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Chapter Nine

After the end of the first modernist outbreak, Bergson's Creative Evolution had continued to exercise an influence in France, and James's Pragmatism in the United States, while during the 1920s and 1930s English philosophers were increasingly pre-occupied with the intricacies of linguistic philosophy. But by the 1960s, all three schools of thought had been outstripped by a formidable German newcomer, a newcomer, not only powerful in academic circles, but with a world-wide popular following.

The arrival of a fashionable new philosophy is like a tropical deluge. For a short time it washes everything else aside, while anyone without a roof of solid religious beliefs over their heads, or the umbrella of a rival philosophy, gets soaked. Then the rain stops and people say to each other "it's over." But they are mistaken, or at least partly. Its terminology and attitudes having become part of the common vocabulary and stock of ideas, and there follows a long period during which it continues to exercise an influence in a subliminal way, in spite of subsequent downpours of quite different ideas. So it has been with existentialism. 63 There has been nothing like it since Rousseau took educated Europe by storm in the late 18th century.

The first raindrops began to fall with the liberation of Paris in 1944 and the discovery of the new philosophy by the more literary members of the allied armies. Through the 1950s, as growing numbers of the Western intelligentsia fell under its spell, the shower turned into a steady downpour. By the end of the 1950s the downpour had become a deluge mounting to torrential proportions in the late 1960s and early '70s, the era of student revolt. After that its force began to slacken and, by the mid-eighties, it was  being looked back on as something belonging to the past. Yet at every social level throughout the Western world, it continues to influence secular and Christian thinking, speech and attitudes profoundly. To appreciate this it will only be necessary to recognise how many of the characteristically existentialist words which I have italicised in this chapter, are now part of everyday speech. However, before coming to existentialism itself, we must first glance at the three thinkers who provided a large part of the building material.

The Forerunners

Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Kierkegaard, the movement's true forefather, who first used the word existential in its modern philosophic sense, was a gifted but idiosyncratic and eccentric Danish Lutheran, whose view of life and human nature was based on the experience of his conversion (he had lost his beliefs at university and recovered them when about twenty-five), which in turn was influenced by his neurotic reactions to certain episodes connected with his father and his fiancée. His father had once cursed God and the son thought he shared his guilt.

For Kierkegaard, faith or belief is a basically mindless act a leap in the dark. A man commits himself to Christ without having any reason for doing so, having been urged to make the leap by what he has gone through emotionally beforehand. The emptiness and absurdity of life without God and the consciousness of his own nothingness have led him from anxiety and dread through anguish to despair. The pain of the despair drives him to jump outside himself, and in so doing he encounters God. (It is true that God often uses unhappiness to make us think about him. But thinking, under the attraction of grace, should lead to knowledge, confidence and love, not to jumping off a cliff.)

Even after his conversion, the Kierkegaardian Christian continues to live in a state of partial dread and anguish because he is daily faced with the necessity of making decisions while having no way of knowing what God requires of him. He has total freedom and total responsibility for his acts, but no guide as to what will be right or wrong in different situations or what the consequences of his acts will be.

Like many of the thinkers we have just been considering, Kierkegaard had a passionate dislike of metaphysics and objectivity, his works being full of diatribes against both. (An understandable antipathy to Hegel's highly  abstract and artificial system was partly responsible.) And he had a similar dislike of doctrine and universally applicable moral principles in religion. The way things look to the individual, the way he feels about or experiences them, is the criterion of truth, which is different for each of us. As for moral choice, every decision should be governed by the situation in which it is made. We must take our courage in both hands, Kierkegaard says, not knowing whether the outcome will be salvation or damnation. 64

Kierkegaard's psychological and rhetorical brilliance, the fact that his arguments provide useful ammunition against the cruder forms of rationalism, determinism and materialism, that he was trying to make his contemporaries realise that belief in Christ and following Christ should be a matter of deep conviction rather than social conformity, unfortunately led many of the 20th century's most influential Christian thinkers, anxious to stir up Christians as they saw unbelief spreading, into under-rating his limitations as a thinker. He was a kind of hot-gospeller for intellectuals, delivering his message in print instead of from a platform. However he remained largely unknown outside Denmark until long after his death. It was only when a German edition of his writings appeared just before and during World War 1 that his influence began to be widely felt. 65 Since then it has been incalculable. His writings have transformed Christian thinking everywhere.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

