Notes on Existentialism

Posted: April 21, 2011 in Uncategorized

I thought I would post these notes from a class lecture that Dr. Travis Kerns delivered yesterday in Worldview Analysis.  I have only corrected spelling and left the notes as I typed them in class.  I thougth that would be an interesting, and different, way to post these thoughts.  Enjoy.

Existentialism—pertaining to existence, or we could say, existence precedes essence.  There is no purpose for existing, you simply exist and then create your own reason for existing.

  • It tries to take nihilism seriously.
  • It is not its own worldview, but an addition to other worldview.  Christian existentialist, a naturalistic existentialist, etc.

 –Soren Kierkegaard—one of Kern’s favorite philosopher in history.  This guy is interesting…you have to be a Christian to go to heaven…but Jesus the only way?  Not sure where he is.

 4 Big Foundational Understandings of Existentialism

 1.      Irrationalism—the universe cannot be completely captured, or understand, by pure intellectual concepts.

a.       We can’t write out a description of reality and get the full picture.  It goes beyond our reason/intellect.

b.      There is no way to put reality into a logical system.

c.       No such thing as a true, fully orbed, systematic philosophy.

d.      Why say this?

           i.      Big systems bring about contradictions.

          ii.      No real purpose then in reality.

         iii.      But then, after saying irrationality in the physical, there is irrationality in the spiritual.

2.      Individualism—existentialism argues that each person is a unique individual and b/c of that, you cannot classify them in big groups.

a.       We must get to know the individual person. 

3.      Human Freedom—nothing at all, nothing can hinder the individual person’s ability to choose.

a.       Jean-Paul Sartre—“if a sovereign God existed, He would encroach on my existence, therefore He does not exist.”

b.      For the existentialist, b/c we have freedom, we also have to take responsibility for what we do.  It’s not your dads fault, it’s your fault.  God didn’t make you do it, you did it.

4.      Subjectivity—truth and world.  Both are split into two types:  objective and subjective.

a.       Truth:

     i.      Objective—truth that is found in scientific type of pursuit.  Math, for example.  This truth is found anytime an idea corresponds to reality.  The podium is hard…hit it, it is hard…thus objective truth.

    ii.      Subjective—truth is found when an idea or object has an effect on the person studying it (the knower/thinker).  Religion, for an existentialist, is subjective.  It impacts you personally, but maybe not the other person.  This is more important than objective truth.

b.      World:

    i.      Objective—nature, the universe, the material world as we see/know it.  Science, logic, and reason are the kings.  We can talk about this world by reason, logic, testing, etc. 

   ii.      Subjective –the world of morality and religion.  In this world, science, reason, and logic have no place at the table.  It is filled with emotion and feeling. 

 Soren Kierkegaard

 ·         Theistic Existentialist

  • Born in Copenhagen, Denmark on May 15, 1813.  His dad was extremely religious, raising the family in the Christian church.  His dad is a depressed man that might be the most sarcastic individual to ever live.  Soren picks up on this and becomes depressed.  He hides it behind his own brand of sarcasm. 
  • 1830—he enrolls in the University of Copenhagen and studies religion b/c his dad wanted him to.  Kierkegaard doesn’t last.  He devotes his study to philosophy. 
  • His problem is that since he is away from home, is depressed, and is studying things he doesn’t like, he rebels.  He joins a fraternity, which he calls, “immersing himself in the social life of the university.”
  • While at “social events”, he begins to talk about the “stuffy atmosphere of Christianity.” 
    •    Remember this is a state school….the state is run by the church…and a student is talking about this “stuffiness.”
    •    He begins to say things like philosophy and religion are incompatible.  He breaks from Christianity.
    •    1838—his dad dies.  He undergoes a “religious conversion.”  Along with this comes, “indescribable joy.”  His personality shifts.  He    goes from depressed crazy man to always happy loving Jesus.  He reenrolls in theology and aces his classes.
    •   While in his classes he begins to formulate his views on religion.
    •   He begins to attack the Danish State Church openly, “the Danish state church does not deserve the title Christian.”  So, the official representatives of the state church go and find him.  What are you doing!?!
    •   He tells them, “all they have done is water down the teaching of Christianity into light moral humanism…”
    •   He begins to lecture in the 1850’s and attacks the church in public lecture series.  All over Denmark a controversy ensues.
    •   The leaders accuse him of being an atheist, which he denies. 
    •   “The emasculated Christianity of the established Christianity should recognize and admit that they are not Christian.”
    •   November 4, 1855—he dies.
    •   Great Story:  Kierkegaard is a clergyman for the state church.  They have a funeral at the main church in Copenhagen.  The head of the state church performs the funeral message.  The man gets up, begin to delivers the message, Kierkegaard’s nephew gets up and begins to speak back.  In about equal tones…the response from the leader, he raises his voice.  The nephew raises his voice, and back and forth they go.  History records they stop while both screaming at each other.  The end of the message comes…amen…both sit down and the funeral goes on.

