“How can this love of life be born again out of suffering and grief?”1 -Jürgen Moltmann
Grief and suffering have haunted humanity since the dawn of time. Helplessness, hopelessness, and powerlessness in the face of insurmountable evil have sent billions of people spinning into a universe of confusion and despair. Lost in this vast sea of despair, human beings have tried endlessly to find solid ground, and though many different sails and winds have directed us, many Christians, especially in the Western tradition, are far from sighting land. Many are even unaware of their own lost ships. What is going on here? Why are so many people hopelessly lost? And others so hopelessly unaware of being so? As we swim, we cannot help but question our existence.
Religion has often been accused of being nothing more than an imaginary belief system to fulfill our wishes and ease our pain. We reach out for whatever will soothe our fears in this endless ocean, and if religion is anything, it is only the mirage of an island that we choose to swim toward, barely keeping our heads above water. Christianity has also been accused of this. Is the Christian ship slowly filling up with water while we dine and laugh, completely unaware of the sinking? The secular humanists will claim that as much as they yell and wave their arms trying to get our attention, we do nothing more than wave back naively, or worse, aim our canons. What is our motivation for being Christians? Is faith a mere defense mechanism? And yet, the secular humanists, though aware of their own ship sinking, are failing to save their ship as well. What is going on here? Is it all hopeless?
Richard Beck's article, “The Function of Religious Belief” discusses this very idea of religious motivation. He attempts to describe two modes of motivation: defensive and existential.
A defensive religion is one that provides a quick-fix. It is a religion of comfort and avoidance of existential crises. For instance, no one wants to die, so humans come up with the comforting idea of a happy-ever-afterlife. Religion is used as a defense mechanism against our fatal, mortal future.2 A defensive religion may be alleviating for the average person by “repressing awareness of our horrifying existential situation,” and by giving us “ways of achieving symbolic immortality which imbue life with meaning and purpose.”3 Additional elements characteristic of this type of religious motivation include protecting beliefs to an extreme that often leads to dogmatism or fanaticism, moral outrage and indignation when beliefs are threatened, and a minimal capacity for dialogue with outsiders. Most of those outsiders are perceived only as targets for evangelism. These things are often times accompanied by a hesitance to wrestle with critical issues of one's beliefs and an attendant simplemindedness. This comforting belief is usually assisted by a “cosmic specialness” in which Providence or Destiny will lead one on to greater success than others, and the Divine Being of worship is “extraordinarily responsive and solicitous of the believer's most trivial needs and requests.”4
Many atheists protest against this kind of religion. They are upset that many religious humans are unaware or are ignoring our existential condition by participating in a defensive religion. This could be called “protest atheism.” It is the sort of atheism that Job had within himself as he wrestled with God. It asks, “Why all this evil?” The theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, said concerning protest atheism, “This atheism is profoundly theological, for the theodicy question...is also the fundamental question of every Christian theology which takes seriously the question that the dying Christ throws at God : 'My God, why have you forsaken me?'”5
This sort of atheism has the fear that God may indeed be indifferent to the world and has completely retreated from the world, if he was ever within it. Dostoevsky and Camus both hit upon this issue. Camus calls it a metaphysical rebellion. A human will rebel against his condition and the condition of creation. It is metaphysical because it opposes the notion that any meaningful end can come of humanity and creation. Redemption seems impossible. Moltmann writes, “The question of the existence of God is, in itself, a minor issue in the face of the question of his righteousness in the world.”6
What, then, can we do? Are we doomed to the unredeemable world of the protest atheist? Are we doomed to the apathetic or naïve world of the defensive theist? There is one more option according to Beck: existential religion. This religious motivation acknowledges the terrifying condition of humanity. But it is distinct from agnosticism or atheism in that it does involve faith, even orthodox faith. But this existential faith is paired with a constant struggle of doubt. It refuses to allow faith to merely become something that alleviates one from the truth of our existential condition, the condition that recognizes it is our responsibility to redeem the world, and yet we have not the power to do this. We must save the world, but we are not capable of doing so. Believing God is 'in control' does not really ease the existential believer's angst. The person does not have a psychological experience of peaceful bliss. Rather, the person carries a unique burden in which no guarantees are made that his/her faith will be proven justified. “In a sense,” Beck states, “existential believers 'hope' rather than 'believe'.”7 These believers either refuse or fail to experience the easy comfort that others may find in religion. They tend to be less dogmatic, more tolerant of those outside their beliefs, and have less expectancy for immediate pleasures or success. Though often times accused by the defensive believers of displaying too much faithlessness in their angst and doubt, one must seriously consider whether or not the defensive believer's faith is too superficial in denying angst and doubt.8 This existential religion is shared and proposed by both Søren Kierkegaard and Fyodor Dosteovsky, and further examined and suggested in the theology of Jürgen Moltmann. I propose that their notion of Christian existentialism brings meaning and significance to the Christian life often fraught with apathy or ignorance, and that it also illuminates the good and allows room for hope and faith, which protest atheism cannot provide. I will show this by doing three things. First, I will explain Kierkegaard's ideas of despair and dread that lead to the self-awareness necessary to choose the Christian life. Next, I will describe Dostoevsky's views of suffering for the sake of love and how it refines our image of God and directs our purpose in life. And finally, I will explain Moltmann's theology of the cross and theology of hope as the theological framework for the Christian existential life.
