On Courage, Existential Philosophy, and the Audacity of Truth

“I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.” – Thomas Paine, The Crisis

What the deist Thomas Paine wrote better describes the measure of Biblical courage– the ability to advance what one reasonably knows is true when doubt weighs heavy and there is seemingly only hopelessness to embrace. To have this courage is essential to a mature Christian faith. It takes courage-to-be a Christian thinker while the world moves in and out of philosophical belief systems. Courage is necessary to face the onslaught of non-Christian worldviews and philosophies that pop-up again and again in everyday conversations. Moreover, because philosophy changes culture like nothing else can, I believe that the courage-to-be Christian in spite of the philosophical pluralism that abounds today is necessary for cultural change.

Just realizing that we live in a post-modern Western world is too shallow of an analyses. The truth is that there is a plethora of worldviews from strong philosophical systems of ages ago still to grapple with in the public square today. That is, Obama is half-black and president. But this does not mean we are in a post-racial world where racism is triumphed because a half-black man is the highest public office. No racism still abounds today. Likewise, Western societies are still negotiating with existential anxiety, lostness, and dread. We may not be living in such a post-existential world just yet. Among the many philosophical systems that abound today, it seems that there is a lurking existentialism that persists, virtually shadowed by other worldviews. Taken down to the individual level, the existential worldview for a non-believer seems to be the crux of the matter for a person to live for Jesus. After much truth is conveyed in an appropriate apologetic fashion, he/she typically contends “Even if Jesus is not a fairytale, what will he do for me? I already have sufficient reasons for my existence in this world!”

Additionally, one of the ultimate tasks of apologetics is to help remove the intellectual barriers and road blocks that a person has which keeps them from coming face to face with Jesus. At the heart of apologetics is Jesus. Once the struggles of doubt, competing worldviews, and falsities are removed, the soul has nowhere to hide. Light encounters darkness. A decision must be made. Apologetical truth and diplomacy can do nothing efficient at this point because this is where the pure and unadulterated gospel (good news) is timely and poignant. This is the point of conversion or rejection. The soul needs at this moment courage to face the truth of his existential lostness. It is at this moment a person can introspectively turn towards Jesus for healing & the satisfying meaning for his existence or continue to subjectively search for his existential meaning elsewhere.

This persistent existential search is comfortable for the rejecting soul and makes sense when one considers the humanistic backdrop of mankind’s history without God. People from the tower of Babel till now subjectively and objectively acknowledge that life apart from an ultimate higher purpose tends towards abstraction and hedonism. So where does that lead one to? – anxiety, despair, loneliness, dread, fear, and hopelessness. So man must have an alternate meaning to live for, a reason for being that is Godless but necessarily courageous. So man tends to get creative and build. Societies, infrastructure, and development begin. Man is in control of his own fate. Man creates meaning for his being.

About the middle of the last century, the existentialist movement of Western philosophy was flourishing. Thinkers such as Nietzsche, Jon Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and others courageously led the dreadful charge into the realms of death, nothingness, and absurdity. Man’s existence was wrought with tragedy, purposelessness, and hopelessness because man is alone in the universe and there is nothing else like him in it. But out of this nothingness and lostness, man creates something and goes somewhere. Existential hope emerges. There can be courage to live another day. Perhaps, in another blog more existentialist points of view can be developed.

While some of this train of thought eventually morphed and declined away into other philosophical genres during the latter part of the century, much remains at the heart of our current cultural milieu. Now, interestingly, the writings of Paul Tillich, a notable theologian during the 1950’s who responded to the governing voices of humanist existential thinkers, influenced President Obama. Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, is undergirded by the courage-to-be that Tillich resolutely declares is necessary for hopelessness. Hope without courage is unsavory and useless.

But more importantly, and I think Obama knows this, hope without truth is dangerous. Although it can lead to powerful optimism, when tried repeatedly, it will fatigue. Hope needs substance beyond the subject – a transcendent reality in which hope is grounded.

For the soul who rejects Jesus after truths are provided, it is clear that truth is more audacious than Obama’s audacious hope. In response to this existential rejection, Francis Schaeffer contended that “Man cannot make his own universe and then live in it.” There is a house bigger and better than the fort in the backyard. The audacious truth is: a habited un-lonely mansion awaits us post-death.

Overall, in terms of academic philosophy, existentialism has been tried and found wanting. Most of academia does not interact with it. But how existentialism was so and is still so courageously embraced (sometimes unknowingly) by many average persons and great thinkers alike fascinates me. And this is the point – even secular thinkers displayed great courage to think well and advance their humanist thought, even if that thought has to do with hope in spite of nothingness and creating one’s own existential meaning in the universe.

