With the recent success of James K.A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, I have decided to follow in the path of Calvin College’s most astute philosopher and enter into the ring with a few secular giants, gathering what insights they may have for today’s Christian. Rather than the Postmoderns (Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault) however, I will match wits (and most certainly be wit-matched) with the Existentialists. And here’s the best part… Only Atheists count! That means no Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, or Marcel. And so begins our series: Who’s Afraid of Existentialism. Let us begin!
Who’s Afraid of Existentialism? Part I – Introduction
Comedian Steven Wright once told a joke about existential philosophy. He said, “I have an existentialist map; it’s just a big piece of paper that says ‘YOU ARE HERE’ all over it”. This is often the treatment that existentialism is given both in the academy and the church (the latter of which is our subject). Existentialists (and philosophers in general) are seen from the church’s vantage point as Mogul invaders attempting to sack the holy Roman city; only this time they aren’t using swords and arrows, but words (and convoluted ones at that).
When a typical Christian hears of ‘existentialism’, he will often think of Jean-Paul Sartre’s line, “Existentialism isn’t so atheistic that it wears itself out showing that God doesn’t exist. Rather, it declares that even if God did exist, that would change nothing.” This type of thinking strikes fear in the heart of evangelicalism. A socio-religious movement that requires a certain, particular political affiliation for membership takes for granted rational belief in its creeds. If believing in the evangelical God (who has opposed abortion and same-sex unions since before the foundation of the world) changes nothing in how one lives (or, more precisely, how one votes), then all is lost.
So what does Existentialism have to say to modern-day American evangelicalism? Quite a lot, I would think. I believe it is time to bridge the great divide between the late 19th century revival of philosophical subjectivity and the conservative branch of American evangelicalism dominant in the West today. A conversation needs to take place; a discussion that never really occurred when the existentialist philosophers were in their prime. For this dialogical exchange our interlocutors will be Heidegger, Sartre, and Nietzsche; one might call them the bizarro trinity of atheism. In a beautiful fit of irony, these atheists, who devoted their entire lives to destroying Christian belief (or so they thought), will be used in instrumental fashion. We will take the baby and remove him from the dirty, stinky bath water. These great atheists will lead the procession of the faithful and they will lead us to the Promised Land, even if accidentally. Just as Balaam’s ass was used as a prophet by Yahweh for the good of faithful Israel, so will these asses speak forth the truth of God with similar quantities of bile and filth spewed forth intermittently between the inspired words.
Next time – Part II: Heidegger and Onto-Theology.