Is Existentialism a Threat to Christian Faith?

In the mid 20th century, Francis Schaeffer wrote several books in which he suggested that the beginning of a decline in Christian thought (and to some extent, Western culture) came with Kierkegaard in the 19th century and the resultant philosophy of existentialism (1).  This, he claimed, was the point where God began to be seen as totally separated from humanity to such an extent that He was totally incomprehensible to us and we could know nothing about Him.  A number of writers and speakers since then have used arguments based on Schaeffer’s observations.  For many evangelicals, the philosophy of existentialism and the ‘isms’ which are derived from it: individualism, subjectivism, relativism etc., have become viewpoints seen as damaging to the Christian faith.  I don’t entirely agree, and hope to show that existentialism has got something to say to Christians in the 21st century. 

So, what is existentialism?  Existentialism is a word which covers a great many variations of philosophical thought, and many who call themselves existentialists can hold different and even sometimes seemingly contradictory views.  These factors alone make it a difficult philosophy to define simply, but, at its most basic level, existentialism is underpinned by the idea that Existence precedes essence.
 
Most Western philosophy has begun with the thinker looking outside himself, and then trying to work backwards to make sense of the place of mankind in the philosophical theory.  Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), the so-called father of existentialism, believed that we can only begin with ourselves and work outwards from there. For Kierkegaard, there’s a distinction between the “thinking” ego and the “existing” ego of man. He believed that, from the time of Descartes, much philosophy had confused these two. “Being” for Kierkegaard is only a term which can be used when speaking of our concrete existence.  Our thoughts may or may not be true. I may own an Aston Martin, or I may imagine in my thoughts that I own one, but the two are completely different things. 

Kierkegaard is not so much interested in ‘scientific’ objective truth as in ultimate truth; i.e., that which relates to God and our existence in relation to Him. How can we know this kind of truth? Philosophers through the ages have come up with all kinds of ideas to answer this question. By Kierkegaard’s time, extremely complex philosophical systems were being proposed by such thinkers as Hegel. Hegel proceeded by stating a thesis, then conceiving an antithesis, and finally coming up with a synthesis of the two, which itself, in turn, became a new thesis. The system expanded seemingly without end, lumbering along like an antiquated weaving machine, threading thoughts together from essence (that which is outside actual existence) towards actuality and existence.  Kierkegaard sneered at such systems, believing that they were flawed from the outset.  Rather than building a theory based on abstract thought, that which is ‘outside’ ourselves, we should begin with the fact of our existence.  Moreover, as Kierkegaard pointed out, no philosophical ‘system’ would be of any use in helping us understand reality unless it was finished.  But of course, as you can see from the example given above, it’s possible for systems to continue indefinitely. 
 
Existentialism then, by its very nature, is wrapped up with individualism and the importance of the individual over the crowd. Each individual is responsible and must make his own decisions, based on the perception of truth he has apprehended subjectively. Kierkegaard’s religious thought warns us of the dangers of thinking purely objectively in relation to Christian faith; the habit we have of constantly looking outwards towards religious ideas and propositions without appropriating them inwardly.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with objective thinking so long as we recognise exactly what we are doing. But the inherent danger – and this is the precise point that Kierkegaard dwelt on so often – is the fact that objective thought in and of itself doesn’t necessarily touch the thinker. Whether we contemplate the vastness of space, a beautiful sunset, or The Sermon on the Mount, our attention is directed to something outside of ourselves. If we stop here, in thought, we are in danger of permanently living ‘outside’ of ourselves.  Do we accept the Sermon on the Mount as being true?  Are we convinced in our heart that it is true? Then we should decide to act on that belief, wherever that decision may take us. And it takes courage to make such decisions and step into the unknown!  Kierkegaard would have us live, not as observers of life, looking down as it were from a balcony as life passes by on the road below.  He would have us down there in the road, amongst the people, the dust and grime, and the clamour of life in all its fullness and reality, its pleasures and its pain.

In a strictly Christian sense then, Kierkegaard saw the danger as being in the objectifying of our faith in sets of propositions and dogmas. There is always the danger that doctrine will end up replacing that which it seeks to encompass, and this was the case in 19th century Denmark during Kierkegaard’s life, where Christianity had largely become synonymous with the doctrines of the Church. This led Kierkegaard to write; ‘Christianity is not a doctrine but an existence communication.’ (2) 

Although Christianity can be described by doctrines, creeds etc., these things are not the Christian faith in themselves.  This does not mean that the doctrines of the Christian faith are unimportant, but that we must constantly remind ourselves that these doctrines are not Christianity, nor are they faith. We who study theology are always in danger of confusing the two, perhaps even confusing our expanding theological knowledge for an increase in our faith.

