The Committed Self | Victor A. Shepherd

The cover of Shepherd's The Committed SelfI was in over my head.

With a Bachelor in Theology under my belt, I entered Tyndale Seminary‘s M.Div. program eager to learn something new. I convinced the registrar to exempt me from some compulsory courses that overlapped my previous studies in order to replace them with electives. This is how I ended up in Victor Shepherd’s second year course, “Philosophy for understanding Theology” during my first year.

As mentally invigorating as the course was, I struggled the whole semester like a drowning man trying to keep his head above water! Philosophy is a triple challenge:

  1. First you have to understand the philosopher’s context. What is he reacting against? What personal, social, political, and economic forces are at play in his life? You can’t understand Kierkegaard without knowing a bit about Regina. You can’t grasp Sartre without understanding his radical resistance efforts during the war.
  2. Once you have context in hand, you need to understand the language. This in itself is a two-fold problem. First there’s the translation issue. Kierkegaard wrote in Danish, Nietzsche in German. Most of us read these philosophers in translation. Second, philosophers have a tendency to re-appropriate or create words only to invest them with their own technical meaning. From Heidegger’s Dasein to Buber’s I-Thou v. I-It, each philosopher uses language in a precise way that has to be learned before it’s understood.
  3. Finally, you have the philosopher’s actual philosophy that you have to untangle from popular misconceptions and sinister misuse. When Kierkegaard said truth is subjectivity, he did not mean that all truth is subjective (relative). When Nietzsche spoke of the will to power, he in no way had in mind the way the Nazis would misuse his work.

To make matters muddier, all three of these challenges must be learned concurrently since they all relate to each other. This is where Victor Shepherd’s book is so strong. He focuses on the existentialist movement in philosophy, specifically Hegel (not an Existentialist, but the direct background to which the existentialists would revolt), Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Buber, Heidegger, and Sartre. He takes time not just to explain the logic of each philosopher, but also to situate them in their context and explain their peculiar uses of language.

Although this is a book “for Christians,” the philosophers examined are both Christian, Jewish, and atheist. Shepherd treats each philosopher generously, seeking to understand how their thought (whether theistic or not) can challenge and inspire us as Christians.

I read this book fifteen years after my fledgling attempt at Shepherd’s philosophy course at Tyndale. I was surprised to see just how much of Shepherd’s interpretation of Existentialism I had absorbed. There were many moments during this book where I thought, “Ah, that’s why I think like that,” or, “That’s where that idea of mine came from.”

Philosophy is like Jazz. It may seem incomprehensible at first, but repeated encounters and attempts to enter the world yield rich results.

—Victor A. Shepherd, The Committed Self: An Introduction to Existentialism for Christians (Toronto, ON: BPS Books, 2015).

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