- First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi - https://www.fpcjackson.org -

A Search fo Meaning -Existentialism

Wednesday Evening
July 7, 2004

Psalm 8:3-9 “Christian World View” – Existentialism

J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Psalm 8. Last week as we looked at Nihilism, we saw a worldview, a philosophy, if you want to call it that, that argues that there is no meaning to life, meaning cannot be found in this world. We also said last week, and we’ll say it again tonight, that every secular philosophy since this worldview of Nihilism came into the world in the third quarter of the nineteenth century, every secular philosophy that has risen in the Western world since, has tried to give an answer to Nihilism; that is, has tried to find meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence. And I want to contrast that —Brister gave a beautiful introduction to the hymns that we sang tonight, which are so filled with the fullness of joy and meaning which belongs to those who are in Christ Jesus, and I want to go right to Psalm 8, because Psalm 8 anchors for the Christian the source of the fullness and the joy and the meaning of life as God has given it to us.

Look at verse three of Psalm 8, and consider how the psalmist responds to this massive world. The Nihilist looks at this world and he says this world is hostile, it is absurd, and it has no meaning.

And the psalmist looks at this world and he wonders, too. Look at his words:

(3) “When I consider the heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which Thou hast ordained; (4) what is man, that Thou dost take thought of him? And the son of man, that Thou dost care for him?”

(In other words, he looks at this huge, glorious, beautiful creation made by God and he says ‘Man is so small, Lord, compared to this gigantic creation that You’ve made.’ But then look what he deduces from this. It’s not meaninglessness, not hopelessness. It’s not unimportant.)

(5)“Yet Thou hast made him a little lower than God, and dost crown him with glory and majesty! (6)Thou dost make him to rule over the works of Thy hands; Thou has put all things under his feet, (7) all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, (8) the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes through the paths of the seas. (9) O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!”

Contrast between Christianity and other worldviews.
Now what’s the difference?
What’s the difference between the Nihilist looking at this big world and finding that it’s absurd, and declaring that everything’s meaningless, and the psalmist looking at this big world and seeing little man compared to this big world, and yet praising God. What’s the difference? The doctrine of the image of God in man. Did you notice where he was quoting from there? He’s taking you right back to Genesis 1 and 2, where God tells us in His word that man was created in His image. The Creator suffused meaning into man’s existence in the very way that He created us. It’s one of His blessings that the Creator has given to His creation. And the psalmist celebrates that reality in Psalm 8, and it’s such a different view of reality than the view of Nihilism.

Well, tonight we’re going to look at the first great attempt at answering Nihilism without resorting to the Christian historic, biblical worldview. And that first attempt at answering Nihilism has been called Existentialism.Tonight we’re going to look at the search for meaning in Existentialism. Nihilism, you remember, says matter exists, but God doesn’t. This universe is a closed system. Everything is determined. Human beings don’t have real choices, we’re just cogs in a wheel, and the system is going and we’re part of it, and our choices don’t matter, and what we think doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. We’re just cogs in the wheel, to quote a popular rock-and-roll group, “we’re just another brick in the wall.” Nihilism goes on to say that humans are just complex machines; that’s what we are. And we’re part of a bigger and more complex machine. So the idea of true knowledge–it’s meaningless. Ethics are impossible. There is no meaning in life.

Now, as you can imagine, there are very few people in the world who can rest in that. Nietzsche had suggested that there would need to be a race of what he called “super men” who would be able to endure this kind of view of the world until it could be transcended. But there are very few super men and women around who can live with a view of life like this. And so, the secular worldview makers, the philosophers, attempted to come up with their own answers, and one of the very popular answers that was given to Nihilism has been coined as Existentialism.

Remember, we said that Deism replaced Theism as a worldview in the time of The Enlightenment because it was thought that Theism, on the one hand, was responsible for the internecine wars in Europe, and perhaps a more refined and rational view of God in the world could produce peace and tranquility in human life.