The recognition of the danger of objective thinking, which had resulted in the nominal Christianity which he saw all around him, led Kierkegaard to the observation that “Truth is subjectivity”. This proposition is one which is so often criticised by evangelicals when it has not been fully understood.  Let’s be quite clear that Kierkegaard was definitely not saying that something becomes true because I want it to be; that there are millions of ‘truths’ and we can pick and choose those which happen to suit us. This is subjectivism. 

What he was saying, is that whether something is true or not, it has no real effect on us until we appropriate the truth personally, individually, subjectively, existentially.  No one else can believe for us; not the vicar, or the bishop, or a Christian friend (“Say one for me” friends will often say when they see us going to church!).  It is a personal, existential, inward thing.  To understand, to know, we have to step out in faith; what Kierkegaard called a “leap”. 

Imagine a chasm hundreds of feet deep and six feet wide.  On the farther side stands the Lord Jesus. He beckons to us. Can we partially leap across the chasm to be with him, say just three feet?  Of course not!  We either jump clean across or not at all.  Moreover, our entire being must leap.  We can’t leap with half of ourselves and leave half behind. We either take ourselves, our whole selves onto the side where Christ stands completely, or we do not. Jesus said: “He who is not with me is against me” (Matt 12:30 NIV).  For Kierkegaard, there is no such thing as being a Christian ‘up to a certain point’!

When we know God personally, we know subjectively that He is real, that He is true, that He is.  His Spirit fills our very being and we become passionate, not about doctrines and proofs, but about our relationship with the living God and His will for us.  We no longer need constant apologetic arguments to convince ourselves of God’s existence or the truth of the Christian faith, and if we do, maybe there’s something wrong;  maybe we haven’t completely made that leap.  Or maybe we’re trying to span the chasm, hanging on by the tips of our toes; trying to live, as it were, in both worlds!  Once ‘born again’ we  should need nothing outside of ourselves, nothing objective, to prove God to us.  In our ‘newborn’ state, we will have come to understand subjectively. Christ is in us (Col 1:27). To understand in this way is just another way of saying that we’re born again (John 3:3), or that we were blind but now we see (John 9:25). 

Now, finally, let’s admit that atheistic existentialism, as propounded by thinkers like Jean Paul Sartre, has caused much damage to both Christian faith and Western society generally. Why?  Simply because God has been removed from the picture.  There is nothing, no-one to leap into the arms of.  No God, no Christ waiting for us at the other side of the chasm.  No chasm!  I may as well do that which suits me. The decision is no longer whether or not to throw myself into the arms of God in faith.  The only decisions I have to make are those which best suit me.  The universe is cold and meaningless, a huge machine which exists and continues to exist, not by divine fiat, but by blind chance.  In short, we are left with a stark individualism without any reference to God.

Perhaps Schaeffer made some good points.  And perhaps it’s only a small step from claiming that God is totally beyond our comprehension to deciding that he’s not there at all.  However, I do firmly believe that there is much that is true in the Christian version of existentialism and much that we can learn from Kierkegaard’s thought.  His writing is fiendishly difficult to follow, but there is a recent, very accessible translation of some of his work in a compilation called ‘Provocations’ (3) which I heartily recommend to you.

Endnotes

1. For example, Escape from Reason 1968 IVP
2. Ref X 2 A 606, Kierkegaard’s Papers and Journals: A Selection. (Penguin edition 1996).
3. Provocations.  Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, Compiled & Edited by Charles E. Moore.  Plough Publishing House, first published 1999

  1. i think the book of Ecclesiasties is a very existentialist work – and its a book that needs to be heard by everyone christian or not (unfortunately alot of Christians seem to be skipping over it cos its quite a depressing book!)..
    there’s a great talk by christian philosopher j.p. moreland you can download online about the meaning of life – his basic premise is from Ecclesiasties; that if God doesn’t exist nothing anybody does ultimately matters.. he thinks christians have missed a great tool for evangelism by failing to challenge people as to how they could think anything without God actually means anything or matters in the long run (especially seeing as we as a race and as individuals like to think of ourselves quite highly), if all there is to life is just the physical cosmos and us, mere pinpricks in this near-infinite ocean of matter accidentally put together by chance & necessity its a pretty depressing thought and an anguish to the soul. so then what would anything matter? work, study, family life, love, relationships, fun.. everything is utterly meaningless in the face of this reality.. and the problem us humans beings somehow know that this view is wrong..

    the talk is here and id say everyone should listen to it!:

    http://server.firefighters.org/1999-2000catalog.asp
    – its sorta halfway down titled ‘the meaning of life – an overview of ecclesiastes’ (mp3 number 00596)

    and an article about the absurdity of life without God:
    http://www.bethinking.org/resource.php?ID=129

    and there’s that quote by the great atheist philosopher bertrand russell:

    “That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins–all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.”

    overall i’d say existentialism is in no way a hinderance to christian faith, but quite the opposite..

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