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The Religion of Existence

Asceticism in Philosophy from Kierkegaard to Sartre

TheReligion of Existence reopens an old debate on an important question: What was existentialism?

At the heart of existentialism, Noreen Khawaja argues, is a story about secular thought experimenting with the traditions of European Christianity. This book explores how a distinctly Protestant asceticism formed the basis for the chief existentialist ideal, personal authenticity, which is reflected in approaches ranging from Kierkegaard’s religious theory of the self to Heidegger’s phenomenology of everyday life to Sartre’s global mission of atheistic humanism. Through these three philosophers, she argues, we observe how ascetic norms have shaped one of the twentieth century’s most powerful ways of thinking about identity and difference—the idea that the “true” self is not simply given but something that each of us is responsible for producing.

Engaging with many central figures in modern European thought, this book will appeal to philosophers and historians of European philosophy, scholars of modern Christianity, and those working on problems at the intersection of religion and modernity.

312 pages | 1 line drawing | 6 x 9 | © 2016

History: History of Ideas

Philosophy: Philosophy of Religion

Religion: Christianity, Philosophy of Religion, Theology, and Ethics


“The evident fact that ‘Existentialism’ is no longer de rigeur makes Noreen Khawaja’s book both a timely remembrance and, perhaps strangely, an important counter-cultural contribution to contemporary philosophy of religion. . . .[An] outstanding rehabilitation of existentialist thinking . . . . While important and critical fault-lines have been exposed within existentialist thought, the key concerns that motivate existentialist passion remain unresolved, perhaps irresolvable. But if this so-called ‘movement’ is exposed for harbouring certain fatal flaws, this exposure is not in itself justification for abandoning existentialism’s vital questions along with its seemingly worn-out solutions. Khawaja’s brilliantly subtle book reminds us of this and more. One hopes others will follow that pathway it has opened for thinking.”

Religious Studies

“There are very few scholarly books that are also page-turners, but we have one in The Religion of Existence. The reading of Kierkegaard is epiphanic, as is the connection that Khawaja carefully threads between pietism and existentialism. Written with a feather touch, this amazing study calls for a recalibration of our understanding of the relation between Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre.”

Gordon Marino, St. Olaf College

“Khawaja has produced a searching work that ranges over a vast terrain of philosophical argumentation, from Kierkegaard’s analysis of Christian existence to Heidegger’s existential analytic to Sartre’s ‘phenomenological ontology.’ Its grasp of the relevant philosophical issues is impressive, and its lucid style of exposition should serve to remind us that Continental philosophy can be engaging as well as deep.”

Peter E. Gordon, Harvard University

“This is a smart, well-written book that will make a real contribution to the philosophy of religion, the intellectual history of the modern west, and theoretical thinking about religion and the study of religion, not to mention scholarship on Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Sartre. Khawaja’s readings of these figures are remarkably clear, fluid, and exacting. Her interpretive precision and critical forthrightness give great authority to her arguments and—this is very refreshing—she is able to exercise this authority with grace and even humor. I have nothing but praise for The Religion of Existence.”

Tyler Roberts, Grinnell College

"With a distinctive voice, remarkable clarity of prose, and keen insight, Noreen Khawaja’s The Religion of Existence argues for a Christian infrastructure undergirding existentialism. . . . Khawaja identifies personal conversion and repentance as the beating heart of the Protestant tradition and so reveals existentialism as one more chapter in Christianity’s history. In so doing, she gingerly pulls the sheet over the face of the overtired account of existentialism that reads it solely as a reaction to the death of God."

Journal of the American Academy of Religion

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Feel of Religion
1          Authenticity and Conversion
2          Conversion as a Way of Life
3          Philosophical Methodism
4          The Infinite Mission
5          Ascetics of Presence


American Academy of Religion: AAR Award for Excellence - Constructive-Reflective Studies

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