory and practice, particularly in relation to the problem of rightful belonging? In carefully highlighting the property logic (appropriation, ownness) at the heart of authenticity, my idea was more in the spirit of Behrent’s observation than he perhaps recognizes: authenticity has to do with both piety and property because piety and property have something to do with one another.



“Diffuse Augustinianism”

 Atheist, n. “a man with a phobia about God who saw his absence everywhere and who could not open his mouth without saying his name: in short, a Gentleman with religious convictions”

—Jean-Paul Sartre1


The Religion of Existence aims “to present existentialism as a fertile context in which to think through the problematic status of religion in modern thought” (240). It is a thought-provoking book, with an enticing premise and expansive prose.

Through its exploration of the self as a task (and its argument that existentialist “authenticity” is a secularized Protestant ascesis) Khawaja’s book raises many questions: What do we mean by religion? Who (if anyone) has privileged access to it? It is fascinating both as intellectual history and a contribution to debates about what Khawaja calls “the meaning” and “complex burden of Christianity as a cultural legacy for the West” (236, 240).

For those who share her suspicion that the boundaries between the so-called secular and sacred—or between philosophy and theology—are more porous than commonly acknowledged, the book raises larger issues of both the backward-looking and forward-looking variety. In this piece I shall focus primarily on the former, and primarily on Sartre, for in his case there are reasons to believe that Protestantism, Pietism, and Kierkegaard don’t deserve quite as much credit as Khawaja gives them.

Khawaja begins with Kierkegaard because he is “first to formulate Christian theology in fully ‘existential’ terms” (18). She argues that “the idea of authentic selfhood at the center of existential philosophy is first developed by Kierkegaard” and that in this tradition authenticity “is not something one obtains or at which one ‘arrives’; it emerges from the interminable labor of an individual’s choice of herself and obtains only as long as that choice continues to be affirmed, or worked out” (19). She then argues that this value is in some sense secularized in the work of Heidegger and Sartre.

I agree with Khawaja that Christianity is “a shared semantic horizon” of existentialism (7), that sin in particular plays a significant role, and that readers have approached Sartre with misleading assumptions about the religious themes in his work. But there are reasons to doubt that Protestant Pietism plays the most significant role in this story. I have written elsewhere that the English-speaking world’s interpretation of Sartre is skewed by its reception of his works in light of the German phenomenological (and, indeed, the Kierkegaardian existentialist) tradition. And it bears repeating that Sartre was steeped in an intellectual context where the lines between philosophy and theology were drawn differently than they are today.2

Khawaja attributes to Sartre a Protestant religiosity, writing that “surely it was the lingering traces of his Protestant upbringing, the Schweitzer side of the family tree rearing its kulturreligiöse head” (17); she also claims that his thinking about authenticity “participates in a specifically Protestant tradition of working on the self” (24). But despite his famous Protestant family, Sartre says in his memoir, Words, that he was “brought up in the Catholic faith”3 of his mother, that he was “both Catholic and Protestant.”4 Sartre’s autobiographical writings are evocative, which in many cases makes it difficult to assess their reliability as history. But there are less disputable reasons to take the importance of Catholic theology in Sartre’s intellectual formation more seriously—and indeed to resist the idea that Protestants have a monopoly on working on the self in this way.

I will give examples of other—catholic or Catholic—thinkers who influenced Sartre and exhibit this virtue. In doing so my question to Khawaja is: what is it that makes Protestant—or Pietist—asceticism distinct from these other Christian traditions of what she calls “spiritual labor” (111)? Her definition of Protestantism (given on p. 23) acknowledges that Paul and Augustine anticipate some of the themes expounded by Kierkegaard. But why should we see such figures as “proto-Protestant” or “quasi-Protestant” when similar themes are evident in Catholic thought, before and after Luther? One suspects that Weberian lenses, in this case, may be distorting what they promise to clarify.

Take, for example, the concept of conversion. Khawaja claims that, for Kierkegaard, “to become a Christian is to convert” (72) and that “it is with Pietism that conversion is transformed from one moment in the process of justification into an encompassing devotional ideal” (73). She takes this aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought to be original to him and influential in later existentialists, arguing that “by approaching the problem of religious conversion as the problem of continually ‘becoming a Christian’—Kierkegaard created the conditions for a convergence between continual conversion and personal identity” (111). Existentialist accounts of the temporality of the self play a particularly significant role in her account. But I would argue that the conditions Khawaja identifies are evident much earlier in the Christian tradition.

In book VII of the Confessions Augustine does not present “conversion” as a single and irreversible event. In fact, he uses precisely the same Latin terms Khawaja notes in Heidegger—conversio and aversio—to describe the temporal turning of the self toward or away from God.5 In Classical Latin, the words conversio and convertere designate the act of “returning or becoming.” These terms convey ongoing movement rather than a change from one state to another. But conversio and aversio in Augustine do not just bring us closer or farther from God. They also bring us closer to or farther from our true selves.

Augustine discusses conversion’s continuity in terms of habituation, which (although he does not use Khawaja’s term) requires “spiritual labor.” And Augustine’s influence on twentieth-century French philosophy was more significant than is widely acknowledged: he was on the agrégation programme eleven times,6 the same number as Bertrand Russell, behind Nietzsche and Husserl (with fifteen appearances each), and ahead of Hobbes and Diderot (with ten).

But in addition to direct readings of Augustine, Sartre was also steeped in what Philippe Sellier has called “diffuse Augustinianism.”7 In France in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century Augustine’s thought saw a resurgence of interest, with the emergence of l’école française de spiritualité. The French School, and its founder Pierre de Bérulle, were heavily indebted to Augustinian ontology and anagogy—to the idea that human beings can ascend from lower to higher orders of being, and that they do so by spiritual labor.

