Existentialist-influenced people commonly say that religion is a way for people to avoid the task of dealing with the objective meaninglessness of life. This is a difficult argument for a religious person to refute, since every religion does provide people with a sense of meaning.

Any solution to this problem is going to lie between two extremes:

  1. Bokonon. Argue that everyone, not just religious people, creates meaning for their lives and that a particular religious tradition, with its rich mythology and cohesive world-view, is a very useful aid in the meaning-creation process. This acknowledges that ones particular religious ideas are foma, harmless and useful untruths, and that you're going to continue to practice your religion despite your implicit awareness of that fact.
  2. Buchanan. Damn the reality, full speed ahead! This is where you say, "my belief system rests on blind faith and that's the way it is." It's remarkably self-consistent, but it's hard to maintain the cognitive dissonance necessary to hold this viewpoint for a long period of time.
There's a middle ground between these two, one that recognized objectivity as a concession to consensus reality. It's true that 10,000 data points are more likely to provide an accurate measurement than 1, but that doesn't exclude the possibility of a minority viewpoint--even a minority viewpoint of one--turning out to be correct. However, a person who is going to maintain a belief based on subjective experience (that is to say, everyone who believes in anything) has to have a pretty high opinion of themselves.

This is where Christianity--along with other religions--and existentialism have a common ground. In order to maintain religious belief, a believer has to maintain faith in his (or her) own ability to come to some sense of what the meaning of life is. In order to have faith in a God or some other meaning-generating ultimate, believers also has to have faith in their own ability to determine the meaning of life. The leap of faith in God requires some same kind of self-confidence that existentialists require to creating meaning in the world.

Although his name has been mentioned above, no one has actually detailed Soren Kierkegaard's Existentialist philosophy regarding Christianity. I am basing my summary of it on information in the book From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest; I haven't actually read any of his writing yet. Anyway, here goes:

Kierkegaard believed that human life is not designed for pleasure- yet humans spend their entire lives striving for happiness in order to escape anxiety, depression, and despair. The anxiety experienced by humanity is a result of the fear of the nothingness of human existence. It is this idea that makes him the "father" of existentialism. He goes on to demonstrate in Either/Or, A Fragment of Life (1843) that material posessions and earthly prestige do little to assuage this feeling of anxiety.

The way to truly overcome despair, Kierkegaard advises, is to embrace despair willingly, to sink deep into it, to loose all commitment to other human beings, to lose all connection to earthly institutions, to lose all your morals, to divorce yourself from reason. At this lowest point, "at the edge of the abyss," you will be prepared to take the "leap of faith" in God. Kierkegaard believed that faith in God and unquestioning compliance with orthodox Christianity was the only an individual could come to terms with the apparent meaninglessness of his existence.

Crazy? Maybe. But Kierkegaard's philosophy is probably one of the most honest and vivid descriptions of why a certain individual would turn to Christianity to give meaning to his entire existence. This method, of course, is extremely frightening to most people, and hasn't ever really caught on in the Christian community, as far as I know. It is, however, a compelling insight into the soul of a brilliant and depressed man.

Actually Kierkegaard's view sounds disturbingly familiar with a conservative evangelical belief about what happens when a person comes to Christ. For a person to accept Christianity, we say, the person must come face-to-face with his or her sin and the eternal, literally damning consequence of it. Only once a person is aware of his or her sin and the eternal separation from God that results from it can a person accept Christ's forgiveness and love which God provides. Without that realisation, there is no need for Christ. He wasn't the only one to teach 'treat others like you want to be treated' (though possibly the first, excluding negative formulations like "don't do to others what you don't want them to do to you"); He was, we believe, the only one to provide real redemption from sin.

It's funny hearing the 'Christian viewpoint on existentialism' discussed. Actually Kierkegaard's Christian existentialism is the origin and basis for all other existential philosophies, so maybe would make more sense to speak of "the secular view of existentialism" as distinct from the original. Kierkegaard thought that Christianity could only be discovered to be true when one actually experiences it. I wonder if he ever realised, as all the later existentialists did, that the experiential, existential approach is true for any lifestyle - not just Christianity?

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