The Introduction of Existentialism into Christianity
Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), the Father of Modern Liberal Theology, sought to reconcile postmodernism (the ineffable nature of ultimate reality) with Christianity. Schleiermacher reasoned that if knowledge of ultimate reality (God) is locked behind a transcendental wall, then the Bible could not have had a divine or supernatural origin. Consequently, Schleiermacher denied the supernatural elements of the Scriptures. Once he removed the inspiration of Scripture, Schleiermacher did away with the miracles as well. According to Schleiermacher, because the Bible is uninspired, it is fallible. In the process, Schleiermacher became one of the major contributors of Higher Criticism, which flowed out of Germany in his day.
The Higher Criticism of Schleiermacher greatly influenced the Lutheran Church throughout Europe to such a degree that Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was outraged at the spiritual lifelessness of the Danish National Church. Danish citizens were Lutherans by birth, and thus they saw no need for a personal and subjective knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. But Kierkegaard knew that Christianity was to be more than just a name; it was to be a relationship. It was not the objective facts that were important, but the subjective reality. Objectively it may be impossible to prove Christianity, but, even if it could be proven, this would not establish a subjective relationship with the Lord. According to Kierkegaard, what was important was the new birth. People needed to experience Jesus Christ experientially. How would this existential experience come? By faith, he determined. According to Kierkegaard, faith transcends reason and sense perception and provides an existential experience for the believer. Kierkegaard adopted the confession of Tertullian, “credo quia absurdum” (I believe because it is absurd). In this creed, Kierkegaard meant that the gospel message is neither rational nor supported by empiricism, yet faith does not need a reason or proof to believe. Faith is its own proof. In fact, according to Kierkegaard, this is the very nature of faith – a leap into the darkness. Faith leaps the believer over the transcendental wall, which separates finite man from the true knowledge of God.
Karl Barth (1886-1968) also reacted against the liberal theology of Schleiermacher, but sadly accepted the claims of Higher Criticism in his Neo-Orthodoxy. Barth, along with Brunner, Bultmann and Tillich, sought to save Christianity from the theology of liberalism while accepting the foundation of liberalism – Higher Criticism. The solution, according to these German theologians, was found in the philosophical writings of Kierkegaard – existentialism. Existentialism allows spiritual truth to be ascertained independently of an infallible book.
According to Barth, God's revelation is His Word and His Word is not the Bible, but the person of Jesus Christ. To understand God's revelation is to understand the Lord Jesus. Without an experiential knowledge of Jesus, there is no real apprehension of the revelation of God.
What about the Bible? Emil Brunner (1889-1966) claimed that just as a record has all kinds of noises and static along with the sound of a voice, the Bible has all kinds of sounds (errors) along with the voice of God. That is, the Bible contains God's Word, but is not God's Word. The key is to listen to the voice of the Lord and not to the static.
Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) was even more consistent with his postmodern form of Christianity. He agreed with Barth and Brunner that the main concern in Christianity is faith in Christ, yet belief in the historical Jesus was optional. In his demythology Bultmann sought to remove the apparent myths from within pages of Scriptures. It is the spiritual truth behind the story that matters, not the historicity of the story. The story of the resurrection, for instance, is not a historical fact as much as it is a symbolic story capturing the new life and hope believers have in Christ.
If the Bible is a fallible book that contains the voice of the Lord, how is the reader able to discern the voice of the Lord from all the errors and myths? According to Paul Tillich (1886–1965), truth is ascertained through a dialectic hermeneutic (a three tier method of interpretation). Like Hegel’s dialectics of thesis, antithesis and then synthesis, Tillich claimed that spiritual truth is discovered through the Bible, culture and church history. Throughout church history, doctrine has been formed, shaped and reshaped by various cultural concerns and controversies, and as new cultural concerns and controversies arise, new conclusions will be drawn. And since history is not fixed, doctrine will always be fluid and changing.
The Emergent Church
Brian McLaren (1956-current), one of the more prominent leaders in the Emergent Church, has adopted this postmodern view of Biblical interpretation and has consequently brought postmodernism, existentialism and neo-orthodoxy to their natural conclusion – a Christianity with no absolutes that embraces all religious faiths, a type of pluralism.
