The Existentialist

I first met my friend Malcolm Fraser fifty years ago at an SCM camp. I was in my last year at school but I think he might have already begun university. It was my first encounter with SCM, which over the next two or three years was to become a major influence in my life. Malcolm and I were talking about it recently and speculating on what an unusual institution it was.

In those days there were two sharply distinguished Christian groups at Auckland University. One was the Evangelical Union, which was attended by those based their faith in emotion – the Baptists, for example, or the members of the Church of Christ. The other was SCM (the Student Christian Movement) -a loose ecumenical association of people whose religious beliefs varied from the fervent to the sceptical and who were bound together by their common interest in a set of generally liberal ideas that ranged over philosophy, religion, literature, history and politics. I guess, in some sense, we were all Seekers After Truth in a way that now seems oddly innocent.

For me SCM was like coming home. Nothing I had experienced at school or at my church bible class came anywhere the congeniality I found among these people. For the first time I felt I belonged somewhere. Part of this feeling came from the fact that many members of the group were disaffected. There was a general questioning of established attitudes and values – common enough among university students and other young but much rarer in the context of an organized group that was not dedicated to any specific social or political agenda. Religious belief provided a general background to our attitudes and judgements but those beliefs were as likely to be a target of our critical thinking as they were assumptions.

It seems to me now that the roots of this odd arrangement sprang from two sources. One was the Enlightenment as it became manifest in the nineteenth and early twentieth century criticism of orthodox theology – the work of Strauss for example and later Schweitzer, Bonheoffer and Bultmann. The other source was Existentialism, which drew a religious flavour from the work of Kierkegaard and Jaspers but had a full secular flowery in Heidegger, Sartre and Camus. In the early sixties, Existentialism was the spirit of the times and its influence pervaded our intellectual life.

Indeed, Auckland University had its own resident existentialist. His name, as I recall, was Carl Pearson and he was an expert in Heidegger. I don’t know that he was all that happy in the Philosophy Department at Auckland, which otherwise seemed to be an arid battleground between the Logical Positivists and the language philosophers, but he was certainly popular around the campus. I never attended his formal lectures but, now and again, he would give a talk to a more general audience. The room would be packed, with people sitting in the aisles and standing at the back. He was a short, dark-haired man and he smoked a pipe. This he would pack at the end of his talk as he took and answered the first questions. He never actually got to smoke it though. He would put a match to it while he listened to a further question but he barely had time for a puff before he had to give the answer, which was usually expansive. By the time he got back to it, he had gone through half a box of matches and the pipe was dead and cold.

I don’t remember the content of any of Carl’s talks but somehow I must have absorbed from them an intellectual spirit or a style of thought that has stayed with me ever since. Existentialism, it seems to me, is a set of philosophical views that take as their starting point the experience of the individual in the business of life. This is in contrast to a detached, objective account in the manner of a scientific theory. The difference can be seen with reference to a subject like death. From an objective standpoint death is just one fact among the many things we observe in the world. From the standpoint of the existentialist death and particularly one’s own death is the most significant feature of one’s existence. How can it be that I should cease to be?

In this broad sense, existentialism has always seemed to me the right place to start.

5 Responses to “The Existentialist”

  1. maggie@at-the-bay.com Says:

    Have you read ‘Nothing to be frightened of’ by Julian Barnes?

  2. Chris Says:

    No, tell me more.

  3. maggie@at-the-bay.com Says:

    I have copied a link to a review I did for Beatties Book blog.
    http://beattiesbookblog.blogspot.com/2008/10/i-dont-believe-in-god-but-i-miss-him.html
    You might enjoy reading this (the book I mean, so necessarily the review).

  4. maggie@at-the-bay.com Says:

    Whoops, that was meant to read, not necessarily the review – how did that happen! đŸ™‚

  5. Chris Says:

    Thanks, Maggie. I read the review. Might read the book too. I don’t think death is scary, though. Or rather, it is so scary that it transcends fear. As far as God goes, I like my friend John Crawford’s gloss on Voltaire – If God did not exist, we would have to invent him. And we did.

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