Kierkegaard's view on “the self” was essential to his view of true Christianity. The self becomes. It forms through a process. It could be called “selfhood.” This self is not just one entity existing continually throughout time, but rather one that ebbs and flows with the becoming process. It is defined not by itself, but by its relationship to others, both God and humans. “Selfhood” is a never fully realized achievement. Under this view, an individual goes through a process to achieve the self, or cease to be one.9 Evans explains the importance of this process of becoming a self to Kierkegaard.
The contemporary world has difficulty believing, not because humans have become smarter and more rational, but because our imaginations have become impoverished and our moral and spiritual lives shallow and superficial. We do not need more evidence for faith, and the attempt to “sell” Christian faith to those who are not in a position even to understand it will inevitably falsify it. Rather, the fundamental need is for human persons to become more human. We must renew the ancient quest to find out who we are. Only then will we be in a position to hear and respond to the gospel.10
The individual's goal is to become more human. The self is open-ended and in constant change. And it is through consciousness that the self emerges.
Introspection, self-examination, and becoming self-aware are all parts of consciousness. If we are unaware of who we are, how can we move forward? By ignoring who we are or failing to recognize who we are, how can we ever come to find what we are capable of, or our potential? Consciousness synthesizes the “relations of body and psyche, finite and infinite, necessity and possibility, the temporal and eternal,” for it is only through reflection upon one's life that possibilities are imagined, eventually leading to action that will bring that possibility into concrete reality.11 This is the emergence of the self.
For Kierkegaard, certain dispositions and states of mind are important for the development of the self. States such as anxiety, melancholy, and despair are unavoidable with the emergence of the self and consciousness. These dispositions exemplify “the dynamic and tension-ridden features of the human life, as persons live within time, oriented from a past through a present to an undetermined future.”12
In attempting to become, we come to an understanding of fallibility. In our consciousness of the human condition, we call out to a God who is absent, and search for redemption in a world that seems unredeemable. We realize the overwhelming responsibility on our shoulders, and our incapability to fulfill that responsibility. We cannot bring healing to the past reality of suffering and grief. We cannot get to the eternal and the infinite. One may be drawn to apathy and to live abundantly through material wealth in order to forget. Or one may stay in a vegetative state of anxiety moving nowhere fast.13 In Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Kierkegaard describes this: “The religious man lies in the finite like a helpless child; he desires absolutely to hold fast to the conception [of God], and precisely this annihilates him; he desires to do all and, while he summons his will to the task, his impotence begins.”14
This is the consciousness that leads an individual into despair. For a person to really achieve the self, one must enter into this state of despair. The human being cannot come to terms with reality unless that person first comes to terms with his/herself. The individual must endure isolation and be willing to suffer through this despair, and he/she must do so for the sake of life, the sake of creative possibility found through reflection and consciousness.15 This is called the “subjective thinker”. “Subjective” for Kierkegaard is not what we think of as one's bias that taints one's ability to get at objective truth (the objective truth in this case being something people can grasp by detaching themselves from their personal experiences and backgrounds). Kierkegaard's subjectivity does not deny the existence of objective truth, but rather emphasizes the individual's uniqueness in knowing reality.16 If someone decides to seek out the veracity or objective truth of Christianity to the last detail, either through history or philosophy or science, etc., one will enter into anxiety because one cannot find that objectivity. A person can come very close to knowing objectivity, but that method will prove faulty to be used in becoming a Christian. No one can become a Christian self that way. As soon as that person bases their decision on verifying Christianity in this way, “that instant begins...the anxious, the timorous contradictory effort of approximation. Approximation may be protracted indefinitely” and the possibility of becoming a Christian under such a method “is relegated to oblivion.”17
And so the individual enters despair. As long as consciousness continues to increase, so will the intensity of despair. Despair is at its minimum when a person is unconscious of the human condition. Someone might ask, “Why would anyone want to enter into this despair?” Kierkegaard understood that many people are content with their situation in life and abhor the thought of someone asking them to “kill the joy” and be “dreary”. It is an insult to ask someone to enter into such a consciousness that leads to despair when it sounds so terribly negative and unhappy! What is the reason for willing this despair upon oneself? He replies, “the reason is that...he lives in the sensuous categories agreeable/disagreeable, and says goodbye to truth...the reason is that he is too sensuous to have the courage to venture to be spirit or to endure it.”18 Kierkegaard described these people as being in an “enchantment of illusion” that are unaware of their own despair. This is a step backwards. While being in despair may seem negative, being unaware of despair is even more negative and one step further away from truth and salvation. “Despair itself is a negativity, unconsciousness of it is a new negativity. But to reach truth one must pierce through every negativity.”19 Unconscious despair is the most dangerous form, because it secures itself in the power of despair. The true path does not pass by despair, but passes through it.20
Why, then, should one despair? What can despair do for the Christian? The answer is that everyone is already in despair; it's whether or not they are conscious of it and to what extent they are conscious of it. If a man or a woman thinks he/she is not in despair, he or she is more than likely hiding, or plugging his/her ears. She is living in a state of illusion, or pretending that she is living life to the fullest. He is not facing the human condition. He is not listening to the suffering of his neighbor, nor to his own suffering. Neither of them are seeing the potential they have for good or for evil, and feeling the weight of that responsibility. To become selves, Christian selves, they must choose self-awareness and despair. We must all become conscious of the state of the world and of the human condition: the state of the world in its entirety and the state of the world living in the individual self. Only after we become conscious of these things, both the fallible but also the potential, can we begin to move through the despair into freedom.
