COMMENT: By categorizing yourself less, by knowing yourself more

COMMENT: By categorizing yourself less, by knowing yourself more

I’ve been reading a lot of existentialism lately…because, well, why not?

I’ve been reading a lot of existentialism lately…because, well, why not?

I won’t claim to understand everything I read, of course. And I confess that I derive a good deal of my existentialism from Christian theologians – Bultmann, Tillich, MacQuarrie. But there was quite a bit of Heidegger in there. And I also spent my time with Martin Buber. So I think I’m getting at least a bit of the real thing.

What little I have understood of existentialist thought so far has included the idea that practical knowledge precedes theoretical knowledge. For example, a child knows who mom is long before thinking about the concept of motherhood – or even knows that there are such things as concepts. Knowledge is existential rather than abstract. We don’t start by developing grand theories. We start by crying, hearing sounds (voices) and eventually opening our eyes. We discover who we are in relation to the world we encounter. And we make sense of the world we encounter in relation to how it encounters us, or affects us, or can be used by us. Only then do we begin, over time, to come up with abstractions – principles, theories and systems.

How this all relates to the experience of God, it seems to me, is rather obvious. We do not first encounter God in abstract doctrines and metaphysical theories. We meet God in what Martin Buber called “I-Thou”. It’s best not to even sum this up as ‘I-Thou encounter’ or ‘I-Thou experience’, because that makes ‘I-Thou’ an adjective for something else. Instead, to borrow from Buber, God is the You we encounter in all other Yous. And to slaughter Tillich and Bultmann a bit, God reveals himself as both our Goal and our Source.

But this kind of thinking is also about our relationships with each other. Especially today we live in a world of theories and abstractions. “You are a this.” “She is a this.”

We don’t often meet as You (or, if you prefer, You). Social media can take us one way or another with this, but I find it exacerbates my tendency towards abstraction. I draw my conclusions by observing and judging. I label. I categorize. I filter. But that’s not really how I interact with my friends and neighbors. Friendship, on the contrary, is experiential. It is existential. It’s me who meets you. It’s me who meets you. And that only takes place in the context of experience – in the context of relationship, where It becomes You and communication becomes possible.

I don’t really know why I’ve been reading so much existentialism lately. I guess you could say it helped. And I don’t claim for a minute to be an expert on a subject I’ve only just begun. But it seems to me that there is a lesson here for all of us. I leave it up to you to decide (or experiment?) what it is.

Mike Ivaska is the pastor of Vashon Island Community Church.

Comments are closed.