Does existentialism conflict with Christianity?


#1

Why would you create your own purpose for life if God has already planned it out and knows your heart?


#2

Kierkegaard didn’t think existentialism conflicted with Christianity. I suppose it depends upon what brand and aspect of existentialism you are looking at. Creating oneself seems to be not only possible but necessary if we take free will seriously - whether we choose for or against God.

I’m not well versed enough on existentialism per se to give you a complete answer, having only studied a smattering of Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Nietzsche. I read Sartre’s Being and Nothingness many years ago for what that’s worth.


#3

Existentialism is based on an atheistic model. One can try to reconcile it with Christianity but why would you want or need to do that?


#4

I agree. The best description I ever heard of the existentialist tradition is “mourning the death of God.” I don’t think that there is much there that is consistent with Christianity.

Best,
Leela


#5

Well, as I said, I’m no expert on existentialism, but what I do know is that there are some well known theists who have based their philosophy on existential principles - Paul Tillich and Soren Kierkegaard being two of the most notable ones. That is why I don’t think you can characterize existentialism as fundamentally atheistic.

It is true that certain existentialist philosophers came to the conclusion that there is no God. Take Nietzsche’s infamous phrase “God is dead.” Yet if the central tenet of existentialism is as wikipedia describes it, “the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject – not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual,” then I do not see right off that it is inconsistent with Christianity.


#6

Even using your Wiki description, existentialism excludes a ‘first cause’ of the origin of the human subject. That alone conflicts with Chirstian belief.
But in fairness to existentialists, it was human suffering and desolation that brought this philosophy into providing an inward look of man’s search for meaning. Unfortunately, it took an agnostic starting point. Therein lies its own self-imposed isolation.


#7

That is not right. Existentialism is based on the Judeo-Christian way of looking at the world.


#8

So is modern atheism.


#9

I guess I don’t see it in the definition provided. It appears to me to be a neutral starting point, neither affirming nor denying the ultimate origin of humanity. I see it as a statement of where one starts doing philosophy.

The wiki article is one of the better sourced ones I have seen on philosophical topics. The definition provided is footnoted to these two sources:

^ John Macquarrie, Existentialism, New York (1972), pages 14-15.

^ D.E. Cooper Existentialism: A Reconstruction (Basil Blackwell, 1999, page 8).

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existentialism#cite_note-2

But in fairness to existentialists, it was human suffering and desolation that brought this philosophy into providing an inward look of man’s search for meaning. Unfortunately, it took an agnostic starting point. Therein lies its own self-imposed isolation.

If you mean by an agnostic starting point that it does not from the outset affirm God’s existence, then I agree with that. But that would be true of Thomism as well as many other philosophical constructs. Proofs of God’s existence generally do not begin with God. Take the cosmological argument as an example.

I am interested in your comments on this, since you seem to have some familiarity with existentialism.


#10

The article states that the “most common” form of existentialism excludes the first cause and seeks to find meaning in human existence alone (or rather just seeks to embrace absurdity and despair).

Atheistic existentialism is the form of existentialism most commonly encountered in today’s society. What sets it apart from theistic existentialism is that it rejects the notion of a god and his transcendent will that should in some way dictate how we should live. It rejects the notion that there is any “created” meaning of life and the world, and that a leap of faith is required of man in order for him to live an authentic life. In this kind of existentialism, belief in a god is often considered a form of Bad Faith.

Theistic or “Christian” existentialism does exist but it is based on heretical Christianity at best and in any case, is a good example of existentialist-absurdity itself. Some Christians tried to embrace existentialism because it was part of a modern trend in philosophy but it has never really worked except as a foundation for relativism.


#11

It states that atheistic existentialism is the form of existentialism most commonly encountered in today’s society. I have no reason to doubt that given Sartre’s influence.

Theistic or “Christian” existentialism does exist but it is based on heretical Christianity at best and in any case, is a good example of existentialist-absurdity itself. Some Christians tried to embrace existentialism because it was part of a modern trend in philosophy but it has never really worked except as a foundation for relativism.

What is it in particular about theistic existentialism that results in a heretical Christianity? I am not gainsaying you, I’m just curious.


