Per Caritatem

Situating ExistentialismSituating Existentialism. Key Texts in Context, edited by Jonathan Judaken and Robert Bernasconi, is an excellent addition to the current literature on existentialism. The book not only situates existentialism historically and culturally, but it also takes a multidisciplinary approach, engaging philosophical, religious, and literary expressions of existentialism in its various Russian, Latin American, African, and European instantiations. The book is divided into three parts: (trans)national contexts, existentialism and religion, and migrations. The essays in part one focus on the various national contexts where existentialism appeared as a site of cultural exchange. It includes chapters on Russian existentialism by Val Vinokur, German existentialism by Peter Gordon, French existentialism by Jonathan Judaken, and Hispanic and Latin American existentialisms by Eduardo Mendieta. The essays in part two are devoted to existentialism and religion and include chapters on Kierkegaard and Christian existentialism by George Pattison, Jewish existentialism by Paul Mendes-Flohr, and Camus and unbelieving existentialism by Ronald Aronson. The essays in part three analyze the “national and religious borderlines that were crossed as existentialism was consolidated and canonized” (15). Here we have several noteworthy chapters such as Charles Bambach’s, “Rethinking the ‘Existential’ Nietzsche in Germany: Lowith, Jaspers, Heidegger,” Robert Bernasconi’s, “Situating Franz Fanon’s Account of Black Experience,” and Debra Bergoffen’s, “Simone de Beauvoir in Her Times and Ours: The Second Sex and Its Legacy in French Feminist Thought” to name a few.

As Judaken emphasizes in his helpful introduction to the volume, although the book is a genealogy of “the process of systematizing and canonizing existentialism as a movement of thought,” the establishment of existentialism as a distinctive mode of interrogating the human condition was assembled “only in hindsight” (2). In other words, existentialism by nature is not an –ism, not a system of thought like Hegel’s philosophy; yet retrospectively, we can recognize shared questions and concerns among its leading figures. Part of existentialism’s resistance to systemization and categorization results from the diverse and even conflicting views of its advocates. In other words, while its forerunners and major proponents share a common set of questions and concerns regarding political, religious, and ethical life, they disagree profoundly in their answers. Camus, for example, held that whether or not God exists was irrelevant to the persistent matters of our human condition. In stark contrast, Kierkegaard held that God’s existence and our relation to him was paramount to a proper understanding of ourselves, the world, and others. On the topic of politics, Kierkegaard was highly critical of “collective movements, insisting that where the crowd goes, untruth reigns” (3). Such a position is seemingly incompatible with Sartre’s stress on the necessity of political action and his call for a revolutionary politics. In the area of ethics, we have similar conflicting views. On the one hand, Sartre views human relations as fundamentally antagonistic. On the other hand, Marcel, Jaspers, and Buber hold a more positive view of relationships. For these thinkers, relationships are essential for one’s true ethical development, as they provide concrete occasions for the possibility of transforming our human tendency to reduce others to mere objects (3).

Whether one reads Simone de Beauvoir’s interrogations of gender norms, Fanon’s critique of the oppressive white gaze, Kierkegaard’s struggles with faith, or Heidegger’s description of anxiety, one encounters thinkers wrestling with fundamental questions and concerns of the human condition in its various historical and cultural inflections. As Judaken observes, “existentialists addressed the most fundamental concerns of human existence: suffering, loneliness, dread, guilt, conflict, spiritual emptiness, the absence of absolute values or universals, the fallibility of human reason, and the tragic impasses of the human condition” (6). Such common questions and shared themes—even though addressed and answered in incompatible ways—morphed into a powerful critique of modern life and thought. That is, existentialist philosophers were concerned about the rapid modernization of life fueled by its technological drives and ever-expanding bureaucratization of daily life. Along with other thinkers, artists, and activists unable to remain silent about colonization, technology and warfare, and the oppression of women, existentialists joined the chorus of critical voices revealing the violence and vacuity of modernity’s “progress” narratives. As Judaken puts it, “[e]xistentialism thus limned modernity and exposed its hollowness, revealing that it rested on a void. In reflecting this nothingness, existentialists pulled up the anchors that ostensibly undergirded the European culture of high modernity” (11).

Situating Existentialism provides not only an excellent historical introduction to existentialism, but it also shows how the deeply human cries of existentialist philosophers continue to resonate with 21st century concerns.


