Existentialism: How it has affected modern Christianity

When one thinks of the 19th Century, one often imagines the end of the Enlightenment within philosophy along with scientific positivism as the grand utopian hope for Western people; however, Existentialism finds its roots in the 19th Century as a response to the rampant rationalism that was left over from the Enlightenment. Existentialism was born out of the mind of Soren Kierkegaard as a Christian philosophy. It places a high emphasis on irrational faith that one acts on and does not study, thus rationality is devalued in theistic existentialism. Though born out of a 19th Century response to rationalism, its impact has spread into the 21st century and is finding its way into popular Christian books. Though Existentialism is helpful in reminding Christians that rationalism is inadequate, it destroys the idea that Christians can truly have a relationship with God.

Theistic existentialism is a system that devalues the rationality of faith – sometimes to the point of denying that faith is rational at all – and places a heavy reliance on experience within the faith. Francis Schaeffer defines existentialism as a “…theory of man that holds that human experience is not describable in scientific or rational terms.”[1] According to Schaeffer theistic existentialism seeks to deny that “faith” is something that can be rationally explained or studied and instead seeks to have nothing but an experience. This seems to be in line with the Swiss existentialist Karl Jaspers, who believed, “the claim of philosophy to prove or disprove God’s existence and agrees with Kant in rejecting this. For ‘a proved God would be no God but merely a thing in the world’.”[2] Whereas the orthodox faith prior to the 19th century attempted to prove the existence of God through appeals to nature, ‘orthodox’ theology, through the existentialists, appealed to nothing other than experience arguing that nothing could prove God, because He is beyond understanding.

It does make sense that existentialism would find its roots in Christianity because of Christianity’s emphasis on experience and having a personal relationship with God; Christianity is more than a philosophy, but a way of life. One existentialist sums up Christianity as, “… a type of experience, a dimension of life-in-the-world, an intention to do something in the world, a vision that is at the same time an action. Christianity is not a science to be studied, but an activity that involves the would-be ‘Christian’ in the whole of his being and alters his very existence.”[3] One accusation that has been levied against conservative Christians is that they are too focused on the “theories” of Christianity and the doctrines while ignoring the importance of actions. In fact, one anecdote is often a misquotation of St. Francis that says, “At all times preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words.” Though a misquote of St. Francis, it appeals to the idea of working toward something instead of sitting back and figuring out how that something works. The question, according to existentialists, is why would one want to sit back and study God when one could just go out and live in a relationship with Him?

Another key element of theistic existentialism is that it whole-heartedly embraces what they call the “absurd.” The absurd can sometimes refer to a self-contradiction or inconsistency in life.[4] For the theistic existentialist, the absurd is accepting faith when all evidence points against faith. Materialistic science ultimately turns man into nothing more than a highly evolved animal, incapable of true morality, true goodness, or true beauty. Rationalism destroys all emotions, making all emotions irrational and inadequate. Both science and rationalism show that there is no God, or at least if there is a God He doesn’t care about this world and is distant from it. The existentialist looks at this, agrees that all of it seems logical, but then turns the other way and rebels against the rational system. He seeks after the absurd and embraces it, taking comfort in his experience though it contradicts what he knows to be logical.

The birth of existentialism in the 19th century was a reaction to the Enlightenment thinking. As one author put it, “Both systems fought against by existentialism have one common assumption. It is the absolute primacy and superiority of man’s reason and intellect over the rest of man’s psychic dispositions, such as imagination, feelings, and intuition.”[5] The Enlightenment had left man as nothing more than a machine and the existentialists desperately wanted to avoid falling into that trap. If man is just a machine then art, love, emotions and all the other things that distinguish man from all other animals are just illusions. Unable to accept such a proposition, the existentialists chose to live life ‘irrationally’ as opposed to rationally.