McLaren argues in his book, A New Kind of Christian, that the problem with traditional Christianity is its antithetical view of truth – where truth is viewed as existing as a point on a horizontal line. This method of interpretation, McLaren claims, divides Christians (Catholics and Protestants, Calvinists and Arminians, etc…). For instance, Catholics argue that their interpretation is right on justification, while Protestants claim the same. According to McLaren, the problem with one side being right and the other side being wrong is that it is impossible for either side to have an infallible interpretation of Scripture. The reason both interpretations are fallible is that every interpretation is bound to the limitations of culture, history and language. Man can never rise above his own finiteness and limitations. According to McLaren, since no single interpretation (Catholic, Protestant, Calvinist, Arminian, etc…) is infallible, none can be authoritative. The only authoritative position is God’s position.
But, does not the Bible reveal God’s position? According to McLaren, not necessarily; but even if it did, finite man would still be unable to discern it. Absolute truth is stuck behind a transcendental wall that even those who read the Bible are unable to scale.
If authority always remains behind an impregnable wall, what use is the Bible? According to McLaren, the Bible was never meant to communicate absolute truth, but it does provide a reference point to help steer believers in the right direction. Rather than faith being like a building – having a single reference point or a single foundation, faith has multiple anchor points like a spider-web. The Bible (at least an interpretation of the Bible), church history, culture and spiritual experience all influence a person’s faith. Since there are multiple and even conflicting anchor points, truth will always remain relative.
Furthermore, according to McLaren, doctrinal absolutes are not even important. “I believe people are saved not by objective truth, but by Jesus. Their faith isn’t in their knowledge, but in God." Relativism opens the doors to all types of religious beliefs, doors which McLaren is not afraid to open. In his book, A Generous Orthodoxy, McLaren asserts:
I don’t believe making disciples must equal making adherents to the Christian religion. It may be advisable in many (not all!) circumstances to help people become followers of Jesus and remain within their Buddhist, Hindu or Jewish contexts … rather than resolving the paradox via pronouncements on the eternal destiny of people more convinced by or loyal to other religions than ours, we simply move on … To help Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, and everyone else experience life to the full in the way of Jesus (while learning it better myself), I would gladly become one of them (whoever they are), to whatever degree I can, to embrace them, to join them, to enter into their world without judgment but with saving love as mine has been entered by the Lord.In An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, Barry Taylor confirms McLaren’s position: “We live in a post-Nietzschean world of faith and spirituality. Nietzsche’s declaration that God is dead still holds true, since interest in all things spiritual does not necessarily translate to a belief in a metaphysical God or the tenets and dogmas of a particular faith.”
The Influence of Mysticism
The Emergent Church is nothing more than a form of mysticism and existentialism – an attempt to find meaning without absolutes. To think that the rest of Christianity has remained uninfluenced by postmodernism and existentialism is naïve. Churches across the globe have turned away from experience rooted in doctrine to experience rooted in mysticism. Sermons have shifted away from theology (how to know and love God) to motivational speeches (how to have your best life now). When theological terms are used, they remain vague and subject to diverse interpretations. Music has taken priority over preaching. The rich and doctrinal lyrics of the old hymns, which focused upon the work of Christ, have been replaced with a few superficial and repetitious words that focus upon the emotions of the worshiper. Contemporary worship has turned into individuals marinating in their own affections and love towards a vague God, rather than the church corporately praising the God of the Bible for His love as manifested in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The reason mysticism is so popular in churches is not necessarily because it offers meaning and hope in a postmodern climate of meaninglessness and despair, but because it is able to make unspiritual people feel spiritual. These mystical experiences are real for the worshiper and are easily created by the worship team. Dim the lights, get people excited by the beat and rhythm of the music, throw in a few religious terms, turn the focus to the emotions of the worshiper, and then presto – people feel spiritual. Another reason mysticism is effective is because man is religious by nature and has an innate desire to worship. Create the right atmosphere and then give Pagans an idol or give Americans a cool Jesus, and they will worship. To see this superficial worship, all you have to do is follow your unconverted friends to church and watch them raise their hands as they lose themselves in the “act of worship.” This is not to say that the true Christian in the same aisle is not worshiping the real Lord Jesus. But his neighbor’s false worship can be created simply by manipulating the atmosphere. Hold back theology and give people emotionalism, and people will enjoy a mystical experience that feels spiritual.
The Corrective to Mysticism
Of course, there are some parallels between mystical theology and biblical Christianity. A saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ includes more than a cognitive understanding of the biblical truth declarations (James 2:19). By faith, people experience a personal knowledge of the Lord Jesus (Eph 3:14-19). This saving knowledge brings about inexpressible love, joy and peace. In addition, this experiential knowledge of Christ Jesus comes only by spiritual illumination. Thus, a personal knowledge of the Lord is incommunicable – for it impossible to share our experiential knowledge of Christ Jesus with others.
