Long-term readers would know that I have a habit of starting a series of posts and trying to figure out what I want to say as I go. Well, here’s another just like that. But in this case I am extra-justified in following this strategy since we’re going to be talking about Christian Existentialism, a body of thought which has always set itself against the systematisers of philosophy – the Aristotles, the Kants and the Hegels; the ones who like to create neat little systems that explain everything. Existentialism, by contrast, embraces the messiness inherent in reality.
I’m calling it Christian Existentialism since the main thinkers we’ll be looking at are all from the Christian tradition, even the ones who railed against Christianity. The main names we’ll be referencing are Luther, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Shestov and Nietzsche. I include Carl Jung and the Australian author Patrick White in this list too even though they probably didn’t think of themselves as existentialists.
What all these thinkers have in common is that they experienced a momentous event in their life that changed everything. Dostoevsky has perhaps the most memorable story of the group. He was sent to Siberia and sentenced to death by hanging. They led him out onto the platform, put the rope around his neck, then pardoned him at the last minute. Dostoevsky had been convinced he was going to die. Every moment after that was a blessing, even the ones spent in a prison camp.
Kierkegaard’s turning point was less dramatic and more psychological. He seems to have had some kind of nervous breakdown that led to him breaking up with the woman he loved, Regina Olsen. Nietzsche’s turning point was his break with Wagner. Shestov lived through the Russian Revolution and eventually had to leave Russia as a result. We all know of Luther’s 95 theses getting nailed to the church door. Jung had a series of psychological episodes prior to WW1 which led him to believe he was going mad and represented a turning point in his life and his psychology.
Dramatic events like this can, and often have, been viewed within a religious context. For example, a while ago I was reading the story of a French priest in the early 19th century who found himself in a life and death situation. Despairing for his life, he prayed to the Virgin Mary to intervene on his behalf. He survived and came to believe that the Virgin had saved him. After that, he started a religious sect in her name.
Existentialists tend not to seek recourse in the institutions of religion or society in general. In fact, existentialism rejects the authority of those institutions. Hence, existentialism implies individuality and subjectivity. According to the existentialist, the “truth” of our experiences is always fundamentally subjective and personal. Attempts to form general truths are always falsifications. These falsifications are highly alluring. Since Adam and Eve, man has been tempted away from the fruit of the Tree of Life and towards the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.
Kierkegaard noted that existentialism begins with despair. Most people try at all costs to avoid despair. Kierkegaard’s book The Sickness Unto Death is a kind of catalogue of all the means people employ to avoid facing despair. We seem to be hardwired to avoid despair and so it is only people who are forced to confront death and madness, the Dostoevskys and the Jungs, who are able to advocate for the existentialist point of view.
Since we’re talking about the subject, it seems fitting that I should relate an account of an experience I had which fits the existentialist mold. At age 16, I began having a series of psychological “episodes”. At that time, I hadn’t heard of Jung, Kierkegaard or existentialism in general. But even if I had, I doubt I would have connected the dots between my episodes and the existentialist philosophy. In fact, it’s only in the past few years that I’ve made the connection, a process which began with my readings of Jung.
An important point of context in my story is that there is a history of schizophrenia in my family. For me, the idea that I might have been going crazy was not an abstract notion but a real possibility. This is also the main reason why I did not raise the issue with my family as that would have almost certainly resulted in a trip to the psychiatrist’s office and being pumped full of whatever drug was fashionable at the time. I was very keen to avoid that and so I suffered in silence. My life may have worked out very differently if I had turned to the “wonders of modern medicine”.
How can I describe the experience of my episodes? They lasted about 30 seconds each. They always occurred when I was in bed falling asleep. There would be a sudden feeling of “falling” accompanied with what I can only call “terror”. But the nature of this falling and this terror were completely disembodied. That is, there was no physical sensation at all. Whatever was going on, it was entirely psychological (or maybe we should say spiritual) in nature.
The closest experiences to these episodes I have had in “real life” are the shock response and the fight or flight response. Anybody who’s had either of these knows that they are triggered automatically and subconsciously. Physiologically, the body releases adrenalin and this acts to shut down the pain receptors. That’s why people who have just been in a bad traffic accident can often get up a walk even though they have broken bones. They are in shock and are not feeling pain. A similar thing occurs with the fight or flight response. You are not acting consciously. Rather, the conscious experience is of being swept up in a force that comes from within.