Nietzsche's contribution was not as great, but was still significant. The son of a Lutheran pastor, and a classical scholar so outstanding that he was offered the chair of philology at Basle before he had completed his doctorate, he is best thought of as a deranged visionary and soothsayer rather than a philosopher in the academic sense. His main life's work, conducted through a series of passionately written attacks on the men, beliefs and culture of his  times, could be summed up as the demeaning of everything Christianity had built up over 1900 years, and the exalting of all the disordered passions it had tried to tame.

The idea at the heart of his message was that "God is dead," by which he meant that not only is there no such being as God, but that the majority of influential people in the Western world now know it. However, they are hiding the fact because they fear the consequences; this must no longer be allowed. No matter how painful it may be, they must be made to face the fact that they have no one to rely on but themselves. Since man is totally free, no laws bind him. Since there is no such thing as absolute truth, everything is allowable. Man must dare and achieve, making his own morality and "truth." But most men are mediocrities. So the future must be in the hands of the strong, the self-disciplined. and cunning.

The only things preventing the triumph of Nietzsche's supermen are the values of a decaying Christianity. Christianity is based on sublimated class resentment. Exalting virtues like humility is the poor and the weak's way of getting back at the capable and the strong. There must therefore be a "transvaluation of values." Christian meekness must be condemned, manly pride applauded, weakness regarded as despicable, strength glorified. His ideal society was aristocratic in the worst possible sense, with one law for the ruling class, another for the ruled. The suffering of slaves is of no consequence. Eugenics should be seen as a typically Nietzschean enterprise. 66

Some of his criticisms of 19th century Christianity may partly have hit the mark. But the measure of a philosopher is not what he sees wrong, but how he plans to put things right.

Nietzsche's atheism, it will be seen, has a passionate and dramatic quality quite different from the rather smug self-satisfied atheism of the French Enlightenment. He hated with the vehemence of a Karl Marx and far surpassed him in implacable invective. He detested Kierkegaard. During his last twelve years he was insane. However he was not a German nationalist nor was he anti-Semitic. in spite of the disastrous effect of his teachings on the Nazis. Perhaps the most surprising thing about him is the reputation he  continues to enjoy in the halls of philosophy. It is as though Genghis Khan were honoured with a statue in the hall of the UN General Assembly.

Edmund Husserl (1859-1938)

During the last decades of the 19th century, German idealism underwent a subtle change. Hitherto the object of inquiry had tended to be some particular aspect or faculty of the human soul  reason, conscience, will, feelings of some kind, or in the case of Fichte, of the underlying self or ego. But towards the end of the period, the inner man began to be regarded as an undifferentiated sea of mental and psychic phenomena, all of more or less equal standing and value, into which the philosopher could dip his net in order to extract for examination whatever happened to attract his interest. This sea of phenomena eventually came to be called the "contents of consciousness."

Mapping the movements of the human spirit, its desires, reactions and emotions in every conceivable set of circumstances, had, in an unsystematic way, been one of the achievements of the great 18th and 19th century novelists. There can be no mood, emotion, or state of mind and heart left unanalysed or described by them. But no one had yet thought of using this material to construct a philosophy of man  both of what he is and what he ought to be   based on his subjective responses to life as it unfolds from birth to death.

The thinker who did most to set the ball rolling in this direction was Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology. As a philosopher, however, Husserl, who taught philosophy at Göttingen from 1900 to 1916, and thereafter at Freiburg, was more important for his method than his conclusions.

The phenomenological method consists in isolating or "bracketing" a particular emotional or spiritual experience guilt, shame, anxiety, friendship, fidelity and studying it with complete detachment. All earlier preconceptions about its origin, nature, or relation to the rest of the contents of consciousness must first be set aside. The practitioner then moves slowly round the experience, looking at it from every angle, and in so far as is possible, empathises with it, in the hope that it will at last reveal its true significance as a component of the "human subject" and where it comes in the hierarchy of importance.

