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Existentialism - View of Man

Copyright Teach-Me, Aust.1996.

Since the beginning of time humanity has sort to find a worldview that would hold the answers to manís deepest needs and questions. Since people began asking about the big questions of life, human beings have been looking for a worldview to explain life, the universe and provide satisfactory answers for all dimensions of reality. Each worldview differs in its approach to answering important questions, some struggling with deep ethical questions, while other theories take a more optimistic view of life. The aim of humanityís search for truth has been to try to find a worldview that places social, universal and individual realms into some coherent design.

When many of todayís modern worldviews are measured against these three realms they are often found to be lacking. Christianity appears to be the only worldview that has successfully fulfilled these criterion. No other worldview has been able to match Christianity. For a Christian, God is omnipresent, three persons in one being, speaking to each individual. This fact should be of no surprise, since in reality all non-Christian philosophies must borrow their values from Christianity to survive.( INTERNET: ) Existentialism overtime became moulded to exclude the transcendent realm, thus denying manís true role on earth, but giving him no origin, purpose or a promise of a future after death. (Holmes p.3-4 passim )

The Worldview
Existentialism originated over 100 years ago, by Soren Kierkegaard. However, it was "from the 1940ís to the end of the 1960ís, that Existentialism became undoubtedly the most influential, if not the only philosophy, that directly influenced popular culture and the intellectual life of the West." ( Thorne, p.73) This new worldview spread rapidly due to its message being conveyed "in an artistic form (such as plays, novels and art) rather than in dry philosophic terms". ( INTERNET: ) Existentialism arose as a complete turn around from nihilism, being taken to its finality. Due to the final stage of nihilism being suicide, Existentialism chose to move away from this rational viewpoint to focus more on the individual realm (refer to Appendix A). Existentialism thought implies contradiction, anomaly, fluidity and a rejection of any imposed and artificial sequence. For the Existentialist, life is viewed as ""this moment" being the ultimate thing."( Breese p..200) Existentialism holds such a wide view that it may be summed up in seeking to find the "meaning of human existence and the belief that such meaning can be found only from within human experience." (Douglas p316 see also Evans p.22) Existentialist philosophy majors on the subjective realm (that it is a world of the mind, of freedom and feelings) rather than the objective (scientific) realm. Its goal being the opposite to that of its predecessor, Nihilism, which seeks to "deny all truth and value." ( INTERNET: see also Sire., p.109) Sire states that Existentialism can be divided into two basic forms. "Atheistic existentialism [which acts as] a parasite on naturalism, while at the same time theistic existentialism was a parasite on theism."( Sire., p.110,122,24-25,26) This atheistic view was developed to "solve the problem of naturalism that led to nihilism" ( Sire., p.110,122,24-25,26) , while theistic existentialism was purposed "to challenge a theological nihilism" ( Sire., p.110,122,24-25,26) . It is the atheistic view of existentialism that will be examined in this paper as it continues to influence todayís society.

By contrast, Christianity was the dominant religion up until the seventeenth century, and even those who did not profess to believe in God, lived by God fearing standards. ( Sire., p.110,122,24-25,26) Christianity held that there was a Creator of all heaven and earth, that the world and man were made ex nihilo (out of nothing) "without form, and void", (Gen 1:2) and that God continuously had constant interaction with His creation. It was also orthodox Christian belief that there was never a time when God did not exist, He has and always will be self-existent and present (Ex 31:4; Gen 1:1). "God is infinite and personal (triune), transcendent and immanent, omniscient, sovereign and good." ( Sire., p.110,122,24-25,26)

Due to Existentialism being born out of Nihilism, it failed to effectively and succinctly provide answers like that of Christianity. Humans were created to have "no independent existence" ( Erickson, p.159) rather God willed that each individual exist and then He set out to make us into living beings. An Existentialistís worldview occurs solely due to the denial of a Creator and there being many inconsistencies about an individualís purpose and how he/she should live his/her life. ( INTERNET: Due to this lack Existentialists often spend their entire lives struggling to find meaning to their life, while Christianity has proven to provide satisfying long term answers.

