The Religion of Existence

Asceticism in Philosophy from Kierkegaard to Sarte

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Noreen Khawaja
  • Chicago, IL: 
    University of Chicago Press
    , December
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this well-acclaimed book, “from Kierkegaard to Sartre” translates to “Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre.” Many other authors are mentioned now and again, but the three middle chapters—2, 3, and 4—deal in turn with those three figures. To say that the book is well annotated is to engage in gross understatement: there are nearly eight hundred endnotes. 

The author’s purpose is, basically, to rethink the role of religion in our age of so-called secularization by calling attention to the extent to which certain religious ideas, especially those coming from the tradition of Pietism, pervaded the thinking of the two most prominent 20th-century existentialists beyond what, she believes, they or their proponents have realized. Of course the case of the progenitor of existentialism, Kierkegaard, is clear-cut in this regard, and both Heidegger and Sartre acknowledged his influence on them. His was certainly a praxis-oriented philosophy, and so was theirs, a fact that leads our author to the assertion, highlighted in the book’s sub-title, that existentialism falls within the tradition of ascesis, making it more akin to religion than is most modern philosophy. The two most important concepts serving to support this claim are authenticity and conversion, which together constitute the title of the book’s first chapter. 

Khawaja exhibits a deep understanding of Kierkegaard’s view that becoming (this word is very important) a Christian is a strenuous and unending activity, involving individual conversion and far removed from the self-satisfied, complacent “Christianity” of most of his contemporaries. She is quite familiar both with his writings and with much of the recent secondary literature. The task of transitioning from this analysis and applying it to what she provocatively calls Heidegger’s “Philosophical Methodism” (the title of chapter 3) is more daunting. It is true that Heidegger, who acknowledged his debt to Kierkegaard, emphasized the necessity of struggle against “oblivion,” as she calls it—the forgetfulness of Being, especially in his early writings. Khawaja calls this an ascetic struggle, an “ascetic logic” (121), which in fact connects all phases of his work. Most central to her analysis of Heidegger, however, is his focus on “authenticity.” This is an obsession of many Heidegger scholars, some of whom regard it as the culminating virtue of a Heideggerean ethic, despite his disavowal of developing an ethic. (As Khawaja correctly points out, Heidegger never explicitly wrote that authenticity is better than inauthenticity.) Her resolution of these disagreements is to say that authenticity for Heidegger is a normative, but not an ethical, idea. She concludes her chapter on Heidegger with a quite critical—excessively so, in my opinion—characterization of his approach to history, which she calls “color blind” (152).

Khawaja’s approach to Sartre is problematic in several ways, which together make her treatment of him less sure and less insightful than her treatments of Kierkegaard and Heidegger. I can enumerate only a few of these ways. For one thing, after an initial discussion of Sartre’s book on “the Jewish Question” (Anti-Semite and Jew, in the English translation), in which indeed the notion of authenticity plays a central role, she makes reference in the bulk of this chapter (4) primarily to Sartre’s War Diaries and Notebooks for an Ethics, both published years after Sartre’s death. Now, between the times at which these two works were composed, Sartre wrote and published another work, Being and Nothingness, which appears only as a “see also” portion of one of the 146 endnotes to this chapter, and in four consecutive endnotes to the following chapter. 

True, Sartre makes virtually no reference to authenticity in his magnum opus, except for a famous footnote at the end of his treatment of bad faith in which he alludes to “a self-recovery of being which was previously corrupted,” which “we shall call authenticity, the description of which has no place here.” So that work would have served Khawaja’s purposes poorly, although she could have generated some useful reflections on her other major concept, conversion, out of certain passages in it. It should also be remembered that Sartre decided against completing his Notebooks because he became dissatisfied with the path that he was taking in them. Additionally, while his thoughts about authenticity in the latter furnish fertile material for Khawaja, they scarcely amount to a full-fledged “ethics of authenticity” (167), as she claims, especially since he also attempted at one point in this same work to develop a kind of axiomatic ethic, of which the highest value was to be generosity.

Had the author wished to consider in greater depth what she at one point calls Sartre’s “confusion about religion” (172), she might, for example, have considered the significance of the Christmas play, Bariona, ou le Fils de tonnerre, which he wrote and produced with the agreement of priests who were his fellow prisoners of war—or, above all, his very important essay, “L’universel singulier,” which was written for a UNESCO conference on Kierkegaard and amounts, among other things, to a very strong expression of admiration for the latter. Yes, Sartre was and remained an atheist, but the significance for him of ideas coming out of especially the Christian tradition was something that he could never have denied—nor would he have wanted to. 

Chapter 5, “Ascetics of Presence,” contains some interesting analyses of the role of time in the three featured thinkers. In her conclusion, Khawaja makes a passing remark about philosophy as “conventionally understood” (232) which may help better explain the orientation of this book. Her point here is that philosophy is often incapable of a self-understanding which can sometimes be abetted by the history of religion. Yes, but while some philosophers’  “conventions” may prohibit them from looking to religion, broadly understood, for intellectual guidance, such individuals suffer from a blinkered view of the nature of thought, one which essentializes artificial disciplinary boundaries. The spirit of this book, replete as it is with so much careful and valuable scholarship, is somewhat dulled by its author’s attitude, at once defensive and yet a little disdainful, toward what she takes to be mainstream philosophy.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William Leon McBride is Arthur G. Hansen Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Purdue University.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Noreen Khawaja is assistant professor of religious studies at Yale University.


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