Existentialism, a difficult system to define, has been developing
over the last fifty years. As it evolved it attracted followers
from many different backgrounds. Today its influence has subtly
affected much popular thought and expression. As F. H. Heinemann
Among contemporary philosophies none has made a greater impact on
religion and theology than existentialism (F. H. Heinemann,
Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, NY. Harper and Row,
Publishers, 1953, p. 219).
Because of its pervasive influence and incompatibility with
orthodox Christianity, existentialism should be answered in a
Christian response to secular religion.
The Difficulty of Definition
One of existentialism's problems is that it is difficult to
define or categorize concisely. Philosopher Walter Kaufmann
Existentialism is not a philosophy but a label for several widely
different revolts against traditional philosophy. Most of the
living "existentialists" have repudiated this label,
and a bewildered outsider might well conclude that the only thing
they have in common is a marked aversion for each other. To add
to the confusion, many writers of the past have frequently been
hailed as members of this movement, and it is extremely doubtful
whether they would have appreciated the company to which they are
consigned. In view of this, it might be argued that the label
"existentialism" ought to be abandoned altogether.
Certainly, existentialism is not
a school of thought nor reducible to any set of tenets. The three
writers who appear invariably on every list of
"existentialists"- Jaspers, Heidegger, and Sartre-are
not in agreement on essentials. Such alleged precursors as Pascal
and Kierkegaard differed from all three men by being dedicated
Christians; and Pascal was a Catholic of sorts while Kierkegaard
was a Protestant's Protestant.
If, as is often done, Nietzsche
and Dostoevsky are included in the fold, we must make room for an
impassioned anti-Christian and an even more fanatical
Greek-Orthodox Russian imperialist. By the time we consider
adding Rilke, Kafka, and Camus, it becomes plain that one
essential feature shared by all these men is their perfervid
The refusal to belong to any
school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of
beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked
dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial,
academic, and remote from life -that is the heart of
existentialism (Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky
to Sartre, NY. The World Publishing Company, 1956, pp. 11, 12).
Others echo Kaufmanns sentiment:
Every existentialist develops his own terminology because he
finds everyday language inadequate, in the same way he rebels
against a day-to-day view of the world.... if one reads the
existentialists without exasperation, one is almost certainly
misreading them (I. M. Bochenski, Contemporary European
Philosophy, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California
Press, 1956, p. 154, note 5).
Bochenski goes on to say:
... existentialism must not be identified with any one body of
existentialist doctrine, for example, that of Sartre, for as we
shall see there are profound differences between individual
points of view (ibid., p. 156).
Existentialism may be explained according to the themes and
concerns of its proponents. Existentialists are concerned with
existence, change, freedom and self-cognizance, among other
things. William and Mabel Sahakian describe existentialism in the
Existentialists accept the conclusion that "existence
precedes essence," and some go even further and affirm that
essence does not exist, that only existence has reality. All
Existentialists emphasize the person as subject.
The subject exists, and for some,
he alone exists; that is to say, if any essence whatever exists,
it is the individual's subjective state of existence (William S.
Sahakian and Mabel L. Sahakian, Ideas of the Great Philosophers,
NY Bames and Noble, Inc., 1966, p. 167).
Philosopher B. A. G. Fuller recognizes the problems in defining
existentialism, but also recognizes certain existential theses:
There is no single existentialist position. The philosophy varies
with its pro-ponents, some of whom insist that they are not
existentialists at all. But there is a common fund of doctrine
that identifies them, nevertheless, and indicates quite clearly
their relation to the classical philosophic tradition. Their
major and differentiating thesis is the metaphysical
pronouncement that "existence is prior to essence, "
while in the established tradition "essence is prior to
ex-istence. What this means for the existentialist is that
human nature is deter-mined by the course of life rather than
life by human nature (B. A. G. Fuller, A History of Philosophy,
NY. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1955, p. 603).
I. M. Bochenski, in his book European Philosophy relates six of
the common existential themes:
1) The commonest characteristic among the various existentialist
philosophies of the present is the fact that they all arise from
a so-called existential experience which assumes a different form
in each one of them. It is found by Jaspers, for instance, in
awareness of the brittleness of being, by Heidegger through
experiencing "propulsion toward death," and by Sartre
in a general "nausea The existentialists do not
conceal the fact that their philosophies originate in such
experiences. That is why existentialist philosophy always bears
the stamp of personal experience, even in Heidegger.
2) The existentialists take
so-called existence as the supreme object of inquiry, but the
meaning which they attach to the word is extremely difficult to
determine. However, in each case it signifies a peculiarly human
mode of being. Man-a term which is rarely used and is generally
replaced by "thereness" (Dasein),
"existence," "ego," "being for
oneself" is unique in possessing existence; more precisely,
man does not possess, but he is his existence. If man has an
essence, either this essence is his existence or it is the
consequence of it.
3) Existence is conceived as absolutely actualistic; it never is
but freely creates itself, it becomes; it is a pro-jection; with
each instant it is more (and less) than it is. The
existentialists often support this thesis by the statement that
existence is the same as temporality.
4) The difference between this
actualism. and that of life-philosophy is accounted for by the
existentialists' regarding man as pure subjectivity and not as
the manifestation of a broader (cosmic) life process in the way
that Bergson does, for example. Furthermore, subjectivity is
understood in a creative sense; man creates himself freely, and
is his freedom.
5) Yet it would be thoroughly
misguided to conclude from this that the existentialists regard
man as shut up within himself. On the contrary, man is an
incomplete and open reality; thus his nature pins him tightly and
necessarily to the world, and to other men in particular. This
double dependence is assumed by all representatives of
existentialism, and in such a way that human existence seems to
be inserted into the world, so that man at all times not only
faces a determinate situation but is his situation. On the other
hand they assume that there is a special connection between men
which, like the situation, gives existence its peculiar quality.
That is the meaning of Heidegger's "togetherness,"
Jasper's "communication," and Marcel's "thou.
6) All existentialists repudiate
the distinction between subject and object, thereby discounting
the value of intellectual knowledge for philosophical purposes.
According to them true knowledge is not achieved by the
understanding but through experiencing reality; this experience
is primarily caused by the dread with which man becomes aware of
his finitude and the frailty in that position of being thrust
into the world and condemned to death [Heidegger] (Bochenski,
European Philosophy, pp. 159, 160).
To summarize Bochenski, he identifies six major themes of
existentialism: 1) experience as the ground of discovery; 2)
existence as the supreme object of inquiry; 3) existence
preceding essence; 4) man as pure subjectivity and not part of a
cosmic life process; 5) the interdependence of man and his world;
and 6) a devaluation of intellectual knowledge.
Finally, we will turn to
philosopher Samuel Stumpf for his recognition of the fact that
existentialists reject traditional philosophy:
Whether they were theists or atheists, the existentialists all
agreed that traditional philosophy was too academic and remote
from life to have any adequate meaning for them. They rejected
systematic and schematic thought in favor of a more spontaneous
mode of expression in order to capture the authentic concerns of
concrete existing individuals. Although there is no
"system" of existentialist philosophy, its basic themes
can, nevertheless, be discovered in some representative
existentialist thinkers (Samuel Enoch Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre,
NY. McGraw-Hill, 1966, p. 455).
The Scope of Our Study
Our aim is to simplify an admittedly complex subject. Because of
the intricate and sometimes contradictory assertions made among
existentialists, we have decided to examine the themes of their
reasoning as described by six leading philosophers often cited as
shapers of existentialist thought. This method of treating the
subject will avoid the sweeping and often erroneous
generalizations made about this school of thought, but may result
in some oversimplification.
Existentialism is more far-reaching than these six representative
writers indicate. Moreover, some of these individuals would
repudiate the label existentialist, finding it stultifying,
although they deal with the same general themes from some of the
same perspectives. We conclude with a Christian perspective on
the thematic presuppositions of existentialism.
Many Christians have never studied philosophy formally and are
unfamiliar with the mainstream of existentialist thought.
However, they have heard of a stream of existential thought that
appears to be paradoxical. It is known as religious or Christian
existentialism. Many Christians have at least a vague familiarity
with some of the ideas of Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Rudolph
Bultmarm. We will not argue whether or not one can be religious
and an existentialist at the same time. There are competent
observers on both sides of the question.
