SATURDAY READING: The Other Side Of Despair, by Thomas Merton

other side of despair thomas merton

From The Critic 24 (October-November 1965)

Ten years ago, conservative writers were already engaged in a definitive summing up of the “existentialist revolt.”  What had begun, they said, in the eccentric religiosity of Kierkegaard had ended in the open rebellion of Sartre against all that was decent and sane; and now it had even penetrated Catholic thought with the contagious of situation ethics. But the church was on the watch, the warning had been sounded.  Indeed, the encyclical Humani Generis may have been the reason why Gabriel Marcel repudiated the title “existentialist.”  After a short and competent mopping-up operation in the theological reviews, another victory would be enshrined in the revised editions of the theological manuals, and all would continue in good order.  And there can be no question that the existentialism of the forties and fifties was dangerous to Catholicism in many ways.  Atheistic existentialism still is!

Outside the church, even the existentialist philosophers were tending to close up accounts.  In 1949, F. H. Heinemann was already asking, “What is alive and what is dead in existentialism?”  He was concluding, not without some justification, that existentialism regarded as a philosophical system is a contradiction in terms, and was therefore dead even before it tried to live.  He added that what was alive in existentialism was the metaphysical problem it raised.  However, in asking a somewhat tedious question Heinemann gave us further reason to complain, as Mounier had done, that “a philosophy whose purpose is to drag us away from our idle gossiping” itself tends to degenerate into gossip.

The question Heinemann asked was: “Are the existentialists the spiritual leaders of our time?”  This is resolved into another question: “Are they leading us out of our crisis or into a blind alley?”  The answers were respectively no and yes.  Sartre, the most influential of the existentialists, is for Heinemann at best a pseudo-leader.  On the other hand, he does not concern himself with Camus, who, he says, is “not an existentialist.”  But by 1965 Camus was exercising a very positive influence in America, especially on those concerned with civil rights and avant-garde political positions.  And his influence was certainly as “existentialist” as Kierkegaard’s, for instance.

However, since these questions belong to the realm of journalism and of academic gossip, I do not intend to get sidetracked into a discussion of them.  The fact that existentialism is less discussed today than it was in 1950 or 1955 does not mean that it has ceased to be active.  However, its activities, I would say, can be soberly estimated today as far less nefarious and perhaps a great deal more useful than they were then thought to be.  We can now safely admit the existence of a Christian existentialism active not only in philosophy but also in the renewed Biblical theology which has been so eloquent and so salutary in the years of Vatican II.

If, in talking about existentialism, we distinguish between the “movement,” the gossip about the movement, and the cogent reality of existentialist thinking, we can perhaps say that both the movement and the gossip about it are a great deal less actual now than they were ten, fifteen, or twenty years ago.

The “existentialist movement” (“revolt”) is associated in the popular mind with the French literary existentialists, especially the austere and ironic genius of Camus, lost to us in death, and the bitter Sartre of World War II, also to a great extent lost, or transformed, in his own current brand of Marxism.  It is true that, in canonizing Genet, Sartre has shown an undiminished aspiration to meet the popular need for existentialism to be scandalous, and, in refusing the Nobel Prize, he has improvised a hasty defense against being identified, himself, with the French literary establishment.

Is Sartre perhaps caught in his own vicious circle?  He is probably right in saying that society needs people like Genet to be what they are.  But is he right in assuming that the free acceptance of this evil lot, and the total commitment to evil as an act of revenge, is the way to authenticity and liberation?  Is it not logical fulfillment of society’s perverse demand that the criminal be totally evil?  Is it not then a final capitulation?  Sartre should have accepted the reward which our confused and distraught society offered him!  He earned it, in his own way.

The existentialism which is most active and of most vital interest to the church today is neither as well publicized nor as thoroughly discussed as the literature of those earlier days: it is the existentialist theology, both Protestant and Catholic, which owes so much to Heidegger.

We must at once admit that the loaded word “existentialist” must here be used with great circumspection.  It is still a term of opprobrium among Catholics, and people are still in the habit of blaming everything they fear or dislike upon it.  To suggest that Karl Rahner, for instance, might be tinged with “existentialism” (he is to some extent a disciple of Heidegger) would in some circles be quite enough to damn him, but it would hardly be enough to convict him of being nothing more than a Catholic Sartre.  That is the trouble with gossip.  Since for various good reasons existentialism is still regarded as “dangerous,” and since the function of gossip is, among other things, to permit people to enjoy danger vicariously, at no greater risk than that of being misled, we shall try in this article neither to excite nor to mislead.

Existentialism is still in the air.  It influences the climate of theology, and before we dismiss it as completely pestilential, let us at least try to find out what it is.

Of course this is both difficult and deceptive.  Existentialism is an experience and an attitude, rather than a system of thought.  As soon as it begins to present itself as a system, it denies and destroys itself.  Non-objective, elusive, concrete, dynamic, always in movement and always seeking to renew itself in the newness of the present situation, genuine existentialism is, like Zen Buddhism and like apophatic Christian mysticism, hidden in life itself.  It cannot be distilled out in verbal formulas.  Above all, the journalistic clichés about existentialist nihilism, pessimism, anarchism, and so on, are totally irrelevant, even though they may have some foundation in certain existentialist writings.  It is my contention that these writings cannot fairly be taken as representative of genuine existentialism.

