Dr W Large
The Existential Turn towards God: Franz Rosenzweig
have seen does not reject God because of some scientific of logical
against His existence. Rather, he turns his back upon God personally or
individually. In other words, if God did exist, or even if we could
existence of God logically or scientifically, which we certainly
Nietzsche would still reject Him. A glimmer of this different
God is already visible in Kant’s explanation of the necessity of his
God does not exist for Kant because we can prove deduce his existence
definition (as in the famous ontological argument), or that our concept
nature requires the existence of such a being (as Kant argues in the
in The Critique of Pure, one can
equally explain the existence of the universe with or without the prior
existence of God, which implies that there is something wrong with this
answer), but because He is an answer to a moral need that our universe
sense. It does not need to make sense scientifically; it just is, and
describe it, but why it is this way and not any other, is not something
can answer philosophically. Morally, however, if the universe did not
sense, then we would descend into nihilism and despair. For what
would there to be ethical, if in the end, it did not matter if we were
Thus for Kant, morality require a religious supplement in order to
‘highest good’, where virtue and happiness are conjoined. Now the
not prove the objective existence of
God. They do not make good what science and logic have given up, rather
only provide the need for the idea of God in order to express this idea
moral perfectibility of the world, which is a possibility rather than
actuality, or in Kant’s terminology, a regulative idea that is the
horizon of our future and thus all our deeds and actions. That we turn
idea into a actuality – the
What is the decisive difference between Kant and the philosophy of religion that preceded him is that God is now a subjective idea and not an objective reality, and thus the question of existence of God, which was the cornerstone of Greek and Scholastic metaphysics is no longer relevant. This also means that much of the discussion of theism and atheism is equally irrelevant (one can no more proof the objective non-existence of God by scientific and logic means than one could prove His existence). What matters is only whether God is meaningful to you. But perhaps we have gone a bit too far in the last sentence in relation to Kant, because he writes something very strange Religion within the limits of Reason alone that the idea of God is a ‘subjective necessity’. In other words God must be subjectively necessary to you, because He reflects the rational nature of human morality – I can no more reject the idea of God for Kant to be moral, than I could the idea of freedom. It is this necessity which I believe is rejected by the existentialists, of which I would count Franz Rosenzweig. For them it is true to say that God only has a meaning for you, but like Nietzsche, there is no reason why you should or should not personally accept this meaning in your life. Before we get to Rosenzweig, however, I want to reflect upon too other existentialist thinkers, one who wrote before Rosenzweig, Soren Kierkegaard, and the other at the same time, Martin Heidegger.
In The Concept of Dread, Kierkegaard tell us of a fairy story where a youth goes on a journey in order to find dread or fear. Whether he ever found what he was looking for Kierkegaard does not tells us, but what he does say is that each one of us has to go on this journey: ‘he who has learned rightly to be in dread has learned the most important thing.’ . Why is dread so important to our lives? Because only dread tell us who we are. Other animals have fear, and we too fear, but only human beings can feel dread. ‘The greater the dread, the greater the man,’ Kierkegaard writes. . What, then, is the difference between fear and dread? When I am fearful, I am afraid of something that is outside me, which threatens or scares me. Such fear is an instinct or drive which makes me no different from any other animal in its environment and which seeks to survive. But dread is quite different from fear. It is not a response to something that menaces me from the outside, but come from within. This is why I can live in dread and anxiety when there is nothing at all that I am fearful of outside of me.
If it is nothing outside of me that causes me to feel anxious, then what does? Kierkegaard answers that it is freedom. ‘Dread’, he writes, ‘is the possibility of freedom.’ . Why should freedom make me feel anxious. Is not freedom something that I want, that I desire before all else? Do I not pity those who do not have freedom, and is not freedom now even an excuse or reason to go to war in order to liberate people? But the freedom I am talking about here is not that freedom that interests Kierkegaard. He calls this kind of freedom ‘freedom of the finite’. The freedom to consume this or that product, to desire this or that person, the freedom which capitalism promises to everyone. The freedom that concerns Kierkegaard, on the contrary, is the freedom of existence. What I am asked to choose is not this or that thing, or this or that person, but myself.