Almost every knowledgeable
observer, from either side, will agree that religious
existentialism is not the same as orthodox existentialism. Even
the term "orthodox existentialism" is a problem since
the field is so diverse and the prominent existential thinkers
dont agree about what existentialism is.
existentialists are concerned with some of the same themes as are
non-religious existentialists. They just address them from
different (religious) perspectives.
The Sahakians separate these two types of existentialists in much
the same way as we will. They write:
Two main schools of Existentialist philosophy may be
distinguished; the first is religious as delineated by the father
of Existentialism, Soren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855); the
second is atheistic, as expounded by its most articulate
contemporary spokesman, jean-Paul Sartre. A number of outstanding
Existentialists in each of these schools disclaim the
Existentialist label; some adherents of the religious view prefer
to be known as Neo-Orthodox philosophers (Sahakian and Sahakian,
Ideas, p. 167).
Fuller confirms this view, expanding on the perspectives of the
In its theistic form, existentialism has been an important factor
in the neo-orthodox awakening that has marked theology since the
first war. Its emphasis on the negative qualities of man, on
human estrangement and the tragedy of human existence, have
supported the resurgence of the dogma of original sin and the
entire structure of eschatological theology (Fuller, Philosophy,
pp. 603, 604).
Christian philosopher Milton Hunnex reveals how existentialism
has penetrated modern theological circles:
Unable to assimilate either the naturalism of Aristotle or that
of the scientific revolution, Protestant theology eventually
turned to idealism as the modern philosophy best adapted to
Christian belief. Modern liberalism made its home among the
idealists during the nineteenth century. After World War I it
became apparent that idealism was ill suited to the twentieth
century, and theologians as well as philosophers abandoned it.
They turned instead to
existentialism as the kind of philosophy that did appear to fit
the mood and needs of the twentieth century. Existentialism
seemed to be the best philosophy for getting at the problems of
men caught up in swift-moving change (Milton D. Hunnex,
Existentialism and Christian Belief, Chicago: Moody Press, 1969,
pp. 13, 14).
Although we have chosen to examine this religious existentialist
view of the controversy, we recognize that there are those who
see no compromise between existentialism and religious belief.
While we believe that they make some valid points, we feel the
claims of the so-called religious existentialists still need to
be dealt with, even if they do arise from a misunderstanding of
existentialism and religion. Hazel Barnes recognizes the two
sides of the controversy:
I confess that I sympathize with the fundamentalist ministers who
argue that whatever else it may be, this new religion is not
Christianity and should be given some other name. (Hazel Barnes,
An Existentialist Ethics, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago
Press, 1978, p. 383).
We agree that historic Christianity cannot embrace the
presuppositions and core of existentialist concern. However,
there is much that claims the name "Christian" today
that is not truly Christian in the biblical sense, but that must
be dealt with by the biblically-centered Christian. We agree with
Hazel Barnes that Sartrean existentialism (atheistic) cannot ever
be reconciled with any form of theistic belief. She comments:
I do not believe that religious existentialism is compatible with
a position based on Sartrean premises. I do not find in Tillich's
Being-itself a concept which is logically tenable or a reality
existentially meaningful. I cannot see that Heidegger's Being is
a valid or more valuable alternative to Sartre's Beingin-itself
(ibid., p. 382).
As a final qualification, we recognize the distinction between
theologians or religious thinkers who have existential
orientations (existential theologians) and a true existential
theology, which, almost by definition, cannot exist. We conclude,
with Heinemarm, who draws the general conclusion, that:
Existentialist Theology does not exist. But the question remains
to be answered: Can it exist? I am afraid the answer must be: No.
The principle of existence is a call, an appeal (Jaspers), qr in
Kantian terminology, a regulative principle. It appeals to people
to care for their inner life, for their freedom, their true self,
their authentic existence, for their neighbors and their
predicament. It admonishes us never to forget in thought and
action the primacy of human persons as ends in themselves. It is
not a constitutive principle, it defends the person against the
menace of any kind of system and cannot therefore itself be the
basis of a system. Existential Theology does not and cannot
exist, but existential theologians should exist, that is
theologians whose chief interest does not lie in dogmatics and in
the external observance of rituals, but in the souls of men, in
their predicament and in the willingness to help them.
Existential theologians have always existed (Heinemann,
Existialism, p. 225).
With the above factors in mind, we will look at three
"religious existentialists," Soren Kierkegaard, Paul
Tillich, and Gabriel Marcel.
Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
Soren Aabye Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, and was
raised in an unusual religious family. His father had a morose
obsession that God had cursed and doomed him and his family. The
young Soren spent his youth convinced that continual, almost
debilitating, depression was his fate. Of his youth he wrote:
From a child I was under the sway of a prodigious melancholy, the
depth of which finds its only adequate measure in the equally
prodigious dexterity I possessed of hiding it under an apparent
gaiety and joie de vivre. So far back as I can barely remember,
my one joy was that nobody could discover how unhappy I felt
(Soren Kierkegaard, The Point of View for My Work as An Author: A
Report to History, NY. Harper and Row, Publishers, 1962, p. 76).
When Kierkegaard entered the University of Copenhagen in 1830, he
bowed to the wishes of his father and studied theology. However,
his first love was philosophy, in which he excelled. He began to
believe that he was predestined or chosen to change people for
the better through philosophy. Late in life he reflected on his
life, which he saw as developing dialectically,* and traced the
path made "by the hand of God":
About my vita ante acta (i.e. from childhood until I became an
author) I cannot expatiate here at any length, however
remarkable, as it seems to me, was the way I was predisposed from
my earliest childhood, and step by step through the whole
development, to become exactly the sort of author I became....
An observer will perceive how everything was set in motion and
how dialectically: I had a thorn in the flesh, intellectual gifts
(especially imagination and dialectic) and culture in
superabundance, an enormous development as an observer, a
Christian upbringing that was certainly very unusual, a
dialectical relationship to Christianity which was peculiarly my
own, and in addition to this I had from childhood a training in
obedience, obedience absolute, and I was armed with an almost
foolhardy faith that I was able to do anything .... Finally, in
my own eyes I was a penitent. The impression this now makes upon
me is as if there were a Power which from the first instant had
been observant of this and said, as a fisherman says of a fish,
Let it run awhile, it is not yet the moment to pull it in. And
strangely enough there is something that reaches far back in my
recollection, impossible as it is for me to say when I began this
practice or why such a thing ever occurred to me: I prayed to God
regularly, i.e. every day, that He would give me zeal and
patience to perform the work He would assign me.
Thus I became an author (ibid., pp. 76, 82, 83).
Even in his most despondent moments, Kierkegaard said, he still
had faith in God. But although he believed God existed and
controlled the universe, he also believed he was doomed to
depression. Speaking of his early beliefs, cultivated by his
despondent father, he wrote:
What wonder then that there were times when Christianity appeared
to me the most inhuman cruelty- although never, even when I was
farthest from it, did I cease to revere it, with a firm
determination that (especially if I did not myself make the
choice of becoming a Christian) I would never initiate anyone
into the difficulties which I knew and which, so far as I have
read and heard, no one else has alluded to. But I have never
definitely broken with Christianity nor renounced it. To attack
it has never been my thought. No, from the time when there could
be any question of the employment of my powers, I was firmly
determined to employ them all to defend Christianity, or in any
case to present it in its true form (ibid., pp. 76,77).
In 1836, on the brink of suicide, he experienced the first of
several religious encounters. The power of this experience led
him to develop a system of morals (ethics) by which he determined
to live his life.
In 1838 he had another religious
experience that turned him toward a greater Christian commitment.
He was also engaged to be married, but broke it off, feeling that
marriage would interfere with his "mission" in life.
