One way to engage skeptics of the Christian faith is to discuss the influence Christian thinkers have had on people, regardless of religious affiliation. As a bridge to a philosophically oriented skeptic, I suggest talking about the influence that a fifth-century Christian bishop has had on western philosophy, and on existentialism in particular.
Existentialism is a school of thought that appeals to both atheists and theists. Wikipedia defines it as “a form of philosophical inquiry that explores the problem of human existence and centers on the experience of thinking, feeling, and acting.” Thus, historically, famous philosophers and theologians alike have belonged to this intellectual movement. But who was the very first existential thinker and writer in history?
If you’ve studied modern philosophy you know that existentialism was one of the most influential philosophical theories during the middle of the twentieth century. There are many important names associated with this European philosophical and cultural movement.1 Nineteenth-century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is often called the father of existentialism, while Friedrich Nietzsche is considered a critical forerunner. Twentieth-century counterparts Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus are usually identified as key secular existentialist philosophers.
But Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith, author of On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts, has suggested that St. Augustine (354–430) may have been the world’s first existentialist philosopher.2 Not only were Christian thinkers Blaise Pascal and Søren Kierkegaard serious students of Augustine, but secular thinkers such as Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Heidegger, and Jacques Derrida paid careful attention to Augustine’s writings as well.3
Existentialism as an approach to philosophy has appealed to prominent theists (Karl Barth, Gabriel Marcel, Jacques Maritain, Nikolai Berdyaevu, Martin Buber) and prominent atheists (Simone de Beauvoir, Maurice Merleau-Ponty). Both religious and nonreligious people resonate with its key features, including:
• an emphasis on finding meaning, purpose, and significance in life especially for the individual,
• a focus on why people have inner longings and experience angst and estrangement with life and within themselves,
• a reaction to the overemphasis on the strictly rational areas of life and thus an appreciation for the subjective areas (the arts, imagination, passions, emotion).
Taking these three themes as important aspects of existentialism, it’s easy to see why Augustine would be popular among existential philosophers.
But Gordon Lewis, a Christian and an Augustine scholar, thought it better to describe St. Augustine as having an existential attitude rather than as being an actual existentialist. In Lewis’s mind, Augustine’s Christian views about ontology (the study of being) set him apart from the secular elements that traditionally define existentialism.
“Augustine has an existentialist standpoint of human fallenness, an emphasis on the existing individual, and an existential attitude of involvement. . . . Augustine, then, had striking similarities to the existentialist standpoint and attitude, but was not an existentialist in the ordinary use of the word.”4
Augustine’s biography Confessions appeals to a wide variety of individuals when it comes to reflecting on life’s meaning. His writing in very personal and subjective terms about his life and thought attracts people and causes them to reflect upon their own lives. Pope Benedict XVI, himself an Augustine scholar, has said that he is more attracted to Augustinianism than Thomism (the school of thought based on the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas).5
Augustine, though not formally trained in philosophy, may have been the most influential philosopher ever.6 His writings provide a worthwhile avenue for exploration of the human condition that all people can appreciate.
Although there are many translations of Confessions available, I recommend these: Confessions, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Penguin, 1961); The Confessions: Saint Augustine of Hippo, ed. David Vincent Meconi, trans. Maria Boulding (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2012); Confessions, 2nd ed., ed. Michael P. Foley, trans. F. J. Sheed (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006).
For an introduction to Augustine’s life and key ideas, see chapter three of my book Classic Christian Thinkers: An Introduction.
For more about St. Augustine and existentialism, see Michial Farmer, “A Primer on Religious Existentialism, Pt. 4: Augustine,” July 6, 2010.
For an interview with a leading Christian scholar of existentialism, see Paul Pardi, “Interview with C. Stephen Evans: Kierkegaard, Natural Signs and Knowledge of God,” March 4, 2011.
Reflections: Your Turn
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1. L. Mastin, “Existentialism,” The Basics of Philosophy, accessed July 8, 2021.
2. Church Times, “The 20th Century Was Augustinian,” October 11, 2019.
3. Church Times, “The 20th Century Was Augustinian.”
4. Gordon R. Lewis, “Augustine and Existentialism,” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society (1965), 13–22.
5. Timothy George, “Benedict XVI, the Great Augustinian,” First Things, February 19, 2013.
6. Kenneth Samples, “Contemporary Criticism of Augustine’s Thought, Part 10,” Reflections (blog), September 5, 2012.