If you have not read the first two parts of Authenticity Under Threat, they can be accessed as follows:

Part 1: Authenticity Under Threat: an Existential Response

Part 2: Authenticity Under Threat: Alienation or Being Lost in Mass Society 

Atheistic Existentialism Found Wanting

At the end of Part 2, I asserted that any positive freedom, i.e. freedom that has content and is not merely a formal requirement of choice, must be rooted in the conscience that has emerged in the context of significant others. More simply, if our choices are to be considered moral at all, thus having consequences, they must be generated from a mature conscience that has been nurtured in the context of care and concern as opposed to the impersonal nature of mass society. Otherwise, our choices are governed by the tyranny of the void, mere caprice, and of no more significance than what happens to be our tastes. While both types of freedom are of the individual, the more meaningful one is subject to authentic identity that is both generated and guaranteed by, as it were, a more “local” context of significant others who are both impacted by the choices and who have nurtured the one making them. Whereas the formal one of caprice and taste is easily understood as subject to the tyranny of mass society, the choice can be classified as inauthentic precisely because it is made outside the context of the common concern that is constituted by significant others.

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, choosing to live personally and autonomously is a choice of oneself as freedom that has been gratuitously given by God.  It is acceptance of one’s existence and one’s freedom as a pure gift.

For religious existentialists, 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 understood as void through negation in the 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 calling 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 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 a human’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 no small measure to a broadly existentialist Christian perspective (see Maritain’s Existence and the Existent).

Here we must repeat that the popular connotations of both “authenticity” more broadly, and “existentialism” in particular, are altogether misleading; 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, especially on this point of what is considered authentic or inauthentic 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 the rather abstract and intellectualist approach that has been accepted as the “only” the Catholic approach for seven hundred years.

Existential Theology and Human Freedom

Let us then consider the basic elements of 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 “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.

Here we already see formulated the awareness which has been made completely explicit by Vatican II.  We see the difference between the 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 goodwill) 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 honor and take seriously everything that is publicly held by it.  Such a relation to the doctrine of the church has its proper place.  But, as Karl Adam says, it does not exhaust the possibilities of an authentic Christian faith.

To begin with, the relationship to church doctrine does 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 acknowledgment 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. God can be honored via “the lips and not the heart.”(Matthew 15:8) 

In this case, we find ourselves confronted with the kind of Christianity that Kierkegaard attacked precisely because it brought the alienation from “the public” (what I am calling “mass society”) directly into the religious life.  Instead of obeying the Word and Spirit of God, the body of those who love one another precisely insofar as they have been freed from facticity and routine, the orderliness of objective mass society, one surrenders at the same time one’s human and one’s religious integrity.  Effectually, this is a spiritual disaster if the church should be the one hope of an alienated individual’s ability to recover herself and her freedom.  The Bible unequivocally shows us that human society itself is “fallen” and alienated.  It estranges concrete individuals from herself and enslaves her to delusion.  The word of God calls human beings back out of this delusion to their authentic identities.  The church has, as her first function of all, to disturb the individual and unsettle her in the world of facticity by challenging her to return to herself. “Repent and change your heart,” is the inexhaustibly repeated message of God’s word to one in a fallen society.  The one who hears this word cannot rest content with the “alienating” routine of mass society.  Unfortunately, we see that, in fact, mass society is more and more eroding the area of good ground on which the seed of the Gospel can germinate.  At best, the soul of the mass individual is a plot of thorns.  Most of the time she is simply a wayside, trampled by a restless and unmotivated multitude.

It is here that the church, in its 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 a person and the despair which meets her 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.

In other words, in the aspiration and commitment toward authentic living, one cannot be tempted to consider evil as anything less than radical, which is Sartre’s error. The valuable insight provided by the religious existentialist to our understanding of authenticity is the realization of our very finitude, i.e. our very humble reality that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. (Romans 3:23) Such an insight help make intelligible the necessity of the death of Jesus as a remedy for our very existence as broken people. We cannot save ourselves with our own minds, and we exist in the very humble reality of our mortality. We just do not “know”; we exist in a humble and mysterious relationship with God and each other. Religion, then, must be better understood to constitute our aspirations for authenticity.

To be continued…

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