Nietzsche’s parable of the “Madman” has all too often been grossly misunderstood.[1] In this text we encounter the infamous Nietzschean slogan, “God is dead.”  Was Nietzsche by way of the madman proclaiming in a triumphalist tone the literal death of God?  Though he is often labeled a nihilist and is considered the grand advocate for nihilism, this is a misreading of Nietzsche’s text (whether those who propagate the Nietzsche is a nihilist line have actually read the text is another story).

The text recounts a story of a madman who runs into a market place, crying, “I seek God, I seek God.”  The people mock him, asking whether God has gotten lost or perhaps has emigrated.  The madman then stands among them and says,Man With Lantern

Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him -you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?

The text continues in a similar vein with the madman clearly lamenting the fact that “God is dead” and acknowledging that “we have killed him.”  In what sense have we killed God?  Does he mean this literally?  Of course not.  Rather, he means that we have come to a place in history where we no longer believe that we need God.  We now believe in the progress of science, and we have given up on the possibility of knowing reality in itself.  We now see ourselves as the creators, the constructors of reality.  In short, we have made ourselves gods.  In such a situation there is no “space” for recognition of the divine.  In this sense, God is dead to us and we have killed him.  Understood in this way, Nietzsche’s text has a profoundly prophetic dimension to it, as contemporary society exhibits all the symptoms of Nietzsche’s diagnosis.

On a close, non-literal reading of the text, Nietzsche’s madman is not rejoicing in the death of God but is deeply troubled by it.  As he says, “We have killed him-you and I.  All of us are his murders. But how did we do this?  How could we drink up the sea?  Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?'”  What does Nietzsche mean by horizon, and what happens when the horizon is erased?  A horizon carves out a space for vision.  Or you might say the horizon creates a space within which we can live because it sets a boundary of sorts for what we can see.  So what happens when I “wipe away the entire horizon?” I destroy the very boundaries that define human existence.  Again, the madman does not take joy in this situation.  Rather, he is describing where we are in history, what we’ve become as a society.  We are a people who think we don’t need God; we’ve become, as Nietzsche says explicitly, a prideful people.  In fact, pride characterizes modern life (and a good bit of postmodern life as well).  As Nietzsche explains,

It is remarkable that this was brought about by the intellect, which was certainly allotted to these most unfortunate, delicate and ephemeral beings, merely as a device for detaining them a minute within existence.  For without this addition, they would have every reason to flee this existence as quickly as Lessing’s son.  The pride connected with knowing and sensing lies like a blinding fog over the eyes and senses of men, thus deceiving them concerning the value of existence.  For this pride contains within itself the most flattering estimation of the value of knowing (italics added).

According to Nietzsche, we’ve become prideful in a number of ways.  First of all, we built grander and grander conceptual edifices (what Nietzsche poetically calls, “columbaria”) that lead us away from the forces of life and toward a culture of death.  We forget that our metaphors have lowly origins and believe that our columbaria are impenetrable.  Having such great confidence in the progress of modern science, we believe that with enough time we can even overcome death.  In such an environment, Nietzsche asks, who needs faith?  We have denied our finitude, have made ourselves gods; thus, practically speaking God is dead.  The madman laments this situation.  Do we?  Or do we continue by the way we live our lives to confirm Nietzsche’s prophetic judgment?   Я виновна, as the Russians say.


[1] The “Madman” is found in The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para. 125.


According to Nietzsche in his essay, “On Truth and Lies in a Non-Moral Sense,”[1] what we take to be knowledge involves two metaphors.  Here metaphor is understood in a broad sense, namely, as transference.  First, we have a transfer that occurs from a nerve stimulus caused by the external world, which is then translated into an image.  Secondly, that image is then transferred into a sound, that is, it becomes language.  Nietzsche’s point is that we construct our knowledge at a distance from (here at least two steps) the flow of life.  For example, when I look out the window and see a tree, a series of brain and nerve activities occurs, but these neural stimulations bear no intrinsic similarities to the tree “out there.”  Thus, we have the first metaphoric-ization or transference.   Then, having received this stimuli, I translate this information into a word, into language, which provides the second transference. From this picture, Nietzsche concludes that there is no natural connection between what is perceived in the external world and knowledge.  Rather, the relation between what is out there and my claims to know it is purely conventional.  According to Nietzsche, language is not a reflection of essences.    Our knowledge does not reflect the deep structures of reality; rather, it is a mere human construct.

