Philosophy is one of mankind’s oldest pursuits, dating some six hundred years before the birth of Christ. One of the more recent entries into the vast universe of philosophical thought is existentialism.
In this paper, I will examine existentialism and review its interactions with Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. I will then argue that even though existentialism has influenced Catholicism and although there have been some notable Christian existentialists, ultimately, the philosophy of existentialism is antithetical to Catholicism.
What Is Existentialism?
In seeking to define existentialism, one encounters two problems. First, existentialism is a relatively recent philosophical school, dating from the nineteenth century. The youth of existentialism limits the body of work to study, at least in comparison to the remainder of Western philosophy. The second problem when defining existentialism is the lack of a systematic theory within the philosophy itself.
To be sure, existentialism has produced some eminent thinkers. Most notably, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger. These philosophers have made it possible to identify six foundational tenets of existentialism.
- Existence Precedes Essence: This claim is probably the most well-known tenet of existentialism. Existentialism reverses the classic ontological supposition that a thing acts in the manner dictated by its nature. Instead, existentialism argues that the existence of a thing is prior to its nature. Put differently, the individual is responsible for creating his own nature or essence. This is done through the decisions and actions of the individual.
- Nihilism: Nihilism posits that there is no objective morality and that knowledge of the transcendent (if there is a transcendent reality) cannot be known to humans. Not surprisingly, nihilism was born of the Enlightenment as well as the horrors of World War Two.
- Authenticity: Existentialists are critical of any tendency to conform, seeing such conformity as contrary to personal authenticity.
- Subjectivity: Existentialism places stress on the individual, first-person experience. This emphasis is often to the exclusion of any objective criteria.
- Ethics: Despite existentialism rejecting moral absolutes, existentialism does argue that the individual is responsible for his actions.
- Freedom: For the existentialist, freedom is the specific difference between human beings and other animals. The existential concept of freedom is predicated upon the fact that the individual is self-conscious and that the individual exists for himself.
Existentialism In Catholic Thought
Despite existentialism not being innately theocentric, its influence on Catholic thought cannot be denied. Still, existentialism is rather eclectic. As a result, existentialism can appear Christian in nature, as it is in Kierkegaard, or it can take a robust atheistic approach, as it does in Nietzsche.
When one thinks of a Catholic (or at least Christian) strain of existentialism, one often encounters Søren Kierkegaard. For Kierkegaard, faith is a blind leap. That is to say that for Christian existentialism, faith is not a product of rationality. Instead, an individual is driven to Christ by the fear and pain of life. For the Christian existentialist, faith is an emotional response undergirded by nihilism.
While Friedrich Nietzsche shared Kierkegaard’s existentialism, his conclusions are quite different. Rather than making a leap of faith, Nietzsche argued that human beings must face the “fact” that “God is dead” (i.e., God does not exist). Nietzsche’s version of existentialism, with its emphasis on nihilism and relativism, is very influential in today’s culture.
Against A Catholic Existentialism
There are at least three facets of existentialism, which, I think, are entirely antithetical to Catholicism.
As indicated above, existentialism can come in diverse forms.
Yet one theme common to the various forms is the belief that existence precedes essence. One consequence of the view that existence precedes essence is to deny the presence of an objective or universal human nature. However, since human beings are human by virtue of their human nature, existentialism must embrace nominalism. Nominalism is a philosophical term that refers to the belief that things in the universe do not have a nature or essence other than the one imposed upon them by language. Put differently; human nature is an artificial human construct.
The Bible, however, contradicts the philosophy that existence precedes essence. Scripture tells us that God made man in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26). This is not to suggest that human beings look exactly like God. Instead, the image and likeness of God mean that human nature reflects the Divine nature. Much like a child is a reflection of his parents’ being and nature, so too are human beings’ reflections of God’s being and nature.
The communication of human nature occurs prior to the existence of the individual. Here too, Scripture is clear, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” (Jeremiah 1:5). The Psalmist notes that God has formed our innermost being (i.e., our nature). (See Psalm 139:13).
The second aspect of existentialism that runs counter to the Bible and Catholic philosophy is existentialism’s nihilistic worldview. Nihilism is a kind of moral and epistemological skepticism. As such, Nihilism denies objective morality and denies that life has any objective meaning.
Nihilism fails to find any biblical support, nor does Catholicism support it. Objective morality is predicated upon natural law, itself a manifestation of the mind of God. Two examples of an objective moral standard should suffice to make this point. First, God forbids Adam from eating of the Tree of Knowledge. This prohibition suggests that the source of morality is not human beings, but God. Second, it is God who provides man with the foundation for human law in the form of the Ten Commandments. The Commandments come from God, not human beings, so an objective moral standard must exist.
Both the Bible and Catholicism claim that God made human beings, and since nothing is created without a purpose, life must have meaning. Existentialism often embraces atheism or agnosticism to solve this problem.
The last aspect of existentialism to address is the Kierkegaardian view that faith is ultimately irrational. For Kierkegaard, the teachings of Christianity are absurd. That is to say that existentialism denies that faith and reason can co-exist.
From the perspective of Catholicism, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth” (John Paul II, Fides et Ratio). Properly formed faith means having a good reason to consent to a proposition. Within a religious context, faith requires that the intellect have some understanding of the nature of God. Additionally, the will must assent to the proposition that God exists.
In order for the mind to understand and the will to consent to faith, it must have evidence to do so. One does not believe in something one has no knowledge of or knows is false.
Still, faith is not contained by the intellect; instead, faith is an assent at the far side of reason. One comes to a properly formed faith after one has exhausted the reasoning process.
Has God crafted human nature, or does each person create their own nature? Is there an objective moral standard that can be known to human beings, or is morality a matter of might makes right? Is faith in God rational or an irrational “blind leap”?
In this paper, I have argued that, despite its popularity and uniqueness, the basic tenets of existential philosophy cannot be reconciled with the Bible or the Catholic faith.