How can I choose myself? am I not a thing or person just like everything else? Don’t I just choose myself in the same way that I desire another person, or buy the latest product in the store. I am every told that I should speak about myself in the same way, that I should like myself and enjoy my own company and be assertive. We speak about ourselves as though we were a product being sold in an advert. I can only think or speak about myself in this way because I am looking at myself from the outside. I am speaking about myself, even when I use the first person pronoun, in the third person (the fact that some people do speak about themselves in the third person already tells us that there is something strange about this, but also that it is possible to do this, and in fact we all do to some extent or not). To choose oneself, as opposed to wanting or need a thing or another person is not to chose something limited that satisfies my desires, but to choose oneself completely, to chose one’s whole life, rather than some part of it. Even if I refuse to choose myself, and just immerse myself in the finite freedom of desires and needs, then I have chosen in my life not to chose. This is what my life as a totality has become, fleeing from choosing my existence. Kierkegaard knows that this is what most of us do and will continue to do. It is so much easier simply to go from one possession to another, to replace one person with another, to go from one failed plan or project to another, rather than face up the to meaning of our lives as a whole. Why are we so happy to run away from this question? Because it is precisely this question that produced dread in our lives.
It is the difference
between the possible
and the actual which makes the difference between finite freedom and
freedom of existence. I limit my existence through actualities. I say
will be this or that person, or that I am will do this or that in
the possibility of me becoming such and such a person, or doing such
and such a
thing, is because my existence as such is radically open. It is the
On the whole, however, we exist as though we can find the ultimate meaning of our lives from our finite choices. We do not real risk our existence, rather we acquiesce to reality. We get a job, a family, a house, a car and so on. But as Kierkegaard says, are we really these things that we have chosen? Don’t we, if we were really honest to ourselves, stand apart from them, wear them as clothes that one day we might cast off? Actual existence doesn’t tell us anything about ourselves, rather it is our existence as a whole, as pure possibility, which teaches us who we are.
To learn from the
possible cannot, therefore,
mean the same as when we say that life teaches us something, because
such an event as happened to me, because we still within the sphere of
actual. Rather, the only relation to my existence as pure possibility,
faith. Faith is when finite freedom is transformed into infinite
It is perfectly
possible that many people
I could lose
everything, but if I still
have my life, then I have lost nothing, but if I lose my life, then
I have also loses its meaning. If I imagine my life as a list of
things and people, then I could imagine, like a photograph,
after another, until there were only left a blank picture. But there
always be one thing still remaining and that would be myself looking at
picture, a secure and impregnable fortress (and there are some
think that it is possible to achieve this state of
But why precisely should I experience this as dread? Because if my life does lose its meaning, then everything that I have and cherish will do so also. In others what fills me with dread is precisely my attachment and my possession by them. It is because I experience dread through actuality, that is, I experience pure possibility only as the opposite of actuality, that it is so dreadful. If I turn my experience the other way around, or better, experience only the pure possibility of existence, then rather then being filled with dread I will be filled with joy. For I realise that it pure possibility of existence which is the condition of my reality and not the other way around. It is dread that releases me from the tyranny of things and attachments in the world, but in being freed from them, I return to them through a lighter and more joyful relation. This relation is what Kierkegaard calls faith, because I realise that nothing in the world matters as much as my life in which actuality finds its meaning and place. Through faith, Kierkegaard writes, I experience ‘everything more perfectly, more precisely, more profoundly.’ .
For Heidegger too (and there is no doubt that he borrows this from his reading of Kierkegaard) anxiety is the fundamental mood of human existence, since it reveals to us the whole of our lives rather than one or other aspect of it. I might angry or fearful of this or that person, or this or that problem or issue in my life, but I am anxious about my life as a whole. Most of the time, however, I am not anxious about my life. I am not anxious as a I write this sentence, because I am concerned about writing this lecture. Or I might be thinking about what I am going to do tomorrow or what I did yesterday. This involvement with the world Heidegger calls ‘falleness’ (das Verfallens). This does not have any directly moral or religious meaning for Heidegger. He is not blaming us for being absorbed in the world, because this is just the way we are. We would not be human if we were not so. Just because this is the case, however, it means that for the most part our existence as a whole is not an issue for is. We are so absorbed in our everyday projects and plans, absorbed in people and things, that we do not ask about the point of our lives as whole in which all of this take place. But we can turn this relation around. We can ask ourselves whether it is not because we are so absorbed in the world that we forget ourselves, but because we want to forget ourselves that we become so involved in the world. We busy ourselves with what we have to do, just so we do not have to think about who we are and what we are doing with our lives. But just because we are fleeing from this question, it means that it is always hovering in the background of whatever we are doing to fill our time in, and this means, even if only negatively, as something that we always want to avoid, we can never truly escape this question.
