Sunday, August 2, 2015

A Heart for the Existential Jesus (8/2/15)

A Heart for the Existential Jesus
John Shuck

Southminster Presbyterian Church

·      You use the term Jesus ________????   ( Ask John what phrase he uses and fill it in.)   What do you mean by that.
·      Please talk about Sartre, Camus and other existentialists (maybe Tillich, maybe not) and whether or not they have a strong kinship with Jesus and how some of that might be important to Southminster.

                                                                                                Jean-Paul Sartre
Existentialism is not so much an atheism in the sense that it would exhaust itself attempting to demonstrate the nonexistence of God; rather, it affirms that even if God were to exist, it would make no difference—that is our point of view.  It is not that we believe that God exists, but we think that the real problem is not one of his existence; what man needs is to rediscover himself and to comprehend that nothing can save him from himself not even valid proof of the existence of God.  In this sense, existentialism is optimistic.  It is a doctrine of action, and it is only in bad faith—in confusing their own despair with ours—that Christians are able to assert that we are “without hope.” 

                                                                                                Ecclesiastes 2:24-25   
The best that any of us can do 
is to eat and drink and enjoy ourselves in our work.  
This too, I realized, is from the hand of Nature; 
For if it were not for her, who could eat or who could have
            Any enjoyment?
                                                                                                Albert Camus
“I do not know whether this world has a meaning that eludes me.  But I do know that I do not know this meaning and that, for the time being, it is impossible for me to know it.  What can a meaning beyond my condition mean to me?  I can comprehend only in human terms.  I understand what I touch, what offers resistance.”  

“I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”             
                                                                                                Thomas 42 and Luke 17:13
Jesus said, “Be passersby.”

Jesus said, “Whoever tries to hang on to life will lose it, but whoever loses it will preserve it.”

The questions for this Sunday are… 

You use the term Jesus ________________ (Ask John what phrase he uses and fill it in.  What do you mean by that?  

I am assuming  the phrase is the historical Jesus as I use that a lot. So I will talk about what I mean by that.  The second question is…

Please talk about Sartre, Camus and other existentialists (maybe Tillich, maybe not) and whether or not they have a strong kinship with Jesus and how some of that might be important to Southminster.

I feel I need to get out my blue book for this final exam question.

I did say at the beginning that if you ask a question above my pay grade you will get what pay for.   I don’t have any expertise on existential philosophy.   I have not read Sartre’s books.   What I did for this sermon was to read Sartre’s lecture in 1945 called “Existentialism is a Humanism.” This is an explanation of his philosophy in answer to critics.  I also read Albert Camus’ little novel, “The Stranger” and Sartre’s commentary on it.    

I have to say it was kind of fun.   I felt a bit of kinship with Sartre’s views.   I am just speculating now, but I wonder if the person who asked the question heard something in my sermons that reminded her or him of existentialism.    The question was designed to get me to check it out.    How it relates to Jesus and Southminster? We’ll just have to see.

Let’s start with existentialism.    This is just from my reading of Sartre’s “Existentialism is A Humanism.”    His lecture explained a few phrases and terms that he felt were misunderstood.  

“Existence precedes essence.”  

They sound like depressing words.  But Sartre would say that Existentialism is an optimistic philosophy.  

The human being is thrust into existence and must make herself or himself.  Only in the action of doing do we discover who we are.   We don’t begin with some ideal or model or essence of what a human is or should be.  There is no guidebook or blueprint.    Someone could say we are created in the image of God.    No one really agrees on what that image is.   Even if some people did agree it wouldn’t matter because we decide it.   Each of us must decide what that image is and we decide by our actions.  

We could say that God tells us what to be or do.   Even if it were so, one still has to make the decision whether that voice is of God or something else and must interpret it.    Sartre says we are condemned to be free.     The human has freedom and responsibility.   We are without excuse.  We cannot blame our actions on some prior philosophy of essence.  We can’t blame it on an authority, the Bible says, for instance.  It is always our choice how to interpret any authority or whether or not to regard anything as an authority.   Ultimately, authority is within the human being.    It is “bad faith” says Sartre to blame or excuse our actions on anything else.   We are free.  That is a burden.   It creates anguish.