#12

During my ‘intellectual rebellion phase’ I used to study this world-view, thinking that at last, there is hope in understanding our predicament, where speculative and deterministic philosophers failed. But I soon only got depressed, realizing that insisting on man’s isolation in his suffering brings no practical meaning.
But when I started looking at psycho-spiritual realities, my ‘depression’ lightened a bit. I can only pray for those who are still searching.:stuck_out_tongue:


#13

It’s not that it results in heretical Christianity but that it would have an origin in heresy.

Existentialism would be compatible with the subjective nature of the Protestant heresy, for example. As with Sola Scriptura, authority and interpretation rests with the individual. This strips the person away from the objective law of God as given through the Church. The moral standard is relative and is judged by the individual.

This is the same for theistic existentialism. It does not look outward to divine revelation but to the subjective judgement of the individual.


#14

That is a very good short summary of the problem.


#15

Thank you for sharing that. I was already grounded more or less in Catholicism at the point I started studying the existentialists, having just struggled out of a particularly nasty brand of hyper-Calvinism. Existentialism never did leave much of an impression until later when I saw some of those concepts were used by Christian philosophers like Karl Barth and Fr. Rahner.

reggieM, you present some interesting and thought provoking observations. I would like to have a discussion about them if you have the time.

The reason I have difficulty with this notion is that many theistic models that we do consider orthodox have their roots in heretical philosophical systems. Augustinian theology and Thomism both draw on the early Greek thinkers - Plato and Aristotle. Many aspects of Platonism are heretical.

Existentialism would be compatible with the subjective nature of the Protestant heresy, for example. As with Sola Scriptura, authority and interpretation rests with the individual. This strips the person away from the objective law of God as given through the Church. The moral standard is relative and is judged by the individual.

I agree with you that existentialism seems to attract Protestants because it does fit in nicely with Sola Scriptura. I also see how it can be used to justify moral relativism. The response I have seen to the moral relativism charge, which I think also applies to who is the ultimate interpreter of the truth, is this: In the first instance, it is always the individual person in freedom who must choose the Church as final interpreter and the moral standard by which he will live. Freedom is an existential - a fact of our existence that concerns the entire human person. That’s how the argument goes anyway.

This is the same for theistic existentialism. It does not look outward to divine revelation but to the subjective judgement of the individual.

If theistic existentialism demands that there can be no standard of truth outside of one’s own subjective judgment, then I agree it is inconsistent with Christianity. It may be that thinkers like Barth simply can’t be placed under the rubric of “existentialism,” even if they draw on certain existentialist principles.


#16

I appreciate your insights on this topic also. Yes, I’d be glad to discuss it further.

The reason I have difficulty with this notion is that many theistic models that we do consider orthodox have their roots in heretical philosophical systems. Augustinian theology and Thomism both draw on the early Greek thinkers - Plato and Aristotle. Many aspects of Platonism are heretical.

Yes, but there’s always a considerable difference when looking at pre-Christian thinkers than when considering post-Christian philosophies like existentialism. It’s an interesting question (I’m not sure on the answer) whether one can regard Plato and Aristotle as “heretical” in the formal sense. In the same way, one could not consider pre-Christian Jewish thinkers as heretical, even though they didn’t accept divine dogmas like the Trinity or the 7 sacraments. Where post-Christian teaching is different is that it consciously rejects the divine truth. Sts. Thomas and Augustine built on the pagan, classical philosophical systems because they were “forerunners” of Chrsitianity in many ways. Existentialism is really an attack on Christian teaching (at its worst) or at best, a partial truth.

In the first instance, it is always the individual person in freedom who must choose the Church as final interpreter and the moral standard by which he will live. Freedom is an existential - a fact of our existence that concerns the entire human person. That’s how the argument goes anyway.

I think a Catholic response to this is that the individual does not choose the Church for a subjective, personal reason, but because the Church corresponds to the truth. In that sense, it’s a response to an objective value and the person has a duty to embrace the truth of Christ, etc.

It may be that thinkers like Barth simply can’t be placed under the rubric of “existentialism,” even if they draw on certain existentialist principles.

That’s a good point and it does sound correct to me. The term “existentialist” does not really have a very clear definition, but it’s most commonly used for the atheistic variety. When the somewhat vague ideas of a writer like Camus are included in the philosophical category it’s difficult to get precision about what existentialism really means.

