This essay seeks to inform a mainly Christian audience about existentialism in its Christian understanding whilst drawing some comparison with its secular counter-part, and how this philosophy then forms the context for care-givers who provide counselling and psychological services using this paradigm, as well as informing the techniques used thereof.
Here’s an outline or framework to aid the thought flow of readers as they make their way through this essay:
- How my own thoughts on existentialism has been impacted by several authors, thinkers, academicians, philosophers and practitioners
- Existentialism’s Christian and secular core thesis and implications for counselling and psychological services
- Concluding thoughts
1. How my own thoughts on existentialism were developed
An essay of this length can only cover so much ground. My own thoughts on existentialism have been influenced by a myriad of web-sites and especially the following sources:
- Gerald Corey’s Theory and Practice of Counselling & Psychotherapy ( 7e, 2005, Thomson Brooks/Cole )
- Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman’s Faith Has Its Reasons ( 2006, Paternoster )
- C Stephen Evans’ Soren Kierkegaard’s Christian Psychology: Insight for Counselling and Pastoral Care ( 1990, Regent – Zondervan )
Existentialism had its heyday in the mid 20th century, with its main temple of worship located in Europe, and especially France. Names like Sartre and Camus were the high priests and interlocutors of this secularistic religion which emphasized the self, its existence and its emanations of angst. The focus was on the existence of self, and the meaning making that the self brought to all of life’s varied experiences. However, the thoroughly liberal European academia of the 18th and 19th century is unanimous in attributing the pioneering work of existentialism to an unlikely source, the Danish clergyman and philosopher author, Soren Kierkegaard. In this essay, my contact with Kierkegaard is through the lenses of Christian philosopher, C Stephen Evans, through his authorship of the book noted above. Professor Evans is a University Professor of philosophy at Baylor University, and is a world renowned scholar and expert on Kierkegaard and his works.
Prof Evans is very explicit in stating that Kierkegaard’s (hereinafter noted as SK) motivation in his writing and thinking about existentialism lay in his understanding and commentary of the Christian Theistic worldview. My interpretation here received the following comments from Prof Evans in an email correspondence dated 13th May 2012:
I think this is true (about SK’s understanding and commentary coming from a Christian Theistic worldview) but it does not sound like Kierkegaard, because it makes it seem the main problems he saw were intellectual in nature. But the main problem with Christendom was not intellectual. People in one way understand the Christian worldview, but they failed to care about it in the right way and live in accordance with their understanding.
SK felt very strongly about the arid, rigid, formal and institutional flavour of the Danish state Christianity where he lived, and felt that he was called to be a missionary to ‘Christendom’.
If my understanding and interpretation of Professor Evans’ work on SK is at least partially accurate, SK tried very hard to communicate that European Christianity of his milieu was making a grave error in trying to combat the rational and objective attack of Science with its own rational and objective defence. This, SK felt, caused a ‘detachment’ between the cognitive and experiential aspects of believers, with its disastrous consequences of causing the destruction of the essence of faith which the New Testament placed as a central component in living the life of Christ.
In the book by Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman, which is a masterful tome on apologetics, SK is categorized as a ‘fideist’, albeit, a fideist who employs logic and paradox to put across the core thesis that Christianity is about experiencing the Christ of Christianity, first and foremost. In the same, afore-mentioned email correspondence discussing this article, Prof Evans suggested that I carefully consider a qualifier regarding SK’s fideism. Here is what he suggested,
In my book, Faith Above Reason I give a careful analysis of different kinds of fideism and explain and defend Kierkegaard’s view as a version of “responsible fideism,” which is very different from fideism as a form of irrationalism.
A synthesis of Prof Evans’ work, and Boa and Bowman’s, show that SK was communicating the following points:
- The case for Christ’s deity, and His substitutionary and atoning work, cannot be reduced to purely objective and rational arguments. The very epistemological basis of the fideist approach is that Christ is to ‘be believed’ and be understood. This is pure Augustinian thought, itself interpreted from apostle Paul’s assertion in 2 Cor 4:13 ‘For we, having the same spirit of faith (according as it is written, “I believed, and therefore I have spoken”); we also believed and therefore speak’.
- The raison d’etre of the human being’s existence is in discovering that the reason behind the isolation and loneliness of life is the self’s separation from the ultimate relating SELF of God.
In point #2 above, we can see the germ of a definition for existentialism, and how secular existentialists can draw interpretations and implications for life from SK’s thought, and go into the direction of angst, absurdity and self as the centre of the universe.
2. Existentialism’s Christian and secular core thesis and implications for counselling and psychological services
Prof Evans convincingly argues that SK’s very basis of thought and approach of existentialism was presupposed by SK’s Christology and how that Christology necessitated an experiential element in a Christian’s life. Let me quote Prof Evans interpretation of SK’s thought:
To believe that Jesus is Lord in the Christian way is not merely to assent to a proposition; it is to have your life transformed in a radical manner (1990:20)
From this thought, it is no wonder that the secular strain led by the voices of Sartre and Camus led to the opposite direction; the moral relativism and absurdity of the ‘no God is god’ philosophy.
In fact, Sartre, Camus, as well as the variant voices of Heidegger and Jaspers’ phenomenology, actually follow the extreme ‘no god’ existentialism of Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche is the one who famously ( and correctly ) deduced that since ‘God is dead’, then all things are permissible, and only the might is right, leading to the idea of the ubermensch, or ‘superman’ in German, or the ‘rightness of mightness’. Interestingly, Nietzsche also served as food for thought for Hitler and his rationalization of the Aryan super-race, which led to the genocide carried out during WW2 by his SS storm-troopers. Ideas certainly have consequences! However, Prof Evans in his capacity as a scholar of philosophy, and thoroughly acquainted with the works of SK and Nietzsche, was conscientious to point out that ‘(whilst-sic) It is true that the Nazis appropriated Nietzsche’s thought but it is also true that Nietzsche would not have liked what they did with his thought. He detested anti-Semites such as Wagner, even though he says anti-Semitic things himself at times.’
