STUDY TWELVE: EXISTENTIALISM AND SUBJECTIVISM
© Rosemary Bardsley 2005, 2015
Difficult to define, difficult to demolish, existentialism has insidiously wormed its way into the very heart of evangelicalism, and those who try to correct its expressions find themselves accused of all manner of sinful attitudes.
A. WHAT DOES EXISTENTIALISM TEACH AND DO?
A.1 Secular existentialism
In its secular expression existentialism has the following aspects:
Emphasis on seeking, and waiting for, a non-rational “final experience”. Such an existential experience is not able to be explained or communicated to another person. This experience is critical for the person’s certainty of being and sense of significance – it is an experience so big that it makes you sure you actually exist. [Taught by Jaspers]
Everything in the whole universe is absurd and meaningless, even people are meaningless, but a person can authenticate him/herself by doing something as the result of a personal will/choice. This act of will, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is all that gives life meaning. [Taught by Sartre and Camus]
The human being authenticates him/herself by the feeling of dread – the feeling of anxiety that there is something there beyond our comprehension – but nothing more than the feeling. [Taught by Heidegger, until he was about seventy, after which he moved to mysticism.]
This quest for meaning in irrational experiences was the direct result of the perceptions of reality resulting from the prevailing materialism/naturalism. In the absence of the supernatural God and his absolute truth and morals man was left with no identity and nothing to give meaning and significance to his life. In existentialism, man came to the conclusion that it was living [existing] itself that gave meaning to life.
Comments from Schaeffer:
‘Whether it is the existentialist speaking, or Aldous Huxley, or Eastern mysticism, we find a uniform need for an irrational experience to make some sense of life. Their views have brought them to a wall, and by an unrelated leap of faith they hope to clear the wall. … these people have given up all hope of achieving a rational unified answer to knowledge and life.’ [Vol 1 p23 – The God who is There]
A.2 Existentialism in the church
In its adoption by Christianity, originally under the teaching of neo-orthodox theology, because confidence in the Scripture had been undermined, and the concept of the Scripture as absolute and final had been removed, faith, instead of being grounded on the rational propositions of the Scripture, became an irrational ‘leap of faith’ in the same order as the secular existentialist leap of faith. There are no rational grounds by which to validate or verify religious experience because the experience is totally separate from logic and reason. Experience is self-authenticating and not open to rational appraisal from the Scripture.
The following aspects of existentialism can be seen in the church:
 Existentialism focuses on subjective experience rather than objective truth. Rather than judge the rightness or wrongness of an experience by the objective Word of God, ‘Christian’ existentialism interprets and understands the Bible through and by the experience. Experience decides what is truth rather than truth authenticating or invalidating the experience. Thus the Bible is interpreted so as to fit personal or corporate experiences rather than personal and corporate experiences being approved or disapproved by the Bible.
 Existentialism focuses on the personal rather than on the universal. For any individual ‘truth’ is what is ‘true for me.’ Each person’s perception of truth will be different from another’s. Thus I can read a Bible passage and get ‘truth’ and you can read the same passage and get different ‘truth’. In this existential mentality there is no room for that passage to have one meaning for all people, because existentialism does not view truth in that way.
 Existentialism also focuses on the immediate and changing rather than on the eternal and constant. That same passage that was ‘truth’ for me yesterday may not be ‘truth’ for me today, because it does not do anything for me today. Or, it might speak a different ‘truth’ for me today. This variability of ‘truth’ has nothing to do with the finiteness of our minds and our inability to take in all of God’s truth in a given passage of the Bible at one time. It has to do with the existential concept of ‘truth’: that ‘truth’ is what is ‘true for me’ at my particular moment of existence.
 Thus in existentialism truth is relative rather than absolute. It varies from individual to individual. It varies from moment to moment. It is not fixed. It is not complete. It is not final. It has no boundaries. This means that every individual is free to believe whatever he/she wants to believe, and what they believe is ‘truth’ for them.
