The Search for Meaning and Existence
On an infrequent schedule, per se, 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:
Part 3 (final part)
4. History as model or type or myth or story or sage, but not as reality
Existentialism is not concerned about history as expressive of fact and reality. Existentialism uses history as a model, or a type, or a myth, or a story which invests meaning in life. Who cares about the factuality of it! The issue is, “Is there a message, is there a myth, is there a model, is there a saga or a story from which we can deploy meaning in this life, totally apart from the factual nature of the historical claim?”
One example of this, by the way, is in a book by Lloyd Geering called, Resurrection: A Symbol of Hope, in which he had argued that the resurrection itself was not a historical fact to be believed in, but it was a symbol. It was a myth to invest life with meaning. And the very savvy reviewer in the Times literary supplement, who reviewed Lloyd Geering’s book, said this: “How can a non-event…” (a resurrection which didn’t occur) “…be regarded as a symbol of hope, or indeed of anything else? If something has happened, we try to see what it means. If it has not happened, the question cannot arise. We are driven back to the need for something to have happened at Easter.” Point well taken. And Existentialism doesn’t have a very good answer to that particular question.
One way one of my professors illustrated this was to say, “Let’s look at the Exodus story, and the children of Israel coming out of Egypt and crossing the Red Sea. And let’s look at this from three perspectives: the old liberal perspective, the existentialist…” (There’s another word for Christian Existentialism that many of you know very well. It’s called Neo-orthodoxy. That’s all Christian Existentialism is, is Neo-orthodoxy.)“So let’s look at the Exodus story from the liberal perspective; the Neo-orthodox perspective; and the biblical perspective.”
The liberal perspective. Some of you have heard this taught in classrooms. It basically says the Exodus never happened. This is a story that was fabricated, and whatever did happen can be explained away through naturalistic phenomenon. You’ll find liberal commentaries going on and on about how there were low-tide seasons in the Sea of Reeds, and strong winds to come in off of the desert and dry out the sea bed, and perhaps that this could be part of the myth that eventually grew into the parting of the Red Sea, and et cetera, et cetera. But the liberal perspective is to deny all of the miraculous and to deny all of the factuality of biblical truth claims, like the Exodus and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Neo-orthodox perspective. The Existentialist perspective, says “Oh, no, no! Something happened there, but we just don’t know what it is. But the important thing is not what happened, it’s the Exodus event provides us with a model, a myth, a story which invests meaning into our lives.” Well…ah….how? What…this thing that we don’t’ know what it was, how is that going to invest meaning into my life?
The biblical position is to say, “No, the Exodus happened, and God explained to us what the significance of that historic act is. And He explained it both beforehand and afterwards in His word.” And so in this way you can see a contrast between these three approaches to Scripture.
Let me get right up on the line and suggest another way that Existentialism has impacted Christian thought. Existentialism, because of its emphasis on making an ‘existential’ decision in the face of this alien reality, to create meaning and life and joy in what could otherwise be a very bleak experience, has twisted something of the Christian view of man and of the Christian life.
Now, don’t think about the personality when I mention this illustration. Just think about the point. I’m not even going to mention the personality, but you’re going to know who I’m talking about immediately. Some of you have heard a commercial on 1180 AM for many years that goes like this: “People are the only creatures that God didn’t finish. Each day we create ourselves with the choices that we make.” Perfect existential theology! Not derived from Scripture, but you see how pervasive this kind of teaching can be, even in Christian circles.
In fact, when I went to seminary in the 1980’s and was sitting under teachers like Palmer Robertson and others, we were looking at some of these very kinds of philosophies and the way they were impacting Christian teaching. I had friends who I graduated with from Furman University, who were at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the battle days before Al Mohler came and cleaned out the liberals and turned things around, and we would meet in December during the break, and they would be rattling on and on about this wonderful theology that they were reading. And I said, “Well, tell me some of the names of the people that you’re reading.” And they said, “Oh! Well, there’s this wonderful theologian named Rudolf Bultmann…” And I said, “You’ve got to be kidding! Southern Baptists reading Rudolf Bultmann…I don’t get it. A liberal German Lutheran Southern Baptist…help me here. What’s the connection?”
Well, you see, it dawned upon me the connection was this: my Southern Baptist friends had grown up hearing that a decision was important. And then they picked up Rudolf Bultmann and they hear him talking about making an ‘existential’ decision, and unfortunately, they equated the two, and the two are in entirely different universes. The decision that their Baptist pastor was talking about had no more to do with what Rudolf Bultmann was talking about than a goose! But it sounded like something that they could incorporate into their teaching, and they were. And you can see that done over and over in Christian theology.
So, when we are talking to the Existentialists, let’s remember to ask ourselves, “What question is this person trying to answer with the answer of Existentialism?” And then let’s ask ourselves, ‘How has Existentialism contributed to their view of the Bible, and what have they drawn from Existentialism and incorporated in their Christian theology, as opposed to drawn from the Bible and viewed Existentialism from the standpoint of the teaching of Scripture.’
Let’s stand and pray together.
Heavenly Father, we thank You for the meaning that You have invested in our life, and we thank You that the only way out of our sin and idolatry is through Jesus Christ. We pray as we talk with friends who have been enmeshed in false thinking and philosophies, that we would understand the plight that they feel; that we would empathize with them as fellow human beings; but that we would boldly and clearly, and with love, show them the light which You have shown to us in Your word and in Jesus Christ, bearing faithful witness to Him and to the gospel, that they might be filled with the joy that only Your children know. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III Ligon Duncan (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary; PhD, University of Edinburgh) is the Chancellor & CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary and the John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology. He has authored, co-authored, edited, or contributed to numerous books. You can follow him on Twitter.