The Dangers of Existentialism

Why the dangers of this philosophy are subtle and not easily discerned.

Edward Heppenstall, Professor, Loma Linda University, La Sierra Campus

The perils to be found in Christian exisentialism are neither obvious nor easily discerned. On the contrary, existentialism's claim to relevancy and involvement of the whole of man's existence in truth offers much to be desired.

The word "existentialism" is an extension of the word "existence." The crucial issues which face modern man require that he dis­cover the true nature of his existence. For centuries the approach in philosophy has reduced the world of persons, including God and man, to mere objects of thought, concepts set forth in the categories of lan­guage. The result has been the application of man's rational powers to control and di­rect life on the horizontal plane economi­cally, politically, scientifically, religiously. The consequence is the dehumanization of the individual. The Christian religion has been emptied of its vital meaning and its relevancy to life. This is due largely to the church's concern with and search for ra­tional certainty, rather than with living truth. Because religious truth has become objectivised, man has been separated from God.

There is much truth to this critical ob­servation by existentialism. The church has long operated principally in the context of ideas and doctrines, giving priority to for­mal utterances by church and school. It is possible to answer many questions about re­ligion and life without dealing with the main issue: That of being personally in­volved in the whole of one's being. A ra­tional philosophy of religion can be a sub­stitute for the real thing. In the juggling of words and ideas, it is possible to reduce God to an idea. The effort to formulate a creed can get man nowhere. The God that people claim to believe in may become to them no more than an intellectual abstrac­tion. This is the great tragedy of philosophy according to existentialism.

Existentialism is a revolt against the at­tempt to get at the meaning of life through ideas. The assertion is that God cannot be made an object of human thought without distorting the truth about God. To deal with truth as an object to be grasped by the logic of mind and language is to lose the vertical relationship with God; that to be­lieve reality is something to be known rather than lived is an illusion, denying to man the true nature of Christian meaning and existence. Man thereby becomes the captive of rational categories rather than experiencing freedom through a personal relation with God.

Existentialism is a philosophy which shat­ters all rational security. It condemns all claims to truth which avoid or abdicate per­sonal involvement. To interpret the Chris­tian religion in terms of ideas and doctrines is to distort the truth and make participa­tion in it impossible.

How does truth become relevant? Exis­tentialism aims to answer that question. What is at stake is the very nature of man's being. The reality of truth is experienced when man faces decisions that constitute in essence a matter of life and death. Existen­tialism is a philosophy of crisis, where man is driven to vital decisions, thus penetrating to the inner meaning of life, facing up to the crises and anxieties that confront one's very existence.

The contrast is between being a partici­pant and being a spectator. One may state his belief objectively about the nature of man, that he is mortal, subject to death. He can write that statement down, put it in doctrinal form, argue it as the basis of his own logical conclusions about man, all this without being involved. But let the doctor declare a man a victim of terminal cancer. He is now involved in death itself. Death is no longer a theory to be discussed. It is now part of man's very existence. Consequently, truth must fail if it stops short of securing the involvement of the whole man.

What Is Truth?

The crucial problem in existentialism centers in the question of how to arrive at truth. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, regarded as the father of Chris­tian existentialism, wrote that "truth is subjectivity."

Here is such a definition of truth: an objective UNCERTAINTY held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness is the truth, the highest truth attainable for an existing individual.. . . Truth is precisely the venture which. chooses an OBJECTIVE UNCERTAINTY.. . . The paradoxical character of truth is its UNCERTAINTY: This UNCERTAINTY is an expression for the passionate inwardness, and this passion is precisely the truth?

According to this, man discovers truth not by the certainty of objective knowledge but only by personal decision, a "passionate in­wardness." Man's involvement comes first. Truth depends for its validity upon man. Truth comes from within, not from with­out. Man's decision creates out of itself what is existentially true. The rational consist­ency of Biblical content as doctrine is not essential in order to know the truth. Truth is not objectively given in the Bible so that it is eternally true. The Word of truth has never been given once for all. Truth is al­ways contemporaneous. Only the Word today, existentially, can be the Word of God. The same word tomorrow could be demonic once the encounter and the in­volvement with God is lost.

The crucial question is: At what point are men actually confronted with truth; at the point of knowledge or at the point of decision? At the point where the objective truth of Scripture is brought to bear upon the mind, or at the point of personal in­volvement through an act of decision? What is the basis of a right decision? At what point is a man able to tell whether or not he has made the right passionate commit­ment? If a Biblical concept or doctrine is not truth until man becomes involved by personal commitment, then what is it? Is the falsity or the truth of the idea or doc­trine no longer relevant to the intrinsic meaning of truth itself?