What is the relationship of the contents of consciousness to the outside world? Do they give us objective knowledge about it?

In the earlier part of his career, Husserl appeared to be moving from an  idealist to a more realist stance. He had studied in Vienna under the Catholic philosopher Brentano and Catholics interested in these matters began to prick up their ears. Around the beginning of World War I, numbers of his pupils having become Catholics, it was thought that he might too. But these hopes were dashed. He did not enter the Church and any movement in a realist direction went into reverse towards the end of his life. He had perhaps been an idealist all along.

The Founders

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

In spite of his rejection of the name "existentialist," Martin Heidegger was the founding father of existentialism. Drawing on the ideas of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Husserl, it was he who, in the 1920s and '30s welded it into a distinctly recognisable new philosophical theory.

A lapsed Catholic and ex-seminarian, Heidegger held chairs of philosophy first at Marburg (1923-29), then Freiburg (1929-45), being forced to retire in the latter year because of his connections with the Nazis. He believed, and publicly claimed, that from the time of Plato all philosophers had approached reality in the wrong way. Now, for the first time he was going to put philosophy on the right track. But like other tenacious if misguided thinkers, he found his ambitions greater than his capacities. He was never able to finish his major work, Sein und Zeit (Being and Time, 1927), which was to establish his claims.

In Heidegger's existentialism, the mind is not just dethroned, it is all but abolished. To use it for thinking in the normal way by distinguishing object from object (cat from mouse or mouse's tail from mouse's body) or objects outside us from objects in our minds (object from subject) is treated as a kind of sin. It is regarded as falsifying reality, which is envisaged as a kind of liquid continuum like treacle or soup.

To know reality or Being (reality in its most generalised form), there must be a total surrender of self to experience, a plunging of oneself into the treacle or soup (the self being part of the soup, though possibly the soup, or the experience of being in the soup, is just an extension of the self which of these alternatives is not altogether clear) This self-surrender to experience is called openness or openness to Being.

What Heidegger seems in fact to be trying to do is re-establish contact with external reality from which he has cut himself off through adopting the idealist starting point  but by-passing reflective thought. By a passive  experiencing of Being or openness to Being, he seems to believe that not only will reality and the mind be brought into touch again, but reality will reveal itself to the philosopher in its true colours.

But what, it may be asked, is the use of this kind of knowledge, except perhaps to the individual who receives it, if the attempt to express it in intelligible statements or propositions radically falsifies it?

Needless to say, having in theory dethroned the mind, in practice Heidegger proceeds to use it in the normal way, employing abstractions and propositions like other men, in order to explain, via Husserl's phenomenological method, what kind of being he thinks man essentially is.

The answer seems to be a disembodied "stream of consciousness" in search of solidity but never finding it. Men and women are not beings with a substantial reality from conception onwards. They are non-beings who materialise in a void as the recipients of experience. Man's existence, as the famous existentialist axiom has it, precedes his essence. His accumulating experiences determine what he will one day be. But in fact existentialist man never has an essence, since what he essentially is only comes about at the moment of death when the accumulating units of experience can be added up   presumably by his friends after the funeral and then he no longer in any sense is. When existentialists speak of man's nothingness, they do not mean his nothingness before God as Christians do; they mean it more or less literally. Although men are distinct from things, and can never be completely absorbed by them, without things to experience they would cease to be.

Given, then, that each of us lives inside the bubble of his personal life, there is no way of showing that, as descriptions of reality, one person's experiences are any better than anyone else's. That is why you can "do your thing" while I "do mine" without harm to oneself or society. 67

However, there are certain fundamental experiences common to all men.

Heideggerian man finds himself thrown into the world without knowing  who he is, why he is there, or where he has come from; actually, where he finds himself is not so much in the world as imprisoned in a subjective field of vision called his horizon. 68 His basic states are care (he is condemned to preoccupation with apparently pointless tasks), and anxiety (angst or dread). Like Kierkegaard, he constantly has to make decisions, but, while he is responsible for the remotest consequences of his smallest acts, every situation is different and there are no rules to guide him. So he moves through life, haunted by the flight of time, burdened by a sense of guilt, while trying to reach self-understanding through the experience of his life situations, and to realise his possibilities. Another condition of his existence is projecting himself into the future. Since his situation is always changing, this involves moving from horizon to horizon, altering his understanding of the meaning of existence as he does so, until he reaches death, the final horizon, and the last of his possibilities, which puts an end to him.

