A Primer on Religious Existentialism, Pt. 1: Introduction

When people find out that I self-identify as a Christian existentialist, they are sometimes surprised. And why shouldn’t they be? Existentialism as a philosophical movement is bound up in the public mind with four of history’s most famous atheists: Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, and Friedrich Nietzsche. (We could add to this list numerous other atheists who are identified with the movement, including Simone de Beauvoir, Franz Fanon, Samuel Beckett, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Walter Kaufmann, and others.)

And yet it has always seemed to me that of the major philosophical movements of the past century and a half, existentialism is the most open to theological expression—not just because the movement finds its roots in religious thought (particularly in branches of Christianity and Judaism), but because the concerns of the existentialists are inherently religious concerns. It is no surprise that we find an outbreak of existentialist influence wherever the traditional Western notion of humanity is threatened, often by scientism and mechanization. It was the existentialists who revolted against the necessarily atheistic logical positivism of the early twentieth century; it was the existentialists who objected to the assembly-line dehumanization of the 1940s and ‘50s; and it will be the existentialists, I suspect, who wrest control of the public dialogue around religion away from the nü atheists of our own day.

I will thus spend the next several weeks writing a series of posts explaining what, exactly, religious existentialism looks like, how it differs from atheistic existentialism, and why I think it is the most viable option for the religious mind, even now, sixty years after its cultural prime. By necessity, I will confine my discussion to Christian and Jewish thinkers—and even then, I will be writing primarily about Christian existentialism—mainly because I am not aware of a Muslim or Hindu existentialist thinker, and other than perhaps Hermann Hesse, I don’t know of a writer who simultaneously identifies him or herself as both Buddhist and existentialist.

This study will be necessarily personal and incomplete. I have spent the last fifteen months or so in a concentrated study of major existentialist texts, but there is much I have not read (including, to my shame, any major work by Merleau-Ponty, Nikolai Berdyaev, Jose Ortega y Gasset, or André Gide). Nor would I ever claim to have more than a tenuous grasp on the two central systematic works of the movement: Heidegger’s Being and Time and Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, two of the most notoriously dense and difficult works of twentieth-century philosophy, an area of study not particularly known for its breezy texts anyway.

As a student of literature who never made it past Introduction to Philosophy, I will also be focusing more than some people might like on fiction inspired by the philosophy. David E. Cooper, in his book Existentialism, claims that many a faulty reading of existentialist philosophy is built upon an “over-reliance on existentialist fiction” in general and on Camus’s L’Etranger in particular. So be it. My understanding of existentialism is substantially broader than Cooper’s anyway—as I will demonstrate as these posts continue—and I could not possibly leave out the work of John Updike, Walker Percy, and Frederick Buechner, who brought me to existentialism as a philosophy through the version (perhaps watered-down) found in their fiction.

I invite objections, in the form of comments or emails—both to whatever faults the informed reader may discover in my reading of the existentialists, atheistic and religious, and to any attempt on my part to merge the Judeo-Christian tradition with the sometimes inhospitable philosophies of the secular existentialists. At the end of the series, I will present a bibliography of texts referenced and cited for this project. Bear with me, and I hope you enjoy what is to come.

2 thoughts on “A Primer on Religious Existentialism, Pt. 1: Introduction

  1. I very much look forward to your thought here, Michial. I majored in philosophy because of the indelible mark left on me by the work of Kierkegaard. Once at school, I was discouraged from studying existentialism, and advised to pursue the analytic tradition. So glad I chose to ignore that advice.

    It makes perfect sense that you’re focusing on the fiction of the movement. Existentialism, because of its inherently religious/ethical concerns, has always seemed to be inextricably dedicated to aesthetic problems as well. The fictional work of Miguel de Unamuno was one of my first primers in existential fiction.

  2. I’m reading “The Tragic Sense of Life” right now, Cameron, but I didn’t realize Unamuno wrote fiction. One more thing for the list of stuff in my field I haven’t read.

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