Ever since my freshman year of college, I’ve been enthralled by the ideas within existentialism. Although my interests and passions have gone all over the place over the last decade, my infatuation with this branch of modern philosophy has remained and grown even more strongly. When I say that I am an existentialist, I mean that I recognize myself as an individual thrust into a world devoid of any apparent meaning and must nevertheless live and make choices in such a world.
Before I was an existentialist, though, I was a Christian. And I’ve spent much of my young adult life trying to reconcile my faith with the harsh realities I see in the world. A little less than a year ago, I was fortunate enough to stumble across the work of theologian John Macquarrie (who will be discussed later)–and it has helped me find the harmony between Christianity and existentialism. I can now say that I am a Christian existentialist, and I actually know what I mean when I say it.
Existentialism often gets a bad rap among Evangelicals in popular Christianity today. Unfortunately, it’s often confused with Nihilism and thought exclusively in terms of its atheist components. While it’s certainly true that some of its most notable and vocal figures were staunch atheists (Jean Paul-Sartre, Albert Camus, Friedrich Nietzsche), that doesn’t mean that Existentialism itself is fundamentally atheistic. I would like to make a few points on this:
- First, even among the atheistic existentialists, there are religious themes from which people who identify as Christian can learn. For example, Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch bears a remarkable resemblance to how Christians view Jesus. Also, in his existential essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus calls the initial recognition of meaninglessness in the world “our nights of Gethsemane,” drawing a comparison between the agony of Jesus and the anxiety of men.
- Second, the dichotomy that is often made of existential philosophers into Christian and atheist camps is a false one. First, there are theistic existentialists who aren’t Christians. Martin Buber, Emmanuel Levinas, and Franz Rosenzweig are all notable existentialists, and they’re Jewish. Keiji Nishitani was a notable existentialist philosopher, and he was a Buddhist. More importantly though, by the very nature of existentialism, nearly all existential philosophers hover at some point in their thinking between doubt and faith–between the grasping for god and the acknowledgment of his absence. Even Jean Paul-Sartre stated that he wished there was a god.
What is a Christian Existentialist?
So, given my comments above, one might ask, “What is a Christian Existentialist anyway?” Well, I don’t know exactly. But the definition I am using will be fairly broad. In his book Principles of Christian Theology, John Macquarrie explains the difference between atheistic existentialism and theistic existentialism in this way:
Either we acknowledge the absurdity of a situation in which we find ourselves responsible for an existence which we lack the capacity to master, and have just to make the best of a bad job; or else we look for a further dimension in the situation, a depth beyond both man and nature that is open to us in such a way that it can make sense of our finite existence by supporting it and bringing order and fulfillment into it.
In the list below, I am going to mention philosophers and theologians who come specifically out of the Christian tradition. So, I define Christian existentialism as any thinker who acknowledges the absurdity, emptiness, or brokenness of human existence, seeks some sort of resolution in a realm beyond human existence, and finds in some way that resolution in Jesus Christ.
As both a Christian and someone who tends to view his life in the world within an existential framework, I’ve become drawn to the idea of Christian existentialism. Unfortunately, it was really difficult for me to find a good list. I did find a list of existentialists and, coupled with some additional research, managed to build my own list.
I will say that this list isn’t by any means exhaustive. I simply tried to choose the most notable existentialist philosophers and theologians from among the Christian tradition. It could certainly be argued that there are others who should have been included.
I did not, for example, include Martin Heidegger even though it can be argued that he came from a Christian tradition. Also, I did not include literary figures. One glaring omission from my list of Christian existentialists is Fyodor Dostoyevsky so, if you’re interested in reading Christian-themed existential fiction, definitely read him. Furthermore, I began my list in the nineteenth century. Existential themes predate existential thinkers–going back to Pascal, Eckhart, and Augustine. Perhaps some of the greatest existentialist works ever written can be found in the Hebrew scriptures–namely, The Book of Job and The Book of Ecclesiastes. So, in many ways, Existentialism is timeless; but my list doesn’t begin until it begins to be more formally defined in the early 1800s.
I hope this list proves helpful for people who identify as Christian and have existentialist leanings. I still haven’t read the work from all of these figures and I haven’t read all of the work from any of the figures. But I’ve researched fairly thoroughly into how existentialism has evolved in Christian thought since the nineteenth century, so I hope this serves as a good launching pad for further research. (Notes: the figures are arranged chronologically, by date of death; click on the figure’s name for further information).
Friedrich Schleiermacher, 1768-1834
Schleiermacher was a German philosopher, theologian, and Biblical scholar who first–it could be argued–brought existential themes into his understanding of Christianity. Notably, his teachings on the incarnation and the meaning of Jesus for humanity introduced the idea of Christ as the ultimate perfection and completion of humanity–a theme that would be elaborated upon by theologians for many years to come.
