Existentialism: Freedom and Responsibility
So far we have reviewed the existentialist themes of death and isolation, why they are considered to be ubiquitous human issues, and why they are important. Then we looked at the fundamentalist Christian “answer” to these issues, and how I suggest that answer goes awry. Here, we continue with another existentialist theme: our freedom.
Freedom/responsibility – Just as we are, each of us, our own parent, so too are we the author of our lives. No better term exists for the description of the rock-bottom responsibility – an unavoidable responsibility – each of us has to create our lives. I am the author of my life. I write my life in the first-person; I do not “find” it in the third-person. I am responsible for my decisions. I constitute my world, no matter what my circumstances, no matter what I am given; if nothing else I am still responsible for my attitude toward my life.
It may sound odd but how, really, could it be otherwise? For any proffered external basis for valuation and decision-making – such as “you should do x because x is reasonable” or the pragmatic “you should do x because it helps you achieve your goals” – it always can be asked: “and why should I care about that?” Even the justification “You should do x because God says so” (and even assuming I agree that God does in fact say so) requires something further – after all, why should I care what God says? Existentialists argue: because you make a choice to. There is no other answer. No matter what standard you adopt as a basis for decision-making, you are responsible for having made the choice to assume that standard. Responsibility is irreducible; there is no getting around this.
Existentialism argues that the world does not contain values. In other words, it was easy to believe, in Christian medieval Europe, that God imbued our life and the world with meaning and value and purpose. If one forgot what it was, it could always be re-discovered by examining the world. Existentialism denies this is possible. The world is neutral. Nature is neutral. It is neither good nor bad, friendly nor hostile, purposeful nor purposeless. The world is just matter in motion; it does not tell you what is good or what goals should be pursued. It, therefore, has no value at all but what we put in it. “Nothing in the world has significance except by virtue of one’s own creation. There are no rules, no ethical systems, no values; there is no external referent whatsoever; there is no grand design in the universe.” (p. 221) Therefore, we are entirely responsible for what values we create – there is no deferring to nature or to God, no passing of the buck. Whatever we find, we put there, and thus we are responsible for it.
As before, this is a terrifying experience when it is really encountered. To accept full authorship, without evasion or denial, is difficult because it means there is nowhere to turn, no one to blame. “No ass to kick, no heart to appeal to” runs an old line that got stuck in my head somewhere (I haven’t been able to source it), and that perfectly describes this condition.
Fundamentalist Christianity wishes to avoid this responsibility in spades, and here is where I find it most destructive, and most disingenuous. That theology heavily emphasizes personal responsibility – indeed, preaches responsibility as a high moral virtue – but at the same time, I suggest that it undermines personal responsibility utterly. For not only does it teach that no one is competent to run his or her own life, not only does it teach it is sinful even to try, it teaches that the correct response of creature to Creator is one of abject submission. One is to empty one’s will, and thus has only the most infinitesimal responsibility of doing what one is told. This is what evangelical Christian responsibility amounts to: following orders. Never mind that they have also chosen what they will consider to be the orders in the first place. The outsourcing of responsibility is thus shot through the entire theology, and this has, as always, a cost.
For truly accepting responsibility for one’s life, rather than ducking it or lying to oneself about it, is simultaneously liberating and empowering, according to the existentialists. It amounts to what psychotherapists call an “internal locus of control” – the sense of being in charge of one’s life, oneself, rather than constantly looking outward for instructions and rescue (God), or blame (Satan, or human sin). It means we are constantly in the act of self-creation. No matter what givens I have – matter what life hands me – it is I, and I alone, who is responsible for what I do with it. This means, of course, that change is an ever-present potential within each of us, at every moment – if we have the courage to use it. I can always change my life by changing myself. I am, fully, the author of my life – and I can change the plot anytime.