Existentialism. The mere mention of the word conjures in the mind, for many, a nebulous picture at best and a negative, disjointed system of philosophy at worst. On the popular level, the term has been hijacked to represent a peculiar kind of solipsism that lauds navel-gazing and flights into fancy. One only has to glance, for instance, at various subreddits dedicated to the supposed discussion of the subject to find (spiked)-soda-driven ramblings composed at 3 am about the inevitability of death. The responses usually offered to these woe-is-me soliloquies are dreadfully boring: repackaged bites of Epicureanism indicative of our current cultural malaise. “Life is meaningless, so just go out and experience as much pleasure as you can, as long as you don’t harm others.” That’s the takeaway. The problem is that it’s not existentialism.
In Protestant circles, the understanding of existentialism is hardly better. Søren Kierkegaard, often considered the father of the movement, is misrepresented and even maligned by significant Christian leaders of the past half-century. Francis Schaeffer blamed him for helping the culture plunge into despair (1). Al Mohler declares that, if you follow Kierkegaard’s line of thought to its conclusion, you’ll abandon the Gospel (2). Gary Habermas seems to think that Kierkegaard believes the historical validity of the Resurrection does not matter one way or the other (3). Even R.C. Sproul, who takes a more positive approach to Kierkegaard’s thought, argues that his anti-systematic approach causes problems for theology (4).
My purpose here is not to go toe-to-toe with these theologians (5) or try and wade through the popular (mis)understandings of existentialism on a wider scale. Instead, what I’d like to try and contend is that an existential understanding of the world, and especially of our current milieu, is both vital and necessary for thinking Christians. For that reason, we need to understand what existentialism argues for, because only then will we see its necessity and only then can we respond to criticisms and misunderstandings.
But first, perhaps, a disclaimer. There is definitely room for criticism to be leveled at the agnostic side of the existential coin: thinkers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre, who dismissed even the concept of God in forming their philosophy, furnish serious gaps in their ideologies as a result. They have to be wrestled with on different grounds. Still, some of the fundamental concepts of even these “secular” thinkers are worth examining and can indeed provide particular insights into our modern condition. If God can use donkeys and roosters to speak to humans, then certainly he can use Nazi sympathizers and liberal Frenchmen.
If we were to boil down existentialism to two essential postulates, they would be as follows: A) Truth is subjective; B) the individual is the decisive thing. In one sense, these are two sides of the same coin; but the emphasis falls in a different place for each, and we would do well to analyze them in turn.
A). In what would arguably be considered the magnum opus of existentialism, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard states that it is impossible to create a system for existence because “system and finality correspond to one another, but existence is precisely the opposite of finality” (6). What this means is that to systematize something is to treat it as closed, complete, and capable of detached analysis. When we do this with anything — from the simplest of phenomena to the most complex of ideas — we objectify the thing-at-hand. By holding it out from us and analyzing its parts, continuously turning it within the prism of the mind, we become observers and admirers — but we cannot become personally engaged with whatever it is we are examining. Clearly, this is impossible with existence, because we are in the middle of living — we cannot step outside of ourselves and become observers of our lives unless we end up abstracting our thought to the point of absurdity.
Truth, Kierkegaard contends, is the same way. It is “subjective,” not in the sense of moral relativism, but in the sense that it must be lived in and related to with all the intense experiences of existence, not objectified and treated like a faraway object. It must “become” true for us through personal appropriation, for only then will it operate as Truth in our lives.
Put another way, Truth must be primarily related to with passion as opposed to reflection. That is not to say that there is no place for reflection vis-à-vis Truth, but when the primary mode of relation is reflection, we inevitably objectify it. We become scientists and scholars who treat the world, and God, as massive objects to be analyzed but never engaged: “The existing individual who chooses to pursue the objective way enters upon the entire approximation-process by which it is proposed to bring God to light objectively. But this is in all eternity impossible, because God is a subject, and therefore exists only for subjectivity in inwardness” (7). If we would properly relate to God, to Truth, then we must do so subjectively.
