Existential Living

Recently, I was talking to a non-Dutch student ft who had more than usual difficulty pronouncing the Dutch names. Later on, when we got to the subject of Existentialism, it was not surprising that she didn’t quite hit it right either. She began with “Existen” and then trailed off into something some what less or more than the exact term. It struck me that this was precisely how imprecisely many people relate to the subject of Existentialism in spite of its importance.

Much the same could be said for the idea of “existential living.” Many have heard that it is the tiling, but don’t know quite what it is all about. Generally, the meaning goes in the direction of “getting with it,” “doing your thing,” or “getting a piece of the action.” Christians who entertain the idea of living existentially undoubtedly modify the more radical secular meaning. In any case, the concept can stand some scrutiny and clarification.

Right after World War II it was the fashion among those who considered themselves the intellectual avante-garde to bandy the word “existentialism” about whether they understood it or not. Jean-Paul Sartre had created the Existentialist fashion with his plays and novels. By this means, in addition to having the status of a philosophy, Existentialism also became a way of life.

“Existence Precedes Essence”

Sartre’s slogan concerning existence was stated in three words. “Existence precedes essence.” That sounds like philosophic gobbledygook. What did Sartre mean? By this statement Sartre meant to say that man is not predefined but that he must define being for himself in complete freedom as he lives by his completely free will. To put it another way, the role which man is to play has not been determined in advance. Man is his own playwright. He can play it Leo the Lion or Mickey Mouse—as he wishes.

Sartre reaffirms the Nietzschean dictum, “God is dead, all is permitted.” There are no creational norms. There are no revealed truths. There are no objective truths propositionally stated which can be used as man’s standard. All is chance. All is meaninglessness. All is absurdity. Man lives out of the depth of his own subjectivity. He has only his essential freedom as a guide. It tells him only that a free act of will is his primary duty.

Surtre worked his basic notion of freedom into his ethics to the assertion that any act is good if it constitutes a free act of will. It makes no difference what direction the will may take. Let me use a non-original illustration. Suppose some teenage boys see an aged and infirm man about to negotiate some remote intersection. Boyscout fashion, they may decide to give him some assistance. That would be a good deed, according to Sartre, if they freely chose to do so. On the other hand, according to Sartre’s existential ethics, it is equally good if they decide to beat the old man to a pulp and relieve him of his wallet so long as they chose the act freely. Incidentally, if we look carefully at the statistics and the ways of juvenile crime, then we could not nor should not conclude that philosophies are limited in influence to cloistered and ivory tower areas!

Albert Camus; three reactions

Albert Camus, the French-Algerian author, suggested three appropriate reactions to the absurdity of existence. The first reaction to the absurd is the assertion of freedom. In the exercise of that freedom we must begin by calling into question the commonly accepted goals of life. This, of course, in not new with Camus or with existentialism. It is also commonly urged in academic circles. Sociology teachers in church related colleges have been known to urge their newly enrolled students to get rid of all their denomination associated prejudices. But with Camus and with Existentialism it is basic to the wilful free act.

Next Camus urges revolt. To quote Camus, “Nothing is equal to the spectacle of human pride reaffirming itself in defiance of the world.” The same idea was recently expressed by a university professor when he suggested that above all else he liked to see students develop a “rebellious spirit.” Again, we do not have far to look for the practical application of this Existentialist idea. It has come around to plague college presidents Pusey and Perkins as well as many other university administrators.

The third entry in Camus’ three part guide to life in the absurd recommends the life of passion. There is no standard for living well so we should live much. Whatever your thing is, do it to the full. Responsibility does not lie in the direction of the “good” as that cannot be determined in context of meaninglessness. Once more, who can doubt the present impact of this kind of thought? It has given impetus to the unconventionalities and aberrations which have characterized hippy thinking and behavior.

The Christian Response

What direction does the Christian take when he is urged to live existentially? Surely, he cannot heed the summons of Sartre and Camus can he? Indeed not, but then what about the call that comes by way of Soren Kierkegaard and his followers? Is it also to go completely unheeded? Not necessarily.

Kierkegaard rightly revolted against the “churchianity” of his Lutheran contemporaries as they composed the state church in Denmark. Christianity had been reduced to abstract formulae and propositions complemented by meaningless activism. There was a need to live into Christianity once more. A need to live into one’s faith with a subjective vitality in order to bring back to life a dead orthodoxy. Changes were necessary. The pendulum had to swing in an opposite direction. But the devil is a persistent pendulum pusher. He is always on hand to push towards opposite extremes.

With the pendulum swing reaching its zenith, existential living into one’s faith now calls for a depth of feeling and subjective application so the “abstract” and “propositional” statements found in the Scriptures are denigrated in favor of the lustre of revelation as a now “event.” One can hardly live more existentially than when one takes account of every situation as it is, so the “legalism” of historic orthodoxy swings over into a situation ethics where “love” excuses all.

We can go on with more instances. The Incarnation as history must be repudiated so that a symbolical significance can come back to me with an assurance of universal atonement whereby I can communicate existentially to the drunk and the prostitute to tell them that God loves them. Existential living demands relevance to the now situation, so the upheaval of social change presents a greater challenge than the proclamation of the Word. A recent survey of many seminarians showed that the last thing they wanted was a pastorate in a regular and established congregation.

The new existential emphasis demands that the old orders of worship be changed. The proclamation of the Word with the sermon as the core of the service is too “monological.” It is too much the Word coming from one direction. The service should be more dialogical. The worshippers must do more talking and God must do more listening. Also, in line with the existential emphasis on subjectivity, some have suggested that the limits of liturgical innovations need only be set by the limits of human imagination. Recently Catholics as well as Protestants have been busy with new departures. Some will recall the “folk” mass celebrated at the grave site of Robert Kennedy on the anniversary of his assassination.

Existential Living and the Bible

As a caution in the context of all the emphasis on existential living, we should say that it cannot be a life that moves away from the Scriptures. Christian existential living cannot preclude living out of the Word. Life in the world cannot be life out of the depths of man’s subjectivity. It cannot be only a life according to zeal but must also be a life according to knowledge.

Existential living cannot include going along with the worldling in order to become “relevant.” It is still the life of the antithesis. It means surprising the worldling by refusing to go with him to his excesses. The sharpness of the antithesis is existentially sharp. It involves steadfastly and unequivocally opposing evil where one finds it. For example, the antithesis is so existentially sharp that one cannot fail to tell the lodge member that halting between two religions cannot please the Lord.

Existential living means putting on the whole armour of God. It docs not require a detailed exposition of Ephesians 6:10–18 to conclude that such living is diametrically opposed to the life recommended by Sartre and Camus. Nor can the Christian ride the extreme of the pendulum swing which was begun by Kierkegaard and pushed by his followers. Plumbing the depths of our own subjectivity in order to formulate strategies for the Christian warfare will be like a consultation with a Hushnai that can lead only to defeat.

Currently, there seems to be a general tendency to neglect the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. This weapon hangs scabbarded while we try to engage the enemy with ill-devised forms of psychological or sociological judo. We want to roll with the enemy in the direction of his attack. We attack with the karate chops of social improvement as black belt social workers. In that way we can also avoid the blood.

Most of all, we don’t want to be so antithetical that our sword thrusts result in the separation of the joints and marrow, or as a modern translation has it, the penetration of the joints and marrow. We don’t want to cut into any of the vitals because then the old man will have to die. By the standards of the “now” existentialist that kind of change is irrelevant, incomprehensible and more absurd than absurdity itself. But who can say that this is not where existential living begins or that there can be life without it?

Nick Van Til is professor of philosophy at Dort College, Sioux Center, Iowa.