Although he wrote and taught a great deal throughout his career, the theological thinking of Schleiermacher might best be represented in his work The Christian Faith (1830). However, Schleiermacher was also a social and cultural commentator and his most famous work is probably an earlier one, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultural Despisers (1799).
Soren Kierkegaard, 1813-1855
Kierkegaard is recognized by most philosophers as the first true existentialist philosopher–being the first figure to articulate the major themes of existentialism in his work. He was a Danish writer and thinker who had become disillusioned with the social and mechanistic aspects of the Christian faith. He sought a more personal and emotional meaning in religion and came to understand Christianity in terms of the individual’s relationship with God.
The notable writings of Kierkegaard are too many to name. Perhaps his most famous is his most elaborate: Either/Or (1843)–a work in which he seeks to emphasize the importance of individual choice. Other notable works include Fear and Trembling (1843), Works of Love (1847), and The Sickness Unto Death (1849). Kierkegaard’s writing uses exceptionally difficult language, and much of it is written under an array of pseudonyms.
Nikolai Berdyaev, 1874-1948
Berdyaev was a Russian political and religious philosopher who, like Kierkegaard, became critical of the religious establishment under which he lived. In his unorthodox religious views, he saw Christianity primarily in the context of freedom. He emphasized subjectivity and creativity in his work, again like Kierkegaard, placing the individual’s relationship with the divine above the institutional forms of Christianity.
Berdyaev wrote over 20 books on religious and political philosophy. His most famous is perhaps The Meaning of History (1923), but Christian existentialist themes can be found more pronounced in works such as Freedom and the Spirit (1927), The Divine and the Human (1949), and Truth and Revelation (1953).
Note: all who follow are, more or less, contemporaries–writing and teaching at roughly the same time
H. Richard Niebuhr, 1894-1962
Richard Niebuhr was an American theologian who emphasized greatly the ethical components of the Christian faith. His thinking on the social responsibility of the Christian faith paved the way for liberation theology and, more to the point, called attention the existential notion of individual responsibility within the context of the Christian life.
The most famous work of Niebuhr’s was Christ and Culture (1951), which discussed what Jesus means for society and the role Christians ought to play in social justice. His posthumously published The Responsible Self (1962), however, has also become very popular with its emphasis on personal responsibility. It should also be mentioned that Richard Niebuhr is the younger brother of another prominent theologian (although not quite as existentially-minded), Reinhold Niebuhr.
Paul Tillich, 1886-1965
Tillich is probably the most well-known existentialist who worked officially as a theologian. He is famous for his interpretation of faith as an “ultimate concern,” or a passionate pursuit of meaning.
The magnum opus of Tillich is a three-part Systematic Theology with each volume representing how the Father (1951), Son (1957), and Holy Spirit (1963) make sense within an existential framework. Perhaps even more popular, though, are two short books he wrote with a more practical emphasis: The Courage to Be (1952) and The Dynamics of Faith (1957).
Emil Brunner, 1889-1966
Brunner was a Swiss theologian who emphasized the human experience and the encounter of human beings with the divine. In addition to Karl Barth, he is recognized as one of the first theologians in the neo-orthodox movement.
Brunner’s most notable work of theology is his three-part Dogmatics (1949,52,62), in which he lays out his exhaustive theological views emphasizing Jesus as God incarnate and central to salvation. Other notable works with strong existentialist themes include The Mediator (1934), Man in Revolt (1937), and Christianity and Civilization (1949).
Karl Barth, 1886-1968
Barth is probably the most celebrated theologian of the twentieth century. Seen as the forerunner of reformed theology, much of contemporary theology is either an adoption of or reaction to Barth’s thinking. His key theological views involved the sovereignty of God, the absolute sinfulness of men, and the interplay between the two. Although he is retrospectively recognized as an existential theologian, it’s more the way people have reacted to Barth than Barth himself that guarantees him a spot on this list.
By far, Barth’s greatest work is his massive, thirteen volume Church Dogmatics (1932-1967), in which he lays out his elaborate theological views. Among these, the most important to both his theology and his existential views of God and man is Volume 4 Part 1: The Doctrine of Reconciliation (1953).
Karl Jaspers, 1883-1969
Jaspers is probably the most well-known Christian existentialist philosopher since Kierkegaard. While many on this list are theologians by profession, Jaspers was a German psychiatrist and philosopher–making him more accessible to secularly minded people despite his spiritual tendencies. He is most famous for his notion of “transcendence,” the idea of the human being seeking something beyond this realm–akin to the Kierkegaardian “leap of faith.”
The most existentially pertinent work from Jaspers is probably his Philosophy and Existence (1938) as well as his later The Origin and Goal of History (1953), though his earlier work General Psychiatry (1913) is highly esteemed in the field of psychology.