In later life, Kierkegaard viewed
his writings as representing the three phases of human
commitment: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. His
works, he believed, were in one way autobiographical, showing his
own dialectical growth through the three stages. In another way,
his writings were prototypical of the life experience that should
be sought by each human being. And in still a third way, portions
of his writings were not meant to represent his viewpoints at
all, but were meant to encourage the reader to expand his own
thinking patterns, entertain new belief systems, and thus
dialectically grow toward the ultimate religious commitment,
where he would find true peace. Most of Kierkegaard's writings
were published under pseudonyms as part of his technique to
encourage new thought. In 1843 he published Either/Or which, as
he described it, expressed "the fact that I had become
thoroughly aware how impossible it would be for me to be
religious only up to a certain point. Here is the place of
Either/Or. it was a poetical catharsis, which does not, however,
go farther than the "ethical" (ibid., p. 18). In 1844
he published The Concept of Dread and Philosophical Fragments; in
1845 Stages of Life's Way; in 1846 Concluding Unscientific
Postscript; in 1848 Anti-Climacus and Christian Discourses; and
The Point of View was published after his death. These are the
major writings of Kierkegaard.
Kierkegaard's writings had only
limited influence during his lifetime. However, they were
translated into other languages, mostly after his death, and his
influence became tremendous. Because of this great later
influence and his concerns with the existential themes of
existence and the "authenticated" man, he became known
as "the Father of Existentialism Remember though, that
he consistently referred to himself as a religious and even
Christian thinker and would definitely not have aligned himself
with the atheistic existentialists such as Sartre had he been
alive in the twentieth century. His faith did not conform to
historical and biblical Christianity, but it was religious faith
William S. Sahakian has concisely summarized Kierkegaard's main
The essence of Kierkegaard's philosophy can be seen in his
doctrine that there are three stages of life experience: (1)
aesthetic, (2) ethical, and (3) religious. These represent three
attitudes toward life, three philosophies of life. Some of us
progress from one stage to the next, while others never go beyond
the first stage. Kierkegaard sometimes fused the second and third
stages, referring to them as the religio-ethical. The third stage
is superior to the other two stages. All of them reflect mans
attempt to win salvation, to gain satisfaction for life's
greatest good, while it is still within reach. Kierkegaard
discussed the three stages in a number of his writings, but he
devoted a most famous work, Either/Or, to a detailed analysis of
the first two stages (William S. Sahakian, History of Philosophy,
NY. Barnes and Noble Company, Inc., 1968, p. 343).
I. The Aesthetic
The man in the first stage, the aesthetic, is looking for
fulfillment from his outside activities and from within himself.
He may seek romance, pleasure, or intellectual pursuits as means
to satisfy himself. However, these activities are not enough.
They are not ultimately satisfying. The man becomes bored with
himself and his activities. This boredom turns to despair. If not
checked, the despair ends in suicide.
II. The Ethical
What is the remedy for this aesthetic despair? Kierkegaard
replied that commitment gives meaning to life. Commitment to some
arbitrary absolute, and the ordering of one's life around that
commitment, brings one out of the aesthetic stage and into the
second or ethical stage. The person achieves selfhood through
commitment. The individual becomes aware. His choices are made
with passion and emotional commitment. The person now chooses and
acts, thereby establishing his selfhood and integrity. He is a
man of duty. This is the type of person described by
psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, who revolutionized European
psychoanalytic theory after World War II. He calls the ethical
urge the "will to meaning" and says:
Man's search for meaning is a primary force in his life and not a
"secondary rationalization of instinctual drives. This
meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be
fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance
that will satisfy his own will to meaning. There are some authors
who contend that meanings and values are "nothing but
defense mechanisms, reaction formations and sublimation."
But as for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the
sake of my "defense mechanisms," nor would I be ready
to die merely for the sake of my "reaction formations."
Man, however, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his
ideals and values! (Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning:
an Introduction to Logotherapy, NY Simon and Schuster, Inc.,
1963, pp. 154, 155).
III. The Religious
The third and greatest stage, the stage where man finally finds
contentment, is the religious stage. The person commits himself,
as in the second stage, and is looking for fulfillment, as in the
first stage, but in this religious stage his commitment is to One
who is able to satisfy completely: God. In this stage man is
finally content because of his commitment to God. Selfhood cannot
be achieved ultimately and completely within the self. The self
must be committed to the One beyond, to God.
Kierkegaard and Hegel
Kierkegaard's philosophy was in opposition to that of the German
philosopher Hegel, although they both used a system of
dialectics. Samuel Stumpf points out:
At the University of Copenhagen Kierkegaard was trained in
Hegel's philosophy and was not favorably impressed by it. When he
heard Schellings's lectures at Berlin, which were critical of
Hegel, Kierkegaard agreed with this attack upon Germany's
greatest speculative thinker. "If Hegel had written the
whole of his Logic and then said ... that it was merely an
experiment in thought," wrote Kierkegaard, "then he
could certainly have been the greatest thinker who ever lived. As
it is, he is merely comic." What made Hegel comic for
Kierkegaard was that this great philosopher had tried to capture
all of reality in his system of thought, yet in the process lost
the most important element, namely, existence. For Kierkegaard,
the term existence was reserved for the individual human being.
To exist, he said, implies being a certain kind of individual, an
individual who strives, who considers alternatives, who chooses,
who decides, and who, above all, commits himself. Virtually none
of these acts were implied in Hegel's philosophy (Stumpf,
Socrates, p. 455).
William Sahakian made some good contrasts between the concerns of
Hegel and the concerns of Kierkegaard:
Kierkegaardian philosophy is fundamentally in direct antithesis
to Hegelianism. Whereas Hegel placed the emphasis on speculative
thought, Kierkegaard placed it on existence. Hegel discerned
truth in the rational system, Kierkegaard in paradox. The former
sought the universe, the latter the individual or particular. The
former saw in logic a mediation of anitheses or formulated an
unbroken logic (Hegelian dialectic); the latter replaced it with
the leap or logical gap (qualitative dialectic). Either/Or was
the Kierkegaarthan answer to the Hegelian synthesis or mediation.
Hegel found truth in the Absolute and objectivity, while
Kierkegaard found it in the relative and subjective. Hegel
emphasized necessity, Kierkegaard freedom.
Other Kierkegaarthan concepts,
which replaced Hegelian ones were: repetition for recollection,
concealment for openness, possibility for actuality, indirect
communication (Socratic maimetic) for direct communication,
transcendence of God for the immanence of God, and mediacy (or
reflection) or immediacy (Sahakian Philosophy, p. 347).
Kierkegaard and Truth
Kierkegaard defined truth as "subjectivity." For him it
was paradoxically the only thing one could be sure about and yet
the one thing one was anxious about. Sahakian explains:
Truth is subjectivity; the highest expression of subjectivity is
passion. To think Existentially is to think with inward passion.
Objectivity accents what is said, but subjectivity accents how it
is said. The inward how is passion; decision is found only in
subjectivity. Subjectivity is the truth; truth is defined as
"an objective uncertainty held fast in an
appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness".
Uncertainty creates anxiety which is quieted by an exercise of
faith. The preceding definition of truth also serves as a
definition of faith. There is no faith without risk, choice,
passion, and inwardness; nor is there truth without them.
Uncertainty always accompanies subjectivity, calling for the leap
of faith (ibid., p. 348).
The Christian philosophers Norman Geisler and Paul Feinberg point
out a very important feature of Kierkegaardian "truth."
They note that Kierkegaard never denies such a thing as objective
truth: he merely denies its importance over what he calls
While not denying that there is such a thing as objective
scientific truth, the existentialist does not consider that kind
of truth important, at least not nearly as important as
subjective truth. Indeed, Kierkegaard declared "truth is
subjectivity." By that he did not mean that any subjective
belief is true, but that unless one believes something
subjectively and passionately he does not possess the truth.
Truth is always personal and not merely propositional. One never
gains truth by mere observation, but by obedience: never by being
a spectator, but only by being a participator in life.
Truth is found in the concrete,
not in the abstract: in the existential, not in the rational. In
fact, one places himself in the truth only by an act of his will,
by a "leap of faith It is not deliberation of the mind
but a decision of the will by which one comes to know truth
(Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to
Philosophy, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980, p. 46).
In summary, Kierkegaardian philosophy is much more complicated
than at first meets the eye. One especially must be aware that
common and philosophical vocabularies take on new definitions for
Kierkegaard. The evangelical Christian who declares that Jesus
Christ is the truth means something quite different from what
Kierkegaard means. Kerkegaard's three-fold path to personal
fulfillment sounds good until it is examined from within the
context of the claims of the Bible or until attempts are made to
authenticate it by history and objective reason.