And then, along behind Deism came Naturalism that says, look, Deism predicates a first cause, a divine maker who made this world like a clock and set it running and then let it go to go and do whatever he was interested in doing, and he no longer interacts in this world. The laws he set in motion are still in motion, so Naturalism says, look, we can take everything that Deism gives and remove the idea of this God who created things, this first cause, and the philosophy works just fine.

And then came a view which said, well, why do you have to assume that this world is rational, and can be made sense of? So Nihilism came along behind Naturalism. In other words, Nihilism saw all of the presuppositions of Naturalism and said Naturalism’s assumption that we are in a rational world that can be understood and that meaning can be constructed out of is wrong.

And then behind Nihilism comes Existentialism, saying, no, we can make meaning in this world, but that meaning doesn’t come from the objective reality. There’s no objective meaning out there. The only meaning that can be had in life is produced by us.

And so we see a slide down in these progressive worldviews, as they continue to take one another to their logical conclusions and expose their weaknesses. But, as we said, every philosophy after Nihilism was attempting to answer the problems that Nihilism created. Albert Camus, the great twentieth-century existentialist said this: “In the darkest depths of our nihilism, I have sought only for the means to transcend nihilism.” In other words, he’s saying ‘my goal in all my philosophizing and living has been to try to find an answer to the meaninglessness which has been predicated by Nihilism.

Now interestingly, there are two forms of Existentialism that are on the market. There is one form of Existentialism that is atheistic. It doesn’t believe in God. But there’s another form of Existentialism that is theistic. It does believe in God. And sometimes it even calls itself “Christian Existentialism”–if ever there was a contradiction in terms, that’s one of them. But these two forms of existentialism have had their impact.

Now, what I’m going to do tonight is describing these two avenues. I’ve got a couple of goals in mind.First, I want to remind you that as you are talking with friends who do not embrace the Scriptures, they do not embrace Christ, they have not been found savingly by the Lord Jesus Christ and drawn into a saving relationship with the Living God through Him, who are wrapped up into other kinds of worldviews, wittingly or unwittingly, it is important for you to understand that it’s not simply that they lack the right answers to the right questions. I want you to remember that sometimes they lack the right questions.

And so if you’re dealing with people who are on a search for meaning, it is not only your job to give them the right answer, it is your job to make sure they’re asking the right question in the first place, because according to the Scripture our big problem is not meaning. If we are created in the image of God, the problem in the world is not that there is a lack of meaning. There’s plenty of meaning to go around.

The problem which is upon us is sin

The second thing I want you to see tonight has to do with your own embrace of biblical Christianity. And that is to see how Existentialism has impacted even many people who call themselves Christians. In fact, our denomination in large measure was forged out of a controversy, a theological controversy that had to do with people who were existentialists in their philosophy and worldview and theology. They claimed to be Christians, undermining the doctrine of Scripture and of Christ and the foundations of The Apostles’ Creed, the biblical Christian faith. So I want you to see, maybe, some of the sources of this kind of thinking in existentialism tonight.

Atheistic Extentialism.
Some of you have read the material of atheistic existentialism. Some of you have read John Paul Sartre, or Albert Camus, or Martin Heidegger. Atheistic Existentialism begins by agreeing with Nihilism. Atheistic Existentialism says, “Yes, matter exists eternally, and matter is all there is. God does not exist. The cosmos exists as a uniformity of natural causes in a closed system. This world is a big machine. History is a string of linear events linked by cause and effect, but you can’t discern any overarching purpose in it. Ethics. That’s just something that human beings invent.” It’s not rooted in objective reality. And so, Atheistic Existentialism starts off by saying “Yep, the Nihilists have described the world correctly. It’s just a big blob that you can’t make any sense of out there. It’s absurd, and the more you think about it, the more absurd it is.”

But, then the Atheistic Existentialist says, “Here’s how we’re going to respond to this. We’re going to respond by saying that existence precedes essence.” Existence precedes essence. In other words, we exist, and then we supply the meaning of life. We exist, and then we supply the answer to the essence of life. In other words, mankind makes itself. We invent ourselves. We invent meaning. We come into a world which has no meaning, and the job of the Existentialist in this meaningless world is to do what? To create meaning. To create what we are as human beings.