Someone might counter, if we have freedom then what is to prevent us from acting badly?   How is any action then, wrong?   

We are free to make ourselves.  We don’t just decide for ourselves who we are when we act.  We decide for all humankind.   If I live out an action or make a moral choice I am making this choice for all humanity.   In other words I must act as if every human is watching me.   My freedom has great responsibility.    As I act I must say to myself, “What if every human did this?”   

Thus we are filled with anguish.   We agonize over the choices.  They are hard.  We have freedom.   Our freedom is to act as if every human being is acting as we do.   We have anguish because there is no ultimate, universal right choice.  We choose this or that and what we choose is what is.   


If there is no figure out there, God for instance, who decides for us how we are to behave and if we are thrust into existence having to create ourselves, what does this feel like?  Sartre says we are abandoned.   It is not as if we can go the way of secular morality and say well, even though there is no need for God there still is the absolute values of love, beauty, etc.   Sartre would say no.   Those abstractions have no existence.   We exist and must decide by our actions who we are.   The loss of God is terrifying because we are abandoned to our own choices.     We want some authority, God or a representative to decide for us or to excuse us or whatever.  None is available.   It is bad faith to excuse or project onto something else our responsibility.  


We are free to make ourselves as is everyone else free to make him or herself.   Because of that we cannot expect them to do as we want, to carry on our projects.   There is no hope, for instance, that human beings will get it together, solve our fossil fuel dependence, live sustainably.   It doesn’t mean they won’t do it.  There is no guarantee.   We can only do what we can do, acting from freedom, living with anguish, and abandonment and acting in accordance with our commitments. 

Existentialism is a Humanism

Existentialism is not inaction or quietism.  It is active.   We are constantly making ourselves.  We are in the making.   It is a humanism because we are present in a human universe.  Sartre writes:  “Man is always outside himself, and it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that man is realized.” P. 52.

Meaning is not decided for us.  Again, Sartre:  “Life has no meaning a priori.  Life itself is nothing until it is lived, it is we who give it meaning, and value is nothing more than the meaning we give it.”

It is very positive philosophy.  It is a philosophy of freedom, dignity, and responsibility.   It is a life of total commitment.  

I recommend this little book, Existentialism Is A Humanism.  

Sartre is not for everyone.   It is an austere optimism.    If we want to justify our bad choices or blame circumstances for our misery or have someone else make choices for us, Sartre will not give you a break.   Or if we say that we are essentially a good, loving person but we do not behave in loving ways, then we act in bad faith.   Love is the acts of love.      It is optimistic because we can create ourselves throughout our lives.   We are not fated or determined by some essence, such as coward or hero.   We are who we are by our actions and commitments.  We can make new actions and commitments. 

What does this have to do with Southminster?   

We are a community of people each creating himself or herself.   We are people in the making.   We are not some essence or ideal that we need to live out.   There is no huge vision or blueprint that we need to live out like robots.   We are making it on the fly.    We can draw from the resources of one another and our long history.  But, we become our commitments as we act them.    We choose.   I think it is of great value to have a space for that freedom to create.    To choose and to dignify the choices of others.  

This creativity is projected outward.  We are as we act in the world.   Thus we are a public church.  We are seen by the world.  Because of that we live with anguish over our decisions.   We are making choices as individuals and as a community that say this is what an individual or church is.    What if everyone acted as we did?    We live with abandonment in that all of the authorities are up to our own interpretation.   We make those choices even if we might want another to make them for us.  
Our hope looks like despair in that there is no guarantee.  We might want others in the community to do what we do, we may want future descendants to act in certain ways, but they may or may not.   We act and that is our life.   The future will be what it will be.  

I was reading and reflecting on this while the Greenpeace activists were hanging from St. John’s Bridge in an attempt to stop Shell’s icebreaker ship from going to the Arctic and begin drilling there for oil.    I was thinking what a magnificent act of futility amidst the absurd.  