Existentialist literature is full of rather pretentious talk about death as though it were a recent discovery. Existentialist man is not a little angry and sorry for himself that he cannot have unbelief, happiness and immortality all together. There are even Catholic theologians who now speak of death as though it were a gloomy indignity.

The words italicised in the above paragraph are known as existentials. The existentials are the supposedly most elemental human experiences. Together they define what a man is. They are the fundamental constituents of "being human," or of human nature, in so far as Heideggcr would allow such a term. What he has actually done is metaphysicalise and universalise the feelings and outlook of an unhappy guilt-ridden atheist. It is therefore not surprising to find him concluding that life is meaningless and absurd.

The once fashionable word "happening" in connection with the theatre and arts expresses this viewpoint. A "happening" is an event or object deliberately intended to startle by its meaninglessness.

Another existential is the experience or state of fallenness, the existentialist equivalent of original sin. On finding himself thrown into the world, or in the state of "being there" (Dasein), he is continually in danger of falling into inauthentic living. Inauthentic living means submerging oneself in wordly things and preoccupations and adopting the standards and values of the crowd in order to avoid asking the really important questions in life; one makes oneself part of the crowd (Das Man, the collective man, as Heidegger calls it). The chief characteristics of Das Man are idle or shallow talk and idle curiosity. Das Man is always looking for something new to occupy him so that he does not have to face his real situation. All this is the basis for a strong and not unjustified critique of modern Western societies and their overpowering preoccupation with technology and busyness.

However, underlying Das Man's inauthenticity or shallow preoccupation with externals, even if he is unaware of it; is a deep dread or anxiety (angst), and herein lies his path to salvation. Angst, when strong enough, can catapult a man into authentic living. Authentic living means facing the realities of our situation, our nothingness and the inevitability of death, and starting to ask the really important questions. What does it mean to exist as a man? What indeed is existence?

But Heidegger does not really answer these questions. All he tells us is that to live authentically, we must "think of Being." In turning away from things and opening ourselves to Being we shall find light and joy. In fact, in his later philosophy, under the influence of the German poet Rilke, Heidegger often seems to be promoting a kind of atheistic mysticism. Instead of thinking in the ordinary sense, the philosopher, through his passive openness to or contemplation of Being, seeks some kind of communion with it. 69

This highly unsatisfactory conclusion no doubt explains why so many existentialists decided that, since life remained absurd whether you thought about Being or not, it was up to the individual to give life whatever "meaning" he or she liked.

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)

Sartre, a propagandist of the first order, is better known as a writer and playwright than as a philosopher, and it was chiefly through his novels and plays that existentialist ideas eventually reached the general public.

After starting life as a philosophy teacher, with a short spell in Berlin (1933-34), he had already written a novel, a volume of short stories, and two phenomenological studies by his mid-thirties. Then came World War II. He was called up in 1939, a year later taken prisoner, and, after yet  another year, released. Returning to Paris, he joined the resistance, but at the same time was able to complete his major philosophical work Being and Nothingness (L'être et le néant, 1943). 70 He emerged from the war an active communist sympathiser, if not a party member, and remained a propagandist for left-wing causes to the end of his life, in spite of quarrels with Stalinists over Stalinism at different times. 20,000 people attended his funeral.

As a philosopher, Sartre's vision of things is basically the same as Heidegger's, but being a child of the French Revolution, he gives more of his attention to man's will and freedom than to his supposedly fundamental experiences.

For Sartre, the mere passive reception of experience is not enough to confer existence. A man only truly exists by continual acts of will.

