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.

Lewis notes:

“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.

Resources

Reflections: Your Turn

Have you read an existential writer? If so, who? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

Check out more from Reasons to Believe @Reasons.org

Endnotes

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.

About The Author

Kenneth R. Samples

I believe deeply that "all truth is God’s truth." That historic affirmation means that when we discover and grasp truth in the world and in life we move closer to its divine Author. This approach relies on the Christian idea of God’s two revelatory books - the metaphorical book of nature and the literal book of Scripture. As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. My writings and lectures at RTB focus on showing how the great doctrinal truths of the faith (the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Atonement, creation ex nihilo, salvation by grace, etc.) are uniquely compatible with reason. This approach reflects the historic Christian apologetics statement - "faith seeking understanding." I work to help myself and others fulfill Peter's words in 2 Peter 3:18: "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen." As an RTB scholar I have a great passion to help people understand and see the truth and relevance of Christianity's truth-claims. • Biography • Resources • Upcoming Events • Promotional Items Kenneth Richard Samples began voraciously studying Christian philosophy and theology when his thirst for purpose found relief in the Bible. He earned his undergraduate degree in philosophy and social science from Concordia University and his MA in theological studies from Talbot School of Theology. For seven years, Kenneth worked as Senior Research Consultant and Correspondence Editor at the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and regularly cohosted the popular call-in radio program, The Bible Answer Man, with Dr. Walter Martin. As a youth, Kenneth wrestled with "unsettling feelings of meaninglessness and boredom," driving him to seek answers to life's big questions. An encounter with Christian philosophy in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis led Kenneth to examine the New Testament and "finally believe that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God, the Lord and Savior of the world." From then on, he pursued an intellectually satisfying faith. Today, as senior research scholar at Reasons to Believe (RTB), Kenneth uses what he's learned to help others find the answers to life's questions. He encourages believers to develop a logically defensible faith and challenges skeptics to engage Christianity at a philosophical level. He is the author of Without a Doubt and A World of Difference, and has contributed to numerous other books, including: Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, The Cult of the Virgin, and Prophets of the Apocalypse. He has written articles for Christianity Today and The Christian Research Journal, and regularly participates in RTB's podcasts, including Straight Thinking, a podcast dedicated to encouraging Christians to utilize sound reasoning in their apologetics. He also writes for the ministry's daily blog, Today’s New Reason to Believe. An avid speaker and debater, Kenneth has appeared on numerous radio programs such as Voice America Radio, Newsmakers, The Frank Pastore Show, Stand to Reason, White Horse Inn, Talk New York, and Issues Etc., as well as participated in debates and dialogues on topics relating to Christian doctrine and apologetics. He currently lectures for the Master of Arts program in Christian Apologetics at Biola University. Kenneth also teaches adult classes at Christ Reformed Church in Southern California. Over the years Kenneth has held memberships in the American Philosophical Association, the Evangelical Philosophical Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the Evangelical Press Association. The son of a decorated World War II veteran, Kenneth is an enthusiastic student of American history, particularly the Civil War and WWII. His favorite Christian thinkers include Athanasius, Augustine, Pascal, and C. S. Lewis. He greatly enjoys the music of the Beatles and is a die-hard Los Angeles Lakers fan. Kenneth lives in Southern California with his wife, Joan, and their three children.



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