The idea of the Existentialist is that people make themselves who they are. The Existentialist, over against the Nihilist who said people are robots, the Existentialist says, “No. This world is a big machine, but I am not a cog in this wheel. I have a free will. I determine myself. My decisions make who I am.” The Existentialist says each person is totally free as regards to their nature and destiny, and the job of the Existentialist over against this world is to revolt against the object of this world, and create meaning out of meaninglessness, and to create value out of valueless-ness. It’s a very heroic sort of worldview.

This afternoon I decided I ought to visit some Existentialist web sites so that I could see it from their perspective. And they were all going way out of their way to say, “Now, this is not a bleak, depressing worldview.” You’ve heard of whistling in the dark? They say this is a very positive, joyful, life-affirming humankind-affirming worldview. Hmmmm…. I guess so, from one perspective, compared to Nihilism. But, this is the task, the Atheistic Existentialist says, of humanity: to revolt against this world, this meaningless world, and to create value. People make themselves who they are.

Theistic Existentialism
Now, Theistic Existentialism is a little bit different. It has existed, actually, longer than Atheistic Existentialism. You know, the great Atheistic Existentialist writers that perhaps you read in high school or in college were writing, by and large, in the middle of the twentieth century. But Theistic Existentialism actually began in the nineteenth century with a Danish theologian named Soren Kierkegaard reacting against dead orthodoxy in the Lutheran churches in which he had grown up. And following Kierkegaard had been a series of modern theologians. Maybe the two names that you know best would be the names of Rudolph Bultmann and Karl Barth. Both of these were influenced by existentialism. Atheistic Existentialism says, “Yes, God exists; He’s infinite, He’s personal, He’s triune. He’s transcendent, He’s emanent, He’s everything–He’s sovereign, He’s good. He creates the cosmos out of nothing to operate in accordance with natural causes, and human beings are created in the image of God. And God can and does communicate with us. And we were created good, but we’re now fallen and need to be restored by God through Christ. For human beings death is either the gate to life with God and His people forever, or a life separated from God.”

And you say, well, that sounds pretty good. And of course, Existentialism in Christian garb can sound pretty good. But he so-called Christian Existentialist goes on to say four other things that are not so good.

Problems with Christian Existentialism
1. Believing in God is a matter of faith.
The first thing is to say this: We humans live in an alien universe, and the matter of the existence of God is not something which is a matter of knowledge and reason; it’s a matter of faith.And a hard divide is made between faith and reason, so that, for instance, beginning with Kierkegaard the idea was [that] in order to transcend and arrive at an understanding of who God is, you had to take a leap of faith. Anybody seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? The one was where he was after the Holy Grail? He’s out there on the cliff edge, and there’s nothing in front of him, and he has to get across to the Grail Room, and he takes a leap of faith? Well, thank you, Soren Kierkegaard for that reference that clearly Stephen Spielberg and his scriptwriters had worked up. That’s a very un-Christian idea, you understand. God in the Scriptures never asks you to take a “leap of faith.”

Faith is our response to a promise of God. There’s nothing dodgy about a promise from God. There’s no throwing caution to the wind. That is a very, very wise thing to do–to believe something that God tells you. It has nothing to do with checking your brains at the door.

But for Kierkegaard and for those who have followed him, there is this very hard divide between faith and reason. Faith is an anti-rational thing. It’s a supra-rational thing. It doesn’t correlate with reason and fact. And this is a theme that runs through Existentialist “Christian teaching.”

2. Only the personal and relational are important — the logical is not.
Secondly, for the Existentialist the personal and the relational is the primary dimension of life, and the rational, and the logical, and the propositional is not important.The rational, and the logical and the propositional relates to this material reality; it is the relational and the personal that transcends it.

