Handbook of Today's Religions


Existentialism, a difficult system to define, has been developing over the last fifty years. As it evolved it attracted followers from many different backgrounds. Today its influence has subtly affected much popular thought and expression. As F. H. Heinemann observes

Among contemporary philosophies none has made a greater impact on religion and theology than existentialism (F. H. Heinemann, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, NY. Harper and Row, Publishers, 1953, p. 219).

Because of its pervasive influence and incompatibility with orthodox Christianity, existentialism should be answered in a Christian response to secular religion.

The Difficulty of Definition

One of existentialism's problems is that it is difficult to define or categorize concisely. Philosopher Walter Kaufmann comments:

Existentialism is not a philosophy but a label for several widely different revolts against traditional philosophy. Most of the living "existentialists" have repudiated this label, and a bewildered outsider might well conclude that the only thing they have in common is a marked aversion for each other. To add to the confusion, many writers of the past have frequently been hailed as members of this movement, and it is extremely doubtful whether they would have appreciated the company to which they are consigned. In view of this, it might be argued that the label "existentialism" ought to be abandoned altogether.

Certainly, existentialism is not a school of thought nor reducible to any set of tenets. The three writers who appear invariably on every list of "existentialists"- Jaspers, Heidegger, and Sartre-are not in agreement on essentials. Such alleged precursors as Pascal and Kierkegaard differed from all three men by being dedicated Christians; and Pascal was a Catholic of sorts while Kierkegaard was a Protestant's Protestant.

If, as is often done, Nietzsche and Dostoevsky are included in the fold, we must make room for an impassioned anti-Christian and an even more fanatical Greek-Orthodox Russian imperialist. By the time we consider adding Rilke, Kafka, and Camus, it becomes plain that one essential feature shared by all these men is their perfervid individualism.

The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life -that is the heart of existentialism (Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, NY. The World Publishing Company, 1956, pp. 11, 12).

Others echo Kaufmann’s sentiment:

Every existentialist develops his own terminology because he finds everyday language inadequate, in the same way he rebels against a day-to-day view of the world.... if one reads the existentialists without exasperation, one is almost certainly misreading them (I. M. Bochenski, Contemporary European Philosophy, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1956, p. 154, note 5).

Bochenski goes on to say:

... existentialism must not be identified with any one body of existentialist doctrine, for example, that of Sartre, for as we shall see there are profound differences between individual points of view (ibid., p. 156).

Existentialism Defined

Existentialism may be explained according to the themes and concerns of its proponents. Existentialists are concerned with existence, change, freedom and self-cognizance, among other things. William and Mabel Sahakian describe existentialism in the following manner:

Existentialists accept the conclusion that "existence precedes essence," and some go even further and affirm that essence does not exist, that only existence has reality. All Existentialists emphasize the person as subject.

The subject exists, and for some, he alone exists; that is to say, if any essence whatever exists, it is the individual's subjective state of existence (William S. Sahakian and Mabel L. Sahakian, Ideas of the Great Philosophers, NY Bames and Noble, Inc., 1966, p. 167).

Philosopher B. A. G. Fuller recognizes the problems in defining existentialism, but also recognizes certain existential theses:

There is no single existentialist position. The philosophy varies with its pro-ponents, some of whom insist that they are not existentialists at all. But there is a common fund of doctrine that identifies them, nevertheless, and indicates quite clearly their relation to the classical philosophic tradition. Their major and differentiating thesis is the metaphysical pronouncement that "existence is prior to essence, " while in the established tradition "essence is prior to ex-istence”. What this means for the existentialist is that human nature is deter-mined by the course of life rather than life by human nature (B. A. G. Fuller, A History of Philosophy, NY. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1955, p. 603).

I. M. Bochenski, in his book European Philosophy relates six of the common existential themes:

1) The commonest characteristic among the various existentialist philosophies of the present is the fact that they all arise from a so-called existential experience which assumes a different form in each one of them. It is found by Jaspers, for instance, in awareness of the brittleness of being, by Heidegger through experiencing "propulsion toward death," and by Sartre in a general "nausea” The existentialists do not conceal the fact that their philosophies originate in such experiences. That is why existentialist philosophy always bears the stamp of personal experience, even in Heidegger.

2) The existentialists take so-called existence as the supreme object of inquiry, but the meaning which they attach to the word is extremely difficult to determine. However, in each case it signifies a peculiarly human mode of being. Man-a term which is rarely used and is generally replaced by "thereness" (Dasein), "existence," "ego," "being for oneself" is unique in possessing existence; more precisely, man does not possess, but he is his existence. If man has an essence, either this essence is his existence or it is the consequence of it.

3) Existence is conceived as absolutely actualistic; it never is but freely creates itself, it becomes; it is a pro-jection; with each instant it is more (and less) than it is. The existentialists often support this thesis by the statement that existence is the same as temporality.

4) The difference between this actualism. and that of life-philosophy is accounted for by the existentialists' regarding man as pure subjectivity and not as the manifestation of a broader (cosmic) life process in the way that Bergson does, for example. Furthermore, subjectivity is understood in a creative sense; man creates himself freely, and is his freedom.

5) Yet it would be thoroughly misguided to conclude from this that the existentialists regard man as shut up within himself. On the contrary, man is an incomplete and open reality; thus his nature pins him tightly and necessarily to the world, and to other men in particular. This double dependence is assumed by all representatives of existentialism, and in such a way that human existence seems to be inserted into the world, so that man at all times not only faces a determinate situation but is his situation. On the other hand they assume that there is a special connection between men which, like the situation, gives existence its peculiar quality. That is the meaning of Heidegger's "togetherness," Jasper's "communication," and Marcel's "thou”.

6) All existentialists repudiate the distinction between subject and object, thereby discounting the value of intellectual knowledge for philosophical purposes. According to them true knowledge is not achieved by the understanding but through experiencing reality; this experience is primarily caused by the dread with which man becomes aware of his finitude and the frailty in that position of being thrust into the world and condemned to death [Heidegger] (Bochenski, European Philosophy, pp. 159, 160).

To summarize Bochenski, he identifies six major themes of existentialism: 1) experience as the ground of discovery; 2) existence as the supreme object of inquiry; 3) existence preceding essence; 4) man as pure subjectivity and not part of a cosmic life process; 5) the interdependence of man and his world; and 6) a devaluation of intellectual knowledge.

Finally, we will turn to philosopher Samuel Stumpf for his recognition of the fact that existentialists reject traditional philosophy:

Whether they were theists or atheists, the existentialists all agreed that traditional philosophy was too academic and remote from life to have any adequate meaning for them. They rejected systematic and schematic thought in favor of a more spontaneous mode of expression in order to capture the authentic concerns of concrete existing individuals. Although there is no "system" of existentialist philosophy, its basic themes can, nevertheless, be discovered in some representative existentialist thinkers (Samuel Enoch Stumpf, Socrates to Sartre, NY. McGraw-Hill, 1966, p. 455).

The Scope of Our Study

Our aim is to simplify an admittedly complex subject. Because of the intricate and sometimes contradictory assertions made among existentialists, we have decided to examine the themes of their reasoning as described by six leading philosophers often cited as shapers of existentialist thought. This method of treating the subject will avoid the sweeping and often erroneous generalizations made about this school of thought, but may result in some oversimplification.
Existentialism is more far-reaching than these six representative writers indicate. Moreover, some of these individuals would repudiate the label existentialist, finding it stultifying, although they deal with the same general themes from some of the same perspectives. We conclude with a Christian perspective on the thematic presuppositions of existentialism.

Religious Existentialists

Many Christians have never studied philosophy formally and are unfamiliar with the mainstream of existentialist thought. However, they have heard of a stream of existential thought that appears to be paradoxical. It is known as religious or Christian existentialism. Many Christians have at least a vague familiarity with some of the ideas of Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, and Rudolph Bultmarm. We will not argue whether or not one can be religious and an existentialist at the same time. There are competent observers on both sides of the question.

Almost every knowledgeable observer, from either side, will agree that religious existentialism is not the same as orthodox existentialism. Even the term "orthodox existentialism" is a problem since the field is so diverse and the prominent existential thinkers don’t agree about what existentialism is.

