Ok. I know that you have all been waiting on the edge of your seats for my post on existential readings of the Bible. I thought that the delay would only heighten the sense of anticipation.
I don’t pretend to have even a working knowledge of existentialism. I read the Wikipedia article here, but didn’t understand it. So, here’s my ever so learned understanding of what it is. Existentialism is a philosophical outlook in which an event (person, text, situation, and so on) doesn’t necessarily have value or importance in and of itself. Or put in slightly different terms, an event doesn’t have a significance or meaning of its own. What matters is one’s experience with that event. We bring meaning to it through our experience of it.
For example, this week I had the opportunity to visit The Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site (now that’s a mouthful). It was a great opportunity to visit and learn and ponder and mourn. It is something of an understatement to say that I admire those nine students who pushed through every imaginable obstacle in order to attend Central High. But of course, they were doing more than simply exercising a right to attend the school of their choice; they were standing up to injustice and oppression in all its brutal ugliness. At times, I had to remind myself, “they were only high school students!”
Ok, now a strict existentialist would say that historic event doesn’t hold significance in and of itself, what matters is my own experience in the engaging of that little slice of history. My feelings of pride or shame (funny that I could feel both) are what give that event meaning. I don’t have direct access to the event – I didn’t live it – and therefore the only possible significance it can have for me is the meaning that I invest in it.
I know… your eyes are starting to roll back into your head. Or maybe you are thinking, “that’s preposterous!” Of course, the event has significance in and of itself. Who would think even for a minute that the only meaning it has is the one I bring to it? It is an insult to every person who lived through that deluge of hatred to suggest that the only meaning it has is the one that the observer brings to it. No, it was a real event in history. The facts matter. Each detail is significant in and of itself. And we can only come to understand it by going back in time (so to speak) and placing ourselves as best we possibly can in their shoes. To see their lives. Understand the culture of racism at the time. Think their thoughts after them, and as best we can to identify with what they went through.
It was a real event. It has a significance all its own. Our lives are enriched by doing the hard, hard work of making ourselves familiar with everything about it. Not just the surface details, but really digging into the history of what happened there.
And now… I have lost track.
Am I talking about The Little Rock Nine?
Or the Bible?
Stay tuned for further adventures in “Existentialism and the Bible.”