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Religious Response to Existentialism

Amir Suhail Wani

To somebody interested in “History of philosophical thought”, the appearance of existentialism on the scene represents a paradigmatic heresy. It indeed represents an inversion of entire philosophical project as, in the words of Sartre “Existence precedes essence”, represents precise antagonism towards the classical philosophical project. Existentialism has been, for last few decades, gaining currency not only as an academic affair but as “weltanschauung” in the lives of almost all of us. It has come to dominate not only the way we look at the world, but more importantly defines the prism by which we analyse our own selves and personal lives. It has had its influence on art, religion, morality, science, economy, polity and almost all other aspects of human existence. It has taught man not to surrender to the “Placebo of Myths” or any archetypes defined and identified historically, for this it describes as inauthentic life and bad faith. It rather emphasises to peel off the robes of construct, cultural and historical, from the “Condition” of life and faces it naked. It asks to blatantly address the question of life and existence head on without any intermediary conditioned interface. Then to come on in terms with this paradigm making philosophical school we need to begin with an outline of what existentialism is all about and subsequently envision a religious response to its main postulates . Kenneth Bruder has encapsulated the essence of existentialism by charectising its features as :
1. Traditional and academic philosophy is sterile and remote from the concerns of real life.
2. Philosophy must focus on the individual in her or his confrontation with the world.
3. The world is irrational.
4. The world is absurd, in the sense that no ultimate explanation can be given for why it is the way it is.
5. Senselessness, emptiness, triviality, separation, and inability to communicate pervade human existence, giving birth to anxiety, dread self-doubt and despair.
6. The individual confronts, as the most important fact of human existence, the necessity to choose how he or she is to live within this absurd and irrational world.
Let’s revisit each of these statements in the light of traditional wisdom and religious heritage that has reached us after millennial distillation. Has traditional philosophy really been sterile and remote from real life issues? Being honest to oneself and to the question at hand, philosophy has become, off late, too abstract and lost almost all of its contacts with human condition here and right now. Philosophy, as Schoun maintains, was buried in the so called phase of “European enlightenment” and what remained was an ideological quagmire and democratic misosophy. The philosophical “Love of wisdom” acted like a transparent barrier between a philosopher and wisdom itself. The philosophical scene in post renaissance era has seen an era of ignorance perpetuated and sustained by the very fictitious notion of being philosophical. But the existential claim as a generalisation can’t be extended to entire philosophical corpus, for the first philosophers and a long array of their later day followers were as much interested in the issues of real life as much existentialists claim for themselves. Thus seers like Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras, Al Ghazali, Al Razi, Sankara and others were lost not in abstract state but were very interested in human condition here and right now. So much do about philosophy, the religion in its entirety concerns human life. Even the religious metaphysics, which seems, at times, far removed from human essence, is in reality very much rooted in human core itself. The religious doctrines, in whatever form they manifested historically, were primarily motivated by human condition and the “Question of life” and terrestrial existence. Thus the generalised claim that philosophy /tradition /religion in its entire history has ignored the spatio temporal nature of human life is very close to hyperbole and a fine piece of literal exaggeration. The words of Issac of Arce seem pertinent at this juncture when he says that “you should know that these philosophers whose wisdom you so much extol have their heads where we place our feet”.
The focus on philosophy as a medium to enhance and enable man’s encounter with world reverberates a religious prerogative. This has been in essence a task of religion to strengthen man in his encounter with the universe. With special emphasis on Quranic episteme it repeatedly brings home the fact that each soul encounters life and universe alone and shall alone be answerable to his doings / misdiongs. The history of religion is actually a history of how man shall adjust himself to life and how shall he /she confront this quantitatively collosal cosmos. In emphasising this “individual’s encounter with the universe”, existentialists perhaps, want to reassert the authenticity of human life and this authenticity is something that has been lately missing from religious episteme. It is true that if there’s any authentic experience /existence possible within the limits imposed upon us by spatiotemporal limits, it is religious / spiritual experience, but the lack of authenticity or its subsequent diminishing has been a worrisome factor for entire religious fabric. What is needed on part of religious scholars, seers and religious philosophers is it rediscover this authenticity with the religion and invite masses to same authenticity. Radhakrishnan writes “religion is not a philosophical proposition, not a
historical life. It is a personal discovery that the apparently
indifferent world conceals as its reality an intimate concern for each individual, as of parent for a child”
What is meant by irrationality of world is that any attempt to explain world religion in terms of rational schema ends up in fiasco. This means in terms of existential fact that universe is indifferent to human existence or that life itself is alien to universe. Thus arises the famous notion of existential alienation. The roots of this notion are to be seen as what Guneon described as “Reign of Quantity”, whereby a man, deprived of all qualitative essence, is made to stand in quantitative comparison to the universe and thus reduced to insignificance. But the religious paraphrasing of human self is entirely qualitative. Religion doesn’t allow man to believe that he stands alone in this cosmic infinitude, rather sees man itself as the central character of entire cosmic drama. The schools of mysticism particularly interested in sophism maintain that man in not merely a creature among creatures but a macrocosm in himself. Ibn I Arabi went on to say that man in not macrocosm but universe is macroman, thus inverting the quantitative relationship between man and universe. Unfortunately these are matters beyond any psychological threadbare and for the fact that modern psychology has failed to make any discovery to this end, has steered itself to the total negation of any such phenomenon.
(To be continued)