Dr W Large


The Existential Turn towards God: Franz Rosenzweig

Nietzsche, as we have seen does not reject God because of some scientific of logical argument 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 prove the existence of God logically or scientifically, which we certainly cannot, then Nietzsche would still reject Him. A glimmer of this different relationship to God is already visible in Kant’s explanation of the necessity of his existence. God does not exist for Kant because we can prove deduce his existence from His definition (as in the famous ontological argument), or that our concept of nature requires the existence of such a being (as Kant argues in the antinomies 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 make sense. It does not need to make sense scientifically; it just is, and we describe it, but why it is this way and not any other, is not something that we can answer philosophically. Morally, however, if the universe did not make sense, then we would descend into nihilism and despair. For what motivation would there to be ethical, if in the end, it did not matter if we were or not? Thus for Kant, morality require a religious supplement in order to express the ‘highest good’, where virtue and happiness are conjoined. Now the postulates do not prove the objective existence of God. They do not make good what science and logic have given up, rather they only provide the need for the idea of God in order to express this idea of the moral perfectibility of the world, which is a possibility rather than an actuality, or in Kant’s terminology, a regulative idea that is the fundamental horizon of our future and thus all our deeds and actions. That we turn this idea into a actuality – the Kingdom of God is an actual place – is a mistake, just a Nietzsche writes in The Anti-Christ that the first disciples misunderstood Jesus’ symbols for realities.

      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.[1] 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.’ [139]. 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. [139]. 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.’ [139]. 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 the freedom of existence. I limit my existence through actualities. I say that I will be this or that person, or that I am will do this or that in future. But 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 indeterminate nature of human existence which is the hardest thing to bear, because it is precisely this which forces me to chose, or not to, to simply let things and matters take me over. The pure possibility of existence, in relation to the world of actuality, is experienced as nothingness, and it is this nothingness which is the source of dread. How are we to think of this pure possibility of existence. Certainly not as a lack, as merely the potentiality of an actuality. Possibility and potentiality are not the same thing. Possibility is not to be thought of in terms of luck, misfortune or chance, as when someone on a happy day, imagines that they will have a PhD scholarship, a house in Plymouth and will be the next David Attenborough. Because all these dreams, however probable or improbably, are actualities of this world: there are people who have PhD scholarships, houses in Plymouth, and David Attenborough’s job (in this case himself). When Kierkegaard talks about the freedom of existence or infinite freedom, he is not speaking about this or that possibility in my life, but of the whole of my life as a possibility which I lose. If I lose this possibility, then all the other possibilities will lose their meaning. If my life as whole means nothing to be, then who cares whether I write a PhD, live in Plymouth, or become David Attenborough.

      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 and such an event as happened to me, because we still within the sphere of the actual. Rather, the only relation to my existence as pure possibility, is faith. Faith is when finite freedom is transformed into infinite freedom, and when my individuality as it is defined from the outside, my social role or function, disappears. In this moment, I realise that what is at heart of my existence is nothing, and this experience of abandonment can only be redeemed by faith, otherwise I would fall into the most profound despair. The other side of dread then is faith. Or to put it the other way around, if one does not experience dread, then one cannot have faith (one can either just live at the level of desire, or one can think that one is living a life of life, but really one is living at the level of desire – think of Kierkegaard’s attack on the institution of Christianity, which rather than being the experience of the pure possibility of existence, has become just one more actuality within the existence – one chooses religion like one chooses a car, it has become just one more item within a whole list that has become part of our ‘life style’.

      It is perfectly possible that many people have never felt dread, or confuse dread with fear, perhaps because they are so comfortable with their everyday lives, or are so fearful of anxiety that they never want to question their existence as a whole, but such people Kierkegaard remarks are complete ‘spiritless’. [141] They have become totally absorbed in the world and can no longer see the difference between it and themselves. They might have faith, but they only have faith in actualities, that good things might come to them in the end (and if they are religious they think of heaven in the same way that they think of the world, and even think of it as a compensation if things do not come to them in this life), but person of infinite faith (this is faith in the infinite) knows that all of this is merely evasion and avoidance of the ultimate question of existence. Nothing in my life can be an answer to life. Oh if only I had this or that thing, or this of that person loved me then I would be happy, and my whole live would have a meaning and a purpose. This is what I think, but then I have these things, and still my life has no meaning.

      I could lose everything, but if I still have my life, then I have lost nothing, but if I lose my life, then everything I have also loses its meaning. If I imagine my life as a list of actualities, things and people, then I could imagine, like a photograph, disappearing one after another, until there were only left a blank picture. But there would always be one thing still remaining and that would be myself looking at the picture, a secure and impregnable fortress (and there are some philosophers who think that it is possible to achieve this state of indifference). There is something much more dreadful than losing everything and everybody that you love, and that is losing yourself, for then everything would lose it purpose and direction.

      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.’ [143].

