A few semesters ago in a University not so far away…
“Andy, we are going to ask you to teach an elective.” Statements like these make the heart of an adjunct professor soar because being asked to step out of routine intro classes is as rare as a smoothly paved street in Scranton. I could hardly believe my ears.
I had pitched an idea to my department chair about teaching a catalog-offered course on Greek and medieval philosophy. It seemed like my Great Books background could serve the department as this class was rarely offered, and there were no specific experts in the running. It was several semesters later that she called me into her office and broke the news. I was going to teach an upper level that coming semester and it was going to be Greek and medieval OR… existentialism. Wait! What?!?! Ugh. I didn’t want to teach that. ‘Redeeming’ ancient dead dudes seemed far more palatable than wrapping my mind around what I considered a hoard of angry Germans (I’m German. I can say that). The word was “wait and see” what the department needs. OK. Fingers crossed.
There should be no surprise the decision was made for me to teach existentialism, and I knew I was swimming out of my depth. With about two weeks to go, I started thinking through my knowledge base. Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche were two thinkers I studied in grad school, but that would only buy me about three weeks out of a full semester. My days were filled with ripping through a cache of secondary sources1 driven by the necessity to understand what existentialism was all about. With just hours to spare, I had the semblance of a workable syllabus and a plan.
The makeup of that class is nothing I had ever experienced before and it has been roughly repeated only once. Every student was there because of the content, they knew me already, or both. The sense of collegiality that normally takes weeks in the average intro/required class was instantly established simply from the fact they all wanted, for one reason or another, to be there. This was an oddity I could quickly get used to.
The first day was the first day. We reviewed the syllabus and each student decided if the requirements were going to be a privilege or a purgatorial malaise. Typical. Expected. The second day, however, became very interesting as we dove into content.
My intense study and research yielded 5 Key Elements of Existentialism and my plan was to walk them through. Five points. Fifty minute class. No problem! After the obligatory dad jokes, we began:
- Existence precedes essence. Basically you ‘are’ and then you ‘become’ what you want to be. This is actually the theme of Disney’s 2016 animated film Zootopia!
- Time is of the essence. Existential means ‘right now’. The past and future are only considered for how they have import on the present. “Live in the moment”, YOLO, and Van Halen’s “Right Now” are just a few examples of this thought’s offspring.
- Freedom. This movement wants to know what it is to be free. Are we stuck in our circumstances or can we transcend them? What is fate and how do I deal with it? What does it all mean if we are simply “dust in the wind” or a “brick in the wall”?
- Human Authenticity. What is an authentic human person? Is this something that just is, or is it a process of becoming? Codified here is the idea that the journey is far greater than the destination. Can an individual arise from the herd? How? Ideas like these can found in movies like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Her starring Joaquin Phoenix, or the out-of-context quote taken from Bilbo’s poem “not all who wander are lost”.
- Ethics are paramount. The good, the bad, and the ugly are all up for grabs. The individual has to make authentic choices amongst that group. No one may truly follow the other dead fish downstream. But ‘good’ based on what or who? Consider the story arcs of the Avengers and Star Wars franchises. Why, exactly, is the Rebellion considered the good guys while a very Stoic Thanos is evil? Sunday school answers do not apply in the world of existentialism.
We were rounding the corner of point 5 when I noticed the phenomenon. They were all listening. I mean really paying attention! Weird. It was then a thought formed in my mind and I believe the Holy Spirit gave me the nudge to say it out loud. “I just described your generation, didn’t I? Aren’t these the things you all are concerned with?” There were several nodding heads and not a few verbal affirmations. Students directly told me that these are questions they are thinking about but perhaps lack the ability to articulate. Now we are on to something. This was going to be a good semester.
It could be assumed my interest in something like existentialism is academic because I am a philosophy prof (i.e. nerd) who enjoys reading, teaching, and engaging in intellectual Lego construction by stacking ideas on top of one another just to see what happens. Fair enough. Existentialism is a legitimite field of study within the philosophy fold. But my interests, and hopefully yours, are transported beyond the dusty shelves of undisturbed library stacks or pure, head-in-the-clouds theory.
Why should you care about the 5 Key Elements, why some angsty Dane is crying in his mead, or the reasons a former French Resistance officer wrote about pushing rocks up hills? Are these not just the benign musings of the egg-headed intelligentsia sequestered in their dimly lit offices? Simply put, no.
Over the past few years I have noticed what could be a seismic shift in thinking. It would appear that the Christian worldview is no longer left alone. You cannot log on to social media or watch your favorite news channel without hearing about Critical Race Theory, deconstruction, deconversion, human identity, transgenderism, disinformation, human rights, or personal rights. Some church pulpits (ok, I know those don’t really exist anymore) are the epicenter of a Neo-fundamentalism that pits mission against message and becoming against being. An admitted generalization is something like lived experience is always better than propositional truth because a truth isn’t true until it is personally experienced. It even seems that ethics itself has been untethered from its divine anchorage. How many times have you wondered if the world has gone mad?
Any guesses as to where any of that stuff comes from?
For the next several weeks I am going to explore the world of existentialism. I will do this by demonstrating, as I briefly did in the Key Elements, that much of the media we consume has drank deeply from this well. Movie theaters, really any screen, are the stained glass windows of the 21st century. They are attempting to teach you theology, history, ethics, and philosophy. I will walk you through the major players and their writings to show the “how” and “why” of their thoughts have influenced Western civilization in general and Christianity in particular. We will seek to discover what we can learn and what we should reject and why.
My plan is to show you that those 5 Key Elements do not live solitary lives in silos. There is a relationship of ideas that deals with many of the fundamental questions of a Christian worldview. They just answer them differently. Very differently.
Famed uber-atheist Friedrich Nietzsche wrote a letter to his sister Elisabeth in 1865 that many consider to be his official “break” with Christianity. He sets up a dualism, an “either/or”, by telling her, “…if you wish to strive toward peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.” I reject the dualism. Instead I am on the bus with St. Anselm of Canterbury who engaged in “faith seeking understanding”.
1. I will be providing a generous bibliography that will contain primary and secondary sources, as well as TV shows, movies, and music.
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Andy Giessman is the Executive Director and founder of Addison’s Walk. He is available to speak at your church, retreat, school, or camp for pulpit supply, missions conferences, and full weekend seminars. firstname.lastname@example.org