Failure to recognize this state of affairs is, for Nietzsche, one of the central problems with the scientist or rational human being in contrast with the artist or intuitive person. That is, the scientist, who, of course, also constructs metaphors, takes his metaphors to be the truth, the way things really are.  According to Nietzsche, the scientist takes his metaphors too seriously; he ossifies them, whereas the artist recognizes their fluidity and transiency.  To be sure, these metaphors do serve practical and pragmatic purposes.  They help us to affirm ourselves and aid in our self-preservation to some degree.  However, when we forget about their provisional nature, we come to believe that our conceptual edifices are immovable.  When this occurs, the metaphors harden, they ossify-rather, we ossify them, and turn them into columbaria.   (A columbarium is a Roman vault for funeral urns!)  So the rational human being has lost touch with the metaphorical origins of human knowledge and lives his life constructing conceptual systems that display “the regularity of a Roman columbarium” (112).  According to Nietzsche, our (rationalistic) tendency to forget the earthy, metaphorical rootedness of human knowledge, moves us to increasing levels of abstraction-abstractions which we then take to be reality.  These systems of abstractions are likened to a columbarium; they are life-denying and lead to death.  (By the way, I think his critique of the scientist also applies to the philosopher and the theologian).

Clearly, Nietzsche values the flow of life and wants us to remain close to our, so to speak, humble origins.  His warnings against taking our conceptual edifices to be the reality and the one and only way to truthfully describe and explain the world are compelling and worthy of our reflection.  Part of his critique also involves cautioning against pride and calling us to acknowledge our finitude-two points that Christians ought to take seriously.  Yet, as a Christian, there are certain matters, which are central to the Christian narrative and understanding of reality, which Nietzsche fails to consider.  For example, according to the Christian tradition, the created order is now not as it originally was.  In fact, St. Paul, employing a number of earthy metaphors, tells us that creation has been subjected to futility and eagerly awaits its eschatological renewal.

The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (NRSV, Rom 8:19-25).

So there is a sense in which, for the Christian, life and the world as now experienced involves a struggle against the natural world-a natural world, which groans and awaits a final release from its dislocation and disintegration.  In other words, something more than a return to the flow of life or even a recognition of the metaphorical origins of knowledge is needed to overcome the prideful tendencies of which Nietzsche speaks.  According to the Christian narrative, a kind of cosmic redemption is needed-a redemption that not only saves us from our pride but also transforms and renews the present state of creation itself.  This is of course precisely what St. Paul claims Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection accomplished and is accomplishing.  St. Paul doesn’t deny that our life in-between Christ’s advents is a life of eschatological tension both within ourselves and with creation as a whole.

In addition to St. Paul’s use of metaphors, we should also consider the use of metaphor and mythical language in the Genesis creation account.  For example, the author of Genesis speaks of a solid dome upon which fixed stars hang (the raqia).  This mythical description, of course, doesn’t square with contemporary science and our current understanding of the sky, stars etc.  Nonetheless, God chose to condescend to the then-current conceptual categories and to use this mythical language to speak of his creation, as his point was not to give us a scientific account of the universe but to proclaim himself as the Creator.  So perhaps we could say that God himself is more like the artist, who plays with metaphor and recognizes its inherent limitations.  Yet, he is unlike the artist (at least the artist in Nietzsche’s description) in that he is in fact trying to teach us something about reality itself, the reality that he himself brought into being and the reality which he is.

Lastly, perhaps participating in liturgical life provides a way to properly acknowledge our finitude and to combat modernity’s “columbaric” tendencies which Nietzsche so aptly describes.  For example, in the Ash Wednesday liturgy of the Anglican/Episcopal Church, as the priest marks our foreheads with ashes, s/he says, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Of course, for those in Christ, there’s more to story. We, who are in Christ, shall be resurrected in glorified bodies).  In addition, participation in the Eucharist reminds us through humble material means (bread and wine) of our need for spiritual nourishment, that is, our need to be nourished by Christ’s resurrection life. Confession of sin reminds us of our weakness, our proclivity to idolatry and our continual, moment-by-moment need for God’s grace and forgiveness.  The preaching of the word keeps us rooted in the Christian story and challenges us to submit to God’s, as it were, “interpretation” of reality.

How fitting on this Easter Sunday to allow Nietzsche to teach us about the power and relevance of the Christ-event.  Whether ancient, stone columbariua or modern, conceptual columbaria, neither are able to contain Christus Victor.  He is risen!  He is risen indeed!


[1] All citations are taken from an anthology edited by Lawrence E. Cahoone, From Modernism to Postmodernism:  An Expanded Anthology, 2nd edition, (Wiley-Blackwell, 2003).