Religious Existentialism

28 Mar

I am not a fundamentalist of any stripe, but I believe in God. At various points in my life, I wanted to serve God in an official capacity, but my life changed. So how do you believe strongly in something without gripping rock-hard principles?

I was mentioning existentialism in an earlier post, but I found myself getting away from my point about conspiracy theories, and realized that it had to be its own post. I like existentialism but I don’t completely buy it, partly because it starts with the initial concept that God doesn’t exist. So I have breakdown the philosophy to its fundamental components. But instead of me boring you with that, let’s have Joss Whedon (my “icon of existentialism,” but what others call, “the patron saint of mediocrity”) explain it:

Jubal Early : Where’s your sister?
Dr. Simon Tam : I don’t know. Who do you work for?
Jubal Early : This is her room.
Dr. Simon Tam : Yes.
Jubal Early : It’s empty.
Dr. Simon Tam : I know.
Jubal Early : So is it still a room when it’s empty? Does the room, the thing, have purpose? Or do we – what’s the word?
Dr. Simon Tam : I really can’t help you.
Jubal Early : The plan’s to take your sister; get the reward, which is substantial – “imbue”, that’s the word.
Dr. Simon Tam : So you’re a bounty hunter.
Jubal Early : No, that ain’t it at all.
Dr. Simon Tam : Then what are you?
Jubal Early : I’m a bounty hunter.

Firefly, Objects in Space (2002)

I love that episode, especially the philosophical bounty hunter, and Joss will bore you to death with the commentary to that episode explaining it. But let’s hit the fundamental question–does life have purpose or do we imbue it with purpose? If you’re atheist, your answer is “we imbue it with purpose.” If you’re a theist, the answer is “God gives life purpose.” To quote the Westminster Catechism of Faith, “The chief end of man is to love God and enjoy him forever.” Considering that’s all I know about that seminal work of Protestantism, it made quite an impression on a 12-year-old in confirmation class. The focus was always on the word “enjoy.” It’s not an error in translation, it’s the key. God wants us to be happy.

In existentialism, the point… is there is no point to life, and it’s up to us to make it have meaning for ourselves. Or to quote another great TV show:

Kryten : Monsieur Jean-Paul Sartre, sir.
Rimmer : Who?
Kryten : He’s a philosopher, sir. He’s an existentialist.
Rimmer : Well, Sartre! We don’t like existentialists around here. And we certainly don’t like French philosophers poncing around in their black polo-necks filling everyone’s heads with their theories about the bleakness of existence and the absurdity of the cosmos! Clear?

Red Dwarf, Meltdown (1991)

So here’s where I keep things simple. If God exists and he wants us to enjoy Him, then he intercedes in our lives, because we often find ourselves down the wrong path. That’s a pretty big jump, but my own experience is one of divine intercession. Now Seth McFarlane would say, “We’re just coincidence whores,” seeing intercession in everything. He speaks as someone who missed one of the flights that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11. You could say that God destined him for greatness, but he interpreted that as, “Shit happens, get over it.”

Or to put it nicer, “Life is chaos, be kind.” That was Michelle McNamara’s mantra; she was the writer of true crime novels and married to comedian Patton Oswald. “Was” as in one night she went to bed and never woke up again.

The problem with believing in intercession is that you have to ask, “Why does God intercede in my life, but not to save my mom?” This was a hard one for a while, and since I don’t believe in predestination anymore (God having a plan for our lives), then I’m left with the answer Van Halen put on their video, Right Now: “Right now, God is killing moms and dogs… because he has to.”

God created a universe governed by certain rules. My mom had a curable disease that she chose not to be cured by; so she died. Could God have cured her? Of course, but he didn’t… because that would violate free will. In order to give the choice to love Him, He has to give us the choice to do the opposite. This is why I believe that the Jewish tradition is the closest to how I believe God exists. It’s a contractual arrangement, not a contract between equals, but not a master-servant relationship either. It’s the deal is very simple: “You will be my people and I will be your God.” If you break the terms of the agreement, then there will be consequences. In my belief, God is not a vengeful father, he’s a disappointed landlord.

