Question: "What is existentialism?"
Answer: Existentialism is not so much a formal system of philosophy as it is a general orientation to philosophical issues. It was most popular in Europe in the early twentieth century. It was a reaction to the Enlightenment’s overconfidence in human reason. Some of the influences that likely made it attractive include Kierkegaard’s insight that Christian faith cannot be reduced to a set of rational propositions but that it also includes wider emotional and relational implications. Even more significantly, historical events such as the devastation of World War I, the economic collapses of the 1920s and 1930s, and the horrors of World War II displayed the false hope of modernism that human reason can overcome all problems.
Existentialism, accordingly, downplays the ability of human reason. It despairs of finding individual and communal significance in reference to one’s place in a rational, ordered cosmos. Rational order itself is suspect for existentialists. Therefore, rational explanation takes a back seat to other approaches for finding meaning. Some existentialists express meaning in terms of an individual’s achievements in transcending his or her circumstances. Others express it in terms of the meaning that comes from connecting and communicating with others about human experience. The experience of being is the focus. Rational explanation is put aside.
How can a Christian helpfully respond to the claims of existentialism? On the one hand, a Christian can agree that modernism has a false hope in the ability of human reason to meet and overcome every challenge. Indeed, there are many things that, according to biblical teaching, are only overcome by the grace of God, including the problems of human sin and death itself. Also, Christians acknowledge that there are many things that human reason cannot discover and which are only found if God should choose to reveal them. On the other hand, a Christian disagrees with existentialism’s spirit of hopelessness. Christianity highly emphasizes two aspects of the future. First, Christianity affirms the final judgment at which all that is wrong, disordered, and broken will be finally put right, since Christ will return at the end of time to vanquish all evil from the cosmos and to reign over all. Second, Christianity affirms the ultimately hopeful future reality for all who trust in Christ, namely, the experience of resurrection, everlasting life, and absolute completion of sanctification, all these given freely by the grace of God. Multitudes of biblical passages could be cited concerning these two aspects of the future. Here is one of the many, Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
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