Christian existentialism
Christian existentialism describes a group of writings that take a philosophically existentialist
Existentialism is a term applied to a school of 19th- and 20th-century philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual...

 approach to Christian theology. The school of thought is often traced back to the work of the Danish
Denmark is a Scandinavian country in Northern Europe. The countries of Denmark and Greenland, as well as the Faroe Islands, constitute the Kingdom of Denmark . It is the southernmost of the Nordic countries, southwest of Sweden and south of Norway, and bordered to the south by Germany. Denmark...

 philosopher and theologian considered the father of existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard
Søren Kierkegaard
Søren Aabye Kierkegaard was a Danish Christian philosopher, theologian and religious author. He was a critic of idealist intellectuals and philosophers of his time, such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling and Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel...


Kierkegaardian themes

Christian existentialism relies on Kierkegaard's understanding of Christianity
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

. Kierkegaard argued that the universe
The Universe is commonly defined as the totality of everything that exists, including all matter and energy, the planets, stars, galaxies, and the contents of intergalactic space. Definitions and usage vary and similar terms include the cosmos, the world and nature...

 is fundamentally paradox
Similar to Circular reasoning, A paradox is a seemingly true statement or group of statements that lead to a contradiction or a situation which seems to defy logic or intuition...

ical, and that its greatest paradox is the transcendent union of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ. He also posited having a personal relationship with God that supersedes all prescribed moralities, social structures and communal norms, since he asserted that following social conventions is essentially a personal aesthetic choice made by individuals.

Kierkegaard proposed that each person must make independent choices, which will then constitute his existence. No imposed structures can alter the responsibility of each individual to seek to please God in whatever personal and paradoxical way God chooses to be pleased. Each person suffers from the anguish of indecision until he makes a "leap of faith", and commits to a particular choice. Man is faced first with the responsibility of knowing of his own free will, and then with the fact that a choice, even a wrong one, must be made in order to live authentically.

Kierkegaard also upheld the idea that each person exists in one of three spheres (or planes) of existence: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. Most people, he observed, live an aesthetic life in which nothing matters but appearances, pleasures, and happiness. It is in accordance with the desires of this sphere that people follow social conventions. Kierkegaard also considered the violation of social conventions for personal reasons (e.g., in the pursuit of fame, reputation for rebelliousness) to be a personal aesthetic choice. A much smaller group are those people who live in the ethical sphere, who do their best to do the right thing and see past the shallow pleasantries and ideas of society. The third and highest sphere is the faith sphere. To be in the faith sphere, Kierkegaard says, one must give the entirety of oneself to God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....


Major premises

One of the major premises of Christian existentialism entails calling the masses back to a more genuine form of Christianity. This form is often identified with some notion of Early Christianity
Early Christianity
Early Christianity is generally considered as Christianity before 325. The New Testament's Book of Acts and Epistle to the Galatians records that the first Christian community was centered in Jerusalem and its leaders included James, Peter and John....

, which mostly existed during the first three centuries after the Christ's crucifixion
Crucifixion of Jesus
The crucifixion of Jesus and his ensuing death is an event that occurred during the 1st century AD. Jesus, who Christians believe is the Son of God as well as the Messiah, was arrested, tried, and sentenced by Pontius Pilate to be scourged, and finally executed on a cross...

. Beginning with the Edict of Milan
Edict of Milan
The Edict of Milan was a letter signed by emperors Constantine I and Licinius that proclaimed religious toleration in the Roman Empire...

, which was issued by Roman Emperor
Roman Emperor
The Roman emperor was the ruler of the Roman State during the imperial period . The Romans had no single term for the office although at any given time, a given title was associated with the emperor...

 Constantine I
Constantine I
Constantine the Great , also known as Constantine I or Saint Constantine, was Roman Emperor from 306 to 337. Well known for being the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, Constantine and co-Emperor Licinius issued the Edict of Milan in 313, which proclaimed religious tolerance of all...

 in AD 313, Christianity enjoyed a level of popularity among Romans
Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was the post-Republican period of the ancient Roman civilization, characterised by an autocratic form of government and large territorial holdings in Europe and around the Mediterranean....

 and later among other European
European ethnic groups
The ethnic groups in Europe are the various ethnic groups that reside in the nations of Europe. European ethnology is the field of anthropology focusing on Europe....

s. And yet Kierkegaard asserted that by the 19th century, the ultimate meaning of New Testament
New Testament
The New Testament is the second major division of the Christian biblical canon, the first such division being the much longer Old Testament....

