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Salient: Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Vol. 32, No. 15. 1969.

Man's Finitude without the Cross

page 15

Man's Finitude without the Cross

Jesus on the cross

One of the formative influences of the attitudes and thinking of people today has been existentialism. Bergman said that his early films were intended to teach existentialism, and certainly the existential outlook has had a profound effect on the modern theatre, film and novel.

What is existentialism? It is a word commonly used today and commonly misunderstood. It is sometimes used as a term of abuse, and yet has also been appropriated as a form of inverted snobberv. It is not easy to give a precise definition of the term, as the thinkers who described themselves as existentialists speak with different voices. It is therefore at the risk of over-simplification that the following propositions are put forward as characteristic of existential thinking.

It begins with existence and not essence. In other words, the existentialist rejects the analytical structure of thought based on objective and abstract propositions. Instead he would insist that in constructing his view of the world he begins with himself and his actual existence in the world. After all, I know most about myself and my existence through the choices I make in life. A moral philosophy or system of values should not be deduced from abstract and ideal values. Instead we must begin with man, with ourselves in particular and ask what are the ultimate, deepest and most serious demands which I am confronted with in the choices that I make in life. These values are relative to me and there can be no absolute values, for my experience can tell me nothing of them. Alexander Pope's lines (quoted out of context) most appropriately describe this attitude:

"Know then thyself; think not God to scan, The proper study of mankind is man."

It regards man not as a spectator of the ultimate issues of life and death, but as one who is committed to a decision upon them. We are all involved in the business of living and the existentialist is concerned that we should play our part to the full. He has hard words for the cabbage-like existence of many people in western industrial society where the pattern of living is laid down by mass media, and an education system that encourages conformist thinking and behaviour and relieves men of actual involvement in the choices presented by life. This "inauthentic existence", where the choices are made for the individual by outside pressures, is contrasted with the "authentic existence" of open involvement in each decision, for which the existentialist strives.

The Church is criticised for cushioning men against grappling with these ultimate questions by providing them with a set of conditioned attitudes. Particularly hard words are also reserved for the escapist attiude of modern men and women to the realities of death and pain. Death, not sex, is the "taboo" subject for many people today. The streamlined efficiency of the undertaker and the comforting assurance (and isolation from the community) of the hospital ensure that the intrusion of death or suffering into daily life is short and soon forgotten. The existentialist thinkers, however, are very aware of the reality of death. To them, it is something which must be faced and not glossed over. If it brings finality to existence, then surely every moment of life should be savoured to the full and each decision be made "authentic".

Existential thought emphasises the freedom the individual has over his own decisions. There is little life over which I have any control, but I do control this little island of myself. I am what I will myself to be. The existentialist refuses to blame others for personal failure. Too frequently individuals seek to escape responsibility by erecting a barrier of self-deceptive excuses—environment , heredity and community pressures. These factors are present, but the choice is always mine. Sartre would have approved the sentiment if not the trite expression of Henley's lines:

"I am the captain of my ship, I am the master of my fate."

The existentialist therefore stresses the importance of personal decision. Thereby I commit not only myself, but all mankind, for in deciding as I do I commend my choice as a standard to others, and I condemn myself to my own standard. As Sartre said, "Man is condemned to be free."

With this freedom there is an awareness of man's finitude. We are all faced with a gap between what we are and what we would be, between what the world itself is, and what we would desire it to be. The knowledge that there are no permanent values and that life has no enduring meaning gives rise to what has been called "existential despair." The devastating honesty with which the existentialist views what he considers is man's barren predicament is shown by Kafka in The Trial and The Castle, by Camus in The Outsider, by Sartre's No Exit, and by the modern theatre which has been influenced by this thinking. But the existential prophets of our time have not been content to state. They present a challenge. In spite of the apparent meaninglessness of life, man is called to live and must give meaning to his own life through the decisions he makes.