Rather than attempt still another abstract and technical definition of something which, in itself, is neither abstract nor technical, let us begin with a concrete example.  Existentialism has expressed itself most unambiguously in literature, where it is free from technicalities and quasi-official formulas.  Literature offers us an example quite close to home, in the novels and short stories of Flannery O’Connor.  I can think of no American writer who has made a more devastating use of existential intuition.  She does so, of course, without declamation, without program, without distributing manifestoes, and without leading a parade.  Current existentialism is, in fact, neither partisan nor programmatic.  It is content with the austere task of minding its own literary, philosophical, or theological business.

A casual consideration of the “good” and the “bad” people in Flannery O’Connor will help us to appreciate the existentialist point of view – that point of view which is so easily obscured when it presents itself in terms of a program.  For example, in her story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” evil is not so much in the gangsters, so fatally and so easily “found,” as in the garrulous, empty-headed, folksy, sentimental old fool of a grandmother.  Not that she is deliberately wicked, but the fact is, she does get everybody killed.  It is her absurd and arbitrary fantasy that leads them directly to the “good man” and five deaths.  She is a kind of blank, a void through which there speaks and acts the peculiar nemesis too, if we could but see it as she did.   This frightening action of Sophoclean nemesis in and through the right-thinking man who is null and void is spelled out in its full and public identity in types like Rayber, the positivist schoolteacher in The Violent Bear It Away.

The first thing that anyone notices in reading Flannery O’Connor is that her moral evaluations seem to be strangely scrambled.  The good people are bad and the bad people tend to be less bad than they seem.  This is not in itself unusual.  But her crazy people, while remaining as crazy as they can possibly be, turn out to be governed by a strange kind of sanity.  In the end, it is the sane ones who are incurable lunatics.  The “good,” the “right,” the “kind” do all the harm.  “Love” is a force for destruction, and “truth” is the best way to tell a lie.

Rayber is, by all standards, the kind of person our society accepts as normal, not only a sane man but a kind one.  A teacher, a man with forward-looking and optimistic perspectives, illuminated and blessed with a scientific worldview, he is acquainted with all the best methods for helping people to become happy and well adjusted in the best of all possible societies.

It is he who sees through nonsense, prejudice, and myth.  It is he who gets the Bible student to sleep with the frustrated girl from the woods, to relieve her tensions and open her up to a more joyous and fulfilled mode of life.  It is he who, when their child is born, wants to protect him against the fantastic uncle, the prophet and believer.  It is he who suffers permanent damage (deafness) trying to liberate the boy from the awful trammels of obscurantism and superstition.  Rayber is our kind of man, is he not?  A sound and practical positivist, well-adjusted in a scientific age.  True, he is not a Catholic, but we have plenty of Catholics who think more or less as he does, and he could perhaps be persuaded that we too are reasonable.

Yet as we read Flannery O’Connor we find an uncomfortable feeling creeping over us: we are on the side of the fanatic and the mad boy, and we are against this reasonable zombie.  We are against everything he stands for.  We find ourselves nauseated by the reasonable, objective, “scientific” answers he has for everything.  In him, science is so right that it is a disaster.

Such is the dire effect of reading an existentialist.

Rayber wants to help the wild boy to find himself, to forget the madness he learned from the prophet, to become a docile and useful citizen in a world of opportunity where he can at last have everything.  Rayber will not count the cost in sacrifice that must be paid.  “Now I can make up for all the time we’ve lost.  I can help correct what he’s done to you, help you to correct it yourself.  This is our problem together.”

It was perhaps not kind of the boy, Tarwater; to be so suspicious of the world of reason, psychiatry, and togetherness, or to look with such an ugly glint upon the teacher’s hearing aid.  (“What you wired for?” he drawled.  “Does your head light up?”)

Alas, we share his cruel satisfaction.  We have come to agree that the positivist Mephistopheles from Teachers College is a pure void, a mouthpiece for demons.

“I forget what color eyes he’s got,” the old man would say, irked.  “What difference does the color make when I know the look?  I know what’s behind it.”

“What’s behind it?”

“Nothing.  He’s full of nothing.”

“He knows a heap,” the boy said.  “I don’t reckon it’s anything he don’t know.”

“He don’t know it’s anything he can’t know,” the old man said.  “That’s his trouble.  He thinks if it’s something he can’t know then somebody smarter than him can tell him about it and he can know it just the same.  And if you were to go there, the first thing he would do would be to test your head and tell you what you were thinking and how come you were thinking it and what you ought to be thinking instead.  And before long you wouldn’t belong to yourself no more, you would belong to him.”

This, in brief, is the existentialist case against the scientism and sociologism of positivist society.  It is a brief for the person and for personal, spiritual liberty against determinism and curtailment.

