How can you be existential and religious and in the same time, what does it mean to be existential?

In answer to Quora question "How can you be existential and religious and in the same time, what does it mean to be existential?"

Thanks for the A2A Alba.

This question can be answered many different ways, so I'll offer a few thoughts for you to chew over:

1. If a felt experience of existential angst persuades me that existence has no inherent meaning, I might reflexively cling to a shallow religious conviction that injects meaning into that apprehension of meaninglessness as a way to comfort myself. If I recognize what I am doing, I may still be existential in my orientation towards existence, but still cling to shallow religiosity as a coping mechanism.

2. I could also have a mystical experience in which I sense a unitive ground of being that connects all life - indeed all of existence. From this I glean a sense of spiritual unity within myself and inclusive of my surroundings, which seems to align with certain mystical branches of religious experience among various traditions (indeed nearly all traditions have such a branch). However, I may also at the same time feel separated or alienated from any traditional concepts of God or human society, so that much of mainstream "religiosity" really doesn't conform to my experiences or worldview. I may also feel that this unitive mystical state - and the entire interdependence of existence I am witnessing - has intrinsic meaning that is ineffable; in other words, it has no intellectually framable value, and cannot be communicated in words at all. As a consequence, the meaning that I sense or intuit is so inchoate that I can't rely on it to justify my existence to anyone else - or really even to myself without a fair amount of self-questioning doubt. In this sense, I may be both spiritual (or religious in a mystical sense) and existential at the same time.

3. Another variation is that I might discover that the material world really is mostly a pointless, futile creation, inherently prone to perpetual suffering, and that its only meaningful qualities arise from a profound felt experience of compassionate affection that I must consciously choose to pursue. In other words, I might recognize that all of life and existence are indeed utterly futile without the presence of love, and so I commit myself to cultivating and generating that love to imbue my own existence with purpose (and indeed to justify all existence) and to help alleviate the suffering around me. And, since this same perspective can be found among many different religious traditions, I am willing to adopt one of those traditions to help actualize this love-in-action. As I practice this faith, however, I never lose sight of the felt reality that all of this existence is a meaningless farce, illusion or dream.

4. Yet another variation of being both religious and existentialist is to progress through all of the phases of St John of the Cross' Dark Night of the Soul. I do not mean the watered-down pop-psyche version of this experience, I mean the real deal...all the way to the end. Anyone who has committed themselves to this path understands what it means to be both religious and existentialist at the same time.

5. And actually, I would say that someone who really commits to delve deeply into almost any spiritual tradition, moving beyond dogma and conformance to the most authentic praxis of faith, will begin to sense the intersection of existential perceptions and religious convictions. A profound commitment to spiritual discipline will, IMO, lead almost everyone to a very similar experience of this intersect. I think this is likely why, for example, Thomas Merton, a Trappist Catholic, felt such a strong affinity with Zen Buddhist monks.

Apart from these examples, there are still others that illustrate how existentialism and religion or spirituality coexist, most notably Kierkegaard's elucidation of the (necessary) absurdity of faith when confronting the "infinite qualitative disjunction" of the Divine. In another vein, there is the choice of nihilism, but here also we can find spiritual traditions where being both religious and nihilistic is an acceptable stage of development.

My 2 cents.


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