So what do we do with ‘Christian existentialist counselling’, or ‘Christian existentialist psychology’?
Perhaps at this point, it may be good to begin with a contemporary academic/practitioner – Gerald Corey, and distil his thoughts on existentialism, and how they work out through psychotherapeutic processes and goals. What follows next is my commentary on Corey’s ideas, and I will then conclude by comparing his ideas with SK’s and see how an integration of biblical thoughts and existentialist ideas for Christian counselling and psychological services are possible.
Corey’s book, which is standard fare for most undergraduate introductory courses in counselling, begins with a bio-data of Victor Frankl (1905-1997). In this bio-data of Frankl, Corey notes that ‘Although Frankl had begun to develop an existential approach to clinical practice before his grim years in the Nazi death camps, his experiences there confirmed his views’ (2005:129). Corey goes on to comment and interpret this existential view of Frankl’s as placing love as the ‘highest goal’ (129), even to the extent in employing the use of the word ‘salvation’, through love (129). However, Corey is quite clear that he will not be clear as to his interpretation of what this salvation means, or from where this salvation, or its agent – love – have their source, or sources.
A reading of Corey’s chapter on existential therapy leaves no doubt that this concept of salvation and love is secular in his understanding. In fact, I would interpret Corey’s inability to draw an ultimate source to Frankl’s salvation through love, as a modern interpretation of Nietzsche’s will to power, only, I would see it as Frankl’s (as interpreted by Corey) ‘will to love’.
For Corey, if my reading of his understanding of Frankl’s version of existentialism is accurate, then, existentialist counselling is about helping a client understand ‘the concepts of freedom, responsibility, meaning, and the search for values’(129).
Because of a lack of space to treat this point adequately, I move on to reiterate SK’s take on psychology, with his very original thoughts of the self’s identity, it’s relation to aspects of self and others, and its implications of living or anchoring its self on the Ultimate Self of God. SK then drew out from his thoughts here, how psychology is thus affected.
As mentioned earlier, Prof Evans’ reading and commentary on SK puts forward the following points:
- SK is writing from an indirect perspective in his earlier writings, and, in his later writings, from a decidedly Christian position.
- SK’s core thesis of existentialism is derived from his understanding that the soul is alienated from God and is therefore unable to function as it ought to.
In conclusion, here are several proposals when it comes to Christians in psychology and counselling who attempt an existentialist based approach:
- Understand that the core thesis of existentialism actually lends itself favourably to the stratagem of 2 Cor 10:3-5, and that to take the deviant strains of existentialism captive would be to firstly enter into its theoretical and philosophical train of thought, and to discover how it does not go far enough in existentialist authenticity if compared with the existentialist purity of the biblical doctrine of a self dead to sin through Christ’s dead, and a self in Christ resurrection alive to true freedom.
- Recognize that actually, existentialistic bent psychology and counselling have within its theoretical and philosophical core, the means and possibilities of producing greater inroads in bringing clients ( especially Christian ones ) into a realization of what and how the self has attached itself to other gods, especially the god which stares at us through the mirror! And following this same rationale, it can also act as pre-evangelism, much as SK proposed in the book referenced for this article.
- Ensure that the existentialism practiced by believers does not veer into the self being the centre of the universe loci, and thereby fall into the trap of post-modernist nonsensical philosophy in terms of rationale content, but appreciating the spirit of post-modernism in not wanting any absolute meta-narrative from seizing control of the individual’s choices and decisions.
So by all means, learn and understand how Kierkegaard understood existentialism, and take comfort that he is a believer in the biblical doctrines in the truest sense as can be. And not only that, but take comfort that Kierkegaard was unwittingly a prophet for his times, still not recognized by contemporary scholars of church history. And to top it all off, learn how Kierkegaard was a commentator of psychology, and fiercely intent as well to ensure that his commentary would be framed by deep biblical consideration and exegesis.
This article was born after an incident occurred whereby several notable statesmen of our community recoiled at the possibility of an existentialist toned seminar being organized by a national para-church body. I was taken aback by this reaction and felt that since NACC was coming out with a publication, it was timely to have an article touching on existentialism’s foremost proponent, the Christian author and philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. Again, an article of this length does not do this topic justice. I point you to Professor C Stephen Evans’ works on Kierkegaard and his writings to put you at rest in recognizing that existentialism does not do harm to biblical understanding and pastoral ministry in the slightest. I am also very thankful and honoured that Professor Evans had time and space to comment on this article.
- Boa, K., and Bowman, R. Faith Has Its Reasons. 2006, Paternoster
- Evans, C. S., Soren Kierkegaard’s Christian Psychology: Insight for Counselling and Pastoral Care. 1990, Regent – Zondervan
- Gerald Corey, G., Theory and Practice of Counselling & Psychotherapy .7e, 2005, Thomson Brooks/Cole
Franklin Morais is Head of Department, Centre for Southern New Hampshire University Studies. He lectures on psychology and leadership courses. He holds master’s degrees in Ministry from the Malaysia Bible Seminary and in Social Science (Counselling) from the University of South Australia. He serves as Assistant Secretary of NACC Malaysia (presently on leave of absence).