So just like
Kierkegaard, Heidegger distinguishes
between anxiety and fear. When I am afraid, I am afraid of something in
world, and I am just like an animal who is afraid of a noise in the
I am anxious, however, there is nothing determinate outside of my
which is causing me to be anxious, rather it is my existence itself
me anxious. In fear I flee away from things, but when I experience
drives me towards things and people, so I think that if I just have
last thing, or this one last relationship, I will cease feeling anxious
myself. What I am anxious of is not this or that thing, or this or that
rather I am anxious of being anxious. When I am afraid I can try and
thing or person that is making me afraid, but what I am anxious about
myself, and one thing I cannot escape is myself. I can try by being
involving myself in stuff, but in the end I will always return, and in
to escape myself, I will only end losing myself further and
The more anxious I become the less and less satisfaction or significance can I get from things and persons around me. It is like the experience of drugs. First of all they release me from the burden of my own existence, but the more that I take, then less they have the effect of covering up the misery of my life. The more anxious I am Heidegger writes, the more ‘the world has the character of completely lacking significance.’ . This is why when someone asks me why I feel so anxious, I cannot really tell then what it is that is making me feel so bad. Even though it does not seem to come from anything, from any thing, or person, none the less it weighs me down and oppresses me so that I cannot have any relation with anyone or anything.
What does it mean to say that anxiety comes from ‘nowhere or nothing’? Even though it true to say that anxiety is not about anything in particular this does not mean that anxiety is about nothing at all. Or to be precise, anxiety is precisely about nothing, but nothing as something. We need to understand the word ‘nothing’ literally. When I am anxious I am anxious about nothing, but nothing as ‘no thing’. What I am anxious about is this ‘nothing’ which isn’t anything in particular. But how can we talk about nothing as though it were something, but not any thing or person? What the experience of nothing reveals in anxiety is the world which is neither a thing or a person, but in which any thing or person has its meaning of significance. Anxiety reveals to me that fundamental my world is nothing.
What do we mean by the
world’? We certainly don’t mean the world of things, the world as
world understood scientifically; rather we mean the world
world in which my project and plans have a meaning and significance.
can talk about the world of the scientist, and we know by these
we don’t mean the world as nature or an object, but the existential
the existential world is identical to my being. It belongs essentially
being, Heidegger says, that I belong to a world. The world,
speaking, is not something outside of me, nor I am outside of my world,
the world expresses who I am, how I take a stand upon my existence. So
is the world of teacher of philosophy, and yours is a student, and
are other teachers of philosophy and many other university students,
world, as I live it, is uniquely mine. What anxiety reveals, when it
What then has this to
do with religion?
Once one understands existence existentially, rather than in terms of
or logic, or even morality in the
Such is what we understand when we read Rosenzweig’s Understanding the Sick and the Healthy. What is a sickness, here, is philosophy, and what is healthy is common sense, though it is not a common sense in the way that our English philosophers would understand it. In fact it is a rejection of philosophy altogether, even the philosophy of common sense, and thus it has more to do with existentialism, in the way that it is portrayed by Kierkegaard and Heidegger, than anything Hume or Locke might have written. When we read the last part of the philosophy cure, which concerns God, we can begin to see how this approach might be relevant to the philosophy of religion and how it might also make us think about these matters in a different and more sceptical way. We tend to think that philosophy must always have the last word, but why should that be so? Doesn’t philosophy have its own prejudices and presuppositions that must be questioned?
Rosenzweig attacks, in
a humorous and
sarcastic way, the two possible traditions for the philosophical
defence of the
idea of God in modernity. One is the Spinozistic move of identifying
nature, and the other the idealist, which begins with
There is no such thing as ‘God in itself’ which the philosophers go on about. There is only this two fold relation of God in his name between man and the world, and these have two very different meanings, one as love and the other as justice, but what it common to both, is that the name of God can only be expressed through the relations between man and man and man and world. There is no God outside of these relations, if one thinks of God as object or idea behind both the world and man. God is intra-worldly and intra-human, but at the same time, neither the hidden essence of the world, or of the human, but as separate from them, makes their relation to one another possible.
 Søren Kierkegaard, ‘Dread as a Saving Experience by Means of Faith’ in The Concept of Dread
 Martin Heidegger ‘Anxiety’ in Being and Time pp.228-35.
 Franz Rosenzweig, ‘The Cure: Third Week’ in Understanding the Sick and the Healthy, trans N. Glatzer (Harvard: HUP, 1999) 90.
 Ibid., 92.