So, whereas historic Christian theology sees sin as breaking God’s law, so-called Christian Existentialism says, “No, sin is betraying a relationship, not breaking a rule.” Whereas historic Christian theology sees repentance as confessing guilt, Existentialism says, “No, it’s sorrow over personal betrayal.” Whereas historic Christian theology says forgiveness involves canceling a penalty, Existentialism says, “No, it is renewing fellowship.” Whereas historic Christianity says that faith is receiving the promises of God given to us in sentences and propositions in His word, Existentialism says, “No, faith is committing yourself to a person.” Whereas historic Christian theology recognizes that part of the Christian life is obeying God’s word, Existentialism says, “The Christian life isn’t about obeying rules, it’s about relating to a person.”

Now, if you will have noticed closely, all of these things are false dichotomies. Whereas historic Christianity affirms all of those personal dimensions of the Christian faith, but it doesn’t set them over against the propositional teachings of God’s word. And so the Existentialist will consistently put before you this kind of dilemma: Are we going to believe a person or a proposition?

Let me illustrate it to you this way. There was a debate at the Southern Baptist Convention not long ago about whether a statement in The Baptist Faith and Message would be changed, which affirmed Jesus as ‘the hermeneutical rule for understanding Scripture.’ Now, that statement had been put into The Baptist Faith and Message by Existentialist theologians in the 1920’s who wanted to relativize the teaching of Scripture. If there was anything that they didn’t like, they could say, “Well, that’s not in accord with Jesus and therefore we reject it even though it’s in the Scripture.” What they had done, they had pitted Jesus versus the Scripture; the person of Jesus versus the word of Jesus.

Well, of course God will never let you get by with that kind of thing. Can you imagine saying to your mother, when she tells you to take out the trash, “Mother, while I venerate your person, I reject your words as mere propositions which……” —After you picked yourself up on the other side of the room, you have recognized that that dichotomy between person and proposition won’t work in real life. If you venerate the person, you’ll pay attention to what they say in their words.

3. Knowledge is subjective. Truth is paradoxical.
And so, Existentialist theologians will pit the personal versus the propositional. They will also argue that all truth is subjective, and it’s paradoxical. Truth is found in paradox, in seeming contradiction; and knowledge is subjective. It is existential thinking which is the root of the ethical system that many of you heard expounded in the 1960’s and ‘70’s by Joseph Fletcher, called “situational ethics,” which basically is you make it up as you go. And that’s Existentialism; that’s the root of that kind of ethical system.

4. History as model or type or myth or story or sage, but not as reality
Existentialism is not concerned about history as expressive of fact and reality. Existentialism uses history as a model, or a type, or a myth, or a story which invests meaning in life.Who cares about the factuality of it! The issue is, “Is there a message, is there a myth, is there a model, is there a saga or a story from which we can deploy meaning in this life, totally apart from the factual nature of the historical claim?”

One example of this, by the way, is in a book by Lloyd Geering called, Resurrection: A Symbol of Hope, in which he had argued that the resurrection itself was not a historical fact to be believed in, but it was a symbol. It was a myth to invest life with meaning. And the very savvy reviewer in the Times literary supplement, who reviewed Lloyd Geering’s book, said this: “How can a non-event…” (a resurrection which didn’t occur) “…be regarded as a symbol of hope, or indeed of anything else? If something has happened, we try to see what it means. If it has not happened, the question cannot arise. We are driven back to the need for something to have happened at Easter.” Point well taken. And Existentialism doesn’t have a very good answer to that particular question.

One way one of my professors illustrated this was to say, “Let’s look at the Exodus story, and the children of Israel coming out of Egypt and crossing the Red Sea. And let’s look at this from three perspectives: the old liberal perspective, the existentialist…” (There’s another word for Christian Existentialism that many of you know very well. It’s called Neo-orthodoxy. That’s all Christian Existentialism is, is Neo-orthodoxy.)“So let’s look at the Exodus story from the liberal perspective; the Neo-orthodox perspective; and the biblical perspective.”

