Are You a Practical Existentialist?

19 08 2010

For many years now I have spent a significant amount of time speaking to college students at campuses around the Chicagoland area. What I love about speaking with college students is they are in an environment of idea exchange and they enjoy engaging in thought provoking conversations. I often ask students where they find meaning for their lives and I often get answers in a similar vein; they usually tell me that meaning is wrapped up in what they will do with their lives or with whom they associate. That is the answer of a practical existentialist (whether they know it or not).

Some of you may be asking, what is existentialism? It is a philosophical system that has been attributed back as far as Søren Kierkegaard, a 19th century Danish philosopher. This system of belief can be boiled down in its core to the statement, existence precedes essence. The opposite view would be called essentialism and would hold that essence precedes existence. So, for the existentialist, what we do gives meaning to who we are. Our existence determines our essence. Friedrich Nietzsche was another famous existentialist as he pursued his “will to power,” his quest for the overman (sometimes referred to as the superman).

I often hear people say that they determine their own meaning; in fact, it has become a rather common mantra in our days. The question is, can we determine our own meaning and purpose? I obviously don’t think so as I believe that ultimate meaning and purpose always comes from the designer and creator. In our case, I believe that we are designed and created by God who gives us our ultimate purpose and meaning. However, what if we were merely the product of some blind process of natural selection. I say blind (which some evolutionists would dispute) as it is not guided by anything other than events which have no foresight as to what the end result will be (it is hoped it is survival). But, is survival a purpose for a person’s life? I think it can be an outcome, but as a purpose, I think it is a rather hollow one, if it is one at all.

One could always ask, is survival an end or a means to a further end? I don’t think that survival is an end, but merely a means to a greater end (child rearing, experiencing the world, etc.) Then we need to ask the same question of those, “are they ends or means to a greater end?” Let’s take child bearing and rearing. Is that an end or a means to an end? It seems that it is a means and not an end in itself Yes, we enjoy our children, but when we consider child bearing and rearing, we would then have to say that our children have that end as well, as will their children, and their children, ad infinitum. It seems to me to be a means and not an end in itself. We need to consider each of these supposed ends and question whether they are truly ends or simply means to a greater end.

A second question to ask is, what would happen if I lost that which gives life meaning and purpose, could I go on with life or would it all be over at that instance? Most people, when I ask them that question, will tell me that they would go on, which indicates to me that it is not a true purpose or source of ultimate meaning. True and ultimate meaning, when taken away, would and should mean that life is over for us – we have no purpose for living any longer. True, some people feel that at the loss of a loved one; however, even if for a little while, they continue to live and survive. I believe that if that source of ultimate meaning ceased to exist, then we would cease to exist. If we continue to exist after that thing ceases, then it means that we had some other hidden purpose that kept us going.

The Apostle Paul said it well, “If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor. 15:32) But, as he said earlier in that chapter, “But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (15:20) Paul concludes this chapter by writing, “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (15:57-58) Our labor is not in vain because God has created us for a purpose and with a mission, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” (Luke 10:27) Jesus said that on these depend all of the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 22:40).

Our purpose, as defined by our Creator, is to love him and to love our neighbor. These are ends in themselves rather than means to a greater end. Sure, loving God and our neighbors can produce benefits; however, that is not why we are to love them, we are to love them because that is the purpose for which we were designed and created and we are fulfilling that ultimate purpose. God is relational and he created us to be in that relationship with him and with others whom he has created. That is our purpose and that is what gives us ultimate meaning. So, are you an essentialist, who believes that God defines our meaning, or an existentialist, who believes that we define our own meaning through what we do? Something to think about…