 Christianity (love
Charity (virtue)
In Christian theology charity, or love , means an unlimited loving-kindness toward all others.The term should not be confused with the more restricted modern use of the word charity to mean benevolent giving.- Caritas: altruistic love :...

, cf. agape
Agape is one of the Greek words translated into English as love, one which became particularly appropriated in Christian theology as the love of God or Christ for mankind. In the New Testament, it refers to the fatherly love of God for humans, as well as the human reciprocal love for God; the term...

, mercy
Mercy is broad term that refers to benevolence, forgiveness and kindness in a variety of ethical, religious, social and legal contexts.The concept of a "Merciful God" appears in various religions from Christianity to...

 and loving-kindness
Loving-kindness is a term coined by Myles Coverdale for his Coverdale Bible of 1535, as an English translation of the Hebrew word chesed ; in that text it is spelled "louinge kyndnesse". It is also used in this sense in the American Standard Version and various other versions of the Bible...

) had become perverted, and Christianity had deviated considerably from its original threefold message of grace, humility, and love.

Another major premise of Christian existentialism involves Kierkegaard's conception of God
God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions who is either the sole deity in monotheism, or a single deity in polytheism....

 and Love
Love is an emotion of strong affection and personal attachment. In philosophical context, love is a virtue representing all of human kindness, compassion, and affection. Love is central to many religions, as in the Christian phrase, "God is love" or Agape in the Canonical gospels...

. For the most part, Kierkegaard equates God with Love. Thus, when a person engages in the act of loving, he is in effect achieving an aspect of the divine
Divinity and divine are broadly applied but loosely defined terms, used variously within different faiths and belief systems — and even by different individuals within a given faith — to refer to some transcendent or transcendental power or deity, or its attributes or manifestations in...

. Kierkegaard also viewed the individual
An individual is a person or any specific object or thing in a collection. Individuality is the state or quality of being an individual; a person separate from other persons and possessing his or her own needs, goals, and desires. Being self expressive...

 as a necessary synthesis of both finite and infinite elements. Therefore, when an individual does not come to a full realization of his infinite side, he is said to be in despair. For many contemporary Christian theologians, the notion of despair can be viewed as sin
In religion, sin is the violation or deviation of an eternal divine law or standard. The term sin may also refer to the state of having committed such a violation. Christians believe the moral code of conduct is decreed by God In religion, sin (also called peccancy) is the violation or deviation...

. However, to Kierkegaard, a man sinned when he was exposed to this idea of despair and chose a path other than one in accordance with God's will
Providentialism is a belief that God's will is evident in all occurrences. It can further be described as a belief that the power of God is so complete that humans cannot equal His abilities, or fully understand His plan...


A final major premise of Christian existentialism entails the systematic undoing of evil
Evil is the violation of, or intent to violate, some moral code. Evil is usually seen as the dualistic opposite of good. Definitions of evil vary along with analysis of its root motive causes, however general actions commonly considered evil include: conscious and deliberate wrongdoing,...

 acts. Kierkegaard asserted that once an action had been completed, it should be evaluated in the face of God, for holding oneself up to divine scrutiny was the only way to judge one's actions. Because actions constitute the manner in which something is deemed good or bad, one must be constantly conscious of the potential consequences of his actions. Kierkegaard believed that the choice for goodness ultimately came down to each individual. Yet Kierkegaard also foresaw the potential limiting of choices for individuals who fell into despair
The Sickness Unto Death
The Sickness Unto Death is a book written by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard in 1849 under the pseudonym Anti-Climacus...


The Bible as an existential writing

Christian Existentialism often refers to what it calls the indirect style of Christ's teachings, which it considers to be a distinctive and important aspect of his ministry. Christ's point, it says, is often left unsaid in any particular parable or saying, to permit each individual to confront the truth on their own. This is particularly evident in (but is certainly not limited to) his parable
A parable is a succinct story, in prose or verse, which illustrates one or more instructive principles, or lessons, or a normative principle. It differs from a fable in that fables use animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as characters, while parables generally feature human...

s. For example, in Matthew
Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel According to Matthew is one of the four canonical gospels, one of the three synoptic gospels, and the first book of the New Testament. It tells of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth...