The father of existentialism, Soren Kierkegaard, proposed his theory late in the 19th century as a response to the Enlightenment finding its way into Christianity. By the mid 19th century, Christianity had succumbed to German higher criticism. Most ‘Christians’ during that period denied the historicity of the Bible, the miracles claimed in the Bible, treated God as though He were some distant being that man could not relate to, and functioned as atheists. Kierkegaard, saddened by what he saw, developed a system of belief that counteracted the rationalism of his day.

Kierkegaard taught that all of Christianity was based on experience and that one could not prove God existed or even make a rational claim about doctrine within Christianity. He did this because the arguments for God’s existence had belittled God and torn away His majestic character. Kierkegaard believed that if people would stop trying to prove God and instead experience Him, the world would be better. As one author puts it, “SK emphasizes that it is impossible to know God from nature, or even to prove His existence.”[6] On top of denying that man could prove the existence of God (outside of experience), he also taught that one could not systematize Christianity. As Kierkegaard said in Fear and Trembling, “Even if one were able to render the whole of the content of faith into conceptual form, it would not follow that one had grasped faith, grasped how one came to it, or how it came to one.”[7] Though rationality could give a person an idea of what faith was, without an experience, according to Kierkegaard, there was no faith at all.

Finally, Kierkegaard even applied his view to Scripture – though he believed the Bible was infallible (based on a leap, not on any rational ground or evidential ground) he also believed that Christians must interpret the Bible through their own experiences and use the Bible to validate their own experiences. On author sums up Kierkegaard’s view of the Bible by saying, “The only interpretation of the Bible that can claim truth and validity belongs in the existential context where it represents with authority the ideal norm for the striving that expresses personal appropriation, and to which it is committed.”[8] The Bible has truth for ‘today’ because it can be experienced. When one comes across a passage, one should not try to decide what it meant, but instead what it means. In other words, looking to the historical meaning is pointless as modern man does not live in the historical context of the Bible, thus it is better for man to read the Bible as a tool to discover what to do now.

Kierkegaard’s application of existentialism to theology is not an anomaly – those who have come after Kierkegaard have continued the trend of separating faith and rationality. For theistic existentialists since Kierkegaard, to “live by faith” is not living rationally, but instead is living by action and passion.[9] The rationalists of the 19th century robbed Christianity of its action and relationship, thus the existentialists have responded by making Christianity solely action or solely relational and removing the intellect from the faith. One does not live the Christian life because it makes sense, but instead because one is passionate about it. Even if those passions are wrong, so long as one is passionate it does not matter.

Many modern existential writers follow the idea that one cannot prove the existence of God through evidential appeals or logic. Don Miller, in discussing an evangelism experience he had with an atheistic friend and her intellectual objections to the faith, says, “My belief in Jesus did not seem rational or scientific, and yet there was nothing I could do to separate myself from this belief…Love, for example, is a true emotion, but is not rational. What I mean is, people actually feel it…I think one of the problems Laura was having was that she wanted God to make sense. He doesn’t.”[10] Rob Bell takes an even more drastic approach, asking that if the virgin birth were proven to be false beyond a shadow of a doubt, would Christians abandon the faith? He concludes that Christians should live the Christian faith regardless of its historical accuracy.[11] In both instances, not only is the Christian faith and proof of God’s existence views as unimportant, they are also viewed as unnecessary to living a proper Christian life.

For these modern theistic existentialist the experience of Christianity is the best experience a human can have, but not the only experience. Bell even says, “As a Christian, I am simply trying to orient myself around living a particular kind of way, the kind of way that Jesus taught is possible. And I think that the way of Jesus is the best possible way to live.”[12] Why would Jesus be the best way to experience life and not the only way? The flaw, according to Miller, is in the question itself. It assumes that we can know something about the faith – in this instance, its exclusivity – when there are some things about the faith that the mind will simply never understand.[13] Though Kierkegaard taught that Christianity was worthy of all people because it was the most absurd (anti-logical) faith, the modern day followers merely believe Christianity to be the best way, not the only way.