Existence is absurd in that we are thrust into it and must make our own way.   We are here.  We create.  Act out.  Then burn out like the sun.   And we die.    There is no sense to it.   All of the metaphysical speculation is, well, just that, metaphysical speculation.    Existentialists say we are thrust into existence.  It is absurd.  Now live.    Create your life.   You are creating yourself.  You are creating humanity. 

Think of the absurdity first of our fossil fuel civilization.    This is not sustainable.    Who can not possibly know that?  There is also an absurdity that we can stop it.    The visual of that huge ship and the activists dangling like little spiders from a thread shows the absurdity.    The futility.    

Yet they did it.   They acted in their moment.   There is no guarantee of what could come of it.   There is no guarantee of what awareness their action might generate.   Yet they did what they could.    They created themselves.  They created humanity.  They said in effect, “In this meaningless absurdity, I will make meaning.”    

Southminster does that too.   When we act with commitment to what we think is moral regardless of whether it might look successful or popular, we act in good faith.  

All right.  Jesus.

The search for the historical Jesus that has gone on since the Enlightenment is an act of creativity at least as much as discovery.    There are many historical Jesuses:  an apocalyptic prophet, a wandering cynic, an entrepreneur, a Jewish wisdom teacher, a rebel, violent or non-violent, a rabbi, a magician, a storyteller, a faith healer, a psychologist, a socialist, an exorcist, an existentialist.   They can’t all be true yet you can find evidence for all of those views.    We only have internal sources, nothing by Jesus himself and no verification outside of various texts that could have been written many decades, perhaps a century and a half or more, after his life.   These texts all have agendas.   They all frame this figure in a way that furthers the causes of the authors.  Another view gaining popularity is that Jesus was not an historical person.  Instead he was a composite figure created over time.  

When I say the historical Jesus I really don’t know what I am talking about.   I am presenting this search this quest for Jesus as a welcome response to the theological machinery of the church’s Jesus, the historical Jesus vs. the Apostle’s Creed Jesus.  In the end, along with Albert Schweitzer, I have to say, “He comes to us as one unknown.” 

But Jesus has a good public image after all these centuries.  Many people, even if they are not Christians like Jesus, or at least like their version of him.   So there is great effort to get Jesus on our team.    I confess I do it, too.   I like Dominic Crossan’s Jesus, the peasant with an attitude.  This Jesus told parables about the kingdom of God, practiced an open table, offered non-violent resistance to Empire.    There is evidence for that.  I think that Jesus preaches.   I have preached that Jesus from this pulpit.   But it would be bad faith for me to say that “that is the guy” as opposed to other views.   It would also be bad faith to say that I like him because the evidence points that way.  I just happen to like him.   Then I have to ask why am I doing that?   Am I again in bad faith trying to bolster up my views by presenting an authority figure who speaks on behalf of my commitments?    

It is with anguish that I wrestle with Jesus.  

I am coming to a position where I wish to leave behind a cult of Jesus.  In the end it is our choice, not what we might speculate “What Jesus Would Do.”     

What existentialism means to Jesus is not that there is an existential Jesus even as I can find little nuggets of Jesus tradition that might suggest that he was a proto-existentialist.     For example, 

“Whoever tries to hang on to life will lose it, but whoever loses it will preserve it.” 
I can give that saying an existential gloss.    But I think that would be bad faith.  I would be trying to frame him into something to fit my ends.   

I do have a heart for Jesus.  He has meant a lot to me.   I find inspiration in my anguish.  I realize that a heart for the existential Jesus is really a commitment not to make a cult of Jesus, not to get him on my team or pretend that I am on his team.   I can draw from the Jesus tradition and the critics of the tradition, but in the end I must make my choice, and it is my choice, not Jesus’s choice.    I cannot blame or excuse my choices on the Bible or on Jesus or on God or on any other interpreters of the same.     It is up to me.  It is up to you.   

Sartre says we are condemned to freedom.  Yes, we are condemned to an anguished freedom and a joyful responsibility of making our lives.   We choose for ourselves.  We choose for humanity.    We do it more than once.  We are always in the process.   

Again, to quote Sartre:

Life itself is nothing until it is lived.  


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