This is the dialectic of human life. By choosing despair we actually overcome its grip on us and enter into freedom. We find joy and love for life only by suffering that life willingly. This dialectic is not easily held. Indeed, it is the most difficult thing in the world. To choose suffering so that one may overcome it seems ridiculous. But this is exactly what Kierkegaard suggests. When a person suffers in such a way, the desire for immediate gratification and happiness disintegrates, one's hope now being transferred to a greater eternal expectation. The individual also suffers as guilty before God, this consciousness leading to a greater awareness of God's love and urging one on to a refinement of character. With this consciousness of sin and the choosing of despair, occasions of joy begin to be illuminated. The individual can now feel free from the disappointing hopes of this world in taking on hardship willingly.21
But the Christian must not expect to be consoled in any trivial manner. There is no easy offer of comfort that so often makes Christianity attractive. Rather, the Christian, in accepting suffering will never be consoled, but is commanded to console and love others. Here again is the dialectic. In this very act of consoling others, the Christian finds consolation. In loving others, one finds love. But seeking consolation or love without this commitment to others is a worldly view of consolation and love. It will only circle around in despair. In this way then, the Christian finds reason not to despair as others do, despite suffering and no expectations of being rid of that suffering. The Christian will console and love others despite it all, and by doing so actually does find consolation and encourages others to do this.22 Kierkegaard explains the difficulty of this dialectic,
And religiously the positive is always recognizable by the negative:...“To hold the fate of many human beings in one's hand, to transform the world, and then constantly to understand that this is a jest.23
At this point in the individual's becoming process, the concept of dread enters the human psyche. Once we have chosen despair, our despair turns to dread. Dread brings fuller awareness of our human potential, both good and evil. Kierkegaard claims, “One may liken dread to dizziness. He whose eye chances to look down into the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But the reason for it is just as much his eye as it is the precipice. For suppose he had not looked down.”24
This dread can be described as a sort of enlightenment. We become dizzy as we realize our freedom. This freedom gazes into the abyss of possibilities “grasping at finiteness to sustain itself” but also reaching for the “infinity of possibility, which does not tempt like a definite choice, but alarms and fascinates with its sweet anxiety.”25 The human person feels both doomed and encouraged in holding together the understanding of our finiteness with infinite possibility. This aspect of Kierkegaard's concept of dread sets him apart from secular existentialists. For them, dread still involves the realization of responsibility and concern for humanity. But within this concern, Kierkegaard also highlights “the possibility of man's own exaltation as by the actuality of his fallibility.”26 For the atheist, freedom is the absurd curse of humankind that one must learn to deal with. But that view “cannot offer any ground for expecting the radical transformation of man, passing from hostility to community, which he so earnestly desires.”27 This dread illuminates a self-consciousness, no longer merely apathetic, but uneasy about the state of existence. It is a self-accusation, self-concern, that entrusts the human with sober responsibility and opens one's eyes to the need for salvation.
This does not lead to a deemphasis on the temporal, trusting only in a whimsical hope and dream for a world beyond this one. Rather, there occurs “the radical rearrangement of the temporal process in its becoming assimilated to the eternal, and, correlatively, the emergence of the moment as marking the fusion of eternity and time.”28 This means that the Eternal is not merely awaiting our death so we can be brought up into heaven. The Eternal pierces into our history and is transforming this world in the here and the now. I must emphasize that Kierkegaard is not merely interested in a fantastical world beyond this one to which we escape. He is interested in the future, our own future, that has so many potentials and possibilities! He writes, “For the very thrust of...dread lies in re-establishing the concrete dimension of the future as the continual rediscovery of what is possible and in emphasizing the ongoing development of self-concern as concurring with the unfathomable mystery of the eternal.”29 With this understanding of dread, a person is not naïve or ignorant, but is “educated in the school of possibilities.”30
It is also important to note the difference between the Christian sufferer who suffers internally, and the secular ethicist who suffers on account of externalities. The ethical striver moves away from irresponsibility and takes a step toward responsibility. Even so, that person is dependent on externalities. This individual must give up the idea of finding meaning based solely on external results, “only so can he begin to be more than a puppet of fate or fortune.”31 The ethicist has come to a very important recognition that one of the greatest problems with human existence is “a disease of the will,” that is, the failure to take responsibility not only of oneself, but of the entire world of selves. In this sense, the ethical is a good step toward change in the world. But the downfall for ethicists is that they are dependent on external or outward results of the world. Kierkegaard affirms the individual decisions of the ethical person because they have chosen autonomously to shoot for the good. But without an eternal hope as well as a temporal striving, the ethicist will never fully move through despair and into freedom32. The ethical person must realize that “human capacities, even at their highest and most refined, are unable to go beyond limitation imposed by man's finitude.”33
In summary of Kierkegaard, we must remember three essential things for the emergence of the self. The first is that one must move deeper and deeper into despair before coming into freedom. The greater the degree of consciousness, the greater the despair. But only by passing through despair can we come to find salvation. The second is the concept of dread. We are standing on the precipice in a state of dizziness as we see the possibilities before us. We now recognize the great responsibility upon our shoulders, and that weighs heavily on us. But we also begin to see the incredible possibilities and potentials within our grasp. Freedom is set before us. And the third thing is the difference between the inward sufferer and the ethicist. The inward sufferer is one that is in the depths of despair in the becoming process, but the ethicist is one that suffers on account of external results. The strivings and hope of the ethicist will never move through despair and into freedom if they continue to depend solely on the results of world. The inward sufferer must not give up on the external results, the outward sufferer must not solely rely upon them. These three things are essential in understanding Kierkegaard's Christian existentialism.
