How would you, as an Existentialist yourself, respond to charges that Existentialism is too relativistic and undisciplined for Christian faith? Also, how would you reconcile Kierkegaardian radical individualism with the traditional and Biblical idea of the importance of church and fellowship?

It’s fair to say that pure existentialism is unsustainable. The burden of radical free choice quickly become mentally and emotionally overtaxing, as though one was carrying the weight of the universe on one’s shoulders. My existentialism, therefore, is anchored by Christianity at one end and humanism at the other –as Kierkegaard, godfather of existentialism, intended.

For an atheist existentialist such as Sartre or Camus, the burden of choice extends beyond the self to encompass the entire world. If some facet of my world is not as I would have it be, I bear complete and undiminishable responsibility for that fact. I have chosen it to be that way, and must choose and act differently if I wish it to change. In effect, each person is viewed as having the same position of responsibility as the deity of his own universe.

A Christian existentialist is aware, however, that the universe rests ultimately in God’s hands. This removes the insupportable burden of perfection from our shoulders (although perhaps Matthew 5:48 may indicate the opposite).

Humanism comes into play on the other end of things –in relationship to the incompatibility of radical freedom with the basic fabric of human interactions, as epitomized by concepts such as discipline and fellowship. The key Kierkegaarian move is to realize that all our human affairs are meaningless in relationship to the all-encompassing importance of our relationships with God –but then to treat those affairs as though even the most trivial among them was filled with profound meaning. This produces another paradox from a philosopher who reveled in paradox: in that he argues that the highest use of radical freedom is to invest it in conventional institutions and values such as marriage and fidelity (see Kierkegaard’s Narrative).

The Kierkegaardian life, however, only appears on its surface to be as trivial and prosaic as the lives lived by less reflective or existential figures. On the inside it is radically restructured so that even the most programmed moment within it is a free choice, and every free choice is a prayer, and every prayer leads towards a deepening of the personal relationship with God. I do think Kierkegaard erred, however, in never extending this concept beyond the individual level to encompass a community. Even the Kierkegaardian marriage is only really considered from the perspective of one of the partners; and thus as a personal act, not a communal one (perhaps explaining why Kierkegaard failed so miserably at putting the idea into practice).

If we look to the Bible, however, we can view Jesus’ transformation of the basic communal act of sharing a meal into the the sacrament of Holy Communion as a model for a communal life lived in the same mindful way as the individualist life envisioned by Kierkegaard –and the lives of the early Christians as a example of that same concept in action.  In the end, what Kierkegaard was trying to teach us is not so different from one of the central lessons of Saint Paul –that Christianity can never be lived by a rulebook. It is founded on a living relationship with God through Christ, and the discipline it provides must come from within.

Would you agree with those such as Alister McGrath that Christianity is rationally defensible, or would you say that the rational aspect is unimportant? If the latter, how would you respond to charges of thoughtless fanaticism in your religiosity?

This is a fantastic question.

I begin my answer by noting that rationality is overvalued and its capacity overestimated. The ability of the human mind to apprehend what it considers is vast, but not unlimited. Not everything, therefore, can be understood in ways that make apparent sense and align with all the other things that we know. In particular, God would not be God if He could be fully comprehended. For this reason, I side with those who call faith unreasonable.

As a student of Kierkegaard, however, I also note that the central paradox of Christianity, of God present with us, is no more of a paradox than the paradox of existence itself. Why should there be something rather than nothing? Why does our existence mainifest in the shape that it has, rather than in some other form? Why does each of us individually and idiosyncratically exist, and why are we bound by space and time? These are questions that have no rational answers, yet we live with the paradoxes they imply because we lack the ability to do otherwise.

This leads me to what I take to be the key Kierkegaardian insight: The mystery of Christ is not only on a par with the mystery of existence, it is in fact the same mystery. The mystery of why God would enter the universe and suffer and die is the very same mystery as why that universe would exist at all, and why there would be suffering and death within it in the first place.

All this having been said, however, I think there’s a danger in dismissing faith as merely or dogmatically irrational. The believer, I would claim, is not simply a believer in defiance of all evidence –which would indeed make him the thoughtless fanatic of your query.  Speaking as a believer, I would say that God has demonstrated His existence to me with evidence that is plentiful and personally compelling –yet not of a sort that lends itself to conclusive depersonalized proofs.

My aim in making such a claim is not to present a case for God’s existence capable of convincing the non-believer, but to advance the argument that the intrinsic irrationality (or what we might call the “transrationality”) of faith does not necessarily imply that the person who embraces faith must do so in an irrational manner. One may safely assume that the person who believes does so for personally valid reasons, even if those reasons are not easily understood by the non-believer.

This, it seems to me, is the best way to approach the ontological proofs of theological rationalists like Aquinas and Descartes, the apologetics of someone like C.S.Lewis, or the calculated wagers of Pascal and his ilk –not as attempts to equate faith with reason, but rather as ways of demonstrating that faith and reason are at least compatible with one another; and therefore that the embrace of one does not necessitate the destruction of the other.

Kierkegaard’s Narrative

“Kierkegaard’s Narrative” is an existential humanist plot outline named after the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. In general, it runs as follows: An aimless young man drifts through life, obsessed with aesthetics, and seeking sexual fulfillment with a series of women, yet never making substantive choices or real commitments. The climax of the story is the protagonist’s decision to commit to a single woman, and to enter into marriage.