 18, Jesus tells a story about a man who is heavily in debt. The debtor and his family are about to be sold into slavery, but he pleads for their lives. His master accordingly cancels the debt and sets them free. Later the man who was in debt abuses some people who owe him money, and he has them thrown in jail. Upon being informed of what this man has done, the master brings him in and says, "Why are you doing this? Weren't your debts canceled?" Then the debtor is thrown into jail until the debt is paid. Jesus ends his story by saying, "This is how it will be for you if you do not forgive your brother from your heart."

Often Christ's parables are a response to a question he is asked. After he tells the parable, he returns the question to the individual
An individual is a person or any specific object or thing in a collection. Individuality is the state or quality of being an individual; a person separate from other persons and possessing his or her own needs, goals, and desires. Being self expressive...

 who originally asked it. Often we see a person asking a speculative
In finance, speculation is a financial action that does not promise safety of the initial investment along with the return on the principal sum...

 question involving one's duty before God, and Christ's response is more or less the same question—but as God would ask that individual. For example, in Luke
Gospel of Luke
The Gospel According to Luke , commonly shortened to the Gospel of Luke or simply Luke, is the third and longest of the four canonical Gospels. This synoptic gospel is an account of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. It details his story from the events of his birth to his Ascension.The...

 10:25, a teacher of the law asks Jesus what it means to love one's neighbor as oneself. Jesus replies by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. In the story a man is beaten by thieves. A priest and a Levite
In Jewish tradition, a Levite is a member of the Hebrew tribe of Levi. When Joshua led the Israelites into the land of Canaan, the Levites were the only Israelite tribe that received cities but were not allowed to be landowners "because the Lord the God of Israel himself is their inheritance"...

 pass him by, but a Samaritan takes pity on him and generously sets him up at an inn—paying his tab in advance. Then Jesus returns the question, "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?". Jesus does not answer the question because he requires the individual to answer it, and thus to understand existence
In common usage, existence is the world we are aware of through our senses, and that persists independently without them. In academic philosophy the word has a more specialized meaning, being contrasted with essence, which specifies different forms of existence as well as different identity...

 in the Bible, one must recognize who that passage is speaking to in particular. To Kierkegaard, it is the individual hearing the passage.

A good example of indirect communication in the Old Testament is the story of David
David was the second king of the united Kingdom of Israel according to the Hebrew Bible and, according to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, an ancestor of Jesus Christ through both Saint Joseph and Mary...

 and Nathan
Nathan (Prophet)
Nathan the Prophet was a court prophet who lived in the time of King David and Queen Bathsheba. He came to David to reprimand him over his committing adultery with Bathsheba while she was the wife of Uriah the Hittite whose death the King had also arranged to hide his previous transgression.His...

 in 2 Samuel 12. David had committed adultery with a woman, Bathsheba
According to the Hebrew Bible, Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite and later of David, king of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah. She is most known for the Bible story in which King David seduced her....

, which resulted in her pregnancy. He then ordered her husband, Uriah, to come home from a war front so that he might sleep with his wife, thus making it appear as if Uriah had in fact conceived with Bathsheba. Instead, Uriah would not break faith with his fellow soldiers still on the battlefield and refused to sleep with her. David then ordered him back out to the battlefront where he would surely die, thus making Bathsheba a widow and available for marriage, which David soon arranged. David initially thought he had gotten away with murder, until Nathan arrived to tell him a story about two men, one rich and the other poor. The poor man was a shepherd with only one lamb, which he raised with his family. The lamb ate at his table and slept in his arms. One day a traveler came to visit the rich man; instead of taking one of his own sheep, the rich man seized the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for his guest. When Nathan finished his story, David burned with anger and said (among other things): "As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die!". Nathan responded by saying "You are the man!". Realizing his guilt, David becomes filled with terror and remorse, tearfully repenting of his evil deed.