The objectivity of the truth of Scripture, fixed by the very nature of divine revelation and inspiration, is incompatible with this subjective approach. Existentialism is un­willing to be bound by the normative char­acter of the Word of God. Is the truth of Scripture autonomous? Existentialism de­nies this. What is prior, says traditional Christianity, is the knowledge of and from God, not the decisions of men. The latter is tested by the former. Truth stands apart from man's decision. It possesses a pre-estab­lished harmony with the God of the Bible and His Son Jesus Christ. Consequently, be­lief on a knowledge basis is essential to and prior to personal involvement in truth. It can be depended upon regardless of man's participation in it.

To believe that the source of truth can be found in the human situation, that the de­cision of man rather than in the movement of God toward man through the apostles and prophets, is perilous in the extreme. God alone is responsible for the gift of truth. God nowhere leaves sinful man to grope around within himself for the norm or the experience of truth. Existentialism shatters faith in objective truth, moral ab­solutes, and eternal principles revealed in the Holy Scriptures.

The traditional Christian position states that belief in the Bible as the revealed Word of God is, first, a statement, not about hu­man existence in a contemporary situation, but an objective knowledge of truth given by God existing in and of itself. Granted that existentialism has a point in warning against abstract intellectualism. Undoubt­edly, the vital importance of deciding for truth cannot be overestimated; but how shall man know that what he decides for is in reality the truth? In Scripture, the prin­ciples of truth, morality, God, and man, are fixed for what He has done, is doing, and -what He will do, and what He requires men to believe and do. This is the given knowl­edge content of truth. He addresses man personally and calls for an intelligent per­sonal response, an involvement in harmony with the knowledge given and present to the mind. True involvement requires obedience to that which is objectively given. The knowledge of Biblical truth involves more than mere thinking. It requires the bringing of man's whole life into captivity to and harmony with the revealed truths of God's Word. Subjectivism can lead only to a moral relativism and an irrationalism without a firm foundation.

When the question of truth is raised in an objec­tive manner, reflection is directed objectively to the truth, as an object to which the knower is related. Reflection is not focused upon the relationship, however, but upon the question of whether it is the truth to which the knower is related. . . . When the question of the truth is raised subjectively, reflection is directed subjectively to the nature of the individ­ual's relationship. . . . THE INDIVIDUAL IS IN THE TRUTH EVEN IF HE SHOULD HAPPEN TO BE THUS RELATED TO WHAT IS NOT TRUE. . . . The paradoxical character of the truth is its objective uncertainty.'

Thus there is no universal truth for all men. The discovery of truth for each man is unrepeatable in anyone else. The truth for one man constitutes no norm for another. The peril here is that man will at­tach himself to that which is false. Here exists the unbridgeable gulf between exis­tentialism and the traditional Christian reli­gion. For existentialism refuses to be bound by the eternal truths of the revealed Word of God.

The traditional Christian view is that the historical events and doctrinal truth of the Bible have significance for men in every age on the basis that they constitute the eternal and fixed truth of God. A trust­worthy approach to the truth is both ob­jective and existential. If men are to dis­cover the truth for heart, mind, and life, harmony between the given Word and the existential experience is essential. When only the latter is required, truth and knowl­edge have passed over into sheer subjectiv­ism.

If Christian existentialism is to become aware of its responsibility to make truth relevant to life, it must speak with the voice of certainty. But this is the one thing it cannot do, and denies as a possibility.

The paradoxical character of the truth is its ob­jective uncertainty. . . . Without risk there is no faith, and the greater the risk the greater the faith; the more objective security the less inwardness, and the less objective security the more profound the possible inwardness.'

In direct opposition to this, the Chris­tian church says to men everywhere: There is the sure Word of God. No man lives by what appears to be right in his own eyes and in his own experience. God has spoken both in His Son and in His Word. Life in commitment to this Word alone has real meaning and certainty. If the Christian church of today ever does anything to make the Christian religion meaningful, it will occur only by a return to revealed truth as given by God; for a given truth from God alone is sufficient to give birth to spiritual life and to awaken in man an existence that is in harmony with God.

(To be continued)

Thus there is no universal truth for all men. The discovery of truth for each man

Notes:

 

1 Concluding Unscientific Postscript, book 2, part 2, chap. 2, "Truth Is Subjectivity."

2 Ibid. Ibid.


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Edward Heppenstall, Professor, Loma Linda University, La Sierra Campus

October 1968

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