Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Existentialism 101

My teenage years appeared to be picture perfect on the surface. I was an academic superstar, artistically talented, and always had a smile on my face. Yet no one knew that beneath my sunny, cheerful exterior, I was hiding a dark secret. Between the ages of 13 and 18, I was a closet existentialist.

By the time I was fifteen years old, the philosophy literally dictated my every thought and deed from the moment I woke up, to the moment I went to sleep at night. Upon hearing that I was once lost in existentialism, most people will look puzzled and ask, "What is that?" So before I continue with the remainder of my testimony, I thought I would take some time to address what existentialism is, and why it is so dangerous.

Existentialism is a philosophy that is not easily defined, because it has no set definition. Basically, the idea is that life has no meaning apart from the meaning that we create and apply to it. Essentially, each person is responsible for defining himself and assigns purpose to his own existence. As a result, man finds himself exposed to the futility of this exercise, and often will succumb to feelings of dread, despair, nothingness, anxiety, and absurdity. These five words accurately describe my secret life as a teenager.

The trouble arises when one desperately tries to assign meaning and purpose to one's existence, only to realize that it is nothing more than a smokescreen. An excerpt from Wikipedia explains this wonderfully (emphasis mine):
When our meaningful representations of the world break down (which they may do at any time, and for any reason - from a tragedy to a particularly insightful moment on the side of the individual), and we are put face to face with the naked meaninglessness of the world, the results can be devastating . . . the concern with helping people avoid living their lives in ways that put them in the perpetual danger of having everything meaningful break down is common to most existentialist philosophers. (Source)
When we understand that we cannot control anything beyond our circumstances, life becomes very frightening, depressing, and desperate. For example, suppose I am a talented musician. My entire identity is built upon making music. Thus, I have constructed my own meaning and purpose upon this foundation. But suppose I am involved in a horrible accident that leaves me paralyzed, so I am unable to breathe on my own or move my fingers? I would never be able to play my instrument ever again. My existence, my purpose, and my reason for living are now gone.

Now imagine I am a talented musician, and I am perfectly healthy. I am still able to operate within the confines of the meaning and purpose I have given myself. I have not been involved in any accident at all. But the possibility that I could suffer physical harm on such a grand scale remains. Although I am healthy and making music, in the back of my mind, I know this truth exists only as long as my circumstances allow. Knowing that my purpose can be taken away at any moment is terrifying. And ultimately, my purpose will die, because one day, I will die. And everything that I ever created will be lost, because I am no longer able to act as the author and finisher of my purpose.

Existentialism is dangerous because it seduces the individual into coveting God's sovereignty. The insatiable desire to create meaning and purpose usurps the authority of the meaning and purpose that was made by the ultimate Creator.Depressing, isn't it? That's not even the worst of it. Existentialism is dangerous because it seduces the individual into coveting God's sovereignty. The insatiable desire to create meaning and purpose usurps the authority of the meaning and purpose that was made by the ultimate Creator. The Bible says, "All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being" (John 1:3). When we seek to manufacture our own meaning, we are rejecting the notion that the reason for our existence starts with God, not us.

A second reason why existentialism is so dangerous is because it is true (to an extent). Just read the book of Ecclesiastes and you will see what I mean. Everything will one day fade away. This is Biblical truth. But only when we take our eyes off God and look to our circumstances, only when we embrace the things of the world instead of the things of God, does this become a problem. A healthy outlook on God's sovereignty is the cure. The Bible says, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will never pass away" (Matthew 24:35, Mark 13:31, Luke 21:33). When we focus on God's sovereignty, we can channel this truth into the ability to let go of the things of the world, and instead cling to the only thing that truly matters: the Cross.

In Christianity, who you are determines what you do. In existentialism, what you do determines who you are. Perhaps you are familiar with the words of the old hymn: "On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand!" The Christian stands on Christ, the solid rock. The existentialist, on the other hand, has staked his territory on all sorts of sinking sand. This is why existentialism results in a lifestyle of despair. When you realize that everything you hold dear will one day be torn from your hands, either by death or circumstances, it leaves you with a feeling of uncertainty about everything.

Thank God, He has delivered me from existentialism. It is a complex philosophy that I don't think many people understand, yet most have been affected by at one time or another. For this reason, I hope to shed light on the impact it has on the human soul by sharing various highlights of my testimony.

For a more detailed introduction to existentialism and its themes, I encourage you to listen to R.C. Sproul's message by clicking here. The message is approximately 20 minutes long.

Now that you have a working idea of what existentialism is all about, keep this in the back of your mind as you read the rest of my story . . .

6 comments:

Geraldine said...

Really informative and interesting post. I'm looking forward to the next one that this leads up to!

Rob Hughes said...

Great article! I loved this comment: "Existentialism is dangerous because it seduces the individual into coveting God's sovereignty. The insatiable desire to create meaning and purpose usurps the authority of the meaning and purpose that was made by the ultimate Creator."