Bérulle’s name is little known outside France. But he was spiritual director to a better-known philosopher: René Descartes. Rather than focusing on the Meditations primarily as the locus classicus of rationalist scepticism, French interpreters have read Descartes in other lights, acknowledging his indebtedness to Bérulle and Augustinian tradition. According to Pierre Bachmann, for example, what Descartes discovered in the moment of thinking was something about the temporal structure of selfhood: “The cogito detaches a unique moment of existence, a moment which does not rely in any way on that precedes it neither on anything that follows in the course of its existence. . . . The Cartesian man also must be conserved; to be recreated at each instant. In the nakedness of the Cartesian moment one unerringly arrives at the notion of continual creation.”8

In the seventeenth century—called by some French historians “the century of Augustine”—the implications of continual creation for personal identity were debated with rigour. They were debated between Jesuits and Jansenists—most famously, perhaps, by Pascal. And François Fénelon wrote that he did not know how to assure himself “that the self [le moi] of yesterday is the same as the self of yesterday and of today. They are not necessarily linked together. One could be without the other.”9

Looking backward, therefore, I contend that the roots of Sartre’s “ekstatic temporalization of the for-itself” extend deep into this tradition—which was fertile soil for his later encounters with Kierkegaard and Heidegger.

This competing genealogy, however, does nothing to subtract from the forward-looking questions The Religion of Existence raises. Khawaja’s methodological framing of the book—situating it in different readings of existentialism and secularity—raises fascinating questions about the relationship of religion, faith, and philosophy. She contends that these three existentialists share “one crucial but rarely acknowledged sentiment: Christianity is too important to the project of philosophy to be left to theologians” (21).

This provoked some lingering questions: What about Christianity is too important? Insights into authenticity as a way of “saying yes to life” through continuous conversion? Or the relationship of the self to its actions and to others? Leaving aside the question of whether existentialism’s secularized ascesis has its origins in Protestantism, Catholicism, or some blend of both, when does something begin or cease to be “Christian”?

  1. Jean-Paul Sartre, Words, translated by Irene Clephane (London: Penguin, 2000), 62–63.

  2. See Kate Kirkpatrick, Sartre and Theology (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), and Sartre on Sin: Between Being and Nothingness (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

  3. Sartre, Words, 62.

  4. Sartre, Words, 64.

  5. Augustine, Ad Simplicianum, translated by J. H. S. Burleigh, in Augustine: Earlier Writings (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953), I.ii.18.

  6. Alan Schrift, “The Effects of the Agrégation de Philosophie on Twentieth-Century French Philosophy,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 46.3 (2008) 470.

  7. Phillipe Sellier, Port Royal et la littérature (Paris: Honoré Champion, 2000), 2:74.

  8. Jakob Bachmann, La notion du temps dans la pensée de Pierre de Bérulle (Paris: Editions P. G. Keller-Winterthur, 1964), 45.

  9. Fénelon, Œuvres (Paris: Gaume, 1851), 1:117, cited in Bachmann, La notion, 45.

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    Noreen Khawaja


    Response to Kirkpatrick

    What’s in an adjective? What kind of work does the adjective “Protestant” do in modifying a noun like asceticism? Does Protestant stand for the distinction from Catholic Christianity? From catholic Christianity? Kirkpatrick’s essay brushes up against these important questions in arguing for the relevance of Augustine and Augustinianism, among other non-Protestant Christian figures, within the intellectual and pedagogical context of Sartre’s formative years. She asks: “What is it that makes Protestant—or Pietist—asceticism distinct from . . . other Christian traditions of what [Khawaja] calls ‘spiritual labor’?” What seems to me the sharpest formulation of her critical claim follows immediately upon this question: “[Khawaja’s] definition of Protestantism (given on p. 23) acknowledges that Paul and Augustine anticipate some of the themes expounded by Kierkegaard. But why should we see such figures as ‘proto-Protestant’ or ‘quasi-Protestant’ when similar themes are evident in Catholic thought, before and after Luther? One suspects that Weberian lenses, in this case, may be distorting what they promise to clarify.”

    Kirkpatrick’s point is also mine. In fact, on the same page she cites above, I go on to say that in Religion of Existence,

    “Protestant” does not refer to a particular denomination or set of denominations within the Christian church. Rather, Protestantism designates an open-ended historical tradition in which certain spiritual, social, and theological tendencies within Christianity were concentrated, developed, and institutionalized. What this means, first of all, is that when we talk about typically or characteristically Protestant ideas and norms, we at no point need suppose that the phenomena we are looking at should be present exclusively within the materials belonging to the Lutheran and Reformed churches. The emphasis on personal conversion and repentance over the rite of baptism is a distinctive feature of Protestant theology. But it did not develop out of thin air. Considering the penitential cast of the writings of Paul and Augustine, one might even say that an emphasis on conversion was a part of Christian theology from its earliest stages. As I see it, such precedents actually support the historical claims I am making here, for if we understand Protestantism not as the “other” to Catholicism or any other religious tradition but as one particular way of concentrating and working out certain possibilities already operative within the broader Christian tradition, we should be more surprised to find that existential ideas have little resonance with pre-Reformation Christianity than to find that they have considerable resonance. At the same time, it is worth noting that it is not to Aquinas that one’s thoughts are likely to drift in reading the works of the existentialists, but to Paul and Augustine, to Eckhart and Tauler, to Silesius and Pascal—in other words, to those same pre-Reformation and Catholic thinkers with the most decisive impact on the development of Protestantism itself. (Luther himself was an Augustinian, of course.) These figures naturally cannot be seen as Protestants, and I think it would overstate the coherence of the denominational divisions within Christianity to see them as something like proto-Protestant or quasi-Protestant thinkers. A better way to understand this resonance is to view the Pauline, Augustinian, and Rhineland heritage as key chapters in the history of Christianity in which the devotional possibilities that Protestants would later formalize in the context of wide-ranging theological and ecclesiastical reform were initiated and developed in a preliminary way. (23, latter emphasis added)

    The bulk of her essay hints at the existence of a “competing genealogy” of existentialism, pointing to a diffuse Augustinian influence on existential ideas of ecstatic temporality and self. Augustine’s role in both the broad history of Western thinking about conversion and in the narrower history of phenomenological thinking about ecstatic temporality is very well known. I welcome Kirkpatrick’s reminder of this, but I cannot agree with the assessment that her story competes with the one I develop. Religion of Existence is neither about existential approaches to the temporality of selfhood nor about the range of religious ideas that have impacted existential thinking overall; it is about the constitution of the existential idea of authenticity.