The old man was doing Rayber no injustice.  This is precisely what his hubris consists in: the conviction that the infinite rightness and leveling power of “scientific method” has given him a mandate to transform other people into his own image: which is the image of nothing.  And though he is “nothing,” yet others, he knows it well, must do things his way since he has science on his side.

If, for Flannery O’Connor, the mild, agnostic, and objective teacher is not so much evil as pure void, and if this is what it means to be a villain – this will to reduce everyone else by an infallible process to the same void as oneself – we begin to understand existentialism in its passionate resistance against the positivist outlook.  We also begin to see why, after all, existentialism is no immediate danger in a society almost entirely inclined to the consolations of sociometric methods.

Existentialism offers neither attractions nor peril to people who are perfectly convinced that they are headed in the right direction, that they possess the means to attain a reasonably perfect happiness, that they have a divine mandate to remove anyone who seems inclined to interfere with this aim.  Existentialism calls into question the validity, indeed the very possibility, of such an aim.  But, for positivism, its rightness is never in question.  Nor, indeed, is its nature.  The positivist does not even need to be quite sure where he is going.  The direction must be the right one, since it is determined by his processes and by his scientific method.  For him, the only question that really matters is how to keep on moving faster and faster in the same direction.  Philosophy reduces itself to knowing how: know-how.  The question what is relatively insignificant.   As long as one knows how, the what will take care of itself.  You just initiate the process, and keep it going.  The what follows.  In fact, the how tends more and more to determine the what.

The question who also turns out to be irrelevant except insofar as it is reducible to a how.  That is to say that what matters is not the person so much as the position he occupies, the influence he wields, the money he makes, and his general usefulness in getting things done, or at least his place in the machinery of society.  Thus a man is identified not by his character but by his function or by his income, not by what he is but by what he has.  If he has nothing, he does not count, and what is done to him or with him ceases to be a matter of ethical concern.

Pragmatism and positivism are therefore interested in the question how.  Traditional metaphysics, whether scholastic (realist) or idealist, is interested in the question what (the essence).  Existentialism wants to know who.  It is interested in the authentic use of freedom by the concrete personal subject.

The objective truth of science remains only half the truth – or even less than that – if the subjective truth, the true-being (Wahrsein), of the subject is left out of account.  This true-being is not found by examining the subject as if it were another object.  It is found in personal self-realization, that is to say, in freedom, in responsibility, in dialogue (with man and God), and in love.   Existentialism is, in other words, concerned with authentic personal identity, and concerned with it in a way that behaviorist methods and psychometry can never be.  (The tests are neither interested in nor capable of finding out who thinks, only with describing how he reacts.)  The chief complaint that sets existentialism over against positivism in diametric opposition is this: the claim of science and technology to expand the capacity of the human person for life and happiness is basically fraudulent, because technological society is not the least interested in values, still less in persons: it is concerned purely and simply with the functioning of its own processes.  Human beings are used merely as means to this end, and the one significant question it asks in their regard is not who they are but how they can be most efficiently used.

At this point, we might go back a hundred years to consider a prophetic page of Kierkegaard’s, from The Present Age.  Here he describes the process of “leveling” and of “reflection,” related to what has come to be called “alienation” and “estrangement” in more recent existential thought.

The process which Kierkegaard calls “leveling” is that by which the individual person loses himself in the vast emptiness of a public mind.  Because he identifies this abstraction with objective reality, or simply with “the truth,” he abdicates his own experience and intuition.  He renounces conscience and is lost.  But the public mind is a pure abstraction, a nonentity.  “For,” says Kierkegaard, “the public is made up of individuals at the moments when they are nothing,” that is to say, when they have abdicated conscience, personal decision, choice, and responsibility, and yielded themselves to the joy of being part of a pure myth.  The mythical being which thinks and acts for everybody, and does the most shameful of deeds without a moment of hesitation or of shame, is actually no being at all.  Those who take part in its acts can do so insofar as they have abstracted themselves from themselves and have surrendered to the public void, which they believe to be fully and objectively real: this collective self whose will is the will of nobody, whose mind is the mind of nobody, which can contradict itself and remain consistent with itself.  “More and more individuals, owing to their bloodless indolence, will aspire to be nothing at all – in order to become the public.”  Therefore, Kierkegaard concludes, the public is an “abstract whole formed in the most ludicrous way by all the participants becoming a third party (an onlooker).”  This process of leveling, of self-abandonment, of abdication of identity, in order to dare what nobody dares and to participate in the unthinkable as though one were an innocent bystander, sweeps through the world as a “hopeless forest fire of abstraction.”  The individual no longer belongs to God, to himself, to his beloved, to his art or his science; he is conscious of belonging in all things to an abstraction to which he is subjected by reflection (estrangement) just as a serf belongs to an estate.  The abstract leveling process, that self-combustion of the human race produced by the friction which arises when the individual ceases to exist as singled out by religion, is bound to continue like a trade wind until it consumes everything.”

