The Guide to Gethsemane

Anxiety, Suffering, Death

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Emmanuel Falque
George Hughes
Perspectives in Continental Philosophy
  • New York, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , November
     200 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Death is a problem. No, not a problem. The problem. So painful, so tragic, so crushing is the fate that awaits us that we mortals tend to ignore it altogether. An old professor of mine used to quip that philosophers make for bad party guests because we are always thinking about death.

Yet, as Emmanuel Falque rightly points out in his provocative book The Guide to Gethsemane: Anxiety, Suffering, Death, all of that good philosophical thinking amounts to little more than a flight from death, an unwillingness to look the raw brutality of finitude in the eye. Philosophy, Falque writes, offers many ways to “think of one’s own death” (22)—we can approach it with irony like Socrates, with resignation like Epicurus, with hope like Blaise Pascal, with rebellion like Albert Camus, or even with the tenderness of Charles Péguy—“but none of this will cancel out the ineluctable and unsurpassable character of death” (22). None of it will save us from our plight.

And yet, Falque contends, perhaps it is not salvation that we need, or at least not salvation as we typically conceive of it. Perhaps what we need is to learn to bear the burden, to live with the tension, to accept that suffering is an inherent (potentially beautiful) part of life, to embrace life fully—death and suffering and humiliation and all. The impetus behind this book seems to be to show that Christians can face death authentically without falling prey to that old escapist trap of ignoring the problems of this life by fixating on the next. (The afterlife is, conveniently enough, after death as well.)

In order to do so, Falque reminds us that the “savior of the world” (1 John 4:14) does not free us from our biological deaths—Christians die like everyone else—but rather descends into our finite humanity and, in so doing, “exposes to us our own putrefaction there on the cross” (xxii) and reveals “what it is to be one of humankind . . . [to] suffer from no longer understanding God” (3).

But what does it mean to be one of humankind, to live in the absence of God? In this work, Falque offers deep and probing reflections on the crucifixion and its relation to every human life. He opens The Guide to Gethsemane with a meditation on Matthias Grünewald’s iconic Isenheim altarpiece which depicts in graphic detail the ugliness of the crucifixion. For Falque, Christ’s “repulsive appearance demands simply that we see, or dare look at, what a mutilated body really is” (xx). The hideousness of Christ—recalling Isaiah 52:14: “so marred were his features, beyond that of mortals his appearance, beyond that of human beings”—“shows us ‘exposure’ rather than ‘purification,’ . . . his face swollen, neck broken, skin distended, muscles wasted, articulations dislocated, and skin cracked open” (xxi).
For Falque, this icon of ugliness, this incarnation of everything that is putrid and unclean, reveals the fate that awaits us all. The “visibility of the flesh” laid bare, striped of its forms, robbed of its meaning, left utterly naked, exposed, suggests not a “catharsis for our transgressions” but simply humiliation, degradation, death—our death, the death that each of us must face (xxi). The God depicted on that altar piece and in Falque’s book is not the God of meaning, not the God of reconciliation, but the God of sorrow, suffering, defeat. He is, to quote Pascal, “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”—that is, the God of life, human life, in all its dimensions, desecrations, and depravities. And Falque deserves credit for bringing that oft forgotten God to light.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jean-Luc Beauchard is a philosopher of religion specializing in existentialism, literary theory, and contemporary Continental thought.

Date of Review: 
September 21, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Emmanuel Falque is Honorary Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy at the Catholic University of Paris.

George Hughes has served as Professor in the Faculty of Letters at the University of Tokyo.


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