Sunday, March 1, 2009

Defining Theistic Existentialism: PART I (The "Cure" for the Emergents and Patriocentrists)

Traditional, secular existentialism arose to solve the inevitable problems of nihilism as an adequately workable philosophical view of the world which arose to solve the problems of naturalism, all philosophies which seek to solve the problems of mankind without having to rely upon God and the Blood of Jesus to do so. As Blaise Pascal once wrote, every man has a God-shaped void within him that only God can fill, and when it goes unfilled, man experiences not only guilt but a sense of this “loss of transcendence.”

As a consequence, any philosophical viewpoint that does not acknowledge God, sin and the forgiveness of sins will inevitably result in unanswered questions. If these views could be represented as a set of mathematical equations, there is always an error, and there are some elements of the equation that can never be solved. Existentialism developed as a means of solving the equation for nihilism, but in the working out of existentialism’s equation, it still produces errors. It may be able to solve for “X,” but in the summation, you may find that in solving for “X,” the philosophy opens up into a new inability to solve for “Q” and “P.”

It ends up "solving" theological and philosophical problems by scapegoating and demonizing the alternatives, merely shifting focus away from the dilemmas themselves.  This is just a form of avoidance of the mysteries and those aspects of belief that we cannot prove objectively.  In effect, it doesn't "sovle" problems of belief by offering logical views towards a solution but rather avoids them by creating a different set of problems as a distraction.  People often criticize patriarchy for this, creating a crisis and false dilemmas by scapegoating something, then marketing a ready made set of ideas and practices to solve the drastic problem.  In reality, they just create different problems.  At least in terms of pragmatic considerations, followers of emergent theology are generally much kinder and more pleasant to one another and to others than are the patriarchalists.  Yet both are man's attempt to use man's influence and means to overcome the problem of the loss of transcendence -- the idea that mankind is okay with God and the universe.

Theistic existentialism did not develop from the same roots as secular existentialism, though they make similar errors. The Christian version of existentialism works back to Kierkegaard who was trying to solve some of the problems of the dead orthodoxy of Danish Lutheranism (according to Sire) and “holes” in Immanuel Kant’s ideas. Each man answered the dilemma of his day. Kierkegaard’s philosophy separated the realms of faith and reason, making them separate matters. In the wake of anti-intellectualism in Evangelical Christianity around the turn of the 20th century and the morality focus of the social gospel, Kierkegaard’s ideas found a new usefulness. Simply reduced, theistic existentialism is more concerned with human nature and man’s relationship to God and the world as opposed to the nature of God as the focus. It is man-centered, not God-centered.

Sire describes it this way on pages 124 - 125 of "The Universe Next Door":

Theistic existentialism does not start with God. This is its most important variation from theism. With theism God is assumed certainly to be there and of a given character; then people are defined in relationship to God. Theistic existentialism arrives at the same conclusion, it starts elsewhere.

Theistic existentialism emphasizes the place in which human beings find themselves when they first come to self-awareness…. [Using an example from Albert Camus’ “The Plague”]… Rather than accounting for the absurdity of the universe on the basis of the Fall, as a Christian theist would do, Father Paneloux assumes God is immediately responsible for this absurd universe; therefore, he concludes that he must believe in God in spite of the absurdity. Camus elsewhere calls such faith “intellectual suicide,” and I am inclined to agree with him. But the point is that while reason may lead us to atheism, we can always refuse to accept reason’s conclusions and take a leap toward faith.

Sire continues to identify other characteristics of Theistic Existentialism, noting a lecture by a theologian named Harold Englund at the University of Wisconsin in the 1960s. He offers a chart of Englund’s contrast between an impersonal, dead orthodoxy and a theistic existentialism that has been reinfused with a sense of life, trying to make dead orthodoxy personal again. When compared to dead orthodoxy in this way, theistic existentialism looks far more Christian and appealing, though it is not orthodox. As Sire puts it, when traditional theists approach the two choices, it is pretty clear that one must start with dead orthodoxy because the livelier existentialistic alternative is dependent upon the dead orthodoxy. It is a reaction to dead orthodoxy and needs it to define itself. Sadly, though the outlook seeks to reinfuse life and a sense of the personal into dead orthodoxy, it never escapes dead orthodoxy for most people. Sire does point out, however, that “it has taken existentialism to restore many theists to a full recognition of their own system” (pg 127).

And here is an ironic twist to all of this. I wanted to include this information from Sire along with the information that I presented on the emergent church, but I didn’t have the book close at hand at the time. I turned up the book about two weeks ago and intended to post this very information about “dead orthodoxy” as opposed to theological innovations of “theistic existentialism” (any man-centered Christianity) as opposed to a vibrant, loving, living, fruitful Christian faith. And just as I finished typing the quotes from Sire, my husband handed me a copy of a new book that just arrived in the mail from Andrew Sandlin entitled “Dead Orthodoxy or Living Heresy.” How ironic! I will read this book with even more interest, having just revisited Sire’s writings. Though I have not read any of the book yet, I would like to share the blurb from Sandlin’s book as it highlights what I wished to communicate here in this post, that which James Sire also discussed in the first printing of his book in 1976, that which the Apostle Paul discussed in more places in his many epistles, too numerous to list in this blog post.

From the back cover of Sandlin’s “Dead Orthodoxy or Living Heresy”:
Throughout history, the Christian church ahs been assailed by foes on many fronts, including heretics within its midst. Not until the last 100 years, however, has the church in the West suffered from comprehensive frontal treachery – I refer to theological liberals, who have wished to remain within the church while denying the very heart of the Faith. To compound matters, in the last few decades, this liberalism has even infested conservative ranks known as evangelicalism. Today, one may deny the authority of the Bible, the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ, and the omniscience and omnipresence of God Almighty and still be called evangelical. What has changed is not the fact of the assaults on the Faith but rather their locus – today those assaults repose in the throne-room of evangelical Christianity.

We live in strange – and desperate – times.

The only antidote to this apostasy is the recovery of a full-orbed, Spirit-drenched, intellectually rigorous Biblical Faith, devoted to classical Christianity (ancient catholic orthodoxy); attentive, but not slavishly committed to, the reformation confessions; and marinated in a love for God, the saints and for the world. These addresses champion that Faith.

I note here that Sandlin mentions liberalism, and patriocentricity is not liberal but is drastically neoconservative. This comparison seems contradictiory on the surface as a result.

But I believe that liberal Christianity and patriocentrism arose from quite the same root causes – that of trying to reinfuse dead orthodoxy with some kind of new, man-made and man-centered life. Both the watered down Christian message of liberalism of the social gospel, the anti-intellectualism of revivalism, and the pagan focus that patriocentrism uses to save the Christian family all find their cure in the same place: refocusing on the main and plain doctrines of the Christian faith.

The only real cure to the loss of transcendence for the Christian who embraces Biblical Authority is in “a full-orbed, Spirit-drenched, intellectually rigorous Biblical Faith that is devoted to classical Christianity,” that which is “marinated in a love for God,” and in a faith where God reigns at the center of our experience of the world. We submit to the Word and follow the Spirit, something that may be completely apart from our whims of “vision" or the zeitgeist of our generation.
Excerpts taken from James Sire's
InterVarsity Press, 1976 first ed,
quotes appearing here from the 1988 edition

Excerpt from P. Andrew Sandlin's Dead Orthodoxy or Living Heresy Kerygma Press, 2008