The existentialist is aware of this danger above all.  He tirelessly insists that it is the great danger of our time, since it is completely prevalent both in the capitalist positivism of America and in the Marxist positivism of the Communist countries.  For this reason, the existentialist is condemned everywhere for a wide variety of reasons which usually boil down to this one: he is a rebel, an individualist, who, because he withdraws from the common endeavor of technological society to brook on his own dissatisfactions, condemns himself to futility, sterility, and despair.  Since he refuses to participate in the glorious and affluent togetherness of mass society, he must pay the price of fruitless isolation.  He is a masochist.  He gets no better than he deserves.

Of course, this criticism implies considerable overemphasis on one particular kind of existentialism – that of Sartre, for instance – which lends itself to facile caricature as lawless, negative, profligate, and generally beat.  The moral conclusion drawn from this by the mass media, for example, is that nonconformity is, today more than ever, fatal.  Not to submit to “leveling” is to become a weirdie.  Only the public is fully human.  The private sphere can no longer be human except at the price of admitting the abstract and the general into its own intimacy.

To prove your docility, you have to be totally invaded by the public image and the public voice.  If you do this, however, you will be repaid by a certain negative privacy: you will not be forced into a disturbing personal confrontation with other human beings.  You will meet them as strangers and as objects that make no direct demand for love – or, if they do, the demand is easily evaded.  So you play it safe by never turning off the TV, and never, under any circumstances, entertaining a thought, a desire, or a decision that is authentically your own.  It is in the general void, the universal noise, that you remain alone.

All the existentialists have protested against this state of affairs.  To cite two typical works: Karl Jasper’s Man in the Modern World and Gabriel Marcel’s Man Against Mass Society.  Authentic “existence” (in defense of which one becomes an “existentialist”) is contrasted with the bare inert Dasein, the “being there” of the lumplike object which is alienated man in the mass, man in the neuter, das MannDasein is the passive, motiveless mode of being of the individual who simply finds himself thrown arbitrarily, by inscrutable fate, into a world of objects.  He is a die in a crap game.  He neither accepts nor rejects himself, he is incapable of authentically willing to be what he is, he submits to the process.  It is the only reality he knows.  He is intent on one thing above all: the mental and social gymnastics by which he remains at the same time a participant and a spectator, public and private, passively involved and emotionally distant in the amorphous public mass in which we are spectators and yet all somehow inexorably perform the enormities which the public “does.”  All see, all participate as though vicariously in the collective excitement (sometimes even the collective ecstasy) without really “being there” except as things, as fragments of the scene.  All are aware, all consent passively, they do not choose, they do not decide.  They accept what has been decided by the public, that is, by nobody.

From the moment one elects to exist truly and freely, all this comes to an end.  Decision begins with the acceptance of one’s own finiteness, one’s own limitations, in fact, one’s own nothingness; but when one’s own nothingness is seen as a matter of personal choice, of free acceptance, and not as part of the vast, formless void of the anonymous mass, it acquires a name, a presence, a voice, an option in the actions of the real world – not the abstract world of the public but the concrete world of living men.

Here we come upon a point that requires immediate clarification.  Existentialism is not a withdrawal into unworldliness.  It is not “monastic.”  Quite the contrary, it is a frankly worldly philosophy in the sense that it conceives no other realistic option than that of being a live man in the world of men.  But the authentic world of men is, precisely, not the fictitious and arbitrary collective illusion of “the public.”

The real contest between existentialism and its opponents is precisely about this: existentialism always claims in one way or another that the accepted, conventional forms of thought and life have in fact attempted to substitute a fraudulent world of unauthentic and illusory relationships for the real community of man with man.  This, they would say, is obvious.  A system which demands the abdication of personality by that very fact destroys all possibility of community.  What we have then is a conflict between two concepts of community: on one hand, a false and arbitrary fiction, collectivist togetherness, in which all possibility of authentic personal existence is surrendered and one remains content with one’s neutral quasi-objectified presence in the public mass; on the other, a genuine community of persons who have first of all accepted their own fragile lot, who have chosen to exist contingently, and thereby have accepted the solitude of the person who must think and decide for himself without the warm support of collective fictions.  Only between such free persons is true communication possible.  At the same time, such communication is absolutely necessary if there are to be free and mature persons, authentically existing, with faces, identities, and histories of their own.  The authentic person is not born in stoic isolation but in the openness and dialogue of love.

The clue to this concept of community is found in the word openness.  The world of Dasien is a world where all possibilities are closed to the individual who as a priori renounced his choice.  As individual he is indifferent: he has surrendered his options, his capacity to determine the future by turning to this possibility or that.  He has submitted to the abstract leveling force of “the public,” “the party,” “science,” “business,” or what you will.  In this case, instead of open communication between personal freedoms, we have the submersion of atomized individuals in a general mass.  We have a comforting routine of merely mechanical responses.