During the same century that Kierkegaard was presenting these ideas in Denmark, the Russian thinker, Fyodor Dostoevsky, was formulating them through his psychoanalytic novels. In Notes from the Underground, Dostoevsky comments on the frightening, yet essential, element of freedom in the formation of the self. In the pursuit of consciousness, the human despairs. “The more conscious I was of goodness and of all that was 'good and beautiful,' the more deeply I sank into my mire and the more ready I was to sink in it altogether.”34 Here we see the man stunned by the potential for good, but also overwhelmed by his fallibility. And yet, that man wouldn't have it any other way, for freedom is critical for the man. Dostoevsky was opposed to any idea that took away the freedom of the individual, either through scientific determinism or divine providence. He exclaims that even if it could be proven indefinitely that the existence of human beings was determined through and through, someone would rise up and proclaim, “I say, gentlemen, hadn't we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will?!”35 This Underground figure of the story continues to write that human beings will always rebel against the idea that they are nothing more than “keys of a piano.”36
Even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics...[he] would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point. And if he does not find means he will contrive destruction and chaos,... [in order to] convince himself that he is a man and not a piano-key! If you say that all this, too, can be calculated...so that the mere possibility of calculating it all beforehand would stop it all...then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and gain his point!37
So though human beings may sink deeper and deeper into the mire upon becoming more conscious, they would have it no other way. There will always be someone who rebels against being made a piano-key. “Consciousness is the greatest misfortune for man, yet I know man prizes it and would not give it up for any satisfaction.”38
But with Dostoevsky, along with Kierkegaard, suffering is not merely for suffering's sake, nor is despair. Suffering produces freedom when it is willfully embraced. By embracing the existence given to humanity and our tragic incapacity, we must see suffering as “suffering towards personhood” which “actualizes his/her highest capacity for freedom.”39 This suffering toward personhood embraces the absence of God in the world, or absence of capacity to transcend one's sinful state, and by doing so begins to see God's presence in the world. It provides a doorway for the theology of hope.40 But freedom in suffering is absurd if without love. Freedom and love go hand in hand within suffering. “It is not only through freedom, but also through love that human beings are enabled to embrace suffering and to endure [God's] absence.”41
This idea of suffering through love (as discussed in Kierkegaard's thought as well) is meticulously laced throughout Dostoevsky's famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov. Two particular instances of advice given from the monk character, Father Zossima, highlight this well. The first is a word of wisdom and prediction to Alyosha Karamazov, a monk and his most ardent follower. Zossima says to him, “You will see great sorrow, and in that sorrow you will be happy. This is my last message to you: in sorrow seek happiness. Work, work unceasingly.”42
The second instance is advice to a woman who is struggling with angst and doubt. He says to her,
But active love is labor and fortitude....But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting further from your goal instead of nearer it – at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you.43
Suffering and despair will often seem to increase, weighing on the individual and trying to kill what hope he or she has. But active love is labor. And just when we feel like no progress is being made and we are further off than when we started, the Divine will shine through and reveal love and hope to us.
A third significant instance of this is found in the dialogue between Ivan Karamazov and the devil. As Ivan desperately questions the meaning of the Christian life and wonders why Christians still believe in God, the devil answers him, “They suffer, of course...but then they live, they live a real life, not a fantastic one, for suffering is life.”44
As strange as it is may seem that the devil should be the revealer of this truth, Dostoevsky implies that this path, this Christian suffering for the sake of love, is not always convincing, and indeed is often times rebelled against as an absurdity, the devil being the ultimate Rebel. And one may never come to peace with this absurdity. Even Alyosha, the follower of Father Zossima and his fellow monk, acknowledges this absurdity and struggles with it. He is, afterall, the brother of Ivan.
“I too am a Karamazov...me a monk, a monk! Am I a monk, Lise?....And perhaps I don't even believe in God.”