With this said, biblical Christianity is not mysticism or even a form of mysticism. The fundamental difference is that saving faith and an experiential knowledge of Christ Jesus do not come from an existential experience that transcends cognitive and rational thought. There is no leap of faith into the darkness, but rather a leap of faith into the light of God’s Word. Saving faith comes only by hearing and hearing comes only by the articulated Word of God being clearly proclaimed (Rom 10:17). To know Christ initially, and to grow in the knowledge of the Lord, requires knowledge of the Scriptures (John 17:17). Doctrine, even deep doctrine, is vital to the Christian life (2 Th 2:13). Therefore, if the church really wants to help aid people in worship and spiritual growth, then they will place the focus upon God’s written Word.
The error of mysticism and existentialism is that they are founded upon the false presupposition that God is ineffable (unknowable). Yes, we are bound to our own finiteness, but this does not rule out the possibility of divine communication between God and man. First, man has been created in the image of God, which provides common ground between an infinite God and finite man. Because of this common ground, not only is man able to communicate with God, God is able to communicate with man. Second, God has communicated to man in natural and special revelation (Ps 19:1-6). Therefore, God is not unknowable.
Furthermore, divine revelation is universally understandable, leaving all without excuse (Rom 1:20). What about the noetic effects of the fall (the results of depravity upon the mind)? Does not Scripture say that the natural man is unable to discern spiritual truth (1 Cor 2:14)? Yes, fallen man has been alienated from the life of God and has no personal knowledge of Him. Consequently, due to the depravity of his heart, man will remain incapable and unwilling to place his faith and confidence in God. But this does not mean that fallen man cannot rationally understand the truth-claims of Scriptures. The Bible is neither irrational nor contrary to sense perception. In fact, the biblical worldview is the only worldview that makes sense of reality as perceived by the empirical senses. Further, it is the only worldview that is rationally consistent with itself. The problem with fallen man is not a lack of evidence or a lack of understanding of the truth, but a lack of appreciation and love for the truth. The light has come into the world, and the Bible says that man loved darkness rather than the light (John 3:19). The problem with man’s thinking lies in his lack of submission, not in a lack of proof. Man loves himself. Man loves his perceived notion of autonomy. Man loves his sin. Therefore, man would rather believe a lie or accept an inconsistent worldview, than to submit to a holy God (2 Th 2:10-11). Man is bound to his depraved heart. This unsubmissiveness is the problem, which is why the Lord said that even if a person were raised from the dead it would not convince a sinner to repent (Luke 16:31). The point is that divine revelation is effective in communicating truth to fallen man even if he does not accept it. Man’s knowledge of and rejection of the truth will be the very thing that condemns him in the Day of Judgment.
A Case for Confessions
The remedy for mysticism is not to eliminate emotions and experiences from the Christian faith. This would lead to dead orthodoxy indeed. Emotions are vital to the Christian faith, and there is no salvation without an experiential knowledge of Christ. The answer is to make sure that our experiences and emotions are rooted in biblical truth. This is because God has chosen to change the heart by the truth. Perhaps if there were ever a time when the church needed to stand strong upon the truth, especially the gospel, it is now. The church needs to know what she believes and be ready to confess and defend her faith before the world.
In conclusion, even though everything in the universe is in flux, God is constant, for the great I AM never changes. God is the ultimate reference point, and the absolute and unchanging God has broken through the transcendental wall that separates the infinite from the finite and has clearly spoken to us in His Word. Being made in the likeness of God, we are proper recipients of this communication. Yet because of the fall, we are also capable of misreading it as well. Because the Bible can be both understood and misunderstood, truth is not relative as McLaren supposes. Rather, truth and error are antithetical, and an interpretation of Scripture is either right or wrong. Either people understand the intended meaning of Scripture correctly or they don't.
Because truth is knowable and absolute, confessions of faith are all the more important. If it was impossible to understand the Bible, or if it was impossible to misunderstand, then no confession of faith would be needed. But, seeing that there are both correct and incorrect interpretations, it is essential to know what a church believes in order to compare their confession with the Word of God. Every church member or potential church member has the right to know how the church interprets the Scriptures. It is not sufficient, with all the false teaching floating around, for churches just to say they believe the “Bible” or simply “love Jesus.” That kind of generic confession says little. It is the truth which saves, and it is the truth which sanctifies. It is time for the local church to stop hiding behind vague generalities and undefined religious terms for the sake of unfounded mystical experiences, and it is time to start clearly stating what they believe.
 A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 260, 262, 264.
 Taylor, Barry, “Converting Christianity” in An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, edited by Doug Pagitt& Tony Jones (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007), 165.