Why The USA Abhors Existentialism

     If you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself.  — Rollo May

     The World Congress for Existential Therapy is hosting a conference in London with dozens of existential therapists I would gladly have lunch with. If you are interested in learning more about this, click here. The flight, hotel, and entrance cost are prohibitive to me attending, but I hope one day to present there and have them foot the bill!
     In the meantime, something struck me as odd: Why are there so few existential therapists in the States? When I tell people I am an existential marriage and family therapist, they either stare at me blankly or ask what an existentialist is. They get bonus points if they pronounce “existential” correctly. I do not mean to disparage the intelligence of my fellow Americans. After I explain existentialism to them, they seem to understand. What frustrates me is how the term existentialism has been extricated from our vocabulary. The following is my theory why existentialism has such difficulty putting down roots in America*.

     This is just a theory, but here it goes: In 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue, landed in America, and insisted the people living there were Indians, even after they told him otherwise, a path of dominance and brutality was begun. Nearly 400 years later, a zeitgeist of American desire to expand geographically, economically, and ideologically across as much of North America as possible occurred. This “God Blessed” right and desire was identified by John O’Sullivan as Manifest Destiny.

     Manifest Destiny is not compatible with existentialism. At its core, existentialism is relational and requires reciprocity and egalitarianism. At its core, Manifest Destiny subjugates and requires control and dominance. Manifest Destiny is a reason while existentialism requires reasoning.

     There is a vast difference between reasons and reasoning. Reasons are why we do what we do or believe what we believe. Reasoning is the process by which we arrive at our reasons.

     If we garner someones reasons as our own, without going through our own reasoning process, our motivation will be fallow and hollow and shallow. However, if we reason out why we’re doing what we’re doing or believing what we’re believing, then our reasons can easily be adapted when our reasoning is shown to be wrong. It is not an issue of dogma when we discuss our reasoning, it is an issue of dogma when we discuss our reasons. This may seem like splitting hairs, and in truth it may be. However, these hairs start wars. People kill and die over reasons. People can discuss reasoning. Creeds are reasons, prayer is reasoning. Reasons are static, reasoning is dynamic.

     It’s the difference between dialectical discussions and debates. Dialectical discussions are designed to allow two or more people to arrive at a general conclusion of truth. Debates are designed and constructed to prove one opinion correct and an opposing or different opinion wrong through the weight of arguments. Dialectical discussions bring two people closer together while debates encourage separation and exist as a zero sum game.

     And this is where the rubber meets the road: Life does not offer answers. Truth, understanding, knowledge, acceptance, all must be sought out via difficult means of self-discovery. Many Christians struggle with the idea of existentialism because they believe it is postmodern relativism and that it allows room for people to get away with anything; that it makes everything justifiable. Here’s the truth: Thinking in terms of black and white, reasons without reasoning, creates a festering fear that is threatened by anything different or new. It is the type of thinking that lead to the Spanish Inquisition, the Holy Wars, and the conversion by force applied to “savages”. There is no reasoning behind a suicide bomb, only reasons.

     Reasoning, like love, is a process; not a goal. This is where fear often emerges. If we trust the process, we must be willing to consider its results no matter how different they are from our own beliefs. The Disciples failed to trust the process while Christ was being crucified. I believe the argument could be made that extremist groups do not trust the process of their own beliefs and instead take the power and control into their own hands.

     My religion tells me to love my enemy, my neighbor, and myself, equally. My Christian community has failed to show me even how to love myself. This is because, too often, the Church has been more obsessed with being RIGHT, with its own Manifest Destiny, with its self, than it has been with the process it claims to promote and defend. Can we trust the process of love, of existentialism, of dialectical reasoning, or do we lack that bravery? Until we we can be brave enough to do so, Americans will continue to abhor existentialism because it threatens our right to be right at all costs. Existentialism calls us to be in relation. Can this be done when my needs exist to the exclusion of others? As long as being RIGHT in all of its forms (driving the right car, owning the right house, or having “the best”) remains more important than being in relationship with others, existentialism will continue to be perceived as a threat and generate anger and aggression.