The human will is pictured as a kind of eddy in the liquid continuum of reality. Man is the hole made by the whirlpool of his free will in the treacle or soup. If he stops exercising his will, the hole closes and his existence is swallowed by the treacle. Any restriction on his free will is therefore an attack on his existence. This is why the characters in Sartre's novels and plays, if not Sartre himself, find other people and objects "nauseating." The "other" can resist their wishes and thereby threaten their existence.

It is also one of the reasons why people now become persons instead of being persons. You become a person in so far as you are able to act consciously, make decisions, and realise your possibilities. If through sickness or poverty you are incapable of doing any of these things, you cease to be a person, which, though Sartre does not say so, means that in principle you can be dealt with accordingly. Abstruse philosophical notions have a surprising way of producing far-reaching public consequences. 71

However, at this point in the unfolding of Sartre's existentialism there is a change of key from minor to major, or tragic to heroic. Taking over from Kierkegaard and Heidegger the distinction between authentic and inauthentic living, Sartre gave authentic living a different style and goal. The despairing Sartrian existentialist, instead of leaping into the arms of God like Kierkegaard, or losing himself in "thinking about Being" like Heidegger,  commits himself to the service of man, after the example of the heroes in the novels of Albert Camus. In so doing, he transcends himself and encounters the other. He opens himself to, communicates or enters into a meaningful relationship with the other. He is conscious of a new sense of responsibility. He becomes "a man for others," putting himself at their disposal. In this way he breaks out of the lonely world of his personal experience.

In fact of course, if life is really a string of unintelligible happenings, there is no reason why one kind of commitment should be superior to another. Gardening, stamp collecting or overthrowing the state should all be equally authentic occupations. In practice, however, it was soon agreed, that the only cause worth committing oneself to was "transforming the world" in alliance with some party of the radical left. French existentialists now had a blueprint for realising their possibilities and making their future.

The history of human thought is full of strange alliances, but none has been so strange as this which, with Sartre and other politically left-wing existentialists like Merleau-Ponty as the marriage brokers, has brought perhaps the most individualistic philosophy ever invented (if we overlook Ayn Rand's Objectivism) into the service of political collectivism.

How did they come to this decision?

In the encyclical Humani Generis (1950), Pius XII explains it as follows. "They (the existentialists) attribute to our appetitivc nature a kind of intuitive faculty, so that a man who cannot make up his mind what is the true answer to some intellectual problem need only have recourse to his will; the will (without reference to the mind) makes a free choice between two intellectual alternatives. A strange confusion," the Pope continues, "between thought and volition." 72

Meanwhile, those who live in an "inauthentic" way, the collective Das Man, receive an even more severe drubbing from Sartre than they do from Heidegger. They are like the reprobate in Calvinism destined for damnation, or the bourgeois in Marxism, only fit for the firing squad. However, as death wipes out "authentic" and "inauthentic" alike, Das Man, in drifting through life, as he is supposed to do, without committing himself to anything in particular (except, possibly, supporting his family, bringing up his children in the love and service of God and quietly fulfilling the duties of his state) has perhaps chosen the wiser course.

But how were the newly committed faithful to be prevented from relapsing into the nihilism towards which any form of atheist existentialism  necessarily points people?

The situation was saved by the philosopher Ernst Bloch who, while fishing in the contents of consciousness, had discovered the phenomenon of human hope. Clearly this was a constituent of human existence as fundamental as anxiety or guilt, and from it he constructed his philosophy of hope, later given a Christian turn by the German Lutheran theologian Jürgen Moltmann. But Bloch's existentialist hope is not Christian hope — trust in God's providence and his promises of eternal happiness. It is hope in man. It represents frightened existentialist man whistling in the dark when he fears that the forces he now possesses are going to be too much for him to control, and he will blow up the world before he can build the only paradise there is going to be.