An existential
Existentialism is a term applied to a school of 19th- and 20th-century philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual...

 reading of the Bible demands that the reader recognize that he is an existing subject
Subject (philosophy)
In philosophy, a subject is a being that has subjective experiences, subjective consciousness or a relationship with another entity . A subject is an observer and an object is a thing observed...

, studying the words that God communicates to him personally. This is in contrast to looking at a collection of "truths" which are outside and unrelated to the reader. Such a reader is not obligated to follow the commandments as if an external agent is forcing them upon him, but as though they are inside him and guiding him internally. This is the task Kierkegaard takes up when he asks: "Who has the more difficult task: the teacher who lectures on earnest things a meteor's distance from everyday life, or the learner who should put it to use?" Existentially speaking, the Bible doesn't become an authority in a person's life until they authorize the Bible to be their personal authority.

Notable thinkers

Christian existentialists include American theologian Lincoln Swain, German Protestant theologians Paul Tillich
Paul Tillich
Paul Johannes Tillich was a German-American theologian and Christian existentialist philosopher. Tillich was one of the most influential Protestant theologians of the 20th century...

 and Rudolph Bultmann, British Anglican theologian John Macquarrie
John Macquarrie
John Macquarrie FBA TD was a Scottish theologian and philosopher, the author of Principles of Christian Theology and Jesus Christ in Modern Thought...

, European philosophers, Karl Jaspers
Karl Jaspers
Karl Theodor Jaspers was a German psychiatrist and philosopher who had a strong influence on modern theology, psychiatry and philosophy. After being trained in and practicing psychiatry, Jaspers turned to philosophical inquiry and attempted to discover an innovative philosophical system...

, Gabriel Marcel
Gabriel Marcel
Gabriel Honoré Marcel was a French philosopher, a leading Christian existentialist, and author of about 30 plays.He focused on the modern individual's struggle in a technologically dehumanizing society...

, Miguel de Unamuno
Miguel de Unamuno
Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo was a Spanish essayist, novelist, poet, playwright and philosopher.-Biography:...

 and Pierre Boutang
Pierre Boutang
Pierre Boutang was a French philosopher, poet and translator. He was also a political journalist, associated with the currents of Maurrasianism and Royalism.- Biography :...

, and Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev
Nikolai Berdyaev
Nikolai Alexandrovich Berdyaev was a Russian religious and political philosopher.-Early life and education:Berdyaev was born in Kiev into an aristocratic military family. He spent a solitary childhood at home, where his father's library allowed him to read widely...

. Karl Barth
Karl Barth
Karl Barth was a Swiss Reformed theologian whom critics hold to be among the most important Christian thinkers of the 20th century; Pope Pius XII described him as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas...

 added to Kierkegaard's ideas the notion that existential despair leads an individual to an awareness of God's infinite nature. Some ideas in the works of Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky
Fyodor Dostoevsky
Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky was a Russian writer of novels, short stories and essays. He is best known for his novels Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov....

 could arguably be placed within the tradition of Christian existentialism.

See also

  • Biblical theology
    Biblical Theology
    Biblical theology is a discipline within Christian theology which studies the Bible from the perspective of understanding the progressive history of God revealing Himself to humanity following the Fall and throughout the Old Testament and New Testament...

  • Christian philosophy
    Christian philosophy
    Christian philosophy may refer to any development in philosophy that is characterised by coming from a Christian tradition.- Origins of Christian philosophy :...

  • Existentialism
    Existentialism is a term applied to a school of 19th- and 20th-century philosophers who, despite profound doctrinal differences, shared the belief that philosophical thinking begins with the human subject—not merely the thinking subject, but the acting, feeling, living human individual...

  • Fideism
    Fideism is an epistemological theory which maintains that faith is independent of reason, or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths...

  • Narrative or Postliberal theology
  • Neo-orthodoxy
    Neo-orthodoxy, in Europe also known as theology of crisis and dialectical theology,is an approach to theology in Protestantism that was developed in the aftermath of the First World War...

  • Postmodern Christianity
    Postmodern Christianity
    Postmodern Christianity is an outlook of Christianity that is closely associated with the body of writings known as postmodern philosophy. Although it is a relatively recent development in the Christian religion, some Christian postmodernists assert that their style of thought has an affinity with...

External links

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