This book made me nervous. While I have been formed intellectually by many themes of existentialism (see my review of The Committed Self), the existential emphasis on individualism is troublesome, theologically. The Christian is never a mere individual, but a member of an interdependent body with Christ at the head holding his body (along with the whole created order) together.
These four lectures, from one of the formulators of the ecumenism of Vatican II, quickly put my fears to rest. The very first lecture differentiates Personalism (Häring’s viewpoint) from mere Individualism. Individualistic existentialism embraced in various forms by Heidegger, Sartre, and de Beauvoir “aims at man’s stepping out of an anonymous existence and emerging from himself in true being-one’s own” (22). Fully developed personalism, on the other hand, portrays a person who steps out of anonymous existence as a mere functionary in a technological machine into communities of love where “he once again feels himself a man in the full sense of the word, i.e., he becomes a person” (9). This Personalism is fundamentally Christian: “a personalism of encounter and community in word and love” (11).
The second and third lectures discuss the intertwined ideas of morality, conscience and freedom. “The fully developed Christian conscience,” writes Häring, “is inseparable from a loving regard for one’s neighbor and a presence before God in faith and love” (57).
The final lecture, “A Christian Existentialism in the Perspective of Salvation History,” was a compelling exposition of the Christian virtue of prudence. The word prudence today is closely associated with the pejorative epithet “prude,” as in someone who has limited their freedom. Häring takes a richer view. Prudence is “the art of adapting our action to the redemptive actions of Christ within the whole history of salvation and in the context of a present salvific community.” Prudence is nothing less than an attentive alignment with the kairos of God’s pneumatic presence in the world.
Existentialism embraces a broad gamut of thought from Nietzsche to Buber. Häring shows that existentialism and Christianity not only fit together, they enable thoughtful Christians to reflect deeply on the their existence and responsibility before God.
Häring, Bernard. The Christian Existentialist: The Philosophy and Theology of Self-Fulfillment in Modern Society. The Deems Lectures. New York: New York University Press, 1968.