Paul Tillich (1886-1965)
One of the most influential liberal theologians of the twentieth
century was Paul Tillich. Because of his orientation in both
existentialist themes and Christian tradition, he rightly can be
called an existential theologian. F. H. Heinemann notes:
The title 'existentialist theologian' would fit... Paul Tillich.
His unique case is that of a philosopher-theologian who started
as a religious socialist and ends up as an existential
theologian. Being a philosopher as well as a theologian, he tries
to correlate philosophy and religion, embraces existentialism as
the true philosophy whose task it is to penetrate the structure
of human existence (Heinemann, Existentialism, p. 219).
Alston and Nakhnikian give some of Tillich's Lutheran, liberal
theology, and philosophical background:
Paul Tillich is one of the most influential Christian thinkers of
our time perhaps the most influential in English-speaking
countries. Born in a small village in eastern Germany in 1886,
the son of a Lutheran pastor, he received a theological and
philosophical education, and was ordained in the Evangelical
Lutheran Church in 1912.
After serving as an army chaplain during World War I, Tillich
taught theology and philosophy at several German
universities--Berlin, Marburg, Dresden, and Frankfurt. He
incurred the wrath of the Nazis, and when Hitler came to power in
1933 he emigrated to the United States. On his arrival in America
he became a Professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary.
From this post Tillich has exercised an enormous influence on
religious thought in this country. (William R Alston and George
Nakhnikian, Readings in Twentieth Century Philosophy, NY. The
Free Press, 1963, p. 723).
Anxiety is one of the very important themes in existentialism.
Although different existentialists handle the theme in different
ways, Tillichs discussion of anxiety in his Systematic
Theology gives a very thorough discussion of the subject from an
existential point of view. Philosopher B. A. G. Fuller summarizes
Anxiety. Accepting the familiar description of the post-war era,
both for Europe and America, as an "age of anxiety,"
Tillich describes anxiety as fundamentally the "existential
awareness of nonbeing," the "awareness that nonbeing is
a part of one's own being". The awareness of one's own
transitoriness and of one's own having to die produces a natural
anxiety, an anxiety of ultimate nonbeing. Naked anxiety, which
belongs to the nature of being as such and is an experience of
unimaginable horror, strives vainly to convert itself into fear,
because fear has an object and can therefore be met and overcome
by courage. But anxiety itself has no object.
The Anxiety of Fate and Death.
Anxiety appears in three forms, dependent upon the direction in
which "nonbeing threatens being." The anxiety of fate
and death proceeds from the threat of nonbeing against mans
"ontic" affirmation. It is basic, universal, and
entirely inescapable. The contingency of man, that the causes
which determine him are without any rationality or ultimate
necessity, yields the relative anxiety of fate. The fact of
death, present with man during every moment of life as well as at
the moment of dying, produces an absolute anxiety of nonbeing.
The basic question of courage is whether there is a courage to be
in the face of this absolute threat against being.
The Anxiety of Emptiness and
Meaninglessness. The second type of anxiety is in its relative
form the anxiety of emptiness and in its absolute form the
anxiety of meaninglessness. Emptiness is the product of a threat
to participation in creativity Meaninglessness, which lies always
in the background of emptiness as death lies always behind fate,
is the loss of a spiritual center for life, the loss of an
ultimate concern, of the meaning fundamental to all meanings.
This anxiety is the threat of nonbeing to the spiritual life, a
threat that follows from man's finitude and estrangement and
leads to despair. To escape it, one attempts an escape from his
own freedom and thereby sacrifices his genuine existence.
The Anxiety of Guilt and
Condemnation. The third type of anxiety issues from the threat of
nonbeing against mans self-affirmation, in its relative
form, the anxiety of guilt; in its absolute form, the anxiety of
condemnation. Man as finite freedom is free to determine himself
in the fulfillment of his destiny. The anxiety of guilt and
condemnation is produced by the failure to realize one's
potentiality. It is a self-rejection, a despair in the loss of
proper identity. Despair is the product of the three anxieties,
interrelated to foster and support one another. Despair is the
complete absence of hope. By suicide one might escape the anxiety
of death, but he would be caught in the anxiety of guilt and
Anxiety and Cultural History.
Life, Tillich holds, is largely an attempt to avoid despair. From
it there is no escape, yet most people experience it in its
intensity only infrequently if at all. In the history of western
culture the three types of anxiety have always been present, but
each has dominated one of the three major eras. The classical
era, the era of absolutism and tyranny, was characterized by the
anxiety of fate and death, and ended with the attempt to achieve
the Stoic courage. The Middle Ages, under the influence of the
Judeo-Christian (Moral) religion, was brought to a close under
the domination of the anxiety of guilt and condemnation, induced
by the breakdown of the unity of religion. Today it is the
anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness that casts its shadow
over a world that has lost its spiritual content. (B. A. G.
Fuller, Philosophy, pp. 609-610).
Tillichs definition of God was much more broad than that of
evangelical Christianity or the Bible. In fact, Tillichs
concept of God was not even first and foremost personal. God for
Tillich was "the ground of all being;" "the source
of your being;" "your ultimate concern". As such,
Tillich saw no room for atheists or agnostics, for he believed
that it was impossible for one to have no ultimate concerns. In
his The Shaking of the Foundations he stated:
The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of
all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if
that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak
of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your
ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any
reservation .... If you know that God means depth, you know much
about Him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or
unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life
itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only. . . The name of
this infinite and inexhaustible ground of history is God. That is
what the word means, and it is that to which the words Kingdom of
God and Divine Providence point. And if these words do not have
much meaning for you, translate them and speak of the depth of
history, of the ground and aim of our social life, and of what
you take seriously without reservation in your moral and
political activities. Perhaps you should call this depth hope,
simply hope (Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, NY.
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953, pp. 57, 59).
As is true with most themes in existentialism, Tillich's idea of
God is deeply colored by the existential theme of subjectivity.
Subjectivity is so important in existentialism that it almost
becomes the most important theme, affecting all other existential
Tillich not only redefined the traditional view of God, but he
also put an existential interpretation to the concept of grace.
His grace is universal, subjective, and flows from and to each
When he talks of the "acceptance" of grace, he is not
talking about the forgiveness of God made possible by the
sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the cross. He is talking about the
subjective experience of acceptance that one feels during a
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness ...
It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than
usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we
loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our
disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our
hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become
intolerable to us.... Sometimes at that moment a wave of light
breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were
saying: "You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by
that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not
know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it
later.... Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!" In
the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in our
relation to others and to ourselves .... We experience the grace
of being able to accept the life of another, even if it be
hostile and harmful to us, for, through grace, we know that it
belongs to the same Ground to which we belong, and by which we
have been accepted (ibid., pp. 161, 162).
In summary, we can see that Tillichs concerns (just a few
of which have been highlighted here) are common to existential
themes and that his applications of those themes to religion
change the very essence or fundamentals of Christian belief. It
cannot be denied that he was a religious existentialist. But it
is also true that he was not an evangelical Christian, committed
to the biblical fundamentals of our faith.
Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973)
Another religious philosopher who had strong influence in the
growth of French existentialism was Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973).
Marcel, a French Catholic existentialist, criticized many of his
fellow existentialists. His primary philosophical loyalty to
existentialism seemed to be the stress he placed on the value of
Philosopher Anthony Flew comments:
. . . Marcel considered existentialism to be compatible with
Christian doc-trines. The aim of life is
"communication" between men as well as between man and
God, but relationships must be based on and retain the freedom
and uniqueness of individuals, not be dependent on the joint
acceptance of rules and goals (Anthony Flew, ed., A Dictionary of
Philosophy, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1982, p. 204).
Jean T. Wilde and William Kimmel make the following additional
appraisal of Marcel:
Gabriel Marcel, a Christian existentialist, shares with the
atheist existentialist Sartre the responsibility for the further
development in France of that trend in philosophy represented by
this anthology A convert to Roman Catholicism, Marcel has
nevertheless maintained a philosophical independence from the
official philosophy of the church and has developed original
avenues of thought that bear the unmistakable stamp of their
author's temperament and spirit. He is not only a philosopher but
also a successful dramatist and a fine musician (jean T. Wilde
and William Kimmel, eds., trans., The Search for Being, NY. The
Noonday Press, 1962, p. 417).