When faced with Sartre's philosophy of despair, it comes as a surprise to realise that Sartre and the modern existentialist thinkers owe the development of their philosophy to the Danish theologian Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard in reaction against the arid speculation of his day emphasised that Christianity is concerned with living and speakes to man in his predicament. It is concerned with the questions of existence—death, the meaning of life and personal relationships. If Christianity is stated as a set of abstract doctrines and articles of belief unrelated to living, the meaning is lost. Indeed these doctrinal statements may be erected into a smokescreen behind which men can avoid grappling with these real questions.

The modern theologians, particularly Paul Tillich, have been concerned with this problem and have sought to show the relationship between doctrine and existence. To many people today, "God" may be a meaningless word for which there is no equivalent in their own experience. At one time God was accepted as creator, but this is so no longer. For Christianity to speak to men today, it must begin with the questions men are asking. The answer to the question; What gives meaning to life?", is God. In terms of experience, Tillich says that God is understood as the ground of all being—what I accept without reserve as being of ultimate concern. If in personal relationships I can find something of ultimate significance, then I can rightly affirm that God is personal and gracious and is responsive to my predicament.

Likewise, Tillich looks at the doctrine of sin as the Christian statement of man's predicament—his estrangement from the ground of being, i.e. from what he considers he essentially is and ought to be. Here Tillich and Sartre have much in common in their view of man's condition as one of despair, but the Christian existentialists differ from Sartre in refusing to leave man in this area of despair. Tillich asserts that Being is not empty or "a useless passion", but gracious, and reaches out to man in Christ, who as the new being shows man what God is like (i.e. the true nature of being) and by His participation in suffering and death transforms men and overcomes their estrangement.

The difficulty with Tillich's analysis is that by limiting statements about God to statements about my experience he has stripped the Christian message of much of its substance. By thinking of God purely in terms of human experience I am in danger of simply communing with myself. Theology becomes anthropology. Prayer becomes a meaningless exercise or else simply an expression of concern. There can be no answer to the question of dath for my experience tells me nothing of what lies beyond death. The "God is dead" theologians have pushed this part of Tillich's thought to its logical conclusion. Man is completely alone in the world and must live without asking for any answer to be given to ultimate questions. Furthermore, although Tillich relates the questions men are asking to the answers provided in the Christian revelation, he would regard the historical foundation of the Christian events as of no significance. Again we are left without substance to the faith. Has God acted in human affairs at all, or are the Gross and the resurrection mere symbols of the way in which individual men have given meaning to their existence;

Although I would affirm that the Christian revelation takes men further than Tillich, he opens the door and shows men today where they may begin to understand God—in the areas of their own experience; it is only too easy otherwise for traditional doctrines to be stated and fail to connect with the business of living. We may want to go further than Tillich, but we must not give less meaning to these statements about God and man than he does. The first epistle of John is particularly relevant to Christians today with its stark translation of statements about belief into statements about living.

"He that loveth not, knoweth not God, for God is love." 1 John 4:16.

"No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another God dwelleth in us, and His love is perfected in us." 1 John 4:12.

The Christian gospel calls men to encounter with God in Christ. In Him new life is offered and we can come in touch with the new creation. As Kierkegaard emphasised, this is an existential encounter as the individual through conscious choice opens his life to invasion by Christ. This encounter is initiated by God who has reached out to man. Apart from God's revelation, man could not know Him, for the character of Being can be known only if Being chooses to reveal itself. In Christ, God intervened in history and demonstrated His love, providing the means of relationship with men by the self-giving and suffering of the Cross. But each individual is called to relate the Cross to his own experience. Pauline teaching in the New Testament places great emphasis on the day to day living of the crucified life in Christ, with its awareness of Christ's act of sacrifice at the cross and our involvement in this act, which means to us death to self and its desires and surrender to the life of Christ.

"I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me." Galatians 2:20.

For the Christian life is not a habit or a conforming to a pattern of beliefs, but an openness to Christ made real to us by the Spirit in the daily decisions we make. Is not this existential living?