Science in Christian Perspective



Robert D. Knudsen

From: JASA 5 (September 1953): 14-15.

Probably the most incandescent philosophical movement of the present time is Existentialism. The name of this movement was injured by the faddists who paraded under the name; however, the movement itself does not have its origin in a fad nor is its significance exhausted within the walls of the Parisian clubs. As a philosophical movement it derives its name from the fact that it holds that existence precedes essence. In this it opposes the classical tradition in philosophy, and in our country it should receive a boost from the attacks of pragmatism and instrumentalism along this same line. We find that its influence is felt not only in philosophy but also in theology, where it has been making itself felt the most in America up to the present. The movement appears to be losing some of its strength in Europe, but it is just appearing in print in America, and because of its potential influence it is worthy of our consideration. Its acceptance in Europe has been laid to the crisis mentality after the war (See e.g. Randall in The Theology of Paul Tillich, p. 159). It is not as likely to thrive where the sense of crisis is not so strong; yet many foremost American theologians are influenced by it and of the American students studying abroad many are bound to bring it across.

We shall not attempt to characterize this movement in any adequate way. We only refer the reader to the short and penetrating article of Paul Tillich, "Existentialism," Journal of the History of idem, Jan. 1944. Tillich says the movement got its impetus in the reaction of Schelling, Kierkegaard, et. al., to the idealistic tradition, especially as it found its highly systematized form in Hegel, though it can also be traced back to thinkers like B6hme.

That it is a reaction from idealism gives a clue to the way it should be approached. The enthusiast who plunges into the study of Kierkegaard along with the rest is likely not to understand him well. Since it is such a reaction phenomenon we believe that it can be understood well only after a thorough study of Idealism, and especially Hegellanism. Such a study is long and difficult; but without it the Christian scholar is likely to find himself rudderless. At the turn of the century James Orr, e.g., utilized the idealistic philosophy, Hegel as mediated through Green. Now we are not so inclined to do so, especially in our theoretical work, though Christians still speak vaguely of Christianity as that which is concerned with "spiritual values." There is a real danger that we shall be swept along by the general reaction to Idealism and uncritically accept many of the existentialist positions as they come to us, though its ideas of freedom, authenticity, etc., have a non-Christian character. What we need is a careful and thorough study of this movement in its various forms. In that encounter we should be stimulated by the richness and vitality of its thought.

Kierkegaard performed his literary work in near obscurity. It was only when he was rediscovered in this century that his name attracted wide attention. Since that time his influence has been tremendous. Especially four thinkers in this century who are thought to be pre-eminently the philosophical exponents of Existentialism.

Heidegger and Sartre are atheistic existentialists, whose thought has been dubbed "une discourse sur I 'absence de Dieu." Heidegger is well known for his startling work, Sein und Zelt. 6th ed. Tubingen: Neomanus Verlag, 1949. He has never completed this work, either from an inability to carry out the program he set for himself or from a change of mind. That there is a change in Heidegger has been claimed on the basis of his later works. Sartre's main work is 124tre et le niant. Paris: Librairie Gallimard, 1943. This has been the object of much puerile dilletantism, but it is certainly a strongly reasoned book. From the Christian point of view the study of these existentialists can be of value because their thought illustrates the extremes to which the modern idea of human freedom leads. Their studied attempts to eliminate God and anything emanating from him and the resulting despair remind us of the claim of James Orr that one who rejects the Christ of the Scriptures is bound for despair. His position might profitably be illustrated by a study of Heidegger and Sartre in our time.

Not an atheist, at least in the usual sense of the term, is Karl Jaspers, the massive Swiss existentialist thinker. The -central ideas of his system are freedom, transcendence, and God. His two major works are: Philosophic (2nd ed. Berlin: Springer Verlag, 1948) and his huge Von der Wahrheit (Munchen: R. Piper & Co. Verlag, 1947), the first volume of his philosophical logic. Just recently his book, Der philosophische Glaube (Munchen: R. Piper & Co. Verlag, 1948) was translated and appeared with the title, The Perennial Scope of Philosophy. We also mention a treatment of the three central concepts of Jasper's thought: Hartt, J. N., "God, Transcendence and Freedom in the Philosophy of Jaspers." Review of Metaphysics, vol. 4, no. 2, Dec. 1950, pp. 247-258. From the Christian point of view an article has just appeared on Jaspers' view of transcendence: Zuidema, S. U., "Jaspers idee van het transcenderen." PhUosophia Reformata, 18th year, 1st quarter, 1953, pp. 1-12. In keeping with a growing policy in Dutch Christian writing this article is accompanied by a summary in English. For the understanding of Jaspers it is said that a study of his work, Nietzsche: EinfUhrung in das Verstiindnis seines Phflosophierens (Berlin und I4eipzig: Walter de Gruyter, 1936) is of great help.

Still closer to the Christian camp is the philosopher, Gabriel Marcel. He is a Catholic, though his existentialism has met with disfavor at the Vatican. His writings have been regarded as a helpful antidote to the atheistic existentialism of Sartre. Of his works the Journal m6taphysique (Paris: Librairie Gallimard, 1927) and his 9tre et avoir (Paris: Aubier, 1935) are representative.

Of interest to the Christian is the volume of J. M. Spier, Christianity and Existentialism Phdiadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1953. This work does not meet the need I mentioned before of a thorough study of Existentialism; nevertheless, it is a well written introduction to the movement from the Christian point of view, and it should provide the reader with good insights to use in his further study.

In this country we are influenced by Existentialism largely through theology. Barth, Brunner, Niebuhr, Tillich, and Berdyaev are all deep thinkers of an existentialist stamp. It is not likely that the movement will make much headway among us except in theology; but its stimulus will be felt. Even because of its prominence in theology it is worthy of deep study. For the Christian scientist existential thought is of interest because any success it has must mean a reversal for the. naturalism and positivism which so dominate the American scene. 

Rockmont College
Denver, Colorado