“You don't believe? What is the matter?” said, Lise quietly and gently. But Alyosha did not answer. There was something too mysterious, too subjective in these last words of his, perhaps obscure to himself, but yet torturing him.45
Not even the most “Christian” character escapes the overwhelming mystery and absurdity of existence. Even Alyosha questions, wonders, and doubts. But despite it all, he chooses to continue loving and searching for love, always concerned for the others in his life whether related to him or not. But his caring does not come lightly. He carries a heavy heart and his concerns weigh greatly on his soul, ever fighting with angst and working toward love. “There is only one possibility of reconciling the absurdity inherent in freedom as suffering, and that is through love; freedom and love must coincide in suffering. Only through love can freedom escape the absurdity of meaninglessness, for only love can transform suffering into the possibility of communion.”46 This is what Alyosha strives for. This way of suffering removes isolation. And by doing so, one becomes a "catholic personality" who takes on responsibility for the whole world's sufferings.47
But is this right? Where is justice? Is there no real freedom from this suffering and absurdity? It is all very easy to say that suffering through love is the purpose of life and it brings freedom, but when we stop and seriously consider the implications of this, we might be filled with a sort of righteous anger for the sad condition we have ourselves in, a condition which seems to be out of our control. Love for the world does not instantly or magically make a person accept suffering. On the contrary, shouldn't we all be very upset with all this? That the only way we can free ourselves from this absurd suffering is to just accept it and keep loving? To let this sink in, we must further discuss the issues Dostoevsky raises through Ivan Karamazov. Ivan describes a few instances that depict completely terrifying and meaningless suffering of children.
One child, a little girl, is beaten by her parents of high status and refinement. Finding great delight in the torture, they progress into harsher forms such as shutting her in the outhouse all night in the cold and smearing her face with excrement.48
Another child, a poor serf boy to a wealthy general, is charged with throwing a stone at the general's favorite dog. The general, being outraged, has the boy stripped naked and demands him to run. The general sets loose his hunting dogs upon the poor boy. It doesn't take long for the dogs to catch him and proceed to tear him to pieces, all in front of the little boy's mother.49 Ivan is justifiably outraged.
If all must suffer to pay for eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It's beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony....If the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don't want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs!...Let her forgive [the torturer] for herself...but the sufferings of her tortured child she has no right to forgive....I don't want harmony. From love for humanity I don't want it....too high a price is asked for harmony; its beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket....It's not God that I don't accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.50
Notice that it is because of Ivan's love for humanity that he rejects God's creation and suffering. Upon entering despair and recognizing the absurdity of our human condition, Ivan utterly rebels against the reality of the world and refuses to accept it because of the innocent suffering of children. He can handle the sins of adults, of men and women, but the suffering of innocent children he will not accept. “Why should [humanity] know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much? Why, the whole world of knowledge is not worth that child's prayers to 'dear, kind God'!”51 Ivan is upset with the absurdity that “freedom is freedom for evil as well as for good.”52 If freedom in this way is the price for real life and for eternal harmony, life and harmony should be rejected all together. And this is a very important objection that demands attention. How do we respond?
The freedom that Ivan is speaking of is different from the freedom found through suffering. It is freedom as negation. It rejects the existence given each of us without our permission, and it rejects the tragedy of life. This freedom's greatest search is for independence from suffering. The only way one can assert this independence is to remove oneself from life and suffering altogether through suicide.53 Alyosha exclaims, “How will you live, how will you love them?...With such a hell in your heart and your head, how can you?...you will kill yourself, you can't endure it!”54
This is the ultimate anguish. Without active pursuit of love in which we find love in return, and in that love we find God's presence, we will only be led to the conclusion of God's absence and stir ourselves on to the ultimate rebellion which chooses suicide as its only form of freedom. We will desire to assert our independence from this anguish once and for all. Two choices sit before us: choose suicide, or choose life.
Ivan's fears led him to believe that humans will always fall prey to their freedom; they will always give in to their weakness. He denies humans the ability to use free will correctly, that is, to choose the good. The innocent suffering of children has jaded his perspective and he now thinks that humans are incapable of doing good on their own. This leads Ivan to his story about the Grand Inquisitor. Human beings, in their incapacity, are begging for someone to rule them. The Grand Inquisitor recognizes this truth and orders everyone to submit under his rule. “Rather than experience the suffering of free moral choice, they will gladly submit to any political or religious authority that will settle for them all matters of good and evil.”55 This Grand Inquisitor uses his religious authority for order and obedience, hopelessly skeptical about human potential.