    It is telling, I think, that in the moments where Kirkpatrick formulates what her alternate genealogy is a genealogy of, she tends to avoid the term authenticity, favoring more general, and more varied language: she wants “to resist the idea that Protestants have a monopoly on working on the self in this way” (where “this way” may point back to authenticity, mentioned a few lines earlier); she challenges my claim that “this aspect of Kierkegaard’s thought” is distinctive or original (where “this” seems to refer to Kierkegaard’s linking of conversion with personal identity); she argues that “the conditions Khawaja identifies” can be traced much earlier than the advent of Protestantism (where “the conditions” seem to refer to “existentialist accounts of the temporality of the self”); she contends “that the roots of Sartre’s ‘ekstatic temporalization of the for-itself’ extend deep into [the Augustinian] tradition.” In other words, at the moments when this Augustinian genealogy is framed in its competition with mine, the theoretical object apparently anchoring the genealogy seems to slide off from the concept of authenticity (where I do see a distinctive Protestant impact) and attach to a related, but far more general theme.

    This is an issue because I would never dispute the relevance of Augustine to existential thought in the areas Kirkpatrick mentions. Indeed, in the passage where I discuss Heidegger’s use of German cognates for aversio and conversio—which Kirkpatrick mentions in order to note, as though correcting me, that these terms have their roots in Augustine—I myself cite Augustine’s De Libero Arbitro, along with Aquinas and Luther (125, 276n4). It is worth mentioning that in that passage I do not link Heidegger’s use of these terms to Pietism or Protestantism, or even to Kierkegaard, but describe them as reflecting “a standard Christian logic of devotion.” So perhaps the question is not whether I have exaggerated the role of Protestantism in existentialism, but whether Kirkpatrick has exaggerated the role of Protestantism in my reading of existentialism?

    The themes she traces to the Augustinian tradition—ecstatic temporality, continual conversion—are certainly connected to existential authenticity as I outline it in Religion of Existence. But authenticity is much more than those threads (she makes no mention of “the moment,” of the concept of “waste” which figures centrally in my account, nor of the gestures of choice and appropriation at its crux). Her proposal to consider the Augustinian influence on Sartre is a worthy one. But to see what it can do that my analysis cannot, she would have to move beyond my introductory and concluding discussions about the relation between Pietism and existentialism more broadly and show how an Augustinian background explains the specific dynamics of Sartrean authenticity as I analyze them, and does so at least as well or better than the main sources I invoke in that discussion (Heidegger, Gide, and to some extent Kierkegaard). Unfortunately, none of Kirkpatrick’s “competing” proposals take up the specifics of my reading of Sartrean authenticity (in fact, she does not cite at all from the chapter on Sartre). Thus while I find the question Kirkpatrick’s essay brings out to be an important one—namely, of what kind of work an adjective like “Protestant” really does—I am not persuaded by the rhetorical frame in which this question has been set.

Christopher B. Barnett


On Khawaja and Kierkegaard

A Brief Reflection

One of the more influential books in contemporary philosophy and theology is Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007). It bears all the hallmarks of a magnum opus: ranging across more than eight hundred pages of text, and ostensibly crowning an already outstanding scholarly career, A Secular Age is famed not only for its insights into the rise of secular modernity but, in the manner of a Heidegger or a Derrida, for creating a new way of speaking about its subject matter (“buffered self,” “immanent frame,” and so on). A Secular Age, then, would seem to confirm and, in turn, to explore what many take to be a basic fact of contemporary Western culture—that it is an age [saeculum] of humanism, whereby the concepts and practices of Christianity have been overwhelmed by a plethora of alternatives, whether religious, nonreligious, or even antireligious.

But it is on just this point that other commentators demur. Noted sociologist Peter Berger has argued that it is pluralism, rather than secularism, that most accurately characterizes the modern West. Thus he remains unpersuaded by the guiding assumption of A Secular Age: “Already the title of [Taylor’s] book is wrong. We don’t live in a secular age.”1 As Berger sees it, Taylor overstates the degree to which an “international intelligentsia” represents the Weltanschauungen of “most of the world,” which in truth “is more religious than it ever was.”2 As a sociologist, Berger’s analysis is dependent on scientific data—demographic surveys, ethnographical case studies, and so on. And yet, might it find corroboration in humanistic disciplines such as philosophy and theology? In other words, is there an aporia in the humanities that corresponds to the one in sociology—namely, that putatively “secular” discourses and movements are not as secular as they appear, either failing to drive out religion altogether or, at least, reinscribing the spiritual and theological insights of Judeo-Christianity?

These questions are by no means new. John Milbank, to cite a well-known example, has claimed that theology’s “positioning” by the ostensibly neutral social sciences is actually a relic from medieval disputes within Christianity. Hence, for Milbank, secular discourses are better thought of as heterodox theologies dislodged from the Christian mainstream. Though different in purpose and in tone, Noreen Khawaja’s excellent new book, The Religion of Existence: Asceticism in Philosophy from Kierkegaard to Sartre (2016), seems to do for existentialism what Milbank sought to do for social theory. That is to say, for Khawaja, existentialist philosophy does not arrive ex nihilo but, inasmuch as it stems from the work of Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, it has “Protestant Christianity as a semantic horizon” (6). What this means is that atheist iterations of existentialism remain embedded in a Christian framework, just as Christian thinkers have learned from existentialist philosophy—whether they acknowledge it or not—that “the existential” is a key category in understanding the import of Christian faith. As Khawaja boldly puts it, “Christian faith is a matter of existential decision, and Christian language is a matter of existential meaning, but not because the Christian message is a kind or instance of the larger genre of existential communication. Christianity is existential because the existential itself is about Christianity” (11).

But this is only part of the puzzle. That existentialism translates Christian concepts into a secular idiom, Khawaja concedes, is not terribly hard to see. Still, one might wonder: “What does the translation translate? If it is not simply rhetoric and vocabulary that link existential thought to Christianity, what does this rhetoric do?” (19). Khawaja locates a number of “subthematic values” (22) that answer these questions. First, she maintains that “the secular ideal of personal authenticity will prove to be wrapped up with [the] Pietistic tradition” (22). Second, and more surprisingly, she argues that when “the architects of authentic existence engage with Protestant formations of piety, what emerges is a new form of asceticism” (22). This is as true for a “quietly lapsed Catholic such as Heidegger” as for “a zealous atheist such as Sartre,” since both figures, no less than the Pietist-bred Kierkegaard, emphasize “one of the most powerful spiritual ideals of our times—the idea that my ‘true’ self is not given to me but something I am responsible for producing” (24). Understood in these terms, Pietist spirituality, as mediated by existentialism, continues to influence Western society, and thus Christianity writ large remains present even amidst post-Christianity: “The more we learn from historians of religion about where our ‘secular’ and ‘modern’ world came from, the more we come to accept that ‘we seculars’ are always in some sense Christian, as well as or in spite of whatever else we may be” (241).