But I would agree that Barth and Rahner used the concepts of existentialism in their own theological work.


#17

We are on the same wavelength here, although I believe we are going to reach different conclusions. It was precisely Judaism that I was thinking about when I mentioned the early Greek philosophers. It may very well be that Plato and Aristotle did not have access to the teachings of Judaism as it was a provincial religion at the time. Perhaps they can be excused then from positing a God (or in the case of Plato, the Demiurge) that is very different from the present and personal God of the Jews. As for the pre-Christian Jewish thinkers as expressed in the Old Testament, I do not believe they could be considered even material heretics. They were still under the Old Covenant and the chosen people of God until the Word was given to them and the New Covenant in force.

Where post-Christian teaching is different is that it consciously rejects the divine truth. Sts. Thomas and Augustine built on the pagan, classical philosophical systems because they were “forerunners” of Chrsitianity in many ways.

If you mean that Aquinas and Augustine borrowed those ideas from the Hellenic philosophers that are consistent (for the most part) with Christianity, then I agree. But that is the point. They deliberately borrowed from a non-Judaeo-Christian framework to further explicate the truths of Christianity.

I understand the distinction you are making between a system that consciously rejects divine truth and one that does not. Yet I wonder if it is a meaningful distinction in terms of existentialism for several reasons. One simply cannot charge Kierkegaard (a Protestant) with this kind of “conscious” rejection, and his system is one of the earliest - long before Sartre’s influence. Also, if through a philosophical system one concludes something that is opposed to Christianity, it does not automatically follow that the system incorporates a conscious rejection of divine truth. Empiricism has led many a person to reject theism, yet I would not call it an epistemology that consciously rejects divine truth. Finally, even if a system begins with a conscious rejection of God (and Sartre’s comes close) it does not necessarily follow that nothing about the system is true. I will concede though that it could be a potentially fruitless if not outright dangerous exercise.

Existentialism is really an attack on Christian teaching (at its worst) or at best, a partial truth.

Sartre and Nietzsche probably qualify for the first category. To the extent that Kierkegaard uses subjective judgment to conclude truths opposed to Catholicism, the second.

I think a Catholic response to this is that the individual does not choose the Church for a subjective, personal reason, but because the Church corresponds to the truth. In that sense, it’s a response to an objective value and the person has a duty to embrace the truth of Christ, etc.

True, but I think it would be difficult to accuse Kierkegaard of asserting that there exists no objective truth which one is duty bound to accept, much less Barth. As I said before, if the central premise of existentialism is that there can be no standard of truth outside of subjective judgment, then it should be rejected.

That’s a good point and it does sound correct to me. The term “existentialist” does not really have a very clear definition, but it’s most commonly used for the atheistic variety. When the somewhat vague ideas of a writer like Camus are included in the philosophical category it’s difficult to get precision about what existentialism really means.

But I would agree that Barth and Rahner used the concepts of existentialism in their own theological work.

Perhaps then the best we can do is say that some discrete principles of existentialism can be consistent with Christianity. I personally think Rahner did a fairly credible job.


#18

I’ve been thinking about your post, tdgesq. I think the most important thing for me to understand is what you are seeking in your philosophical interest. What does this tool help you understand? Perhaps something about yourself, your own decision-making process, how you’ve travelled on your faith-journey – or something else. I’m just wondering on this because it can then help assess the value of Existentialism for you (or perhaps it has no real value because there are better paths to pursue for the same knowledge).

Yes, I would agree with that and I think Sts. Augustine and Thomas thought that way also.

As for the pre-Christian Jewish thinkers as expressed in the Old Testament, I do not believe they could be considered even material heretics. They were still under the Old Covenant and the chosen people of God until the Word was given to them and the New Covenant in force.

Again, that is true by judging them according to their own era and historical position. But it is strange also that if a person today embraced the same belief that the patriarchs of the Old Testament had (as some Jews do today) then the same belief would be judged a heresy.

If you mean that Aquinas and Augustine borrowed those ideas from the Hellenic philosophers that are consistent (for the most part) with Christianity, then I agree. But that is the point. They deliberately borrowed from a non-Judaeo-Christian framework to further explicate the truths of Christianity.

