Science in Christian Perspective



Robert D. Knudsen, S.T.M.

From JASA 9 (June 1957): 16-17.

Beyond ExistentiaIism?

In an early column I ventured to express the opinion that the existentialist philosophy might already have reached its high point and that movements were under way that would overcome it. Even a cursory look at the list of recent publications in philosophy would seem to deny this statement altogether. One is struck by the widespread interest in the existentialist problematic. Existentialism is in the mode. There is a flow of literature not only in German and French but also in the Scandinavian languages, Dutch, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. Some of the works in Spanish and Portuguese, interestingly enough, come from South America. T ere has been increased activity in Scandinavia since the second war in the study of Kierkegaard. Writing in the Tijdschiift voor Philosophie (Mar., 1956), Bernard Delfgaauw expresses the opinion that the center of Kierkegaard study has shifted from Germany to the Scandinavian countries, and especially to Denmark. In our country the existentialist movement is making itself felt in a more extensive way. As would be expected the spearhead of the invasion has come through theology. Some theological students are inclined, I fear, to place Kierkegaard's works on a par with the Bible for devotional reading. More to the point philosophically speaking is the fact that various prominent philosophy of religion departments (e.g., Columbia and Princeton) have men who are strongly influenced by existentialistic theology. We can also note that the latest volume of the Library of Living Philosophy (ed., Schlipp) is devoted to the philosophy of Karl Jaspers, who is one of the original founders of contemporary existential thinking.

A crescendo of interest in something, however, does not mean that there are not -forces at work to undermine it. When the public at large becomes quite interested in a bullish market, the bears began sharpening their claws. Though there is rather a crescendo than an abatement of interest in Existentialism, there are clear signs of a reaction. I am not referring primarily to those who like the official Catholic theology and the majority of orthodox Protestants have found the existentialistic position inimical to their convictions and who have rejected it out of dogmatic considerations if nothing else, but I refer to a number of philosophers who have worked through existentialist thought and who are trying to overcome it while preserving what they consider to be real insights which it has attained.

An instance of the foregoing is the work of Otto Friedrich Bollnow. His small book, Existenzphilosophie (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 4th ed., 1955), not only characterizes existentialistic thought in a concise and striking way but also presents his strictures against it, which he has developed in more detail in his recent book, Neue Geborgenheit.

Bellnow approaches Existentialism in a pregnant way as a radicalization of Lebensphilosophie and as an attempt to overcome the nihilistic effect of historicism. He says that the contemporary existentialistic philosophy arose on the background of the historicism and relativism in Germany after the first world war, when all established values and institutions were threatened to be engulfed. This relativism and nihilism was not restricted to a few isolated scholars but reached down and gravely unsettled daily life. A quotation from his Existenzphilosophie at once indicates his approach and is a clear pointer to the significance of the idea, "Existenz." Because of the crisis ". . . there inevitably had to arise the desire for an ultimate, unconditioned hand-hold (Halt), wh ich could not be affected by the general disintegration. And since man had become disillusioned with every objective faith and everything had become doubtful for him, since all contentful sources of meaning (Sinngebungen) in life had been thrown into question by relativism, there remained only the retreat into one's own inner life (eigne Innere), in order to discover there in an ultimate depth which preceded all established contents (Festlegungen) the position that was no longer to be f ound in an objective world order (Weltordnung). This ultimate, most intimate core of man was designated by the concept taken over from Soren Kierkegaard, "Existenz." (Bollnow, Existenzphilosoprie, p. 13).

Bollnow is of the opinion that a thorough critical discussion of contemporary Existentialism is now even more necessary than when it first arose between the two world wars, Its very nature is such that it demands to be overcome. He says, "The Existenzphil()sophie has in its consequences led into such an impasse that the problem of surmounting it has forced its way into the focus of the contemporary philosophical problematic" (Ibid., p. 9). Bollnow himself tries to overcome Existentialism, while preserving what he thinks are real gains that it has made.

Bollnow spots this impasse in the formal and contentless character of the Existenz-idea, and in the fact that the existential experience cannot have any duration. He sees rightly that the Existenz-idea must be contrasted to all content. By this he means that Existenz stands over against any world view, any system of values, any program, etc. It is to provide the handhold beyond the relativizing of all contentful standpoints.

In this connection we can observe that Jaspers says that it is in Existenz that the highest content is found. But Bollnow means, I believe, that Existenz gives us no criterion for our action, and in this sense the Existenze-idea is certainly empty. Even the highest goal of the Existentialist, the riskful engagement of the entire person in decisive action (Entschlossenheit), is found by Bollnow to be threatened by degeneracy into an empty adventurousness. What is to determine the content, the direction, of this heroic effort? It has already degenerated in Camus' image of the "absurd hero" (Ibid., p. 13 1 ). He says, ". . committing oneself in this way can be genuine and responsible only when it is undergirded by a definite, contentful faith" (Ibid., p. 130).

Bollnow concludes that the Existenz idea taken in its purity must of necessity be transcended. One must gain a new, contentful faith. "Ohne sie wurde die existentielle Entschlossenheit selber zum leeren Abenteurertum zerfallen und der unbedingte Einsatz in jedem Augenblick ohne zeitlich Bestandigkeit und ohne Treue bleiben" (Ibid., p. 131).

Bollow is not satisfied with a view point that would merely retain a polar tension between Existenz and content (Ibid., p. 134). Quite out of keeping with an existentialist position, he says that there must be the development of a new world and life view, which can answer the question of content and thus of meaning. He discovers, however, in the major existentialists themselves the attempt to overcome the problems inherent in Existentialism. There have been important modifications of their positions.

I sincerely believe that there are insights in existentialistic thought which Christians can appreciate and which indeed are very close to Biblical thought. We need only remember that Kierkegaard's thought was supposed to be in the service of Christianity. But I just as sincerely believe that the Christian must detach these truths from the existentialistic mould in which they come. It is difficult to sympathize with those Christians who speak glibly about existential earnestness, when they mean something like the following: that one has been struck personally by the meaning of some objective truth, e.g., the resurrection. That is not using the word "existential" in an existentialistic way. "Existential" cannot refer to the application of an objective, general truth, which is valid prior to its appropriation. It does not even refer to the fact that one must have "faith" to see the truth of something like the resurrection, which happened and has a meaning whether you or I know any thing about it or believe in it. A careful reading of Bollnow's book should convince one of these facts, and should contribute to a more careful use of the idea of Existenz among Christians. It should also give the Christian student of philosophy an insight into another area where he can bring to bear the truths which are graciously given him by divine revelation.

Schiedam, Holland February 2, 1957