Posted by Andrew Haines in Philosophy on 1.16.2010
Three words that don't normally go together—that's for sure. But what do our understandings of faith, reason and existentialism have in common?
Frankly, I think, quite a bit.
Considering the relationship between faith and reason—as the followers here at IUSP know—is simply a part of the Christian life. Creation is both reasonable as well as mysterious, and in order to apprehend it completely, we must be willing to implement our rational faculties on both levels (viz. the levels of empirical observation as well as the penetration of what lies beyond). Faith and reason, for the Christian, are inextricably related.
But how do they relate to "existence"? Or, for that matter, to the ever-popular but rarely-understood phenomenon of "existentialism"?
If you're guessing the title of this article was a ploy by the author to pull in some extra Google hits, you wouldn't be far off. But I never disappoint! There is a connection, I assure you; but before diving right in, we have to frame the question a little more completely: What is existentialism, after all? And why should we be concerned with it?
What is Existentialism?
Most basically, existentialism is a term that denotes some sort of primacy regarding the act of existence itself (the actus essendi, for you Thomists). By and large, no matter their creed, upbringing or historical circumstances, existentialists always tend to focus on this precedence of "being" over and above that of "essence" (or formality). Still, however, the word, "existentialism," is about as generic as "philosophy"; and there is really no textbook definition worth memorizing. Different brands of existentialism (materialist, atheist, Christian, etc.) all understand their own purpose differently, and it's hard to put a finger on any sort of universal, 'existentialistic essence.'
But, despite its somewhat opaque definition, the idea of existentialism is one not far from the heart of the Christian intellectual tradition. In my estimation, a sort of existential hermeneutic is very helpful in unlocking the deep connections between faith and reason, and between the existence of God and the existence of things in the world.
Existentialism in St Thomas Aquinas
As it turns out, a certain application of existentialism can be found even in the work of St Thomas Aquinas—the Christian philosopher most often pitted against modern trends—who accounts for the relationship between God and the world on the basis of the preeminence of "being," or esse. (Thomists of the Strict Observance, prepare to strike.) In the words of the famous 20th century Thomist, W. Norris Clarke:
"[...] actual existence [for Thomas] is not merely a static state or minimum 'fact'—i.e., the mere extrinsic referent of a true assertion—but an intensive inner act of presence within the thing itself which grounds the mental assertion about it: a kind of qualitative energy (virtus essindi [sic]: the power of be-ing, in St. Thomas’s words)." (The Philosophical Approach to God, p. 62)
In layman's terms, Clarke's position (and my own) can be translated thus: that for something "to be"—to exist—is not simply for it "to-occur-in-accordance-with-its-formal-definition"; but rather, each existent thing possesses of itself a certain "power of be-ing" that propels it, as it were, along its life in the world.
At bottom, Clarke's understanding of Thomistic metaphysics can very rightly be termed "existential." But it is an existentialism grounded firmly and without apology in an assent to the existence of God on the basis of rational, intelligible evidence in his primary (and necessary) act of existence. And, moreover, it is a theory that resonates strongly with the way we, as individuals, experience the world around us: namely, not as some "static state" of "minimum facts," but as invigorated and vibrant.
For those familiar with Thomas' emphasis on "participation" between finite, created objects and their divine and exemplary forms in the mind of God, this Christian existentialism has even more force. For Thomas, we are able to regard "being" as primary precisely because God's "being" (his esse) is synonymous with his essence; and this purely actual essence, which contains in itself the exemplary forms of all created objects, propels those objects into the world, and creates them in the same act by which it knows them. Si secundum unam causam Deus omnibus existentibus esse tradidit, secundum eamdem causam sciet omnia. (De Ver. Q. 2, A. 4)
Existentialism, Faith and Reason
Here, we can make a few connections between faith, reasons and existentialism that were before less apparent. In fact, we can even begin to understand existentialism—in a certain application—as that which links the other two.
If, as St Thomas suggests, a thing's (rational) intelligibility is bound up entirely in its conformity to some exemplary idea—and if its actual presence in the real world (ens reale) is charged with a "power of be-ing" that can only come from something beyond its basic materiality—then we have real reason to believe that a more supreme, absolute Being is ultimately its cause (even if we can't see or touch this Source directly); and we call this Being, this Source, "God."
Ultimately, to redeem "existentialism" from its unfortunate bonds of 20th century, secular humanism and atheism is a big charge; but it's not insurmountable. Existentialism is not inherently opposed to Christian faith, and to the value of informed reason. And, on the contrary, in some ways it is the truest expression of that faith. When discerned through the lens of the existential hermeneutic, reality becomes even more alive, and even more "Christian," in the fullest sense of the word: God, its Source, is made ever more tangible by way of the universal "power" of existence; but he is still divine, and although he 'touches' the world, he is not a part of it.
Clarke, W. Norris. The Philosophical Approach to God: A New Thomistic Perspective.
(New York, New York: Fordham University Press, 2007)