Friday, June 20, 2014

Existentialism: Radical Freedom - AND - Radical Bondage?

There are as many theories concerning human nature, as there are philosophies and religions in the world today. Each one claims to have discovered the real truth concerning the nature of what it means to be human. The purpose of this project is to consider the existentialist’s view of human nature as posited by Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre viewed humanity as an empty bubble on the sea of nothingness. The basic human project is to become God.[1] Indeed, the words of Protagoras spoken over 2,000 years ago live on in the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre. Man is indeed the measure of all things. In the view of Sartre, each human being is responsible for creating his own essence. We are the masters of our own ship, the creators of our own world, the truth makers, rather than truth seekers.

In one sense, Sartre would deny that there is any such thing as “human nature for there to be true or false theories about.[2] The human being must create it’s own nature. Man is the measure of all things. God, or anyone, or anything else does not create us for any purpose. We just are. We must take this existence that confronts us, of which we are conscious, and do something with it. The question is not what should we do with it but rather, what will we do it?

Sartre believed that human beings were condemned to be free. In typical the existential view, the only truly admirable, “authentic” way of life is the one freely chosen by each person.[3] Freedom seems to be both a blessing and a curse in Sartre’s existentialism. Even the idea of suicide to escape this freedom requires the freedom to carry out the act.

Sartre believed that to be human is to be continually faced with choices about what to believe and what to do. It is about the freedom to decide for oneself. He starts from a radical distinction between consciousness or “human reality” and inanimate, nonconscious things. The former is being-for-itself while the latter is being-in-itself. “Existentialism”, therefore, may be defined, as the philosophical theory, which holds that a further set of categories, governed by the norm of authenticity, is necessary to grasp human existence.[4] One has to wonder where these norms come from and how we know them.

Of course in Sartre’s view, there can be no such thing as some transcendent ethic to which all humans are bound. This puts human beings in the place of doing what they freely choose to do. There is no external moral law to which existentialism can appeal. The existential view places man at the center of his own existence. Man is the measure of all things. He defines his own essence, and establishes his own morality. He is free in every sense of the word. It makes one wonder why all this quibbling then about what is and is not moral.

One has to wonder how it is possible for humans to create their own essence without creating mass chaos. For example, one human’s essence may consist of pure sexual pleasure by way of domination while another human may oppose such a state. How can these two possibly reach any agreement on the matter? It seems that one will be denied the essence of their being while the other will be fulfilled. Moreover, one cannot help but wonder about the ground for such an idea as essence from the start. It would seem that only from essence could the idea of essence arise in the first place.
In addition, Sartre’s view seems entirely arbitrary. And perhaps that is the point. Nevertheless, the one thing that does not seem to be apparent is Sartre’s basis for the basic concept of essence itself. Why bother? What can’t my essence be that I simply reject the notion of essence? Why can’t I simply do as I please without any regard for anyone else?

Finally, the idea that humans are free to do as they please or choose is a double-edged sword. It feels as though humans are free only to not be free. Freedom indeed seems to take on the nature of bondage. I am free to choose essentially means I am not free to not choose because not choosing is a choice. It seems that I am in bondage to freedom if such a thing is possible.

The Christian response to existentialism is found in Scripture. Genesis 1:26 informs us that God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

In the ancient Near East, the gods created for themselves—the world was their environment for their enjoyment and existence. People were created only as an afterthought, when the gods needed slave labor to help provide the conveniences of life (such as irrigation trenches). In the Bible the cosmos was created and organized to function on behalf of the people that God planned as the centerpiece of his creation.[5]

Contrary to pagan existentialist philosophy, man is created in the image of God.
As a creature of God man is not only dependent on God, he also possesses value from the standpoint that he is God’s reflection in creation. The focus of this chiastic poem in Genesis 1:27 is the divine image of God indelibly stamped on the human person. Because man is created in God’s image He not only possesses value, he also enjoys a dignity that is ineradicable.

            Another distinction in the Christian worldview is that man is not nearly as free as Sartre posited. Man’s essence is unavoidably attached to his covenant relationship with his Creator. The essence of man can be seen in his being a covenant creature, made in the image of His God and Creator. The origin of man places man at the mercy of the God who created him. Not only this, it makes man anything but free as Sartre understands freedom. Man is free only to do what is in his nature to do. And that is a far different set of circumstances than the one Sartre tells us has obtained. Jesus says that everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. In Romans 6, Paul tells the Romans that humans are either slaves to righteousness or slaves to sin. Either way, humans are never viewed as free from the standpoint of Scripture. Man is not the measure of all things. 

[1] Norman Geisler, Baker Encylopedia of Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 683.
[2] Leslie Stevenson and Davild L. Haberman, Ten Theories of Human Nature (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), 174.
[3] Leslie Stevenson and David L. Haberman, Ten Theories of Human Nature (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1998), 170.
[4] "Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy," accessed June 18, 2014, http:/​/​​entries/​existentialism/​.
[5] Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Ge 1:31.

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