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?…
Author’s Note: This is the third of a five-part series examining fundamentalism from an existentialist perspective. In what follows we begin to review the existentialist motifs that Irvin Yalom discusses in his Existential Psychotherapy. This post examines death and isolation.
Death - Yalom writes:
“It is one of life’s most self-evident truths that everything fades, that we fear the fading, and that we must live, nonetheless, in the face of the fading, in the face of fear.” (p. 30).
Existentialists often speak of this in terms of “finitude.” Finitude means an awareness that we are vulnerable creatures, with limited abilities and power to shape the world, and that we are subject to the passing of time and the loss that it brings – including, ultimately, death. Thus, it follows that grief is an intrinsic part of life – and the sweeter the living, the deeper the grief at its inevitable passing. The term “finitude” also includes death anxiety proper: a bedrock awareness that I, myself, and all those I care about, and all the things that matter to me, will not last forever. My life, all my cares, all my projects will eventually cease.
Yalom suggest we are all intrinsically aware of our finitude, though it is frightening and we often push it aside…
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…
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)…
In my previous blog, Can an Atheist be Spiritual?, I showed how we non-theists can borrow, from religious liberals, what I think is a beautiful and evocative language to talk about spirituality – without buying into the ontology that is tacked on to it. For my part, I consider myself a religious naturalist, meaning I do not believe in any supernatural being, but I nevertheless find religious language uniquely suited to capture and evoke that wonder and beauty and goodness – there is no better word than “holiness” – that I find in the world. In this post, let me briefly elaborate on my own experience (as the case study I personally know the best) about non-theistic spirituality.
When I left Christianity, I found I suddenly had to face the world without all the comforting illusions evangelical Christianity had provided for me. I was no longer “special” in that Christian sense – no longer one of the elect, who “got” the world as no other group did, who was destined for eternal glory. Moreover, I could no longer expect rescue or protection from life’s most painful truths: we are finite and vulnerable, we all die, we are all alone in the world, we are responsible for our own lives with no one to blame, that we must find our own meaning in life.
Yet it was exactly in that encounter with these existential “givens” in life – with the tenuousness and frailty of human life – that I, for the first time, saw its true value. For the first time I could see just how infinitely precious human life really is…
Can an atheist be spiritual? This question comes up a lot, and I think it is a fair and natural one. As one of the many who has traversed the difficult road out of Protestant Christian fundamentalism, I would like to offer my own answer to this question. In short: absolutely yes…. but it is important to understand just what a non-theist might mean by “spiritual”. Let me start by looking at how the word “spiritual” is usually understood.
For conservative religionists, “spirituality”, to the extent that they use the term at all, has to do with participation in a supernatural orthodoxy – things like adherence to official doctrine, official sacraments and rituals, being “saved”, revivals/worship, singing hymns, reading the Bible, one’s “walk with God”. Their spirituality is revelation-based. For them, it is God Himself who instructs us how to relate to him, and that is the only avenue seen as open to humans for “spirituality.” God, in short, tells you what the rules are; you either do it or you don’t.
Religious liberals (and, to some extent, moderates), by contrast, are relatively less sure about the next world and more sure about this one. Liberals generally feel that whatever we might know about “God” (however they understand that term) is necessarily filtered through human interpretation and thus, human experience. Thus they tend to accept the methods and findings of both science and the historical-critical approach to religious texts, and will likely see our views about God as at least somewhat (if not entirely) culturally-dependent. They usually have no problem seeing religious myth as myth – i.e., not tied to literal, historical fact – and can find it illuminating and valuable nonetheless…