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Thursday, October 27, 2005

Existentialism is Dead...(Or Why You Shouldn't Care About What I Have to Say.)

Though the average Christian probably does not claim to be an existentialist, much of it's teaching falls into the church. How many times have you heard questions like, "What does this passage mean to you?" Has a person ever responded to you with, "Well, that may be, but I don't define the word that way?" Now it may be tricky to figure out the author's original intent, and there are obviously multiple applications for God's Word, a proper understanding of verbal, plenary inspiration requires we believe the words used were the words intended. And that the definition of the word at the time of it's original usage, must be the author's desired definition.

We live in a society that claims words don't matter, but they are rather inconsistent about it. Try screaming "Fire" in the middle of a movie theatre. Or perhaps more incendiary, try blurting out racial epithets in a mixed audience. In both situations, you can claim that nothing was meant, but people are still going to get upset. We, as believers, should be even more concerned about words. Jesus sure was (Matthew 15:15-20).

Existentialism is dead. For one, it killed itself.

The very process of explaining existentialism requires words. If, in the process to explain that words only have the meaning I choose to attach to them, I must use words, and therefore you and I must agree on the definition of said words, I have only been able to communicate if existentialism is not true. Furthermore, if I choose to believe that existentialism means that every word has a specific meaning outside of the person using the word, the existentialist must concede that my definition is proper for me, if he is to be consistent. Take meaning away from words, and we can not communicate.

Existentialism is dead. More importantly, Jesus shows it is so.

As just one example, look at Matthew 16:13-17. Jesus asks the disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" At first, the existentialist gets excited, thinking, "Aha, Jesus is about to define Himself by the perspective of others." The disciples go on to explain that there are several different options. Jesus follows with, "But who do you say that I am?" Two things to notice here. One, Jesus begins the question with the word "but." He is implying that the other answers were wanting. In essence, He's saying, "Ok, that's there opinion, but I'm looking for more." This is also obvious by the fact that in the first question He refers to Himself as the "Son of Man" and the second question makes it obvious that He considers Himself to be the Son of Man. Peter's answer, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!"

But Jesus didn't really care about Peter's response. Take a look, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven." Peter didn't speak anything into being. Jesus didn't become the Messiah because Peter thought He was so. In fact, Jesus didn't become Peter's Messiah simply because Peter declared it to be so. Jesus IS the Messiah and God has declared that to be the case. That's what really mattered to Jesus. Even if God had not revealed it to Peter, Jesus still would have been so.

In a society where words are defined as I want them, and something can have a meaning for you and a meaning for me, it is imperative that we let them know existentialism is terribly flawed. Jesus does not call for us to come to what we think He may be. He calls us to come to Him. We have to gently, lovingly explain to a person that their opinion doesn't really matter. It doesn't change a thing. They must see that they have to come to God, in the way He requires, as He has determined. We don't make the rules, and we don't define the rules.


  • At 4:05 PM, Blogger Jeremy Bear said…

    We "live in a society that claims words don't matter"? I've yet to meet anyone that would make this claim, Existentialists included.

    I'm not a student of Existentialism, but I suspect you're oversimplifying the philosophy. Where did you get your definition?

  • At 7:04 PM, Blogger danny2 said…


    it's a blog and i didn't think people would want to go through an entire volume of information to get to it.

    it's basically the thought that meaning and origin derive from you. you determine the definition of things.

    if you declare that you are typing on a bananna instead of a keyboard, who am i to critique. they will actually claim words do have meaning...there own that they choose to ascribe to it. and therefore if i give a word one meaning, and you give it another, the word really has no meaning. again, this is just a quick summary.

    as for people saying words don't matter...you've never had someone get caught in their words and try to respond, "i was just kidding," "i was angry, i didn't mean it," "i was just venting" or "it's not like i did anything." i would say each of those are a dismissal that says that words don't really matter.

  • At 9:07 PM, Blogger The Honus said…

    Wow, are you intentionally trying to open the proverbial can-o-worms so you'll get lots of comments at the end of your posts?

    First - there are very few true existentialists in a practical sense.

    Second - existentialism, even in its practical uses (if there are any) doesn't deny the meaning of language, it simply overemphasizes the individual response to those words.

    Third - the existentialist would point to that very same passage of Scripture and claim that Jesus was an existentialist. He was not concerned with all the talk about who he was, but rather he was singularly focused on the individual responses to what they had experienced in Him.

    Fourth - remember the wise advice of C.S. Lewis. Being a Chrisitan does not mean that I must reject all other systems all the way through. In fact an "ism" is nothing more than an overemphasis of some piece of truth at the exclusion of the rest of the complete picture. Perhaps an element of existentialism is missing from our Christianity?

