A Primer on Religious Existentialism, Pt. 7: The Draw

Thus far in this series, I haven’t really discussed any theologian who might be rightly considered an existentialist, as opposed to an influence or proto-existentialist. (The exception is Karl Barth, whom I’ve brought up several times and who is existentialist to the core.) Having, I think, demonstrated the importance of religious sources for early formulations of existentialism, I will in this post examine what it is in existentialism–even in the atheistic forms represented by Sartre, Heidegger, and Camus–that made it so attractive to religious thinkers throughout the twentieth century; in so doing, of course, I will also describe what attracts me to this philosophy.

The easiest and most obvious answer is that religious thinkers have been drawn to existentialist thought because religious philosophers exerted such a strong influence on its formulation. (Kierkegaard is indispensible, of course, but Pascal is a clear influence on both Sartre and Camus, and Heidegger takes one of his major concepts–curiosity–right from Augustine’s Confessions.) I don’t want to downplay the accuracy of this explanation, but unless we’re to assume religious thinkers are outrageously small-minded and parochial, we need to find another explanation.

I’ve already suggested that the brand of atheism championed by secular existentialists is more self-reflexive and thus more acceptable to religious thinkers than the more rationalistic variety represented by the Logical Positivists and the nü atheists. This, obviously, makes a Paul Tillich or an Abraham Heschel more likely to associate themselves with Sartre than with Bertrand Russell (or, in our day, Richard Dawkins). This is certainly part of the equation; it’s easier for a believer to see the legitimate arguments in Nietzsche and Camus than in the nü atheists because one senses that, despite their occasional militancy, the existentialist atheists understand faith much better than Daniel Dennett does. The existential call is to take religious faith more seriously–not to blithely exchange it for a scientific certainty, a type of faith in and of itself.

But there must be more than this, for the existentialists are hardly the only atheists to take religion seriously. I think historical context will prove valuable here. Existentialism, broadly speaking, comes in three major waves: First, in the nineteenth century, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Dostoevsky revolted against the ascendant rationalism of the Enlightenment. Then, in the period between the two world wars, Heidegger, Jaspers, and others revolted against Logical Positivism and the increasingly mechanized world in which they found themselves. The third movement comes after World War II, and especially in the 1950s and early ’60s, when existentialism hit pop culture. Here, Sartre, Tillich, Heschel, and many, many other philosophers, theologians, and novelists revolted against a world that produced chilling examples of “man’s inhumanity to man” on the one hand and a stultifying suburban culture on the other. (Mechanization was, obviously, still in the mix and played a big part in both the cruelty of war and the boredom of the suburbs.)

The concerns of the existentialists of all three of these eras–both in terms of what they reject and in terms of what they promote–just so happen to line up, in large part, with the traditional concerns of Jewish and Christian thought. The existentialists seek to rescue Western philosophy from those who would make the intellect the defining characteristic of man, to the exclusion of the rest of his being. They want to repudiate the psychologist who would claim that man is an unwitting slave to deep, unconscious drives. They want to elevate the concrete and individual self above all universal abstractions, be they “logic,” “ethics,” or “human nature.” Certainly they want to refuse the conformity of Stalin’s Russia and Eisenhower’s America. They want to demonstrate man’s position in the world without allowing him to be lost in that world. They want to point to the shattering nothingness at the very heart of being–knowing all the while that they can never explain it, only point to it.

Compared to the Enlightenment philosophers and the logical positivists, the existentialists, even the atheists in their ranks, have deeply metaphysical concerns. Heidegger’s last few years, in fact, are sometimes referred to as his “religious period,” even though he never gave up his atheism, to the best of my knowledge. In the same vein, Walker Percy classes Sartre as a religious novelist on the grounds that he “betrays a passionate conviction about man’s nature, the world, and man’s obligation in the world.”

The religious intellectuals of the twentieth century thus find in the existentialist corpus new skin for the old ceremony–a vibrant and up-to-date language in which to couch or tweak the ancient verities. For example, when an existentialist theologian speaks of “man’s alienation from God,” he draws from an enormous sea of connotations: he brings up not only Genesis 3 and its Jewish and Christian commentators but also Heidegger on “thrownness,” Sartre on anxiety, and Camus on absurdity. The latter shed light on man’s state before redemption, and the former provide an explanation for the origins of the mess in which we find ourselves. To put this in another way: the existentialists–more so, in my opinion, than any other group of modern philosophers–ask the important questions, the ones that both challenge theology in significant ways and request theological answers.

An example of how the results can vary for different theologians: In Being and Nothingness, Sartre distinguishes two kinds of being: être-en-soi (in itself) and être-pour-soi (for itself). The former is objective being, inanimate and without inner contradiction; the latter includes beings with consciousness. (Sartre does not reveal whether this category applies to nonhuman animals or not.) Être-pour-soi is rich with self-contradiction, for we are not, in Sartre’s terminology, what we are.  The great sin (absolutely not Sartre’s word) of humanity is their attempt to become être-en-soi, to become perfect by becoming an object.

So far, so good. But theists have a problem here because Sartre allows only for perfect being without consciousness, or self-alienated consciousness. God, as traditionally conceived, is a perfect consciousness, a personal being utterly without self-contradiction. Thus, God is, for Sartre, utterly impossible. Nevertheless, Sartre is an important influence on the two most important Christian existentialists, Paul Tillich and Karl Barth, and if they are to respond honestly to his work, they must find a place for God in his two types of being. Their solutions differ in ways that get at the heart of their overall philosophical and theological divergence.

