Existentialism — The Anthropological Challenge -- By: E. Herbert Nygren

Journal: Ashland Theological Journal
Volume: ATJ 04:0 (NA 1971)
Article: Existentialism — The Anthropological Challenge
Author: E. Herbert Nygren

Existentialism —
The Anthropological Challenge

E. Herbert Nygren

A difficult word to pronounce or to spell, existentialism is even more difficult to define.1 This is true because there is a decided absence of any absolute system of thought held by those who wish to be classified as existentialists. In fact, the whole existential movement has been one against system. In a sense, to define is to destroy. Over a period of several years this word has occasionally been associated with the “bearded Bohemian” with unkempt clothes, with the long-haired cafe singer plunking on an old guitar, with the “beatnik” poet reading his esoteric creations to coffee-drinking listeners. Existentialism has also been associated with an atheistic movement centered in France, propelled by a brilliant one-time resistance-fighter turned essayist and dramatist, John Paul Sartre. Existentialism has further been associated with an attempt on the part of certain contemporary theologians to remake the Christian faith in terms of the culture in which we are now living.

As a distinguishable movement, existentialism can be seen as emerging from the life and the writings of the melancholy Danish gad-fly, Soren Kierkegaard. With some amazing flashes of insight, he jibed and cajoled the church and the society of his day until his contemporaries resented him bitterly. It is just his pungent criticism and biting sarcasm which has led many of Kierkegaard’s twentieth century disciples to arise and call him blessed. Existentialism is, in actuality, perhaps more a movement and an attitude than a system of thought and as such cannot be reduced to a set of tenets. It is a life of continuous questioning. Yet there are several characteristics which seem to be indicative of this expression of life. One general feature is an emphasis upon the individual and a hostility to all systems of thought. Existentialism seeks to exalt the personality and the personal experiences of the individual. In fact, it is this primacy of the existing individual that has suggested the name “existentialism.” Each man is construed as his own point of intellectual departure. This is in sharp contrast to classical philosophy which tended to begin with abstract thinking. Sartre put it: “… first of all man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself.”2 For the existentialist, man is primarily what he is or what he is becoming by means of his own action. It is in his own search for truth and meaning that man is caught up and involved.

A second concomitant feature is the emphasis placed upon the absolute freedom of this individual man. It is emphasized that man alone, above all else, is a deci...

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