Gabriel Marcel, 1889-1973
Marcel was a French philosopher and playwright who, despite composing over two dozen plays, is most known for his writing on existential philosophy and its religious ramifications. He is also known for his emphasis on the individual and the resistance toward the loss of the individual in mass society.
Marcel’s most famous work is, like many works of theology (i.e. William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience), the transcript of his Gifford lectures—The Mystery of Being (1951).
Rudolf Bultmann, 1884-1976
Bultmann was a liberal German theologian most famous for his attempt demythologize the life of Jesus. He held that the mere existence of Jesus was more important than the historicity of any particular aspect of his life. The person of Jesus Christ was more an instance of man becoming God, according to Bultmann, than it was of God becoming a man.
Bultmann’s most famous work for theology is probably his earlier History of the Synoptic Tradition (1921), in which he spearheaded the movement in Biblical research toward form criticism. His existential teachings on the humanity of Jesus, though, are seen most clearly in his New Testament Mythology (1941) as well as in his dialogue with Karl Jaspers, Religion Without Myth (1954).
Karl Rahner, 1904-1984
Rahner was a German theologian who is considered by many to be the most influential Catholic theologian of the twentieth century. He is most known for his work on Christology and research into Jesus as the “God-man.” This concept of Jesus as a bridge between the human and the divine lands him squarely within the purview of Christian existentialism.
The first chief existential work of Rahner’s was his Spirit in the World (1968). His later influential theological work Foundations of Christian Faith (1978), though, elaborated upon his theological ideas and serves today as his most well-known writing.
John Macquarrie, 1919-2007
John Macquarrie was a Scottish theologian in the Anglican tradition who has perhaps been the most open about the relationship he sees between existentialism and Christianity. As much as he was a theologian in his own right, he was also a great historian of both existentialism and theologian in the twentieth century. On a more personal note, reading John Macquarrie has literally changed my life. His work has opened me up to a whole new world of philosophical and religious thinking–including every single figure mentioned on this list.
Macquarrie wrote much on the striving of humans toward God and the divine grace realized in the incarnation of Christ. But he also frequently discussed the relationship of Christianity with other religions, modern philosophy, and contemporary secular society. His most notable work–in which his existential views are brought about within the context of his theology–is Principles of Christian Theology (1977). He also wrote a Existentialism (1971), a general overview of various themes within existentialism. If you are unfamiliar with existentialism, I would recommend reading this book before any other. Finally, one of his last books–Jesus Christ in Modern Thought (2003)–sought to explain Jesus in the context of mediators from other faiths in the world today.
If you want to know more about John Macquarrie’s Christology, I highly recommend checking out these audio lectures made available from Akenside Press: The Person of Jesus Christ. This five lecture series is a rare treasure from a great theologian on the meaning of Jesus in contemporary society. Plus, you gotta love that accent!
Edward Schillebeeckx, 1914-2009
Schillebeeckx was a Belgian Catholic theologian who is famous for his Christology akin to Bultmann and Rahner, as well as his teachings on the role of Christianity in contemporary society.
Schillebeeckx wrote extensively through his career, but a few of his notable works include Jesus: An Experiment in Christology (1974) and God Among Us (1983).
The Christian Existentialist’s Reading List: 20 Books by Existential Theologians and Philosophers
Below, for convenience, I’ve listed some of the works mentioned above by these authors in chronological order of the date they were written–linked to their Amazon.com pages. Of course, there are other notable works you could read by writers not included in this list. But this should suffice as a good primer…
- (1830). Schleiermacher, Friedrich. The Christian Faith.
- (1843). Kierkegaard, Soren. Either/Or.
- (1843). Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling.
- (1849). Kierkegaard, Soren. The Sickness Unto Death.
- (1923). Berdyaev, Nikolai. The Meaning of History.
- (1937). Brunner, Emil. Man in Revolt.
- (1938). Jaspers, Karl. Philosophy and Existence.
- (1941). Bultmann, Rudolf. New Testament Mythology.
- (1949). Berdyaev, Nikolai. The Divine and the Human.
- (1951). Marcel, Gabriel. The Mystery of Being.
- (1952). Tillich, Paul. The Courage to Be.
- (1953). Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics Volume 4 Part 1: The Doctrine of Reconciliation.
- (1954). Bultmann, Rudolf and Karl Jaspers. Religion Without Myth.
- (1957). Tillich, Paul. The Dynamics of Faith.
- (1962). Niebuhr, Richard. The Responsible Self.
- (1968). Rahner, Karl. Spirit in the World.
- (1973). Macquarrie, John. Existentialism.
- (1977). Macquarrie, John. Principles of Christian Theology.
- (1978). Rahner, Karl. Foundations of Christian Faith.
- (1983). Schillebeeckx, Edward. God Among Us.