Christ is the opposite of this. Not through power or security, but in freedom, are we linked to God. Christ does not use coercion for people's obedience. He does not enforce his authority. Instead, he uses relentless love and selflessness. Through suffering and weakness he is made strong and free, and his love is powerfully persuasive. We see this power through his death and resurrection.56
Instead of Jesus' crucifixion being just one more instance of meaningless suffering on this earth, the Crucifixion was chosen and accepted by Jesus. By choosing so, he set himself free from death with the resurrection. In this regard, the Divine and the human are now participating in one another.57 The Divine participates in the suffering of humanity in life and death, and the human participates in Christ, in the Divine, because their experience of life and death is now also a divine experience. For Dostoevsky and other Russian thinkers, this is described in the Russian word sobornost, meaning “altogetherness.”58 It is a description and a name of this God-humanity that experiences each other's suffering and freedom. Some Russian thinkers, such as Berdyaev, even go as far as saying that God cannot enforce or coerce his authority. God has “no power to compel obedience to the law or faith in Christ. God's only power is the power of persuasive love, a power limited by human freedom.”59 The opposite of this is found in the Grand Inquisitor, who, having little faith in humanity, compels them not away from evil and toward good, but rather to mere obedience. “And forced obedience, in the eyes of Dostoevsky and all his fellow Russian thinkers, is the death of Christian ideals.”60
Jürgen Moltman calls this type of thinking the theology of the cross. For God to be God, he must be capable of suffering. If he is not, he is inferior to the human who can accept and choose suffering and death despite it all. For God to be perfectly wise, he has to have experienced what humans experience. He has to experience death. When we imagine God as someone who cannot or will not suffer, we are also imagining a God who is not involved. A God who is not involved is the only kind that does not suffer. He is insensitive, cannot weep, and cannot love. Suicide is the greatest rebellion against this image of God. It asserts once and for all the capacity for freedom that neither animal nor God have: freely-chosen death.61 A God who is only omnipotent is an incomplete God. He is incomplete because he hasn't experienced powerlessness and the helplessness of the human condition. Moltmann explains,
Omnipotence can indeed be longed for and worshiped by helpless men, but omnipotence is never loved: it is only feared....for a man who is aware of the riches of his own nature in his love, his suffering, his protest and his freedom, such a God is not a necessary and supreme being, but a highly dispensable and superfluous being.62
Many theists think of God at humanity's expense. Many atheists think of humanity at God's expense. While the former put God on the all-powerful throne, they neglect consideration of the human being. The latter put humans on the all-powerful throne and declare God non-existent. But God is both God and human.63 He is law, but he is also the event of suffering and liberating love. “Conversely, the death of the Son is not the 'death of God', but the beginning of that God event in which the life-giving spirit of love emerges from the death of the Son and the grief of the Father.”64
The theology of the cross is essential to the Christian existentialist. Christian faith is unfaith overcome. It is not naïve trust. The theology of the cross opens us up to fellowship with the crucified Christ, a fellowship that need not suppress one's pain and doubts, because those are the same pains and doubts of the crucified Christ. “Here the contradictions and rebellions do not have to be suppressed. They can be admitted. Those who recognize God's presence in the face of the God-forsaken Christ have protest atheism within themselves – but as something they have overcome.”65
The history of God now contains human history, all its suffering and death and future redemption. It leads into new creation. But these conclusions can only be found when we understand humanity in the suffering and dying of Christ. All humanity in its despairs and anxiety gets taken up into Christ and into God.66 “Only if all disaster, forsakenness by God, absolute death, the infinite curse of damnation and sinking into nothingness is in God himself, is community with this God eternal salvation, infinite joy, indestructible election and divine life.”67 This is why we must not shy away from suffering, which shies away from love. We must embrace suffering. People who suffer are not just fighting against fate, but are suffering because they love and affirm life. Even Ivan Karamazov exclaims, “Tomorrow the cross, but not the gallows. No, I won't hang myself. Do you know, I can never commit suicide...Is it because I am base?...Is it from love of life?”68
People who stop loving life do not stop suffering, but rather become apathetic, numb to suffering and numb to love. Here again lies the dialectic of human life. Being able to love also enables suffering. Love for life creates happiness, but it also creates a greater capacity to grieve.69 Protest atheists suffer out of love – but they also reject the love that has given them that suffering. On the other hand, people who “recognize their suffering in God, and God in their suffering, and in companionship with him find the strength to remain in love and not to become bitter, in spite of pain and sorrow.”70 We must recognize our fears and sufferings in Christ, the fears and sufferings that are caught up into him.
I hope one can now see the dire importance of the theology of the cross. But suffering is not the only side of knowing God. Christians must go through this process of self-becoming and despairing, but they also mustn't hesitate at expressing or acknowledging their positive experiences of God. Paired with the theology of the cross and equal in importance is the theology of hope.
The hope found in God should not be suppressed. “While both faith and despair know the good, faith alone presses on to hope.”71 Hope transcends the reality of the past, the elusive present, and reaches for the possible, bringing the future, the eternal, into the present. Hope becomes necessary. As Kierkegaard maintained, “Lovingly to hope all things is the opposite of despairingly to hope nothing at all, either for oneself or for others.”72 Upon progressing further and further into the process of becoming, “the self realizes to a degree previously hidden that the self cannot attain perfection this side of eternity.”73 It now looks to the other side of eternity. “Thus, hope is an antidote for skepticism.”74
With this mentality, faith enables hope, and that hope is the kind that grabs on to eternity as possibility. Only when the eternal becomes a spiritual possibility through hope can the anxious human being find relief. Fear does the opposite of this. It gets “caught in the dizziness of freedom” and shrinks away from reaching out to the possible and the eternal.75 Kierkegaard is adamant about this. He continues,
To relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of the good is to hope....To relate oneself expectantly to the possibility of evil is to fear. But both the one who hopes and the one who fears are expecting. As soon, however, as the choice is made, the possible is changed, because the possibility of the good is the eternal....by the decision to choose hope, one decides infinitely more than it seems, because it is an eternal decision.76
Moltmann affirms this. He believes that both anxiety and hope are looking to the future in expectation, either negative or positive. “What anxiety and hope actually have in common is a sense of what is possible. In anxiety we anticipate possible danger. In hope we anticipate possible deliverance.”77
Hoping for God's kingdom is constitutive for experiencing God in the present. Indeed, it is experiencing God. The history of humanity taken up into God's history through Christ is on its way to the kingdom. Though this future hope is an eschatological hope, it is not merely a longing for heaven. This hopes longs more for the kingdom of God affecting change in this world. It looks to the future, but it does not become a religious fatalism that is so often the diagnosis of Christian future hopes.78 Through faith, we come to participate in the creative powers of God. We become creative, that is, we create. Out of love and affirmation for life, we become life-creators amidst a world where people surrender to the hopelessness and inevitability of death.