It is clear, then, that Khawaja recognizes the socio-political valence of her thesis, though that is not her chief concern in The Religion of Existence. On the contrary, the book is best thought of as a close reading of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre, with particular attention to how each of these thinkers evinces a sustained interest in self-cultivation and self-transformation—a kind of askesis by and through which the self becomes its own project. Given the extensity of Khawaja’s argument, it would be impossible in this context to detail her approach to these titans of existentialism. For that reason, I will restrict myself to a few observations about her treatment of Kierkegaard. After all, she views Kierkegaard as the primary branch by which Pietism and the Christian tradition are linked to existentialism. Thus much of her case hinges on the Dane.

First, Khawaja notes that it is surprising “how negligibly Pietism has factored into philosophical and critical assessments of existentialism” (47). Doubtless this is true, not only with regard to Kierkegaard, who was brought up in Copenhagen’s Moravian community and who retained a marked sympathy for Pietist Erbauungsliteratur throughout his life, but also with regard to a figure such as Heidegger, whose well-known interest in the Catholic mystic Meister Eckhart bears historical and thematic associations with Pietism. Moreover, as Khawaja notes, where Pietism and existentialism have been linked (as in a 1963 talk by Karl Barth) the emphasis has been on their common inward and subjectivist tendencies. In response, Khawaja argues that “there is a far more concrete connection between the two traditions,” namely, an emphasis on “conversion,” understood particularly as an ascetic call to “life-formation” (48, 51). In Kierkegaard’s case, these are not the preferred terms, but his overarching project of encouraging the reader to assume responsibility for her existence as a created being entails a self-conscious decision to become a Christian. Thus he aligns “the ideal of personal identity and the Pietistic ideal of conscious, resolute conversion” (98).

This is, as far as it goes, a straightforward way of connecting Kierkegaard’s philosophical interests to Christian spirituality, and I am generally persuaded that, in establishing an “existential account of the self . . . knotted together with Christian values and norms,” Kierkegaard represents both “an attempt to reverse the course of an already operative secularization of Christianity” as well as an influence on “existential thought even in its most exuberantly atheistic form” (112). My basic agreement, however, should not imply that I lack questions. The first concerns the particular way that Khawaja reads Kierkegaard. It is important for Khawaja’s project that “lifelong conversion” be understood as “lifelong struggle,” and she locates just this interpretation in Kierkegaard’s thought: “the underlying theological view” of Kierkegaard’s response to Christendom is that “conversion is ongoing struggle without rest” (76). But it would appear that Kierkegaard is more nuanced than Khawaja suggests. Of course, Kierkegaard does emphasize that Christian discipleship is ineludibly militant and shot through with Frygt og Bæven (“fear and trembling”). On the other hand, he also insists that it is marked by a profound and almost ineffable sense of Hvile og Ro (“rest and calm”).

Take, for instance, his treatment of the so-called woman who was a sinner—a figure depicted in Luke 7:36–50 and the focus of no fewer than three of Kierkegaard’s writings. In “Love Will Hide a Multitude of Sins” (1843), Kierkegaard lauds the woman’s willingness to approach Jesus even though her sins seemingly made her unworthy. Since her love of Jesus was so great, she overcame this obstacle and the dread that accompanied it: “In beating the enemy she beat herself to calmness [Ro], and when she had found rest [Hvile] at Jesus’ feet, she forgot herself in her work of love.”3 In “The Woman Who Was a Sinner” (1849), Kierkegaard expands on this interpretation, adding that the woman is a “picture”4 of what it means to be a Christian. Notably, this icon is not so much about struggle as about prevailing over struggle: “She has forgotten . . . the restlessness [Uro], has forgotten herself—she, the lost woman, who is now lost in her Savior, who, lost in him, rests [hviler] at this feet—like a picture.”5 A subsequent discourse sums up this insight by calling the woman a “teacher” and a “prototype of piety.”6 In light of this emphasis on rest and calm, Khawaja’s reading of Kierkegaard is problematized. After all, if the woman who was a sinner is archetypal for Christian discipleship (as Kierkegaard himself avers), then would it not be difficult to maintain that Kierkegaard’s understanding of religious conversion precludes rest?

The second question involves the ostensive “Protestantism” of Kierkegaard’s enterprise. Doubtless Khawaja is right that there are strong links between the Protestant movement of Pietism, Kierkegaard, and later existentialists such as Heidegger and Sartre. To emphasize this point, moreover, dovetails nicely with traditional readings of the figures in question—Kierkegaard, the inheritor of Lutheran Angst; Heidegger and Sartre, lapsed Catholics and advocates for a religion of immanence. But is this picture not just a little too neat? As Emmanuel Mounier’s l’arbre existentialiste suggests,7 the roots of existentialism actually dig deep into the Catholic tradition, from the Stoic leanings of Ambrose of Milan to his pupil Augustine of Hippo and on to thinkers such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Blaise Pascal. Khawaja does not dispute this point, though, at times, it appears that her desire to see “Protestant Christianity” as existentialism’s “semantic horizon” elides the degree to which Pietism in general and Kierkegaard’s thought in particular were indebted to Catholic doctrine and spirituality. To cite but one example, Khawaja insists that Kierkegaard’s stress on continual conversion is a reworking of “Pietistic self-examination” (78). But the contention that one must “work out [one’s] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12)—a Pauline expression famously embraced by Kierkegaard—also harks back to a pre-Reformation soteriology, whereby the assurance of salvation is denied. As a result, the believer can never “rest easy” but instead must continually strive to direct her will toward God. These efforts are often ascetical and require a daily willingness to assume the burden of Christ’s cross. As the fourth-century mystic Gregory of Nyssa puts it, “He who climbs never stops going from beginning to beginning, through beginnings that have no end. He never stops desiring what he already knows.”8

In short, if Kierkegaard’s thought does not just point to “lifelong struggle” but also to the blessed rest of unio mystica, and if it does not just mediate Pietist tropes to twentieth-century existentialism but also draws deeply from Catholicism, what would that mean for Khawaja’s thesis in The Religion of Existence? These are, it seems to me, questions worth pondering. Still, whatever answers emerge, Khawaja has done a great service in casting new light on our supposedly “post-religious” age.

