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Christian existentialism describes a group of writings that take a philosophically existentialist approach to Christian theology. The school of thought is often traced back to the work of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855).
Christian existentialism relies on Kierkegaard's understanding of Christianity, who argued that the universe is fundamentally paradoxical, and that the greatest paradox of all is the transcendent union of God and man in the person of Christ. Kierkegaard also posited having a personal relationship with God that supersedes all prescribed moralities, social structures and communal norms, given that following social conventions is essentially a personal aesthetic choice made by individuals.
Kierkegaard proposes that each of us must make independent choices that will then comprise our existence. No imposed structures—even Biblical commandments—can alter the responsibility of individuals to seek to please God in whatever personal and paradoxical way God chooses to be pleased. Each individual suffers the anguish of indecision until he makes a leap of faith and commits to a particular choice. Each person is faced with the responsibility of knowing of his own free will and with the fact that a choice, even a wrong choice, must be made in order to live authentically.
Kierkegaard also upholds the idea that every human being exists in one of three spheres (or on planes) of existence: the aesthetic, ethical, and religious. Most people, he observed, live an aesthetic life in which nothing matters but appearances, pleasures, and happiness. It is in accordance with the desires of this sphere that people follow social conventions. Kierkegaard also considered the violation of social conventions for personal reasons (e.g., in the pursuit of fame, reputation for rebelliousness) to be a personal aesthetic choice. A much smaller group are those people who live in the ethical sphere, who do their best to do the right thing and see past the shallow pleasantries and ideas of society. The third and highest sphere is the faith sphere. To be in the faith sphere, Kierkegaard says that one must give the entirety of oneself to God.
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One of the major premises of Christian existentialism entails calling the masses back to a more genuine form of Christianity, often identified with some notion of "early Christianity," or the type of Christianity that existed during the first three decades after the Resurrection of Christ in approximately AD 33. With the Edict of Milan, which was issued by Roman Emperor Constantine I in AD 313, Christianity enjoyed a level of popularity among Romans and later among other Europeans. And yet, by the 19th century, Kierkegaard saw that the ultimate meaning of New Testament Christianity (Love) had become perverted. And thus, Christianity appears to have deviated considerably from its original threefold message of grace, humility, and love.
Another major premise of Christian existentialism involves Kierkegaard's conception of God and Love. For the most part, Kierkegaard equates God with Love. Thus when a person engages in the act of loving, he is in effect achieving an aspect of the divine. Kierkegaard also viewed the individual as a necessary synthesis of both finite and infinite elements. Therefore, when an individual does not come to a full realization of his infinite side, he is said to be in despair. For many contemporary Christian theologians, the notion of despair can be viewed as sin. And sin is something that Kierkegaard equated with the losing of one's self, the self being a free spirit that recognizes both the finite and infinite sides of his existence.
A final major premise of Christian existentialism entails the systematic undoing of evil acts. Kierkegaard claimed that once an action has been completed, it should be evaluated in the face of God, asserting that holding oneself up to Divine scrutiny is the only way to judge one's actions. Because actions constitute the manner in which something is deemed good or bad, one must be constantly conscious of the potential consequences of his actions. Kierkegaard believed that the choice for goodness came down to each individual. Unfortunately, most people do not choose. As a result, humanity will continue to relegate itself to self-imposed immaturity, thus living in both stunned apathy and agonizing inertia.
The Bible as an existential writing
One of the more distinctive aspects of Christ's teachings were their indirect style. His point is often left unsaid for the purpose of letting the single individual confront the truth on their own. This is particularly evident in (but is certainly not limited to) his parables. For example, in Matthew 18 he tells a story about a man who is heavily in debt. The man and his family are about to be thrown into slavery, but he pleads for their lives. His master cancels the debt and sets them free. Later the man who was in debt abuses people who owe him money, and he has them thrown in jail. The workers are afraid so they tell their master. The master brings in the man and says, 'Why are you doing this? Weren't your debts canceled?' Then the man is thrown into jail to be imprisoned until the debt is paid. Jesus ends the story by saying, 'This is how it will be for you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.'
Often Christ's parables are a response to a question he is asked. After he tells the parable, he returns the question to the individual. Often we see a person asking a speculative question involving one's duty before God, and Christ's response is more or less the same question but as God would ask that individual. For example, in Luke 10:25 a teacher of the law asks Jesus what it means to love one's neighbor as oneself. Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. In the story a man is beaten by thieves. A priest and a Levite pass him by, but a Samaritan takes pity on him and generously sets him up at an inn - paying his tab in advance. Then Jesus returns the question, "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?". Jesus does not answer the question because he requires the individual to answer it, and to understand existence in the Bible one must recognize who it is speaking to. To Kierkegaard this is the individual hearing the passage.
A good example of indirect communication in the Old Testament is the story of David and Nathan in 2 Samuel 12. David has committed adultery with a woman, Bathsheba. He then murders her spouse to cover up the incident. No one discovers the truth and David thinks he has escaped unharmed, but a prophet shows up and tells David a story about two men, one rich and the other poor. The poor man is a shepherd with only one lamb, which he raises with his family. The lamb eats at his table and sleeps in his arms. One day a traveler comes to visit the rich man. Instead of taking one of his own sheep, the rich man takes the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepares it for his guest. When Nathan finishes telling the story, David burns with anger and says (among other things), "As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die!". Nathan responds by saying, "You are the man!". And David is filled with terror because he becomes conscious of his guilt.
An existential reading of the Bible demands that the reader recognize that he is an existing subject studying the words God communicates to him personally. This is in contrast to looking at a collection of "truths" which are outside and unrelated to the reader. Such a reader is not obligated to follow the commandments as if an external agent is forcing them upon him, but as though they are inside him and guiding him from inside. This is the task Kierkegaard takes up when he asks: "Who has the more difficult task: the teacher who lectures on earnest things a meteor's distance from everyday life-or the learner who should put it to use?" Existentially speaking, the Bible doesn't become an authority in a person's life until they authorize the Bible to be their personal authority.
Christian existentialists include American theologian Lincoln Swain, German Protestant theologians Paul Tillich and Rudolph Bultmann, British Anglican theologian John Macquarrie, European philosophers, Karl Jaspers, Gabriel Marcel, Miguel de Unamuno, Pierre Boutang and Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev. Karl Barth added to Kierkegaard's ideas the notion that existential despair leads an individual to an awareness of God's infinite nature. Some ideas in the works of Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky could arguably be placed within the tradition of Christian existentialism.
- Biblical theology
- Narrative or Postliberal theology
- Postmodern Christianity
- Eliade, M.J., & Adams, C.J. (1987). Encyclopedia of Religion (v.5). Macmillan Publishing Company.
- Palmer, Donald D. Kierkegaard For Beginners. 1996. Writers And Readers Limited. London, England. p.25
- Hong, Howard V. "Historical Introduction" to Fear and Trembling. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey. 1983. p. x
- Kierkegaard, Soren. Works of Love. Harper & Row, Publishers. New York, N.Y. 1962. p. 62
- A website that explores the existential teachings of Jesus, with references to Kierkegaard and Tillich
da:Kristen eksistentialisme no:Kristen eksistensialisme zh:存在主義神學