My episodes were similar to shock and fight or flight in that they were involuntary and seemed driven by an internal force I didn’t consciously understand. The big difference is that there was no cause in the external environment. Some external thing always triggers the shock and the fight or flight response and you know what that thing is. But there was no trigger for my episodes. I was just lying in bed and then suddenly I had this non-physiological feeling of “falling” accompanied by an extreme fear. The fear was simultaneous with the experience. I wasn’t scared because I thought I was falling. I knew I wasn’t falling. The fear had no object.
Just as there was no cause in the immediate environment which triggered the episodes, neither was there anything going on in my life which was obviously to blame. I had a stable and loving family life. I was a healthy and active 16 year old who played sports and mucked around with friends. Yes, I was bored out of my brain at school, but that’s not unusual.
Similarly, the episodes did not cause any effects. I suffered no other physiological or psychological problems as a result of the episodes. Anybody viewing my external behaviour would have noticed no difference and assumed nothing was happening.
Because of all this, I wasn’t able to give any meaning to the episodes. It never occurred to me to pray to the Virgin Mary. I hadn’t yet heard of Jung or Kierkegaard. I wasn’t able to talk to my parents about it for fear of the schizophrenia link and I certainly wasn’t going to raise the matter with my friends since that would only result in the endless teasing that 16-year-old boys give each other. I suffered in silence.
Even though I am writing in a calm fashion here, I should stress that these episodes were terrifying. But how do you describe a terror that has no cause and no object? What does it mean to be terrified of nothing? Dostoevsky was terrified because he thought he was about to be hanged. Kierkegaard was terrified because his life had been destroyed due to his own internal demons. I was terrified about nothing. Literally nothing.
The episodes continued for about 6 months. Then they stopped. At that point, I was grateful to know that I wasn’t going schizo. I got on with my life. I wasn’t able to make sense of the episodes but I also never forgot about them. It wasn’t until I read Carl Jung’s The Red Book several years ago that I finally had a framework to begin to understand what had happened.
Jung had also thought he was going crazy because he too had a series of terrifying psychic episodes that had no obvious cause or meaning. But Jung had worked as a psychiatrist for many years. He knew a thing or two about the subject.
“If you take a step toward your soul, you will at first miss the meaning. You will believe that you have sunk into meaninglessness, into eternal disorder. You will be right! Nothing will deliver you from disorder and meaninglessness, since this is the other half of the world.”
In my episodes, I had the feeling of falling. Jung uses similar metaphors in the Red Book: the spirit of the depths, sinking into meaningless and disorder. What Jung came to believe was that the confrontation with the spirit of the depths is the discovery of the soul.
“Therefore the spirit of the depths forced me to speak to my soul, to call upon her as a living and self-existing being. I had to become aware that I had lost of my soul.”
The Red Book is Jung’s account of his discovery of his soul.
Although I could certainly appreciate Jung’s concept of the spirit of the depths, I realised that his ideas around the soul didn’t work for me. Jungian psychology hinges heavily on the appearance of symbols in dreams and imagination. I remember most of my dreams, yet I can’t recall having had a single dream involving a Biblical figure or a sacred animal such as a lion or a snake. Neither have I ever had experience with ghosts, spirits or similar phenomena. I don’t have any problem believing that such things can exist. It’s just that I’ve never experienced them. So, while Jung gave me the impetus to start to make sense of my episodes, the psychiatric approach didn’t resonate with me.
Kierkegaard said that existential philosophy begins with despair. But this despair is not necessarily in opposition to knowledge or law. In fact, knowledge and law are built on despair. What lies behind knowledge and law is hubris and hubris is a response, a coping mechanism, a way to avoid the confrontation with despair. Jung also made reference to hubris (pride):
“The spirit of the depths has subjugated all pride and arrogance to the power of judgement. He took away my belief in science, he robbed me of the joy of explaining and ordering things and he let devotion to the ideals of this time die out in me. He forced me down to the last and simplest things.”
The two primary streams that run through modern European civilisation are the Greeks and the Jews; Athens and Jerusalem; the Classical and the Magian. The tradition of philosophy, science and knowledge comes to us via Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. This is the “joy of explaining and ordering things”, of making sense of the world.
