(Written with the beginning of a new school year, and with college students particularly, in mind.)
What follows is a brief introduction to and summary of the philosophy of Existentialism.
Why write about a “philosophy” in a Reformed magazine devoted to theological and ecclesiastical issues? It’s quite simple. A man’s philosophy is his perspective on life. And a man’s perspective on life is practical. In the end it has everything to do with man’s conduct and behavior, what he ‘justifies,’ and what he condemns. As we are so fond of saying, principles work through.
Why this particular philosophy? Because this philosophy has everything to do with the spirit of our age. It is, I am convinced, a key to understanding our present age, its culture and its so-called standards (or, if you will, our society’s reaction against all time-honored standards in everything from the Arts to Sex, and from civil law to child-rearing, opting always for that which is radical, obscene, and anti-moral).
More than any other philosophy, Existentialism reflects what developed amongst the intellectuals of the twentieth century. Such is not to be minimized. That is simply another way of saying that, in time, it became the ruling mentality of leading educators of the leading universities both in Europe and the States. This means its legacy is far reaching indeed.
For this reason I encourage every young person who is going to a liberal arts college and is required to take a class or two in philosophy to take the mandatory history of philosophy course and then look for one that deals with Existentialism. It will help explain not only what passes for ‘art’ in this modern age, together with its literature, but also much of modern medicine and the sciences, down to what is being agitated for in the biology labs—freedom to experiment with human life, or as modern man labels it, human ’tissue.’
Today’s debased evaluation of human life as nothing but biological tissue with which to experiment is the legacy of Existentialism, that is to say, Existentialism taken to its logical conclusion. Because, strangely enough, this devaluation of human life was exactly what Existentialism’s founding thinkers wanted at all costs to avoid. But (and here is the problem) it was something they had to try to prevent without any reference to the Creator God or to His absolute standards of right and wrong. Because if anything characterizes Existentialism in its secular branch, it is the rejection of anything that has to do with the Christian faith and, hence, with God.
Existentialism has been called the Philosophy of Despair and the Philosophy of Irrational Man, and even, by its own thinkers, the Philosophy of the Absurd. Once you understand its main tenets, it is not so hard to understand why.
Existentialism is the philosophy that made popular the saying “God is dead.” The saying itself was lifted from that most anti-God and anti-Christian German philosopher of the late 1800s, Fredrick Nietzsche. By it these philosophers meant not simply that God has passed from the scene, or that He never existed (though that too), but, more insultingly, it was their way of saying “God is of no significance anymore!” It was their contention that God and the Christian religion had failed the human race. The notion of God was an idea that had outlived its usefulness. It was time for modern man to display the courage of living without any reference to God as creator, savior, or judge.
This is not to say that there is not also a religious and ‘Christian’ branch to this philosophy. There is—a branch populated by a veritable “Who’s Who” of the big names of “Religion and Theology” of the twentieth century (from Bultmann to Niebuhr to Tillich), men whose writings still dominate the intellectual and theological landscape of our day. But these men themselves wrote in reaction to the ‘conclusions’ of their secular counterparts, trying to salvage something of the Christian faith from the ruins that the ‘blitzkrieg’ of their secular counterparts left behind. Sad to say, making fatal concessions along the way (as liberals are wont to do), they salvaged precious little. The spiritual and moral bankruptcy of Europe’s present-day churches and society testifies to this reality, to say nothing of our own.
But that is another story. It is in the secular branch of Existentialism that we are interested at this point.
The name Existentialism indicates what this anti-Christian philosophy is all about. It has to do with the ultimate questions of life and existence, and with man’s in particular. Does a human being’s existence have any meaning or significance in the grand scheme of things? Or is this all that can be said, we exist! As a dog exists, as a worm exists, as a cold, icy bit of stellar dust exits, and then vanishes from the scene—so it is with man. In the immortal words of a certain Rev. Gerrit Vos, who was anything but an Existentialist, commenting on the brevity of life, “We are born. We kick around a little bit—and before you know it, we are six foot under on Balsam St.” (Note: a cemetery is located on Balsam St., just outside the village of Hudsonville.)
