THE GRAIN OF SALT
Union Theological Seminary, New York
Volume 10 Number 4
Nov. 7, 1963
IS GOD AN EXISTENTIALIST?
By James Park

Human words can never apply literally to an "entirely other" God because all human words ultimately derive their meaning from man's experience with this world. But these are the only words he has and so he must use them to talk about God analogically and even anthropomorphically. He uses figures of speech which hint at the nature of God. These symbols, because they are a part of human language wear out, become trite and meaningless as they are used again and again and as cultural forms change. So man must be always in search of new ways of expressing God.

Whether and how closely any symbols apply to God is a question that must be settled on grounds beyond the scope of this article. But before any new symbol can be judged, it must be clearly understood what it means in application to God. Thus we are not saying whether God is or is not an existentialist; rather we are trying to see what it would mean for God to be such. If God's attitudes are existential, this guarantees certain things about the nature of reality and man.

I. If God is an existentialist he does not believe there are any absolute values in the universe.

1. There are no absolute moral standards. In other words, God does not have a copy of the Ten Commandments nor does he have any other fixed code of behavior by which he judges man. Thus men are mistaken to speak of sin as transgression of some divinely preordained ethical system. Man sins, not against God, but against himself. God certainly recognizes ethical standards that grow up in the various cultures of men as good for those cultures. People ought not to kill one another because it hurts them not because it hurts God. Moral standards are culture-bound and utilitarian not universal and divinely ordained.

2. There is no truth for man except the given facts of existence. Man's external search for the ultimate "truth" behind what he sees is futile. There is no such truth underlying reality. Reality exists in and of itself. Matter needs no metaphysical basis for its origin or continued existence. Nature is given but there is nothing absolute or necessary about it or behind it.

3. Nothing is either meaningful or non- meaningful in itself. The criterion of meaningfulness, significance, importance does not have some absolute metaphysical status in the universe. These judgments must be made by man or God.

II. If God is an existentialist he believes that for man existence precedes essence.

1. Man is an absurd creature who finds himself thrown into existence without purpose. Man exists: then he must decide what he will do with his existence, what his essence will be. There is no preordained fixed plan for human life--either collective or individual. The forces behind manís evolution were blind and without purpose. Man appeared on the face of the earth with the same status as the pine tree. But he can think and so is anxious to devise purpose for his life.

2. There is no "human nature". Man comes into existence with his biological equipment and that is all. The culture in which he is raised is what makes a human out of an infant. A child physically cared for but without the benefits of culture would be nothing better than a vegetable. And beyond a few biological limitations a human being can be anything. He has infinite potential. The practical limitation is that it takes a well-developed culture to create a highly developed type of human. Man can be things that have not even been conceived as yet.

3. Man must "choose himself." There is a nothingness at the center of each man's being which he must fill. If he does not do this it will be filled by his culture and he will fall into the behavior pattern of that culture. Man's highest duty toward himself is to decide what kind of a self he will give himself. Man becomes none other than what he decides to become unless he abdicates his freedom in favor of cultural forces. Thus man's worst sin is to fail to choose himself and man's deepest sense of guilt is the guilt arising from this failure. Man feels guilty because he has failed to choose and fulfill any self and thus has either remained empty or has been filled by his cultural environment.

III. If God is an existentialist he believes that man can be free.

1. Man is not the product of his environment, unless he allows himself to be. His life is full of forces which seek to form and shape him but he need not succumb to these. The forces will always be there disposing him to choose one way or another but he always has the possibility of that element of freedom that allows him to decide above and beyond these determining forces.

2. This means that man is free of God as well. Man is neither caught between the laws of vice of social determinism nor tied to the fingers of a divine puppeteer. Man can and does say "no" to God. But with this freedom to reject God goes the freedom to accept the guidance and love of God.

3. Man is a free moral agent responsible for everything he does or fails to do with his life, responsible ultimately for the success or failure of his life. Man's freedom places the responsibility for himself squarely on his own shoulders. There can be no passing of guilt along to society, God, or the devil. The source of man's evil or good, the sensitivity to his guilt or fulfillment is at the center of his being. No one but the individual can make his life meaningful. If his life is empty it is because he fled from his freedom and responsibility to make himself.

If God is an existentialist, then there are no absolute values for human life and man must work out his own salvation with fear and trembling.