The Search for Meaning and Existence
On an infrequent schedule, per say, over the next few months, we will begin to look at and think about the secular or modern ideas that have relationship to “The Search for Meaning and Existence”. We will be looking at world views in relationship to accurate theological Christianity. It is my premise that ‘all’ worldviews that do not center on the supremacy of Christ as the beginning and end reason for all meaning to existence can only lead to various levels of despair. Accurate Christian theology contains the truth to meaning and existence and is the only reality that produces eternal peace and joy. All others views are shadows and not substance. Many versions of modern thinking as to meaning of existence do provide pieces and parts of truth. But they do not provide full or complete truth and thus they can only come to some version of less than the truth of meaning to existence and can only lead to some level of continuing despair.
This message from J Ligon Duncan, PhD, is a good place for us to start. He captures the essence of the worldviews of ‘nihilism’ and ‘existentialism’. dh
This will need to be provided in 3 consecutive parts:
The second thing I want you to see has to do with your own embrace of biblical Christianity. And that is to see how Existentialism has impacted even many people who call themselves Christians. In fact, our denomination in large measure was forged out of a controversy, a theological controversy that had to do with people who were existentialists in their philosophy and worldview and theology. They claimed to be Christians, undermining the doctrine of Scripture and of Christ and the foundations of The Apostles’ Creed, the biblical Christian faith. So I want you to see, maybe, some of the sources of this kind of thinking in existentialism.
Some of you have read the material of atheistic existentialism. Some of you have read John Paul Sartre, or Albert Camus, or Martin Heidegger. Atheistic Existentialism begins by agreeing with Nihilism. Atheistic Existentialism says, “Yes, matter exists eternally, and matter is all there is. God does not exist. The cosmos exists as a uniformity of natural causes in a closed system. This world is a big machine. History is a string of linear events linked by cause and effect, but you can’t discern any overarching purpose in it. Ethics. That’s just something that human beings invent.” It’s not rooted in objective reality. And so, Atheistic Existentialism starts off by saying “Yep, the Nihilists have described the world correctly. It’s just a big blob that you can’t make any sense of out there. It’s absurd, and the more you think about it, the more absurd it is.”
But, then the Atheistic Existentialist says, “Here’s how we’re going to respond to this. We’re going to respond by saying that existence precedes essence.” Existence precedes essence. In other words, we exist, and then we supply the meaning of life. We exist, and then we supply the answer to the essence of life. In other words, mankind makes itself. We invent ourselves. We invent meaning. We come into a world which has no meaning, and the job of the Existentialist in this meaningless world is to do what? To create meaning. To create what we are as human beings.
The idea of the Existentialist is that people make themselves who they are. The Existentialist, over against the Nihilist who said people are robots, the Existentialist says, “No. This world is a big machine, but I am not a cog in this wheel. I have a free will. I determine myself. My decisions make who I am.” The Existentialist says each person is totally free as regards to their nature and destiny, and the job of the Existentialist over against this world is to revolt against the object of this world, and create meaning out of meaninglessness, and to create value out of valueless-ness. It’s a very heroic sort of worldview.
This afternoon I decided I ought to visit some Existentialist web sites so that I could see it from their perspective. And they were all going way out of their way to say, “Now, this is not a bleak, depressing worldview.” You’ve heard of whistling in the dark? They say this is a very positive, joyful, life-affirming humankind-affirming worldview. Hmmmm…. I guess so, from one perspective, compared to Nihilism. But, this is the task, the Atheistic Existentialist says, of humanity: to revolt against this world, this meaningless world, and to create value. People make themselves who they are.
Now, Theistic Existentialism is a little bit different. It has existed, actually, longer than Atheistic Existentialism. You know, the great Atheistic Existentialist writers that perhaps you read in high school or in college were writing, by and large, in the middle of the twentieth century. But Theistic Existentialism actually began in the nineteenth century with a Danish theologian named Soren Kierkegaard reacting against dead orthodoxy in the Lutheran churches in which he had grown up. And following Kierkegaard had been a series of modern theologians. Maybe the two names that you know best would be the names of Rudolph Bultmann and Karl Barth. Both of these were influenced by existentialism. Theistic Existentialism says, “Yes, God exists; He’s infinite, He’s personal, He’s triune. He’s transcendent, He’s imminent, He’s everything–He’s sovereign, He’s good. He creates the cosmos out of nothing to operate in accordance with natural causes, and human beings are created in the image of God. And God can and does communicate with us. And we were created good, but we’re now fallen and need to be restored by God through Christ. For human beings death is either the gate to life with God and His people forever, or a life separated from God.”