In other words, what is it that gives human existence, or, if you prefer, life, its value? Is there any reason for choosing to live one way rather than another? Or to have one set of values in your life rather than another? Is there a basis for assessing human life as something of value, something to be preserved and protected. Is there some reason for insisting that the life of a human being is of greater worth than that of a dog or a pig?
To these questions the Existentialist sought to give a positive answer, namely, there is a difference, an essential difference of ‘being’ that must be preserved at all costs—but, and here is the absurdity if you will, what distinguishes a man from a pig and gives value to one set of choices over against another must be established and maintained without any reference toGod, or to any aspect of the Christian faith whatsoever. No little task—and, as should not surprise us, one in which these men failed miserably.
As should be evident by this time, what Existentialism amounts to is the theory of evolution taken to its full and logical conclusion. This is exactly its boldness and, one might say, its honesty. There are any number of men who have accepted evolution as the explanation for the origin of all things, and then tried to avoid its implications concerning creation, God, ethics, and man. Unlike such double-minded men, the Existentialists insisted on brutal consistency here. After all, if evolution is the real explanation of life’s origin, then there is no creator, there is no God. And if there is no God, there is nothing beyond this life and the death that devours all. And that means, we must be willing to say, there is no real, ultimate purpose to life on planet earth, not even to human life. We are not essentially any different than the animal that crosses the busy street, is hit, and dies. Human life ultimately has just as little significance and purpose as that. As was stated above, “We kick around a little bit—and before you know it we are six foot under on Balsam St.”
But rather than shrink from such a conclusion, as so many ‘cowards’ were inclined to do, Existentialists insisted that this is the truth that must be embraced, this is reality for man, and with this knowledge we must live. You want to authenticate your life? Give it some meaning in difficult, perhaps even overwhelming, circumstances? Then do not try running back to God (or to some purveyor of religion). No such ‘higher power’ exists anyway. Rather you must turn to what is within yourself, and create your own meaning. This is the courage it takes to be true, modern man. At any given moment, only the individual and the moment exists. And it is only by the choice of will to keep living in the face of the absurdity of life (after all, nothing is going to count for anything anyway once the universe fades into nothingness again) that each man gives meaning and significance to his own existence and life.
Welcome to life and the world without God!
But the absurdity of full-blown Existentialism goes deeper than this. The astonishing thing about the main thinkers of Existentialism is how clearly they also saw the depravity and evil of the human race—as clearly as a Calvinist, one might almost say. They were honest enough not to deny this fundamental reality of human nature, that man is deeply flawed and inherently evil. Nor did they deny man’s inability to overcome it. And yet they insisted that, looking to self, man must act as if he has reason for all the hope in the world.
How irrational you say. But with what options are you left, if there is no Jehovah God, or Messiah whom He has sent?
I offer for your consideration a quote from secular Existentialism’s foremost spokesman, a little walleyed Frenchman (so referred to by his critics) named Jean-Paul Sartre. What follows is lifted from my college notes (without the source designated, sorry to say). “Therefore, in spite of ourselves [meaning, though we would like to come to a different conclusion—kk], we are forced to come to this conclusion, which will seem shocking to cultured lofty souls—evil can not be redeemed, and man is irredeemably evil” (emphasis mine—kk).
And you wonder why it came to be known as “The Philosophy of Despair”?
But this, mind you, by a thorough- going unbeliever. What was it that gave rise to such a severe assessment of Sartre’s fellow man and race? The events of the first half of the twentieth century, that’s what. World Wars I and II. And they were concluded by the dropping of an atomic bomb or two. Exclamation points! God had his own way of confronting man with the folly of his insisting, “Who needs God! We can make utopia on our own. Peace on Earth; it is all a matter of man’s intellectual superiority and good will to fellow man.”