  1. The Veritas Forum, “Why Hasn’t Religion Died Out? Peter Berger, Ross Douthat and Kristen Lucken,” YouTube video, 1:18:38, published December 2, 2015,

  2. Veritas Forum, “Why Hasn’t Religion Died Out?”

  3. SKS 5, 84 / EUD, 75.

  4. SKS 11, 277 / WA, 141.

  5. SKS 11, 277 / WA, 141.

  6. SKS 12, 263 / WA, 149.

  7. Khawaja, Religion of Existence, 42. Also see Emmanuel Mounier, Introduction aux existentialismes (Rennes: PU Rennes, 2010), 17.

  8. St. Gregory of Nyssa, Hom. in Cant. 8: PG 44, 941C.

  • Avatar

    Noreen Khawaja


    Response to Barnett

    Citing a line from my conclusion about our increasing recognition of secularism’s complex relation to Christianity—namely, that “the more we learn from historians of religion about where our ‘secular’ and ‘modern’ world came from, the more we come to accept that ‘we seculars’ are always in some sense Christian, as well as or in spite of whatever else we may be”—Barnett compares my argument about existentialism to the work of John Milbank. As I understand it, Milbank’s work appeals to the theological roots of secularism to argue for the social and conceptual recontainment of modernity within a Christian history. This aligns with Barnett’s summary: “For Milbank, secular discourses are better thought of as heterodox theologies dislodged from the Christian mainstream.” While the sentence Barnett quotes from my conclusion does seem to support the parallel with Milbank, it is only half of the argument I am making in that passage. As I add a few lines later, making something of a final warning:

    One hears often, in some theological circles, that many of the theoretical problems of Heidegger’s or Sartre’s philosophies stem from their selective appropriation of religious ideas—authenticity without grace, anxiety without faith, theological anthropology without the theology to back it up. . . . I do not think that the problems with which existential philosophy has left us will be resolved by reaching back to the conclusions the existentialists rejected, to the theological distinctions that secular philosophers “forgot.” So while religious genealogies of the secular may invite modernist apologetics such as Blumenberg’s on the one side, on the other, they open the door to heresiological critiques. Heresy may seem like an absurd notion to apply in this context. The premise of heresy is a shared and relatively stable traditional identity, which is precisely what the secular age tends to lack. But this is slide of our situation: in the orbit of the protestant-secular, nothing is universal, and we are all “insiders.” (241–42)

    Putting it plainly: I do not think the secular can be recontained in the history of Christianity in the way I take Milbank to be defending. Sartre does not become a heterodox Christian just because we see more clearly the Christian roots of some of his concepts and habits of mind. Sartre does something new with Christianity, and this should cause us to question what Christianity is as much as to question what Sartre is. The language of heterodoxy will not support this sort of expansive question. As Barnett knows from his own work on these movements, Pietism formed in the context of and as a response to modernization and secularization in Europe. I make this point repeatedly in the book. To claim Pietism as a predecessor of existentialism thus cannot be to locate existentialism on some “inside” of Christianity (if, that is, Pietism becomes Pietism by trying to rewrite the constitution of Christianity dividing the “outside” and “inside” of religion in the modern way).

    Barnett poses two critical questions about my work. They are distinct but work together. First, and like Kirkpatrick, he worries about my focus on Protestantism. Is this not too neat a story, he asks? Accepting my broad claim about the role that Pietist practices and doctrines played in the formation of existential ideals of personal authenticity (a claim which benefits from Barnett’s own excellent research on Kierkegaard’s Pietism), he nonetheless worries about whether my focus on this particular connection “elides the degree to which Pietism in general and Kierkegaard’s thought in particular were indebted to Catholic doctrine and spirituality.” Similarly to Kirkpatrick, he points to the longer history of Christian ideas about ongoing or continual conversion, citing a beautiful passage about desire and “beginnings that have no end” from Gregory of Nyssa. I won’t repeat my response to Kirkpatrick’s essay, but will just say that it is always helpful to be reminded that Pietism—like existentialism, like Christianity, like any historical formation—is never just itself, and never has exclusive rights to what it contains. The resonance Barnett cites is more an addendum to the work of my book than a challenge to it.

    The other question pertains to my claim about the importance of restless faith to Kierkegaard. Barnett is certainly right about there being positive theological images of rest in Kierkegaard’s corpus, including the “woman who was a sinner,” as well as in Kierkegaard’s religious discourses on the lilies and the birds. Barnett notably does not talk about the frequency of these sorts of images relevant to the restless discussions I emphasize, and I expect he’d agree that Kierkegaard spent much, much more time and effort exploring the unfinished and exacting element of faith than of depicting the tranquility it may promise.

    Nonetheless, there are a number of such images, and I think something can be said about the particular status they have in Kierkegaard’s thought. They are “prototypes,” as Barnett mentions, iconic images that are meant to inspire and lift up the devoted, but that are also marked by a stark, qualitative difference from the situation of ordinary human relation. The lilies and birds are, in fact, an impossible prototype: they are sinless, perfectly devoted because in no way capable of imperfection. They may inspire us by their perfect, restful devotion to their creator, but our relation to them can never achieve that same perfection. The woman who was a sinner was, of course, a sinner. But the was is not irrelevant, and while the description of her that comes through in Kierkegaard’s writings is one of a being that has passed into another register, closer to the lilies and birds than to the restless striving of much of Kierkegaard’s other writings, she got there through battle with the enemy, “beat[ing] herself to calmness.”

    My point was never that faith precludes rest, for Kierkegaard, but rather that rest is a word “always surrounded by quotation marks whether explicit or not” (89). In other words, there is something complicated about Kierkegaard’s images of rest even when they seem to be positively asserted. I still think so! The woman who was a sinner and who beats herself to calmness, the lilies and birds who do not sin and whom we can thus never, ever match—despite seeming like straightforward images of rest, there is nothing straightforwardly restful about how one becomes restful. The work of my chapter on Kierkegaard was to outline a fundamental logic of devotion that circulates throughout his authorship and that helps explain the ascetic structure of authenticity that formed in dialogue with his thought. While I accept that is not the only story one might want to tell about Kierkegaard’s idea of faith, and that there may be some lines in my book which underserve those images of rest Barnett mentions, I do not find these images to alter the balance sheet in such a way that they challenge the salience of the logic I propose, or the claim built around it. (Barnett’s example in Gregory of Nyssa is a bit misleading, on this score, since the passage he cites emphasizes that the union is one of ongoing labor, from beginning to beginning.)