True openness means the acceptance of one’s own existence and one’s own possibilities in confrontation with, and in free, vital relation with, the existence and potentialities of the other.  It means genuine acceptance, response, participation.  It is here that the famous “I-Thou” of the Jewish existentialist Martin Buber has contributed so much to Christian personalism in our day.  The world of Dasein and of objects is defined only by the “I-it” relationship.  The “I” who regards itself as a purely isolated subject surrounded by objects also inevitably regards itself implicitly as an object.  In a world where no one else, no “other,” is willingly identified, the “I” also loses its own identity.  In practice, the collective life of mass society is a mere aggregate of spurious and fictitious identities.  On the one hand, we see the leaders or heroes who sum up in themselves the collective nonentity of the mass and become, so to speak, icons of the public void see Max Picard’s book Hitler in Ourselves); on the other, the alienated individuals who fabricate for themselves crude identities by contemplating themselves in the typological hero.  Note that the word “alienation” is used by non-existentialists to support the fictions of collective life.  For them, the “alienated” man is the one who is not at peace in the general myth.  He is the nonconformist: the sense of collective rightness.  For the existentialist, the alienated man is one who, though “adjusted” to society, is alienated from himself.  The inner life of the mass man, alienated and leveled in the existential sense, is a dull, collective routine of popular fantasies maintained in existence by the collective dream that goes on, without interruption, in the mass media.

The freedom by which one delivers oneself from the tyranny of the void is the freedom to choose oneself without being determined beforehand by the public, either in its typological fantasies or in its sociological pressures.  What then is the basis of this choice?  In what sense can it be called unconditional?  In the sense that it is made in and proceeds from the inviolate sanctuary of the personal conscience.

It is precisely here that atheistic existentialism proves itself to be so unsatisfactory and so inconsistent.  According to Jaspers, Marcel, and all the other basically religious existentialists, conscience is incomprehensible except as the voice of a transcendent Ground of being and freedom – in other words, of God himself.  Hence, the basic choice by which one elects to have one’s own personal, autonomous existence is a choice of oneself as a freedom that has been gratuitously given by God.  It is acceptance of one’s existence and one’s freedom as pure gift.

In religious existentialism the blank, godless nothingness of freedom and of the person, Sartre’s néant, becomes the luminous abyss of divine gift.  The self is “void” indeed, but void in the sense of the apophatic mystics like Saint John of the Cross, in whom the nada, or nothingness of the self that is entirely empty of fictitious images, projects, and desires, becomes the todo, the All,in which the freedom of personal love discovers itself in its transcendent Ground and Source which we are accustomed to call the Love of God and which no human name can ever account for or explain.

When this becomes clear, we immediately see why even nonreligious existentialism is unconsciously oriented toward a religious view of life (if the word “religious” is qualified, as we shall soon see).  For this reason also it can be said both that the religious existentialists probably outnumber the atheists and that even those who make no religious claims are, like Heidegger, spontaneously oriented to a religious view of man’s destiny.

Taking a broad, random view of the field of existentialism, we see on the one hand Camus and Sartre, both of whom explicitly class themselves as atheists.  We have Heidegger, who is nonreligious.  On the other hand, we have Jaspers, whose thought is basically theistic and even Christian; we have the Jewish existentialism of Buber, the Orthodox and gnostic existentialism of Berdyaev, the Buddhist existentialism of Suzuki and Nishida, the Protestant existentialism of Bultmann, Tillich, and others, the Catholic existentialism of Gabriel Marcel and Louis Lavelle.  It is true of course that both Marcel and Lavelle, and some others we have named here, have renounced the existentialist label.  The fact remains that the most significant religious thought of our day, whether in philosophy or in theology, has been marked by “existentialist” insights into man’s current situation.  We remember also that Maritain and Gilson, while remaining faithful to Saint Thomas and criticizing existentialism from a Thomist viewpoint, have themselves contributed in to small measure to a broadly existentialist Christian perspective (see Maritain’s Existence and the Existent).

Here we must repeat that the popular connotations of the term are altogether misleading, and we must be quite clear that what we must understand by this is not some supposed infiltration into Catholic thought of negativism, disillusionment, and moral license.  Christian existentialism is, on the contrary, associated with the return to a Biblical mode of thought which is entirely concrete and personal and, in fact, much more fundamentally Christian than rather abstract and intellectualist approach that has been accepted as the “only” the Catholic approach for almost seven hundred years.

Let us then consider the basic elements of the new existential theology in its implications for human freedom.


Years ago, Karl Adam, whom no one would think of calling an existentialist, protested against the routine Catholic notion of faith as an intellectual assent to dogmatic propositions, nothing more.  Faith, he said, could never be reduced to “a purely intellectual and therefore shallow awareness of the teaching of the church, and to a mere assent of the mind.”  Then he added this, which strikes the exact tone of the new Catholic theology and, we may add, the renewed perspective of faith as seen in the light of the Second Vatican Council.

Every “Credo,” if said in the spirit of the church, ought to be an act of complete dedication of the entire man to God, an assent springing from the great and ineffable distress of our finite nature and our sin.

