Science in Christian Perspective
Existentialism and Contemporary Morality
Robert M. Slade
803 Columbia Avenue
Kitimat, British Columbia Canada V8C IV7
From: JASA 34 (December 1982): 243-245.
There has been much concern and debate over problems in the moral and spiritual realm of life in western society and culture. It is the premise of this paper that these problems have been caused by the influence of existential philosophy on Western culture and art. Further this paper seeks to suggest an appropriate means to deal with these problems, recognizing the power of this influence. Specifically, our task as Christians is the aggressive affirmation of (1) a positive meaning to life, (2) absolute standards of value (particularly in the field of ethics), and (3) Christian truth as a valid and vitally important view of reality.
Item. Those who have had the slogan "DOA" (the name of a punk rock group) written in the dirt on their car hoods may count themselves fortunate that it was not done with spray paint.
Item. Christians are breaking up marriages and families in divorce, and are even entering into adulterous relationships with other married Christians, while remaining within the church.
Item. Bonnie Thielman's book (The Broken God) about Jim Jones clearly shows that Jonestown may all too easily happen again.
Item. A writer for a prominent national magazine says that the fact that a high government official is very concerned about moral and spiritual decline "frankly scares the hell out of" her.
Almost everywhere you look today there are expressions of concern over the failing morals of our time, the decline of civilized civilization, and the "Me generation" in all its various forms. There is, however, little speculation on the root cause of this decay. This prime cause, if found, would give us an indication of a means to attack the problem. It may also indicate a means whereby the churches' work of evangelism may be furthered.
As examples of the types of concerns expressed these days, this paper examines three areas which, while not exhaustive, provide a broad coverage of the most commonly stated fears. In writing about the ills of our culture most authors look at the realms of (1) personal morality, (2) the rise of cultic and sectarian "religion" and (3) the economic and judicial problems of society on the national and international scale.
'Personal morality is of great concern to many authors today. So much so that other people take great glee in producing a quotation in the same gloom and doom style and then revealing that it was written almost two thousand years ago. This should not give the scoffers any cause for optimism. It proves that the long-ago author knew what he was talking about: he was describing the declining Roman Empire and correctly predicting its fall. And thus, by association, we do have cause for concern.
Expressing itself usually, but not exclusively, in terms of "the young people today," there is anxiety about the reduced emphasis given to ethical considerations in governing personal behavior. Divorce, (among married couples) and sexual behavior (among their children) seems to have become largely a matter of personal taste, and traditional mores are disregarded or denounced. Vandalism and petty crime is rampant, especially among the young, for no better reason, it seems, that to alleviate boredom. Respect for public and private property, concern for other people, common courtesy and manners; all of these seem to have disappeared from modern society.
In mitigation of this, David Watson (I Believe in Evangelism) sees a resurgence of interest in religion. He cites as evidence the growing interest in cults and the occult. These activities, however, do not demonstrate any commitment to orthodox religion. They are, in fact, further indication of self interest replacing spiritual interest and feeling.
The occult, in all its manifestation, is attractive because it gives something for nothing," or at least very little. It is this advertisement of something "Free!", rather than any belief system, that contributes to the popularity of the occult. Cultic phenomena are less simple but essentially have some initial drawing card outside of their particular belief. It may be an attractive lifestyle, or perhaps fellowship (a powerful inducement in our alienated society), or even faddish appeal rather than "religion." Brooks Alexander reported at the 1979 American Scientific Affiliation meeting the efforts of certain cults to co-opt science in order to avoid seeming to be religious. This is not to say, however, that individuals who become involved remain unaffected by the philosophy or beliefs of the sect, cult or coven that they join. Members are almost invariably influenced without realizing that a change is taking place.
Many of the cults gaining the highest following at present are heretical or pseudo-Christian sects such as the "Peoples Temple," The Moonies," or the "Local Church." These are of particular concern because they demonstrate the danger of relativism and a too widely embracing tolerance.
Society as an entity itself displays symptoms of decay. Inflation, inequity of distribution of goods, and terrorism (which often arises out of frustration from the former two conditions), create an ever present climate of fear and uncertainty. Is it possible to propose any mechanism that impels economic problems, injustice, assassinations and local wars other than the greed and pride of individuals or groups of individuals? Examine the shooting of John Paul 11, the "Irish Question," the "Polish Problem," and the air traffic situation in the U.S., and then see if you can honestly disagree with me when I say that I think not.
Our society's high emphasis on liberalism is a heritage from the enlightenment. Ironically enough, the enlightenment grew out of the Reformation's reassertion of the importance of the individual in God's plan. The enlightenment, however, elevated the individual to such an extent that the centrality and importance of God in the life of the individual was lost, giving rise to humanism. Once the central figure in the universe had been removed it was, of course, inevitable that a philosophy would arise which stated that man was an orphan in an uncaring universe, that morality had no basis and that life was meaningless. The name of this philosophy is existentialism.
It is the position of this paper that all of these are aspects and symptoms of the "Me generation." Self interest, unrestrained by outside considerations, contributes to the ills of society. It all too frequently characterized the arguments on both sides of the constitution debate. As has been shown, it is the major factor in the growth of cults. The idea that there can be no proper impediments to gratification has almost destroyed traditional morality.
There is a lack of commitment to any ideal, object, or person. (This cannot help but be a contributing factor in the high divorce rate : ) Since a stand that one has taken may later become embarrassing, "tolerance" has become a euphemism for expediency. Fanaticism is thus avoided but the cost in terms of heresy, immorality and alienation is high, perhaps too high for society to accept.