    • Christopher B. Barnett

      Christopher B. Barnett


      A Quick Response

      There are a number of comments in Khawaja’s reply that I’d like to address, but I’ll have to limit myself to the issue of “rest” in Kierkegaard. Khawaja writes: “I expect [Barnett would] agree that Kierkegaard spent much, much more time and effort exploring the unfinished and exacting element of faith than of depicting the tranquility it may promise.” Doubtless it is true that Kierkegaard “spent much, much more time and effort” on describing the restlessness of faith, but I’m rather hesitant to conclude that “time and effort” ipso facto indicate relative importance. To cite but one example, a Marxist might expend more effort on historical materialist theory than on the ultimate withering away of the state, though the latter is the real goal of the historical process. I’d say something similar of Kierkegaard’s attention to the “exacting element of faith.” It is essential that the thinker, analyzing the here and now, focus on the conditions thereof. And yet, those conditions should not be mistaken for highest end.

      In a sense, then, I do agree with Khawaja’s conclusion: “There is something complicated about Kierkegaard’s images of rest even when they seem to be positively asserted.” Yes, they are complicated, even paradoxical, precisely because they point to something transcendent in and through the immanent. But, in this, they are in line with other such images and motifs over the history of Christian spirituality. As I detailed in a recent essay (see *Spiritus* 16 [2016]: 58-77), Kierkegaard resembles figures such as Augustine of Hippo: in underscoring the very restlessness of earthly life, both gesture toward the so-called *unio mystica*, that is, toward the happiness of union with God.

      These are only brief reflections and are, as such, inadequate. Nevertheless, they seemed worth adding to the mix…



Unmasking as Praxis

Every philosophy conceals a philosophy too: every opinion is also a hiding place, every word is also a mask.

—Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil


Noreen Khawaja’s The Religion of Existence: Asceticism in Philosophy from Kierkegaard to Sartre is a splendidly written close reading of the core of existentialism. It is particularly incisive in its analysis of the complex valences of “authenticity” (28–69) and its portrayal of existentialism as a “tradition” or “pattern of intergenerational influence” (4). Her meticulous and thoughtful readings of key philosophical issues in the writings Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre have already garnered well-earned praise and I suspect the work’s reputation will continue to grow.

All that said, it seems to have been packaged and presented as a somewhat less adventurous project in the philosophy of religion, and as such it seems likely to mislead superficial readers. Let me explain.

Unmasking is a conventional mode in the philosophy of religion. Countless studies have taken it as their ambition to expose the religious influences or background of a particular philosopher and to show that a nominally secular philosopher was aligned with theological discourses all along. For instance, Jacques Derrida has been unmasked in different contradictory studies as variously a theologically Jewish, Christian, and even a specifically Catholic thinker.1 I’m not against unmasking as such but unmasking often functions either to claim the philosopher for the study of religion or to suggest that the philosopher failed to fully appreciate the theological resources of a particular faith. In the latter case, this mode of scholarship often deploys a narrative trajectory drawn from the old-fashioned account of secularization to present particular philosophical schools as a falling off of supposedly richer theological traditions.

At first glance, The Religion of Existence looks like an unmasking project of this sort. From its title alone, a reader might expect that the book will be an exploration of existentialism as an -ism or one might say religion insofar as that suffix is often taken. Moreover, the book does gain some of its initial mileage by tracing the Pietist influences on what would become existentialism, which would seem to allow one to claim existentialism as a Protestantism. The three thinkers examined in detail—Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre—therefore get to be unmasked as in some sense Christian. Thus, there is a strong temptation to see the book as a classical exposé in the conventional mode.

But this is where the reading of Khawaja’s account goes astray because we already know that Kierkegaard was a deeply Protestant thinker. He is also conventionally portrayed as the founder of existentialism. Thus, we already know that existentialism has Protestant roots. This if anything is far and away the established story. We also already know that Heidegger was deeply entangled in theology. Even those who haven’t identified the theological register of Being and Time know that Heidegger spent a little time in a seminary, wrote a habilitation thesis on the theologian Duns Scotus, and so on. Hence, the only thinker with a connection to Christianity to be unmasked might be that famous atheist Sartre. But even there, it is common knowledge that as soon as a particular philosopher goes out of their way to stridently declare their atheism, they are reacting to a deeply theological set of concerns. Plus, scholars have been looking at putative theological influences on Sartre since the 1960s. Moreover, Khawaja notes from the outset that the idea of existentialism as engaged with Christianity is not a new discovery (19). Thus, The Religion of Existence cannot be a mere unmasking or appropriation of existentialism for Christian theology.

To elucidate why this would be a mistaken reading of the work, I want to describe what I see as the book’s more fascinating intervention—namely, an engagement with narratives of secularism and the relationship between religion and philosophy. In a way, I think Khawaja might be doing her own unmasking of the kind of unmasking that goes into much of philosophy of religion.

Already in the introduction Khawaja outlines what she sees as the three main historiographical accounts of the relationship between existentialism and religion—first, existentialist philosophy appears in a different domain of generality from Christian theology in a way that perhaps complements it (11–12); second, existentialism is a secularized form of religious thought, produced through a process of subtraction or competition with Christian meaning (13–14); third, there is a kind of religious tone or affect which colors existentialist thought (15–16). Although her aim is to disrupt all three of these narratives, it is this last mode that Khawaja interrogates by seeing it as a symptom of an issue that is important to her work as a whole, namely “a deep and widespread uncertainty in the twentieth century about what makes thought ‘religious’” (16). In that respect, she summarizes all three narratives by observing that they share a sense that “existential philosophy feels religious to its readers” (16). The work is in some respects an attempt to address exactly those issues—what does it mean for thought to be religious? And why does existentialism have a religious “feel”?

