Existentialism

Another form of revolt against Hegel is the rejection of any attempt to discern a universal pattern in history, or to speak in general terms about the nature of human existence. Existentialism is a form of philosophy which attempts to examine human life as it is lived, in concrete detail, not in terms of abstract theorizing. Reacting against the apparent subordination of the individual to the Absolute Spirit, in Hegel, it makes the individual the centre of its investigations. Since it is in principle anti-systematic, it is difficult to say much in general about it; and it finds some of its best expressions in the novels and plays of J.-P.Sartre (1905-80). The movement has its roots in the work of Nietzsche (1844-1900), who advocated rejection of the 'weak' morality of Christianity in favour of the will to power, a severe and pitiless, though aesthetically cultivated and disciplined life. God was seen by him as a force of repression. His famous statement that 'God is dead' was meant as a liberation from the rule of a powerful, though wholly imaginary, tyrant into the freedom of human creativity. Sartre's idea of God follows that of Nietzsche, and they both regard it as necessary to reject God in order to be truly free. They also accept that with the death of God any sense of an objective meaning or purpose in human existence disappears. Humans must invent their own meaning. To do this, they must escape from the tyranny of convention, confront the absurdity of human existence, and create a personal meaning, or 'authentic' life, which will take full responsibility for its own future.

It may seem that existentialist philosophers must be atheists. In fact, however, Kierkegaard (1813-55), who first used the word 'existentialism', was a Christian. He attacked the established Church of Denmark and what he saw as the systematic pretensions of Hegel. He wrote that 'truth is subjectivity', meaning that in religion truth must be a matter of personal engagement, not correct theoretical belief. He defended the religious life as at a higher level than the aesthetic and the ethical (by which he meant conventional and rule-bound). In true religion, as opposed to the hypocrisy of the churches, one freely chooses to commit oneself, risking everything in acceptance of the 'Absolute Paradox' that in Christ, the Eternal has entered time. Obviously, Kierkegaard does not reject God, though he rejects philosophical ideas of God and all attempts at rational systematization in theology. Authenticity lies in personal choice; but that choice is a response to the non-rational, overtly paradoxical, demand of faith. There is a meaning in human existence, though it can only be grasped by commitment, not by Reason. The ideas of the ultimacy and irreducibility of paradox, of the nonrational basis of faith and of the need to subordinate reason to revelation figure largely in the work of the Protestant theologian Karl Earth.

Another important figure in the existentialist movement (though he denied being an 'existentialist') is Heidegger (1889-1976). Heidegger does not speak of God, but of 'das Nichts', the reality of non-being, of that which is not a particular being and threatens to annihilate all beings. This notion is reminiscent of the mystical idea of God as the nameless infinite (in Meister Eckhart, for example), which both threatens all finite beings and yet gives them the power of being. Before it one comes to feel an existential anxiety which throws one out of the world of convention into the necessity of living an authentic, personally chosen life. Heidegger has been influential upon the

Protestant theologians Paul Tillich (who speaks of God as 'the power of being beyond all beings'), and Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976).

Bultmann interpreted the Gospel as calling humans to be free from the past and open to the future in an authentic, chosen, life. His concept of God is philosophically undeveloped, but is based on the notion of God as the demand for authentic living, as providing the possibility of authentic life and enabling such a life, through the proclamation of the Gospel. Such ideas of God converge upon the non-realist ideas of the empiricist school, and also upon post-Marxist liberation theology, with its emphasis on the primacy of the practical. However, opposition to 'system' can be an excuse for intellectual sloppiness. One must ask how far such views of God really escape metaphysical implications. Talk of 'demand', 'possibility' and 'liberating power' seems to entail talk of a morally authoritative and powerful Reality. Is one making the claim that there is such a being or not? Is it different from the biblical idea of a powerful, knowing creator or not? Further, is one not claiming that there is such a being, whether or not it furthers human interests or seems agreeable to us? Or is one recommending a particular set of human possibilities, of ways of being-in-the-world? If one recommends one way as 'authentic', is one not making a realist claim that it is the way one ought to live, whether or not one believes one ought? In my view, questions of the rationality and truth of theistic belief have not been dissolved by non-realist, existentialist or postmodern approaches to the concept of God. However, this is a fundamental question of basic theology and philosophy that needs to be addressed with full seriousness.

The three movements just mentioned (non-realism, pragmatism and existentialism) can be construed as reactions to Hegel's Idealism, Rationalism and metaphysical confidence. If metaphysical schemes of cosmic proportions are rejected, one may go on to reject human reason itself as a reliable source of truth. Such a view is most fully expressed by Karl Earth, whose Church Dogmatics rejects any appeal to reason as justifying faith. The Bible is to be accepted on faith, as defining the grammar of faith, and any doctrine of God must be taken solely from the Bible.

In two volumes of the Church Dogmatics, he expounds the doctrine of God as solely and truly known in his self-revelation in Christ. God makes himself known as perfect love and freedom, creating fellowship between humans and the Divine. All the properties of God are interpreted by Barth within this scheme. He is particularly critical of philosophical views of God as an 'impersonal absolute', or of God as in panentheistic symbiosis with creation. He insists that God is a person, a knowing, willing Subject, and indeed the only true person, and that God is wholly other than the universe. God is free in the sense of being unmoved by anything other than himself, and loving in a way which is not dependent on the character or actions of those who are loved. All this can be known solely on the basis of revelation; reason can only lead to arrogance and idolatry. Many critics feel that this approach leaves the rationality of revelation itself in doubt, and in any case question whether Barth's account is quite so free of philosophy as he claims. What is often seen as Barthian fideism can seem rather arbitrary in a world in which so many different alleged revelations compete for human allegiance.

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