In the past few days, the idea of Christian Existentialism has been brought up to me as some sort of viable marriage between philosophy and theology. As I said in my previous post, I think this is a bit misguided.
I think there is a slight danger in the concept of Christian Existentialism. The entire point of Existentialism is that we look inside ourselves for ultimate truth and meaning for existence. Starting at this place causes a lot of problems. I’ll mention three here: sin and Scripture (briefly), and the nature of Christianity itself. “Christian” Existentialism has to define sin in two incorrect ways. First, it would have to say that what makes a sin a sin is the action itself evaluated in light of its consequences. This flies in the face of the Bible which screams that it is in the heart where sin dwells and shows itself, not the actions; and, most sins committed by humans never reach the will anyway, much less have evaluative “consequences”. Second and more Existentially unique, is the idea that sin is anything done that results in the losing of the “true authentic self” of Existentialism (I’ll say the fault in this shortly). And lastly, when it comes to the Bible, Scripture is seen more as something to submit to our experiences rather than to submit our experiences to.
The ultimate fallacy (and what I see to be the most frustrating) in all this is the idea that all things pertaining to God find their meaning, purpose, truth, righteousness, and value in how they relate to us humans. Existentialism would say that we only know anything by seeing where it lies relative to us. I’m sorry, but this whole Christianity thing is not about us. It never has been, nor will it be. It is about Christ and His glory. The more we dive inside of ourselves, all we will see is our depravity and darkness. Any other finding is due to inauthentic searching and subsequent blindness to the true state of one’s soul. Self esteem and self knowledge is not the root of mental health, soul value, and practical empowerment, in spite of what the gurus of our age tell us. It is by looking to Christ, not ourselves, and esteeming and delighting in Him alone that we are made into His likeness at every level, and find meaning, purpose, value, and insight into how this whole thing is supposed to be worked out.
But yet . . .
as I said in my previous post, Philosophies can help provide us with answers to theological dilemmas and categories. Existentialism helps us in questions of sin (in spite of what I said earlier, ironically enough), the relationship between ontology and the Sovereignty of God (our nature vs. God’s providence), and the nature of Christian spirituality.
The most famous “Christian Existentialist” is probably Soren Kierkegaard. But more precisely, though, he probably laid the foundation for what later became full blown Existentialism. Nevertheless, his fingerprints are all over Existentialist though, Christian or otherwise. In his work, “The Sickness Unto Death”, Kierkegaard defines sin as primarily about one’s position in relation to God. This is the difference between “error” and “sin”. Sin is against God and affects our relation to him. He argues against the view of Socrates that sin is merely an act stemming from ignorance. Kierkegaard vehemently denies this because this turns “sin” into a negation – merely a lack. Kierkegaard points out that sin isn’t just negation but it’s a position and posture towards God. How is this still Existentialism? Well, sin is still defined in terms of our position before God – it’s necessarily tied to and defined in terms of our existence before Him. But what makes this Orthodox is that it is not an existence divorced from the backdrop of God Himself. It is intricately linked and fused together as one. Our existence is only existence insofar God Himself is exists. As Paul would say (quoting Greek poets): “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28)
I wrote out the other two points, and they made this article far too long. I really think these next two points are of utmost importance for the Christian to understand, so rather than just putting them at the end of a post and people not really reading it, I’m going to make them their own post tomorrow. In the last two points, I try and use existentialism to help come up with a Christian answer to the age-old question of Existentialism: which comes first: your essence or existence? You’ll see that because of the Fall, these things become quote complicated. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, Existentialism helps the Christian see that all of life (especially the Christian life) is anything but neat, orderly, nice, and naive. It is full of uncertainty, angst, frustration, and doubt. But, more on those tomorrow.