Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Sunday, February 18, 2018

msgrliptak_halfQ. In the news recently, in a story about Jean Paul Sartre, a reference to "existentialism" interested me because I have never been able to find a working definition of the word. Is there an accepted definition? And does existentialism cross into theology, or is it merely a philosophical term?

A. Existentialism is an elusive term. Moreover, some existentialists postulate God, while others profess to be atheists. And the whole subject of existentialism does touch upon God, and hence, God-talk, which is another word for theology. Furthermore, the founder of contemporary existentialism, Søren Kierkegaard, was a theist; i.e., he believed in God. (He never referred to himself as an existentialist, however, preferring the label "poet.") On the other hand, Jean Paul Sartre’s philosophy began with the explicit denial of God’s very existence.

A comparative list of atheistic existentialists and theistic existentialists was provided by philosopher and Seminary rector Father Francis J. Lescoe in his scholarly compendium Existentialism: with or without God (Staten Island, N.Y.: Alba House, 1974). Among those who affirmed God are: Søren Kierkegaard, Gabriel Marcel, and Martin Buber. In the atheistic camp are Jean Paul Sartre (and his companion, Simone de Beauvoir) and arguably, Martin Heidegger.

Søren Kierkegaard (d. 1855) is usually regarded as the Father of the existential dialectic. However, this refers to modern existentialism. Some chroniclers cite 17th century Blaise Pascal as (in Father Lescoe's words), "the first authentic existentialist." But others go back further in history, even citing St. Augustine as an existentialist.

Defining existentialism is all but impossible since the concept avoids the abstract and the universal. And definitions have to do with the abstract and the universal. Hence, many "definitions" can be offered for existentialism. Gabriel Marcel, a Catholic existentialist, proposed this description: "For my part, I should be inclined to deny the properly philosophic quality of all my works in which there is no trace of what I can only call the sting of the real."

Father Lescoe’s solution to a definition was to identify six "themes" common to existentialism. These are: (1) Existence and the individual; (2) Authentic and inauthentic existence; (3) Community, I-Thou, Co-esse; (4) Estrangement, alienation and absurdity; (5) Dehumanization, objectification, depersonalization; (6) Phenomenology and existentialism.

These "themes" resonate, in various ways, with existentialists. Wherever existentialism appears, for example, strains of "authentic" and "inauthentic" existence can be heard, sometimes in rhetoric transcending the usual. In fact, existentialist Albert Camus wrote so beautifully that he was awarded a Nobel Prize for Literature (1957), and the contemporary world continues to read and study his The Stranger, The Plague, The Fall, and The Myth of Sisyphus. Jean Paul Sartre’s No Exit, The Flies, and Nausea are likewise well-read. Moreover, the Jewish existentialist Martin Buber’s masterpiece Ich und du (I and Thou) is viewed by the contemporary world as an epoch-making work.

From modern-day existentialists, Catholic philosophical tradition has borrowed multiple insights, so much so that Lublin Existentialism, a system developed at the great Polish Catholic University of Lublin (KUL) and used by Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), was even acknowledged by the Communist overlords prior to the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 as a major, if not the major, threat to Communistic efforts to enslave the Polish people. So powerfully cogent an argument was made by Lublin Existentialism in behalf of the dignity of each and every human being that Communists were unable to counter it intellectually, admitting that it threatened the Communist regime.