Nevertheless, religious existentialists are concerned with some of the same themes as are non-religious existentialists. They just address them from different (religious) perspectives.
The Sahakians separate these two types of existentialists in much the same way as we will. They write:

Two main schools of Existentialist philosophy may be distinguished; the first is religious as delineated by the father of Existentialism, Soren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813-1855); the second is atheistic, as expounded by its most articulate contemporary spokesman, jean-Paul Sartre. A number of outstanding Existentialists in each of these schools disclaim the Existentialist label; some adherents of the religious view prefer to be known as Neo-Orthodox philosophers (Sahakian and Sahakian, Ideas, p. 167).

Fuller confirms this view, expanding on the perspectives of the religious existentialists:

In its theistic form, existentialism has been an important factor in the neo-orthodox awakening that has marked theology since the first war. Its emphasis on the negative qualities of man, on human estrangement and the tragedy of human existence, have supported the resurgence of the dogma of original sin and the entire structure of eschatological theology (Fuller, Philosophy, pp. 603, 604).

Christian philosopher Milton Hunnex reveals how existentialism has penetrated modern theological circles:

Unable to assimilate either the naturalism of Aristotle or that of the scientific revolution, Protestant theology eventually turned to idealism as the modern philosophy best adapted to Christian belief. Modern liberalism made its home among the idealists during the nineteenth century. After World War I it became apparent that idealism was ill suited to the twentieth century, and theologians as well as philosophers abandoned it.

They turned instead to existentialism as the kind of philosophy that did appear to fit the mood and needs of the twentieth century. Existentialism seemed to be the best philosophy for getting at the problems of men caught up in swift-moving change (Milton D. Hunnex, Existentialism and Christian Belief, Chicago: Moody Press, 1969, pp. 13, 14).

Although we have chosen to examine this religious existentialist view of the controversy, we recognize that there are those who see no compromise between existentialism and religious belief. While we believe that they make some valid points, we feel the claims of the so-called religious existentialists still need to be dealt with, even if they do arise from a misunderstanding of existentialism and religion. Hazel Barnes recognizes the two sides of the controversy:

I confess that I sympathize with the fundamentalist ministers who argue that whatever else it may be, this new religion is not Christianity and should be given some other name. (Hazel Barnes, An Existentialist Ethics, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1978, p. 383).

We agree that historic Christianity cannot embrace the presuppositions and core of existentialist concern. However, there is much that claims the name "Christian" today that is not truly Christian in the biblical sense, but that must be dealt with by the biblically-centered Christian. We agree with Hazel Barnes that Sartrean existentialism (atheistic) cannot ever be reconciled with any form of theistic belief. She comments:

I do not believe that religious existentialism is compatible with a position based on Sartrean premises. I do not find in Tillich's Being-itself a concept which is logically tenable or a reality existentially meaningful. I cannot see that Heidegger's Being is a valid or more valuable alternative to Sartre's Beingin-itself (ibid., p. 382).

As a final qualification, we recognize the distinction between theologians or religious thinkers who have existential orientations (existential theologians) and a true existential theology, which, almost by definition, cannot exist. We conclude, with Heinemarm, who draws the general conclusion, that:

Existentialist Theology does not exist. But the question remains to be answered: Can it exist? I am afraid the answer must be: No. The principle of existence is a call, an appeal (Jaspers), qr in Kantian terminology, a regulative principle. It appeals to people to care for their inner life, for their freedom, their true self, their authentic existence, for their neighbors and their predicament. It admonishes us never to forget in thought and action the primacy of human persons as ends in themselves. It is not a constitutive principle, it defends the person against the menace of any kind of system and cannot therefore itself be the basis of a system. Existential Theology does not and cannot exist, but existential theologians should exist, that is theologians whose chief interest does not lie in dogmatics and in the external observance of rituals, but in the souls of men, in their predicament and in the willingness to help them. Existential theologians have always existed (Heinemann, Existialism, p. 225).

With the above factors in mind, we will look at three "religious existentialists," Soren Kierkegaard, Paul Tillich, and Gabriel Marcel.

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Soren Aabye Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, and was raised in an unusual religious family. His father had a morose obsession that God had cursed and doomed him and his family. The young Soren spent his youth convinced that continual, almost debilitating, depression was his fate. Of his youth he wrote:

From a child I was under the sway of a prodigious melancholy, the depth of which finds its only adequate measure in the equally prodigious dexterity I possessed of hiding it under an apparent gaiety and joie de vivre. So far back as I can barely remember, my one joy was that nobody could discover how unhappy I felt (Soren Kierkegaard, The Point of View for My Work as An Author: A Report to History, NY. Harper and Row, Publishers, 1962, p. 76).

When Kierkegaard entered the University of Copenhagen in 1830, he bowed to the wishes of his father and studied theology. However, his first love was philosophy, in which he excelled. He began to believe that he was predestined or chosen to change people for the better through philosophy. Late in life he reflected on his life, which he saw as developing dialectically,* and traced the path made "by the hand of God":

About my vita ante acta (i.e. from childhood until I became an author) I cannot expatiate here at any length, however remarkable, as it seems to me, was the way I was predisposed from my earliest childhood, and step by step through the whole development, to become exactly the sort of author I became....

An observer will perceive how everything was set in motion and how dialectically: I had a thorn in the flesh, intellectual gifts (especially imagination and dialectic) and culture in superabundance, an enormous development as an observer, a Christian upbringing that was certainly very unusual, a dialectical relationship to Christianity which was peculiarly my own, and in addition to this I had from childhood a training in obedience, obedience absolute, and I was armed with an almost foolhardy faith that I was able to do anything .... Finally, in my own eyes I was a penitent. The impression this now makes upon me is as if there were a Power which from the first instant had been observant of this and said, as a fisherman says of a fish, Let it run awhile, it is not yet the moment to pull it in. And strangely enough there is something that reaches far back in my recollection, impossible as it is for me to say when I began this practice or why such a thing ever occurred to me: I prayed to God regularly, i.e. every day, that He would give me zeal and patience to perform the work He would assign me.
Thus I became an author (ibid., pp. 76, 82, 83).

Even in his most despondent moments, Kierkegaard said, he still had faith in God. But although he believed God existed and controlled the universe, he also believed he was doomed to depression. Speaking of his early beliefs, cultivated by his despondent father, he wrote:

What wonder then that there were times when Christianity appeared to me the most inhuman cruelty- although never, even when I was farthest from it, did I cease to revere it, with a firm determination that (especially if I did not myself make the choice of becoming a Christian) I would never initiate anyone into the difficulties which I knew and which, so far as I have read and heard, no one else has alluded to. But I have never definitely broken with Christianity nor renounced it. To attack it has never been my thought. No, from the time when there could be any question of the employment of my powers, I was firmly determined to employ them all to defend Christianity, or in any case to present it in its true form (ibid., pp. 76,77).

In 1836, on the brink of suicide, he experienced the first of several religious encounters. The power of this experience led him to develop a system of morals (ethics) by which he determined to live his life.

In 1838 he had another religious experience that turned him toward a greater Christian commitment. He was also engaged to be married, but broke it off, feeling that marriage would interfere with his "mission" in life.

In later life, Kierkegaard viewed his writings as representing the three phases of human commitment: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. His works, he believed, were in one way autobiographical, showing his own dialectical growth through the three stages. In another way, his writings were prototypical of the life experience that should be sought by each human being. And in still a third way, portions of his writings were not meant to represent his viewpoints at all, but were meant to encourage the reader to expand his own thinking patterns, entertain new belief systems, and thus dialectically grow toward the ultimate religious commitment, where he would find true peace. Most of Kierkegaard's writings were published under pseudonyms as part of his technique to encourage new thought. In 1843 he published Either/Or which, as he described it, expressed "the fact that I had become thoroughly aware how impossible it would be for me to be religious only up to a certain point. Here is the place of Either/Or. it was a poetical catharsis, which does not, however, go farther than the "ethical" (ibid., p. 18). In 1844 he published The Concept of Dread and Philosophical Fragments; in 1845 Stages of Life's Way; in 1846 Concluding Unscientific Postscript; in 1848 Anti-Climacus and Christian Discourses; and The Point of View was published after his death. These are the major writings of Kierkegaard.