 Existentialism seeks meaning and identity in the mystical rather than the factual. Having discarded all objective sources and definitions of truth the existentialist has only one place left to look for truth: within. One’s own personal perceptions of reality - one’s experiences, one’s impressions, one’s feelings, one’s ideas and opinions - these define and decide what is believed or felt to be truth. The existentialist becomes a ready prey for anyone and anything that can gain access to his/her mind and emotions.
B. SPECIFIC EXPRESSIONS OF EXISTENTIALISM IN THE CHURCH
So that we can recognize when we have been taken captive by an existential mentality we will now look at some particular expressions of existentialism in the church. [Note: some of these are also expressions of subjectivism or even mysticism which we will be studying later, and both of which are part of the existentialist mindset.
Discuss the five points below. In what way are these actions/attitudes an expression of existentialism? Identify and discuss any similar instances that you have observed. Also identify what you could say to a person caught up in an existentialist perception of spiritual reality.
 When a preacher or teacher ‘shares’ rather than teaches. The impression is given that he/she is sharing some revelation of truth that he/she has received rather than teaching God’s eternal, unchangeable, absolute truth which is true for everyone and which God wants everyone to know.
 When members of a Bible study group are asked to tell ‘what this verse means to me’. This implies that each answer is correct, that each answer is truth. But that is not necessarily so. While I might perceive that this is what the ‘verse is saying to me’ that may or may not be what God is actually saying in the verse. This method only honours God’s Word as truth if all of the answers are indeed part or all of the eternal, unchanging truth that God put into that verse. What a verse ‘means to me’ is not really the issue; the issue is ‘what is God saying in this verse - what does this verse mean in its context in Scripture?’
 When an individual [or group] has an experience and uses that experience as a criteria by which to judge and understand what God’s truth is. It might be the experience of speaking in tongues, or a dream, or involvement in ecstatic phenomena of some kind, or a coincidence that had certain repercussions. On the basis of the experience a conclusion is drawn about God and God’s truth, and the teaching of the Bible is then interpreted so as to accommodate and even teach the supposed ‘truth’ learned from the experience. That the person or group has had an experience is not in question, nor can it be denied. What is in question, and what is denied, is the validity of using the experience to define, interpret and arbitrate truth.
 When an individual’s spiritual experience is used by that person to validate and identify him/herself, rather than gaining an understanding of personal identity and significance from the teaching of the Scripture. The person is dependent on the experience for personal stability and significance and cannot tolerate any questioning of the Biblical validity of the experience or their interpretation of the experience.
 When individual verses of the Bible are used by Christians to obtain guidance in decision making. The Bible as God’s changeless, universal, eternal truth is here exchanged for a use in which it becomes a straw-pulling exercise, in which verses jump out of their context and ‘speak to me’, supposedly telling me whether I must marry Bob, or go to Africa, or purchase a particular house. Verses which God spoke - eternal, changeless, universal truth about Christ and his salvation - are relativised and existentialised to apply to my particular, personal, temporal decision. The fact that thousands of Christians have moved into full-time service on the basis of guidance gained in this way does not validate the method. One could easily counter that fact by another: that many have made plans and decisions on this same basis and those plans never came to fulfilment. That some of these decisions are consummated is testimony to the gracious, sovereign hand of God upon us, condescending to our fears and our weakness, forgiving our misuse of his Word, and working in and with that misuse to extend his Kingdom.
C. WHAT CAN WE DO TO AVOID EXISTENTIALISM?
Simply, believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and that as such it is true truth:
Absolute, not relative.
Eternal and constant, not momentary and changing.
Objective, not subjective.
Universal, not individual.
Factual, not mystical.
Christ-centred, not me-centred.
Fixed and final, not open-ended.
Independent and self-authenticating, not dependent on my perceptions.
God’s Word is true, and it is truth, whether I believe it or not.
