Chances are if we were to play a game of word association, and I mentioned the word “existentialism,” the name Nietzsche will immediately spring to mind—the German philosopher who, with a flourish of his pen, boldly declared God dead. However, as influential as his philosophy became in the disillusioned aftermath of the war years that followed, this atheistic critic of truth was actually a relative late-comer to the existential fold. Ironically, the father of existentialism is the very Christian Søren Kirkegaard—the Danish intellectual who leapt headlong into the visceral tension between the individual and the crowd—and in the process isolated the individual in the stark, and at times disturbing, colors that define this most introspective category.
I’d venture to say that the only true form of existentialism is Christian existentialism.
All others—those of Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus—are rooted in the nihilistic dead end of postmodernism, which, in the end, is actually more concerned with nonexistence. In fact, Camus called his particular brand of existentialist philosophy “Absurdism”—which, I suppose, would be the logical conclusion of his line of thought. The common thread running through all of them, though, is the emphasis on the individual acting in the world. And yet, as Kierkegaard observes, nobody really wants to be this strenuous thing: an individual; it demands an effort. It is fraught with risk. It is, to say the least, uncomfortable.
Conversely, following the crowd offers no resistance whatsoever. Crowds are safe. One can get lost in them, evade responsibility, and never really have to give an account. “Each snowflake in an avalanche pleads not guilty,” as the saying goes. In crowds individuals become amorphous, shapeless, nebulous. A state that Kierkegaard identified as the basis of mankind’s deepest demoralization.
Nowhere is this sentiment more eloquently captured than in Oscar Wilde’s heart-rending De Profundis—written while in prison, near the end of his life, and in the throes of his greatest despair. “It is tragic,” he wrote, “how few people ever possess their souls before they die. ‘Nothing is more rare in any man,’ says Emerson, ‘than an act of his own.’ It is quite true. Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
Indeed, many people fear nothing more terribly than to give voice to a position that diverges from prevailing “politically correct” view. Martin Luther King amplified this state of affairs when he wrote, “The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody.” If that sounds a lot like political campaigns these days, it’s because politicians are quite adept at plucking all the right populist strings. They play to the crowd—what Erasmus calls a foolish crowd. “Isn’t everything done by fools, among fools? But if some one person wants to swim against the stream, my advice to him is to go away to some deserted spot where he can enjoy his wisdom all by himself!”
So where do we go from here? How is it possible to stand apart from the crowd, defy the tyranny of the majority, and actually dare to become the dreaded individual? Well, it’s not clear that we can. Not as we are, anyway. It would seem that such an undertaking goes far beyond mere behavior change. No, this is something that calls for a radical transformation, the likes of which come only with some help from Above.
The Scripture gives us a clue here. Rather than conforming to the pattern of the world, we are instead to be transformed by a renewal of the mind. In other words, through the call of Jesus, men become individuals. Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a man thoroughly acquainted with the cost of standing apart from the crowd—wrote, “It is no choice of their own that makes them individuals: it is Christ who makes them individuals by calling them. Every man is called separately, and must follow alone.”
Indeed, Jesus deals only with the individual. “The most ruinous evasion of all,” echoes Keirkegaard, “is to be hidden in the crowd in an attempt to escape God’s supervision of him as an individual, in an attempt to get away from hearing God’s voice as an individual.” To which Thomas à Kempis concludes (in The Imitation of Christ): “He, therefore, who aims at attaining to a more interior and spiritual life, must, with Jesus, depart from the crowd.”