Kierkegaard's writings had only limited influence during his lifetime. However, they were translated into other languages, mostly after his death, and his influence became tremendous. Because of this great later influence and his concerns with the existential themes of existence and the "authenticated" man, he became known as "the Father of Existentialism” Remember though, that he consistently referred to himself as a religious and even Christian thinker and would definitely not have aligned himself with the atheistic existentialists such as Sartre had he been alive in the twentieth century. His faith did not conform to historical and biblical Christianity, but it was religious faith nonetheless.

Kierkegaard's Philosophy

William S. Sahakian has concisely summarized Kierkegaard's main tenets:

The essence of Kierkegaard's philosophy can be seen in his doctrine that there are three stages of life experience: (1) aesthetic, (2) ethical, and (3) religious. These represent three attitudes toward life, three philosophies of life. Some of us progress from one stage to the next, while others never go beyond the first stage. Kierkegaard sometimes fused the second and third stages, referring to them as the religio-ethical. The third stage is superior to the other two stages. All of them reflect man’s attempt to win salvation, to gain satisfaction for life's greatest good, while it is still within reach. Kierkegaard discussed the three stages in a number of his writings, but he devoted a most famous work, Either/Or, to a detailed analysis of the first two stages (William S. Sahakian, History of Philosophy, NY. Barnes and Noble Company, Inc., 1968, p. 343).

I. The Aesthetic

The man in the first stage, the aesthetic, is looking for fulfillment from his outside activities and from within himself. He may seek romance, pleasure, or intellectual pursuits as means to satisfy himself. However, these activities are not enough. They are not ultimately satisfying. The man becomes bored with himself and his activities. This boredom turns to despair. If not checked, the despair ends in suicide.

II. The Ethical

What is the remedy for this aesthetic despair? Kierkegaard replied that commitment gives meaning to life. Commitment to some arbitrary absolute, and the ordering of one's life around that commitment, brings one out of the aesthetic stage and into the second or ethical stage. The person achieves selfhood through commitment. The individual becomes aware. His choices are made with passion and emotional commitment. The person now chooses and acts, thereby establishing his selfhood and integrity. He is a man of duty. This is the type of person described by psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, who revolutionized European psychoanalytic theory after World War II. He calls the ethical urge the "will to meaning" and says:

Man's search for meaning is a primary force in his life and not a "secondary rationalization” of instinctual drives. This meaning is unique and specific in that it must and can be fulfilled by him alone; only then does it achieve a significance that will satisfy his own will to meaning. There are some authors who contend that meanings and values are "nothing but defense mechanisms, reaction formations and sublimation." But as for myself, I would not be willing to live merely for the sake of my "defense mechanisms," nor would I be ready to die merely for the sake of my "reaction formations." Man, however, is able to live and even to die for the sake of his ideals and values! (Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning: an Introduction to Logotherapy, NY Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1963, pp. 154, 155).

III. The Religious

The third and greatest stage, the stage where man finally finds contentment, is the religious stage. The person commits himself, as in the second stage, and is looking for fulfillment, as in the first stage, but in this religious stage his commitment is to One who is able to satisfy completely: God. In this stage man is finally content because of his commitment to God. Selfhood cannot be achieved ultimately and completely within the self. The self must be committed to the One beyond, to God.

Kierkegaard and Hegel

Kierkegaard's philosophy was in opposition to that of the German philosopher Hegel, although they both used a system of dialectics. Samuel Stumpf points out:

At the University of Copenhagen Kierkegaard was trained in Hegel's philosophy and was not favorably impressed by it. When he heard Schellings's lectures at Berlin, which were critical of Hegel, Kierkegaard agreed with this attack upon Germany's greatest speculative thinker. "If Hegel had written the whole of his Logic and then said ... that it was merely an experiment in thought," wrote Kierkegaard, "then he could certainly have been the greatest thinker who ever lived. As it is, he is merely comic." What made Hegel comic for Kierkegaard was that this great philosopher had tried to capture all of reality in his system of thought, yet in the process lost the most important element, namely, existence. For Kierkegaard, the term existence was reserved for the individual human being. To exist, he said, implies being a certain kind of individual, an individual who strives, who considers alternatives, who chooses, who decides, and who, above all, commits himself. Virtually none of these acts were implied in Hegel's philosophy (Stumpf, Socrates, p. 455).

William Sahakian made some good contrasts between the concerns of Hegel and the concerns of Kierkegaard:

Kierkegaardian philosophy is fundamentally in direct antithesis to Hegelianism. Whereas Hegel placed the emphasis on speculative thought, Kierkegaard placed it on existence. Hegel discerned truth in the rational system, Kierkegaard in paradox. The former sought the universe, the latter the individual or particular. The former saw in logic a mediation of anitheses or formulated an unbroken logic (Hegelian dialectic); the latter replaced it with the leap or logical gap (qualitative dialectic). Either/Or was the Kierkegaarthan answer to the Hegelian synthesis or mediation. Hegel found truth in the Absolute and objectivity, while Kierkegaard found it in the relative and subjective. Hegel emphasized necessity, Kierkegaard freedom.

Other Kierkegaarthan concepts, which replaced Hegelian ones were: repetition for recollection, concealment for openness, possibility for actuality, indirect communication (Socratic maimetic) for direct communication, transcendence of God for the immanence of God, and mediacy (or reflection) or immediacy (Sahakian Philosophy, p. 347).

Kierkegaard and Truth

Kierkegaard defined truth as "subjectivity." For him it was paradoxically the only thing one could be sure about and yet the one thing one was anxious about. Sahakian explains:

Truth is subjectivity; the highest expression of subjectivity is passion. To think Existentially is to think with inward passion. Objectivity accents what is said, but subjectivity accents how it is said. The inward how is passion; decision is found only in subjectivity. Subjectivity is the truth; truth is defined as "an objective uncertainty held fast in an appropriation-process of the most passionate inwardness". Uncertainty creates anxiety which is quieted by an exercise of faith. The preceding definition of truth also serves as a definition of faith. There is no faith without risk, choice, passion, and inwardness; nor is there truth without them. Uncertainty always accompanies subjectivity, calling for the leap of faith (ibid., p. 348).

The Christian philosophers Norman Geisler and Paul Feinberg point out a very important feature of Kierkegaardian "truth." They note that Kierkegaard never denies such a thing as objective truth: he merely denies its importance over what he calls "subjective" truth.

While not denying that there is such a thing as objective scientific truth, the existentialist does not consider that kind of truth important, at least not nearly as important as subjective truth. Indeed, Kierkegaard declared "truth is subjectivity." By that he did not mean that any subjective belief is true, but that unless one believes something subjectively and passionately he does not possess the truth. Truth is always personal and not merely propositional. One never gains truth by mere observation, but by obedience: never by being a spectator, but only by being a participator in life.

Truth is found in the concrete, not in the abstract: in the existential, not in the rational. In fact, one places himself in the truth only by an act of his will, by a "leap of faith” It is not deliberation of the mind but a decision of the will by which one comes to know truth (Norman L. Geisler and Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980, p. 46).

In summary, Kierkegaardian philosophy is much more complicated than at first meets the eye. One especially must be aware that common and philosophical vocabularies take on new definitions for Kierkegaard. The evangelical Christian who declares that Jesus Christ is the truth means something quite different from what Kierkegaard means. Kerkegaard's three-fold path to personal fulfillment sounds good until it is examined from within the context of the claims of the Bible or until attempts are made to authenticate it by history and objective reason.

Paul Tillich (1886-1965)

One of the most influential liberal theologians of the twentieth century was Paul Tillich. Because of his orientation in both existentialist themes and Christian tradition, he rightly can be called an existential theologian. F. H. Heinemann notes:

The title 'existentialist theologian' would fit... Paul Tillich. His unique case is that of a philosopher-theologian who started as a religious socialist and ends up as an existential theologian. Being a philosopher as well as a theologian, he tries to correlate philosophy and religion, embraces existentialism as the true philosophy whose task it is to penetrate the structure of human existence (Heinemann, Existentialism, p. 219).

Alston and Nakhnikian give some of Tillich's Lutheran, liberal theology, and philosophical background:

Paul Tillich is one of the most influential Christian thinkers of our time perhaps the most influential in English-speaking countries. Born in a small village in eastern Germany in 1886, the son of a Lutheran pastor, he received a theological and philosophical education, and was ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1912.
After serving as an army chaplain during World War I, Tillich taught theology and philosophy at several German universities--Berlin, Marburg, Dresden, and Frankfurt. He incurred the wrath of the Nazis, and when Hitler came to power in 1933 he emigrated to the United States. On his arrival in America he became a Professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary. From this post Tillich has exercised an enormous influence on religious thought in this country. (William R Alston and George Nakhnikian, Readings in Twentieth Century Philosophy, NY. The Free Press, 1963, p. 723).