Science and philosophy have been opposed to the tradition of revelation, faith and “freedom” that comes from the Bible. The tension between these two has been a constant in modern European thought since the beginning. That is why existentialism can properly be called Christian Existentialism even in thinkers like Jung and Nietzsche who no longer used Christian concepts.
Jung invokes this distinction in his quote above. He had followed the “Greek” path; the materialism that was popular in the second half of the 19th century. But the spirit of the depths took away the joy he had in materialism and science, the “ideals of this time”. Jung had ended up in despair, the starting point of existential philosophy.
I don’t know if Jung had ever read Luther, but Luther’s beliefs about faith are very Jungian. Consider this quote:
“The gospel leads beyond…the light of law, into the darkness of faith, where there is no room for reason or law.”
Here again we contrast the light of law, reason and science against the darkness of faith. This matches Jung’s idea that we find the soul not above in the light but below in the darkness. If that sounds unpleasant, that’s because it is. Faith begins in despair. Faith is not easy. Following the law, doing what you are told, trusting the experts, that is what is easy.
What our modern atheists won’t tell you is that the Christian Church was the conduit for the light of reason and science in early modern European history. It carried both traditions – Athens and Jerusalem. The battle between the two was waged inside its walls. Luther’s break with the Church came when he believed the Church had chosen Athens over Jerusalem. It had become the lawgiver, the light of reason.
Luther made it his job to remind everybody that faith was born in the darkness, not in the light. One of his central doctrines is sola fide – justification by faith alone. The Church could no longer declare a sinner to be righteous either through payment or through works. Faith would redeem. But faith is a subjective experience. It requires one to delve into the darkness and that can only be done alone.
For Kierkegaard, “darkness” is a metaphor for Nothingness. The fear of the dark is the fear of Nothingness. Fear is to Nothingness what warmth is to the sun or wetness is to water:
“If we ask what the object of fear is, there will be only one answer: Nothingness. Nothingness and fear accompany each other.”
Darkness, nothingness and despair, these are the starting points of existential philosophy, not the end points. Existential philosophy does not offer conclusions, it opens up possibility. But possibility can seem like chaos. It can seem like the ground under your feet is giving way.
Kierkegaard ties fear and Nothingness back to the Biblical story of the Fall. Why did Adam and Eve eat the apple from the Tree of Knowledge? The snake made them afraid. He whispered the fear of Nothingness into their ear and then held out the apple as the solution to the problem. The snake is still with us today. Every politician plays the same game: carrots (apples) and sticks.
In fact, the apple and the stick are the same. The light of reason can be pleasurable like an apple. But behind the scenes lies the stick in waiting. Reason and law are the stick. The stick is despair, the starting point of existential philosophy.
So, it was Luther and Kierkegaard who finally gave me the answer to what I had gone through during my episodes when I was 16. Kierkegaard describes it thus:
“Psychologically speaking, the Fall always takes place in a swoon.”
That is an exact description of what I had experienced. The “swoon” is the feeling of falling. The fear is the primal spiritual fear of Nothingness. The Fall has been associated with other concepts like sin and guilt. But the Fall was also the first experience of fear and therefore Nothingness.
These considerations led Kierkegaard to a radical idea that he could not fully accept. All history, philosophy and knowledge, all civilisation is born out of fear. They are the temptations of the snake who wants us to give up our freedom. We enchain ourselves spiritually and mentally before we ever enchain ourselves physically. Faith then becomes the antidote; the way to conquer fear and regain freedom. But faith can only be won by facing fear directly.
All of this is directly relevant to the world we live in now. In case you hadn’t noticed, our society is having its own confrontation with madness right now. So, it’s a fitting time to talk about these ideas. Madness and despair occur when the rational mind reaches the end of its tether. This may lead us to insanity and barbarism. But the existential philosophy offers another possibility: despair is the necessary stage on the path to faith and freedom.
All posts in this series:
Christian Existentialism Part 1: The Confrontation with Nothingness
Christian Existentialism Part 2: The Worship of Idols
Christian Existentialism Part 3: Necessity vs Faith
Christian Existentialism Part 4: The Boiling Point of Water
Christian Existentialism Part 5: From Luther to Feynman
Christian Existentialism Part 6: The Rise of the Irrational