Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Famous Existentialists

At a conference at Wheaton called "Government, Foreign Assistance, and God's Mission in the World." Not supposed to blog or tweet till it's over :-)
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55)
The Danish Kierkegaard is sometimes retroactively called the “father of existentialism” for the way that he focused on the centrality of human choices over ideas and the cognitive. He held that a “leap of faith,” one that could not be based on reason, was essential for a life with meaning. Although he was a Christian who talked of this leap of faith in terms of Christian faith, the subjective nature of such leaps makes him the father both of theistic and atheistic existentialism. See chapter 2.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)
Whether we consider the German Nietzsche a proper existentialist or not, he clearly laid the groundwork for the twentieth-century movement with this name. Atheistic existentialism starts with the inherent meaninglessness of things in order to argue that any meaning we impose on the world is as valid as anything else. Nietzsche is the starkest in his presentation of such nihilism, and he equally focuses on the human “will to power” as the human drive to force our choices to be the right ones. If we do not retroactively consider him an existentialist, we must certainly see him as its most important forerunner.

Martin Heidegger (1886-1976)
Although Heidegger (who at least initially supported Hitler) did not self-identify as an existentialist, he was a significant influence on Sartre and those who did. In Being and Time, Heidegger rejected Descartes’ attempt to separate oneself as a thinker from the world you are thinking about. Rather, you are inseparable from the world, and our fundamental existence is “Dasein” (being-in-the-world). Authentic existence is when in the midst of our caring deeply about our situation as part of the world we nonetheless make a decision to take responsibility for the situation into which we are thrown and resolutely shoulder our inherited burden.

Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976)
The German Bultmann was perhaps the most influential New Testament scholar of the twentieth century, even if most scholars would reject his best known interpretations today. On the other hand, many who are sympathetic to Christianity but who struggle with faith still find his existentialist agenda attractive. Bultmann famously did not believe that it was possible to “use electric light and the wireless… and at the same time believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles” (“The New Testament and Mythology,” 1941). Instead, he believed that if we “demythologize” the New Testament, we would find that its core teaching is existentialist. Resurrection is the call to authentic existence in the face of death.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80)
We might consider the French Sartre the true father of modern existentialism, particularly atheistic existentialism. As mentioned in this chapter, Sartre taught that “existence precedes essence,” meaning that we have to come up with “what we are” (essence) long after our bodies are born (existence). According to Sartre, we are “condemned to be free.” We have no choice but to choose who we are, but we are free to choose any “who we are.” The classic treatment of his existentialism is his 1943, Being and Nothingness.

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86)
In contrast to Sartre’s difficult, Being and Nothingness, Simone de Beauvoir’s, The Ethics of Ambiguity, is a much more readable presentation of French existentialism. de Beauvoir was Sartre’s lifetime partner, and together they were activists for mid-twentieth century socialist and communist causes. Her work, The Second Sex, is a major piece of secular feminist literature and captured the spirit of existentialism well when she wrote that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Albert Camus (1913-60)
As mentioned in the chapter, the French Camus was known for the “theater of the absurd,” a school of art that portrayed things we experience as very significant in insignificant ways. In The Stranger, for example, a series of casual decisions and accidental occurrences end in murder and subsequent capital punishment, a consequence Camus portrays as rather inconsequential. His essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, portrayed life like the fate of Sisyphus, who in Hades eternally pushes a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down as he reaches the top. So Camus would have us believe that life is truly meaningless, but we nevertheless start each day all over again as an act of rebellion.

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