By contrast, Existentialism only sees the image of man to be a device, having no maker or sense of direction, thus giving the feeling of being insignificant, and unimportant. Life is viewed by an Existentialist to be "meaningless, apart from the meaning that one chooses to give it." (Erickson, Christian Theology. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book,1985) p..396) However, this is far from Godís belief which is that every individual is important and valued, which was demonstrated on numerous accounts throughout the Bible. (Luke 15:3-7) (Erickson, p..396 ) By answering many of todayís contemporary issues from a Christian worldview, an individual gains a sense of identity, value and importance. Scripture states that the "very hairs [on any individualís] head are all numbered"(Matt 10:28-31)(KJV) thus proving that every human is known and valuable to God.

The Origin of Man
Existentialism, also known as the philosophy of rebellion, was a reaction to the deterministic belief that every individual was nothing more than a "chemical machine." An individualís major role was to determine how he/she could be "significant in an otherwise insignificant world."( Sire., p 111 see also Smith and Raeper) An Existentialist views the transcendent realm to be non existent. There being no infinite, personal creator-God that transcends creation, therefore humanity was alone, only having the cosmos, and his/her own conscious. Every individual was seen to be placed in an isolated meaningless world, unable to turn to anyone for guidance other than him/herself. These feelings arose because God was seen not to exist and that humanity could not turn to the Bible or the church for help. (Elwell. p.396)

Sartre (a prominent atheist existentialist in the mid 1900ís) (Smith and Raeper p.66 ) held that man replaced God since no God existed, and that life had no long term meaning. Therefore, because no God existed, any individual was free to create and live by his/her set of values and principles, (Smith and Raeper p.66 ) making himself the subjective ruler. Since man created and lived by his standard, he was considered neither good nor evil but was the entirety "of his actions. Thus man was completely autonomous and self-sufficient."( Hoffecker & Smith p..308-309)

The origin of humanity from a Christian worldview was a deliberate and purposeful creative act of the Godhead(Gen. 1:26-27), not resulting out of chance or accident as other worldviews would argue but, was made according to the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27). God was the Creator, the author of the human race, thus making every human a dependent being, however, an individual does not own his/her life but rather owes it to God who originally created all of humanity. "For [it is only] in Him [that any individual can] live and move and have our being." (Acts 17:28) The "image of God is intrinsic to" humankind, for without this a person would not be human. Due to humanity being made in the likeness of God it is only possible for an individual to have a personal relationship with the Creator and to respond to Him.

The Nature and Scope of Human Freedom
Manís freedom was one of the most powerful tenets of an Existentialistís worldview. There being no written moral guidelines in which to live, allowed the individual to create his/her own world Each individual being totally free to do his/her will, demonstrate his/her unique personality and create his/her own meaning and destiny. A link that joins with this quest for freedom is the belief that there is a sense of "nothingness apart from the existing individual,"( Hoffecker & Smith (ed) p.309) and it is out of this "awareness of nothingness that leads man to his awareness of freedom." ( Hoffecker & Smith (ed) p.309) Unfortunately, this desire for freedom is often curtailed by social, political and economic pressures, as the "free act of one individual means the curtailment of anotherís freedom."( Elwell (ed) Evanelical Dictionary of Theology p.396 ) This is a dilemma which has no obvious solution.

One of the reasons why Existentialists maintain their denial of God and concentrate on themselves is that they fear that if they believed a "sovereign God existed, He would encroach upon [that individualís] freedom."( Erickson Christian Theology p.46) This is one of many reasons why freedom is seen as existence and it is existence that then proceeds to essence.( Solomon p278)

The real question is to what degree should an individual have freedom. The Existentialistís standpoint of having total freedom and human subjectivity are key absolutes in their doctrine. However, at the same time Existentialists also profusely deny that they have any absolutes. ( INTERNET: These two statements totally contradict each other, demonstrating the flaws in such a worldview. While on the other hand, a Christian view of an individualís freedom "declares that man is the subject who has objective values."( Geisler p.20) The atheistic Existentialist Sartre, demonstrated the possible inconsistencies in the Existentialism theory. Sartre recognised that human freedom has objective value, for if Sartre was free, all other people are also free, "but if all men are free - and not only Sartre himself - then this would mean that freedom has an objective reality". ( Geisler p.20) In addition, "even freedom needs a context or structure. Absolute freedom (of two or more people) is impossible. If an individual freely chooses to do to another human being what he/she freely does not want done to him/her, there will be conflict. Thus law is intended to structure freedom in order to maximise an individualís rights without unfairly minimising anotherís".( Geisler p.20) It is not possible for society to function without a set of universal laws in which people are answerable. If atheistic existentialism, was "practiced by everyone, this would tend to produce anarchy, which would destroy society." The Existentialistís concept of freedom rests on feelings and his/her own developed set of values, these values may change from day to day," ( Hoffecker and Smith p.310) thus lacking consistency.