Anxiety is one of the very important themes in existentialism. Although different existentialists handle the theme in different ways, Tillich’s discussion of anxiety in his Systematic Theology gives a very thorough discussion of the subject from an existential point of view. Philosopher B. A. G. Fuller summarizes Tillich’s discussion:

Anxiety. Accepting the familiar description of the post-war era, both for Europe and America, as an "age of anxiety," Tillich describes anxiety as fundamentally the "existential awareness of nonbeing," the "awareness that nonbeing is a part of one's own being". The awareness of one's own transitoriness and of one's own having to die produces a natural anxiety, an anxiety of ultimate nonbeing. Naked anxiety, which belongs to the nature of being as such and is an experience of unimaginable horror, strives vainly to convert itself into fear, because fear has an object and can therefore be met and overcome by courage. But anxiety itself has no object.

The Anxiety of Fate and Death. Anxiety appears in three forms, dependent upon the direction in which "nonbeing threatens being." The anxiety of fate and death proceeds from the threat of nonbeing against man’s "ontic" affirmation. It is basic, universal, and entirely inescapable. The contingency of man, that the causes which determine him are without any rationality or ultimate necessity, yields the relative anxiety of fate. The fact of death, present with man during every moment of life as well as at the moment of dying, produces an absolute anxiety of nonbeing. The basic question of courage is whether there is a courage to be in the face of this absolute threat against being.

The Anxiety of Emptiness and Meaninglessness. The second type of anxiety is in its relative form the anxiety of emptiness and in its absolute form the anxiety of meaninglessness. Emptiness is the product of a threat to participation in creativity Meaninglessness, which lies always in the background of emptiness as death lies always behind fate, is the loss of a spiritual center for life, the loss of an ultimate concern, of the meaning fundamental to all meanings. This anxiety is the threat of nonbeing to the spiritual life, a threat that follows from man's finitude and estrangement and leads to despair. To escape it, one attempts an escape from his own freedom and thereby sacrifices his genuine existence.

The Anxiety of Guilt and Condemnation. The third type of anxiety issues from the threat of nonbeing against man’s self-affirmation, in its relative form, the anxiety of guilt; in its absolute form, the anxiety of condemnation. Man as finite freedom is free to determine himself in the fulfillment of his destiny. The anxiety of guilt and condemnation is produced by the failure to realize one's potentiality. It is a self-rejection, a despair in the loss of proper identity. Despair is the product of the three anxieties, interrelated to foster and support one another. Despair is the complete absence of hope. By suicide one might escape the anxiety of death, but he would be caught in the anxiety of guilt and condemnation.

Anxiety and Cultural History. Life, Tillich holds, is largely an attempt to avoid despair. From it there is no escape, yet most people experience it in its intensity only infrequently if at all. In the history of western culture the three types of anxiety have always been present, but each has dominated one of the three major eras. The classical era, the era of absolutism and tyranny, was characterized by the anxiety of fate and death, and ended with the attempt to achieve the Stoic courage. The Middle Ages, under the influence of the Judeo-Christian (Moral) religion, was brought to a close under the domination of the anxiety of guilt and condemnation, induced by the breakdown of the unity of religion. Today it is the anxiety of emptiness and meaninglessness that casts its shadow over a world that has lost its spiritual content. (B. A. G. Fuller, Philosophy, pp. 609-610).


Tillich’s definition of God was much more broad than that of evangelical Christianity or the Bible. In fact, Tillich’s concept of God was not even first and foremost personal. God for Tillich was "the ground of all being;" "the source of your being;" "your ultimate concern". As such, Tillich saw no room for atheists or agnostics, for he believed that it was impossible for one to have no ultimate concerns. In his The Shaking of the Foundations he stated:

The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation .... If you know that God means depth, you know much about Him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only. . . The name of this infinite and inexhaustible ground of history is God. That is what the word means, and it is that to which the words Kingdom of God and Divine Providence point. And if these words do not have much meaning for you, translate them and speak of the depth of history, of the ground and aim of our social life, and of what you take seriously without reservation in your moral and political activities. Perhaps you should call this depth hope, simply hope (Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, NY. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953, pp. 57, 59).

As is true with most themes in existentialism, Tillich's idea of God is deeply colored by the existential theme of subjectivity. Subjectivity is so important in existentialism that it almost becomes the most important theme, affecting all other existential thought.


Tillich not only redefined the traditional view of God, but he also put an existential interpretation to the concept of grace. His grace is universal, subjective, and flows from and to each individual.
When he talks of the "acceptance" of grace, he is not talking about the forgiveness of God made possible by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the cross. He is talking about the subjective experience of acceptance that one feels during a crisis.

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness ... It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us.... Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: "You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later.... Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!" In the light of this grace we perceive the power of grace in our relation to others and to ourselves .... We experience the grace of being able to accept the life of another, even if it be hostile and harmful to us, for, through grace, we know that it belongs to the same Ground to which we belong, and by which we have been accepted (ibid., pp. 161, 162).

In summary, we can see that Tillich’s concerns (just a few of which have been highlighted here) are common to existential themes and that his applications of those themes to religion change the very essence or fundamentals of Christian belief. It cannot be denied that he was a religious existentialist. But it is also true that he was not an evangelical Christian, committed to the biblical fundamentals of our faith.

Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973)

Another religious philosopher who had strong influence in the growth of French existentialism was Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973). Marcel, a French Catholic existentialist, criticized many of his fellow existentialists. His primary philosophical loyalty to existentialism seemed to be the stress he placed on the value of the individual.
Philosopher Anthony Flew comments:

. . . Marcel considered existentialism to be compatible with Christian doc-trines. The aim of life is "communication" between men as well as between man and God, but relationships must be based on and retain the freedom and uniqueness of individuals, not be dependent on the joint acceptance of rules and goals (Anthony Flew, ed., A Dictionary of Philosophy, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1982, p. 204).

Jean T. Wilde and William Kimmel make the following additional appraisal of Marcel:

Gabriel Marcel, a Christian existentialist, shares with the atheist existentialist Sartre the responsibility for the further development in France of that trend in philosophy represented by this anthology A convert to Roman Catholicism, Marcel has nevertheless maintained a philosophical independence from the official philosophy of the church and has developed original avenues of thought that bear the unmistakable stamp of their author's temperament and spirit. He is not only a philosopher but also a successful dramatist and a fine musician (jean T. Wilde and William Kimmel, eds., trans., The Search for Being, NY. The Noonday Press, 1962, p. 417).

It is important to remember that while Wilde and Kimmel, as well as Flew, note Marcel's alignment with Christianity, they also note that this alignment was not with historic Christianity. Marcel actually denied those doctrines evangelicals consider vital.

Marcel's philosophy was much less systematic than other existentialists such as Tillich, so we will just touch on some of his concerns. Marcel was more of an observer than a shaper of philosophy or theology. His greatest concerns were those which were involved in existentialism and which earned him a place among existentialist thinkers.

Rather than systematic discourses, Marcel's works are collections of observations and notes. Avoiding the traditional metaphysical categories and principles, his thought revolves around a number of root ideas which are not so much ideas as modes of concrete experience: estrangement, nostalgia, and homecoming; presence and absence; appeal and response; fidelity and betrayal; availability and unavailability; despair, recollection, courage, and hope. It is within the framework of these modes of experience that human life unfolds and it is here, rather than in the abstract manipulations of technical reason, that Being as personality and community can reveal itself. In reflection upon these dimensions of experience, Marcel evokes a sense of the mystery that envelops and unfolds within experience, that informs, illumines and fulfills experience, the mystery that is not alien to existence because it is itself that from which existence has its being. By recovering this inner bond between existence and mystery, one uncovers the source of his own meaning and creative power (ibid., p. 419).

