An evening conversation about God and existence in a French cafe.
Traversing the streets of Georgetown at sunset, I happen upon a French cafe, Bonaparte. The happy hour sign in front offers half-priced glasses of wine, and I’m sold. The narrow, cozy French-themed bar is the perfect environment for drafting a review of book on the decline of European religiosity. The book’s conclusions mirror my own informal research findings gathered at the cafe that evening.
Speaking with embassy interns – a 25 year old male from Denmark and a 22 year old female from Belgium – I gathered that religious piety, as expected, wasn’t at the top of their priority list. Upon mentioning her Catholic affiliation – which is more of a national cultural afterthought than a living faith – the Dane humorously referenced buying indulgences for a ticket to heaven. A typical jab at the faith, I thought.
He was an atheist, he stated nonchalantly, as if declaring a major in college. He studies at the University of Copenhagen, a variety of topics in the liberal arts, including politics and philosophy. I informed him of my fascination with Kierkegaard, and he was impressed. His philosophy was more of the Sartrean thread of existentialism. We shared an appreciation for Kierkegaard’s 200th birthday, which was this month. We discussed how the question of God was the fork in the road that parted Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, the founding fathers of existentialism. “On that note,” I said, holding up the title I came to the cafe to write about, “this work explains how the West lost God.”
As the Belgium beauty left for the ladies’ room, I took my conversation with the Dane back to the level of the philosophic. “We are social animals,” he said, which I agreed with. Aristotle surmised this – zoon politikon, as my Vietnamese philosophy professor hammered onto the tabula rasa that was the sixteen-year-old mind in Dr. Nguyen’s introductory philosophy class. We shared our love of interiority and the value of solitude. He interpreted solitude as loneliness, and I explained that in English, how we speak of loneliness is quite different than our understanding of solitude. The former can be satisfied in social company, and is often a result of a lack in oneself. Loneliness can be seen as an absence of satisfaction with the self, a void. It’s not something “sought -after”, as in the manner of the desert fathers who flee from others, toward themselves, toward God; rather, loneliness is something one flees from, a happening-to rather than a seeking-out. Solitude, I explained, is something we seek in order to better understand ourselves. It can be glorious- an escape for some, and a return for others.
When I think of solitude, I think back nostalgically to my summers in college. After graduating, I transitioned out of my old friends, and found myself alone – a camp counselor by day and a student of philosophy, film, culture, and cuisine by night. The sun, the beach, foreign films, fascinating books, and absurdly frequent trips to the local library and bookstore, I spent my summer devouring as many ideas as my days would allow.
But solitude can also be a scary place. Entering into solitude with oneself, we discussed, can place one face-to-face with the self. Some of us flee the mirrors that reveal our true self, wishing rather not to see what’s truly within. “The inner is never the outer,” Kierkegaard wrote. Perhaps Danes know all too well the cost of losing God. When a mirror is held up to our self, without God, there is no redemption for our flaws, from that which we flee from. We come to dislike, even hate what we see. Without the redeeming love of God, one who covers our multitude of sins, we are left alone in our brokenness. Seeking solace, we flee to the philosophers, who have constructed a worldview for us, safely scrubbing out God from the horizon. We flee to others- for intoxication in conversation, song, dance, sex. But not for too long, for hell is other people, lest we have forgotten Sartre’s words. And after this nauseating cycle of desire and disdain for others, we die alone. If God is dead, if all we have is what is present to us in this lifetime on earth, it’s no wonder Nietzsche calls us to Dionysian revelry. Why not eat, drink, and dance– for tomorrow, we will die. The Belgium femme fatale returns from the bathroom, and the two existentialists leave a momentary ascent, returning to the mundane.
The Belgium beauty shared with us her experience of faith, starting with her name: Salome. “Do you realize the historical significance of your name?” I asked. Her response was less than enthusiastic. All she knew was the curse that the name had brought her in her blossoming youth, the head of John the Baptist, the Salome of sensuous dance. The decline of her faith began in Catholic school with writing on a lunchbox. A sister in her Catholic school wrote Salome killed John the Baptist on a her lunchbox. Her faith in the Church, it seemed, had never fully recovered. Unbelievably, the Salome seated across from me was also a dancer.
“Did you know Salome broke Nietzsche’s heart?” I excitedly shared. The Dane knew of the woman who led Nietzsche to nihilism by way of broken heart, but wasn’t educated on the finer details. The weight of Salome, it seemed, was more experiential than intellectual.
He later shared with us an anecdote of his brush with faith. An old Danish woman came up to him on the street, telling him that she saw something of God in his eyes. He laughed it off, an inconsequential brush with a bag lady, as he saw it. I looked at him with searching eyes. I held his gaze for a few moments. Without words, he could see what I was getting at. I asked him if it could possibly have meant something. He laughed as if I, too, were a little crazy (although not completely). Even in his unbelieving eyes, I, too, could sense a stirring of the infinite in a mind so captivated by the folly of the finite.
Samantha Schroeder is a freelance journalist working for a foreign policy organization in Washington, D.C. A 2012 graduate of the University of Central Florida, she took her degree in philosophy, completing an honors thesis on the nature of love and presenting her research at conferences across the United States. In the summer of 2012, she was a librarian at the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She arrived in D.C. in the fall of 2012 to pursue journalism as a fellow with the Student Free Press Association.