But again, the question is “motive”. They wanted to further explicate the truths of Christianity and used classical philosophy because it was familiar to the people of the time, it preserved many concepts which were compatible with and supportive of Christianity, and it provided a philosophical language that Christianity didn’t have at the time.

If a person wants to use non-Catholic philosophy today to further explicate the truths of Christianity – then the motive for that needs to be spelled out more clearly. Additionally, as I mentioned elsewhere, both Augustine and Aquinas were steeped in Christian thought to a very high degree. Pagan philosophy was of secondary value to them. For today’s Catholics, who are very commonly ignorant of the basic teachings of the Church, studies of non-Christian philosophies are a serious waste of time at best and most often a very dangerous practice.

If a person has deeply absorbed the Catholic faith (there is a lot to absorb) and has reached a reasonable level of competence with Catholic practice (spiritually and otherwise), and – there is a good reason for studying alien-philosophies, then that is certainly reasonable.

One simply cannot charge Kierkegaard (a Protestant) with this kind of “conscious” rejection, and his system is one of the earliest - long before Sartre’s influence.

Ok, that may be correct. But as I look at it, Kierkegaard, like all modern philosophers spent a significant amount of time pondering philosophical questions. It is unreasonable to expect him to spend an equal amount of time pondering the origin of his own faith-system? How could it be possible for him to avoid the claims of the Catholic Church if that were the case? I think, however, like many modern philosophers, religious teachings are not ranked as having as high a value as natural, human philosophical considerations. This is culpable as I see it – a manifestation of pride (a vice that poisions almost all modern philosophy). So, Kierkegaard was a Protestant because it was his tradition and he didn’t bother to consider it much beyond that (I’m guessing, I don’t really know). Thus, he doesn’t make a conscious rejection of the Catholic faith.

But really, it depends on what value Kierkegaard or even Sartre or Camus or any other modern philosopher can bring and what kind of investment of time is needed to extract those values from their writing.


#19

Also, if through a philosophical system one concludes something that is opposed to Christianity, it does not automatically follow that the system incorporates a conscious rejection of divine truth.

If the philosophical system is oriented in a manner that excludes the providence of God, or even if it pretends that there is no God without ever stating an atheistic position, then the system is materially evil (in general terms). There are all kinds of qualifiers one can use to judge the nature of the system and whether there is a conscious rejection of truth or not, but in many cases, one cannot really judge if it is a conscious rejection or not. Even in cases where the philosopher denounces God and religion – is the person psychologically conditioned to say that, or is the person reacting against a false-concept of God?

If the point is that we can always find “some value” in any philosophical writings, then this is true in any human endeavor. We are created in such a way that it is impossible for a human being to create something that is “pure evil”, no matter how hard one may try. We are created good, by God. Thus our philosophical creations always have some measure of good mixed in – even in a blatantly atheistic model.

So if we want to say that Mormonism, Hinduism, Islam or any manner of atheistic-materialism all “have some good elements” the point stands.

That’s where I turn to “the investment of time and energy” and the prioritization of one’s life with regards to those two treasures we have to spend.

What payoff can a person gain by reading the collected works of Friedrich Nietzsche? We weigh some number of hours investment into that – and we look at a Catholic, perhaps, who has not read the works of St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross or of philosophers like Gilson, Pieper, Garrigou-Lagrange, Newman …

I’m in no position to judge such things for any individual.

I can fully understand how a person may have a legitimate need to read and study existentialist philosophers. Aside from apologetical study (which is very important and legitimate), I think that the study of philosophical systems that come from a subjectivist, invidualistic, alienated model like existentialism would only have benefit in cases where there is some other philosophical error to correct and existentialism is a temporary remedy to prepare a person for a more solid Catholic conviction.

Catholicism is, in some ways, the end of philosophy since with the Incarnation, man cannot pretend that philosophy can find truths that are not possessed in Christ himself, and that “nature alone” is adequate in coming to a full understanding of reality. In this way, philosophy and theology have to work together.


#20

Kierkegaard may not have actively rejected Catholic philosophy as regards the problem of human sufferings but that does not mean he is closer to the truth by that. Even psychoanalysts have realized that they could not claim full understanding of the human mind without incorporating psycho-spiritual dynamics. By that criteria alone, existentialism cannot claim integral truth.
Just my opinion, though.


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