Existentialism: An Introduction

July 8, 2008 at 2:29 am 23 comments

Author’s note: This article is the first part of a five-part series examining fundamentalist Christianity from an existentialist perspective.

From time to time there has been interest on this discussion board in existentialist ideas as they pertain to fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity. Since existentialist philosophy was extremely important to me during the course of my own de-conversion, I thought I would take this opportunity to expand on this issue.

This post will serve as part I, a brief overview of existentialism, which many people have only a cursory familiarity with. This will help orient us to the more specific discussion of fundamentalism from an existentialist perspective, in future installments.

Existentialism was a philosophy that flourished during the early part of the twentieth century. It typically is thought to include such thinkers as Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, in the late 19th century, and later individuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, and Martin Heidegger. (There is, of note, no universal agreement as to who was an “existentialist” and many of those individuals listed specifically rejected the label.)

It is difficult to encapsulate what, exactly, existentialism was about, in part because it was in many ways more of a broad intellectual “mood” than an organized philosophy. But even more, the resistance to encapsulation and easy summary is half the point of what existentialism is trying to say. It can be approached a number of ways, but the one that makes the most sense to me is through religion, because that was my own experience. In simplest terms, existentialism asserts that many people live in a state of illusion about life, illusions that buffer them from some hard, painful truths about being human. Existentialism takes note of this and then asks: once you strip away these illusions, what’s left? What does human life consist of, in itself? Some background may help.

For almost a thousand years in Western history, European civilization was dominated by Christianity. The Church was the most powerful social institution, and the life of any given individual was totally enveloped, from birth until death, in the Church. The Christian church provided comfort, guidance, reassurance, purpose, community, and explanations for life. Importantly, the meaning of one’s life was pre-established and handed down: one’s goal, one’s telos, was to lead a Christian life, according to Christian ideals, and prepare for the establishment of the Kingdom of God. Obedience to God was the goal, and submission to God’s guidance was an unqualified good.

Thus, medieval Christianity can be understood to have been a “system”: an organized and explicit set of goals, ideals, values, and prescriptions for what life means and how to live a good life as a human being. If you had questions or were uncertain about some issue in life, you consulted the “system” (through, perhaps, the priest) to get your answer. Christianity told you how to live and provided the meaning of life and the answers in life. (Other “systems” followed the decline of Christianity in the West, such as Enlightenment rationality and Marxism, but here I will focus only on the former.)

It was Friedrich Nietzsche in the 19th century who first heralded the problem, as science and Enlightenment ideals advanced, society became more secular, and religious belief began to wane. If meaning and purpose and guidance are bound up in Christianity, and Christianity is starting to fade as the uncontested center of the Western psyche, he asked, what will happen to us? How will we find meaning, and where will we get our values? All values – all that was thought important – were “grounded” in the Christian system. What if the system fails?

Existentialism grew out of such questions and, in effect, responded by rejecting not only the Christian system (this included Christian existentialists! ), it rejected all such “systems”. It explicitly rejected the view that life can be “systematized” according to some predetermined meaning, be it religious or secular. Existentialists believed that life was too messy, complicated, grey, and uncertain to ever fit into any tidy, pre-made intellectual or cultural scheme. Existentialists believed that all such systems attempted to provide easy answers, which were really evasions, for the often painful truths about human life. These truths must be faced if life is to be experienced as worthwhile.

Existentialism relies on basic idea: meaning in life is to be created (not found) only through engagement in life, through immersion in the particular, nitty-gritty, warts-and-all details of one’s own individual life. To try to live one’s life in conformity to an abstract ideal, especially if that ideal has been passively absorbed from one’s culture, can only lead to a meaningless, superficial alienation from oneself. “Meaning” cannot be had in the abstract: there is no “Meaning Of Life”, in general, to be taught and recited. There is only the meaning of my life and your life that is created by living life. Knowledge of, or conformity to, abstract ideals is not enough to create meaning. These truths are matters of the most intense human passion, and must be chosen and lived, not grasped. Meaning is found in living life, not in understanding life.

Existentialism also rejected the rosy optimism usually characteristic of systems, such as of Christianity (and Enlightenment), that all human problems have solutions. It taught that there are certain givens in human life: that every one of us will die, for example, and that fact is a cause for sorrow, and it is a loss that cannot be removed. It taught that we are all responsible for our own lives, and that no one has all the answers or perfect guidance to give us about how to live it. Life cannot be made clean, clear, and simple, for the existentialists: we all must muddle through, doing the best we can. And no one, not the Church, not the Bible, and not our own reason, can make everything okay for us. (And this, incidentally, is why existentialism resists easy summary – to summarize the existentialist “prescription”, so to speak, would be to create just that very system it says can’t work.)

Existentialists thus taught us to face, and indeed embrace, these existential “givens” in life, and to learn to live both courageously (because it is scary to live without the comfort of predetermined meanings handed to us) and joyfully (because it is also sad to give up those comforts). But those comforts are illusions, say the existentialists, and human maturity is to recognize this and learn to live a good life anyway. Life without illusions, life made one’s own by living it rather than by playing some role, and an affirmation of life despite all its pains and sorrows: that is what existentialism was about.

