Jean Paul Sartre was a famous atheist French philosopher. I have found his writings on the human existential situation to be very powerful, and they help me see how I am responsible for the decisions I make. Obviously I don’t endorse Sartre’s atheism or womanizing, but I know he helps me take responsibility for my life decisions, and helps me to walk with fear and trembling.
First, Sartre says that we are “condemned to be free” which sounds strange. Consider this: we don’t always like the fact that we have freedom. When we are faced with decisions like which college to go to, which job to take, where to live, who to marry, when to get married, etc, we often wish that we don’t have choices, because when the choice is mine, the mistake is mine. I would rather that I couldn’t have done otherwise, or that circumstances forced me, or that there was nothing else I could have done, or even that God caused it, because then I can be a passive bystander, victim, onlooker. I don’t like the situations where it seems like I have a variety of options, and a monumental choice to make. It scares me. I’d rather not take that responsibility. But Sartre says we are condemned to be free. We have no choice except to make a choice, and to face the consequences of that choice.
I once taught an interesting little class at a small college called “human nature for nurses” and most of these nurses were 30 and 40-something year old mothers. One had 8 children. When we discussed Sartre, I said, ‘most of you feel somewhat like your life is set out for you– maybe even that you are trapped. But in fact you are making a decision to do whatever you do. For example, you could stand up on your desk and start dancing and whooping loudly– that would make a lasting difference on the way we look at you from here on out. But you choose not to do that. You think you have to go home and feed the kids and clean the house. But you could just take off after class and drive south and be in mexico within 24 hours, never to be heard from again. But you choose to not do that. You choose to be faithful to your children, your husband, your life. Why pretend you aren’t making these choices? You are never without freedom.’ Whenever we make a choice, we choose not to make a whole bunch of other ones. When I choose to not do something about a situation, I am making a choice– a choice to not try any of a hundred things to change the situation. Yet in those cases I often tell myself that ‘I can’t do anything about this’ to help me cope with my lack of response. I fear the choice. Yet I am condemned to be free– when I choose to not make a change, I am making a choice by doing that.
Sartre says what we should do is authentically make our choices by owning them and accepting the consequences as our own. But what we often do instead is that we act in BAD FAITH. For Sartre, bad faith is when we pretend to not be free when in fact we are. An example he gives is of a couple who he watches at a sidewalk cafe in Paris. They do not know each other well, he can tell, and they make small talk, although they seem to be very interested in each other. This goes on a long time when suddenly, as they are discussing something in the distance, the man puts his hand across the table onto hers. This is the pivotal moment of decision: she could grasp his hand back, look him in the eyes and say “I’m so happy you feel the same way I do”; or she could stand up, slap him, and say “thats a bit forward right off the bat buster!” but instead, says Sartre, she does what many women do in such a situation– she pretends she didn’t notice and the conversation goes on uninterrupted. Sartre says that what is likely to happen from here on in the evening is that various choices will be made, those acts will only be slightly acknowledged, and one thing will lead to another and in the morning she will then claim to her friends that “love just swept us off our feet, and there was nothing I could do!” (it is Paris, of course). BUT she is lying– to herself, and to her girlfriends. Of course there were many choices along that evening’s way, many of which were not authentically acknowledged as choices. We, like these French lovebirds, make choices all the time, then try to blame fate, God, or circumstances.
Now Sartre does not believe in God, so he doesn’t believe in a Designer of the universe. Traditionally theists and even diests more like aristotle believed in some sort of designed order. Humans have an essence to fulfill– a what it is to be a human– that we try to achieve. I’m not a good person, I need to improve, I have a long ways to go– phrases like that indicate that I have a goal, an essence I should be achieving, and that I don’t measure up to it in my living. My existence is less than my essence. My essence preceeds my existence in that I was born already with an essence to fulfill. But since Sartre denies God, he says we are born without an essence. Our essence will simply be whatever we do (existence). So for Sartre things are just the reverse– existence preceeds essence. In fact, existence creates essence. I can live my life like an animal and become basically animal like in my behaviors and who I am. (I see this in some of the meth addicts I know, or the horn-dogs who constantly act like male dogs constantly on the prowl, or anyone who seems to focus only on animal instinct sorts of drives and desires (like Kierkegaard’s aesthete) Or I can choose to live reasonably, learn through education, and become intelligent and more free (as I learn to control my passions reasonably, I am more able to make choices and not simply respond like a wild squirrel). The point for Sartre is not only that I choose my destiny, but that my choices create habits, and essentially I create what I become and what happens in the world.
Now it is very typical for us to notice the differences between our opinion and anothers, and its also easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Of course as a Christian I do think God has a hope for us as to what we will become– he doesn’t want humans merely acting like wild squirrels or dogs in heat. This is why I can be a better or worse human– I can fulfill some of my potential, or not. But Christians should be, I think, the most charitable people on the planet, and so we should be the ones who always see redeemable prospects even in the dilapitated.
