What is Christian Existentialism? For a start – a difficult idea to summarize. But we can turn to the Simpsons for a little help. As Lisa Simpson put it perfectly, “we are not born with a soul, or a self, but we only acquire one through suffering, hard work and prayer.”
Bart's pithy response: “I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda.”
Like Bart I too had had an experience of realizing I did not have a soul, but this happened to me in a book store - not after a Faustian wager.
One night while waiting for a film to start at a local movie theatre, I found myself wondering the aisles of a book store. There perched up on side by side with competing authors, a softcover “Sickness Unto Death” book stood waiting patiently to be chosen, hoping to be heard amidst the din of competing voices from writers across all sorts of ages and eras.
Amongst Plato, Sartre, Lao Tzu, Augustine and other voices from times and places long since vanished, this book caught my attention. On the back cover was a simple challenge to the reader. A man would notice if he lost twenty dollars, he would certainly notice if he lost an arm, but the greatest loss may very well go unnoticed, we may have lost our soul and not even be aware of the loss. And there I stood in the book store, waiting for a movie to start, with the sudden realization that I no longer had a self..
It brought a very sharp clarity to my life's situation. The whole idea of an afterlife was meaningless if there was no “me” to stand at the threshold in the first place. Something was here all right, a person who looked and sounded like me – but a soul that could cross over into whatever lay beyond? That was an entirely different matter.
Kierkegaard threw a lifeline to me, starting with a tricky definition that is not easily swallowed. He defined the self as a being that relates itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis. A relation. Of the finite and the infinite. Of spirit and of matter. Of freedom and necessity. And how we form that relationship is how we become ourselves. We are not born fully formed, but we have to make our selves.
It is very hard to systematise Christian Existentialism. It cannot be put into words and taught. It has to be experienced or lived. But it's truths can be pointed to with symbols and parables.
As an example, a question that puzzled me early on in my beliefs was the seeming futility of prayer. What is the purpose of prayer? If God was all loving and all powerful, what purpose could prayer serve? Did his kindness or justice depend on the prayers of humans? Would He not move to prevent suffering unless we begged Him to change for us? If He did not already plan to prevent this suffering was He truly good? But Kierkegaard puts the emphasis on the individual. The purpose of prayer is to change the one who prays, not to change God.
So Christian Existentialism is a form of wiping the spiritual slate clean. It says "I exist". And now what do I make of this? How should I live?
We do not derive our essence from being human, or from being Christians, but instead our essence, our humanity, our soul, comes from the choices we make, the actions we take and the suffering and joy we encounter in our journey. Life's goal is not to reach some far off paradise, the journey is the goal. The journey is how we become human.