Christian Existentialism?

“I believe that this is the true response to the mystery of evil and suffering. It is not a philosophical response, but an existential one. In abandoning myself to God, I experience in a concrete fashion that it ‘really works,’ that God makes all things work together for my good, even evil, even suffering, even my own sins.”— Fr. Jacques Phillippe, Searching for and Maintaining Peace

At another time I may talk more about this modern spiritual treatise, but for now I find the above quotation a sufficient meditation. What does the author mean? He takes it for granted that we understand the idea of an “existential” response.

As Catholic thinkers like Jacques Maritain or Gabriel Marcel would explain, the “existent” is reality itself. It is prior to our thought. It does not depend upon man to define what it is. It simply is. (By logical extension, God is the ultimate “existent,” being existence itself. He is pure being, not dependent on anything else.) This idea, explained in the works of Thomas Aquinas, is not to be confused with “existentialist philosophy,” a school which has been aptly described more as a “posture” or a “fad” than a true system of thought. That is not to say it is without its interesting points. But it is hard to pin down in any formal way since there have been both theistic and atheistic “existentialists.” It is worth noting as an aside that the first modern thinker in that mode was Marcel whose outlook was markedly different from the quasi-Marxist Jean-Paul Sartre.

Our initial awareness of God as well as our moral awareness of life, requires no formal thought. Indeed, too often we “think away” our needs and responsibilities by too much philosophizing (of the wrong sort) which tends to push the immediacy of Christ into a comfortable nebulosity. Of course it is a paradox of human existence that we must philosophize about everything, even when we attack the idea of reason itself. As Cardinal Newman explains

It is the characteristic of our minds to be ever engaged in passing judgment on the things which come before us. No sooner do we apprehend than we judge: we allow nothing to stand by itself: we compare, contrast, abstract, generalize, connect, adjust, classify: and we view all our knowledge in the associations with which these processes have invested it.

I appreciate the strengths of  systematic thought and abstraction. But I have also discovered their limitations. What Fr. Phillippe reminds us is that all activities are a remote or proximate means to our ultimate end as human beings. If our intellectual activity, even when focused on noble ideas, causes us to become too detached from reality; if, to give one example, my reading of Plato is an “excuse” to avoid my duties as a parent, neighbor, worker, etc., then existentially speaking, it has failed me. Life is the reality we grapple with every day and not some idealized realm of the the mind.

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