It is important to remember that while Wilde and Kimmel, as well
as Flew, note Marcel's alignment with Christianity, they also
note that this alignment was not with historic Christianity.
Marcel actually denied those doctrines evangelicals consider
Marcel's philosophy was much less systematic than other
existentialists such as Tillich, so we will just touch on some of
his concerns. Marcel was more of an observer than a shaper of
philosophy or theology. His greatest concerns were those which
were involved in existentialism and which earned him a place
among existentialist thinkers.
Rather than systematic discourses, Marcel's works are collections
of observations and notes. Avoiding the traditional metaphysical
categories and principles, his thought revolves around a number
of root ideas which are not so much ideas as modes of concrete
experience: estrangement, nostalgia, and homecoming; presence and
absence; appeal and response; fidelity and betrayal; availability
and unavailability; despair, recollection, courage, and hope. It
is within the framework of these modes of experience that human
life unfolds and it is here, rather than in the abstract
manipulations of technical reason, that Being as personality and
community can reveal itself. In reflection upon these dimensions
of experience, Marcel evokes a sense of the mystery that envelops
and unfolds within experience, that informs, illumines and
fulfills experience, the mystery that is not alien to existence
because it is itself that from which existence has its being. By
recovering this inner bond between existence and mystery, one
uncovers the source of his own meaning and creative power (ibid.,
I. M. Bochenski gives an excellent discussion of the basic ideas
of Marcel. He has done such a good job of summarizing Marcel that
we will quote from him extensively:
Marcel holds that being-an-object and existence are two entirely
different dimensions of being. This is seen most clearly in the
fundamental problem of embodiment (incarnation). The relation
between my body and myself cannot be described as either being or
having. I am my body, yet I cannot identify myself with it. The
question about embodiment has led Marcel to a rigorous
distinction between the problem and the mystery. A problem
concerns what lies wholly before me, something which I scan
objectively as an observer. A mystery, on the other hand, is
"something in which I am involved (engagé.) ". Only
mysteries are of any philosophic relevance and thus philosophy
must be trans-objective, personal, dramatic, indeed tragic.
"I am not witnessing a spectacle": we should remind
ourselves of this every day, says Marcel. The possibility of
suicide is the point of departure of every genuine metaphysics.
Such a metaphysics must be neither rational or intuitive. It is
the result of a kind of second reflection (reflexion seconde).
Marcel has not worked out this
metaphysics, but he has adumbrated its methodology. It is to give
an answer to the basic ontological demand, namely, that there
must be being, there must be something which cannot be explained
away in some easy way as, for example, psychoanalysis explains
away psychic phenomena. We are certain that there is being
through the mysterious reality of the "I am"-- not
through cogito ergo sum. In this way the opposition of subject
and object, of idealism, is overcome. Human reality reveals
itself as the reality of a homo viator, of being which is always
in process of becoming. Every philosophy which misinterprets this
truth, which tries to explain man by means of a system, is
incapable of understanding man.
We are led to the understanding
of human being above all through the study of human relationships
which are signified by judgments in the second person, in the
thou. These unobjective thou-relationships are creative, for
through them I create myself and also help another to create his
own freedom. Here Marcel is close to the Jewish philosopher
Martin Buber (b. 1878) who had enunciated similar theses even
before Marcel. The center of the thou-relationship is
faithfulness (fidélité). It appears as the embodiment of a
higher free actuality, since the faithful one creates himself in
freedom. Hope is even more basic than faithfulness, for the
latter is built upon hope. Marcel holds that hope has ontological
significance. It shows that the victory of death in the world is
merely apparent and not final. Marcel regards his doctrine of
hope as the most important result of his work. Here he departs
radically from Sartre and Heidegger and apparently even from
The human thou can also be
objectivized and become an it. But for this there is a definite
limit, behind which stands the absolute thou which can no longer
be taken as an object, namely God. We cannot through reason prove
the existence of God. One encounters God on the same plane as the
other, the plane of the thou, in loving and in honoring through
participation in true being which may already take its rise in
the questioning attitude of the philosopher (Bochenski, Eurpoean
Philosophy, p. 183, 184).
The Secular Existentialists
By far the largest group of thinkers categorized as extentialists
are those with no religious orientation at all, the secular
existentialists. Some of them ignore religion completely, others
are forcefully atheistic. The secular existentialists are
concerned with the same themes as the religious existentialists,
but their pre-suppositions and belief systems preclude any
supernatural or any idea of God.
In our overview, we will examine three secular existentialists:
Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers and jean-Paul Sartre.
Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)
Martin Heidegger was one of the most influential promoters of
contemporary existentialism. He wrote in German but his works
have been translated into English. His most famous, Being and
Time, has become one of the most popular expressions of
English/American existentialism in the philosophical world.
Alston and Nakhnikian note the scope of Heidegger's spreading
In Latin America and Europe, excluding, of course, the Soviet
Union and her European satellites, one of the dominant
contemporary philosophers is Heidegger. Heidegger's influence
ranges widely over philosophers, theologians (including Paul
Tillich), and certain psychotherapists. In the English-speaking
world, too, there are philosophers who regard Heidegger with as
much respect as do his Continental and Latin-American admirers
(Alston and Nakhnikian, Readings, p. 679).
Heidegger's writings had a great effect on both the religious
existentialist Rudolph Bultmann, who attempted to build a
theology from Heideggerian existentialism, and jean-Paul Sartre,
the French secular existentialist and novelist.
Heidegger studied under the philosopher Edmund Husserl before he
became rector of Freiburg University in 1933. His main treatise,
Sein und Zeit(Being and Time), was published in 1927. Although
Being and Time reflected the influence Husserl and Kierkegaard
made on Heidegger, it also showed he differed from those men in
some important ways.
Heidegger's existentialism is unique and complex. It is difficult
for even professional philosophers to understand:
Heidegger is an extremely original thinker. The problem of his
historical affiliations is not of primary concern here and we
need only mention that he borrows his method from Husserl, that
he is in many ways influenced by Dilckey, and that his general
thesis is largely inspired by Kierkegaard. Heidegger is equipped
with an unusual knowledge of the great philosophers of the past,
among whom he frequently quotes Aristotle, although he interprets
him in very arbitrary fashion. A stir was caused by the volume
which he devoted to Kant, Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik
Few philosophers are so hard to understand as Heidegger
(Bochenski, European Philosophy, p. 161).
Because Heidegger's philosophy is so difficult to understand,
interpretations of his thought vary and even contradict one
another. Philosopher/historian A. Robert Caponigri remarks:
Heidegger's thought has given rise to extensive interpretations,
varying much among themselves and frequently at variance with the
line of exegesis which Heidegger himself has suggested. From the
point of view of doctrine and interests, his thought falls into
two phases. The line of demarcation is drawn (but not too
sharply),. . by the Holderlin lecture in 1936. The first phase
centers about the great work of 1927: Sein und Zeit. This work is
still considered as presenting the essential Heidegger. It most
clearly exhibits his originality as a thinker in his
"existential analysis" of human behavior with respect
to the "unveiling of truth" and his
"ontological" mode of treating phenomenology. It is the
basis for the wide influence he has enjoyed. The second phase
possesses no strict unity but shows Heidegger's concern with a
number of themes, both historical and analytical, stemming from
his main concern: being and truth (A. Robert Caponigri, A History
of Western Philosophy.
Philosophy from the Age of Positivism to the Age of Analysis,
Notre Dame, in: University of Notre Dame Press, 1971, p. 264).
Along with the difficulty in understanding Heidegger, and the
added difficulty of interpretation, we find that Heidegger did
not view himself as an existentialist!
Heidegger believes that the term "existentialist" does
not apply to his philosophy ... Heidegger grants that
"existentialism is an apt label for what Sartre
represents, but not for his own position. Heidegger is interested
in Being. He approaches the problem of Being through the study of
Dasein, Heidegger's word for human existence, "the being of
what we ourselves are" (Alston and Naklmikian, Readings, p.