I. M. Bochenski gives an excellent discussion of the basic ideas of Marcel. He has done such a good job of summarizing Marcel that we will quote from him extensively:

Marcel holds that being-an-object and existence are two entirely different dimensions of being. This is seen most clearly in the fundamental problem of embodiment (incarnation). The relation between my body and myself cannot be described as either being or having. I am my body, yet I cannot identify myself with it. The question about embodiment has led Marcel to a rigorous distinction between the problem and the mystery. A problem concerns what lies wholly before me, something which I scan objectively as an observer. A mystery, on the other hand, is "something in which I am involved (engagé.) ". Only mysteries are of any philosophic relevance and thus philosophy must be trans-objective, personal, dramatic, indeed tragic. "I am not witnessing a spectacle": we should remind ourselves of this every day, says Marcel. The possibility of suicide is the point of departure of every genuine metaphysics. Such a metaphysics must be neither rational or intuitive. It is the result of a kind of second reflection (reflexion seconde).

Marcel has not worked out this metaphysics, but he has adumbrated its methodology. It is to give an answer to the basic ontological demand, namely, that there must be being, there must be something which cannot be explained away in some easy way as, for example, psychoanalysis explains away psychic phenomena. We are certain that there is being through the mysterious reality of the "I am"-- not through cogito ergo sum. In this way the opposition of subject and object, of idealism, is overcome. Human reality reveals itself as the reality of a homo viator, of being which is always in process of becoming. Every philosophy which misinterprets this truth, which tries to explain man by means of a system, is incapable of understanding man.

We are led to the understanding of human being above all through the study of human relationships which are signified by judgments in the second person, in the thou. These unobjective thou-relationships are creative, for through them I create myself and also help another to create his own freedom. Here Marcel is close to the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (b. 1878) who had enunciated similar theses even before Marcel. The center of the thou-relationship is faithfulness (fidélité). It appears as the embodiment of a higher free actuality, since the faithful one creates himself in freedom. Hope is even more basic than faithfulness, for the latter is built upon hope. Marcel holds that hope has ontological significance. It shows that the victory of death in the world is merely apparent and not final. Marcel regards his doctrine of hope as the most important result of his work. Here he departs radically from Sartre and Heidegger and apparently even from Jaspers.

The human thou can also be objectivized and become an it. But for this there is a definite limit, behind which stands the absolute thou which can no longer be taken as an object, namely God. We cannot through reason prove the existence of God. One encounters God on the same plane as the other, the plane of the thou, in loving and in honoring through participation in true being which may already take its rise in the questioning attitude of the philosopher (Bochenski, Eurpoean Philosophy, p. 183, 184).

The Secular Existentialists

By far the largest group of thinkers categorized as extentialists are those with no religious orientation at all, the secular existentialists. Some of them ignore religion completely, others are forcefully atheistic. The secular existentialists are concerned with the same themes as the religious existentialists, but their pre-suppositions and belief systems preclude any supernatural or any idea of God.

In our overview, we will examine three secular existentialists: Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers and jean-Paul Sartre.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

Martin Heidegger was one of the most influential promoters of contemporary existentialism. He wrote in German but his works have been translated into English. His most famous, Being and Time, has become one of the most popular expressions of English/American existentialism in the philosophical world. Alston and Nakhnikian note the scope of Heidegger's spreading influence:

In Latin America and Europe, excluding, of course, the Soviet Union and her European satellites, one of the dominant contemporary philosophers is Heidegger. Heidegger's influence ranges widely over philosophers, theologians (including Paul Tillich), and certain psychotherapists. In the English-speaking world, too, there are philosophers who regard Heidegger with as much respect as do his Continental and Latin-American admirers (Alston and Nakhnikian, Readings, p. 679).

Heidegger's writings had a great effect on both the religious existentialist Rudolph Bultmann, who attempted to build a theology from Heideggerian existentialism, and jean-Paul Sartre, the French secular existentialist and novelist.

Heidegger studied under the philosopher Edmund Husserl before he became rector of Freiburg University in 1933. His main treatise, Sein und Zeit(Being and Time), was published in 1927. Although Being and Time reflected the influence Husserl and Kierkegaard made on Heidegger, it also showed he differed from those men in some important ways.
Heidegger's existentialism is unique and complex. It is difficult for even professional philosophers to understand:

Heidegger is an extremely original thinker. The problem of his historical affiliations is not of primary concern here and we need only mention that he borrows his method from Husserl, that he is in many ways influenced by Dilckey, and that his general thesis is largely inspired by Kierkegaard. Heidegger is equipped with an unusual knowledge of the great philosophers of the past, among whom he frequently quotes Aristotle, although he interprets him in very arbitrary fashion. A stir was caused by the volume which he devoted to Kant, Kant und das Problem der Metaphysik (1929).
Few philosophers are so hard to understand as Heidegger (Bochenski, European Philosophy, p. 161).

Because Heidegger's philosophy is so difficult to understand, interpretations of his thought vary and even contradict one another. Philosopher/historian A. Robert Caponigri remarks:

Heidegger's thought has given rise to extensive interpretations, varying much among themselves and frequently at variance with the line of exegesis which Heidegger himself has suggested. From the point of view of doctrine and interests, his thought falls into two phases. The line of demarcation is drawn (but not too sharply),. . by the Holderlin lecture in 1936. The first phase centers about the great work of 1927: Sein und Zeit. This work is still considered as presenting the essential Heidegger. It most clearly exhibits his originality as a thinker in his "existential analysis" of human behavior with respect to the "unveiling of truth" and his "ontological" mode of treating phenomenology. It is the basis for the wide influence he has enjoyed. The second phase possesses no strict unity but shows Heidegger's concern with a number of themes, both historical and analytical, stemming from his main concern: being and truth (A. Robert Caponigri, A History of Western Philosophy.
Philosophy from the Age of Positivism to the Age of Analysis, Notre Dame, in: University of Notre Dame Press, 1971, p. 264).

Along with the difficulty in understanding Heidegger, and the added difficulty of interpretation, we find that Heidegger did not view himself as an existentialist!

Heidegger believes that the term "existentialist" does not apply to his philosophy ... Heidegger grants that "existentialism” is an apt label for what Sartre represents, but not for his own position. Heidegger is interested in Being. He approaches the problem of Being through the study of Dasein, Heidegger's word for human existence, "the being of what we ourselves are" (Alston and Naklmikian, Readings, p. 680).

Because of these problems, we will not deal extensively with Heidegger although he bears mentioning because of his influence on other existentialists. Recognizing our limits of space and purpose, we will confine our discussion to three concerns of Heidegger: Dasein, angst, and death. The reader is referred to the bibliography for books that deal more extensively with Heidegger.


The most important concept unique to Heidegger's system is Dasein (a word Heidegger used to refer to the human being, or the existing-ness of the human, which causes or becomes his essence). William Sahakian describes Dasein:

Dasein. The idea of Being is an old one to a philosopher grounded in Scholasticism, as Heidegger was. But Heidegger was interested in the meaning of Being, its sense, or its purpose-i.e., what renders it intelligible. Furthermore, he was interested primarily in the human Being, for the nature of the human Being leads to other levels of Being or reality. Only Dasein (his term for the human Being) can be said to have or not to have meaning; hence Being is meaningful solely in terms of human existence.

Dasein (being-there), that is, the human Being or the human existent, Heidegger identified as: (1) concern (Sorge), (2) being-toward-death (Sein zum Tode), (3) existence (Existenz), and (4) moods (Stimmungen). The human Being's essence is in his existence, for numerous possibilities are open to him whereby he may choose different kinds of Being for himself. The possibilities of what he may become are the pivotal points by which the human being is oriented. Heidegger was greatly interested in interpreting time in terms of temporality; consequently, in addition to the problem of Being (Dasein), time is of utmost importance. Accordingly, his interest was in the Being and temporality of Dasein (human existence) (Sahakian, Philosophy, p. 349).


Angst is another term with heavy existential meaning for Heidegger. The German word refers to anxiety, dread and hopeless fear of the future. This concept is important to Heidegger because it forms the impetus for much of human metaphysical development. It is the goad toward human existential encounter.

In existentialist philosophy, (angst is) the dread occasioned by man's realization that his existence is open towards an undetermined future, the emptiness of which must be filled by his freely chosen actions. Anxiety characterizes the human state, which entails constant confrontation with possibility and the need for decision, with the concomitant burden of responsibility (Flew, Philosophy, p. 13).


