Viktor Frankl believed that the function of the therapist was to help the patient find their own meaning in life rather than to prescribe a meaning for them. He uses an example of a depressed Holocaust survivor whose family had died in gas chambers, but who had been convinced to go on living by ascribing meaning to his experience. The meaning he ascribed to it was to become worthy, through his suffering, of joining his family in heaven.
The existential psychotherapist believed that one should emphasize radical freedom over biological determinism and health and wellness rather than illness. It is influenced a great deal by existential thinkers such as Buber, Brunner, Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and Niebuhr. In its contemporary incarnations, it has been influenced by contemporary psychotherapeutic thinkers such as Rollo May, Viktor Frankl, Medard Boss, Ludwig Binswanger and Irving Yalom. Philosophically, it has arisen largely from psychotherepeutic appropriations of the philosophies of Jean Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger. Philosophically, as Stanton L. Jones notes, “existential therapy can best be understood as a strong reaction to what it perceives as the overly deterministic, mechanistic or reductionistic tendencies of classical behaviorism and psychoanalysis.” Indeed, this is largely what Sartre and Heidegger were responding to.
The European existentialists were protesting the dominance of empiricism and rationalism that was influencing many of the social sciences and were overshadowing the importance of the experiential component of human life. Instead of thinking of humans in terms of mechanisms or strict essences, the existentialists argued, via Sartre, that the “essence” of humanity is its existence; existence precedes essence. In other words, you exist, first and foremost, and then you determine what your “essence” is through your activity and the choices you make in life.
The existentialists thus considered humanity to be “fluid” rather than possessed of a fixed nature. They take an idiographic rather than a nomothetic approach to the human person. In other words, they emphasize individual uniqueness rather than encompassing humans under general, overarching laws or frameworks. So Stanton L. Jones: “In short, to adopt an existential attitudes is to respect the primary of the developing or emerging person…existentialism is in the purest sense autobiography: to describe one’s own experience and to relate it to the experience of one’s audience. Knowledge is highly personal, and the basis of authority is the authenticity of personal experience.”
The existentialist sees humans as struggling to find meaning in life. This causes a person “anxiety.” As noted in our previous article, this anxiety makes us aware of our freedom and responsibility to make decisions that determine our meaning in life. Guilt results from failure to make authentic choices. Anxiety and guilt, for the existentialist, both remind us of our failure to be true to ourselves. Psychopathology is seen as arising from failure to live authentically and take responsibility for our lives on all levels of our existence.
There are important respects in which Christianity is incompatible with existential philosophy and psychotherapy. On the one hand, it is true that there are interesting parallels. The author of Ecclesiastes laments the apparent meaninglessness of life. However, like Kierkegaard, he does not therefore become a relativist who believes that you choose your own meaning. Instead, he concludes that one’s life meaning resides in being a child of God. This involves keeping the commandments of God (Ecc. 12:13). Meaning exists, Jones notes, because God exists, and our meaning is to be grounded in God, the source of all meaning. Indeed, the Christian can certainly appreciate the existentialist emphasis on humans as meaning-oriented creatures rather than atoms in the void, but faith in the Triune God is our deterrent from lapsing into an existential relativism, where this emphasis on the subjective lapses into a relativism in which human identity is fluid with no set of fixed standards or beliefs to guide us.
We are defined by our covenant status. We are either covenant keepers or covenant breakers. Since God requires perfect obedience from us, we are counted legally as perfect covenant keepers by virtue of our union with Christ, and it is in relation to him that we find our identity. This is quite opposed to the notion predominant among existentialists that we find our meaning in ourselves. Furthermore, our problem is not inauthenticity or refusal to heed guilt or anxiety, but the fact that we have broken the moral law of a God who requires perfect obedience. Our problem is sin, not meaninglessness. The only way for God to pardon this sin is through the sacrifice of his son, who died on the cross for the Church. Our sin is pardoned by faith in the historical person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who died and rose from the dead, whom we join in legal union through this faith. In contrast to the existentialist, the human plight is not failure to live in an “authentic” manner or failure to consciously determine our own lives or meaning, but failure to live up to God’s perfect standards, and liability to judgment for this failure.