Tag Archives: existentialism

Crash course on existentialism with Sartre

A bible-study companion of mine recently sent me Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Existentialism is a Humanism”. Here’s my response:

Thanks for sending that over! I must admit I haven’t read much of Sartre, so the lecture you sent helped remedy that.

I have a hard time differentiating existentialism from hedonism, something Sartre seems to acknowledge at least by accident when he talks about how existentialism got an early reputation for exalting man’s baser actions.

I suppose if we are to consider existence to come before essence then it logically follows that whatever I experience (ie. my present state of existence) should be considered of greater value than what I know (ie. knowledge of a transcendent essence). And if we are to begin with the subjective then it stands to reason that we can never attain knowledge of the divine. This struggle of where to begin epistemologically was also wrestled with by Plato and Aristotle (succinctly captured in this piece of art which depicts Plato’s notion of idealism which is the polar opposite of what Sartre is arguing for) and was also eloquently expressed by Francis Schaeffer (notably in his “Modern Man & Epistemology” lecture).

The third objection, stated by saying, “You take with one hand what you give with the other,” means, at bottom, “your values are not serious, since you choose them yourselves.” To that I can only say that I am very sorry that it should be so; but if I have excluded God the Father, there must be somebody to invent values.

One of the most instrumental Christian philosophers who paved the way for this kind of thinking, at least in the Church, was Friedrich Schleiermacher who argued that the primary way we know God is through our emotions and not through revelation/reason.

Its interesting how Sartre calls for men to be stewards of the emerging essence of mankind at the same time he claims that there is no ideal essence we are obliged to grow towards. I would agree with his notion that we should act as if all of mankind is defined by our actions, but that only makes sense if there is an objective and external observer whose favor or disapproval mattered. Sartre borrows much from the Christianity he misrepresents (ie. that Christian teaching is determined by the subjective whims of priests) and loathes. In fact, his a priori assumption that moral ideals would remain unchanged if we were to find that God doesn’t exist stands in direct opposition to his admission that Dostoevsky’s notion that “without God all things are permissible”. And he further contradicts himself when he talks about an ideal form of morality whose particulars are subject to change!

I understand why he claims that existentialism is a form of humanism, mostly because it puts man in the center of the universe. But like all other humanistic variants, it suffers from the same frailties that all men do. Namely our lack of omniscience and immortality, both of which it seems Sartre struggles with mightily to no avail.

Thanks again for the paper. Here are some movies on existentialism in case you’re interested to see what Hollywood does with this philosophy. There are a lot of big name actors in these movies which leads me to believe that existentialism is held in high esteem by much of Hollywood.

  • eXistenZ – The director required the cast to read Sartre and other existential philosophers in preparation for the movie
  • I heart Huckabees – Plot centers around a team of existential detectives
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Saved! a critique of incoherent Christian culture

Saved! movie posterMy wife and I recently watched “Saved!“, a dark comedy about evangelical Christianity produced by  REM lead singer Michael Stipe1. I have had this movie in my Netflix queue for quite some time, shuffling it around because I thought it would turn out to be like “Dogma“. Boy was I mistaken.

This movie’s portrayal of popular evangelical culture is stunningly accurate. Just watching this movie brought me back to when I was first Saved! and the jargon, ideas, and general incoherent babbling I got caught up in.

For instance, in the movie the main character, out of a good desire to “save” her homosexual boyfriend, decides she has “heard from Jesus” that she needs to sleep with him and proceeds to do so. While we may think this kind of thing is silly, I’ve known and have been known to use the exact same reasoning to justify similar behavior.

The similarities don’t end there and aren’t limited to my narrow experience. They permeate many Christians thoughts and beliefs. From pastors who ought to know better to the parishiners who often don’t (but wish they did), the common theme brought out in this movie is the tendency to act holy, to use holy language2, and to generally accept a burden of legalism that is far removed from the “law of liberty” James writes about.3

In short, this movie exposes the eagerness with which many Christians rush to pick up a yoke far removed from the “light” and “easy” yoke promised by Jesus.4

Within the first 5 minutes of this movie you are hit squarely between the eyes with causal determinism (baptized stoicism popular among reformed theologians) and the corresponding question of evil. By the time you move to meeting the rest of the characters you are also confronted with the logical paradox this presents when coupled with the popular Christian pastime of “finding God’s will” in addition to the ambiguous (and often vacuous) understanding of prayer.

All of these ideas are combined with a general air of anti-intellectualism  ((God forbid we use our minds to try and sort all this mess out. )) combined with an overarching emphasis on “spiritual highs”5 to give us a chaotic mess. From this chaotic mess you begin to have a clear view of the neurotic mess most Christians are and why we are largely ineffective at reaching a culture that is often more clear about what love, community, and genuineness mean than we are.

