Existentialist philosophy and analysis, to the extent that it measures “the predicament of man and his world in the state of estrangement” (Paul Tillich) corroborates what Christian theology has always referred to as Original Sin. As a school of philosophy it seems pretty well dead now, but important insights of the original existentialists remain valid and some of its insights remain very much alive on the streets, both in rebellion and in reflection.
Man is born “condemned to be free” and is excruciatingly set against himself and his fellow man. Despite the presence of others, he remains alone, thrust into an inexplicable existence, seemingly condemned to grope like a fish on land whose tail is in the water but which cannot, despite immense effort manage to get the rest of itself in. The human person lives in this pain. And yet, paradoxically, in hope.
The existentialists penetratingly analysed this curious sense of alienation, lack of rootedness, frustration, estrangement. Many of them explained it in terms of homosapiens unaccountably emerging from nothing and without any direction that s/he doesn’t invent.
A divide however developed between secular existentialists (Sartre, especially) and Christian existentialists (typified by Gabriel Marcel). In this divide existenstialists attempted to explain man’s predicament differently. The latter understood this undeniable alienation not from man’s freedom in the face of his emergence from the inexplicable, but in the context of creation, sin and redemption.
Tillich points out that in earlier centuries the monks and monastic theologians were the ones who anticipated existentialism by conducting deep, interior analysis of mind and soul. He remarks that these monks “analyzed themselves and the members of their small communities so deeply that there are few present day insights into the human predicament which they did not anticipate. The penitential and devotional literature impressively shows this”.
The root of the word ‘salvation’ is to heal. Only the the Gospel of the God who became man, the Christian Existentialists believed, can heal the estrangement which is peculiar to man and rescue him from the Nothingness of sin and Hell. Christ delivers the human person from his aloneness and restores the willing to the fellowship of completeness and returns him Home. The unwilling remain existentially and spiritually stricken, isolated in a kind of futile hallucination, mistaking the ephemeral for the permanent, the Real. In time some come to prefer a directionless existence and to revel in their delusionary autonomy.
From the Christian perspective, completeness can only be understood in terms of fellowship or communion with the personal God who is the Ground of Being. This ‘Ground’ is not a ‘what’ but a ‘Who’. Only communion with a personal God who is love can heal us. Anything less than the personal leaves man locked in his aloneness and death. Anything less than the personal leaves man staring into a vast blank of purposelessness, nothingness, incapable of lasting communion and love.
Man is that being who looks upon the universe and his own existence with longing. This is the personal. An electron, a a fungus or a mountain… these cannot wonder, long, or love. These cannot know. And an aimless existence tends to pit man against man, out of fear.
Hate, isolation and love, however, negate each other. Hate and isolation are inconsistent with the fact of Creation because Creation is the fruit of the personal Creator’s giving. Because God is Personal, man is personal. Thus man is capable of empathy with all who long for meaning and with all who suffer. Love perpetuates Creation, it purposefully and knowingly participates in it, and recognizes Creation not as the inexplicable hostile, but as Gift. Only the Personal can bring forth the personal. Only love can sustain what the Personal brings forth.
“The Church … clasping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal” (Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church).
So must it be for each of us who are members in Christ. Each day, despite every frustration, every new scandal and controversy, must be a day of inward renewal. Without contemplation this is impossible. Each day we must love and orient ourselves to the Sacraments which birth in us love, communion, forgiveness, clasping other sinners to our bosom, pointing them with us to the Cross, rejoicing with them through the power of grace to the resurrection of new life in Christ. / SH