God’s Word is true, and it is truth, whether I respond to it or not.
God’s Word stands in judgment over me and my beliefs: I do not stand in judgment over it.
At the ultimate end of all things I will be judged by my response to God’s Word: how ludicrous for me if I, duped by the existential denial of objective truth, should today interpret, measure, define and judge that truth by my own changing experiences and inner perceptions.
A personal exercise:
As you read the Bible identify whether or not you are relating to it as the absolute eternal Word of God which is true for all people at all times and in all places, or if you have already been deceived into a relativistic, subjective and mystical attitude to it.
Subjectivism in religion is an expression of many of the isms we have studied so far, including existentialism, which we have just studied, and mysticism, which we will study next.
One of the most important lessons we can learn is the essential difference between two words: subjective and objective. Failure to understand this difference has led any number of Christians into lives of uncertainty and instability, robbing them of the deep joy, peace and fulfilment that is theirs in Jesus Christ.
Objective: If something is objective it is true apart from my believing it is true. It exists as a fact.
Subjective: If something is subjective, it is my interpretation, or my perception, of reality, which may or may not actually be true. Whether it is actually, rationally, true, is not the point and does not really matter, because absolute truth doesn’t really exist; the important thing is that I believe it is true, therefore it is true for me.
Without going into the various ideological backgrounds of subjectivism, we will study here only subjectivism in its impact on Christian belief and behaviour. How can we discern when we, as Christians, are being seduced by subjectivism?
A. WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN BEING SUBJECTIVE RATHER THAN OBJECTIVE?
A.1 It is the difference between feeling and fact.
A subjective statement is: I feel saved.
An objective statement is: I am saved because Jesus died for me.
A subjective statement is: I’ve been so sinful today, I feel God can’t possibly love me.
An objective statement is: ‘Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’
I am being subjective when my own feelings determine and dictate my actions and my understanding of reality. I am being objective when my actions and my understanding of reality are based on external, outside-of-me facts.
This difference between objective and subjective is essentially the difference between fact and feelings. This is not to say that feelings are wrong. Rather, that feelings should never be the basis of our lives. Feelings are fickle, as changeable as the winds, and a life based on feelings is as uncertain and insecure as washing left on the line during a cyclone.
Two facts about feelings:
 Feelings can and do fluctuate with the state of our digestion, the weather, our level of job satisfaction, our hormones, the state of our physical health, the state of our relationships, stress levels, and our perception of how well we are fulfilling our various roles. It is obvious from this list that our feelings are an insecure foundation on which to base our lives.
 Some temperaments are more prone to fluctuations in feelings and more likely to view reality subjectively. For these people, it is more of a struggle to base life on facts. (On the other hand, they are generally more compassionate and sensitive to the needs and feelings of others.)
A.2 It is the difference between my perception of truth and God’s truth.
A subjective statement is: Look at all the suffering in the world; God can’t be a God of love.
An objective statement is: ‘God is love’ (1John 4:16).
A subjective statement is: I believe as long as they’re sincere, they’ll be right.
An objective statement is: Jesus said ‘No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6b).
God’s truth is objective. It is absolute. It is not subject to change because of where, when and within what circumstances I live. On the other hand, my perception of truth is subjective and relative; it changes with my age, my companions, the locality and era in which I live, and the various influences to which I have been exposed. It also varies according to my perceptions and my expectations.
God’s truth is true, regardless of whether it is believed or not. It takes its character from God: the eternal, changeless, Lord of all. When I know and submit to God’s truth, I am set free: free from my erroneous perceptions of truth which both blind and bind me, limiting my understanding of reality to the puny boundaries of my own mind.
Yes. It requires the humility to admit that my subjective perceptions of truth may be, and probably are, wrong.
Yes. It involves me in the responsibility of living in the light of the awesome truth of God.
Yes. It demands my submission and obedience.
But the word of Jesus says, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’ (John 8:32). To live in the light of God’s truth is liberty.