Because of these problems, we will not deal extensively with
Heidegger although he bears mentioning because of his influence
on other existentialists. Recognizing our limits of space and
purpose, we will confine our discussion to three concerns of
Heidegger: Dasein, angst, and death. The reader is referred to
the bibliography for books that deal more extensively with
The most important concept unique to Heidegger's system is Dasein
(a word Heidegger used to refer to the human being, or the
existing-ness of the human, which causes or becomes his essence).
William Sahakian describes Dasein:
Dasein. The idea of Being is an old one to a philosopher grounded
in Scholasticism, as Heidegger was. But Heidegger was interested
in the meaning of Being, its sense, or its purpose-i.e., what
renders it intelligible. Furthermore, he was interested primarily
in the human Being, for the nature of the human Being leads to
other levels of Being or reality. Only Dasein (his term for the
human Being) can be said to have or not to have meaning; hence
Being is meaningful solely in terms of human existence.
Dasein (being-there), that is, the human Being or the human
existent, Heidegger identified as: (1) concern (Sorge), (2)
being-toward-death (Sein zum Tode), (3) existence (Existenz), and
(4) moods (Stimmungen). The human Being's essence is in his
existence, for numerous possibilities are open to him whereby he
may choose different kinds of Being for himself. The
possibilities of what he may become are the pivotal points by
which the human being is oriented. Heidegger was greatly
interested in interpreting time in terms of temporality;
consequently, in addition to the problem of Being (Dasein), time
is of utmost importance. Accordingly, his interest was in the
Being and temporality of Dasein (human existence) (Sahakian,
Philosophy, p. 349).
Angst is another term with heavy existential meaning for
Heidegger. The German word refers to anxiety, dread and hopeless
fear of the future. This concept is important to Heidegger
because it forms the impetus for much of human metaphysical
development. It is the goad toward human existential encounter.
In existentialist philosophy, (angst is) the dread occasioned by
man's realization that his existence is open towards an
undetermined future, the emptiness of which must be filled by his
freely chosen actions. Anxiety characterizes the human state,
which entails constant confrontation with possibility and the
need for decision, with the concomitant burden of responsibility
(Flew, Philosophy, p. 13).
As it is with most existential thought, death is important in
Heidegger's system. His secular (non-supernatural)
presuppositions, and his commitment to existence preceding
essence give Heidegger no view of reality for an individual
before birth or after death. According to his scheme, the man who
recognizes this fact, freely accepts its inevitability, and seeks
nothing beyond, is then free to choose his own existence. He is
no longer bound by fear of death or imaginary retributive
punishment after death. He is able to choose his actions, thereby
choosing his existence and ultimately his essence. This is man
For Heidegger, man is the being that knows he is going to die. He
dies not only at the end of life, but every day of it. Death is
certain, yet indefinite. Because it is inevitable it marks the
contingency of life. Life is cast up between nothing and nothing.
Death is its boundary and is its supreme possibility.
To freely accept death, to live in its presence, and to
acknowledge that for it there is no substitute and into it one
must go alone, is to escape from all illusions and to achieve
genuine dignity and authentic existence (Fuller, Philosophy, p.
lean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
The man who most popularized an atheistic brand of existentialism
was the French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre's major
work, Being and Nothingness, was written in 1943 while he was a
prisoner of the Germans during World War 111. Some of his other
writings, including Existentialism is Humanism and the novel, No
Exit, reflect an indebtedness to both Kierkegaard and Heidegger.
Sartre's great ability enabled him to have a clear understanding
of the history of philosophy. Marjorie Greene reports:
[Sartre] does indeed use the thinkers of the past (and present)
for his own ends, but at the same time he sees them with
extraordinary clarity. In his references, say, to Kant or
Spinoza, he not only uses their thought as a springboard for his
own, but also exhibits a solid and scholarly penetration into
their principles and views. His relation to Marx is less
straightforward, as we shall see, but in general one finds in his
philosophical works an interweaving of themes in which the
original strands stand out for themselves with unusual
distinctness, while at the same time they are being worked into a
characteristically Sartrean pattern (Marjorie Green, Sartre, NY.
Franklin Watts, Inc., 1973, p. 33).
One major tenet of Sartre's existentialism is that life is
absurd. In his novel, Nausea, Sartre brings out the absurdity of
life through his main character, Roquentin. Robert Davidson
The story of Roquentin, the hero of Nausea, is not told as an end
in itself. Actually it expresses Sartre's own view concerning
human existence. This story provides a descriptive or
phenomenological account of a man's growing realization of the
absurdity of human life in itself, and of his awakening to the
fact that if a mans life is to have any meaning or purpose,
the individual himself must confer that meaning upon it. A sense
of the absurd, the absurdity of life and of man himself,
permeates Sartre's early existentialism. In Nausea he portrays
this as an immediate insight in ones own experience.
As he sat in a public park one
day, staring at the long black roots of an old chestnut tree,
Roquentin became acutely aware of the absurdity of his own
"Absurdity was not an idea in my head nor the sound of a
voice. It was this long, lean, wooden snake curled up at my feet
- snake or claw or talon or root, it was all the same. Without
formulating anything I knew that I had found the clue to my
existence, to my nausea to my life. And indeed everything I have
ever grasped since that moment comes back to this fundamental
absurdity" (Robert E Davidson, Philosophies Men Live By, NY:
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1974, p. 362).
Man is Autonomous
The absurdity of the universe leads Sartre to another major tenet
of existentialism; namely, that man is autonomous. Sartre wrote:
The existentialist, on the contrary, thinks it very distressing
that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding
values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can
no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and
perfect consciousness to think it. Nowhere is it written that the
Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie:
because the fact is we are on a plane where there are only men.
Dostoevsky said, 'If God didnt
exist, everything would be possible! That is the very starting
point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God
does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither
within him nor without does he find anything to cling to. He cant
start making excuses for himself. In other words, there is no
determinism, man is free, man is freedom. On the other hand, if
God does not exist, we find no values or commands to turn to
which legitimize our conduct. So, in the bright realm of values,
we have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us. We are
alone, with no excuses (Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and
Human Emotions, NY. The Citadel Press, n.d., pp. 22, 23).
Man comes into the scene and defines himself. He lives in
absolute freedom. Sartre states:
That is the idea I shall try to convey when I say that man is
condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create
himself, yet, in other respects is free; because, once thrown
into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. The
existentialist does not believe in the power of passion. He will
never agree that a sweeping passion is a ravaging torrent which
fatally leads a man to certain acts and is therefore an excuse.
He thinks that man is responsible for his passion (ibid., p. 23).
Existence Before Essence
Another major tenet of Sartre's existentialism is that existence
precedes essence. This means that man, by his own choices,
defines his character, his essence and the person he is becoming.
His choices determine his make-up. Sartre argues:
Atheistic existentialism, which I represent, is more coherent. It
states that if God does not exist, there is at least one being in
whom existence precedes essence, a being who exists before he can
be defined by any concept, and that this being is man, or as
Heidegger says, human reality What is meant here by saying that
existence precedes essence? It means that, first of all, man
exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards,
defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, in
indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward
will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will
be. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to
conceive it. Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but
he is also only what he wills himself to be after this thrust
toward existence (ibid., pp. 15-16).
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre states:
Human freedom precedes essence in man and makes it possible. The
essence of the human being is suspended in freedom (jean-Paul
Sartre, Being and Nothingness, NY Philosophical Library, Inc.,
1956, p. 25).
He continues with the ramifications of this assertion:
[It is that] choice that is called "will". But if
existence really does precede essence, man is responsible for
what he is. Thus, existentialism's first move is to make every
man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of
his existence rest on him. And when we say that a man is
responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is
responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible
for all men (ibid., p. 16).
Sartre believed that man could receive his own self-fulfillment,
as Sahakian reports:
Notwithstanding the pessimistic views in most of Sartre's
writings his existentialism ends on a note of optimism, for his
Existentialism is Humanism concludes with the declaration that
existentialism does not plunge man into despair but is an
optimistic doctrine of action, that man is his own lawmaker, a
creator of values, living in a human universe of human
subjectivity, and capable of self-fulfillment (Sahakian,
Philosophy, p. 357).
Thus, man makes his own fulfillment. Those who try to accomplish
this through religion are guilty of bad faith, as Flew defines:
Bad faith. In the existentialism of Sartre, a form of deception
of self and others; the attempt to rationalize human existence
through religion, science, or any belief in operative forces that
impose meaning and coherence. Man shapes his own destiny through
a succession of free choices for which he is totally responsible.
