I have existentialist leanings and see myself as a humanist. As a Christian I have had a problem reconciling these three philosophies…

…Thank you for making the attempt. I like it. My question
concerns Paul Tillich’s critic of pure existentialism, stating that
our use of language is universal and points to essentialism. He argues
that Christianity is comprises a dynamic between essentialism and
existentialism. You need both. You can’t separate the two. Is it
really possible to state existence proceeds essence when we worship a
universal Christ, historically grounded? Hope you can make sense of my
confused thoughts. – Eric

Here’s the short version of the answer: Christian existentialism must be understood as distinct from the more familiar atheist existentialism of a Sartre or Camus. I would describe it as follows: In (and only in) the context of a relationship with God through Christ, no essential constraints of law, morality or identity are absolutely binding.

So in atheist existentialism, your existential freedom is absolute, but in Christian existentialism, it is your relationship with God that is absolute, and your existential freedom stems from that relationship. You can look at is as a recasting of the classic Christian belief that servitude to Christ is freedom from the world –i.e. “My yoke is easy…”

Hope that helps. My response is original, but heavily influenced by Kierkegaard, particularly “Fear and Trembling”.

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.”

History of Humanism

Humanism has reemerged in many different times and places, each time with a unique “flavor”.

  1. Original Humanism

    Many (but not all) traditional cultures were havens for the original form of humanism, which focuses on heroic virtues, and the sensory fabric of human existence. In such a culture, virtue is often discussed, but there are rarely any written codes of behavior.

    1. African Humanism (? – present): This form of humanism still survives in the more rural areas of Africa. It features:
      • an emphasis on family, communal responsibility and hospitality
      • a warrior code focused around bravery
      • an immersion in polyrhythmic music and dance.


    2. Native American Humanism (? – ca.1800):This form of humanism was largely lost in the cataclysmic destruction of traditional Native American life. It featured:
      • a warrior code of loyalty, honor, courage and fraternity
      • a sensitivity to the life cycles and natural rhythms that form the foundation for human life
      • an anthropomorphic conception of the universe.


    3. Heroic Greek Humanism (ca.1200-750 B.C.): Greeks of the Heroic Age had a highly developed warrior code, centered around the concept of arete or human excellence. Components of this included courage, loyalty, generosity, mercy, dignity, decency, honor, stoicism and strength.
    4. African American Humanism (ca. 1850 – 1980):This form of humanism is a uniquely modern version of original humanism. Created from the bedrock of African Humanism, it took form under conditions of extreme oppression (which often give birth the purest expressions of humanism). Although it was a vital shaping influence on America and American culture, it has been pushed towards extinction by a rising tide of materialism. It features:
      • An emphasis on family, community and hospitality
      • A code of fraternity and sorority
      • A personal and humanist form of worship
      • A strong and pervasive emphasis on the arts, particularly music and dance; also oral and written literature, and the visual arts (almost always with a human-centered perspective)
      • An emphasis on sensory experience and life-cycle events.
  2. Classical Humanism

    Classical humanism is distinguished by emphases on philosophy, written codes of virtues and ethics, and the creation of a body of literature and art. It often looks back to a prior age of heroism. It is generally the philosophy of a privileged aristocracy.(The term, as we use it here, describes a type of humanism, and is not exactly contiguous with the Classical Era)

    1. Chou Dynasty (Chinese) Humanism (ca. 1200-200 B.C.):Philosophy has always been crucial to Chinese identity. In the first period of Chinese Humanism, two major schools of thought were developed:
    2. Taoism, the way of virtue. This was a highly mystical and metaphysical look at the basic nature of the universe. It advocated a system of virtue based on harmony with nature. Although too abstract to be truly humanist, the Taoist metaphysics established the foundation for the development of Chinese medicine.
    3. Confucianism, a very different look at virtues and ethics. Confucianism was profoundly humanist, composed (as it was) of hundreds of detailed precepts on the subject of human existence and the social order. Structure, propriety and ritual were the guiding concepts of Confucianism. Like Taoism, Confucianism looked to nature for guidance.
  3. Classical Greek and Hellenistic Humanism (ca.500-30 B.C.):The classical period in Greece, and the Greek-influenced period that directly followed, was the wellspring for philosophy and art in Western Civilization. It featured:
    • Human-centered sculpture and painting, in a increasingly natural and realistic style.
    • A fascination with mathematics and geometry, leading to advances in architecture.
    • The development of the art of drama, and the creation of great works of theater.
    • Writings on the subject of virtue and excellence.
    • The three greatest Western philosophers, and their philosophies:
      1. Socrates: He used paradox and discourse to rid students of preconceptions, and give them a radically different perspective on life. Socrates was very concerned with virtue, but disavowed the codification of the same.
      2. Plato: He developed a mystical and metaphysical view of the universe. The profound truths he uncovered could be applied to any situation. He was to have a profound influence on the later development of Christian theology.
      3. Aristotle: He was concerned with the minute details of human life and the social order. He believed that Divine order was embodied in the physical world, and discoverable though investigation. His “physicalized metaphysics” became the foundation for Western Science.
  4. The Humanism of the Roman Empire (ca. 30 B.C. – 200 A.D.): This period was largely an extension of trends begun by the Greeks. The philosophy, art and literature was all patterned after that of the Greeks. Through the agency of the Romans, Greek humanism was spread to many far corners of the ancient world.
  5. Renaissance Humanism

    Renaissance Humanism generally draws strongly from a classical tradition. It is less concerned with philosophy, and more concerned with the production of great art, music and theater, and with advances in science. It is self-consciously humanist and human-centered. It is often the lifestyle of an intellectual elite.

    1. Islamic Renaissance Humanism (ca. 800-1200 A.D.):Although largely forgotten in the West, the Islamic Renaissance played a crucial historical role. It kept the legacy of Greece and Rome alive, and brought insights of the East to the West. Key elements included:
      • the development of a body of poetry that was simultaneously sensual and mystical
      • the genesis of the rich philosophical tradition of Sufism
      • great advances in mathematics, including the creation of Arabic numerals.


    2. Italian Renaissance Humanism (ca. 1300-1550): The word “humanism” was coined in reference to this period. It was a period of amazing achievements in art and science, producing scores of great writers, painters, and sculptors. Like the Islamic Renaissance, it paid homage to Classical Greece and Rome, rescuing the myths, literature and philosophy of that period from the obscurity in which it languished during the medieval period.
    3. Harlem Renaissance Humanism (ca. 1920-1930): Although brief, this period produced many of the greatest talents in African-American literature (particularly poetry). Instead of referencing Greece and Rome, Harlem Renaissance writers “rediscovered” a semi-mythical version of African Humanism, particularly as seen through the eyes of Senegal’s negritude movement.Aimed at the so-called “Talented Tenth” of the black population, Harlem Renaissance humanism became tainted by accusations of elitism (as was true for many other versions of humanism).
  6. Modern Humanism

    1. Secular Humanism: The best-known modern humanism, secular humanism denies or devalues the existence of a deity, in order to focus attention firmly on the accomplishments of humanity. However, a criticism of the movement is that it focuses more on opposing religion than on supporting humanism.
    2. Religious Humanism: Typically religious humanism is a celebrates human achievement and potential, and concerns itself with human affairs, yet without denying the primacy of God. This category includes Christian Humanism, Jewish Humanism and Islamic Humanism, as well as humanist versions of other religions. This was once an important movement in religion, but has since been eclipsed by the twin rise of secular humanism and anti-humanist versions of religion.