      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.[2] 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 the world, and I am just like an animal who is afraid of a noise in the night. When I am anxious, however, there is nothing determinate outside of my existence which is causing me to be anxious, rather it is my existence itself which makes me anxious. In fear I flee away from things, but when I experience anxiety it drives me towards things and people, so I think that if I just have this one last thing, or this one last relationship, I will cease feeling anxious about myself. What I am anxious of is not this or that thing, or this or that person, rather I am anxious of being anxious. When I am afraid I can try and avoid the thing or person that is making me afraid, but what I am anxious about is myself, and one thing I cannot escape is myself. I can try by being busy and involving myself in stuff, but in the end I will always return, and in trying to escape myself, I will only end losing myself further and further, but never in the end finally getting rid of myself.

      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.’ [231]. 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 expression ‘my world’? We certainly don’t mean the world of things, the world as nature, the world understood scientifically; rather we mean the world existentially, the world in which my project and plans have a meaning and significance. Thus we can talk about the world of the scientist, and we know by these expression that we don’t mean the world as nature or an object, but the existential world. Now the existential world is identical to my being. It belongs essentially to my being, Heidegger says, that I belong to a world. The world, existentially speaking, is not something outside of me, nor I am outside of my world, rather the world expresses who I am, how I take a stand upon my existence. So my world is the world of teacher of philosophy, and yours is a student, and though there are other teachers of philosophy and many other university students, this world, as I live it, is uniquely mine. What anxiety reveals, when it breaks my attachment me to things and persons and throws be back to the world which is the context and medium through which these relations have any meaning at all, then, must be myself. This is why Heidegger can say that anxiety, unlike any other mood, uniquely individualises me. Everything that I do or choose can be done or chosen by many other people, the clothes I wear, the work that I do, the music and films that I like – but what I cannot be chosen by someone else is my life as a whole. This is singular and peculiar to me. This is also why Heidegger argues that there is an ontological freedom higher than any moral or intellectual freedom. Ontological freedom is similar to Kierkegaard’s faith. It means choosing one’s existence, choosing what one has become, accepting what one is, and taking a stand on oneself for oneself, rather than becomes others have chosen it or done it before.

      What then has this to do with religion? Once one understands existence existentially, rather than in terms of science or logic, or even morality in the Kantian sense, then the question of belief becomes very different. It is no longer a philosophical problem that one can decided from the outside, in the same way your own existence can be decided from the outside. Even if neo-Darwinist tell me that the male species wants to fuck around in that its sperm impregnates as many females as possible, I still have to choose this an image of myself. I cannot say to myself that it is the scientists who have made this decision for me. It is the same with religion. It can no longer be a matter of an objective basis of faith, whether scientific, logical or moral, rather it can only be matter for an individual in the way that they face their own existence. Nothing in the world can be a criterion for this choice, even the objective definition of what it means to be human.

      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 God with nature, and the other the idealist, which begins with Kant, manoeuvre of making God identical with His idea, and thus with the development and evolution of human consciousness. God is nothing else than the expression of the culture and creativity of a given civilisation. The two philosophical possibilities, therefore, are either God is objective or subjective, or in Rosenzweig’s language, identical with the World or with Man. His refusal of these philosophical games is that they destroy what they think they are defending. If we identify God with the world, or with Man, then both God and the World, and Man, in their specificity and difference disappear. What we have to think is the difference of the terms in the relation prior to identity, or as Rosenzweig writes, ‘to be something he must be Something. World must be a Something, man a Something, God a something.’[3] This means that there is no reason to have faith, and if one is looking for a reason then you will never find one. That does not mean that any individual cannot have a relation to God, or not, as in the case of Nietzsche, but this is not the same as thinking God or representing God. For Rosenzweig the individuals relation to God is expressed in the uttering the name of God. Grammatical the name of God is a proper noun like any other proper noun, but God is named in a very different way than you and I are named, or a object in the world is. I have a named so that I might be called by it, but the name of God is for our sake rather than his – it is only in calling upon his name that we can become a community, a ‘We’.  Thus I cling to my name, whereas the name of God, though it remains a proper name is handed down from generation to generation, being changed and transformed by those who utter it. The proper name of God has something, therefore, in common with a noun, which might have started as a proper name, but now can move from place to place, naming more than one object, so words no longer adhere to one individual but to many, and also come into contact with other words, mingling and intertwining with them, so that a language of an individual blends with a language of a people, and a language of a people with the unity of mankind, where the order of the world is expressed through common names for common things. The name of God, Rosenzweig adds, has the same role. It both expresses the unity of community, and the world. As a proper name, it expresses the community of peoples with their different names, and then finally the name of the one humanity, and as a noun, it consecrates the world. ‘Thus it acts,’ Rosenzweig writes, ‘as a force gathering things and giving them order’.[4]

      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.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, ‘Dread as a Saving Experience by Means of Faith’ in The Concept of Dread

[2] Martin Heidegger ‘Anxiety’ in Being and Time pp.228-35.

[3] Franz Rosenzweig, ‘The Cure: Third Week’ in Understanding the Sick and the Healthy, trans N. Glatzer (Harvard: HUP, 1999) 90.

[4] Ibid., 92.