In "bad faith" he denies the necessity of relying on
his own moral insight and fallible will, trying to escape the
burden of responsibility by regarding himself as the passive
subject of outside influences, and his actions as being
predetermined by these rather than freely chosen by himself
(Flew, Philosophy, p. 35).
One of the major themes Sartre dealt with is also (not
surprisingly) one for which he is perhaps best known, the theme
of forlornness. It arises out of existential individuality and
subjectivity. In some ways, it resembles Kierkegaard's second and
unsatisfying stage, where man realizes he is alone, determines an
ethic, but has nothing on which to depend. Sartre himself
presented a moving description of this forlornness in the
previously cited Existentialism and Human Emotion:
To give you an example which will enable you to understand
forlornness better, I shall cite the case of one of my students
who came to see me under the following circumstances: his father
was on bad terms with his mother, and moreover, was inclined to
be a collaborationist; his older brother had been killed in the
German offensive of 1940, and the young man, with somewhat
immature but generous feelings, wanted to avenge him. His mother
lived alone with him, very much upset by the half-treason of her
husband and the death of her older son; the boy was her only
The boy was faced with the choice
of leaving for England and joining the Free French Forces - that
is, leaving his mother behind - or remaining with his mother and
helping her to carry on. He was fully aware that the woman lived
only for him and that his going-off -and perhaps his death -would
plunge her into despair. He was also aware that every act that he
did for his mother's sake was a sure thing, in the sense that it
was helping her to carry on, whereas every effort he made toward
going off and fighting was an uncertain move which might run
aground and prove completely useless; for example, on his way to
England he might, while passing through Spain, be detained
indefinitely in a Spanish camp; he might reach England or Algiers
and be stuck in an office at a desk job. As a result, he was
faced with two very different kinds of action: one, concrete,
immediate, but vaster group, a national collectivity, but for
that very reason was dubious, and might be interrupted en route.
And, at the same time, he was wavering between two kinds of
On the one hand, an ethics of
sympathy, of personal devotion; on the other, a broader ethics,
but one whose efficacy was more dubious. He had to choose
concerning only one individual; the other concerned an
incomparably between the two.
Who could help him choose?
Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says, "Be
charitable, love your neighbor, take the more rugged path, etc.,
etc But which is the more rugged path? Whom should he love
as a brother? The fighting man or his mother? Which does the
greater good, the vague act of fighting in a group, or the
concrete one of helping a particular human being to go on living?
Who can decide a priori? Nobody No book of ethics can tell him.
The Kantian ethics says, "Never treat any person as a means,
but as an end." Very well, if I stay with my mother, I'll
treat her as an end and not as a means; but by virtue of this
very fact, I'm running the risk of treating the people around me
who are fighting, as means; and, conversely, if I go to join
those who are fighting, I'll be treating them as an end, and, by
doing that, I run the risk of treating my mother as a means.
If values are vague, and if they
are always too broad for the concrete and specific case that we
are considering, the only thing left for us is to trust our
instincts. That's what this young man tried to do; and when I saw
him, he said, "In the end, feeling is what counts. I ought
to choose whichever pushes me in one direction. If I feel that I
love my mother enough to sacrifice everything else for her -my
desire for vengeance, for action, for adventure then I'll stay
with her. If, on the contrary, I feel that my love for my mother
isn't enough, I'll leave.
But how is the value of a feeling
determined? What gives his feeling for his mother value?
Precisely the fact that he remained with her. I may say that I
like so-and-so well enough to sacrifice a certain amount of money
for him, but I may say so only if I've done it. I may say "I
love my mother well enough to remain with her" if I have
remained with her. The only way to determine the value of this
affection is, precisely, to perform an act which confirms and
defines it. But, since I require this affection to justify my
act, I find myself caught in a vicious circle. (Sartre,
Existentialism, pp. 24-27).
From this we can see the futility inherent in Sartre's
existential thought. Since "existence precedes
essence," and the individual is enveloped within
"subjectivity" and must find his essence of
"authenticity," he is truly alone. Many people have
embraced existentialism for a time, sincerely thinking that its
view of life is accurate. However, many leave existentialism
because it offers a solution, meaning, and commitment which is
not truly satisfying. Even Sartre, toward the end of his life,
swung very close to theistic commitment. The magazine National
Review reported it this way:
Throughout his mature career, the philosopher jean-Paul Sartre
was a militant atheist. Politically, although he quarreled with
Marxist materialism, his rhetoric was often indistinguishable
from the most heavy-handed Stalinist boiler-plate.
However, during the philosopher's
last months there were some surprising developments. In 1980,
nearing his death, by then blind, decrepit, but still in full
possession of his faculties, Sartre came very close to belief in
God, perhaps even more than very close.
The story can be told briefly,
and perhaps reverently. An ex-Maoist, Pierre Victor, shared much
of Sartre's time toward the end. In the early spring of 1980 the
two had a dialogue in the pages of the ultra-gauchiste Nouvel
Observateur. It is sufficient to quote a single sentence from
what Sartre said then to measure the degree of his acceptance of
the grace of God and the creatureliness of man: "I do not
feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the
universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In
short, a being whom only a Creator could put here: and this idea
of a creating hand refers to God."
Students of existentialism, the atheistic branch, will note that
in this one sentence Sartre disavowed his entire system, his
engagements, his whole life. Voltaire converted on his deathbed;
one never knows, the brilliant old rascal is supposed to have
said. Sartre did not convert, at least outwardly, but came to
understand. Everything ought to be forgiven hi
The epilogue is much less
edifying. His mistress, Simone de Beauvoir, behaved like a
bereaved widow during the funeral. Then she published La cérémonie
des adieux in which she turned vicious, attacking Sartre.
He resisted Victor's seduction,
she recounts, then he yielded. "How should one explain this
senile act of a turncoat?" she asks stupidly. And she adds:
"All my friends, all the Sartrians, and the editorial team
of Les Temps Modernes supported me in my consternation."
Mme. de Beauvoir's consternation v. Sartre's conversion. The
balance is infinitely heavier on the side of the blind, yet
seeing, old man. (National Review, June 11, 1982, p. 677).
Karl Jaspers (1883-1969)
Karl Jaspers began his academic career by studying law at
Heidelberg and Munich. He later studied medicine at several
German universities and soon made important contributions to
pathological and psychiatric research. He was professor of
philosophy at Heidelberg from 1921 until the Nazis came into
power. After World War II he returned to Heidelberg and in 1948
he moved to Basel. He was one of the foremost representatives of
B. A. G. Fuller comments upon those who influenced Jaspers'
His philosophical activity was influenced from the beginning by
careful studies of Kant and Hegel, but Kierkegaard and Nietzsche
have dominated his thought by directing it constantly upon the
problem of the human condition. His philosophy has been more than
anything else an attempt to answer their question of the nature
of human existence. His answers reflect his Kantianism. (Fuller,
Philosophy, p. 604).
One aspect of Jaspers' philosophy is that it is more balanced
than that of some of his existentialist comrades. I. M. Bochenski
The thought of Karl Jaspers is on the whole much more balanced
than that of the majority of his fellow existentialists; for
example, he critically analyzes their view of science, to which
he accords a far more important place than they do.
His books contain a wealth of
remarkable analyses and are written in comparatively simple
language free from the characteristic neologisms which make the
other authors so difficult to read. An obvious concern for
metaphysics and a sort of natural theology also serve to
distinguish him from the others who share the same label. Even
so, he exhibits the fundamental attitudes and convictions common
to all existentialists (Bochenski, European Philosophy, p. 185).
In 1932 Jaspers completed a major philosophical work entitled,
Philosophie. In it he examined in depth the common philosophical
method, relating it to his own brand of existentialism. Robert A.
Jaspers' philosophical thought proper begins to emerge with the
work Philosophie and is developed in the subsequent works. These
works do not, however, constitute a progressive movement toward a
systematic position. Jaspers' thought is thematic, not
systematic. The basic themes of his thought are three: 1) science
and its relation to man's understanding of himself, 2) existence,
and 3) transcendence. The most fruitful approach to Jaspers'
thought lies in the exploration of his meditative enrichment of
these themes. (Caponigri, Philosophy, p. 257).
