Existentialism: An Introduction
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.