As it is with most existential thought, death is important in Heidegger's system. His secular (non-supernatural) presuppositions, and his commitment to existence preceding essence give Heidegger no view of reality for an individual before birth or after death. According to his scheme, the man who recognizes this fact, freely accepts its inevitability, and seeks nothing beyond, is then free to choose his own existence. He is no longer bound by fear of death or imaginary retributive punishment after death. He is able to choose his actions, thereby choosing his existence and ultimately his essence. This is man with dignity.

For Heidegger, man is the being that knows he is going to die. He dies not only at the end of life, but every day of it. Death is certain, yet indefinite. Because it is inevitable it marks the contingency of life. Life is cast up between nothing and nothing. Death is its boundary and is its supreme possibility.
To freely accept death, to live in its presence, and to acknowledge that for it there is no substitute and into it one must go alone, is to escape from all illusions and to achieve genuine dignity and authentic existence (Fuller, Philosophy, p. 608).

lean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

The man who most popularized an atheistic brand of existentialism was the French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre's major work, Being and Nothingness, was written in 1943 while he was a prisoner of the Germans during World War 111. Some of his other writings, including Existentialism is Humanism and the novel, No Exit, reflect an indebtedness to both Kierkegaard and Heidegger. Sartre's great ability enabled him to have a clear understanding of the history of philosophy. Marjorie Greene reports:

[Sartre] does indeed use the thinkers of the past (and present) for his own ends, but at the same time he sees them with extraordinary clarity. In his references, say, to Kant or Spinoza, he not only uses their thought as a springboard for his own, but also exhibits a solid and scholarly penetration into their principles and views. His relation to Marx is less straightforward, as we shall see, but in general one finds in his philosophical works an interweaving of themes in which the original strands stand out for themselves with unusual distinctness, while at the same time they are being worked into a characteristically Sartrean pattern (Marjorie Green, Sartre, NY. Franklin Watts, Inc., 1973, p. 33).


One major tenet of Sartre's existentialism is that life is absurd. In his novel, Nausea, Sartre brings out the absurdity of life through his main character, Roquentin. Robert Davidson writes;

The story of Roquentin, the hero of Nausea, is not told as an end in itself. Actually it expresses Sartre's own view concerning human existence. This story provides a descriptive or phenomenological account of a man's growing realization of the absurdity of human life in itself, and of his awakening to the fact that if a man’s life is to have any meaning or purpose, the individual himself must confer that meaning upon it. A sense of the absurd, the absurdity of life and of man himself, permeates Sartre's early existentialism. In Nausea he portrays this as an immediate insight in one’s own experience.

As he sat in a public park one day, staring at the long black roots of an old chestnut tree, Roquentin became acutely aware of the absurdity of his own existence:
"Absurdity was not an idea in my head nor the sound of a voice. It was this long, lean, wooden snake curled up at my feet - snake or claw or talon or root, it was all the same. Without formulating anything I knew that I had found the clue to my existence, to my nausea to my life. And indeed everything I have ever grasped since that moment comes back to this fundamental absurdity" (Robert E Davidson, Philosophies Men Live By, NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1974, p. 362).

Man is Autonomous

The absurdity of the universe leads Sartre to another major tenet of existentialism; namely, that man is autonomous. Sartre wrote:

The existentialist, on the contrary, thinks it very distressing that God does not exist, because all possibility of finding values in a heaven of ideas disappears along with Him; there can no longer be an a priori Good, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. Nowhere is it written that the Good exists, that we must be honest, that we must not lie: because the fact is we are on a plane where there are only men.

Dostoevsky said, 'If God didn’t exist, everything would be possible! That is the very starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to. He cant start making excuses for himself. In other words, there is no determinism, man is free, man is freedom. On the other hand, if God does not exist, we find no values or commands to turn to which legitimize our conduct. So, in the bright realm of values, we have no excuse behind us, nor justification before us. We are alone, with no excuses (Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions, NY. The Citadel Press, n.d., pp. 22, 23).


Man comes into the scene and defines himself. He lives in absolute freedom. Sartre states:

That is the idea I shall try to convey when I say that man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet, in other respects is free; because, once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion. He will never agree that a sweeping passion is a ravaging torrent which fatally leads a man to certain acts and is therefore an excuse. He thinks that man is responsible for his passion (ibid., p. 23).

Existence Before Essence

Another major tenet of Sartre's existentialism is that existence precedes essence. This means that man, by his own choices, defines his character, his essence and the person he is becoming. His choices determine his make-up. Sartre argues:

Atheistic existentialism, which I represent, is more coherent. It states that if God does not exist, there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence, a being who exists before he can be defined by any concept, and that this being is man, or as Heidegger says, human reality What is meant here by saying that existence precedes essence? It means that, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, in indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but he is also only what he wills himself to be after this thrust toward existence (ibid., pp. 15-16).

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre states:

Human freedom precedes essence in man and makes it possible. The essence of the human being is suspended in freedom (jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, NY Philosophical Library, Inc., 1956, p. 25).

He continues with the ramifications of this assertion:

[It is that] choice that is called "will". But if existence really does precede essence, man is responsible for what he is. Thus, existentialism's first move is to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him. And when we say that a man is responsible for himself, we do not only mean that he is responsible for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men (ibid., p. 16).


Sartre believed that man could receive his own self-fulfillment, as Sahakian reports:

Notwithstanding the pessimistic views in most of Sartre's writings his existentialism ends on a note of optimism, for his Existentialism is Humanism concludes with the declaration that existentialism does not plunge man into despair but is an optimistic doctrine of action, that man is his own lawmaker, a creator of values, living in a human universe of human subjectivity, and capable of self-fulfillment (Sahakian, Philosophy, p. 357).

Thus, man makes his own fulfillment. Those who try to accomplish this through religion are guilty of bad faith, as Flew defines:

Bad faith. In the existentialism of Sartre, a form of deception of self and others; the attempt to rationalize human existence through religion, science, or any belief in operative forces that impose meaning and coherence. Man shapes his own destiny through a succession of free choices for which he is totally responsible. In "bad faith" he denies the necessity of relying on his own moral insight and fallible will, trying to escape the burden of responsibility by regarding himself as the passive subject of outside influences, and his actions as being predetermined by these rather than freely chosen by himself (Flew, Philosophy, p. 35).


One of the major themes Sartre dealt with is also (not surprisingly) one for which he is perhaps best known, the theme of forlornness. It arises out of existential individuality and subjectivity. In some ways, it resembles Kierkegaard's second and unsatisfying stage, where man realizes he is alone, determines an ethic, but has nothing on which to depend. Sartre himself presented a moving description of this forlornness in the previously cited Existentialism and Human Emotion:

To give you an example which will enable you to understand forlornness better, I shall cite the case of one of my students who came to see me under the following circumstances: his father was on bad terms with his mother, and moreover, was inclined to be a collaborationist; his older brother had been killed in the German offensive of 1940, and the young man, with somewhat immature but generous feelings, wanted to avenge him. His mother lived alone with him, very much upset by the half-treason of her husband and the death of her older son; the boy was her only consolation.

The boy was faced with the choice of leaving for England and joining the Free French Forces - that is, leaving his mother behind - or remaining with his mother and helping her to carry on. He was fully aware that the woman lived only for him and that his going-off -and perhaps his death -would plunge her into despair. He was also aware that every act that he did for his mother's sake was a sure thing, in the sense that it was helping her to carry on, whereas every effort he made toward going off and fighting was an uncertain move which might run aground and prove completely useless; for example, on his way to England he might, while passing through Spain, be detained indefinitely in a Spanish camp; he might reach England or Algiers and be stuck in an office at a desk job. As a result, he was faced with two very different kinds of action: one, concrete, immediate, but vaster group, a national collectivity, but for that very reason was dubious, and might be interrupted en route. And, at the same time, he was wavering between two kinds of ethics.

On the one hand, an ethics of sympathy, of personal devotion; on the other, a broader ethics, but one whose efficacy was more dubious. He had to choose concerning only one individual; the other concerned an incomparably between the two.

Who could help him choose? Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says, "Be charitable, love your neighbor, take the more rugged path, etc., etc” But which is the more rugged path? Whom should he love as a brother? The fighting man or his mother? Which does the greater good, the vague act of fighting in a group, or the concrete one of helping a particular human being to go on living? Who can decide a priori? Nobody No book of ethics can tell him. The Kantian ethics says, "Never treat any person as a means, but as an end." Very well, if I stay with my mother, I'll treat her as an end and not as a means; but by virtue of this very fact, I'm running the risk of treating the people around me who are fighting, as means; and, conversely, if I go to join those who are fighting, I'll be treating them as an end, and, by doing that, I run the risk of treating my mother as a means.