Throughout the 1960s and '70s, the two existentialisms I have been describing, nihilistic and social-activist, ran side by side. But in the end the nihilistic message won most supporters. If people wanted to be social activists, they looked to Marx or Marcuse. Existentialism thereby became the door through which large numbers of Westerners entered what is now called "the post-modern age"; in other words, ceased pinning their hopes on perpetual progress and adopted "doing their own thing" as their philosophy of life. 73

Weighing the results

Although its two most powerful exponents were atheists, existentialism does not, of course, have to be atheistic. Kierkegaard, its progenitor, as we have seen, was a Christian, so is the French Protestant philosopher Paul Ricoeur; and the German philosopher Karl Jaspers (1883-1969) initiated an influential school of theistic existentialism. 74

The appeal of existentialism for Christians lay, in the first place, in its  teaching about authentic and inauthentic living; about the importance of not just drifting through life, and of putting oneself at the service or disposal of others. If it could be shown philosophically that a man only concerned with his private interests, or a man who buries himself in distractions or business in order to avoid having to ask questions about the real meaning of life, was only half a man that to be fully a man one has at some point to make some decisive choices, get outside oneself, be a man for others, and more important still, like Kierkegaard, seek an encounter with something outside and above this world then the Christian view of man was well on the road to being proved right philosophically. In these respects existentialism can be seen as a philosophy of spiritual conversion. However, separating the benign from the toxic elements has proved more difficult than expected.

Its chief defect as a philosophy, I believe, is the ambiguity surrounding its use of the word "experience."

The majority of people when they talk about "experience" mean something that has happened to them or something they have lived through, in other words their contact with something going on outside them (objective experience). When they want to refer to what goes on inside them, they mainly talk about having a "feeling" or "impression" (subjective experience). Because existentialism uses the same word for contact with objective realities and subjective feelings, feelings are raised to the same level and given the same value as real knowledge. Granted that all forms of modern idealism have had difficulty in drawing the line between waking and dreaming or seeing and imagining, it could hardly have been otherwise.

Its second major defect, I suggest, lies in the way it pits "experience" against reflective thought, as though they were rival ways of knowing, with experience as the superior contestant rather than seeing them as complementary stages of the same process. In existentialism, this already long-established anti-intellectual current reaches its apogee. 75

Experience, however, whether external or internal, is only the starting point of knowledge. It is true that knowledge received at second hand often needs to be complemented by experience. Practice deepens our understanding of theory. But experience by itself tells us very little, apart  from the fact of its being pleasant or unpleasant. Many people have the same experiences over and over again, and, because they do not reflect on them, repeatedly make the same mistakes. To acquire knowledge, seeing, touching, hearing, smelling, tasting are not enough. We must think about what we have seen and touched. Thinking, however, necessarily presupposes at least a modicum of abstract ideas and propositions.

To illustrate the point, let us take the example of a man from a remote part of the world who has never come across electricity before. In his bedroom he sees a loose electric wire. On touching it he receives a shock and is convinced that he has been bitten by some kind of snake, until the owner of the house explains to him what electricity is. We should not think much of his intelligence if he replied: "I refuse to believe it. Your abstract knowledge does not correspond with my experience."

As we all know, the way things are does not always correspond with the way they appear or how we experience them. The old lady on the airplane who gives the nice young man in the next seat some of her money to invest has "experienced" his charm. But some reflective thought involving abstractions and propositions, like "he could be a crook," would have been more useful. If we stayed permanently at the level of experience, we should still be believing that the sun goes round the earth.

I say all this because persuading the faithful that personal experience is a superior form of knowledge to the teaching of the Church and should be the ultimate authority in determining what is to be believed or done has been modernism's most effective weapon in its war against the Church's magisterium.

To show how it is used, let us take another example. Jim and Jane get married. The Church, following divine revelation, tells them they are now one flesh till "death do them part," and so they feel it to be for a time. But then things go wrong and their experience sends a different message. They now feel like two separate warring pieces of flesh, so they listen to Fr X who tells them that, because of this, they are no longer married. Having absorbed the idea that truth must always conform to personal "experience," they are soon concluding that because the "experience" of receiving holy communion resembles the experience of eating and drinking bread and wine, then that is what they are in fact consuming. This would explain why repeated polls show that in countries like the United States, something like 75 percent of Catholics no longer believe in the Real Presence.

The same approach applied to religious teaching in schools has had similar results. Since the late 1960s the majority of young Western  Catholics have lapsed once they leave school, if not sooner, largely because, instead of being given Catholic doctrine, they have been taught (if it can be called teaching) to analyse their feelings about or reactions to God, their parents, the "experience of being a Catholic," or life in general. Their teachers are often happy with this method since, having lost the faith themselves, they are naturally reluctant to teach as true what they no longer believe to be so.