As we say here in London, that's a right pukka quote that!!

Sam said...

Hey, I like your argument against existentialism. I'm more or less an existentialist myself, and I do agree with some of the things you say. However I see you are arguing against existentialism in practice (or the effects it has on individuals) and use Christianity in theory to back up your assertion. Could you possibly bring up a practical Christian example to compare with what you've written about existentialism? What kind of world does the Christian faith make one see? Or does one opt not to see the world as the Christian philosophy is to give up all the worldly things and look to God? See Christianity and most religions have a good deal of existentialism in them because religion's main appeal is that it alleviates existential anxiety- it answers who we are, where we came from, and what will happen after we die, and it gives us a purpose ready-made: to serve God. But it also acknowledges the absurdity and futility of the world. I'd like to hear your thoughts on this.

Jennifer said...

Hi, Sam! Thanks for your question. I would like to provide you with a thorough answer, and usually I do that by responding in a full post, but the last time I did that to a visitor, that person ended up waiting almost two months for my response. I don't want to keep you waiting so I'll try to give you a quick answer here.

I would say the most practical Christian example I can think of is the purpose of Christianity itself. Most religions attempt to explain how one can achieve happiness, but Christianity is not really concerned with personal happiness. Rather, Christianity is concerned with personal holiness. The reason why people tend to criticize the God of the Bible is because His message is so offensive to human beings! (Let's face it: who wants to be told they're wicked at heart and going to hell?) Yet when we examine ourselves next to the most benevolent being in the universe, we can see that He is good and we fall short. His absolute majesty over all the earth is so awesome, so amazing, proclaiming Him and glorifying Him becomes our purpose in life. Thus, the type of world that one sees through the eyes of the Christian faith is a hopeless, dying, existential world that has Christ as its only hope.

This is probably a poorly articulated response because I am trying to keep my thoughts brief, but I will say that I do believe existentialism to be the only true "religion" there is. If God did not exist, existentialism would be all that remains. Life is pretty much meaningless without Him.

I also feel that every human being is an atheist to some extent. I plan on doing a series on practical atheism pretty soon, to demonstrate that even as people of faith, we can act more like atheists than Christians at times. If you stick around for that series, I think you might enjoy it.

Finally, I took a peek at your blog and I wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading some of your thoughts. I was especially interested in what you said regarding the effects of divorce on men:

"It is statistically known that women fare much better as far as subjective well-being after divorce, and that men’s suicide risks skyrocket in the other hand. As if it isn’t already food for thought- single men in the United States have the highest suicide rates of the young to middle adult population. Does this mean men are biologically geared to be with women? Maybe."

The focus of this blog is the role of women in relationship to men as seen from a Christian perspective. I would agree entirely with what you've written here, and I would say that men are definitely biologically geared to be with women. No "maybes" about it!

Thanks for visiting and take care! I would love to hear from you again soon.

Sam said...

Hey, thanks for the quick response! I see what you are saying, and even agree with some premises of it. Yes, people are imperfect, but they do also seek perfection, and thus fall hard (either themselves or their expectations of others). So God exists. But does he exist in terms of our conscious existence, or after it? You see my problem with God theory is that without existing, there would be no concept of God. We don't have any sort of experience prior to us being thrown into the world without rhyme or reason. Later on when we grow up as kids we learn of God through books and other people, and thats when the concept of God establishes itself. An extreme existentialist would say that history and science are all irrelevant because they are within this existence and pertain only to it, so they only serve to get you around in this life. I think many religions have the same idea, on the futility of science at least. I can't argue against what you are saying because it's positive, but its contingent on proof of a life or existence outside of this one, essentially proof of the supernatural. To me it's too far fetched and specifically human sounding to be plausible, but it's not an invalid theory and may be true.

I think we are all agnostics. Agnosticism is a question of knowledge, "gnosos" in Greek, etc. Though some claim to have ideas and intuition about it, no one knows for sure if God exists or not, there are just beliefs, hopes, and arguments. An atheist, on the other hand, does not believe in God. Theism/Atheism regard belief where as Agnosticism is a question of knowledge. Maybe we are all born atheists and come to follow different beliefs, but agnosticism is a certainty because of the very nature of God not being of this world and his existence being incomprehensible in the full sense to humans.

Finally, I'd love to have you write for my blog some time. It was a college project, me and my best friend created it, and he argues for Christianity and I argue for skepticism. And we have other people write too. Then it just became this super blog where anyone can write about anything. Feel free to comment some time, there's a new article every week :)

Jennifer said...

Hey, Sam! I would love to continue this discussion with you in more detail and talk more about writing for you. I have been thinking a lot about your "Divorce" post and was actually going to ask if I could build a post here based on what you wrote over at your blog. You made a lot of good points over there that really would contribute a lot to what I'm doing over here.

If you want, go to the link at the top of this blog called "Reviews" and fill out that form - that will send an email to me so we can be in email contact. Talk to you soon!