I think there is a great deal of truth in the writings of Sartre for us to learn from. Our choices do make us who we are. Drug addicts, porn addicts, shopaholics and anyone who falls into bad habits are not born, they are habituated through one choice after another. One doesn’t simply wake up and find that they’ve become completely out of shape– this happens one donut at a time, and each of those is a choice. More importantly it happens through the choices we don’t make: to forgo the second helping, we don’t get around to going to the gym– on monday, tuesday, wednesday, thursday, friday, saturday, sunday, monday, tuesday….and so on. I don’t choose to be a slob outright, but I do with each dish I don’t wash, each thing I don’t put away, each time I put off cleaning. Anywhere we look in our lives, we are making choices, because we are free. Trees don’t have to worry about such things, and neither does grass, or rocks, or clouds. But they also don’t GET to choose. (Squirrels might choose a little, but they are run mostly by instincts, like a low-level computer game program)
Sartre is also right about my tendency to blame circumstances and avoid responsibility. We like to make all kinds of excuses for our behaviors. “I’m a guy I can’t help it” or, “I’m a girl, I can’t do that” or “its just harder for me”. The people who didn’t fight against slavery, those who didn’t fight for a woman’s right to vote, those who settle for whatever the status quo is when they should resist it often fall prey to this overwhelming urge to say “there is nothing I can do”. The fact is, it may be quite difficult for me to do much at this point because I’ve developed habits that make it nearly impossible. But just like an out of shape person can get into shape, we make choices to change so that we can do more. If I am overly shy, I can, by God’s grace, become less shy. If I don’t feel like I can do much about the homeless because I don’t know any, I can get to know some. If I feel like I don’t have time to help out at my church because of my hectic schedule, I can change my schedule. If I feel like with our house payments and car payments we both have to work 60 hours and there isn’t much opportunity for us to work on our marriage, we can choose to downsize, rightsize, and live within our means so we CAN have opportunity to spend time together. How many men have let their marriages deteriorate on the excuse that they have too much work to do to devote themselves to the relationship? How many women have alienated their husbands by not working harder to overcome certain habits they know undermine their marriage, claiming all the time that “this is just who I am! Deal with it!”. We make choices constantly, but we often want to wash our hands of that responsibility.
Of course we know God is sovereign. Some think that that means that God causes everything that happens to happen. But that isn’t really what sovereignty means, and in my opinion it isn’t what the Bible says (for those who do care about the Bible) A sovereign king doesn’t cause everything that happens in his kingdom to happen, but he does have general control so that if there is an uprising, he will quell it. If there is a problem, he will solve it, etc. God’s sovereinty is about his power, not his causing everything. God does whatever He wants to (psalm 115:3) and nothing is impossible for God (Luke 1: 37) But this isn’t about God’s causing things to happen. When the Bible speaks about God causing things it is often general will– like God causes the sun to rise on the wicked and the good (matthew 5:45). Does God intervene in particular circumstances? Of course, like when Jesus turned water to wine, when Abraham’s wife miraculously had a baby, or when God hardened pharoh’s heart. But to expect that sort of constant causation on God’s part is not particularly Biblical, or necessary to explain events in the world. Could it be that God caused me to put on swimtrunks this morning, and to not make my bed? I suppose, but I doubt it. Its more likely from my reading of scripture and my experience of the world that He allows us an awful lot of freedom to make choices, and to screw things up. Of course if anyone can clean up my messes, and turn my failures into successes, it is God. God is, in this sense, like that guy in natural born killers that they call to clean up their mess. He can fix any situation. That’s why He is so amazing. That IS His power.
But back to us making choices– when you decide who to marry, you are making that choice. Some people want security about that choice by saying God caused me to make the right choice. I don’t see it that way. I think that the security you have for that choice is in entrusting to God your marriage, and committing to do everything in your power to honor and sustain that marriage, and to fulfill your promise before God and your friends and family– acknowledging that you cannot do it without their support and sustaining love. In other words, you don’t get a guarantee that God made what happened happen. You instead get a guarantee that God is powerful enough to get you through whatever it is you get into. To me, that is trusting in a sovereign God.
But on this view I can’t go around and claim that everything that is happening is God’s will. Its within His will– but again, me wearing swimtrunks and not making my bed, or my yelling at mike, or my failure to follow through, are not God’s doing, they are mine, and I am responsible for those choices. I am in some sense creating my own future, my own destiny– with each donut, each workout, each smart choice, each stupid choice, each date, each response, each decision to be faithful or faithless to God. God of course is sovereign, and can do what he wants, but in making us in his image, he gave this amazing and extremely frightening thing– free will. We are constantly called to choose this day whom we will serve throughout Scripture. From Adam’s choice to sin, to Noah’s choice to obey, to Abrahams choice to follow, Israelites choice to turn from God and wander, Davids choice to sin, Jesus’ choice to follow through, and Paul’s choice to go to Rome, the Bible is all about people making choices– monumental choices– which God helps to direct towards his ultimate ends. But people making huge decisions and taking responsibility for them as they affect and in some small way direct history as they obey or disobey God– that is what resonates with me from Sartre. I don’t think it is Sartre’s truth, its just truth about life, and all truth is God’s truth. Thanks be to God (even for sartre!) 🙂 –Andy Gustafson
If you want to learn more about sartre, you probably shouldn’t just jump into “Being and Nothingness”. I’d maybe start with an intro book like a sartre for beginners, or a general introduction to existentialism that has a bit on sartre.
If you want to join our fans of simple free sight on facebook, feel free. We might do a philosophy study group this winter if there is interest.
PS: I’m not an open theist. I know some calvinists tend to think that a more armenian view of free will leads to semi-pelagianism and open theism, but that is not the case, although we don’t have time for that here.