Though a heavenly hope is not exempt from this hope, its priority is hope for this world. Moltmann does emphasize the need for both views of hope: “Anyone who sees this world and the next in the Christian hope as an Either-Or is robbing that hope of both the courage to live and consolation in dying.”79 But we must be careful lest we make the hope for heaven a hope for escape that is no more noble than the hope of the person who escapes through suicide. The kind of hope that ardently expects good things, or that really realizes the great potential of what is to come, what really could be, is the most difficult kind of hope. This hope is rarely even attempted.
We cannot learn to hope if we suppress our anxiety and shut our eyes to danger....But on the other hand we must also ask ourselves whether anyone has ever learnt how to be anxious unless he has first gone out of himself in hope and lived in hope? Can we ever know what anxiety is if we never venture to hope for anything?80
This hope is difficult, but necessary. Without it, we will only circle once again in our muddy pool of despair. But how do we hang on to such a hope? Is it really possible to will oneself to hope in such a way? How do we fight the despair, and doubt, and hopelessness? Dostoevsky suggests,
By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. Insofar as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul.81
Active love arduously and tirelessly striving to move forward will transform an individual into someone who hopes and believes. Without this love, a person will stay in the depths of despair and hopelessness. Hope and Faith flow from Love, the Love rooted in Jesus Christ the incarnate Son of God. Without love, without Jesus, faith and hope fall short.
Suffering, freedom, despair, and love: all of these themes keep turning up again and again. And not one of them can be erased if we are to affirm and seek creative life in this world. But Ivan's question still remains. Why? Why all this suffering? Where did evil come from? And what of righteousness?
Silence is the only answer we can give. Christianity cannot give an answer. Protest atheism attempts an answer by denying God's existence, but Christianity should not be its opposite. It cannot say that evil has come from God, but it also cannot say that evil was not permitted to come into the universe. God's only excuse would be nonexistence.82 Christianity cannot give an answer to the origin and purpose of suffering. It can only cry out with Christ the question, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” Moltmann exclaims, “A radical theology of the cross cannot give any theistic answer to the question of the dying Christ. Were it to do so it would evacuate the cross.”83 Why God allows all this terrifying suffering and evil we do not know. But even if we did know why, would it really help us live?84 Even Ivan's Jesus in his story of the Grand Inquisitor responds with silence. Upon being accused by the Grand Inquisitor for all the problems in the world, Jesus “suddenly approached the old man in silence and softly kissed him on his bloodless aged lips. That was all his answer.”85
Though it is tempting to include this answer in our systematizations of God and his purposes in the world, it is absolutely essential that we do not attempt to answer the question of the existence and origin of evil. We cannot answer Christ's dying question. Trying to do so will only lead to further stagnation in despair and unavoidable conclusions about the meaninglessness of life and belief in God. Instead of offering answers, we must encourage the Christian existentialist to realize the potential of his or her own role by what each person makes of his/herself inwardly and “in creating an answer.”86
In our treacherous voyage across the oceans of history, we return again and again to the question of human existence that float in front of us just enough to make us strain our eyes. Why do we so often look away and change direction? Will so many Christians in the Western world always be gleefully sailing toward the apathetic falls, unaware of their danger, or refusing to admit it? Unless Christians take seriously the questions raised by their faiths and by those outside of their faith, they won't be able to truly find freedom and hope. Without realizing that freedom and hope can only come by recognizing the predicament we as humans are in, that we have a great responsibility upon our shoulders, yet we need salvific help to carry such a load, and that we do not have any answers to the problem of evil, we will continue to drown in ignorant despair. Only when we become aware of despair, embrace it, and work through it by actively loving and consoling others, will we be able to become true selves, selves which either seek death and rebellion or life and redemption. Christian existentialism provides a flexible yet powerfully moving course for Christianity, and if taken seriously, could greatly impact the Western world that is sinking into a comforting, apathetic Christianity or a protest atheism.
One of the reasons why presentations of Christianity are not convincing to some of our contemporaries is that they suspect the theologian of never having come out of his citadel of doctrinal forumlae sufficiently to run the risk of being trapped in loneliness and agony....We cannot reach them if our preaching of 'the Christian answer' seems to be an automatic performance, where conformity to the demands of orthodoxy takes precedence over communicating with human need,...We cannot understand the despair of the godless (which is often concealed beneath bravado) unless we can face our own despair – the despair which haunts even Christians insofar as they are in any measure estranged from God.87
Kierkegaard's process of the self, Dostoevsky's suffering through love, and Moltmann's theologies of the cross and hope are essential items that provide a path for an existential religion . Kierkegaard provides the path to consciousness. Without becoming self-aware through despair and dread, we can never reach the point of choosing life. We will merely be continuing along the existence that was given us without our permission. If we are unconscious of our condition, we are unconscious of the difficult choice before us to choose either life or death. The only life lived in such a way is an apathetic one.