A subtle difference, but an important one. God wants us to be happy; the commandments are there to help us be happy, not as arbitrary rules (although no one can explain the red heifer). When we break those rules, we feel guilty (some call it “sin”), so we need to atone for our sin, but since we can’t sacrifice a goat anymore, we need to do acts of lovingkindness. And that’s the purpose of life: Love God, Love Your Fellow Man, Be Happy. Sounds easy, but in the end, the hardest thing to do.

Am I too up my own butt for this one? What massive philosophical step did I jump over? Let me know in the comments below! After that, why not pick up one of my books! It’s full of characters who have difficulty relating to the absurdity of the cosmos. Or if you’re not ready to read between the lines of a fun story, try a shorter story for free. You’ll be glad you did.

8 Responses to “Religious Existentialism”

  1. schingle March 28, 2021 at 8:10 am #

    Though, as a whole, you’re right. Existentialists were usually atheists, but there are two rather major exceptions. Soren Kirkegaard (considered the “founder” of existentialism) was a devout Christian, though he had serious troubles with the church and “organized religion” as a whole. The other notable exception was C.S. Lewis (“Narnia Chronicles.” etc.) was also a rather devout Christian. I’m sure you knew that, but did want to clarify. Well written piece. Thanks for sharing.

    • SoundEagle 🦅ೋღஜஇ March 28, 2021 at 3:31 pm #

      Dear Marcus Johnston and Schingle,

      Indeed, C. S. Lewis had been a well-known though a somewhat underrated writer, apologetic and lay theologian.

      Many Christians, whether rightly or wrongly, believe that if the resurrection of Jesus Christ is/was a reality then that negates aspects of other faiths that would reject or teach contrary to that. In any case, Lewis seemed to believe that God could lead people through other faiths to focus on aspects of divine belief that are more in line with the teaching of Christ.

      • albigensia March 29, 2021 at 6:50 am #

        Love Lewis’ writing, even though I’m not a Christian. Although I do believe that “all ways lead to the way,” universalism does tend to gloss over differences between faiths.

    • albigensia March 29, 2021 at 6:46 am #

      Nice – didn’t know about Kirkegaard. Thanks!

  2. Silk Cords March 31, 2021 at 5:32 am #

    Existentialism just doesn’t do anything for me personally. It’s too ego driven, which is also my BIG fault with Atheism. Nothing has any meaning unless I give it meaning? *shakes head* A car is a car no matter what my delusions may say otherwise. There’s the “IF a tree falls in the forest” thing too. Yes, basic physics says it makes a sound. Even asking the question and implying that one needs to be there to validate the experience is a display of massive hubris IMO. Life goes on whether or not we chose to participate in it, and existence certainly doesn’t need MY approval.

    I’m SORT of in your camp on the whole purpose of life and role of God. I lean towards a more metaphysical view however. Life is a classroom. We’re here to learn, grow, and become more. How much more? That’s a whole different post, lol. Depends upon where on the scale of creation one believes we fall. Just another creation, the literal spiritual children of God or somewhere in between.

    I had multiple more paragraphs initially, but I deleted them. Nuff said here. 🙂

    • albigensia March 31, 2021 at 6:38 am #

      I have a lot more comfort with “infusing meaning” because I’ve moved around so much. When I lived in Cincinnati, there was a big deal made around Opening Day for the baseball season. Since I didn’t grow up there, I had no context. I had to dive into that local holiday to have it mean something to me. That’s kinda how I look at many things in my life, but hey… your mileage may vary. 🙂

      • Silk Cords March 31, 2021 at 6:43 am #

        Infusing meaning I’m fine with. 🙂 It’s when it’s taken to the extreme and the tree falling or the room’s existence has no validity without the viewer is where I draw the line and call egomania. 😀

  3. Arnold April 1, 2021 at 11:38 am #

    Man-made religion honors principles over a person and so disregards relationship. If ‘God is right, holy and just’ (Isa 5:16), then to judge him is to question his judgment, and so declare him less than God, less than me. I must begin at, ‘I am the LORD your God,’ and believe him as a person.

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