Some of the older houses in Scranton, PA, are marvels of a mad ingenuity. Yes, there are bedrooms, bathrooms, living rooms, dining rooms, and kitchens, but some homes seem like they were “designed” by committee or an architecture school dropout. The lack of unity can leave you a little disoriented because it looks like the rooms don’t go together or are Darwin Awards waiting to happen. I have toured a few that would be prime material for the “I’m no engineer, but…” memes.
Existentialism can appear like one of these houses because it is a movement of ideas and not a system. It does not fit neatly within specific categories like other schools of thought in philosophy or theology. It is an “anti-system,” a rebellion of sorts, that questions everything in many ways. The 5 Pillars of Existentialism give some cohesion to the whole endeavor. Still, you will see that the heavy hitters within the movement address the questions with sometimes radical differences.
Before venturing too much farther down the rabbit hole, I thought it prudent to provide you with a little more cognitive orientation. Giving an intellectual frame of reference will allow me to help you navigate a perplexing movement that has very much shaped our times.
A Greek Grudge Match
The School of Athens is a famous fresco by Renaissance master Raphael (consequently my favorite Ninja Turtle) depicting nearly every ancient Greek thinker, not all contemporaries, with the two giants, Plato and Aristotle, in the center. Their physical posturing is essential.
Plato is on the left with his right arm aloft and index finger pointing upwards. He is drawing our attention to the Forms, to use his word. Plato was very interested in the essence of things. He wanted to know what it “is.” You can reduce Plato’s thinking to that one word – IS. What is justice? What is beauty? What is good? These questions are notably discussed in Republic, Timaeus, and Euthyphro, to name a few.
Aristotle is depicted with his right arm downward, and his fingers splayed to your right. His attention is on the here and now. The single-word reduction for him would be DOES. Aristotle famously throws his teacher, Plato, under the philosophy bus in his Nicomachean Ethics by arguing that we do not need first principles or the “IS”; we simply need to look at what we already have around us. We need to understand how things work. What does a good citizen look like? How does one develop good habits? How are my passions controlled? Questions like these are in Aristotle’s wheelhouse.
The history of philosophy can be virtually reduced to these postures. It’s two ways of looking at knowledge. Plato is top-down, and Aristotle is bottom-up. Plato morphs into head-in-the-clouds abstract theory (picture the brilliant yet absentminded professor who can’t tie his shoes) while Aristotle mutates into raw pragmatism. Neither is fair to either man, but that is how things are.
Existentialism is in a constant state of tension between these two. Is a human a person because they possess the essence of humanness, or is this something they become? Are ethics anchored to a metaphysical (metaphysics is the study of real things that are immaterial) reality, or are they constructs of just what “works” for an individual?
If you are a Christian, you might be wondering if Christianity is more Plato or Aristotle. The answer is both! Jesus of Nazareth perfectly bridged the fictional dualism. He IS and DOES.
In Christianity, there is no actual tension but harmony, although there have been significant pendulum swings.
When Angst Goes to Sunday School
You might be wondering if there is any biblical correlation. Aren’t these just the mental gymnastics of old a-biblical dead dudes? No. A Christian worldview seeking to understand existentialism must consider that, without the system-destroying element, the Bible has plenty of examples of doubt, despair, rage, and rebellion.
- “May the day of my birth perish, and the night that said, ‘A boy is conceived!’ That day – may it turn to darkness; may God above not care about it; may no light shine on it. May gloom and utter darkness claim it once more; may a cloud settle over it; may blackness overwhelm it.” Job 3:3-5
- “Meaningless! Meaningless! Says the Teacher. Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Ecclesiastes 1:2
Philosophy Dad Joke: What do you get when you take God out of Ecclesiastes? Pink Floyd’s The Wall. (Sorry)
- “Why, LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Psalm 10:1
- “Cursed be the day I was born! May the day my mother bore me not be blessed! Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him glad, saying, “A child is born to you – a son!” Jeremiah 20:14-15
- “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?” II Corinthians 11:28-29
- “What is truth?” Pontius Pilate // John 18:38
This non-exhaustive list shows that many characters in the Bible were asking the heart-rending questions of existentialism. This is a theological issue as much as it is a philosophical debate.
Does it APPLY to Me?
Contemporary church life is imbued and sometimes hobbled by the idea that everything must be made practical, applicable, and a take-away. Indeed, understanding the gospel and acting on it are two separate things. Yes, I know faith without works is dead, but there is an over-emphasis on how things work or what we should do (Aristotle, anyone?). We tend to see the good in something with instrumental value, and we sometimes overlook the intrinsic value. Knowledge is a good.
I will not be providing step-by-step solutions or 1:1 applications for everything discussed in this series. To be sure, there will be plenty of space devoted to those items. Simply knowing about the intellectual forces that shaped our world has value. While faith without works is dead, sometimes we need to reason together.
“Ponder anew what the Almighty can do, Who with his love doth befriend thee.” “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” Joachim Neander 1680