Unfortunately the confusion we take in is often expressed very clearly to those around us which begs the question in them of how we can claim to have the answers to life’s deepest questions when we have trouble with even the simplest choices of whom to marry and what job to take.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Church, I love the church enough to desperately wish this movie was a work of pure fiction but the sad reality is that its not. It is, instead, scarily accurate.

I hope mature Christians6 take a good long look in the mirror with this movie and, instead of getting angry about the mocking, ask the tough questions like, “What does this movie show us about ourselves?” and “How can we work to clear up the misconceptions portrayed in this movie?”

Even though I’m not a movie critic, I give this movie two big thumbs up and encourage everyone to go see it. You’ll have a bit of a challenge finding it, though, it’s not something you’ll be able to ask the clerk at Family Christian or Lifeway to grab for you.

  1. You know, the guys who brought you the great song “Loosing my religion“ []
  2. I contend that one of the banes of Christendom is the use of words and phrases we have not carefully studied and have no idea the meaning of. We simply use them because they sound good. Phrases like “God told me..“ []
  3. James 1:25 and James 2:12 []
  4. Matthew 11:30. ..for  my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. []
  5. In other words, we’ve created our own “Christianized” brand of existentialism that we think is spiritual []
  6. Or those who think they are at any rate, this movie can also show you how mature you are by how visceral your reaction to it is. []
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Listening for the voice of God

Listening for the voice or looking for the will of God are trendy topics these days. Much ink has been spilled and many conferences have been produced around the simple question; “What does God want me to do?”. WWJD indeed?

For those of you who are wondering about the phenomenon I am talking about, here is an article that expresses the route most Christians take when attempting to answer the question above.

First, this desire to know and find God’s will1  generally comes about from a right desire to obey God in all facets of life which, therefore, appears to be a mark of one’s spirituality if we tell others that we are “listening to God”. In fact, we have many places in Scripture where we are commanded to listen to the voice of the Lord and not to harden our hearts. In fact, one evangelist used Hebrews 3:7-11 in conjunction with his evangelistic presentation to try to convince people that the feelings they had were really promptings from the Holy Spirit.

Second, the struggle comes in because this “voice of God” is usually rather elusive and the one in search of it is often left without a clear and concise answer to the question they are asking2. Many teachers use Elijah’s experience in the wilderness3 as an example here.

John Piper and Mark Dever have both written excellent articles on this subject, both offering very good outlines and rebuttals. But the most comprehensive work I’ve found has been a doctorial dissertation done by Garry Friesen which subsequently became a book titled, Descision Making and the Will of God.

The bottom line is that workmen approved by God4 know how to rightly divide Scripture, not some vague inner impression that may or may not be God’s voice.

From even a cursory reading of the Old Testament and New Testament we can see that when God spoke, the intended hearers knew beyond a shadow of a doubt both who was speaking and what was being said. It is only because of an intense and misguided5 desire for “religious experiences”6 that we tend, more often than not, to seek the “will of God” outside the definitive Word he left for us.

How we go about learning God’s will for our life (let alone others’ lives) matters very much. It is wrong for us to ask someone to trust our religious experience. It does not matter how real they are/were for us and regardless of how convinced we may be that they are genuinely from God, the fact is that we are not prophets which is what we would end up being if the generally accepted “voice of God” view is accurate.

Mary Baker Eddy, one of the founders of Christian Science movement, based her theology almost exclusively on the belief that people today can and should “listen to the voice of God” as it gave them more revelation than what was found in Scripture. In the most extreme sense7, one can also cite Joseph Smith and Muhammad‘s extra-biblical revelation in the same vein of “hearing from God”.

We should rather stick to the objective facts8 when it comes to what we claim and proclaim as the “Word of God” which, when carefully evaluated, can only be the Scriptures God himself wrote and preserved and it alone is what our faith should be based and built upon.

One final note, religious experiences are wholly bad in themselves but we should never ask someone to rely upon OUR experiences since that would be asking them to place their trust in us rather than God.

At this point I know many will ask: What about the Holy Spirit? This is another area I fear we have not taught very clearly on which I’ll address in another post, but I wanted to address the cancer this whole “voice/will of God” notion is in the Church today. Something I believe produces undue anxiety in too many Christians. Crippling them with a heavy yoke and burden which looks nothing like he light and easy yoke Christ claimed to bring in Matthew 11:30.

  1. Often expressed in the exhortation by many pastors to “listen for the still small voice of God, more on that later, though. []
  2. “Who should I marry?”, “What house should I buy”, etc… []
  3. 1 Kings 19:11-13 []
  4. 2 Timothy 2:14-15 []
  5. Misguided because it smacks of exestentialism. []
  6. That is, a subjective experience we attribute, rightly or not, to divine origin. []
  7. That is, not exactly the same as, but nevertheless, in the same vein. []
  8. Objective, because religious experiences are wholly subjective and therefore non transferable []
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