Alienation, Existentialism, and the Theological Hole

Alienation is such a major fixation for existentialists that it can be easy to forget that they didn’t invent it. (Students, like me, of Christian existentialism are more likely to say that the Hebrew Bible invented the concept, which was then preserved like a faithful remnant in the writings of St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, etc., etc., until Kierkegaard could pick it up and gift-wrap it for the twentieth century.) But there is an argument to be made–and, in fact, David E. Cooper makes it in his book Existentialism: A Reconstruction–that the history of philosophy is a history of human attempts to cope with deep-seated alienation; in Cooper’s opinion, that alienation is the product of “a whole distorted stance towards the relation between man and world,” and philosophy is less scientific thought than psychospiritual panacea:

[T]he deepest urge to philosophy may be the need to overcome, dissolve, or come to terms with the dualistic thinking which informs that stance. Neither puzzlement nor awe, neither a thirst for knowledge nor a craving for clarity, has been the abiding inspiration for philosophy. Rather, this has been the perpetual threat posed by the sense that men are hopelessly alienated from their world.

The advantage of the existentialist, then, is not that he recognizes the alienation at the heart of an individual’s relationship to the world–indeed, if Cooper is to believed, nearly every major philosopher has recognized this fact, implicitly or explicitly–but that he sees the degree to which the Cartesian split of the mind from the body exacerbates the alienation.

Alienation is certainly a good place to start from if one is interested in doing philosophy the way Plato and Socrates did it: as a quasi-religious ritualized quest for Truth. (After all, what is the Theory of Forms if not an attempt to impose a grand celestial order upon an earthly reality that appears chaotic and absurd?) And philosophers who admit that their philosophy proceeds forth from a nothingness coiled, to use Sartre’s image, at the heart of their being strike me as fundamentally more honest than those who, like the Logical Positivists, pretend to detachment and objectivity. The former relate to the world as we all do, from a position of what Heidegger calls “concern”; the latter attempt to create a clinical environment and, in so doing, manage to leave themselves out of their precisely defined worlds entirely. The problem is that a definition of the world that excludes the definer (a) is untrue in the sense that it fails to account for one of the most important pieces of the puzzle, the Self; and (b) propagates Descartes’s dualistic view of humanity, thus making alienation even worse. The moral of the story: Admit alienation before you begin to think, or else make your situation that much worse.

The Bible does not, technically speaking, begin with alienation but rather with an astounding unity in which is hidden a secret dualism: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Indeed, all matter and all substance flows forth, effortlessly, from this one divine source. And yet we have a split here, in that in the act of creating the world, God is not the world. But separation does not necessitate alienation, any more than finitude necessitates sinfulness. God and the cosmos, though split from the first moment of creation, nevertheless exist in perfect harmony for the first two chapters of Genesis. And when “the Lord God form[s] man of dust from the ground, and breathe[s] into his nostrils the breath of life” (2:7), Adam and Eve, too, exist in perfect harmony–with each other, with the world, with God, and with themselves. (Notice, too, that at least in this account of the origin of man, the body and the spirit [or “mind”?] appear to be mutually dependent; the body may come first, but Adam is not called “a living being” until God imparts to him “the breath of life.”)

So alienation enters Judeo-Christian theology in Genesis 3, with Adam and Eve shattering the dualistic harmony that has heretofore reigned supreme. Alienation, I’ll argue, manifests itself in four ways today and always–and it should come as no surprise that we find all four in the third chapter of Genesis:

  1. Alienation from God. Adam and Eve disobey God’s commandment and are torn away from their relationship with the divine. Genesis 2 is the last chapter in the Bible in which a call from God is unequivocal, not matched by a pull away from God. By the time the Modern Age rolls around, we get Martin Luther’s deus absconditus and Karl Barth’s Wholly Other God–both legitimate theologies in this postlapsarian world in which we are alienated from the source of life.
  2. Alienation from the world of nature. God’s last action before ejecting humanity from Eden once and for all is to introduce violence into the nonhuman world for the first time: “And the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them” (3:21). The modern era is famously marked by humanity’s preference to interpret God’s command to “fill the earth, and subdue it” (1:28) as “take advantage of the earth.” Environmentalism would be unnecessary if not for our alienation from the natural world.
  3. Alienation from one another. It’s telling that Adam’s first impulse after being confronted by God about his sin is to blame “The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me” (3:12). In reality, this move is meant to blame both Eve and God for Adam’s actions, and it demonstrates the degree to which our alienation from one another is intertwined with our alienation from God.
  4. Alienation from ourselves. I’d argue that the Cartesian split actually doesn’t begin with Descartes’s cogito but with the eating of the fruit in the Garden: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked” (3:7). Here we have, for the first time, man and woman ashamed of their physical bodies–the mind has turned against the body, and this enmity has been there ever since.

The history of philosophy–at least according to the Hebraic origin story–is thus the history of alienation. Importantly, the forbidden fruit is from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (2:17), making intellectual and philosophical activity a double motion: It brings on alienation, and then it attempts to heal it. This double motion is important, as we shall see in a moment.