Unfortunately, Christian courage-to-be and think cogently about Christianity is what I find sadly missing from most Western Christians. As so many Christian young people lose their faith due to questions that seem to have no answers, I stagger in disbelief and shake my head in frustration.

Moreover, the pervasive decline in general intellectualism by many adult believers is just as surprising. Christians struggle to have any courage-to-be smart in a world pluralized with strange existentialist meanings & worldviews. This is a heartbreaking reality of our present church. Why do most Christians not even know what apologetics is? And where is the Christian courage to advance our hope? For the most part, courage just is appallingly lacking in many Christians. Courage to share one’s faith with a non-believer, courage to face one’s family of origin issues with a professional counselor, or courage to learn some apologetic type truth and exercise those brain muscles is at best dormant in many believers.

But the Bible is full of heroes who lived lives with courage. There were many heroes like Moses, David, Gideon, Daniel, Nehemiah, & Paul who experienced and exhibited the power and the boldness of the Holy Spirit. But more importantly, they were not just action heroes, they were people of fortitude and being. They were heroes “who, contrary to hope, in hope believed.” (Romans 4:18) These heroes had what Paul Tillich called the “courage-to-be.” This is a type of courage that is rooted in a reasoned filled faith which allowed them to look into the face of the anxiety and despair to find God’s purpose. It came from “being” in-spite of “non-being” –living in spite of death. The courage I am advocating is that which attacks on offense in spite of life’s failures and fears.

I’m reminded of playing quarterback in high school. Because my team was small in numbers, I had to play both offense and defense. Also, because my school had a small student body, in both numbers and size, my offensive line could only amount to an average 5’-5” tall 200 lb each. So needless to say, due to the onslaught of the defense, I scrambled and was sacked often. It forced me to learn the hard way how to have poise in the pocket and see down field to complete a pass when several hungry linebackers wanted to eat a quarterback sandwich. This is the kind of courage-to-be that Tillich is talking about. It’s the ability to look the world of despair straight in the eye and in spite of it, still be.

When thinking about the dread, despair, and loneliness that Sarte, Camus, and others wrote of, the competitiveness in me is fired up. If they can find a way to achieve meaning and hope, we ought to be able to do it and do it better. It is the Christian who has a better hope in the midst of hopelessness and has a better courage in the midst of fear, dread, and anxiety. “Where O death where is your victory?” Where O death where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55 & Hosea 13:14)

The striking, blinding, and deafening hope of a Christian is that Jesus is the hero of existentialism. He accounted for the anxiety, fear, and despair of the abyss. “He is not a refuge from reality, but a way into its depths.” (Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child) “Death has been swallowed up in Victory?” (1 Cor 15:54) Jesus did as it was prophesied, “He will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces.” (Isaiah 25:8) Deep in the heart of man’s lostness and loneliness, Jesus appears.

The courage we need to face the demands of our intellectual drought & the dread of our own existential journey is not elated passion or desperate clinging to Jesus during a trial or tribulation. It’s not the highs that come from an intense worship song or a spiritual retreat. This courage is the existential aliveness, awakening, and awareness of the present risenness of Jesus. Courage that is grounded in His presence and His rock solid systematic theological belief system of truths continually built – plateau over plateau by the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit.

Moreover, in terms of our need for rediscovering Christian intellectualism, it is not dull or passive. The insightful Brennan Manning states that “In this decade of much empty religious talk and proliferating Bible studies, idle intellectual curiosity, and pretensions of importance, intelligence without courage is bankrupt. The truth of faith has little value when it is not also the life of the heart.” This truth really needs a courageous heart. This is the intelligence that pursues truth for one’s own meaning sake, which is a worthy task, as Jesus says, “The truth shall set you free.”

Lastly, Christians must be thinkers who stand firm with courage emerging from the inside out. Francis Schaeffer further responded to this cultural drama saying “If it is true that evil is evil, that God hates it to the point of the cross and that there is a moral law fixed in what God is in Himself, then Christians should be the first into the field against what is wrong – including man’s inhumanity to man.” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 16:13 “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong.” These are strong words, but we can do it Paul, maybe one day as you did, when you literally did face death for your beliefs. We can have the courage to “fight the good fight” and “contend for the faith” even in spite of fear, anxiety, and despair.

By remaining true to Truth and advancing with such courage, the better Hope will last unto death.
{loadposition content9}



Leave a reply