"Freedom is seen as both the supreme good and supreme evil. If God did not exist everything would be allowed. God appeared to pose a threat to human freedom, but true saving freedom may be found in conditionless religious faith and commitment."( Elwell. (ed) p.396) This concept of having ultimate freedom as far as an Existentialist viewpoint would like to take it, can be seen in the Old Testament times of the Judges where Israel had been ruled by many Judges which would raise the nation up into a prosperous one and then when "there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes." (Judges 21:25)(KJV) The children of Israel were the perfect example of what happened to society when such an attitude was adopted. This attitude caused the nation to become Godís heartache.

The Meaning and Purpose of Human Existence
Sartreís view of an individual was that existence precedes essence, in other words people develop themselves into who they will become. Sartre basically states that God did not exist at the beginning of the world but at least one human being or form of life must have existed so that it could define any concept and thus this person must be man. Man must firstly appear and it is only then that he defines himself. Therefore, the essence of an individual can only be determined after he/she acts, and it is from this that an individual has made something of him/herself. An individual is not only what he/she envisages him/herself to be but what he/she desires to become.

An Existentialist worldview sees "the only right [outlook] is what is right for [any individual], and the only wrong is that which produces pain or inconvenience." ( Breese,,p.201) There are no laws or principles to say what is right or wrong, therefore Existentialism may consider it equally right to help an old person across the road and then steal their handbag or wallet. Therefore, choice is a main component of humanity, in that it is unavoidable. Even down to choosing not to make a decision is a choice in itself. "Freedom of choice entails commitment and responsibility, because individuals are free to choose their own path, Existentialists have argued, they must accept the risk and responsibility of following their commitment wherever it leads."( INTERNET: http://www/ p.2 see also MCDowell and Stewart p.128 )

Humankind is part of creation and holds a unique purpose in it. It was the writer of Ecclesiastes who also pondered the meaning of life and existence, however he came to a different conclusion to that of Existentialism. He acknowledged God as his personal Creator who revealed himself to all humanity, and that it was Godís essence that preceded existence thus giving meaning to life. It is only through having a personal relationship with God, that humanity fulfilled its purpose for what their Creator made them for, which was to worship, obey, and love. Therefore from a Christian perspective "existence without essence and subjectivity without objectivity is inadequate as a comprehensive worldview,"( Hoffecker and Smith p.309) but rather, a balance between these four components must occur.

Humanity Finding True Fulfilment
Theorists such as Sartre propose not only that "humans have freedom in themselves," but humans must also make choices within their historical circumstances and the Ďgivennessí of their lives in order to become satisfied. Every individual is responsible to lead a truly fulfilling life, and are accountable for their lives being a success or one of despair. Without a god, there are no values except those that humans themselves project. Anxiety or dread was a basic part of the human composition. These experiences result from the dissatisfaction between the self one is and the authentic self one has the possibility to become. It is these feelings of anxiety and dread which are said to arise out of the discovery of freedom.

Orthodox Christian belief states that man is holistic and totally reliant on God for fulfilment. "An individual cannot discover his real meaning by regarding himself and his happiness as the highest of all values, nor can he find happiness, fulfilment or satisfaction by going out and searching for it. His values has been conferred upon him by a higher sources, and he is fulfilled only when serving and loving that higher being. It is then that satisfaction comes, as a by-produce of commitment to God" (Mrk 8:35) Therefore it is every individualís unified purpose in life "to glorify God and enjoy him forever."( Holmes p.4) It is from fulfilling this statement that every individual can become a fulfilled being.