I give the theological background of alienation–and obviously, I’ve given only a small corner of a vast tapestry of alienation in the Bible–in order to point out that Cooper’s book, like the vast majority of general books on existentialism, fails to engage adequately with existential theology, as opposed to existential philosophy. Everyone discusses Kierkegaard, of course, and Cooper spends a bit of time with Martin Buber and Gabriel Marcel, but he dismisses readers who view Buber theologically and says nothing about the most explicitly theological aspects of Marcel’s thought (specifically, his rebuttal to Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, “Existence and Human Freedom”). He brings up Rudolf Bultmann in order to dismiss him, and he completely ignores the two greatest Protestant theologians of the last century, Barth and Paul Tillich, both of whom make very important modifications to existentialist thought. Not a word is said about Helmut Kuhn, the Niebuhr brothers, etc., etc., although John MacQuarrie gets brought up in a nontheological context.

As I said, Cooper is by no means alone in these exclusions; theological existentialism is so ignored in general histories of the movement that it may indeed fall to me to write a more inclusive one. But Cooper strikes me as a particularly egregious example, focusing on Heidegger and Sartre–existentialism’s most radical atheists–nearly to the exclusion of everyone else. He even tries to throw Kierkegaard out of the club, for reasons that are very telling. Kierkegaard, he tells us,

seems to enjoy the thought that men are aliens in their world. It is only if people do view themselves as “homeless” that they will then seek that personal relationship with God, which is the pivot of Kierkegaard’s concerns.

He gets the facts basically right but the tone wrong. Kierkegaard appreciates alienation (and its attendant psychospiritual affect, angst/dread/anxiety/whatever) for its ability to lead people to the precipice of faith, but he’s as interested in healing alienation as is everyone who follows him–he just believes that healing will come only when the individual leaps over that precipice. Thinking that a relationship with God is the only cure for spiritual homelessness is not, in fact, the same thing as enjoying the thought of spiritual homelessness.

Here, then, is where the bibically minded thinker (Jewish or Christian) must break with the defiantly secular existentialism of Heidegger and Sartre (and Cooper, to the degree he subscribes to the philosophy he summarizes). We’re told that “The Existentialist . . . follows Hegel and Marx in assigning to philosophy the task of curing people of the misunderstandings which promote a sense of alienation.”

The problems should be obvious: Alienation, for one thing, is not the result of anything so trivial as a misunderstanding; it is a deep-seated gulf at the very heart of humanity’s relationship to itself and everything else. And philosophy’s ability to heal alienation is exactly counterbalanced by its creation of further alienation, as the story of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil demonstrates. When philosophers attempt to “cure” alienation, it’s like trying to get a sliver out from under your fingernail: You may know what the problem is, but you lack the means for solving it. And the tomes on alienation–even the existentialist tomes, which see the problem much more clearly than most others–only push that sliver deeper in.

The existentialist theologians know this. Barth tells us that our attempts at reaching God–or our attempts to do what only God can do–are little more than Towers of Babel, created to be toppled. The solution is the one Cooper rejects out of hand: We must allow despair to lead us to the precipice, then close our eyes and jump beyond knowledge into the theological hole.

4 thoughts on “Alienation, Existentialism, and the Theological Hole

  1. It’s more than misunderstanding, to be sure, but I’d contend that it certainly encompasses and includes distortions of knowledge. I only say that because I see one of the great vocations of the Christian scholar as presenting compelling alternatives to the ways that folks like Heidegger and Sartre (and Dawkins and Wilson and so on and so on) articulate the relationships between entities in the world.

    Once again, Michial, you convince me that, when my kids are a bit older and my dissertation is something that I finished once upon a time, I really need to dig into Barth.

  2. What I think we’re looking at is a deep-seated gulf in the human spirit made consistently WORSE by misunderstandings. But body/soul dualism doesn’t create alienation–it just exacerbates it. I’d trust Heidegger over Dawkins, though, and not just because he’s less hostile to my beliefs. (I’d also trust Sartre over Derrida, and not just because he’s interested in more than opinion and “readings.”) Heidegger and Sartre, I think, if they can’t see the origins of the problem can at least see what NOT to do.

  3. You are absolutely right about Descartes! But I’m not so inclined to agree with you about Derrida. Of course, I’ve only read “Of grammatology”, but it seems to me to be pretty clear that he himself admits that he can’t escape “presence.” (i.e. Being, i.e. God 🙂 Have you finished your comps? Are you guys still updating this blog/podcast regularly? Can you recommend any good books on Christian existentialism (recent books)? Have you written any? 😉 Has there been any scholarly work done on that recently? Can I quote you?

    1. We’re still doing the podcast every week, but the blog doesn’t get updated as often because we’re all working full-time with rather large teaching loads. But we’re trying!

      I don’t know of a recent book on Christian existentialism. I would love to write one, but first i have to finish my stupid dissertation. 😉

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