31 May 2011

Two Cheers for Existentialism

ONCE UPON A TIME, I was reading Jürgen Moltmann (I believe it was God in Creation) wherein he wrote in passing on his way to some point or another how the only serious atheists were the likes of Sartre and Camus. I remember being somewhat surprised at this, mainly because the two folks mentioned were also the most enthusiastic and consistent existentialists; I daresay they have no competition even today. At any rate, I decided to re-read The Stranger, as well as portions of Being and Nothingness (though I can only read philosophy in small chunks separated by periods of both being and nothingness), and I was quickly reminded of why atheists such as these ought to be taken seriously: they almost got it right.

The first cheer for this brand of atheistic existentialism comes because it recognizes the absurdity of life and the universal desire of humanity to attain authenticity nonetheless. In Voltaire’s Candide, for example, the characters face the meaninglessness of life (embodied in Leibniz’s “metaphysical optimism”) by doing the authentic—ending up where they started, working in their gardens. Throwing off such naivety and exhibiting real human resilience was for Voltaire the authentic existence.

That life is absurd hardly needs much support. The radical contingency of this world is everywhere evident. The star philosopher of the ancient Near East, Qoheleth (the Preacher), conveys this through his incessant use of the leitwort (an intentional use of a word over and over again to highlight a theme within a text), hebel: “Life is useless, utterly useless” (Ecc. 1:2b). But despite this absurdity, the Preacher still calls on the individual to an authentic existence: “Have reverence for God, and obey his commands . . .” (Ecc. 12:13a). Thus for all who take this text seriously, God is stable, all else is uncertain. The parallel here is clear. Just as the existentialist would have us throw off the shackles of non-definition, non-essence, so too are we who know God to be separated from the world by fearing God and keeping his statutes, thus defining ourselves by our actions in the present. Put differently, as the meaning unfurls, it unfurls correlative to the application. Action dictates meaning. Ironically, both for the existentialist and the Christian, freedom comes as a result of throwing off the universe. What that universe is, of course, would be hotly debated.

The second cheer for this brand of existentialism comes because it recognizes our freedom to make moral choices, as well as puts responsibility of a particular action squarely on the shoulders of the individual who performed it (a fact the language of pop-Christian culture does everything in its power to negate). In other words, the only people we have to blame for the atrocities in the history of this world are we ourselves. Seeing that society and reality are in a reciprocal relationship (Providence not precluded), this point should not be too hard to assume. What the concept of “bad faith” is to Sartre, the doctrine of human responsibility is to the Christian (to pretend something is necessary when in fact it is voluntary). In the midst of an often intolerant culture, true Christian authenticity comes by standing for the Word of truth despite the consequences. Hiding behind socio-cultural roles, mores, and norms is indeed a move in “bad faith.” For example, the judge who administers capital punishment because “the law requires it,” while at the same time being convicted of its moral reprehensibility, has become the ultimate imposter. He is no human, after all. The choice to take the bench and resign before the sentence is given had always been an option.

Ministers and church leaders ought to take note of this. Too often, we find ourselves relinquishing the high-ground for the sake of expedience or because “this is the way it has always been done” (“always” almost always referring to the past two or three generations). Can we all not think of at least one action within the practice of the church that is taken for granted (and would be better left off)?

Man is radically free to choose, and he is responsible for the effects this choosing has on others (the very possibility of "bad faith" exposes the reality of freedom). To be sure, it is a dreadful freedom; one that we cannot shirk; one that sits heavily on our shoulders every day—how we work, vote (or not), worship, eat, etc.—freedom such as this reminds us that every time we complain we are in part complaining about ourselves. Every time we bemoan practical atheism in the American church, of not taking the challenge of Jesus seriously, we must see that we are part of that problem. Every time we choose expedience over loving God totally and our neighbors as ourselves, we treat ourselves and others as objects, sighing (in self-justification) at the inevitability of the decision we have made in light of our pasts and stations in this life.

What stands in the place of a final cheer is a jeer. Existentialists like to harp on autonomy, as if such a thing existed. Sartre’s authentic man simply trades in one lie for another. Even when this so-called authentic character does something completely out of character, the action itself has no weight, no basis (and indeed, it baselessly values that “authentic” action). He or she has done it for entirely irrational reasons—reasons, I might add, that have been shaped by the culture at-large (which, ironically, relativizes the relativizers). This is the same for the believer, and especially for the modern American Christian. The herd mentality has taken over. And this is “bad faith” in the extreme. In the end, maybe we are not free at all. And thus the choice we have to face is, to what will you be chained?

As Bob Dylan sang, “You Gotta Serve Somebody.”


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