Barth, for his part, has little patience for the theological liberalism ascendant in the nineteenth century; it’s possible to read his entire project as a repudiation of the worst excesses of Friedrich Schleiermacher. Thus, his existentialism involves little change to traditional Christianity’s core principles. (There are a few breaks with the tradition, particularly in his early work, but on the whole Neo-Orthodoxy is as conservative as mainline theology gets–which doesn’t stop some Evangelicals from seeing Barth as a great enemy.) Barth does not, as far as I know, use specifically Sartrean terms, and yet I think his emphasis on what he calls the “Wholly Other” God can serve as a response to Sartre’s atheism. Hundreds of theologians before Barth, of course, had emphasized God’s transcendence–and the Calvinist tradition out of which Barth writes is sometimes accused of an overemphasis on this attribute–but Barth is, I think, new in the lengths he goes.

I talked in my previous post about Barth’s steadfast refusal to allow a path from man to God. The reason for this is that God is made of something absolutely different than the world. The end result is that He is utterly transcendent, utterly removed–absent, as some people prefer to say. We can find God neither by searching our hearts nor by searching creation, neither with logic nor with emotional response. His ways are not our ways, and no twist of logic will allow us to understand Him. This raises God above all simple dichotomies, be they Cartesian or Sartrean.

Many people’s understanding of Barth ends with God’s otherness, and it’s true that Barth is probably guilty of overemphasis, especially early in his career. But Barth certainly acknowledges the other side of God, His immanence. He denies natural theology because God is wholly other, but he points to revelation, God’s reaching down to man, which can happen only if God is also immanent. So God is above the duplicity of the en-soi and the pour-soi, but He reaches down into it. Barth gets around Sartre’s prohibition on God by breaking the circuit, then quietly putting it back together: God is en-soi, pour-soi, and simply soi, a sort of being beyond being–and He is all three simultaneously.

Tillich is famously less concerned with maintaining traditionalist formulations of Christianity. He begins his Systematic Theology with an attack on fundamentalism, which, he says, “fails to make contact with the present situation, not because it speaks from beyond every situation, but because it speaks from a situation of the past.” For Tillich, theology must be created anew for each generation; his own theology is quite clearly and explicitly an attempt to recreate Christianity under existentialist principles. The language changes. For Barth, alienation is a product of sin; for Tillich, sin is alienation. In the merger of these two systems of thought, Barth privileges Christianity. Tillich, his critics say, privileges existentialism.

So he absolutely has to deal with Sartre’s objection–and he can’t do so by elevating God beyond the dichotomous world, because he is far less comfortable with fideism than Barth is. His solution is to argue that God is simply not a combination of en-soi and pour-soi at all.He speaks of God less as a Person than as an idea, as when he says, in Systematic Theology 1, that

Philosophy necessarily asks the question of reality as a whole, the question of the structure of being. Theology necessarily asks the same question, for that which concerns us ultimately must belong to reality as a whole. . . . It must be the ground of our being, that which determines our being or not-being, the ultimate and unconditional power of being.

Commentators have disagreed on the extent to which this formulation dispenses with God’s Personhood (the part of Him subsumed under the heading of pour-soi) and places Him entirely in the consciousness-free world of the en-soi. It is certainly possible to posit God as both a Person and as the ground of all being; Abraham Joshua Heschel does so in Man Is Not Alone. But in my reading of Tillich’s books I’ve never seen him present God as anything more than ultimate concern. He never moves from metaphysical object to supernatural subject. This is a major break from historical Christianity, and it’s clearly born out of a deep engagement with existentialist ideas.

And this is only one example, meant to demonstrate the deep rejuvenation Christian and Jewish theology received from existentialism. For some, like Tillich, existentialism provided the impetus to make stale theology radically new; for others, like Barth, it asked questions that left nineteenth-century liberalism speechless. Either way, theology became important to public life in a new way. At the height of existentialism’s popular appeal, Christianity was represented by great minds like Barth and Tillich, and Judaism by equally great minds like Heschel. Today, we get Rick Warren and Shmuley Boteach. Res ipsa loquitur.

5 thoughts on “A Primer on Religious Existentialism, Pt. 7: The Draw

  1. My personal favorite among the “Existential Primers” so far, Michial! Your distinction between Barth and Tillich’s take on their existentialist predecessors is brilliant, and extremely helpful. I hope more primers follow.

  2. There’ll be at least two more, Cameron–one on fiction and one on interpersonal relations. Whether the next installment appears next Tuesday or the week after depends on how quickly I can write the book review I’m working on.

    Glad you’re enjoying the series!

  3. A few days on, I’m feeling guilty about my remarks about Rick Warren and Shmuley Boteach. I’ve read Warren’s book and heard several radio programs with Boteach, and they both seem like good men who are sincere in their faith and who help a lot of people. My point was that their work lacks the intellectual depth of Heschel and Barth, etc. So if a fan of theirs reads this, let it be known that I mean no disrespect. Or at least little disrespect.

  4. Better late than never; thanks for your existentialism primers. I had a discussion with an atheist acquaintance recently, and he was not aware of the Christian stream of existentialism, so I put him onto your blog. I think that existentialist Christianity has considerable potential as a place of engagement with secularism. And if nothing else, secular existentialism shows us what the choice really is, as was once said of Sartre himself.
    It wouldn’t have occurred to me to include Barth amongst the existentialists (which is not to deny that he was influenced by them), but there you go. For myself, the late John Macquarrie is the leading existentialist theologian writing in English. He was most influenced by Heidegger, and was the co-translator of “Being and Time”.
    Best regards,

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