Oh really! And how then exactly do you explain what has just occurred?
The leading thinkers of Existentialism had already despaired of turning to science (with its inventions and the ability it gave to produce a vast array of machinery) as the great hope of mankind. They saw with clear eyes what the industrial revolution had foisted upon the backs of the majority of mankind, the wealthy with their machinery grinding the masses underfoot, fomenting labor violence and revolutionary doctrines. Clearly, science was not the answer. All it did was detach man from life, and focus on systems and machinery. Rather, the worth of the individual and man’s regard for each other was man’s only hope.
And then came the senseless slaughter of WW I, driven by senseless greed. And man’s newly acquired knowledge of technology enabled men to slaughter men at a horrific rate.
But still a ray of optimism remained, like poppies blooming in Flanders’ fields between the crosses row on row. Surely, man has learned from this experience. Who would ever want to live through such a man-made catastrophe again? It is unthinkable.
And then came Hitler and WW II and its unspeakable horrors. Not only the atomic bomb as the scientists’ and mathematicians’ greatest gift to mankind—Here is Death on a scale never imagined before!—but the holocaust and its brutal disregard for a whole race of people. And this, mind you, by a nation that had been regarded as the most civilized and educated in Europe. And in addition, many of the Existentialists, French by birth, had experienced firsthand the brutal cruelties of the Nazi occupiers, and then in the underground, betrayal by their own countrymen. As the scale of the death camps in Eastern Europe came to light, along with reports of what the Japanese did to the Chinese as a ‘sub-species’ in the name of barbaric sport, disillusionment and despair set in. “Evil” is the word that comes to mind. And if there is no God of righteousness or mercy, evil of an irredeemable sort.
It was to this conclusion the Existentialists came. We acknowledge not only that there is no God to answer to this evil and redress it in righteous vengeance and justice, overcoming it at last, but neither do we have any reason for placing our hope in mankind. What we have seen in the last three decades, 1915-1945, has cured us of such misbegotten hope. Man is irredeemably evil. Evil is what is strongest in mankind, an arm of death itself, and it is without a doubt what in the end will prevail. Such is the reality we confront and accept.
That being true, the question arises—why then go on? Man might as well give up.
Sartre’s response? Never, never, never. In fact, as paradoxical as it may sound, it is exactly by looking despair in the face and determining to go on regardless, that man demonstrates the true worth of man. To be sure, the odds are impossible. And the end is certain, evil and death will prevail. They always have, they always will. They are stronger than mere man. We are doomed to perish and die. It is when a man accepts this, and yet refuses to yield one inch, that he validates his life, and proves an inherent worth.
As absurd as it may sound, it is exactly by accepting that there is no ultimate meaning or purpose to life, that life can now take on meaning. Now one understands the importance of each choice made. It becomes plain that the only meaning that can be given to each person’s life is the meaning that the individual gives it by his own choice, moment by moment. Live not for eternity—it does not exist—but for the moment. In the end, the individual and the moment is all that counts.
Sound familiar? I should think so. The language and mentality of Existentialism are all around us.
And what fertile soil for evil. In the end, it does not matter what choices the original Existentialists were hoping men would make for the benefit of mankind, for the betterment of all. Each man’s choice is entirely up to him—thereby to make his life authentic and give it meaning as he judges it best for himself (because there is no ultimate standard by which to measure his assessment, making it right or wrong). And if one decides that crack cocaine is what gives him meaning, or chanting “The Jewish race must die,” or putting a bullet into one’s head, who ultimately has the right to tell him, this is wrong and will not be permitted? In the end, the ultimate ‘evil’ becomes the authority that would stand in one’s way to prevent one from authenticating who he is.
If nothing else, Existentialism brings home the true folly of unbelief, the bankruptcy of life without God and His Word—but also, why modern man stands in such need of the gospel. As every unbelieving man knows deep down, without God’s truth he is without hope in this world.