Reclaiming Existential Theology: Part 1, The Guru of Death

When I encountered existentialism in college I was hooked. My first exposure was William Barrett's Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. From there I began to read the original works, pioneers of existentialism like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. Then thinkers like Sartre and Camus. Novelists like Kafka and Dostoevsky. 

In graduate school, when I turned to study psychology, I gravitated toward existential psychology. Viktor Frankl, Ernest Becker, Irvin Yalom. Much of my empirical research, summarized in my books Unclean and The Authenticity of Faith, has focused upon existential psychology and its relationship to religious belief.

Because of these deep resonances with existentialism, I was also attracted to, and am still attracted to, the existentialism in the theology of Paul Tillich. I vibed for a long time with the existential "death of God" theologies. There was a similar attraction for me in the theologies of William Stringfellow and Arthur McGill. I've always been interested in theologians who place death (rather than guilt) at the existential center of the human predicament. Death is also what drew me toward Orthodox theology as seen in my book The Slavery of Death

I often jokingly refer to Unclean, The Authenticity of Fatih and The Slavery of Death as my "death trilogy." I've been told that, in some theological circles, I'm described as "the guru of death." As funny as that description is, it does reveal my longstanding preoccupation with existentialism and how that preoccupation has affected my empirical research, faith journey, and early books.

The trouble, though, is that existentialism has largely been repudiated in theological circles. Theologians like Tillich are looked upon as a dead end. Personally, I've never understood this. I think existentialism is still a pretty generative take on theology. I find Tillich very helpful. That said, I get where the criticisms are coming from. 

And so, in this series I want to share why I think existential theology remains both fruitful and helpful, even in light of the criticisms leveled against it. Pull up a chair for the guru of death.

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