Any discussion of theology’s role in existentialism must begin with the works of Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55). Like Martin Luther before him, Kierkegaard was calling on a dominant Christian church to reform, to be truer to the teachings of Jesus and the authors of the New Testament. The Lutheran Church, in Kierkegaard’s opinion, had mistakenly taken the same path as the Catholic Church from which it had separated.
The established or state church of Denmark was the Lutheran Church. The nation considered it a God-given duty to protect the Church, to promote its welfare by instituting compulsory religious training in all schools, and to safeguard the clergy by assuring them a respectable economic level and by giving them the status of civil servants
It was against this system of security and state control that Kierkegaard rebelled. The security of a Christian Church meant to him the betrayal of every tenet of Christ’s teaching and example. … The anonymous early Christian followers were martyred, not honored, paid, and respected for belonging to the Church.
— Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche & Kafka; Wiliam Hubben, p. 25
According to Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, and even the anti-religious Nietzsche, the Christian churches of nineteenth-century Europe were not aligned with the teachings of Christ. For Kierkegaard, restoring Christianity to its origins became something of an obsession.
Kierkegaard believed himself to live in an age which had seen a decline in the true meaning of Christianity, and he saw it as his mission — increasingly so in later life — to restore the human race to a central Christian philosophy.
— Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 20
Only the individual willing to question and challenge the churches could appreciate how far from the teachings and example of Jesus the churches had strayed. This was nothing new. Geoffrey Chaucer had mocked the clergy several hundred years earlier. What was potentially new was the existential description of faith. Religious existentialists are, in many ways, fundamentalists seeking a return to the earliest practices of faith.
Like Kierkegaard, the original Christian existentialist, they reject the notion that faith and reason can or need to be reconciled. Reason has its place, but it shouldn’t be allowed to trump the personal, the individual, and the free choice to believe, to have faith, in the absence of a complete and final rational proof. Like so much of human life, faith and the experience of the love of God are essentially irrational. and these existentialists see no reason to try to apologize for or cover up that fact. In many ways, their philosophies are a call to return to an earlier time — to a time when religion was a personal, immediate, and passionate experience, as opposed to an overly structured and overly intellectualized pursuit of the proper procedures and the proper belief with regard to some obscure point of theology.
— Existentialism for Dummies; Panza and Gale, p. 20
The writings of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and Blaise Pascal (1623-62) are often cited as exhibiting existentialist ideals and concepts. St. Augustine’s Confessions (c. 400) has been called the earliest example of existential theology, primarily because it is a self-reflection on personal choices, including the author’s eventual embrace of faith. However, St. Augustine’s theology is not radical, as some of the most famous Biblical figures had to prove their free choice of faith in scriptures. The Confessions influenced most prominent Christian theologians through the nineteenth century, so no one school of thought can claim Augustine.
Pascal, the French mathematician, physicist, and religious philosopher, is a step (or maybe a half step) closer towards existentialism than Augustine. Again, Pascal might express some questions of free will and choice, but he is not an “existentialist.” Pascal was a scientist, and his pursuit of philosophical truth was grounded in natural science. There was nothing inherently phenomenological in Pascal’s theological philosophy.
Few characters are associated with existential free will as strongly as John Milton’s (1608–74) Satan from the epic poem Paradise Lost. The English poet was not attempting to express a theological existentialism, though. Reading Satan as a heroic figure runs counter to Milton’s theology. The famous lines actually emphasize the dangers of free will.
… Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure; and, in my choice,
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.
— Paradise Lost Book 1; Milton
In Milton’s theology, humanity is sinful and corrupt, free will resulting in “The Fall of Man” from the Creator’s grace. Human failability is also a theme in the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), German poet, playwright, novelist, philosopher, and scientist. Goethe’s works are not a celebration of free will, but rather warnings against its temptations.
Before considering the “modern” forms of theological existentialism, we should pause to recognize that many of the questions still being contemplated were best framed by the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. As with Milton and Goethe, we should not ascribe existential ideas to Dostoevsky merely because his characters present certain questions or puzzles about existence.