The raw source material for this plotline is found in Kierkegaard’s books “Either/Or,” “Fear and Trembling,” and “Repetition,” in which he takes on the persona of various first-person narrators, and describes their experiences. Among the characters described are:

  1. “the Aesthete” who is obsessed with art and aesthetic experience
  2. “the Seducer” who falls deeply in love with a woman and pursues her heatedly until he gets her, and then discards her for a new conquest
  3. “the Repeater,” who is caught up in past experiences, and the doomed hope of recreating them

These characters are contrasted to a fourth, the “Married Man” who lives an existence that seems ordinary and mundane from the outside, but that is rich and fully lived on the inside.

Walker Percy was probably the first to weave these distinct personas together into a single coherent plotline. In his book “The Moviegoer,” he traces the evolution of a protagonist who spends most of the book as an aesthete, a seducer and a “repeater,” and who finishes it on the verge of becoming Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Faith” –the married man. (Percy also introduces an additional element, possibly also inspired by Kierkegaard, the death of a person close to the protagonist as a counterpoint to the protagonist’s desire to fully embrace life.) This book was widely admired, and the plotline passed into popular culture, where it has been the foundation of a number of well-regarded books and movies.

  1. Adaptation (Charlie Kaufman, directed by Spike Jonze)

    The clever joke of this movie is the way it combines experimentalism and conventionality, a union that also happens to fit neatly into the Kierkegaardian model.

    Protagonist: Charlie Kaufman

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Screenwriting

    Affairs: Susan’s affair with John

    Repetition: Charlie tries to recreate the experience of Susan Orlean’s original book

    Death: Charlie’s twin brother

    Existential Humanist Act: Charlie throws himself into the screenplay –literally –and confesses his love for a female friend.

  2. American Beauty (Alan Ball, directed by Sam Mendes)

    The significance of the protagonist’s last choice in this movie is it represents his one selfless act of maturity and existential responsibility.

    Protagonist: Lester Burnham

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Marijuana

    Affairs: Fantasizes about seducing his daughter’s nubile friend.

    Repetition: Tries to recapture his lost youth.

    Death: Lester (the protagonist)

    Existential Humanist Act: Chooses to not seduce the young girl

  3. Garden State (Zach Braff)

    Clearly in the same mold, although there’s a sense that the protagonist’s aimlessness comes less from his own choices, and more from his over-controlling father’s drug prescriptions.

    Protagonist: Andrew Largeman

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Acting, psychotropic drugs

    Affairs: Makes out with some girls at a party

    Repetition: Returns to his old town

    Death: Protagonist’s mother

    Existential Humanist Act: Abandons his L.A. life for a girl he’s fallen in love with.

  4. Graduate, The (Charles Webb)

    This work makes the subversive suggestion that Benjamin’s proposal to Elaine is just another aimless, meaningless choice.

    Protagonist: Benjamin Braddock

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Art was Mrs. Robinson’s major in college

    Affairs: With Mrs. Robinson

    Repetition: Returns home after school, tries to revisit his relationship with Elaine

    Death: N/A

    Existential Humanist Act: Elaine’s choice to follow Ben despite having just married another man.

  5. Harold and Maude (Colin Higgins, directed by Hal Ashby)

    This is an surprisingly sentimental movie for a comedy about suicide –a fact explained by the movie’s existential humanist heart.

    Protagonist: Harold

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Suicide

    Affairs: Harold goes on a series of blind dates arranged by his mother.

    Repetition: Harold’s phony suicides are an attempt to recreate a single experience of emotional response from his mother.

    Death: Maude

    Existential Humanist Act: Harold’s proposal to Maude

  6. High Fidelity (Nick Hornby)

    A popular book and movie of modern times which fits the model almost exactly.

    Protagonist: Rob Gordon

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Old records

    Affairs: A series of failed relationships

    Repetition: Looking up his old girlfriends

    Death: His girlfriend’s father

    Existential Humanist Act: Proposes to his longtime girlfriend

  7. Moviegoer, The (Walker Percy)

    The model for the genre, it features long passages directly inspired by Kierkegaard

    Protagonist: Binx Bolling

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Movies

    Affairs: With a string of secretaries

    Repetition: Returning to an old moviehouse

    Death: Protagonist’s half-brother

    Existential Humanist Act: Marries his step-cousin.

  8. Sideways (Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne (director))

    Like American Beauty, this movie shifts the narrative into midlife.

    Protagonist: Miles Raymond

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Wine and writing

    Affairs: Jack’s affairs with various women.

    Repetition: Miles tries to regain the affection of his ex-wife.

    Death: Miles’ book “dies” (is rejected by the publisher) and he “kills” his treasured bottle of vintage wine.

    Existential Humanist Act: Miles pursues a relationship with a pretty waitress named Maya, even at the price of distancing himself from the hedonism represented by Jack.

  9. Truman Show, The (Andrew Niccol, directed by Peter Weir)

    This movie externalizes the existentialism by creating a world whose purpose is to trap and immobilize the protagonist. Significantly, his existential act is to leave a loveless sham of a marriage, and not to commit to it.

    Protagonist: Truman Burbank

    Aesthetic Preoccupation: Truman’s entire life is an aesthetic/entertainment experience, although he doesn’t know it.

    Affairs: Married to a paid actress

    Repetition: Lives a repetitious life, and constantly returns to memories of a past relationship.

    Death: The faked death of Truman’s “father” –another symbol of the inauthenticity of Truman’s life.

    Existential Humanist Act: Goes in search of his “true love.”