If values are vague, and if they are always too broad for the concrete and specific case that we are considering, the only thing left for us is to trust our instincts. That's what this young man tried to do; and when I saw him, he said, "In the end, feeling is what counts. I ought to choose whichever pushes me in one direction. If I feel that I love my mother enough to sacrifice everything else for her -my desire for vengeance, for action, for adventure then I'll stay with her. If, on the contrary, I feel that my love for my mother isn't enough, I'll leave.

But how is the value of a feeling determined? What gives his feeling for his mother value? Precisely the fact that he remained with her. I may say that I like so-and-so well enough to sacrifice a certain amount of money for him, but I may say so only if I've done it. I may say "I love my mother well enough to remain with her" if I have remained with her. The only way to determine the value of this affection is, precisely, to perform an act which confirms and defines it. But, since I require this affection to justify my act, I find myself caught in a vicious circle. (Sartre, Existentialism, pp. 24-27).

From this we can see the futility inherent in Sartre's existential thought. Since "existence precedes essence," and the individual is enveloped within "subjectivity" and must find his essence of "authenticity," he is truly alone. Many people have embraced existentialism for a time, sincerely thinking that its view of life is accurate. However, many leave existentialism because it offers a solution, meaning, and commitment which is not truly satisfying. Even Sartre, toward the end of his life, swung very close to theistic commitment. The magazine National Review reported it this way:

Throughout his mature career, the philosopher jean-Paul Sartre was a militant atheist. Politically, although he quarreled with Marxist materialism, his rhetoric was often indistinguishable from the most heavy-handed Stalinist boiler-plate.

However, during the philosopher's last months there were some surprising developments. In 1980, nearing his death, by then blind, decrepit, but still in full possession of his faculties, Sartre came very close to belief in God, perhaps even more than very close.

The story can be told briefly, and perhaps reverently. An ex-Maoist, Pierre Victor, shared much of Sartre's time toward the end. In the early spring of 1980 the two had a dialogue in the pages of the ultra-gauchiste Nouvel Observateur. It is sufficient to quote a single sentence from what Sartre said then to measure the degree of his acceptance of the grace of God and the creatureliness of man: "I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here: and this idea of a creating hand refers to God."

Students of existentialism, the atheistic branch, will note that in this one sentence Sartre disavowed his entire system, his engagements, his whole life. Voltaire converted on his deathbed; one never knows, the brilliant old rascal is supposed to have said. Sartre did not convert, at least outwardly, but came to understand. Everything ought to be forgiven hi

The epilogue is much less edifying. His mistress, Simone de Beauvoir, behaved like a bereaved widow during the funeral. Then she published La cérémonie des adieux in which she turned vicious, attacking Sartre.

He resisted Victor's seduction, she recounts, then he yielded. "How should one explain this senile act of a turncoat?" she asks stupidly. And she adds: "All my friends, all the Sartrians, and the editorial team of Les Temps Modernes supported me in my consternation."
Mme. de Beauvoir's consternation v. Sartre's conversion. The balance is infinitely heavier on the side of the blind, yet seeing, old man. (National Review, June 11, 1982, p. 677).

Karl Jaspers (1883-1969)

Karl Jaspers began his academic career by studying law at Heidelberg and Munich. He later studied medicine at several German universities and soon made important contributions to pathological and psychiatric research. He was professor of philosophy at Heidelberg from 1921 until the Nazis came into power. After World War II he returned to Heidelberg and in 1948 he moved to Basel. He was one of the foremost representatives of existentialism.

B. A. G. Fuller comments upon those who influenced Jaspers' thought:

His philosophical activity was influenced from the beginning by careful studies of Kant and Hegel, but Kierkegaard and Nietzsche have dominated his thought by directing it constantly upon the problem of the human condition. His philosophy has been more than anything else an attempt to answer their question of the nature of human existence. His answers reflect his Kantianism. (Fuller, Philosophy, p. 604).

One aspect of Jaspers' philosophy is that it is more balanced than that of some of his existentialist comrades. I. M. Bochenski reports

The thought of Karl Jaspers is on the whole much more balanced than that of the majority of his fellow existentialists; for example, he critically analyzes their view of science, to which he accords a far more important place than they do.

His books contain a wealth of remarkable analyses and are written in comparatively simple language free from the characteristic neologisms which make the other authors so difficult to read. An obvious concern for metaphysics and a sort of natural theology also serve to distinguish him from the others who share the same label. Even so, he exhibits the fundamental attitudes and convictions common to all existentialists (Bochenski, European Philosophy, p. 185).

His Method

In 1932 Jaspers completed a major philosophical work entitled, Philosophie. In it he examined in depth the common philosophical method, relating it to his own brand of existentialism. Robert A. Caponigri comments:

Jaspers' philosophical thought proper begins to emerge with the work Philosophie and is developed in the subsequent works. These works do not, however, constitute a progressive movement toward a systematic position. Jaspers' thought is thematic, not systematic. The basic themes of his thought are three: 1) science and its relation to man's understanding of himself, 2) existence, and 3) transcendence. The most fruitful approach to Jaspers' thought lies in the exploration of his meditative enrichment of these themes. (Caponigri, Philosophy, p. 257).

His Philosophy

Jean T. Wilde and William Kimmel sum up the philosophy of Karl Jaspers:

For Jaspers philosophy is not the attempt to give definitive form to a body of knowledge about man in his universe. Philosophy is rather a way, an activity of the human mind moving toward the ultimate truth which can never become an object of knowledge, but which can be encountered in that process of thought which he calls "transcending thinking".

Truth is always on the way, always in movement and never becomes final, not even in its most wonderful crystallizations. Thought is never at rest in its own content.

God, Man, and the World, while they may become objects of our attention can never become objects of knowledge. Their authentic being, their fundamental reality, always recedes beyond the limits of objectification, defying confinement and circumscription. They are, therefore, objects of encounter during the process of reflective thinking but encountered at the limits or boundaries of knowledge. The objects of knowledge or reflection, whether the products of scientific, aesthetic, mythical, philosophical, psychological, or merely common-sense experience are not ends and results but limiting forms whose reality lies not in their positive form or content but in their power to point beyond themselves toward Transcendence -the goal of philosophical thought.

But just as God -Transcendence, the all encompassing One in which and from which all things have their being and meaning -transcends objectification, so also the Self in its authenticity, its Existenz, can never become an object for itself. One encounters the Self at the "boundary situations" of existence, at the limits of knowledge and action, at those points where all knowledge and action fails, or founders -in the presence of absolute chance, conflict, suffering, guilt, death. At these boundary situations of finite existence one is driven either to despair or to a discovery of authentic Selfhood in freedom. In other words, in the concrete situation, where the forms of knowledge fail, the formulas do not apply, the path is no longer predetermined, one is forced to decide, and in this free decision out of the Self one discovers the true Self, the Being which one is.

Between the Being that I am (Existenz) and the Being that is the all (Transcendence) lies the World embodied in the constructed and interpreted forms of knowledge. This World, however, is also evanescent and, in a sense, unstable, but its forms serve as a mediation between the Self that I am and the Transcendence toward which my thought moves. As forms of mediation the forms of knowledge of the World are indispensable; but as forms of mediation none is final or absolute or binding. Their status is that of "cyphers," symbols that are open to Transcendence and through which reflection can encounter Transcendence.

Only when they are "interpreted" as a cypher-script of Being rather than accepted as self-sufficient objects of knowledge is their status and that of the World they embody understood. But the interpretation itself is never final or accomplished. Nor can there be an interpretation for man-in-general. Each individual in his encounter with the World must interpret them anew, for only in the act of interpretation does the Transcendence which hovers around the forms reveal itself through them. There is necessary, then, both the expectant receptivity of the Self to the cypher and the recognition of the forms of knowledge as being cyphers of Being.

True philosophy, then, for Jaspers, is a hovering (Schweben) of the mind around the given forms of knowledge and the forming forms of one's own thought, a gliding of thought in expectant search for that truth about the Self, the World and God which reveals itself as the Being that is for the Being that I am (Wilde and Kimmel, Search, p. 451-3).

