WHY WE REVOLUTIONARY BELIEVERS LOVE EXISTENTIALISM
(This is a guest post by Mark Manolopoulos on the current Existentialist revival in certain quarters of postmodern theory as a radical theology.)
WHY WE REVOLUTIONARY BELIEVERS LOVE EXISTENTIALISM
First of all, allow me to explain the ‘we’ in the title by way of a kind of hope or prayer: when I say ‘we,’ I mean ‘I,’ but I hope this ‘I’ may also be/becomes a ‘we’ or an ‘us’ . . . And when I say ‘revolutionary believers,’ of course I am playing with the double meaning of this phrase. On the one hand, a revolutionary believer is a non-traditional believer, one whose faith is radical, heretical, unorthodox in some sense. Take me, for example: I reject almost everything about Christianity, retaining a minimal, non-dogmatic, open faith; a believer who recognizes their faith as faith. A believer who retains Christianity’s radical core and abandons its credal, ecclesial, ritualistic and other overlays. A self-described ‘anti-Christian Christian.’ This is one sense of the phrase ‘revolutionary believer.’
On the other hand, there is also the ‘revolutionary believer’ in the sense of the committed political radical, such as the Marxist activist, of whom Che Guevara is perhaps the most iconic figure. And, yes, despite my cowardice, I am just beginning to identify myself with and acting in solidarity with this other sense of ‘revolutionary believer’: I wholeheartedly cognize, confirm, and affirm that what the world desperately needs is radical political-economic transformation. Revolution. Communism – or more precisely: neo-communism. Or something like it.
Now, by employing and deploying ‘revolutionary believers’ in both senses, I am already linking the two, as if they have something or some things in common. I am already linking the two and suggesting that the two exist in me, that my ‘I’ is doubled, that this ‘me’ is in some sense a ‘we’: an anti-Christian Christian and an anti-communist communist (and a lot more, besides). A believer who believes in the revolution. This sounds, does it not, like an audacious – even ridiculous – claim? That some kind of ‘theistic’ believer would have something in common with, say, the atheist Marxist radical? On the contrary – and quite surprising to me, too – the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive and may indeed have something or some things in common. In fact, they may even be intertwined. Like lovers.
I could not possibly offer any ‘precise’ presentation about this relation between radical faith and radical politics (refer to, e.g., Boer 2007, 2007-, 2009), not only because I myself have only recently discovered it and have only begun thinking about it (a pre-occupation that will occupy me for the rest of my life, no doubt), but also because here I shall only begin to articulate it – but the present context further prohibits any attempted precision anyway: I have set myself here the even more quasi-impossible task of disclosing this relation in the context of existentialism, so the imprecision doubles and multiplies: for existentialism is itself a sprawling, messy thing – indeed, it is many things, and so it might be more precise to speak of existentialisms rather than ‘Existentialism.’
Indeed, I shall not even begin by offering some kind of ‘definition’ of existentialism – which is how the astute and conscientious scholar usually begins (as I often do), for a whole host of reasons: partially due to existentialism’s sprawling character; partially because the emphasis here is on explaining why we love it rather than defining it – what I’m presenting here is more of a love story than an exposition. For loving something isn’t quite the same as knowing it. Of course, by speaking about our love affair with existentialism, I will go some way towards describing it, more or less precisely.
Now, offering a brief reflection about this trinity, this ménage à trois of faith and communism and existentialism is somewhat impossible, although apparent impossibles are things we revolutionary believers love. And so, the need for a certain degree of imprecision, for generalization, for sweeping statements. Of course, to the overly-conscientious scholar, all this imprecision would be a horrible thing (and I insincerely apologize to any idolizers of precision amongst you). But perhaps, sometimes, imprecision leads to insight. Or something like it.
Perhaps I can proceed to identify and briefly explore just some of the reasons why we revolutionary believers love existentialism by offering a kind of critical commentary or meditation on a really fascinating monologue – my personal favourite – in that most intriguing semi-animated philosophical film, Waking Life (released in 2001). The short discourse I am talking about is provided by the American philosopher Robert C. Solomon (born in 1942, dying in 2007; his works include, e.g., Solomon 1989, 2002; Solomon and Higgins [his wife] 1997). Speaking in a really disarming, unassuming way, Solomon is captivating right from the beginning; the first thing he says is: “The reason why I refuse to take existentialism as just another French fashion or historical curiosity is that I think it has something very important to offer us for the new century.” It is certainly not just a historical curiosity but a sprawling tradition or loose set of traditions with a magnificent history/histories, perhaps even marking texts like the Book of Job. Existentialism, to put it imprecisely, is one of the best things humanity has conceived/discovered, experienced, and shared. It deserves our attention – and our love. Note also Solomon’s proposal that existentialism “has something very important to offer us for the new century”: something or some things, some important things, many important things – some of which I am attempting to briefly articulate here. Now, let’s recall that the movie Waking Life came out in 2001, before the sub-prime crisis, before the Global Financial Crisis, before the Eurozone crisis – and let’s not forget that, since 2001, the world has become ever-more-aware of the climate-change calamity-in-the-making. So many crises. This ‘new century’ is already a catastrophe (as well as an opportunity). We revolutionary believers therefore love those currents of thought that can offer this new century some guidance, some wisdom, some inspiration, some edification. Like existentialism.