 How does this work out?

 ·         Get to the highest point of life.  Stages to get there:

 1.      Aesthetic Man—the example is Don Juan.  He is governed by his senses, impulses, and emotions.  He is open to all emotional experiences and hates the thought of being limited (in terms of choices).  His problem is that he never gives meaning to his life…purposeless.  When he realizes he has no purpose in life he finds himself stuck in the Pit of Despair.  At this point he has a choice, he can remain there and be hooked up to the machine or he can, by faith, make the transition to the next level.

2.      Ethical man—the example is Socrates.  This man accepts moral standards.  This man renounces certain impulses (he gets married).  The step of faith is to believe this is better than being Aesthetic man.  The problem for this man is that he becomes a “tragic hero.”  While looking out for others, ethical man doesn’t solve his own problems.  When the tragic man realizes he has problems, he falls back into the pit of despair.  Two options…remain there or move on the third level.

3.      Man of Faith—Kierkegaard himself.  This man plays down the role of reason.  He emphasizes his emotions and feelings when he thinks about how much better his faith is going to make him.  “Man of Faith” = Man of Christian Faith.  Faith is emotional and not reasoned.  The man of faith is not so b/c of a reasoned or logical argument.  He is this man because he took the “leap of faith.”  He jumped towards a hope of a better life…but without certainty.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)—Atheistic Existentialist

His big contribution to philosophy is his statement that “existence precedes essence.”

  •     Since there is no God, there can be no human purpose.
  •     If no human purpose, we define ourselves.  How?  Through a moral code.  What you want to do when trying to choose a moral action is say, “how is this going to affect the way people think about me after I am dead?”  Positive or negative effects?
  •     You are also responsible for how you affect the human race.  How would your action affect the human race?
  •     Appealing b/c we can do whatever we want, while because of that it is appalling. 
  •     Sometimes you do something so appalling, we go wow….we really are free.  We do these things and remind ourselves we are free.
  •     Hitler, then, is good for society because he reminds us that we are responsible for our actions individually and corporately.
  •     He lives this out.  He has a relationship with a lady philosopher, but sleeps around on occasion to remind her that he is free.

 How does this work in the church?

 ·         Neo-Orthodoxy:  writings of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner.

  •      Barth—1886-1968—Barth starts out as a liberal but moves towards orthodoxy.  He is a Universalist.  His teaching was that Scripture is a fallible witness to Christ.  It only becomes the Word when we experience the Jesus taught in the Bible. 
    •    The Bible is not the Word, it is tied to the Word, it conveys the Word, and that Word is Christ.
    •    A human document and not direct revelation, only a record of God’s revelation in Christ.
    •    This is where SBTS was in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.
  •          Brunner-1889-1966—Brunner says there is a danger in assuming the Bible is the Word of God.
    •    Not the word of God until someone believes it to be.

 In contemporary churches:

  •      What does the Bible say to you? To me it means…
    •    We are not concerned with what it means to you, or me, subjectively.  We are concerned with what the  text means.  There is ONE MEANING…with MULTIPLE APPLICATIONS.
    •    We have a church culture that is skeptical of systematic theology.
    •    The emergent church picks up on some of this…not much room for absolute, propositional truth claims.
    •    Anti-intellectualism….more emphasis on emotionalism.

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