Here we already see formulated the awareness which has been made completely explicit by Vatican II.  We see the difference between two concepts of faith and of the church.  On one hand, there is the idea that the church is primarily an official and authoritative public organization and the act of faith is the intellectual acceptance by the individual of what this organization publicly and officially teaches.  Thus, the act of faith becomes a profession of orthodoxy and of regularity, a protestation of conformity (backed no doubt by sincere good will) in order to merit, so to speak, a religious security clearance.  One’s act of faith is then a declaration that one is a reliable member of the organization, willing to abide by everything that is publicly held by it, and to attack everything that opposes it.  Such dogmatic professions of faith are of course necessary and right in certain circumstances.  They have their proper place.  But, as Karl Adam says, they do not exhaust the possibilities of true Christian faith.

To begin with, they do not take sufficient account of man’s “existential situation.”  It is here that insights such as those of Jaspers and Heidegger can serve the theologian.

One can certainly subscribe in all sincerity to correct dogmatic formulas without the intimate spiritual ground of one’s own existence being called into question.  One can formally acknowledge that one is created and redeemed by God without showing any deep sense of being personally involved in a religious relationship with him.  Indeed, and this is always tragic both for the individual and for the church, the mere formal acknowledgement of these truths can come to substitute in practice for any kind of intimate and personal surrender to God.  Religion thus becomes a matter of formalities and gestures.  “This people honors me with its lips and not with its heart.”

In this case, we find ourselves confronted with the kind of Christianity which Kierkegaard attacked precisely because it transferred into the religious sphere all the facticity, the routine, and the falsity of “abstract leveling.”  Instead of obeying the Word and Spirit of God living and active in his church, the body of those who love one another precisely insofar as they have been freed from facticity and routine, one surrenders at the same time one’s human and one’s religious integrity.  In effect, this is a spiritual disaster if we consider that the church should be the one hope of alienated man recovering himself and his freedom.  The Bible shows us, without equivocation, that human society itself is “fallen” and alienated.  It estranges man from himself and enslaves him to delusion.  The word of God calls man back out of this delusion to his true self.  The church has, as her first function of all, to disturb man and unsettle him in the world of facticity by challenging him to return to himself.  Metanoiete, repent, change your heart, is the inexhaustibly repeated message of God’s word to man in fallen society.  He who hears this word cannot rest content with the “leveling” routine of mass society.  Unfortunately, we see that, in fact, mass society is more and more curtailing the area of good ground on which the seed of the Gospel can germinate.  At best, the soul of mass-man is a plot of thorns.  Most of the time he is simply a wayside, trampled by a restless and unmotivated multitude.

It is here that the church, in her anxiety to enter into a dialogue with the modern world, must not hastily and unaware overlook the problem of evil and evade the challenge of atheist existentialism.  If in trying to reply to the Marxists we take an exclusively optimistic view of man, of the world of science and progress, and of man’s chances of solving all his problems here on Earth, we find ourselves accused, by the existentialists, of consenting to certain mystifications that ignore the evils which actually confront man and the despair which meets him at every turn.  Seeing this danger, one of the best modern Russian theologians, Father P. Evdokimov, of the Russian Orthodox Seminary in Paris, has written:

We must pay close attention to the existentialist questionings, which have considerable philosophical strength.  They overturn the naïvely joyous optimism of a religious philosophy in which evil serves as a good and hence ceases to exist as evil – a fact which makes the death of God on a cross incomprehensible.  It is precisely Sartre’s claim that “God” diminishes the radical character of evil, of unhappiness, and of guilt.


It is at this point that the current concept of “religion” must be seriously examined and qualified.

If in practice the function of organized religion turns out to be nothing more than to justify and to canonize the routines of mass society; if organized religion abdicates its mission to disturb man in the depths of his conscience, and seeks instead simply to “make converts” that will smilingly adjust to the status quo, then it deserves the most serious and uncompromising criticism.  Such criticism is not a disloyalty.  On the contrary, fidelity to truth and to God demands it.  One of the most important aspects of our current biblical-existentialist theology is precisely the prophetic consciousness of a duty to question the claims of any religious practice that collaborates with the “process of leveling” and alienation.

This means that such theology will manifest a definite social concern and will, in the light of the Bible, identify and reject anything that compromises the standards of justice and mercy demanded by the word of God.  It will identify these precisely by the measure of authentic respect and love for the human person.  Thus, for instance, any claim that this or that policy or strategy deserves a “Christian” sanction and the blessing of the church must be examined in the light of the principles we have seen.  If in actual fact it amounts to the support of the abstract organization, granting or blessing a destructive power to coerce the individual conscience, it is to be rejected as fraudulent, as incompatible with Christian truth, and as disobedience to the Gospel commandment of love.  In one word, the church must not implicitly betray man into the power of the irresponsible and anonymous “public.”  If it does so, it will destroy itself in destroying true freedom and authentic human community.

We must certainly recognize the danger of individualism, but we must also be fully aware of where this danger really lies.