Consider a simple illustration: Jane’s boss has told her that he is satisfied with her work. However, she is never sure that she is doing her job satisfactorily. She sees him watching and assumes he is making a list of her errors. In her subjective understanding, he is not pleased. She does not feel accepted and approved. She lives with a burden of perceived rejection - which in turn affects her attitude to her work, her boss and her workmates (to whom she is constantly comparing herself) - and she cultivates a negative self-image. Instead of living with joy and peace in the freedom of the objective truth (the boss’s real opinion), she lives with the stifling, joyless bondage of her subjective feelings and perceptions, constantly insecure and putting herself down.
In the same way subjectivism in the realm of religious truth is equally destructive.
A.3 It is the difference between focusing on my spiritual internals and focusing on Jesus Christ.
A subjective statement is: I haven’t had my quiet time today, so God won’t bless me.
An objective statement is: ‘(he) has blessed us ... with every spiritual blessing in Christ’ (Ephesians 1:3b).
A subjective statement is: I keep failing all the time, I’m a spiritual mess, I’ll never make it to heaven!
An objective statement is: ‘he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 1:6b).
A subjective statement is: I’m on top of the world. I had a fantastic time witnessing to my friend. It made my day.
An objective statement is:
‘Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Saviour’ (Habakkuk 3:17-18).
B. THE DESTRUCTIVE, CRIPPLING AFFECTS OF SUBJECTIVISM
All of us succumb to subjectivism from time to time; some live with it constantly. Listed below are six of the destructive results of subjectivism.
Assurance of salvation is either lacking or unstable because it is based on feelings and perceptions rather than the objective truth of God’s Word.
Confidence in one’s daily acceptance before God is likewise absent or fragile. Joy and peace are superficial and erratic, dependent on subjective perceptions rather than grounded on the immoveable facts of God’s truth.
One’s understanding of God becomes a mirror of one’s own mind and feelings, rather than being defined by God’s self-revelation in Scripture.
One’s attitude towards the Bible becomes selective, accepting what appeals to one’s feelings and mind and rejecting what is unpalatable.
One’s attitude to the Bible also deteriorates as subjective questions such as ‘what does this passage mean to me?’ replace objective questions such as ‘what does this passage mean?’ The Bible ceases to be God’s eternal, changeless truth in which he reveals to all men his nature and his purpose, and becomes personalised and variable in meaning, dependent on the reader’s varying needs and circumstances.
Casting aside the changeless revelation given us in the written Word, people claim to have been spoken to directly by God. ‘The Lord told me ...’, ‘I felt God was directing me ...’, ‘I felt a peace about this decision ...’ and similar statements are made. All of these are evidence of subjectivism.
C. THE ANTIDOTE TO SUBJECTIVISM
Proverbs states the antidote this way:
‘Trust in the LORD with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding’ (3:5).
Romans commands us to be constantly renewing our minds and bringing them into conformity with God’s truth: ‘Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (12:2a).
And Ephesians exhorts us: ‘So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking’ (4:17).
Revelation simply says: ‘... be earnest and repent’ (3:19).
A personal exercise
As you live your life over the next week, be on the look out for expressions of the subjective mindset. Make a list of these, then return to this study and recall the Biblical mindset. In an act of repentance, recommit to basing your life and attitude on the objective
A comment from MacArthur: ‘Neo-orthodoxy’s attitude toward Scripture is a microcosm of the entire existentialist philosophy: the Bible itself is not objectively the Word of God, but it becomes the Word of God when it speaks to me individually. In neo-orthodoxy, that same subjectivism is imposed on all the doctrines of historic Christianity. Familiar terms are used, but are redefined or employed in a way that is purposely vague – not to convey objective meaning, but to communicate a subjective symbolism. After all, any “truth” theological terms convey is unique to the person who exercises faith. What the Bible means becomes unimportant. What it means to me is the relevant issue.’ [p26 Reckless Faith]