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”.

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.