Existentialism: Themes and Defenses
Author’s Note: This is the second in a five-part series examining fundamentalism from a existentialist perspective.
We 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. My thesis is this: fundamentalism is a response to these basic human (which is to say, existential) “givens” in life. It is a way to assuage some of the most difficult and vexing anxiety that comes part-and-parcel with being human. But in doing so, it separates the believer from full participation in life. It is, in the end, life-denying, not life-enhancing.
My guiding text will be Dr. Irvin Yalom’s wonderful 1980 Existential Psychotherapy. Yalom is a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and writer working at Stanford who has written extensively on the intersection of existentialist thought and psychotherapy – a topic that could comprise a book in itself. Yalom’s book has become a classic in the field. His clarity and lucidity in representing existentialist concepts and placing them in a psychological context (for, really, where else could they be placed?) has no equal. It is relatively non-technical and I highly recommend it to the interested reader.
Yalom divides his work along four “themes” that were predominant within existentialist writing: death, isolation, responsibility, and meaning. These “themes” became the focus of study among the existentialists because they believed them to be universal emotional experiences, intrinsic to being a human subject. These are, in other words, the basic building blocks of human experience: we are all aware, on some level, that our life and all our projects will one day cease (death), we are aware that we are ultimately alone (isolation), we are aware that we are free to choose our lives and create ourselves (responsibility), and we know that the meaning of our lives will not be given to us, and thus we must create it (meaning).
Existentialism has sometimes been accused of being morbid, but there is a reason for all this focus on death and anxiety and loneliness, and this is critical to understand. The existentialists thought these experiences were so important and so worth struggling with because, though they are always painful, they are nonetheless (to borrow from religious language) our salvation. Facing all these things directly is precisely that which has the power to make us feel alive, to make life worth living. Why? Because once you strip away the illusions of life (all the fanciful stories we tell ourselves to shield ourselves from these painful realities), once you accept what life is not and cannot be, then and only then are you free to appreciate what truly is and can be.
So, here, then, is one motif to watch for as we look at these “themes”: when you let go of illusions about what you wish life was, but isn’t, you can re-focus your energy on appreciating what it is, and thereby live life more fully.
One other thing to pay attention to as we go through Yalom’s themes: there are two ways that fundamentalist belief typically responds to and “solves” each of these “problems”. One, there is a belief in personal Specialness – “These rules will not apply to me. These are universal aspects of other people’s lives, but I will escape this fate”. The other, belief in a Rescuer – someone who will shield the believer from the pain and anxiety he would otherwise have to face.
These defenses, I should add, are not unique to Christianity or Christians. Indeed, Yalom himself gives many examples of them, drawn from his experience as a psychotherapist treating people from all walks of life. His contention is that these defenses are quite widespread (albeit often unconscious) and represent common human ways to stave off existential anxiety. They are not the exclusive purview of religion, and I should further point out that my use of Yalom’s model, in applying it to fundamentalism, is my own idea, not his; his target is broader.
But I contend that in fundamentalism these two defenses, especially, have received deep and powerful elaboration and institutionalization. And thus, in a sense, can be seen to both effectively bind anxiety – yet also keep the believer in a state of suspended animation, separated from the only thing that can really bring him awake to the real world, and to his true “salvation”.
So, keep these themes and defenses in mind as we look at Yalom’s treatment of existential psychology in more detail. Next time, we begin at the end, with death.