Dostoevsky provides what kind of life we must choose: one that suffers for the sake of love. Only in that suffering and the active labor of love will we find God's presence and be convinced of God's goodness. And lastly, Moltmann provides the theological framework that pulls the consciousness of Kierkegaard and the all-embracing suffering of Dostoevsky into the figure of Jesus Christ.
Christian existentialism grasps the human condition like the protest atheist, but does not give up on faith altogether. It shares the faith of those in the defensive religion, but refuses to reduce its faith to comfort or security. As we continue in our refinement of Christianity and the conformity of Christians to Jesus Christ, may we reconsider the Christian existentialism put forth by Søren Kierkegaard, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Jürgen Moltmann.
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Beck, Richard Allan. "The Function of Religious Belief: Defensive versus Existential Religion."
Journal of Psychology and Christianity 23, no. 3 (2004): 208-218.
Carnell, Edward John. The Burden of Søren Kierkegaard. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965.
Climacus, Johannes. “Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the ‘Philosophical Fragments’.” Edited by Søren Kierkegaard. In A Kierkegaard Anthology, edited by Robert Bretall. Translated by David R. Swenson, Lillian Marvin Swenson and Walter Lowrie. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1946, 190-252.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Edited by Ralph E. Matlaw. New York, NY:
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Kierkegaard, Søren. “Dread and Freedom.” In Existentialism From Dostoevsky to Sartre, edited by Walter Kaufmann, New York, NY: New American Library, Inc., 1975,101-105.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Works of Love. Edited by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1995.
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Walsh, Sylvia. Living Christianly: Kierkegaard's Dialectic of Christian Existence. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005.
1 Jürgen Moltmann, Jesus Christ for Today's Word, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994), 46.
2 Richard Beck, “The Function of Religious Belief: Defensive Versus Existential Religion,” Journal of
Psychology and Christianity 23, No. 3 (2004): 208.
5 Jürgen Moltmann, Experiences in Theology: Ways and Forms of Christian Theology (Minneapolis, MN:
Fortress Press, 2000), 16.
6 Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, transl. R.A. Wilson and John Bowden (New York, NY: SCM Press Ltd., 1974), 221.
9 C. Stephen Evans, Kierkegaard On Faith and Self: Collected Essays (Waco, Texas: Baylor University
Press, 2006), 264-65.
10 Ibid, 329.
11 David J. Gouwens, Kierkegaard As Religious Thinker, (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press,
14 Johannes Climacus, “Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the ‘Philosophical Fragments’,” ed. Søren
Kierkegaard, in A Kierkegaard Anthology, ed. Robert Bretall, transl. David R. Swenson, Lillian Marvin Swenson, and Walter Lowrie (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1946), 241.
15 David E. Roberts., “Faith and Freedom in Existentialism: A Study of Kierkegaard and Sartre,"
Theology Today 8, no. 4 (1952): 469-470.
18 Anti-Climacus, “The Sickness Unto Death,” ed. Søren Kierkegaard, in A Kierkegaard Anthology,
ed. Robert Bretall, transl. Walter Lowrie, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1946), 345.
21 Sylvia Walsh, Living Christianly: Kierkegaard's Dialectic of Christian Existence (University Park, PA:
The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2005), 121.
22 Walsh, p 143-44.
24 Søren Kierkegaard, “Dread and Freedom,” in Existentialism From Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter
Kaufmann (New York, NY: New American Library, Inc., 1975), 105.
26 Frank Schalow, “Dread in a Post-Existentialist Era: Kierkegaard Re-Considered,” The Heythrop
Journal 30, no. 2 (1989): 162.
27 Roberts, 480-81.
33 Lewis R. Rambo., “Kierkegaard and Suffering,” Restoration Quarterly 17, no. 2 (1974): 104.
34Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Notes from the Underground,” in Existentialism From Dostoevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York, NY: New American Library, Inc., 1975), 57.
39Paul C. Schroeder, "Suffering Towards Personhood: John Zizoulas and Fyodor Dostoevsky in Conversation on Freedom and the Human Person," St. Vladmir's Theological Quarterly 45, no. 3 (2001): 261-62.
42Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, ed. Ralph E. Matlaw (New York, NY: W.W. Norton &
Company, Inc., 1976), 67.
48The Brothers Karamazov, 223.
52Thomas A. Idinopulos, “Cruel Sensuality and Obedience To Authority: A Reflection on Dostoevsky's
Theology of Evil and the Limited God,” Encounter 54, no. 3 (2003): 256.
54The Brothers Karamazov, 243.
61The Crucified God, 222.
65Experiences in Theology, 17.
66The Crucified God, 247.
68The Brothers Karamazov, 619.
69Jesus Christ for Today's World, 46.
71Edward John Carnell, The Burden of Soren Kierkegaard, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans
Publishing Co., 1965), 152.
72Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, ed. Howard V. Hong and Edna H.Hong (New Jersey: Princeton
University Press, 1995), 248.
76Works of Love, 249-250.
77 Jesus Christ for Today's World, 52.
78Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, transl. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN:
Fortress Press, 1992), 111.
80Jesus Christ for Today's World, 52.
81The Brothers Karamazov, 48.
82The Crucified God, 225.
84Jesus Christ for Today's World, 47.
85The Brothers Karamazov, 243.