The wise Solomon then states: “I’m afraid we’re losing the real virtues of living life passionately, the sense of taking responsibility for who you are, the ability to make something of yourself . . .” ‘Passion’: there are few words – perhaps none – I love more; there are few things – perhaps nothing – I adore more. To live life passionately: a shared imperative for the radical believer and the radical activist. Whatever your opinion of Christ and/or Che, you can’t accuse them of being passionless souls. And they took responsibility not only for who they were, but also for a beautiful but disfigured world. They took responsibility, which also meant responding to an unjust world, by confronting it, making a difference, making a difference for the better – albeit the price for making such a difference was death, nailed by an unjust world, by stakeholders of an unjust world: the Roman Empire, the Jewish hierarchy, the Bolivian authorities, the CIA.
Christ and Che (and others like them): they made something of themselves, something more of themselves, something more than themselves. Nietzsche’s Über-people, no? And, yes, to be a radical Christian and/or Marxist, to live this radical passion and passionate radicalism through to its logical conclusion, is to not only make something of oneself but also to give of oneself, to give oneself up for a Cause. There’s some old words for that: sacrifice, martyrdom. I consider their Causes – perhaps reducible to timeless passions for justice, sharing, loving . . . – as Causes worthy of self-sacrifice. But in a cynical, apathetic, detached age, we are certainly losing the virtues of passion, of passionate responsibility, of making something of ourselves, of a self-making and self-giving making a difference to the world. I think it was Slavoj Žižek (2001), perhaps/probably the most passionate philosopher alive today (another thinker whom I love), who stated that we Westerners cannot imagine fighting for a political cause – that’s what makes 9/11 even more shocking: the hijackers had a Cause.
Solomon continues: “Existentialism is often discussed as if it’s a philosophy of despair. But I think the truth is just the opposite. Sartre once interviewed said he never really felt a day of despair in his life. But one thing that comes out from reading these guys is not a sense of anguish about life so much as a real kind of exuberance of feeling on top of it . . .” Solomon’s passion for existentialism, his exuberance, has obviously skewed his judgement here (so we forgive him and even admire him even as we correct him): even a naive reader of existentialism certainly gets a sense of its despair. If there may be one thing we could be precise about when it comes to existentialism, it’s this: that it’s a philosophy of despair – oftentimes written with despair, with desperation. But let us not deride despair: it is a passionate feeling, something experienced by the impassioned in the face of the possible meaninglessness, apparent absurdity, and certain injustice of life.
Existentialism, then, is certainly a philosophy of despair. However, Solomon is not wholly incorrect, for he is also right, he is half-right: existentalism is certainly not just about despair; it is also about exuberance. Existentialism is both. Together. Intertwined. Like lovers. What is great about Solomon’s remark is that it re-emphasizes a perhaps-often-forgotten side of existentialism rather than just despairingly focusing on its despair, on its ‘pessimism.’ After all, existentialism affirms that we are free (more or less); that the future is open (more or less); and so on. This exuberance, this affirmativeness – this is one of the reasons we revolutionary believers love existentialism. The true Christian and the true Marxist is filled with the joy that comes from believing in and fighting for possibilities that a cynical world calls ‘impossible.’
Solomon then goes on to say a thing or two about postmodern philosophy: “I’ve read the postmodernists with some interest, even admiration. But when I read them, I always have this awful nagging feeling that something absolutely essential is getting left out. The more that you talk about a person as a social construction or as a confluence of forces or as fragmented or marginalized, what you do is you open up a whole new world of excuses.” I, too, have read the postmodernists with some interest, even admiration, and – yes – even love (some of my favorite postmodern-theological works include Taylor 1984; Caputo 1997; Westphal 2001; etc.). And once again, Solomon is half-wrong and half-right. On the one hand, “The more that you talk about a person as a social construction or as a confluence of forces or as fragmented . . .,” the more you learn about the nature of personhood, about the complex – indeed, somewhat elusive, abyssal, mysterious – nature of the self; we should indeed admire and love the postmodernists for teaching us – or at least reminding us – that the ‘I’ is infinitely stranger than we could have possibly imagined. So, all these insights from the postmodernists have opened up a “whole new world” of explanation of selfhood. Solomon’s “awful nagging feeling,” then, shouldn’t necessarily have to do with “something absolutely essential . . . getting left out,” for these postmodern insights should be included in our conception of the human, thus adding to our understanding of subjectivity.