And you say, well, that sounds pretty good. And of course, Existentialism in Christian garb can sound pretty good. But the so-called Christian Existentialist goes on to say four other things that are not so good.
Problems with Christian Existentialism
1. Believing in God is a matter of faith.
The first thing is to say this: We humans live in an alien universe, and the matter of the existence of God is not something which is a matter of knowledge and reason; it’s a matter of faith. And a hard divide is made between faith and reason, so that, for instance, beginning with Kierkegaard the idea was [that] in order to transcend and arrive at an understanding of who God is, you had to take a leap of faith. Anybody seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? The one was where he was after the Holy Grail? He’s out there on the cliff edge, and there’s nothing in front of him, and he has to get across to the Grail Room, and he takes a leap of faith? Well, thank you, Soren Kierkegaard for that reference that clearly Stephen Spielberg and his scriptwriters had worked up. That’s a very un-Christian idea, you understand. God in the Scriptures never asks you to take a “leap of faith.”
Faith is our response to a promise of God. There’s nothing dodgy about a promise from God. There’s no throwing caution to the wind. That is a very, very wise thing to do–to believe something that God tells you. It has nothing to do with checking your brains at the door.
But for Kierkegaard and for those who have followed him, there is this very hard divide between faith and reason. Faith is an anti-rational thing. It’s a supra-rational thing. It doesn’t correlate with reason and fact. And this is a theme that runs through Existentialist “Christian teaching.”
2. Only the personal and relational are important — the logical is not.
Secondly, for the Existentialist the personal and the relational is the primary dimension of life, and the rational, and the logical, and the propositional is not important. The rational, and the logical and the propositional relates to this material reality; it is the relational and the personal that transcends it.
So, whereas historic Christian theology sees sin as breaking God’s law, so-called Christian Existentialism says, “No, sin is betraying a relationship, not breaking a rule.” Whereas historic Christian theology sees repentance as confessing guilt, Existentialism says, “No, it’s sorrow over personal betrayal.” Whereas historic Christian theology says forgiveness involves canceling a penalty, Existentialism says, “No, it is renewing fellowship.” Whereas historic Christianity says that faith is receiving the promises of God given to us in sentences and propositions in His word, Existentialism says, “No, faith is committing yourself to a person.” Whereas historic Christian theology recognizes that part of the Christian life is obeying God’s word, Existentialism says, “The Christian life isn’t about obeying rules, it’s about relating to a person.”
Now, if you will have noticed closely, all of these things are false dichotomies. Whereas historic Christianity affirms all of those personal dimensions of the Christian faith, but it doesn’t set them over against the propositional teachings of God’s word. And so the Existentialist will consistently put before you this kind of dilemma: Are we going to believe a person or a proposition?
Let me illustrate it to you this way. There was a debate at the Southern Baptist Convention not long ago about whether a statement in The Baptist Faith and Message would be changed, which affirmed Jesus as ‘the hermeneutical rule for understanding Scripture.’ Now, that statement had been put into The Baptist Faith and Message by Existentialist theologians in the 1920’s who wanted to relativize the teaching of Scripture. If there was anything that they didn’t like, they could say, “Well, that’s not in accord with Jesus and therefore we reject it even though it’s in the Scripture.” What they had done, they had pitted Jesus versus the Scripture; the person of Jesus versus the word of Jesus.
Well, of course God will never let you get by with that kind of thing. Can you imagine saying to your mother, when she tells you to take out the trash, “Mother, while I venerate your person, I reject your words as mere propositions which……” —After receiving her corrective response, you have recognized that that dichotomy between person and proposition won’t work in real life. If you venerate the person, you’ll pay attention to what they say in their words. 3. Knowledge is subjective. Truth is paradoxical.
And so, Existentialist theologians will pit the personal versus the propositional. They will also argue that all truth is subjective, and it’s paradoxical. Truth is found in paradox, in seeming contradiction; and knowledge is subjective. It is existential thinking which is the root of the ethical system that many of you heard expounded in the 1960’s and ‘70’s by Joseph Fletcher, called “situational ethics,” which basically is you make it up as you go. And that’s Existentialism; that’s the root of that kind of ethical system.
Part 3, end, tomorrow