    All that to say, existentialism is one of the most useless philosophical systems in the history of mankind, but it did have it's roots in the church with a Christian thinker (Kierkegaard) and there are others who followed him that it woldn't hurt to listen to their perspective, for they might illuminate a deeper sense of faith and trust in God

  • At 9:45 PM, Blogger Jeremy Bear said…

    How do any of those examples demonstrate the words don't really matter? Do jokes "matter"? Do lies? Does sarcasm?

    Of course they do. "Just kidding" doesn't cancel the meaning of words, it assigns a different meaning to them. For example, which of these tells you more about how someone feels about their job:

    1) "There are days I don't like my job."

    2) "I hate my job! Okay, maybe not 'hate', but still..."

    I'd contend that example two gives us more information about the person's feelings toward their job. On the surface, #1 is more exact, but it's giving us less information.

    Okay, so this is hair-splitting. But I love language. And I suppose this touches on your earlier post, but I love all facets of language, including the nasties. Words are wonderful and as specific or vague as we decide to make them. Maybe that's what you'd label as Existentialist thinking, but I'd disagree.

    And I think your oversimplification of Existentialism misses it a bit. I'm guessing that you'd hate to see Christianity simplified down to "be a good person."

  • At 8:38 AM, Blogger danny2 said…

    i have no problem with using humor. obviously, i also know that someone can mean two different things with "you are smart" depending on their tone. but consider the words of Proverbs:


    the problem is that we often try to snake our way out of what we said by claiming we were joking, when we really weren't.

    sure we can use words in unique ways to convey particular thoughts...but don't they have to have some universal meaning for us to be able to communicate?

  • At 1:25 PM, Blogger The Honus said…

    what does that (humor) have to so with existentialism and why it is "dead"?

  • At 9:46 PM, Blogger danny2 said…

    my last post had nothing to do with humor. i was saying i have no problem with different word meanings used in humor.

    however, many of us say things that we don't mean as humor, but when pinned to our thoughts, we claim it is humor or just venting or don't take responsibility.

    and i guess i was wrong to say existentialism is dead...it never was alive in the first place.

    though kirkegard espoused many of these views, it hardly had it's root with him. i also struggle to understand your chiding me to listen to an existentialist for they may illuminate a deeper sense of faith and trust in God in the very same paragraph that you call it one of the most useless philosophical systems in the history of humankind.

  • At 9:59 AM, Blogger The Honus said…

    Every "ism" is an overemphasis of some element of truth at the expense of the complete picture. Hedonism for example is an overemphasis of pleasure at the expense of restraint and self-control. Is pleasure in and of itself evil? I hope not. I don't have to say that pleasure is evil because hedonists have taken it to an unbelievable extreme anymore than I have to say that fundamental truth is evil becasue fundamentalists have taken it to an extreme. Thus the truth should be a little hedonistic (pleasurable), pragmatic (practical), utilitarian (useful), existential (individual), natural (evident in nature), rational (logically sound), mystical (mysterious), transcendental (other-worldly), etc. For each of these have overemphasized something that is true about the created order. The question is, as the hedonist has reacted to puritanical values (which in and of themselves are biblical and thus in my estimation by and large right), what can we learn from their reaction?

    So, my point original point remains the same. Perhaps instead of reading about all the horrors of existentialism, we should actually read what existentialists have and are saying, trying to determine what truth they have overemphasized. Acknowledging that we can learn from the mistakes of the past. From what point have they jumped ship? We just might gain something useful in the meantime.

    Because I tell you that when life doesn't make rational sense - we all get a little existential and take a "leap of faith". I can't tell you the number of times lately that the empirical evidence seems to be pointing me away from God and it is simply a matter of my individual response (an existential choice) that keeps me trusting in Him.

  • At 10:24 AM, Blogger danny2 said…

    are we agreeing?

    i get the feeling you are correcting me, but can't quite figure out where.

    there is certainly a balance among things. i find it interesting that modernism is often blamed for what has allowed us to become so individualistic in our approach to things (often ignoring the corporate dynamics) while existentialism (which is much more comfortable in postmodernity) encourages such individualism.

    the man who fears the Lord will avoid all extremes--Ecclesiastes 7:18

    i guess i would just come from a different angle than saying truth is a bit existential, hedonistic, rational, etc. to say that each of the "isms" have a bit of truth in them.

    (by the way, not to be trite, but i would say it's more an issue of the Holy Spirit directing you to go against the empirical evidence rather than your own existential choice).


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