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  • Pastor Nicholas

Me Time: The Existential Turn and the Impact of Existentialism on Modern Culture

Updated: Apr 29, 2023

A woman admiring herself in the mirror.

The Influence of Existential Philosophy on Emerging Adults

Most people generally dismiss philosophical talk as irrelevant to day-to-day life. Even I joked last month that a young man majoring in philosophy was majoring in starvation and had a bright future ahead of him with Whataburger. And yet, I only jest. The philosophical speculations that take place in the ivory tower, however much they might seem removed from the general public and daily life, are not harmless. They have a way of filtering their way down unaware into the minds and hearts of normal people. Sociologists Christian Smith and Patricia Snell in their ground-breaking study, Souls in Transition, studied the religious life and attitudes of adults from 18 to 23 years of age, who these sociologists label as “emerging adults”. These young people they studied tended to have a positive view of the future, even in the face of many difficult circumstances. As Smith and Snell say, “Even many of those whose lives are in desperate straits, beset by the most unfortunate blunders or terrible circumstances, tend nevertheless to gird themselves up with hope and confidence that things will get better, that the future will be bright.” One might ask what the basis for their optimism is. The source of their confidence that things will ultimately “turn out well” appears to be, amazingly enough, themselves. Christian Smith notes that their study showed that “[m]ost [emerging adults] have great difficulty grasping the idea that a reality that is objective to their own awareness or construction of it may exist that could have a significant bearing on their lives.” The idea that there is no objective reality beyond oneself or one’s own subjective experiences is the hallmark of Twentieth Century existentialism, the philosophy popularized by Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, two of the last century’s heirs to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Existential philosophy has made its way out of the ivory tower of the academy and found a home in the hearts and minds of everyday existence people, especially the youth and new generations.

The Pursuit of Self-Actualization and the God Complex

Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher and playwright. The key to understanding his philosophy is to understand what he meant by “existnence precedes essence.” This is a summary of existentialism. Sarte wrote:

Dostoyevsky writes, “If God did not exist, everything would be possible.” That is the starting point of existentialism. Indeed, everything is permissible if God does not exist, and as a result, man is forlorn, because neither within him nor without does he find anything to cling to. He can’t start making excuses for himself.

In his abandonment of God, Sartre recognizes man’s inevitable loss of anything within or with­out “to cling to.” In other words, all that is, is nothingness. We stand alone facing the meaningless void and are condemned to determine our meaning of existence. Nothingness precedes man’s existence, which precedes his being. Thus, man is nothingness. Or, as Sartre put it, “Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Man, who is at heart nothing, must make himself." So writes Sartre, “[t]hus it amounts to the same thing whether one gets drunk alone or is a leader of nations. One can see how this philosophy is both theological and philosophical. By abandoning God, Sartre also abandoned the idea of human nature. The only place left to God for meaning was within. We are in a world with no God, no rules, and no meaning. We must create ourselves. One can readily see how this “ivory tower” philosophy is now commonplace.

The truth is that this philosophy is nothing new. It is the old Serpent’s lie: “And you will be like the Most High God.” That’s right. If meaning depends on me, then I must be a god. That is what the tree of the knowledge of good and evil represented for Adam and Eve. By eating, they were determining the nature of reality for themselves. It’s slightly ironic that Sartre admits as much. He writes,

“The best way to conceive of the fundamental project of human reality is to say that man is the being whose project is to be God. ... To be man means to reach toward being God. Or if you prefer, man fundamentally is the desire to be God.”

The problem, of course, when everyone is a god, eventually your project of self-actualization will conflict with everyone around you. The universe, as it turns out, was not made to accommodate more than one Absolute Being. This is a recipe for societal chaos and strife. Like Sartre confesses in one of his plays, No Exit, when everyone is God, hell is other people. You see, where there is no external rule governing the affairs of men (i.e., God’s existence and law), all that’s left, as Nietzsche said, is the will to power. The powerful will impose their morality on the weak. That is certainly what we are seeing play out in our culture today.

The Christian Hope: Finding Meaning Beyond Ourselves

The Christian hope lights the way beyond ourselves and points us to the one by whom and for whom we were created. The idea of “me time,” that everyone just needs to be their “authentic selves” and do what’s right for them is a Satanic lie that has completely overwhelmed our culture. The phrase, “You do you” is nothing more than the old diabolical lie, “And you shall be as God.” The whole project of existentialism has led us into a fatalistic, meaningless, consumer-driven void that pits one man against another in an eternal struggle to define the self. The Christian hope lights the way away from the self and points us to Author and Giver of life. In him, there is meaning for each individual and for the whole human race. The picture of reality that the Bible gives us is the whole world standing around the throne of the Lamb, praising him. What this image teaches us is that he is the center of the universe and gives meaning to all reality. He is its light and only hope. We don’t need me time; we need to find ourselves in the worship of the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world.

After this, I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen (Revelation 7:9–12).

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