Thus, with this background, we can begin to look at how evangelical Christianity can be seen against this understanding, and look at what the alternative might be.

- Richard

Entry filed under: Richard. Tags: , , , , , .

To die is gain? – On religious martyrdom and forgiveness Existentialism: Themes and Defenses

23 Comments Add your own

  • 1. epiphanist  |  July 8, 2008 at 6:37 am

    I would have suggested Descartes as the father of existentialism, and a fair bit earlier than the 19th century. When Descartes used doubt to deconstruct his perception, he found that his existence was the only thing he could be sure of. Hence existentialism and the philosophy of doubt. Good luck with the rest of your story.

  • 2. Shira  |  July 8, 2008 at 10:24 am

    This sounds rather like Buddhism. (The Buddha also identified certain inevitable sources of suffering, such as death, old age, sickness, losing what we love and having to coexist with what we hate.) I wonder how much cross-pollination was going on at the time?

  • 3. LeoPardus  |  July 8, 2008 at 12:19 pm

    Richard:

    Thanks. This is a great summary of existentialism for one such as I, who have to admit to a mostly “cursory familiarity”.

    I must say that back in my days as a Christian, I always noted that existentialism provided an honest and courageous way of looking baldly at life. I remember thinking that if I weren’t a Christian, I’d be either existentialist or Taoist (which I think is a very existentialist religion). Certainly nowadays I would be best categorized as an existentialist.

    Looking forward to more of this series.

  • 4. cammack  |  July 8, 2008 at 2:44 pm

    Richard:

    Well explained and excellently written. Besides that I’m not exactly sure what to say. I want to make a sort of reply, but I find myself quickly getting into blog length material, not comment stuff.

    I would consider myself a Christian existentialist, if I had to put a label to it, and for the same reasons you mention. This is not new or unconventional (R.I.P. Kierkegaard), but I am a contemporary participant in the process, and so I have a feeling my perspective is valuable in this regard. I haven’t spoken this explicitly about faith in years, but your post has me momentarily interested in a dialog.

    I’m also not sure how much I can commit to this, but I’m currently intrigued by the idea of posting a series of responses (or companion articles) to your posts on my blog. My blog, which I just started and is currently undefined, is iamisrael.wordperss.com.

    If you’re interested in this in some sort of formal way, let’s talk and see what might happen. My idea essentially would be to offer my personal experience and thoughts (in proper existential fashion, and somewhat in contrast to your own position) as a person who emerged from a fairly fundamentalist background into a broader scope of intellectual thought.

    If you’re interested, let me know. I’m excited for your next article.

  • 5. ED  |  July 8, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    The teaching company has a course by Professor Robert Solomon from the University of Texas at Austin. The Course title is “No Excuses: Existentialism and the meaning of Life.”

    In defining existentialism, “No excuses” is very appropriate in that it conveys perhaps the essence of the philosophy; taking responsibility for your life.

    ED

  • 6. karen  |  July 8, 2008 at 7:27 pm

    Thanks so much, Richard. I’ve been interested in this topic and sort of floundered about reading various things, but not really feeling like I “got” it. Your clarity and precision in writing this is very helpful and I look forward to your continuing the series.

  • 7. thebigtooth  |  July 8, 2008 at 10:06 pm

    Existentialism sounds like hell.

  • 8. Quester  |  July 8, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    Good intro, Richard! I look forward to reading the rest.

  • 9. The Apostate  |  July 8, 2008 at 10:54 pm

    Shira,

    This sounds rather like Buddhism…

    Good point. I have the fortunate situation of being a Religious Studies and Philosophy student, hence allowing me to study both Buddhism and Existentialism. Buddhism, especially the Mahayana tradition, has much in common with later existentialism, as well as classical Gnosticism. However, the two (or three) cannot be conflated even after cultural situations are taken into account. The ontological perspectives between the Buddhist and the western existentialist is radically different to name one such variant off the top of my head.

  • 10. Luke  |  July 10, 2008 at 10:30 am

    Soren Kierkegaard rawks! great post and thanks for putting this up there! i LOVE existentialism and going “boxless”

  • 11. Frances  |  July 10, 2008 at 10:50 am

    I spent 5 years as a pentacostal christian before de-converting about ten years ago. After spending all that time in a fanstasy world of all the supposed miracles god could perform at ny moment, coming back to reality was extremely refreshing. I certianly didn’t call it existentialism then, but now I realize that there is a lot of comfort in knowing that life will have certain joys and pains and you can’t get out of it. Believing in miracles to save you from pain,tragedy, and the consequences of you actions is like living on a very cruel roller-coaster. I look forward to reading more on this topic.

  • 12. Existentialism and Psychology « de-conversion  |  July 10, 2008 at 5:48 pm

    [...] will begin by looking at some of the themes that emerge in existentialist thought, and see how they can help make some sense of many of the features of fundamentalist Christianity. [...]

  • 13. RIchard  |  July 11, 2008 at 12:38 am

    cammack – Thanks for your interest in my post.