Jaspers and Sartre

F. H. Heinemarm has compared the existential philosophies of Jaspers and Sartre, and he shows some interesting differences between them:

Jaspers Sartre

Keep space open for the There is no Comprehensive.
Do not identify yourself with an Commit yourself!
object of your knowledge!
Do not reject any form of the Reject all those forms which
Comprehensive! restrict your liberty!
Do not accept any defamation Describe reality in its ugliness,
of existence! absurdity and obscenity!
Do not allow yourself to be cut You are cut off from the
off from the Transcendent! Transcendent, for it is non-

(Heinemann, Existentialism, p. 129).

Despite the differences between Jaspers and Sartre (and, in fact, among many existentialists), there are common themes that run throughout their philosophies.

Christian Response

The themes of existentialism are themes that the God of the Bible addresses in His Word. God is concerned about individuals. God is concerned about an individual's happiness, contentment and inner peace. God is concerned about an individual's fulfillment. However, existentialism is not biblical Christianity. Though not a Christian, philosopher Hazel Barnes notes that distinction:

My first objection to the theological claims of Tillich, Robinson, Bonhoeffer, and Bultmann- to use them as examples and speaking of what they share in common without implying that they are in full agreement - is that they claim to be Christian while denying what has been essential in Christianity whereas they subtly retain Christian assumptions when they profess to establish philosophical truths independent of sectarian commitments.

In their plea for a revolution in Christian thought, these theologians seem at times to argue for a position scarcely discernible from naturalism. The idea of a God "out there" somewhere in or beyond space, or the concept of any Being which is separate from us and the world is as offensive to Bishop Robinson as the medieval God who dwelt "up there" in Dante's three-level universe. Tillich argues against all use of "supernatural" concepts of God. Bultmann urges that we must "demythologize” Bonhoeffer suggests that Christianity should advance to the point where it no longer needs the "religious premise," that the Christian must "plunge himself into the life of a godless world, without attempting to gloss over its ungodliness with a veneer of religion or trying to transfigure it" (Bames, Ethics, pp. 382, 383).

Bochenski gives another slant to a critical look at existentialism. He talks about some of the philosophical problems posed but not answered by the usual existential concepts:

As often happens, existentialism has gone too far in the rejection, inherently justified, of the past. For many existentialist philosophers there seems to be nothing in principle worth considering except those ... questions of fate we have already alluded to. Their whole philosophy seems to center on death, suffering, failure. Thereby they neglect another essential factor in European culture, namely that sense of the objective and scientific which the Greeks had in such eminent degree. Often existentialism goes so far... that it seems to be more an Indian than a European philosophy, that is, a kind of thought which seems to be exclusively, even in its logic, a kind of therapeutic device. It is for such reasons that existentialism encounters justified reproach among many, perhaps most, serious European philosophers.

Another unique trait of existentialist philosophy ... is its definite technical philosophical character. Here many valuable insights and results are discernible. Unquestionably philosophy has been enriched by numerous superior analyses in psychology and phenomenology, and some fields have in fact been subjected to study for the first time through these efforts, for example, pure personal relationships between human beings -being-with-another," "being-for-another," "thou," "communication” A study of problems has thus arisen which constitutes a definite advancement in philosophy. Equally fundamental are the critical attacks on positivism and on idealism by the existentialists. Against the first they have successfully defended the irreducibility of human existence to matter, and respecting the second they have asserted with great power and conviction the priority of existence to thought. They have occupied themselves with ontology in various ways and some have not only worked it out in detail but have capped their efforts with a metaphysics (Bochenski, European Philosophy, p. 199).

Christianity is based on a completely different set of presuppositions from those of existentialism. While existentialism stresses subjective inner experience, Christianity links subjective inner experience with objective and testable supernatural events in history (such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ) and with God-given and God-developed reason. Biblical Christians have faith. Existentialists also have faith. But faith, however sincere, is not enough. Faith must have an object and that object must be worthy of faith. Jesus Christ alone, the creator and sustainer of the universe and every individual in it, is worthy of ultimate faith.
We have dealt with the historicity of the Christian faith and its reasonableness in previous works (see, for example, Josh's Evidence, More than a Carpenter, and The Resurrection Factor; and Josh and Don's Reasons and Answers). Christianity presents a cohesive world view which fits the reality around us. Existentialism does not. We are convinced that Christianity alone makes the greatest sense out of the world we live in and out of our own inner thoughts and feelings. Christian philosopher Richard Purtill has capably summarized our perspective:

... reason is on the side of Christianity .... If we begin to ask fundamental questions about the universe, and follow the argument where it leads us, then it will lead us to belief in God; that if we examine the evidence of history and of human experience, we will be compelled to acknowledge that the only satisfactory explanation of the evidence leads us to Christianity. Such Christians admit that there is still a gap between intellectual assent and commitment to a Christian way of life, but they believe that reason is neither opposed to such a commitment or irrelevant to it -rather, it is the best possible ground for it (Richard Purtill, C. S. Lewis's Case for the Christian Faith, San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1981, pp. 12, 13).

Existentialism Bibliography

Alston, William P. and George Nakhnikian, Readings in Twentieth Century Philosophy. NY: The Free Press, 1963.
Angeles, Peter A., Dictionary of Philosophy. NY- Harper and Row, Publishers, 1981.
Avey, Albert E., Handbook in the History of Philosophy. NY. Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1961.
Barnes, Hazel E., An Existentialist Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
Bochenski, I. M., Contemporary European Philosophy. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1954.
Brown, James, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Buber and Barth. NY: Collier Books, 1955.
Caponigri, A. Robert, A History of Western Philosophy. Philosophy from the Age of Positivism to the Age of Analysis. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1971.
Collins, James, The Existentialist. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1952.
Davidson, Robert F., Philosophies Men Live By. NY. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1974.
Edwards, Rem B., Reason and Religion. NY. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972.
Flew, Antony, A Dictionary of Philosophy. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1982.
Frankl, Viktor E., Man's Search for Meaning. NY: Pocket Books, 1963.
Frost, S. E., Jr., Basic Teachings of the Great Philosophers. Garden City, NY. Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1962.
Fuller, B. A. G., A History of Philosophy. NY. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1955.
Geisler, Norman L. and Paul D. Feinberg, Introduction to Philosophy Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1980.
Greene, Marjorie, Sartre. NY: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1973.
Heidegger, Martin, On Time and Being. NY: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1972.
Heinemann, F. H., Existentialism and the Modern Predicament. NY: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1953.
Herberg, Will, Four Existentialist Theologians. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1958.
Horvath, Nicholas A., Philosophy. Woodbury, NY: Barron's Educational Series, 1974.
Hunnex, Milton D., Existentialism and Christian Belief Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1969.
James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience. NY. The New American Library, Inc., 1958.
Kaufmann, Walter, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. NY. The World Publishing Co., 1956.
_______________, Existentialism, Religion and Death, NY: The New American Li rary, Inc., 1976.
Kierkegaard, Soren, Attack upon Christendom. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944, 1968.
________________, The Point of View for My Work as An Author. NY; Harper and Row, Publisher, 1962.
Marias, Julian, History of Philosophy. NY. Dover Publications, Inc., 1967.
Purtill, Richard L., C. S. Lewis's Case for the Christian Faith. San Francisco: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1981.
___________________, Thinking About Ethics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1976.
Runes, Dagobert D., ed., Dictionary of Philosophy. Totowa, NJ: Littlefield, Adams and Company, 1977.
Sahakian, William S., Ethics: An Introduction to Theories and Problems. NY: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1974.
_________________,+History of Philosophy. NY. Harper and Row, Publishers, 1968.
_________________and Mabel L. Sahakian, Ideas of the Great Philosophers. NY. Harper and Row, Publishers, 1966.
Sartre, jean-Paul, Existentialism and Human Emotions. NY: The Citadel Press, n.d.
Stumpf, Samuel Enoch, Socmtes to Sartre: A History of Philosophy. NY: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1966.
Thomas, Henry Understanding the Great Philosophers. Garden City, NY. Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1962.
Tillich, Paul, The Shaking of the Foundations. NY. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953.
Wild, John, Existence and the World of Freedom. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963.
Wilde, jean T., and William Kimmel, eds. and trans., The Search for Being. NY: The Noonday Press, 1962.
Young, Warren C., A Christian Approach to Philosophy. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1954.

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