Whereas Kierkegaard wrestled with his Christian faith, struggling from within its boundaries, the works of Dostoevsky, particularly the novels Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880), question the very notion of there being a God, and envisage what a world looks like without him. Without a God there is no given meaning to the world, there are no set moral standards by which we are to abide. But what does that signify? Does it mean we are free to do whatever we want, without moral constraint? Are we free to murder, for instance? Without a God all our rules can be understood as mere conventions — arbitrary decisions we as humans have made, which we can unmake and replace if we so choose. After all, who is there to tell us otherwise? Without a God there is no authority for any particular law or moral, or at least, no authority higher than each individual. Does that then mean individuals are free to set their own moral standards, their own values, become their own gods? Who has the right to say ‘Thou shalt not kill’? This is the question at the heart of Crime and Punishment when the main character, Raskolnikov, decides to test his individual values against social morality by murdering a malicious pawnbroker; in The Brothers Karamazov it leads to the conclusion that ‘nothing would be immoral’.
— Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 3-4
Modern Theists and Existentialism
Spirituality and religion were important within existentialism throughout the twentieth century, though many still associate existentialism with atheism. Many of the major figures within existentialism were not only theologians, but religious leaders within their faiths. Several of the existentialists were ordained ministers, for example. We cannot ignore faith, therefore, as part of any study of existentialism.
… [T]here is a very strong spiritual current that carries through into Existentialist writing well into the twentieth century and why there is often a desire to go beyond the present material, physical being and to achieve some kind of transcendence.
— Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed; Earnshaw, p. 5
The following individuals are key figures in modern theological discussions of existentialism:
In Kierkegaard’s works, there is a moment when the believer realizes that faith is not reasonable, logical, or scientific. Trying to defend faith actually proves the believer has doubts. Faith is a surrender to something beyond what can be known. That churches and religious zealots try to prove the existence of the Creator(s) is evidence these individuals care more about what others think than what is personally experienced. Theological existentialism tends to view faith in the following light:
- Faith is a personal experience that can never be fully explained to others;
- Faith requires sacrifices emotionally and socially;
- Faith is usually damaged by religious organizations; and
- Faith is preceded by doubt and a quest for answers.
None of these concepts is alien to organized religion, but the theological existentialists see the alienation as far from extreme than previous philosophers. True faith is so apart from a group understanding that it can only be damaged if the believer entrusts his or her spirituality to an organized church. Even explaining faith reduces its purity, to some degree, but it is important to be authentic and honest about believing.
Religious existentialism does not attempt to escape the absurdity of life. An existentialist seeking a system has to admit that the system itself does not give his or her life meaning. If there is a Creator, an existentialist assumes that this Creator is beyond human logic and reason. It is the fact we cannot understand the Creator that causes us to feel anxiety and despair within religious existentialism.
Existentialism by its nature suffers a contradiction: if the individuals defines meaning, it seems strange that various existential figures found meaning in organizations, political theories, and religions. At least unlike some of the social and political theories embraced by some figures, religion does not claim to be easily understood. However, religions still impose an external understanding of life and morality on adherents.
... existentialism is not, or at least is not intended to be, metaphysics. It is not a metaphysical attempt to explain and categorize what is the world and what is the beyond, and it hence does not seek to prove or disprove God. While ontological, cosmological and teleological attempts to prove the existence of God may be seen to miss the point, it should be noted that, for Kierkegaard, God is simply the unknown and he hence avoids the trap that he thinks afflicts much theology: presuming that rational discourse can make the religious experience comprehensible.
— Understanding Existentialism; Jack Reynolds, p. 5
Being an authentic Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or whatever, must be more than a choice — it must be a daily choice to live according to the teachings of the faith. Religious existentialists argue that faiths aim to bring men closer together via rules, rituals, and doctrines. The adherents of a faith are given a tool by which to relate to each other, and when people relate to each other, they are also relating to creation — indirectly as close to the Creator as men and women can get in life.
Adhering to external rules is a choice at all times, even within a religion. As with all existentialism, the individual is constantly aware of choices relating to faith and religion. The contradiction of external meaning remains, to some extent, though. Tillich wrote of the struggle to be responsible to God, by choice, while not surrendering the self. It’s a basic tenet of many faiths that follows “surrender” to a Higher Power.