In reality, very few of the things God has revealed are directly accessible to experience. If they were, it would hardly have been necessary to reveal them. 76 The same is true of many scientific propositions; they are likewise inaccessible to direct experience. Indeed they frequently appear to flout it.

What modernists are in fact doing, when they pit experience against doctrine, is exploiting the fact that experiential knowledge is always more vivid than theoretical knowledge or knowledge at second hand, and because more "vivid" is felt to be more "real" or "true' Seeing someone crushed to death by a lorry immediately in front of us makes far more of an impression than the deaths of hundreds killed in an earthquake 2000 miles away. It takes a mental effort to make ourselves appreciate that each of those far-off deaths is of equal importance. Raw experience says the opposite; the death I have just witnessed matters more. It is the difference between what Newman in The Grammar of Assent calls notional and real assent. What we have never experienced can seem unreal, even though we know it is true or has happened. 77

This largely psychological problem does of course mean that, for pastoral purposes, it is important that the "experience" of Christian parish and family life should not be a counter-witness to the supernatural truths those institutions embody and should teach. To this extent, the way people "experience things" does matter. Grace can and does triumph over the most adverse circumstances. But parish and family life should not be an obstacle to ease of belief. They should not provide genuinely disagreeable experiences.

However, if we want to measure the true value of "experience" as a source of religious knowledge, we need only look at the non-Christian religions past and present. With the exception of Judaism and Islam and some later cults, which are based on real or supposed revelations, all have, or have had, their origins solely in what must have been "experiences" of some kind. Why then have they differed so widely?

Existentialism also seems to be responsible for the now widespread use of the term "faith experience" among Catholics.

This can have a variety of meanings. It may mean the speaker thinks that faith is something which hits you over the head like a blow from a sledge hammer without any way of accounting for it. One minute you don't believe, the next you do, and that's all there is to it. Or it may refer to the speaker's own experiences in prayer. On the other hand, it may describe what he thinks happened on the first Easter Sunday: when the disciples saw Our Lord, they were having "faith experiences." If they had not already believed He was still alive, they would not have seen him.

During the synod of bishops in Rome on catechetics in 1977, it was seriously suggested that the faithful should somehow be polled and their personal spiritual experiences collected to form the basis for a special "catechism of experience." There would then have been two competing catechisms, one based on experience, one based on doctrine. The demand did not make the running, and the Church eventually dealt with the question more than a decade later by including numerous quotations from the writings of the saints, mystics and other holy people in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The writings of the saints are of course a source of genuine religious knowledge. They provide most of the material for what is called mystical theology. But though their writings may deepen our understanding of what God has revealed, they never contradict it.

To sum up, existentialism is in fact far from being the philosophy of concrete existence or reality it claims to be. The philosophia perennis and St Thomas have a much better title to that honour since they tell us how things exist in themselves. Existentialism only tells us how they appear to exist or what we feel about them, or, in the case of our minds, wills  and emotions, not what they objectively are, but how we experience their operations.
The right and proper name for existentialism would have been "experientialism." 78


63. Since writing this chapter, I have come to look at existentialism in a less unflattering fight. In existentialism we bear the voice of twentieth-century man desperately crying for help and gasping for air as be feels himself being suffocated by enlightenment rationalism and scientism. As an alternative to asphyxiation, existentialism may not have been the best remedy, but it did help a lot of people find their way back from infidelity to belief in God of some kind. However, I have decided to leave the chapter as it is because the "case for the prosecution" is so much less often heard than the "case for the defence."

64. A view of things which has had profound repercussions in moral theology."Situation ethics," "proportionalism," "consequentialism," all boil down to the same thing: the moral law can never be precisely the same for everybody in all circumstances. For some existentialists, one's Sitz im Leben or life situation is seen as inseparable from one's self. "I am myself and my circumstances," as the Spanish existentialist José Ortega y Gasset put it.