Jean T. Wilde and William Kimmel sum up the philosophy of Karl
For Jaspers philosophy is not the
attempt to give definitive form to a body of knowledge about man
in his universe. Philosophy is rather a way, an activity of the
human mind moving toward the ultimate truth which can never
become an object of knowledge, but which can be encountered in
that process of thought which he calls "transcending
Truth is always on the way,
always in movement and never becomes final, not even in its most
wonderful crystallizations. Thought is never at rest in its own
God, Man, and the World, while
they may become objects of our attention can never become objects
of knowledge. Their authentic being, their fundamental reality,
always recedes beyond the limits of objectification, defying
confinement and circumscription. They are, therefore, objects of
encounter during the process of reflective thinking but
encountered at the limits or boundaries of knowledge. The objects
of knowledge or reflection, whether the products of scientific,
aesthetic, mythical, philosophical, psychological, or merely
common-sense experience are not ends and results but limiting
forms whose reality lies not in their positive form or content
but in their power to point beyond themselves toward
Transcendence -the goal of philosophical thought.
But just as God -Transcendence,
the all encompassing One in which and from which all things have
their being and meaning -transcends objectification, so also the
Self in its authenticity, its Existenz, can never become an
object for itself. One encounters the Self at the "boundary
situations" of existence, at the limits of knowledge and
action, at those points where all knowledge and action fails, or
founders -in the presence of absolute chance, conflict,
suffering, guilt, death. At these boundary situations of finite
existence one is driven either to despair or to a discovery of
authentic Selfhood in freedom. In other words, in the concrete
situation, where the forms of knowledge fail, the formulas do not
apply, the path is no longer predetermined, one is forced to
decide, and in this free decision out of the Self one discovers
the true Self, the Being which one is.
Between the Being that I am
(Existenz) and the Being that is the all (Transcendence) lies the
World embodied in the constructed and interpreted forms of
knowledge. This World, however, is also evanescent and, in a
sense, unstable, but its forms serve as a mediation between the
Self that I am and the Transcendence toward which my thought
moves. As forms of mediation the forms of knowledge of the World
are indispensable; but as forms of mediation none is final or
absolute or binding. Their status is that of "cyphers,"
symbols that are open to Transcendence and through which
reflection can encounter Transcendence.
Only when they are
"interpreted" as a cypher-script of Being rather than
accepted as self-sufficient objects of knowledge is their status
and that of the World they embody understood. But the
interpretation itself is never final or accomplished. Nor can
there be an interpretation for man-in-general. Each individual in
his encounter with the World must interpret them anew, for only
in the act of interpretation does the Transcendence which hovers
around the forms reveal itself through them. There is necessary,
then, both the expectant receptivity of the Self to the cypher
and the recognition of the forms of knowledge as being cyphers of
True philosophy, then, for
Jaspers, is a hovering (Schweben) of the mind around the given
forms of knowledge and the forming forms of one's own thought, a
gliding of thought in expectant search for that truth about the
Self, the World and God which reveals itself as the Being that is
for the Being that I am (Wilde and Kimmel, Search, p. 451-3).
Jaspers and Sartre
F. H. Heinemarm has compared the existential philosophies of
Jaspers and Sartre, and he shows some interesting differences
Keep space open for the There is no Comprehensive.
Do not identify yourself with an Commit yourself!
object of your knowledge!
Do not reject any form of the Reject all those forms which
Comprehensive! restrict your liberty!
Do not accept any defamation Describe reality in its ugliness,
of existence! absurdity and obscenity!
Do not allow yourself to be cut You are cut off from the
off from the Transcendent! Transcendent, for it is non-
(Heinemann, Existentialism, p. 129).
Despite the differences between Jaspers and Sartre (and, in fact,
among many existentialists), there are common themes that run
throughout their philosophies.
The themes of existentialism are themes that the God of the Bible
addresses in His Word. God is concerned about individuals. God is
concerned about an individual's happiness, contentment and inner
peace. God is concerned about an individual's fulfillment.
However, existentialism is not biblical Christianity. Though not
a Christian, philosopher Hazel Barnes notes that distinction:
My first objection to the theological claims of Tillich,
Robinson, Bonhoeffer, and Bultmann- to use them as examples and
speaking of what they share in common without implying that they
are in full agreement - is that they claim to be Christian while
denying what has been essential in Christianity whereas they
subtly retain Christian assumptions when they profess to
establish philosophical truths independent of sectarian
In their plea for a revolution in
Christian thought, these theologians seem at times to argue for a
position scarcely discernible from naturalism. The idea of a God
"out there" somewhere in or beyond space, or the
concept of any Being which is separate from us and the world is
as offensive to Bishop Robinson as the medieval God who dwelt
"up there" in Dante's three-level universe. Tillich
argues against all use of "supernatural" concepts of
God. Bultmann urges that we must "demythologize
Bonhoeffer suggests that Christianity should advance to the point
where it no longer needs the "religious premise," that
the Christian must "plunge himself into the life of a
godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness
with a veneer of religion or trying to transfigure it"
(Bames, Ethics, pp. 382, 383).
Bochenski gives another slant to a critical look at
existentialism. He talks about some of the philosophical problems
posed but not answered by the usual existential concepts:
As often happens, existentialism has gone too far in the
rejection, inherently justified, of the past. For many
existentialist philosophers there seems to be nothing in
principle worth considering except those ... questions of fate we
have already alluded to. Their whole philosophy seems to center
on death, suffering, failure. Thereby they neglect another
essential factor in European culture, namely that sense of the
objective and scientific which the Greeks had in such eminent
degree. Often existentialism goes so far... that it seems to be
more an Indian than a European philosophy, that is, a kind of
thought which seems to be exclusively, even in its logic, a kind
of therapeutic device. It is for such reasons that existentialism
encounters justified reproach among many, perhaps most, serious
Another unique trait of
existentialist philosophy ... is its definite technical
philosophical character. Here many valuable insights and results
are discernible. Unquestionably philosophy has been enriched by
numerous superior analyses in psychology and phenomenology, and
some fields have in fact been subjected to study for the first
time through these efforts, for example, pure personal
relationships between human beings -being-with-another,"
"communication A study of problems has thus arisen
which constitutes a definite advancement in philosophy. Equally
fundamental are the critical attacks on positivism and on
idealism by the existentialists. Against the first they have
successfully defended the irreducibility of human existence to
matter, and respecting the second they have asserted with great
power and conviction the priority of existence to thought. They
have occupied themselves with ontology in various ways and some
have not only worked it out in detail but have capped their
efforts with a metaphysics (Bochenski, European Philosophy, p.
Christianity is based on a completely different set of
presuppositions from those of existentialism. While
existentialism stresses subjective inner experience, Christianity
links subjective inner experience with objective and testable
supernatural events in history (such as the resurrection of Jesus
Christ) and with God-given and God-developed reason. Biblical
Christians have faith. Existentialists also have faith. But
faith, however sincere, is not enough. Faith must have an object
and that object must be worthy of faith. Jesus Christ alone, the
creator and sustainer of the universe and every individual in it,
is worthy of ultimate faith.
We have dealt with the historicity of the Christian faith and its
reasonableness in previous works (see, for example, Josh's
Evidence, More than a Carpenter, and The Resurrection Factor; and
Josh and Don's Reasons and Answers). Christianity presents a
cohesive world view which fits the reality around us.
Existentialism does not. We are convinced that Christianity alone
makes the greatest sense out of the world we live in and out of
our own inner thoughts and feelings. Christian philosopher
Richard Purtill has capably summarized our perspective:
... reason is on the side of Christianity .... If we begin to ask
fundamental questions about the universe, and follow the argument
where it leads us, then it will lead us to belief in God; that if
we examine the evidence of history and of human experience, we
will be compelled to acknowledge that the only satisfactory
explanation of the evidence leads us to Christianity. Such
Christians admit that there is still a gap between intellectual
assent and commitment to a Christian way of life, but they
believe that reason is neither opposed to such a commitment or
irrelevant to it -rather, it is the best possible ground for it
(Richard Purtill, C. S. Lewis's Case for the Christian Faith, San
Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1981, pp. 12, 13).
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