Sentiment also has become embarrassing. Not merely the "hearts-and-flowers" romanticism, but the stronger sentiments such as patriotism, sacrifice, pride of work and love. Our society has confused cynicism with sophistication. Peter Newman has stated in MacLean's that his hopes for the future generation lie in the fact that (1) they are less gullible than their elders (a questionable assumption itself), (2) they realize "the middle class values" are less desirable than they appear, and (3) they know that it's more fun to "fight city hall" than to work with it. Reporting on the Century III Leaders conference, Time finds the most interesting aspect of these chosen high school students was their command of trivial dialogue, sarcasm and minor rebellion. If these are accurate views of the younger generation one cannot help but pity these students facing a future with a superficial, cynical and destructive view of the world.
The problem that society faces is not so much immorality as amorality: a complete lack of ethical considerations rather than an unacceptable ethic. Amorality is the logical end result when relativism and liberalism are applied to the field of morality. Seeing both sides of a question is fine, but on the other hand when the number of "other hands" becomes greater than the substance of the question, it loses all but the most academic interest.
Existentialism affirms that what exists exists, and there is no greater meaning or purpose to life. Therefore, there is no need to pay attention to standards or values, since everything is judged relative to the judge himself and his feelings. No commitment is necessary to anything outside yourself, unless you feel a need to commit yourself, and then only for as long as you feel that need. Self-interest is the only goal and there are no moral limits to self-gratification. Since everyone feels the same way, cynicism is a good defense against others. Meaninglessness, relativism, non-commitment, self-interest, gratification, and cynicism; these are the watchwords of existentialism.
Existentialism leads to, and is reinforced by, various aspects of the "Me generation" discussed earlier. Nihilism and terrorism in politics arising out of feelings of desperation promote feelings of helplessness and depression in the general populace. Absurdist art, and particularly absurdist comedy affirm existentialism. It is also interesting to note that almost no contemporary writers can really deal with evil: real evil as opposed to the merely sordid. Modern philosophy is immediately indentifiable by virtue (or vice?) of its lack of discipline and rigor, and its emphasis on relativism.
Existentialism therefore shapes modern thought, even though most people have never heard of it. Many people will not recognize the term, but will describe their personal philosophies very much along the lines described above. This "unconscious influence" was once demonstrated by a fellow who said he was a strong Christian and practiced Transcendental Meditation only for its therapeutic value. When challenged to prove it by revealing his mantra he would not, thus proving that he did indeed subscribe to the T.M. values and philosophy.
Relativism, and its attendant lack of desire to clarify issues, makes all of these effects, unconscious though they may be, very resistant to change. Most people today have no desire to inquire after truth. They have lived for a long time with the vague notion that there are no absolutes, and they feel that any pursuit after an absolute standard of truth, or any other kind, is a waste of time. Hence they have no desire to examine their own beliefs. If what you believe does not get you into immediate trouble, why change your mind?
Amorality, and the relativism that attends it, are therefore the primary difficulties that the Church must overcome if it is to continue its commission of evangelism. Relativism must be attacked on two levels: in the realm of truth where it denies meaning and standards in life, and also in the area of values to prevent it from rendering commitment a thing of the past. Various actions must be taken to combat the other effects of existential philosophy. Selfishness, the penchant for immediate gratification, cynicism and the other attitudes previously mentioned are all areas against which we have effective measures, but these will not remain effective if relativism is allowed to erode the concepts of truth, goodness and sin.
The proper actions to take will not be easy to perform, and not always easy to decide. Those whom we must oppose have professional sociology, Madison Avenue and Hollywood behind them: we must put the same professional rigor into our side of the battle. Our actions must be governed by the same degree of intellectual effort that the rest of society expends in gratifying their own desires and avoiding the truth. We must not be merely reactionary but must react thoughtfully.
We are commanded to love God with the mind as well as the heart, soul and strength. This injunction is especially important in fighting a philosophy and the heresies, half-truths and undiscipline attendant to it. We must give of our time, thought and concern, We must be willing to learn, to make ourselves ready to recognize heresy, cultic statements, and existentialism, hidden as it is in all its vagueness. And we must be willing to fight it.
In fighting the Church's work of evangelism, existentialism must be considered one of the devil's principal tools. Homo mores: moral man, is the only man worth saving; homo apatheti cus is fit fodder for hell. The fact is that modern philosophy has rendered man very apathetic about spiritual conditions in general and sin in particular.
We profess to "preach Christ, and Him crucified" in many of our churches. Preaching Christ is announcing the fact, preaching Him crucified is proclaiming our need. Our need of Christ, however, is based upon our sinful nature, and if modern society 'has no concept of sin, then it can see no need for Christ. We have discarded the cliche ridden "hellfire and damnation" sermons but we desperately need an appropriate replacement for them.
The preceding two paragraphs present a difficult problem. The only solution I can see is to state in addition to the foregoing that (a) God considers every man worth saving and that (b) all of us are infected with the disease of sin and we must accept this and call for help at all times.
Evangelism is not a numbers game, but rather our concern for individuals who are lost without Christ. We must be concerned enough to study the greatest and most insidious heresy of our time, and confront it every time we find it.
Existentialism affects our society in many ways, the most important of which is that it has rendered modern man blind to his need for redemption. Society itself needs to take action against existential philosophies if it is to survive; in purely human terms we must learn to recognize and attack statements based on existentialism. The Christian has an additional task: to reaffirm meaning, moral standards, man's fallen nature and his need for God' redemption.
Postscript: While researching and writing this article, the only person who volunteered a knowledge of existentialism in general conversation was a musician with a Christian rock group form Kelowna. He, and his colleagues, have identified the existential influences in contemporary music and are trying to counteract them by presenting the Christian message in the popular idiom. They are using their musical talents, their minds, their knowledge, and are maintaining a high professional standard in their work. Many churclipeople would censure these young men for their involvement with rock music. Do those same churchmen have the concern and commitment that these fellows have demonstrated with their lives?