Khawaja explores these issues throughout the work. But she returns to thinking through them in relationship to broader narratives of secularization in the book’s riveting conclusion. There she distinguishes between two particular approaches to the place of religion in modernity. First, there is a movement that Khawaja sees as epitomized in Gil Anidjar’s Blood. She accuses Anidjar of denying “that there is anything with agency in the West that is not Christian” as part of an effort to “resurrect Christianity in mythical” form as a rhetorical enemy or scapegoat (237). Second, she contrasts this mode with Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life. One of Sloterdijk’s ambitions is to preempt a notion of a “return of religion” or “postsecular” (239). Instead he argues that what is conventionally thought of as religion is just one “regime” or manifestation of a broader human capacity to practice life or self-invent. Accordingly, he takes asceticism or practical askesis to be the essence of humanity.

Khawaja is critical of both views and it is in the last pages that Khawaja owns her own usage of “religion” to “demarcate the shift that occurs when, out of a softened distinction between fact and value, a praxis emerges” (232). I want to take this notion of religion together with her final statement: “A principal aim of this book has been to present existentialism as a fertile context in which to think through the problematic status of religion in modern thought” (240).

To paraphrase, what “feels” religious about existentialism turns out to be in good part its engagement with practice, which she identifies, like Sloterdijk, with the older meaning of askesis (61–62)—hence the “Asceticism in Philosophy” of the book’s subtitle. Existentialism would seem to be a “religion” of existence insofar as it represents a “way of life.”

I broadly agree with the characterization that one of the distinctive features of existentialism is its presentation as a way of life and that this aspect of praxis is one reason why scholars have been quick to suggest it feels religious. I think this is an important takeaway from the project. But this leads me to two intertwined observations:

(1) Why think of ascetic practice as particularly Christian? Or particularly religious? Restated, what are the stakes of treating existentialism as religious as opposed to classically philosophical?

I may be misreading the work in this respect but it seems at times there is a shift between talking about why people might see existentialism as religious and why existentialism might be religious (at least for the purposes of analytical study). The second part of the question seems like it could be explored further, in part because it doesn’t seem to be a given.

For instance, the main thrust of Nietzsche’s discussion of the “ascetic ideal” in the Genealogy of Morality is that asceticism has moved beyond Christianity to be a life-denying ideal throughout European culture. Asceticism in this account would be “culture,” but it might as easily be construed as “politics” or a form of political action.2

More importantly, the language of askesis takes us back to the roots of Greek philosophical thought. In Pierre Hadot’s famous formulation, which is quoted within, “Philosophy [was] a way of life.” Hadot explores this way of life centrally in Stoicism or Cynicism and perhaps one could make the case that existentialism is a reaction to either.

But if the core of classical philosophy is a collapsed distinction “between fact and value,” such that “a praxis emerges,” then one might as well say that Existentialism is a philosophy. On the surface this seems to be such a truism as to be actively banal. But one of Hadot’s main points is that the loss of philosophy as praxis is late.

(2) Not to turn Khawaja’s work into a classic account of secularization, but it is worth observing that the loss of a notion of philosophy as a way of life is even later than is conventionally supposed.

We find an emphasis on a way of life in Early Modern Philosophy, although admittedly with a sense that philosophy would justify Christian morality. We find it in “enlightenment” thinkers. Part of Nietzsche’s famous critique of philosophers not living up to their values presupposes philosophy as a lifestyle. We can find it in Kant, in the Romantics, in the Pragmatists, the Young Hegelians, Marxist philosophers and Critical Theorists, etc.

The notion of a “naturalistic fallacy” and the distinction between fact and value the quasi-positivists’ reading of Hume, given impetus by a misreading of Weber (and interesting the proto-existentialist Tolstoy). It became a central norm in the American academy only in the twentieth century. In some respects, a de-politicized and de-actualized philosophy functioned as a way to force Marxists out. Even the early “Red Positivists” had ethical programs and political projects. So my sense is that what “feels religious” about existentialism is how much specifically Anglo-American analytical philosophy came to model itself on a “value-free science.”

In the view that Khawaja criticizes Christianity is sometimes characterized as a religious exit from religion. It would be easy to turn the tables on philosophy itself. One might say what passes as philosophy in American philosophy departments is a de-classic-izing of philosophy and a rejection of both its Greek and Christian antecedents. To exaggerate somewhat, one might say that philosophy is a secularization of philosophy.

In sum, the definition of philosophy in terms of rational contemplation and metaethics and a rejection of praxis, value, politics, and a way of life is younger than Existentialism. In this respect, Existentialism is peculiar because it retained its identification with practice not because it did so initially. Moreover, it is not alone in representing various forms of philosophical praxis (some of my favorite philosophical schools are praxis and value oriented, e.g., critical theory, virtue ethics, feminist philosophy, and Sino-Japanese philosophical traditions). Finally, the roles of various existentialists themselves in the flight from values and the rejection of praxis is perhaps a subject worthy of more detailed analysis.

By way of final summation, I want to emphasize the value of the project. I think it provides a fascinating reading of existentialism and the next time I teach Kierkegaard I’ll do it in a different way because of this excellent work.

To end in a prompt—I’d love to see you expand your tantalizing remarks about secularization theory in the book’s conclusion to discuss in greater detail your broader alternatives to Anidjar and Sloterdijk and the like.

  1. See Edward Baring, The Young Derrida and French Philosophy, 1945–1968; John D. Caputo, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida; Gideon Ofrat, The Jewish Derrida. If you are keeping score there is also an atheistic Derrida on offer, Martin Hägglund, Radical Atheism: Derrida and the Time of Life.

  2. See David Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism.

  • Avatar

    Noreen Khawaja


    Response to Josephson-Storm

    If there were a drinking game in which one had to take a shot every time the word “unmasking” appeared in a text, I’d be in a coma right now. There may be a specific toxicity to this word, such that even critical contact with it can bring one to fall under its spell. Powered by the fires of modernism, the sweet but illusory glee of I’ve-got-you-in-a-way-you-haven’t-got-me-and-I’m-going-to-go-further. Josephson-Storm outlines the unfortunate prevalence of this gesture in a field he calls “philosophy of religion.” The religionists want to reclaim the secular modernity that some had figured as a departure from religion. No, the religionists say, look at all this theological history/background/influence! As long as no one asks too many questions about the so-called genealogical fallacy, enough of us go home with our feathers ruffled to call it a productive day. And this is what we came for. A beloved ritual of self-critical liberalism. A shameful waste of human intelligence. A useful reminder that things are always more complicated than they appear. A troubling indication that we tolerate simplistic appearances so that we can continue to have easy access to a script of emancipatory complexity.