The false community of mass society is in fact more individualistic than the personalist community envisaged by the Gospels, the koinonia of intersubjective love among persons, which is the church.  Mass society is individualistic in the sense that it isolates each individual subject from his immediate neighbor, reducing him to a state of impersonal, purely formal, and abstract relationship with other objectified individuals.  In dissolving the more intimate and personal bonds of life in the family and of the small sub-group (the farm, the shop of the artisan, the village, the town, the small business), mass society segregates the individual from the concrete and human “other” and leaves him alone and unaided in the presence of the Faceless, the collective void, the public.  Thus, as was said above, mass-man finds himself related not to flesh-and-blood human beings with the same freedom, responsibility, and conflicts as himself, but with idealized typological images: the Führer, the president, the sports star, the teen singer, the space man.

It is by rigorously confining him within the limits of his own individual nonentity that mass society completely integrates the individual into the mass.  The function of the church is, then, not to intensify this process, giving it an inviolable religious sanction and tranquilizing the anguish of the alienated mind by injunctions to obey the state.  It is precisely to strengthen the individual person against the one great temptation to surrender, to abdicate his personality, to fall and disappear in the void.  “Man,” says Heidegger, “wants to surrender to the world.  He tempts himself.  He flees from himself and desires to fall into the world.  In his everyday talking and curiosity he prepares for himself a permanent temptation to fallenness.  “There is in this of course an inescapable element of existentialist jargon, but in substance it recalls the eschatological message of the New Testament.


If in fact the church does nothing to counter this “temptation to fallenness” except call man to subscribe to a few intellectual formulas and then go his way with the rest of the crowd, she will have failed in her gravest responsibility.  If, on the other hand, she misunderstands the seriousness of modern theology and lets herself be carried away with a specious enthusiasm for a space-age image of herself, she will equally fail.

While it is popularly supposed that “existentialism” has no other function than to allow man to do as he pleases, leaving him at the mercy of subjective fantasy and passion, removing him from the protective surveillance of social authority, we see that in fact the shoe is on the other foot.  If existential theology is properly understood, we see that it unmasks the spurious social responsibility by means of which man flees from his true self and takes cover in the neutral, fallen world of alienation.  The true rebellion against God today is not merely that of the defiant and promethean individual, but much rather that of the massive and abstract collectivity in which man in the neuter, das Mann, man in the anonymous mass, becomes serenely convinced of his inviolable security as master of his own destiny and of his world.  In finding her place in the modern world, the church must take care not to embrace or even canonize the hubris of technological society.

Where some forms of existentialism fail is in their inability to get beyond the individual’s discovery and affirmation of himself standing outside of and apart from the neutral mass, and obliged to defend himself with all his power against exploitation or invasion by others.  This is particularly true in the early Sartre, for whom “L’enfer c’est les autres.”  Neither his doctrinaire political positions nor his “cool” relationship with Simone de Beauvoir can do anything to modify this judgment of Sartrian existentialism as closed to dialogue and genuine communion.

With Camus the problem is much more subtle and profound.  One feels that few men in our time, Christian or not, were at once more soberly aware of the limitation of man in mass society and more open, in compassion and understanding, to his plight.  The Plague is a novel of crisis and alienation in which a few men manage to prove themselves authentic persons by openness and availability in a mass of thoughtless, stupefied human beings.  Here, incidentally, the church is examined and found somewhat wanting in the person of a Jesuit priest who, in spite of a certain degree of heroism and self-sacrifice, remains insulated from human realities and from other men by the “official answers” with which he has already solved all problems in advance.

An existential theology is not one that claims to know all the answers in advance.  It is concerned not with answers or with statements (“what,” “how”), but with man’s authentic existence (who).  This depends on his capacity for dialogue with his fellow man, his ability to respond to the need of another, to waive his own anterior rights and claims in order to meet the other on a common ground.  In a word, it depends on freedom and on love.  Hence, it is by no means concerned (as Sartre appears to be) merely with the cool assertion of one’s privacy.  However, in existential theology, more is at stake than openness to others.  Man cannot be genuinely open to others unless he first admits his capacity to hear and obey the word of God, to bear and to understand the inevitable call to authenticity is heard in the depths of the conscience, existential theology emphasizes the formation of conscience.  It seeks at all costs to defend the personal conscience against distortion by the all-pervading influence of collective illusion.  It is all too easy for conscience to be twisted out of shape by merely attending to the claims of worldly care.  The care of one’s own privacy and one’s own liberty can be included as “worldly.”

Existential theology focuses on grace and on love, rather than on nature and on law.  It tends to view grace less as a supernatural quality modifying our human word, restores to us the capacity for authentic personal freedom, and the power to love in a “new creation.”  Far from being a further development in liberal and rationalistic dilution of the Gospel message, existential theology, because of its Biblical content, strongly emphasizes the obedience of faith, the surrender of the free person to Christ.  Far from being a justification of disobedience, existential theology insists that it is only in the obedience of faith that we truly discover our authentic existence, our true selves.  Though Heidegger is never explicitly Christian, this element of openness to grace, this capacity for obedience, is implicit in his philosophy, of which John Macquarrie has said: “Although Heidegger does not acknowledge it, his understanding of man brings us to the place where either the divine grace must intervene or all thought of an authentic existence must be given up entirely.”