The liberal perspective. Some of you have heard this taught in classrooms. It basically says the Exodus never happened. This is a story that was fabricated, and whatever did happen can be explained away through naturalistic phenomenon. You’ll find liberal commentaries going on and on about how there were low-tide seasons in the Sea of Reeds, and strong winds to come in off of the desert and dry out the sea bed, and perhaps that this could be part of the myth that eventually grew into the parting of the Red Sea, and et cetera, et cetera. But the liberal perspective is to deny all of the miraculous and to deny all of the factuality of biblical truth claims, like the Exodus and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Neoorthodox perspective. The Existentialist perspective, says “Oh, no, no! Something happened there, but we just don’t know what it is. But the important thing is not what happened, it’s the Exodus event provides us with a model, a myth, a story which invests meaning into our lives.”Well…ah….how? What…this thing that we don’t’ know what it was, how is that going to invest meaning into my life?

The biblical position is to say, “No, the Exodus happened, and God explained to us what the significance of that historic act is. And He explained it both beforehand and afterwards in His word.” And so in this way you can see a contrast between these three approaches to Scripture.

Let me get right up on the line and suggest another way that Existentialism has impacted Christian thought. Existentialism, because of its emphasis on making an ‘existential’ decision in the face of this alien reality, to create meaning and life and joy in what could otherwise be a very bleak experience, has twisted something of the Christian view of man and of the Christian life.

Now, don’t think about the personality when I mention this illustration. Just think about the point. I’m not even going to mention the personality, but you’re going to know who I’m talking about immediately. Some of you have heard a commercial on 1180 AM for many years that goes like this: “People are the only creatures that God didn’t finish. Each day we create ourselves with the choices that we make.” Perfect existential theology! Not derived from Scripture, but you see how pervasive this kind of teaching can be, even in Christian circles.

In fact, when I went to seminary in the 1980’s and was sitting under teachers like Palmer Robertson and others, we were looking at some of these very kinds of philosophies and the way they were impacting Christian teaching. I had friends who graduated with from Furman University, who were at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the battle days before Al Mohler came and cleaned out the liberals and turned things around, and we would meet in December during the break, and they would be rattling on and on about this wonderful theology that they were reading. And I said, “Well, tell me some of the names of the people that you’re reading.” And they said, “Oh! Well, there’s this wonderful theologian named Rudolf Bultmann…” And I said, “You’ve got to be kidding! Southern Baptists reading Rudolf Bultmann…I don’t get it. A liberal German Lutheran Southern Baptist…help me here. What’s the connection?”

Well, you see, it dawned upon me the connection was this: my Southern Baptist friends had grown up hearing that a decision was important. And then they picked up Rudolf Bultmann and they hear him talking about making an ‘existential’ decision, and unfortunately, they equated the two, and the two are in entirely different universes. The decision that their Baptist pastor was talking about had no more to do with what Rudolf Bultmann was talking about than a goose! But it sounded like something that they could incorporate into their teaching, and they were. And you can see that done over and over in Christian theology.

So, when we are talking to the Existentialists, let’s remember to ask ourselves, “What question is this person trying to answer with the answer of Existentialism? And then let’s ask ourselves, ‘How has Existentialism contributed to their view of the Bible, and what have they drawn from Existentialism and incorporated in their Christian theology, as opposed to drawn from the Bible and viewed Existentialism from the standpoint of the teaching of Scripture.’

Next, we will be in the psychedelic Sixties, because Existentialism didn’t work, and so Westerners had to look somewhere else for an answer to Nihilism. And guess where they ended up looking? You’ll find out in two weeks, on Wednesday night.

Let’s stand and pray together.

Heavenly Father, we thank You for the meaning that You have invested in our life, and we thank You that the only way out of our sin and idolatry is through Jesus Christ. We pray as we talk with friends who have been enmeshed in false thinking and philosophies, that we would understand the plight that they feel; that we would empathize with them as fellow human beings; but that we would boldly and clearly, and with love, show them the light which You have shown to us in Your word and in Jesus Christ, bearing faithful witness to Him and to the gospel, that they might be filled with the joy that only Your children know. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.