    While Im not sure I could commit to anything formal, I would certainly be interesting in exchanging views and kicking around some ideas, either on this blog or on yours.

    I plan to try to post the next essay, # 3, in a few days, in which I will start exploring some more specific ideas. Take a look at it and see if it sparks you interest.

    Sounds like we share a background, and a bent toward existentialism, but differ on the religious questions. Sounds interesting!

  • 14. the chaplain  |  July 11, 2008 at 7:58 pm

    Richard:

    Thanks for a clear post that sets out the basics of an existentialist understanding of life. As you pointed out, it wouldn’t be quite right to call existentialism a world view.

    I’m looking forward to reading the series, as I usually find your posts very illuminating.

  • 15. Grant Dexter  |  July 12, 2008 at 2:52 am

    And this, incidentally, is why existentialism resists easy summary – to summarize the existentialist “prescription”, so to speak, would be to create just that very system it says can’t work.

    It sounds like existentialism denies one of the bare face truths that we all must face up to no matter how hard they might be. The fact is that life is organised and is utterly dependent upon categories, systems and regulations.

  • 16. RIchard  |  July 12, 2008 at 3:08 am

    Grant-
    > The fact is that life is organised and is utterly dependent upon categories, systems and regulations.

    I think youre going to need an argument for that, not simply an assertion.

  • 17. Grant Dexter  |  July 12, 2008 at 3:15 am

    I think the assertion is enough.

    Do you think you could express yourself in this, or any other, format without the systems we use to convey language?

  • 18. RIchard  |  July 12, 2008 at 3:21 am

    You’re equicovating. As I used the word “system” in my post, I think it is reasonably clear that language is not what I was talking about. The medieval Christian “system” included far more things than just language.

  • 19. Grant Dexter  |  July 15, 2008 at 2:26 am

    Here’s what you wrote:

    Existentialism grew out of such questions and, in effect, responded by rejecting not only the Christian system (this included Christian existentialists! ), it rejected all such “systems”. It explicitly rejected the view that life can be “systematized” according to some predetermined meaning, be it religious or secular. Existentialists believed that life was too messy, complicated, grey, and uncertain to ever fit into any tidy, pre-made intellectual or cultural scheme. Existentialists believed that all such systems attempted to provide easy answers, which were really evasions, for the often painful truths about human life. These truths must be faced if life is to be experienced as worthwhile.

    Sounds to me like you just want to reject the systems you don’t like and pretend you’ve discovered some great truth. Truth is that systems are necessary for human civilisation. To reject them is to reject society entirely.

  • 20. Richard  |  July 15, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    Youre still equivocating. You put forward “language” as an alleged example of a system I supposedly accept, while denying systems. But my response was, and remains, that language is not a system in this much-larger sense that I was originally referring to.

    Sounds to me like you just want to reject the systems you don’t like and pretend you’ve discovered some great truth. Truth is that systems are necessary for human civilisation. To reject them is to reject society entirely.

    No, I reject systems that are illogical and unsupported and psychologically destructive. To see through their illusions, especially when they have be conditioned into us over centuries, is indeed a great truth.

    Smaller “systems” are indeed necessary for civilization. But, again, equivocation — that is not what I referred to in my article. Existentialism was talking about overarching systems, “Ultimate” systems — “metanarratives” is another word — that claim to have all the answers . Its an imprecise word in this context, and that was why I put it in quotes.

    But again, nothing I wrote suggested existentialists rejected any and all systems of every kind.

  • [...] Existentialism: An Introduction [...]

  • 22. Katrina  |  September 25, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    Everyone seems to forget that our “Psyche”/ “Ego” thinks and rationalizes, we can only retain so much in our minds. It is the soul that remembers everything through the experience of life, good, or bad which triggers how we respond to situations we encounter. Much of how we respond to any given situation, or thought is credited to what we are taught by other’s outside of ourselves. We are each born with a spiritual gift, independent from each other. How and if we use those gifts determine the success of our happiness.
    I have found in my life and Roman Catholic faith, as well as guidance from my parents and relationships with others, that the mind cannot fathom the enormity of existence, we are all limited. Therefore, everyone has their own opinion. We will never know the fullness of the truth in this life. We can debate this until we are blue in the face. We all agree that we do exist and everything in life has an influence on us, but at the center of our being we will find the truth, not through rationalization of the mind. My life is not about me, it is about my relationships with others. Without them my life has no meaning. See if you can figure out the source of this meaning. Why do we exist?

  • 23. BarB  |  January 9, 2009 at 3:04 pm

    I thought that this idea of existentialism was new to me until
    I realized that, that it is exactly how I have lived my life all along.
    I have always tried to be happy in life even though I know “shit happens” (it always will !).But I still think the basic “rules” from religion are what makes living and working (“existing?”) in a society possible. I may not believe in a “virgin birth” but I do know that it feels”better to give than receive” and to treat people the way you expect to be treated (aka “do unto others…”)
    I’m really enjoying your blog as well as some others(Mystery of Iniquity) I’ve been out of University for over 25 years…I would like to go back I miss that honest challenge!

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