Finally, modern day existentialists draw from Kierkegaard in the way they view Scripture. Just as Kierkegaard viewed Scripture as something human experience validates, modern day existentialists teach that human experience is to shape the understanding of the Bible. Rob Bell even goes so far as to say, “The Bible has to be interpreted. Decisions have to be made about what it means now, today.”[14] He goes on to say that the story of Adam and Eve isn’t true because it happened, but because it continues to happen to modern man.[15] Likewise, Miller argues that the experience with Jesus is too personal to put on paper. He states, “I think Christian spirituality is like jazz music. I think loving Jesus is something you feel. I think it is something very difficult to get on paper.”[16] Thus, the Christian’s experience is read into Scripture instead of comparing the experience to Scripture.

The benefit of existentialism is that it brings rationalists back to earth and helps them understand that Christianity is more than a philosophy. In Kierkegaard’s time Christianity had become a dead faith, one that was rationally deducted to the point there was no mystery. Eventually, that which was mysterious within the Christian faith became declared “irrational” and therefore true. Kierkegaard was right in acting out against such a belief and showing the limits of man’s rationality. Existentialism does help show Christians that their faith isn’t just conceptual, but is also a faith that requires actions.

Though existentialism brings some good, it also ruins any idea of hope, especially hope in knowing God.  As one existential author puts it, “We live in darkness, and we are ourselves full of darkness. Lost in some corner of a silent universe, we can only imagine a God who himself is lost, and whom only the heart can reach, reason being powerless and misleading.”[17] The author sums up the existential condition adequately; though poetic to think of pursuing an unknown God, ultimately it leaves man in a state of despair. Man feels lost and alone, absent of hope, and attempting to find God merely by feeling around for God. This is what Schaeffer calls the “line of despair.”[18] Though man may live happily, Schaeffer argues, if he ever sat and considered his condition he would be brought to tears. This is because the existential condition ultimately leaves man without hope of knowing God.

Another problem that Schaeffer points out is that Kierkegaard was ultimately wrong. Kierkegaard’s idea of faith being a leap into the absurd is presented as a metaphor in the story of Abraham – Abraham, against reasoning and ethics – agreed to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God. Kierkegaard argued that this was the ultimate display of irrational faith.[19] Schaeffer, however, counters that, “Before Abraham was asked to move toward the sacrifice of Isaac…he had much propositional revelation from God, he had seen God, God had fulfilled promises to him. In short, God’s words at this time were in the context of Abraham’s strong reason for knowing that God both existed and was totally trustworthy.”[20] According to Schaeffer, Abraham had already established a rational basis from which he could trust God without questioning God. Kierkegaard’s original idea – that Abraham acted on blind faith – is faulty and thus, so is existentialism.

One of the most damning things that Schaeffer points out against existentialism is that they (existentialists) are not really experiencing God. “They have not touched the personal God who exists, but for a fleeting moment they have touched the existence of true personality in their love…It is true that in these experiences man has touched something, not nothing; but what he has touched is not God, but the objective reality of the external world and the ‘manishenss’ of man that God has creation.”[21] The reason for this is that existentialists have denied the rationality of the faith, but God is a reasonable God who calls man to reason with Him (Isaiah 1:18). To reason with someone includes propositional thought, logic, truth, and experience. The problem with existentialists is that they still accept the Enlightenment view of epistemology – they begin with man as the center. If man is the center of thinking then rationality cannot operate with God. If, however, God is the center of thinking and imparts man’s rational character onto him, then it makes sense that rationality – even if fallen – can play a part in faith. When one denies that logic plays a part in a relationship with God, then one is not truly experiencing God.