65. The translation, published by the firm Eugen Diederich (1911-1917), could be seen as a landmark in European intellectual history comparable to Lessing's publication of the Wolfenbuttel Fragments which had set radical biblical scholarship on course 150 years earlier.

66. "Values clarification" in education would seem to have roots in Neitzsche's "transvaluation of values." It can have a legitimate use; we "clarify our values" when we go on retreat: are we putting first things first, we ask ourselves, and how far does our life conform to them? But equally it can be and is employed as a technique for persuading people to question the "values" they have hitherto adhered to when these are not approved by the teacher.

67. Even travel agents have been touched by existentialist notions and terminology. Instead of inviting us, as they formerly did, to visit Africa or have an African holiday, they now urge us to have "an African experience. This is because, in an existentialist world, you do not go to foreign countries or meet concrete people, animals and things, you undergo a stream of subjective impressions. In the early '90s, a pub overlooking the Thames carried a notice reading, not "Try our sandwiches," but "Try our sandwich experience."The big question was, did the experience involve a real sandwich?

68. One would have thought most people's primal experience would be of "lying in the arms of their mother," not being "thrown into the world."

69. Perhaps we can see in Heidegger's identification of modern industrial society with inauthentic living and his rejection of Das Man in favour of the contemplation of Being, a relic of his time as a Jesuit novice. Being has become an atheistic substitute for God. It is the same with the turn from inauthentic to authentic living. St Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises had a similar purpose. Only the final goal is different.

70.  Contact between French intellectuals and their German counterparts serving in the German army during the occupation of Paris seems to have been, if not much advertised, an accepted part of the war time scene. (See obituary of Ernst Junger. The Daily Telegraph, London, 18th February 1998.)

71.  Translated into Christian terms, this is sometimes seen as meaning that people are not Christians as a result of their baptism and beliefs. They are in a state of perpetually "becoming" without ever fully being Christians, and having to prove it to themselves and others by conspicuous good works.

72. Humani Generis, 33.

73.  That the notion of "doing your own thing" triumphed over that of "being a man for others" is surely demonstrated by the speed with which marriage and family life began to break down just when the existentialist downpour was at its heaviest. In an age when "commitment" or "being committed" has never been so much talked about. fewer and fewer people want to commit themselves permanently to anything.

74.  Christian existentialism: defined by Anglican Canon David Edwards of Westminster as "a style of theology inspired by Soren Kierkegaard, which tests every doctrine by in derivation from human experience and by its power to illuminate human existence. It rejects metaphysical speculation about eternal essences even when this is hallowed by dogma, and it attempts to demythologise the Bible" (Fontana Dictionary of Modem Thought, 1981).  Demythologizing the Bible however, while characteristic of Bultmann's existentialism, is not necessary to Christian existentialism as such. Kierkegaard would hardly have tolerated it.

75. The summer issue of Communio for 1996 was largely devoted to "Christian experience" and the problems surrounding the notion. "The complexity attendant upon a careful definition of the two concepts experience and theology increases prodigiously whenever we try to make a single coherent statement about both," admitted the author of the opening article.

76.  This is the meaning of Tertullian's Credo quia absurdum ("l believe just because it is absurd"). Not "absurd" in the modern sense; but not directly accessible to reason or the senses.

77.  This is why,  for  Christians, meditation is so important. We need to bring the truths revealed by God down from the notional to the real level, whether it is a question of supernatural mysteries beyond the reach of imagination or the contents of the Gospels, which we can imagine. This, Newman maintains, is always more effectively achieved, at least in the case of preaching, when the faith is presented in concrete imagery rather than abstract terminology. What is given to the mind in abstract terms, tends to remain "notional." Concrete imagery makes the truths of the faith real in a way that has an impact on personal living. This is probably true in general. The only thing the great cardinal seems to have forgotten is the number of people swept off their feet by abstractions like liberty, equality and fraternity.

78. The problems surrounding this subject also result from regarding abstract and concrete as belonging to separate realms. But if the abstract did not inform the concrete, the concrete would be a shapeless mass of sub-atomic next-to-nothingness.

Copyright © Philip Trower 2006, 2011, 2018


Version: 16th February 2021


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