Jean Paul Sartre (1905 – 1980), French philosopher, attempting to define existentialism said that all existentialists believed that “existence precedes essence.” We are all born (existence) into a meaningless and absurd world and it is necessary for us to create our own meaning (essence) out of this reality.
Sartre lived during the Enlightenment-influenced Modern Era where belief in science trumped belief in religion. Science could explain everything. What we experience with the senses is what is real, everything else is fiction. We live and we die, there is nothing eternal. All we have is our life, and that life is meaningless unless we create our own meaning. Nietzsche, another existentialist philosopher, spoke of our “will to power.” Ambition and achievement, striving to reach the highest possible position in life, drive us to create our own meaning. We climb over everyone in our way to reach the top, fulfilling Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest.
Unfortunately, this world view has left many people in our day with an existential loneliness and a deep longing for something beyond ourselves and our “absurd” world. There is something within us, an internal compass, that continually points to something beyond ourselves. To ignore it, as the Enlightenment taught us to do, causes this loneliness. In our culture, too often this loneliness, or this holy longing, is filled with obsessive behaviors; addictions to shopping, sex, alcohol and drugs, food.
A way to quell this loneliness is to turn Sartre’s statement around and to understand that essence precedes existence. We are created in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:27). This is the internal compass that points us to something beyond ourselves. This God-stamp within us is eternal. According to Andrew Scott, “. . . the image of God [is] woven into the fabric of our being. If it were taken out of us, we would unravel. We would cease to be.” This is our essence, and it belonged to us before we were born. Essence precedes existence.
Henri Nouwen in his video series “The Vulnerable Journey,” speaks about all of us existing in the “heart of God” before we were born, and that our life (existence) is only an “interruption of eternity.” Being in the heart of God assures us of God’s eternal love for us. Being in God’s heart is our essence.
In order to deal with our existential loneliness and our holy longings, we need to get in touch with this eternal essence. This essence trumps the socialization of culture and family. This essence trumps the “will to power.” This essence makes us more than animals responding to external stimuli. This essence is our compass and hope.