Do you have an pre-determined essence or destiny? Or can you choose what or who you will be? Is your future one of fate or freedom? What do you base that belief on? Can you choose your own future or is it chosen for you?
While these questions are not easily answered, some of us have a strong sense or have even thought to experience it as one way or the other. Other great minds contemplated this and describe dread and anxiety or freedom and optimism, depending on their presuppositions and conclusions.
Join us as we traverse through the central thoughts of the most prominent and influential existential philosophers of the last 200 years. We will cover Soren Kierkegaard, Freidrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Jean Paul Sartre.
Perhaps these brilliant thinkers, who attempted to spell out the human condition without restraint and with brutal honesty, can give us helpful terminology in understanding our own personal anthropological drama. They seem to have articulated certain humanistic ideas on the destiny and autonomy of man with perfect clarity that many recent non-evangelical existential theologians (Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Gabriel Marcel, and others) adopted language, themes, and culture of the movement. But many other Christian critics have noted that their starting point and ending result shows the failures of atheism and the dangers to Christians who read them.
Jean Paul Sartre raged, “Man needs to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God.” He thought that it is the Christians who are self-deceived and confuse their own despair with the existentialist so as to describe the existentialist as someone without hope.
Is that true? Do we need to find ourselves again? Does the existentialist have even more hope than the Christian and Christians are actually in despair?
Sartre’s describes existentialism as an optimistic view that makes life possible where truth and action are subjective. In his existentialist view, existence precedes essence and one begins from the subjective: as opposed to the classical view. In the classical view, man is the realization of the concept god has in his mind and human nature is the universal that we all instantiate. That is, God has a concept of man in his mind then designs then creates; it starts in his understanding then in the will. This classical view holds that essence precedes – is prior to chronologically and more importantly, higher in worth – existence.
Whereas, Sartre’s atheistic existentialism presupposes that God does not exist. That with no God and with man existing prior to any conception of himself, man is not predefined and therefore not predetermined. Man first exists, then encounters himself, then defines himself. Man is that which he wills to be and makes of himself. This is existence preceding essence, in that there is not a human essence that he must adhere to, rather, he is a subjective being that propels himself toward the future of his own choosing. Sartre urges, “Man will only attain true existence when he is what he purposes to be.” Man possesses himself in that he possesses ultimate freedom and the ultimate responsibility that comes with such a radical freedom.
This is quite radical upon first glance. How does the Christian respond to such claims which directly confront objectivism and fundamental Christian anthropology?
In general, in order to address this well, we must start at the beginning of the movement to understand the where Sartre is coming from. Defining existentialism is not easy. Moreover, most thinkers of the movement never defined it, categorized it, or classified it in any way shape or form. Also, strangely enough, most thinkers in this movement wouldn’t even classify themselves as existentialist. Part of that is because the term existential wasn’t really used until Heideggar who wrote around WWII. But the other reason is because existentialism is kind of an anti-philosophy. It really brings to the intellectual climate a strong sense of independence from tradition, culture norms, status quo, essences and natures of most metaphysical presuppositions. So it takes on a wholly different approach to philosophy. But its more than a philosophical movement, as many existentialists are playwrights and novelists. Some say that this movement is best described in these fiction books and plays rather than in some of the normal media of philosophy.
Join Jeremy Livermore, Steve Tsai, and Bruce Paolozzi as they reveal the important insights the Christian needs to know regarding this powerful movement in thought.