B) Building on this idea is the second side of the coin: the individual is the decisive thing. This is not to say that institutions and systemization have no place at all, but they do not take primacy in the world or in experience. What matters is each person as an “individual alone before God.” It is here that man is forced to take decisive action in a particular direction, here that man can examine himself and his relation to the truth: in his individuality, and not in his role as part of a whole, not in his vocation or the abstraction of himself. What existentialism does is force each person to the point of crisis where, stripped of all other considerations and categories of thought, the individual must confront the reality of him/herself vis-a-vis eternity.
Even a cursory examination of the Scriptures would prove the validity of this philosophical view. One only has to consider the countless narratives in the Old Testament in which God presents Himself to His people in the role of a powerful Rescuer and Judge, who reveals Himself in fire and cloud and descends to the mountain to speak with mere men. One only has to think of how individuals are always the focal points in the story of salvation in both Testaments, of how God, when He becomes man, calls and speaks directly to individuals. The Gospel of John, for instance, revolves around Christ’s encounters with single persons: Nicodemus, the woman at the well, the man blind from birth. All of these either fall down at His feet in worship (appropriate the truth subjectively) or cannot understand what He is saying/demonstrating (because they have objectified the truth).
So, then, where does all of this leave us? If we agree with the central tenets of existentialism and are able to see how they are beneficial for thinking Christians in today’s society, in what sense can we apply them and influence our praxis in holistic, permanent ways?
The first step is in recognizing how Truth is meant to operate and, as such, how juxtaposed modern conceptions of Truth are with this notion. If Truth is indeed meant to be related to subjectively, this means that objective modes of thought are secondary in importance; of course we must know what we are pursuing, what is true and what is not, but merely knowing what is not enough when the accent is and should be placed upon how. What this means is that Christians should be beacons for passionate living in a society that is becoming increasingly more oriented towards perpetual spectatorship. The proliferation of various entertainment media, the ubiquitous presence of social media and the emphasis in daily life upon utmost efficiency is, effectively, robbing people of volitional development and an awareness of this need for passion. As Christians, we can demonstrate with our words and our actions that Truth can only be pursued with the concreteness of passion, with a perpetual orientation towards the infinite, rather than a sort of bystander mentality that bandies about spiritual ideas and little more.
The second tenet of existentialism is of equal importance, and in some ways is even more necessary to emphasize. The massive networking of social media and the recent vitriolic push for political involvement in the past couple of years have moved to cement the idea of the crowd as tantamount to progress and true enlightenment. Over and against this demonic notion stands the truth of the individual, who — breaking away from those discordant voices — can find wholeness and fulfillment in escaping despair and reposing in the authenticity of true personhood as established by God. Such a pursuit will, of course, require a deep, even agonizing examination of the self that most are not equipped or informed to conduct. Yet without this stripping away of externalities and focusing upon the self, without breaking away from “the crowd” and learning to discern and subjectively analyze the threads that make up the self, we will, at best, live half-lives devoid of true fulfillment and predicated upon counterfeit ideas that will slowly infiltrate the framework of our persons. Only in the existential pursuit of “authenticity,” of passionate striving for truth, will we learn to live as God the Father purposed when He fashioned man from the dust of the earth and filled him with the breath of life.
(1) Christianity Today – “Why We Still Need Kierkegaard.”
(2) World Magazine – “Albert Mohler: Far Side Christians.”
(3) The Resurrection of Jesus: A Rational Inquiry by Gary Habermas. Pg. 186.
(4) Ligonier Ministries – “Pessimistic Existentialism (pt. 4).”
(5) Their misconceptions are worth noting, however, because Kierkegaard was a devout Christian, and it is from his faith and because of his faith that he derived many of the “first principles” of existentialism. It becomes very easy to misread Kierkegaard if one does not know this. Judging on some of the statements of the abovementioned theologians, one has to wonder how much of Kierkegaard they’ve actually read, or if they’ve borrowed snippets of quotes of quotes from dubious sources to draw their conclusions, which are so off-base they’d be worth laughing at if they weren’t so reputationally damaging.
(6) A Kierkegaard Anthology, ed. Robert Bretall. Page 201.
(7) Ibid. Pg. 211.