     What’s the answer? Individuals choosing genuine relationship over, but not to the exclusion of, self. I do not expect America to change. I do expect you to change. The only question now is, are you brave enough?

World War No.
(C) 2014, Nathan D. Croy

*Just to be clear, I realize I’m being ethnocentric, or egocentric, or some type of “centric” when I say “America” instead of The United States of America. I know the term “America” could mean North or South America. It’s just easier to type, so leave me alone.

19 Replies to “Why The USA Abhors Existentialism”

  1. as i am sure you know i am not a christian. i am not a man of faith in any capacity, however i still eschew the label "atheist" because it is a label that is defined by theism. having said that, i couldn't agree with you more. when i was a christian and on my way out of faith, i had become very existential in my faith and thinking. and here is where the rubber meets the road in clear defense of what you are saying, i am married to a christian woman. and she is really the best thing i could ask for. in fact i have very little motivation to alter her faith. her faith is a big part of what makes her amazing. our marriage, the family we have built, the struggles, the victories, and the adventures have far trumped anything as trivial as differences in faith. our marriage has HAD to become one of dialectical debate. anyone who has ever tried to change the opinions of their spouse knows that this is an insane course of action. the only thing you will ever be successful at is to clearly articulate how you feel, our how a given decision affects you. and then you have to trust that their love for you and respect will affect their decision at that point.

    but there it is, you have to trust.

    so in all my relationships, that is my motivator. how we interact as friends and family will always trump my worldview. when i am laying on my deathbed, i am not going to care how well i was able to reason out my non faith. what i will regret will be how poorly i may have treated you.

  2. Great post. I particularly liked this comment:

    "Reasoning, like love, is a process; not a goal. This is where fear often emerges. If we trust the process, we must be willing to consider its results no matter how different they are from our own beliefs."

    My experience has been that many people think love and truth are things that can be acquired and stored away to be called upon at need. The result? Relationships that start strong and finish flat, religions that want people to arrive at their version of truth (which cannot change) and grow dogmatically fearful when faced with the idea of exploring ambiguity at the edges.

    When you try to acquire a process you often end up alienating everyone who is honestly trying to go through that process. You don't actually get to take love and truth and lock them away in chest somewhere. If you try, you'll probably end up with a cheap replica that continually grows dimmer, until everyone outside of the echo chamber can easily see it for what it is: a farcical, withering clone, surrounded by defensive acolytes who are too nervous to explore new ground – after all, they have the truth, right?

  3. Thank you, sir! I believe any argument about religion should be made external to religion itself and still stand. I agree with you about trying to change your spouses mind: even if you win you lose.

  4. Well said!
    I know some older people that may have had a grasp on love and relational processes at one point, but it has turned into crusty, hollow, ridiculousness and they just turn bitter and angry and scared.

  5. My main point is that doctrine and action are two sides of the same coin. They strain each other and we often err on one side or another but they cannot be separated.
    I in no way intended to refute your point; I think you are correct that many American Christians err on the right doctrine side of the equation, and to them Jesus would say Luke 11:46, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them."
    I simply wanted to supplement by adding that one can also err on the side of emphasizing action to the detriment of doctrine. Jesus did not hesitate to point out incorrect doctrine when it existed. Matthew 22:29, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God." The entire epistle of Jude exhorts Christians to contend against incorrect doctrine. Even James, who is the classic "faith without deeds is dead" example, said in James 2:18 that he will show you his faith by his deeds, i.e., his deeds stemmed directly from his doctrine.
    All of which is to say that defense of sound and true doctrine need not always come from a need to build oneself up by being always right.

  6. What concerns me is how members of the westboro Baptist church are convinced their doctrine is sound. Ask anyone of them and I'm sure they'll be able to spout off scriptures and experts that agree with them, thereby justifying their actions.

    What I would challenge theologians to do is to focus on the process by which their doctrine comes into being. Christ asked us to write his word on our hearts. The process by which scripture is converted into meaning must be based in our relationship with others and the Holy Trinity. Otherwise, it becomes self serving dogmatic brutality; an idol to our great minds. Training is great! Learning about homilitics and exegesis is important, but even then we must be critical of our motivation, lest or great deeds turn to boasts of personal greatness. At the core, even at the core of our learning and discipline, just be love; must be relationship. Without that, our learning is for not.