The ultimate solution is to realize that both reasoning and experience play a vital role in the Christian faith. Jesus commands His disciples to love God with all their heart, mind, and soul (Matthew 22:37). Schaeffer argues that this means Christianity is not rationalistic, but does contain a reasonable element to the faith – for Christians A is A and not non-A. Christianity does not end at rationality, but includes the entirety of a person’s being.[22] Schaeffer actually uses the analogy of an artist by saying, ““The artist, to be an artist, needs to be free. On the other hand, if there is no form to his painting, the artist loses all communication with the viewers. The form makes it possible for the artist to have freedom plus communication. In the same way, rationality is needed to open the door to a vital relationship to God.”[23] In other words, without rationality there is no form, no way to function, and thus no way to have a proper relationship. Just like in a human relationship there is a rational element through communication and knowledge of who a person is, in Christianity there is a rational element through communication with God and knowledge of who He is. What makes Christianity so great, however, is that it does not stop with rationality, but includes every aspect of “manishness.”

Existentialism was a reactionary philosophy to the Enlightenment, born in the 19th century, but affecting many 21st century thinkers. It reacted out against the scientific positivism of its day and declared that man is more than a machine, but that humans cannot know how this occurs. It was born within the Christian system and influences Christianity in the modern era. These Christians deny the rational basis of their faith and continue on without truly knowing who God is. Though they seek after an experience with God, they find they cannot have one. The solution is realizing that faith is an experience built upon rational grounds. It is only when one comes to know the true God that one can begin to experience Him.

[1] Schaeffer, Francis, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, ed. Francis Schaeffer, The God Who is There (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 200.

[2] E.L Allen, Existentialism from Within (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul LTD, 1953), 122.

[3] William Earle, Edie, James M., and Wild, John, Christianity and Existentialism (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1963), 5.

[4] Ibid. 9-10

[5] Frederick Patka, Existentialist Thinkers and Thoughts (New York: Philosophical Library, 1962), 14-15.

[6] Marie Mikulova Thulstrup, comp., Bibliotheca Kierkegaardiana: The Sources and Depths of Faith in Kierkegaard (Copenhagen: C.A. Reitzels Boghandel, 1978), 7.

[7] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling (London: Penguin Books, 1985), 43.

[8] Sources and Depths, 54

[9] Christianity and Existentialism, 28

[10] Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003), 54.

[11] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 26-27.

[12] Ibid. 20

[13] Miller, 205

[14] Bell, 55

[15] Ibid. 58

[16] Miller, 239

[17] Ralph Harper, The Existential Experience (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1972), 68.

[18] Schaeffer, 8

[19] Ibid. 15

[20] Ibid. 15

[21] Ibid. 24

[22] Ibid. 124

[23] Ibid. 123

3 thoughts on “Existentialism: How it has affected modern Christianity

  1. Unless you are existential…you are in denial of reality, whatever you think reality is, which it is not.
    You live with the tension of thinking you know when you really don’t know and when you think you know it ends up being what you think you know, which is limited because it is your own experience, which might be true, but you can’t really know if you are right.
    You chose a platform by which to live and have a criteria for explaining whatever.
    You give the Scriptures the validity that will give you the platform from which to make meaningful statements about what you believe is true. The existential tension has always been real to the great thinkers, like Pascal, , Ecclesiastes, Augustine, etc.

  2. David,

    So when I think I know something I do truly know it, but only in a subjective and experiential sense. However, how do you know that when I know something I truly know it even though I can’t know anything?

    You must turn to an absolute in order to say that knowledge is subjective. You have to make an absolute epistemological statement to say there is no epistemology; that you know absolutely that all knowledge is subjective.

    Hence why existentialism fails; self-refutation.

  3. Paul Tillich used the Ontological Polarity: Form and Dynamics in his Systematic Theology. Althought I do not support his Theology, I was thinking that The two Atheistic Philosphers of recent times who had much in common Nietzche and Ayn Ryan, but were opposite in other ways could be looked at in this way:

    Nietzche was obssessing on life dynamics at the expense of form and Ayn Ryan was doing the opposite; obsessing on reason, structure, logic at the expense of life dynamics. Could this be two forms of idolatry?

    Nietzche’s Dionysis and and The Greek god Apollo were being worship at the same time in ancient Greek. It looks a kind of polarization between the two Ontological Polarities.

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