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Is Christian Existentialism Unbiblical?

One of the many unique features of Conciliar Post is the Ask function that allows readers to pose questions to the Conciliar Post community. One of our readers has posed the following question: “Is the movement called Christian existentialism biblical or unbiblical? Can a true Christian also be an existentialist, or does the bible prohibit it?”

This is a great question, if I do say so myself. Don’t worry if you don’t know what existentialism is. I’ll explain as we go along.

To begin, let’s talk about our feelings.

What It’s Like to Be an Existentialist

The core emotion or mood for existentialists is angst (often translated “anxiety” or “anguish”). The primary task of an existentialist is to figure angst out. This involves exploring what it is, why everyone has it, why some people claim they don’t have it, and what we should do about it.

In exploring these issues, existentialists often come to the following general conclusion. Humans experience angst because we have a fundamental need for meaning—a need for our lives and world to make sense and have purpose. However, meaning, sense, and purpose seem to be missing, so our need goes unmet.1

Existentialists then try to figure out how we got into our angst-inducing predicament. They often trace angst back to the fact that being free is a huge responsibility. Even if a god handed us life’s meaning on a silver platter, for example, we would still be responsible for whether we chose to accept or reject it. We cannot push off responsibility for how we live onto anyone or anything else. And that’s a lot of weight to bear.2

What, then, should we do about the angst we experience? Once again, existentialists usually conclude that we should take responsibility. We have options, and thus are responsible for how we respond. Will we make meaning, since we cannot find it in the world?3 Will we accept our culture’s prefabricated meanings?4 Will we conclude that life is only apparently meaningless, and look again for the meanings we missed?5 Will we choose a source of meaning that transcends the apparently-meaningless world?6

Existentialists believe that none of these options are forced upon us. How we deal with our angst is a choice we each have to make. Often, however, existentialists argue that one of these choices is authentic, while the others are inauthentic.7 One way of responding to our situation is faithful to the truth—to how we and the world really are—while the others are evidence of denial and self-deception.

What’s Wrong with Existentialism?

The question I am supposed to answer is whether or not existentialism is excluded by scripture for Christians. This implies that there might be reasons for suspecting that existentialism is opposed to biblical Christianity. What might those reasons be?

Perhaps the most obvious is existentialism’s association with atheism. Jean-Paul Sartre gave existentialism its name and argued that existentialism is a logical consequence of atheism. Without God as a ground or source, we are left in a kind of limbo. Everything—including what it means to be human—is left up to us. The non-existence of God is where angst comes from, and thus atheism is where existentialism begins, according to Sartre.8

Another potential problem with existentialism is its association with moral nihilism or relativism. There are two reasons for this. The first is the fact that Friedrich Nietzsche is widely regarded as one of the original existentialists, and most people believe he was a nihilist.9 The second is the fact that thinkers like Sartre believed that morality was meaningless without God. Therefore, existentialism seems to involve the claims that there is no such thing as right and wrong, or that what’s right and wrong is up to you.

A third potential problem with existentialism is that people might be suspicious of famous Christian existentialists. Søren Kierkegaard, for example is a father of existentialism. Yet he was a singular character, and singular characters can be difficult to classify. Furthermore, theologians like Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann get treated as part of the Christian existentialist movement, but I hear people have doubts about their orthodoxy.10

So, if existentialism is an atheistic, nihilistic movement attractive to unorthodox Christians, it would make sense to wonder whether existentialism and biblical Christianity are compatible. I think they are. But to explain why, I need to walk us through a little history.

Where the Term “Existentialism” Comes From

The term “existentialism” comes from Jean-Paul Sartre and is supposed to distinguish his philosophy from a group of philosophies we might call “essentialist.” According to essentialists, everything has an essence. A thing has an essence because (a) it is a particular kind of thing, and (b) things of that kind have certain properties and requirements. A human’s essence, for example, is “human nature.” Because each of us has this essence, we each have certain properties like being able to think rationally, having a body, having emotions, and so on. And because each of us has the human essence, we each have certain requirements. We have to eat. We need to love and be loved. We ought to behave rationally.

So, essentialists believe that how humans exist, and how they ought to exist, follows from what humans are. All humans have the same essence, and so they are required to live their lives in a distinctively human manner. The requirements are physical, logical, and moral.