Existential theology is concerned with man in his world and in his time.  The word of God, the dialogue of man and God, is not confined to a meditation on the Bible written two thousand years ago.  In the light of Biblical revelation, the Christian feels himself challenged, summoned, addressed by God here and now in the events of our own confused and sometimes alarming history.  But the Christian existentialist knows precisely that he cannot evade the present and fly from it into a safe and static past, preserved for him in a realm of ideal essences, to which he can withdraw in silent recollection.  His recollection will be of no use to him if it merely serves him as a pretext for not being open to his brother here and now.  The existential insistence on grace as event, as an ever renewed encounter with God and one’s fellow man now, in present reality, in dynamic acceptance and availability, disturbs the idealistic and static outlook which treats grace as a “thing,” a “commodity,” to which one gains access by virtue of a spiritual secret, a ritual formula, or a technique of meditation.

Whatever one may say about it, Christian existentialism is not gnostic.  It does not regard grace as a “supply” of light and fuel for the spiritual mansion in which one dwells in complacent isolation.  It sees grace as an eschatological encounter and response, an opening of the heart to God, a reply of the Spirit within us to God our Father (Romans 8:15-16), in obedience of faith, in humility and openness to all men.  Grace is sonship and dialogue, from which obstacles and limitations, whether of law, of nature, of sin, of selfishness, of fear, and even of death, have all been taken away by the death and resurrection of Christ.  Grace is perfect and total reconciliation, in Christ, with one’s true self, one’s neighbor, and with God.

Writing in New Blackfriars (July 1965), John Dalrymple (not a professed “existentialist”) sums this up by saying: “The question is whether we today offer Christ to the world as a liberating person or an agent of restriction.  If we are to show forth Christ as a liberating agent then we must first have entered into that liberation ourselves; we must have conquered our primal fears; we must first have prayed.  This is the level at which modern theology has its greatest significance spiritually.  Its insights draw us powerfully to prayer.”  This is important to remember because a superficial understanding of modern theology seems to end in restless activism, itself an illusion and an evasion.

Rudolf Bultmann has done much to bring out the Christian implications which he found to be latent in the existentialist philosophy of Heidegger, and Macquarrie says of him: “The whole aim of Bultmann’s theology, including his views on demythologizing, is to spotlight the essential kerygma of the New Testament for men and women of our time and to bring it before them as the one relevant possibility that is still open for a bewildered world.”

Hence, though the existentialism of Heidegger may seem to end up with stoic heroism in the presence of unavoidable death, Bultmann and other Christian theologians influenced by Heidegger have gone much further.  They have convincingly restructured the classic theology of Christian and Gospel hope in the categories of existentialist freedom.  This does not mean, however, that the revelation of God in Christ the Incarnate Word means the same to Bultmann as it does to the Catholic Church.  Here we would indeed find serious divergences on the level of dogma.  But, from the point of view of freedom and grace of lived experience, Bultmann’s insights have their value for Catholics.

Far from being a negative cult of life-denying despair, existential theology challenges the sterility and the inner hopelessness, the spurious optimism and the real despair which masks itself in the secular and positivist illusion.  For the fallen world there can be no genuine future: only death.  But for Christian freedom there is an authentic future indeed.  In fact, for the existentialists freedom would be worth nothing if it were not constituted by openness to a genuine future – a future liberated from the facticity of life in a depersonalized mass, free from the care and concern with mere “objects,” free at last even from death.

At the same time, however, existential theology is recognizing that it must move further and further from the characteristic subjectivity of the early existentialism in order to achieve a genuine relatedness to and full participation in the world of nature and above all the world of man.  Where the earlier existentialists regard “the other” with suspicion as a hostile force, and even tended to consider all communal life as a threat to individual integrity, the existential theologians look rather for a transformation of communal life by the leaven of Christian freedom and agape.   This implies willingness to renounce suspiciousness, to be open to man and to his world, to freely participate in all the most cogent concerns of the world, but with a freedom of spirit which is immune to the forces of “leveling.”   This, it must be admitted, demands a certain maturity!  But maturity cannot be acquired in withdrawal and subjective isolation, in fear and in suspicion.  Maturity is the capacity for free and authentic response.  Once again, this demands something more than psychological adjustment.  It calls for divine grace.  And our openness to grace is proportionate to our sense of our need of it.  This in turn depends on our awareness of the reality of the crisis we are in.

The most serious claim to consideration which the existential theologian can offer is the cogent diagnosis of our trouble, and the complete sincerity, the total frankness with which he faces the basic Christian problems of death, sin, the wrath of God, grace, faith, freedom, and love.  Where he is still admittedly weak is perhaps in his sense of Christian communion and of the church.  But let us not forget that in his sensitivity to the danger of an alienated and unfaithful church organization, the existentialist has done us a service, and warned us against the ever present peril of institutional complacency.  There is no greater danger than this for the church in the modern world, and we are daily reminded of the fact when we see how easily the faithful, even some of the hierarchy, yield to the temptation to identify the church with the status quo, the public establishment, and to submerge the Christian conscience in the complex and dubious cares of an existence that is inauthentic because it is sociological rather than Christian.

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