    I do hope we're not debating. I agree with you: the best intentions, if uninformed, quickly dissolve into meaninglessness. And we must have both actions and learning/guidance. But the base upon which we build must be love, "for all the laws and prophets hinge on this".

  7. In an attempt to dialogue rather than debate, let me offer this simple response:

    I think that you may be correct in saying that many people regard the creeds as "reasons" and treat them differently than prayer. However, I think that is a fundamental misunderstanding of how the creeds should (and do) function in the Church. The creeds, properly regarded, are not static "reasons" because the subject of the creeds is not static.

    Though one could be forgiven for believing that the confession of "God the Father Almighty" may seem to be a static statement, it is better understood as dynamic. The creeds are dynamic because they speak about a dynamic subject (i.e. God) and not an object. Even the above confession is dynamic insofar as it confesses a God in relationship (thus "father"). The creeds really function more like a shared prayer for the church. In that way, one could have a more expansive understanding of the creeds where a statement like, "We believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins" becomes both a statement of belief and a collective prayer.

    Creeds help define the "cultural-lingustic" that defines the church and as such the creeds provide for the real possibility of dialogue and "true prayer."

  8. I agree this is the intent of creeds and, in that regard, they are worthwhile. Where I takeumbridge is when individuals employ creeds as a substitute for dynamic and personal faith.

    I agree that creeds are emergent properties of faith experience, and Christian individuals and families should take time to write their own creeds and/or mission statement in order to linguistically capture their personal processes of faith and understanding. The rosary is a fantastic tool of prayer that has offered inspiration to me and has moved me on many occasions to be in deeper relationship with God and others.
    Would you say that most people have done the necessary spiritual legwork when reading creeds to identify if they themselves agree with the conclusions put forth in the creed, or are they merely parroting? It can look identical. What I think must be primarily encouraged, in addition to route learning and memorization, is a foundation of love and interpersonal processes of exploitation that allows us to wrestle with issues of faith and come to our own conclusions rather than merely accepting other creeds blindly. According to Christ, if we fail to do this, we undermine all of scripture and religious history because all the laws and the prophets hinge on one thing: love. It is the greatest commandment, and without it, our words (and by extraction, our creeds) are meaningless.

  9. Seeking congruence between our beliefs & actions… isn't that the biggest challenge in life, especially for existentialists? –(insert about a dozen verses from Paul here)–

    Have you actually ever met anybody whose beliefs are truly in line with their actions? I definitely have not…

  10. Papal, it makes me want to stab my eyes out that you haven't met many people whose actions are actually in line with their beliefs. This is maybe what tropes me most about Christianity. That said, I get tired of people dogging on Jesus because the Christians they've met don't act like Christians. The Christian knocking gets old and tired, but I do understand it.

    I just finished "A Prayer for Owen Meany" by John Irving. In it, through the characters, he expresses his own faith, or lack thereof. He calls his own faith "a small miracle".

    "As for my faith…doubt one minute, faith the next – sometimes inspired, sometimes in despair."

  11. Autocorrect called you "Papal", Paul. Maybe you're in the wrong profession.

    Anyway, Nathan, so you really think America hates existentialism? I'd say the Church hates existentialism, because it's uncomfortable. It's uncomfortable to say "I don't know" and to be OK with it. My husband is this way: God and the universe are mysteries and he's Good with that. I, on the other hand, want to know it all NOW. I like black and white. I grew up on baptist-style preaching and Rush Limbaugh.

    Questioning those things at 35 has been…interesting.

  12. Great post. There was a quote in it that I wanted to copy and paste and pretend like I wrote, but someone else beat me to it. This, as you know, hits especially close to home.

  13. It's alright. Paul can get a bit papal sometimes, so no worries. And yes, I would say America hates existentialism because, rightly understood, it calls us to be compassionate, loving, reciprocal, and take on personal responsibility. I've lived all over this country, from North Carolina to California to Alaska, and if there's one thing we really like to do, it's point fingers. Very few of those fingers point at themselves.

    Thanks for the comments and remember, we're never too old to question things.

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