In contrast, Sartre took Martin Heidegger to have shown that, “existence precedes essence”11 for humans. This means that humans only come to have a settled nature or character because of how they have chosen to live. You exist first. While existing, you make choices and undertake actions. These choices and actions define you. They create your habits. They give you your character. It is through existing, therefore, that you become a particular kind of person. It is through existing that you develop an essence.12

Existentialism as a Broader Movement

“Existentialism” applies first and foremost to the philosophy of Sartre. But he thought of his work as developing the philosophy of Heidegger. And Heidegger, like Sartre, was heavily influenced by Kierkegaard, with Nietzsche and Dostoevsky mixed in.

The term “existentialism,” therefore, has come to apply to the entire movement that includes Sartre, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, et al. And once we see that the existentialist movement existed before and beyond Sartre, we might ask how far back it goes.

The answer to that question is, “way, way back.” The oldest book of existentialism that we still regularly read today is Ecclesiastes. In fact, it is the first book I had my students read when I taught existentialism at University of Maryland, College Park.

I suspect most people will be surprised to hear that the Bible contains an existentialist book. But just consider these verses.

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, NIV)

The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. Then I said to myself, “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?” I said to myself, “This too is meaningless.” For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered; the days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die! So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.  (Ecclesiastes 2:13–17, NIV)

If that isn’t existentialism, I don’t know what is (and neither do you). But working through the issues expressed above is what the entire book of Ecclesiastes is about. Ecclesiastes is a masterwork of existentialism.

So, Is Christian Existentialism Possible?

The fact that existentialism in Western culture begins in the Bible ought to give us pause. It shows us, for example, that Sartre does not own existentialism, even if he invented the name we now use for it. Sartre was simply a prominent thinker in the recent past who dealt with a set of concerns and struggles that many had before him, and many have had since. He was a latecomer to existentialism, and his way of working it out was neither the first nor the only way.

The same might be said for the 19th and 20th century thinkers we now call “the Christian existentialists.” They each had their own way of working through the issues and concerns of existentialism. But that does not mean their ways were the best or only ways of doing Christian existentialism.

When we ask, therefore, whether Christian existentialism is biblical or unbiblical, we have to distinguish two issues. The first is whether what has been labeled “Christian existentialism” was in fact biblical or unbiblical. The second is whether anything properly labeled “Christian existentialism” could be biblical.

Unfortunately, I cannot answer the first question. I simply do not know the Christian existentialists of the 19th and 20th centuries well enough. The one I know best is Kierkegaard, and he seems perfectly fine to me. However, if someone wanted to argue the opposite, I’d be happy to listen.

Even though I have nothing helpful to say about whether any particular 19th or 20th century Christian existentialist was orthodox and biblical, I can say this. The fact that Ecclesiastes is a work of existentialism shows that legitimate, orthodox, biblically-sound Christian existentialism is possible. And I hope that this possibility is one that Christian thinkers continue to take up.

How Should Christians Do Existentialism?

As Christians, we would have to reject Sartre’s analysis of the cause of angst, even as we acknowledge the fact of angst. As Christians, we would say that humans struggle with angst not because there is no God, but because God made us free, or because we are cut off from God by sin, or because God is not just another created thing (and thus can seem to us to be no-thing/nothing). Perhaps, furthermore our world seems meaningless because created things only have meaning in relation to their Creator—the source of value and goodness—and we often fail to see that relationship.

Does this mean Christians cannot draw on thinkers whose existentialism is unbiblical? No. Anyone who has spent time and energy working on the same questions and issues you are exploring may have valuable insights to offer. I, for example, found that studying Nietzsche’s critiques of Christianity made me a better Christian. I find Camus’s commitment to the value of truth inspiring.13 And I find Sartre and Heidegger’s inability to escape morality telling.14

I would hope, however, that as Christians we have resources that are not available to our non-Christian friends. We have the doctrines of the Incarnation, of creation, of redemption, and so on, that are relevant to how we examine and deal with existentialist issues. And this means, I would claim, that it is possible for Christian existentialism to be even better than atheist existentialism. Whether the existentialist philosophies and theologies we produce are any good, however, is our responsibility.

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Micah Tillman

Micah Tillman

Micah is the host of the Top 40 Philosophy podcast. He has a B.A. in computer science (Messiah College), an M.A. in philosophy (West Chester University of Pennsylvania), and a Ph.D. in philosophy (The Catholic University of America). He taught philosophy at universities in the Washington, DC area for 9.5 years, and is now on what he thinks of as a sabbatical.

  • Excellent piece, Micah (as I mentioned to you via email). I am having some of my students look at this to help get some background on existentialism!

  • Kenneth O’Shaughnessy

    I now have another podcast to add to my roster – I was caught up on a couple and needed to add another one, so this was timely 🙂