Tag Archives | existentialism

The Christian Existentialist | Bernard Häring

The cover of Härings The Christian ExistentialistThis book made me nervous. While I have been formed intellectually by many themes of existentialism (see my review of The Committed Self), the existential emphasis on individualism is troublesome, theologically. The Christian is never a mere individual, but a member of an interdependent body with Christ at the head holding his body (along with the whole created order) together.

These four lectures, from one of the formulators of the ecumenism of Vatican II, quickly put my fears to rest. The very first lecture differentiates Personalism (Häring’s viewpoint) from mere Individualism. Individualistic existentialism embraced in various forms by Heidegger, Sartre, and de Beauvoir “aims at man’s stepping out of an anonymous existence and emerging from himself in true being-one’s own” (22). Fully developed personalism, on the other hand, portrays a person who steps out of anonymous existence as a mere functionary in a technological machine into communities of love where “he once again feels himself a man in the full sense of the word, i.e., he becomes a person” (9). This Personalism is fundamentally Christian: “a personalism of encounter and community in word and love” (11).

The second and third lectures discuss the intertwined ideas of morality, conscience and freedom. “The fully developed Christian conscience,” writes Häring, “is inseparable from a loving regard for one’s neighbor and a presence before God in faith and love” (57).

The final lecture, “A Christian Existentialism in the Perspective of Salvation History,” was a compelling exposition of the Christian virtue of prudence. The word prudence today is closely associated with the pejorative epithet “prude,” as in someone who has limited their freedom. Häring takes a richer view. Prudence is “the art of adapting our action to the redemptive actions of Christ within the whole history of salvation and in the context of a present salvific community.” Prudence is nothing less than an attentive alignment with the kairos of God’s pneumatic presence in the world.

Existentialism embraces a broad gamut of thought from Nietzsche to Buber. Häring shows that existentialism and Christianity not only fit together, they enable thoughtful Christians to reflect deeply on the their existence and responsibility before God.


Häring, Bernard. The Christian Existentialist: The Philosophy and Theology of Self-Fulfillment in Modern Society. The Deems Lectures. New York: New York University Press, 1968.

Thus Spoke Zarathustra | Friedrich Nietzsche

The cover of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke ZarathustraThus Spoke Zarathustra is a difficult book to read. In fact, literary critic like Harold Bloom called it “unreadable”! Why, then is it one of Nietzsche’s most famous works? Why is it reprinted generation after generation? What made it “the book of choice” (345) for German soldiers on the battlefield?

Zarathustra is the story of a man who leaves his contemplation to share his wisdom with the rest of humanity. The book contains eighty short chapters on various repetitive themes and ideas that have no logical order. This is not a carefully crafted philosophical argument—it is a collection of ideas thrown out to take root in people’s minds.

Three themes stand out above the rest:

  1. It was here that Nietzsche first claimed that God is dead.
  2. Humanity needs to evolve into the Superman (or Overman), a person beyond good and evil.
  3. The Superman embraces “eternal recurrence”(341) by taking ownership of everything that has happened and will happen again.

In Zarathustra, Nietzsche called on people to reject the moral claims of the religious and embrace the will to power. Nietzsche viewed Christianity as a religion of weakness (which, ironically, it is—God’s strength demonstrated in weakness).

Nietzsche’s desire to evolve beyond mere humanity to the Superman is a lonely task. In the end, Zarathustra leaves all his weak followers behind. There is no room for a community of Supermen—only a lone powermonger. Thus Spoke Zarathustra is no less than a manifesto for an anti-Christ.


Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for Everyone and for No One. Translated by Thomas Common. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble, 2012.

Buber | Vermes

The cover of Vermes' BuberTo man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude.

The attitude of man is twofold, in accordance with the twofold nature of the primary words which he speaks.

The primary words are not isolated words, but combined words.

The one primary word is the combination I-Thou.

The other primary word is the combination I-It; wherein, without a change in the primary word, one of the words He and She can replace It.

These sentences launch Buber’s most famous work of philosophy, I and Thou. In his small book, Theistic flavoured existentialism reaches poetic heights never before explored.

I and Thou is the pinnacle of Buber’s written output, but his life consists of much more. This is what makes Pamela Vermes’ biography of Buber for the Jewish Thinkers series so fascinating. Vermes explores Buber’s passion for Hasidism which begins his career and culminates in his later books, Tales of the Hasidim: Early Masters and Late Masters.

Buber was passionate about the Hebrew Bible, which he spent decades translating into German. He wrote other works of Biblical interpretation—Moses and The Prophetic Faith—which explore the characters of the Bible with philosophical acuity.

As a biographer, Vermes excels in summarizing the major works of this literary and philosophical giant without over-simplifying. Like Buber himself, Vermes’ writing requires attentive reading.

This biography has inspired me to go beyond I and Thou and continue exploring the works and mind of Martin Buber.

—Pamela Vermes, Buber (New York: Grove Press, 1988).

Everything is Possible | Søren Kierkegaard

KierkegaardThe believer possesses the eternally certain antidote to despair, viz. possibility; for with God all things are possible every instant.

—Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death, Trans. Walter Lowrie (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1941), 158.

V for Vendetta | Alan Moore

The cover of Moore's V for VendettaWhat do you get when you cross a fascist totalitarian government with a masked anarchist with a penchant for revenge? V for Vendetta!

Moore and Lloyd first started publishing this comic series in Warrior comics in 1982, but the comic was cancelled before the series was finished. It wasn’t until 1988 that D.C. Comics convinced Moore and Lloyd to finish what they had started.

The story takes place in 1997, which was at that time 15 years in the future. After a nuclear war, the government of England assumed total power and kept its citizenry in check through it’s various agencies. At the centre of the regime sat their computer system, “fate,” which enabled them to maintain control. The dehumanizing nature of the regime was emphasized by their agencies which were named purely for their purpose: the propoganda department is called the “mouth,” the state police are called the “finger”.

V, the anti-hero of the tale, begins by taking out the state propaganda system and continues from there, setting people free from state control through violence. Believing that freedom can only be birthed out of chaos, V espouses the “do what thou wilt” philosophy of Alister Crowley.

V for Vendetta is a classic graphic novel for good reason. The story is as involved as any novel, and the dystopia feels all too real.

—Alan Moore and David Lloyd with Steve Whitaker and Sidbhan Dodds, V for Vendetta (New York: Vertigo, 2008).

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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