    Josephson-Storm says: Khawaja’s book “is packaged as” and thus may seem to a “superficial reader” like one of those “less adventurous” works of unmasking. But lurking behind the surface, he argues, is something else. Is he unmasking my book as a work of non-unmasking? I imagine he’d say no! I would also say no! I wonder if we’d agree about the reasons. Mine: it can’t be an unmasking because the points he sees himself teasing out from beneath the surface are actually quite explicit features of the book. Of course it’s not clear what explicit means if an explicit feature is not perceived as explicit. That I will concede.

    The gesture he attributes to contemporary philosophy of religion is a subtype of what Bruno Latour famously theorized as the scapegoating mechanism of modernity: “To unmask: that was our sacred task, the task of us moderns. To reveal the true calculations underlying the false consciousnesses, or the true interests underlying the false calculations. Who is not still foaming slightly at the mouth with that particular rabies?” As the “was” in that passage indicates, Latour thinks we have (or ought to have) reached the end of this project: “How can we still make wholehearted accusations when the scapegoating mechanism has become obvious?”1

    Inspired by Latour’s diagnosis, my conclusion sought to theorize the genealogical genre at the heart of many studies of the peculiar complicity between Christianity and modernity (studies far more widely dispersed than the field of “philosophy of religion”). Not to “unmask the unmaskers”—another boomerang of modernism—but to ask about range of possibilities that come with being an accomplice. The perks. What have the existentialists taught me, if not a language in which to practice the convertibility of guilt and responsibility, of history and freedom?

    The conclusion was built on the work of the book, which I may divide into three primary tasks: (1) show how norms of selfhood operate ascetically within the parameters of a critique of the self (or a critique of self as presence), (2) explore how the formal work of a concept like authenticity can bring us into an understanding of the way in which philosophical and religious traditions relate to one another, (3) argue for a specific cultural nexus in which the interplay of labor and concept, form and content, normative selfhood and a critique of the self could be best explored in the case of authenticity. We may call this labor practice, exercise, or askesis. In the case of the concept of authenticity, I argued, the particular practices that best clarify the kind of labor involved are those rooted in Pietistic traditions of repentance and conversion.2

    The question of the conclusion was the following: Now that I have told you this story about the connection between Protestant norms of repentance and conversion and twentieth-century theories and practices of selfhood—what exactly have I done? What has changed about the world or our impressions of it?

    At issue, for me, was never that something putatively secular has its roots in religion. As Josephson-Storm points out, the introduction begins by observing that something about existentialism “feels” religious to many of its readers. My aim was to take that feeling seriously, philosophically as well as historically, and to clarify it. I wanted to explain why readers may have felt that way, but also, as Josephson-Storm rightly supposes, why this feeling had a basis these readers may not themselves have fully understood. Moreover, as I discuss in the first chapter in drawing on historians of Pietism, the reform movements of eighteenth-century Protestantism are not an example of religion-before-the-secular, but a reaction to the secularization of European life that had already been taking place, to a perceived “de-Christianization” of Europe. Thus, as I wrote in that chapter, “to see a particularly strong connection with Protestant ascetic ideals need not prompt us to fold existentialism back ‘into’ confessional Protestantism. Rather, this connection should also encourage us to think about the ways in which religious value formation may itself be less confessional than it might seem” (68).

    Pushing my own formulation: more religious and less confessional. What does this involve?

    The religion of existence should be taken more seriously; the Christianity of philosophical ideas of the self should be taken more seriously; the boundaries and constitutions of that religion should not be defined exclusively or primarily from out of the resources of the group that defended Christianity insofar as it implied a distinction from other groups, from the world itself. In exhortative form: Let’s accept the Christianity of our modernity and post-modernity, and not accept that the ones who identified as Christians in supposing its distinction from the secular are the ones who now/still/again/ever did get to define Christianity’s norms as something that is not distinct from the secular.

    Responses to this exhortation could take on many forms: Recognizing that Christianity is not a substitutive property, that to describe something atheistic or secular as Christian need not make it less atheistic or secular. Wearing the Christian inheritance that so many of us never asked for otherwise than as a cross, a condition in which we have no agency, a tradition which has survived this peculiar transition to secular modernity in part by relying on, and by the virtue of, its defectors and detractors. Refusing the assumption that Talal Asad—in proportion to the strength of his own argument—is any less legitimate a theologian than Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, or Cardinal Ratzinger. These are but initial thoughts and I’d invite any intrigued by my proposal to respond themselves!

    There are several errors in this essay. Josephson-Storm’s first question, for example, is missing a premise: I never argue that ascetic practice is Christian, only that the ascetic norms inflecting existential authenticity are shaped by Christianity in particular. Ascetic practice is also Hellenistic, Chinese, Indian, Persian, of course. In another example, Josephson-Storm’s correct citation of my definition of religion, in his paragraph 10, somehow floats off by paragraph 17 to become my definition of “classical philosophy.” Needless to say, the critical question he poses on the basis of that reassigned definition, which moves him into the long reflection on the tradition of philosophy as a way of life, is not one I find clear.

    1. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, translated by Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 44.

    2. On Josephson-Storm’s first question: I never argue that ascetic practice itself is Christian, only that the ascetic norms structuring the pursuit of existential authenticity are formed in dialogue with Christianity in particular. We seem to agree that ascetic practice is also Indian, Chinese, Hellenistic, etc.

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      Jason Josephson Storm


      Reply to a reply

      Thanks for your thoughtful reply and thanks again for the wonderful book!

      To reply to your reply, I share your sense of exhaustion at the game of unmasking in philosophy of religion, which seems to be often caught in a secular-religious binary and hence stuck in the mode of exposing a given source as either philosophy or theology. I agree a given work or thinker can clearly be both.

      My point about your definition of religion is that it would include Classical Philosophy. Praxis and a softening of the fact-value distinction being central to most movements in Classical Greek, Chinese, and Indian philosophies. So the very thing that gives existentialism is religious feel might just be the way that it feels like philosophy

      But again minor points, again thank you for the book It was a pleasure to read!

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