But Solomon is also right in claiming that postmodern knowledge about the self may also act as a “whole new world of excuses,” for it certainly undermines the notion of the utterly self-possessed, self-made, and therefore responsible/accountable person – a figuration of the individual obviously much-cherished by existentialists (and many others, besides). By complicating and even de-stabilizing the received and ‘commonsensical’ notion of the simply stable, unified, rational self, it could seem to be the case that we postmodern selves may now ‘excuse ourselves’ from any radical freedom and radical responsibility. After all, given the radical de-centering of the subject, to what extent may we now enforce legal accountability, retribution, punishment? Given that the individual is more than – and otherwise than – the rational autonomous agent, does this mean we should forgive liberally (even infinitely)? Is there even any sense in speaking of an ‘active’ agent? The questions, the doubts, multiply. So Solomon certainly has a point, and we can identify with his “awful nagging feeling” about excusing ourselves from responsibility and action.
Who, then, is ‘right’? There is no need to choose here. I would respond to this conundrum in the following way: in just the same way that existentialism does not respond despondently to a possibly meaningless and certainly absurd existence, trudging through life, but asks instead that we embrace being with courage and purpose, so, too, do we continue to act as self-possessed and radically responsible individuals who are “condemned to be free” even in the face of our social constructedness, our constitution as matrices of forces, as fragmented, fluid, multiple selves, and so on. The revolutionary believer, the anti-Christian Christian and the anti-communist communist should face and embrace the postmodern truths about selfhood without losing heart, just as the revolutionary believer shouldn’t be discouraged by an absent/elusive divinity or by the apparent permanence of capitalism. All of these thoughtful currents may critically inform each other, so that they can all become more precise, more truthful. What we get is a more existential-postmodern faith. Each affecting each other. Like lovers.
Solomon ends his monologue with the following remarks: “And when Sartre talks about responsibility, he’s not talking about something abstract. . . . Making decisions. Doing things and taking the consequences. . . . what you do makes a difference. . . . In short, I think the message here is that we should never simply write ourselves off and see ourselves as the victim of various forces. It’s always our decision who we are.” I would like to focus on, first, the statement that “we should never simply write ourselves off and see ourselves as the victim of various forces”: the key term here is, quite simply, the word ‘simply.’ This is a crucial term and qualifier which reinforces what I said about living as if we have a certain degree of autonomy, ‘free will,’ self-determination (in both senses). The word ‘simply’ indicates that we should persevere beyond the ‘limits’ that the postmodernists have brought to our attention and that we shouldn’t deny these limits, but that our resolve to act should not be shaken or paralyzed; that we act heroically even if we are ‘victims’ in some senses. For the hero is precisely one who acts in the face of the impossible.
I would like to conclude this presentation by focusing on the crux of this final passage: that “what you do makes a difference.” This phrase or catch-phrase may sound like Oprah or self-help psycho-babble, but a truth is a truth, even if it comes in the form of a cliché or soundbyte. So, what you and I do makes a difference; what humans have done and will do makes a difference. We revolutionary believers love existentialism because it believes – it shares our belief – that we make a difference.
But it is not enough – especially today, in this new century with its new and old crises, of multiple crises and multiplying sufferings – to simply declare that “we make a difference.” The time has come to ask ourselves: What are we TO DO to make a difference? What are we to do that will make a difference FOR THE BETTER?
Here’s where I think a radical faith and a radical politics may provide the content to the existentialist imperative to make a difference – content that will make a difference for the better. Both of these lines of thought and action offer many directives: to love and care for each other rather than fight and inflict suffering upon one another; to share what is produced rather than savagely competing, hoarding, and accumulating; to produce and consume according to planetary limits rather than pursue exponential economic ‘growth’ by means of exploitation and destruction; etc.
I am reminded here of Lenin who asked the same question over a century ago with What Is To Be Done? (1988 ). The eventual answer for Russia, as we know, was the noble overthrow of an oppressive empire and the establishment of a structure of sharing. A combination of internal corruption and external bullying obviously led to the demise of the communist effort in Russia, though it should be remembered that a number of other nations continue to realize – more or less, and with varying degrees of success – the Communist Ideal. What we shouldn’t do is be discouraged by the dismal communist failures, by the bad reputation communism has received, fairly and unfairly. Like the concept of ‘the soul,’ what we must now do is re-think ‘communism’ not only to avoid the catastrophes of the past, but to make it even more rigorous, more progressive, more ecological, more existentialist, etc. – a neo-communism. Or something like it.
And so, you and I – we – can make a difference (hence, my hope or prayer for an ‘us’ with which I began). You and I can make a difference, a difference for the better: the beautiful and terrifying name we revolutionary believers have for this making and doing is ‘Neo-Communist Revolution.’ Which is something I hope existentialists or neo-existentialists will love.
Dr Mark Manolopoulos works in the School of Philosophical, Historical
and International Studies, Monash University. His publications include
“If Creation is a Gift” (SUNY, 2009), “With Gifted Thinkers” (Peter
Lang, 2009), and several articles in academic journals and the
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