An Individualís Life in Relation to other People and History
Existentialists solve their ethical problems simply by believing that a good action is any consciously chosen action. The Existentialistís worldview affirms that the same right value is chosen every time because an individual can never choose evil, only good. Therefore good is whatever a person chooses, it is subjective and can not be measured outside the human standards. A flaw in a theory such as this is as one personís idea of good may be anotherís concept of evil, thus while an individual is developing a value for him/herself on a particular issue, inadvertently he/she creates a value for others as well. By there being no "clear indication of how an individual is to live with other people"( Smith and Raeper p.68) it would ultimately cause confusion and chaos. From this need for cohesion to occur in society, humanity was created with a fundamental desire to communicate with fellow human beings. Thus there is a certain degree of interdependence between people. Christ even though He could function totally independently, chose to model interdependence to His followers, so that Christians might recognise and embrace its importance.

Out of all the freedom and self power that the Existentialist worldview claims, there is one aspect that this worldview cannot answer and that is the issue of death. The inability "to transcend the ultimate absurdity death" is the hardest fact for an Existentialist to face. Thus the only explanation is that an individual is free as long as he/she remains subjective. However at death, every individual becomes "just an object about objects."( Sire op.cit., p115) Death is seen by the Existentialist to be only a boundary of human life, not a goal but it is the end of the possibilities it is not one of an individualís possibilities, and it certainly was not a part of an individualís life or future.

For a Christian, death is not seen as the end of all possibilities, instead is the commencement of eternal life spent in heaven with Creator God. Unlike Existentialism, Christians believe in an eternal dimension. Even though life may begin at a "finite point at the beginning of time,"( Solomon p 278) an individualís future is guaranteed to be everlasting. At death the physical body may fall away, but the spirit is glorified. However, this will only occur if that individual is saved. The alternative to spending eternity with God, is spending eternity in eternal separation in hell.

Christians realise that an individual is placed purposefully on the earth by his/her Maker, and that even though that individual has free will to make decisions, there are a universal set of laws which hold the individual accountable for his/her decisions. God is concerned about an individualís happiness, contentment and inner peace and fulfilment and that is why He made Christianity to be a cohesive worldview which is solid, absolute, unchanging and includes reality. For Christians, it is Christianity that makes the greatest sense not just out of the world which is lived in but, out of that individuals inner thoughts and feelings.

Even though people have "embraced existentialism for a time," genuinely believing it is the correct worldview, many often abandon such a belief due to its solutions, meanings, and commitment not truly being satisfying." ( Solomon p 278) One example of this is the Existentialist Sartre, before his death, acknowledged that God was really the Creator of humanity: "I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here: and this idea of a creating hand refers to God"( Solomon p 278)

"While Existentialism stresses subjective inner experience, Christianity links subjective inner experience with objective and testable supernatural events in history (such as the resurrection of Jesus Christ) and with God-given and God-developed reason. Both Christians and Existentialists have faith, but faith however sincere, is not enough. Faith must have an object and that object must be worthy of faith. Jesus Christ alone, the creator and sustainer of the universe and every individual in it, is worthy of ultimate faith."( MCDowell and Stewart p137)


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Appendix B

"With his life largely behind him, the author takes stock of the world as he has experience it between the horizons of birth and death - the latter a horizon beyond which man cannot see. The world is seen as being full of enigmas, the greatest of which is man himself.

From the perspective of his own understanding, the Teacher takes measure of man, examining his capabilities. He discovers that human wisdom, even that of a godly person has limits (Ecc 1:13;16-18; 7:24; 9:16-17). It cannot find out the larger purposes of God or the ultimate meaning of manís existence.

As the author looks about the human enterprise, he sees man in mad pursuit of one thing and then another - labouring as if he could master the world, lay bare its secrets, change its fundamental structures, break through the bounds of human limitations and master his own destiny. He sees man vainly pursuing hopes and expectations that in reality are "meaningless, a chasing after the wind" (Ecc 1:14;2:11,17,26; 4:4,6; 6:9; cf 1:17; 4:6).

But faith teachers him that God has ordered all things according to his own purposes (Ecc 3:1-15; 5:19; 6:1-2; 9:1) and that manís role is to accept these, including his own limitations, as Godís appointments. Man, therefore, should not vex himself with unrealistic expectations. He should be prudent in everything, living carefully before and the king and, above all, fearing God and keeping his commandments (Ecc 12:13)." (Kenneth Barker, p1285)