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  • Writer's pictureJoshua Tilley

A Deep Dive into Spiritual Growth

Authenticity, Redemption, and Spiritual Formation

(The debate within existentialism: Christian and Atheist)

We are born into a world of roles but this subjugation is in your control. I have the power to negate my roles as I see fit. If I am serving coffee, I can throw this coffee out the window. If I am married, I can divorce my wife. If I am a father, I can abandon my children. It is at this point that I find myself faced with my freedom and the nausea and anxiety that follows. I can negate my roles, my relationships, and my life if I so choose. It is here that I am now confronted with being. Sartre writes, “Being, in fact, whatever it may be, wherever it may come from, and in whatever mode we may consider it, whether it is in-itself or for-itself or the impossible ideal of in-itself-for-itself, remains in its original contingency and individual venture.” Our lives are ours alone to contend with, to posit a God into our worldview forces us from the role of master to that of a slave. The atheist therefore declares that we must, more than ever, deny this deity and declare our redemption but this is not true redemption, it is emancipation.

The theist agrees to a point. God’s existence makes us subordinate. It requires us to live as a subject. We are slaves to this deity but rather than deny this deity and declare our emancipation we seek to be aligned with this God and find our redemption. The atheist must reject God. They feel the same guilt in the sight of the other as we do but they also admit that this guilt exists even when no one watches. This is the presence of the ultimate Other; God. Again the theist and atheist differ. The atheist denies the existence despite experiencing its presence and the “knight of faith” accepts the role of humble witness.

Of course, the Christian is not his role. He does not become an object to the universal law but rather man in his perfection is above the universal law “as the individual stands in absolute relation to the absolute.” In this way, the Christian understands that ethics are nothing more than the mind of God; the hidden attributes of our creator manifest in us. “The individual regarded as he is immediately, that is, as a physical and psychical being, is the hidden, the concealed. So his ethical task is to develop out of this concealment and to reveal himself in the universal.” This is the Christian religion. “Religion is essentially that which no philosophy can be: a relation of person to person with all the risk, the mystery, the dread, the confidence, the delight, and the torment that lie in such a relationship.” We accept the role of follower while paradoxically know we will never fulfill the role or authentically play the role in its perfection but we see the endeavor as a journey worth walking.

The meaning of existence is the goal of both forms of existentialism and how they deal with guilt becomes a virtue of authenticity and existentialism itself. For the Christian, ultimate meaning is found through contact with the divine. The goal is contact with the Real. To experience a real relationship, spiritual formation is required. To grow in faith entails changing one’s life to mimic this divine nature. The goal of the human being is to reconcile one’s infinity with one’s finitude and this synthesis is found in this relationship and this is where human absurdity lies; in the struggle between our finite and infinite nature. This state of despair and separation from the eternal finds its end in God. This is the foundation of all spiritual formation, for without an end there is nothing to form into. Christ, as God incarnate, is our telos.

For the atheist there is no such entity and therefore, something must be put in its place. Camus wrote, “Nothing more profound, for example, than Kierkegaard’s view according to which despair is not a fact but a state: the very state of sin. For sin is what alienates from God. The absurd, which is a metaphysical state of consciousness man, does not lead to God.” He declares, “I am taking the liberty at this point of calling the existential attitude philosophical suicide.” Even in this statement there is no judgment, there is no statement of faith, because “For the existentials negation is their God.”

The Meaning of Life

For the Christian: Christ

The theist finds salvation in reconciliation with the eternal; a synthesis of humanity’s god-given eternity and our mundane finitude. This reconciliation is found in the cross as the eternal God visited the temporal world he created. The anxiety and guilt is real but it can be rectified. It is a state not to be ignored or appropriated but it is the way our eternal side whispers to us in our ignorance that something is amiss; that there is more to life; that our souls long to be a part of something bigger. Living out this reconciliation is the meaning of life for the Christian. Spiritual formation is the process through which we make this spiritual truth a physical reality.

Christ is the bridge between our eternity and our finite nature. Tillich explained this synthesis,

"It is necessary to accept the vision of early Christianity that if Jesus is called the Christ he must represent everything particular and must be the point of identity between the absolutely concrete and the absolutely universal...In so far as he is absolutely universal, the relation to him includes potentially all possible relations and ca, therefore, be unconditional and infinite. The biblical reference to the one side is found in the letters to Paul when he speaks of ‘being in Christ.’ We cannot be in anything particular because of the self-seclusion of the particular against the particular. We can be only in that which is absolutely concrete and absolutely universal at the same time."

For the Christian the absurdity of life is found in fight between our finite life and our eternal soul. This constant tension and anxiety is found in every human being as our two natures war with one another. This creates a paradox in the mind of humanity as we recognize that we are transcendent subjectivities experiencing the world for-ourselves and yet we are insignificant. This becomes clear when you recognize you are surrounded by other creatures as magnificent as yourself. This is the role of spiritual formation: to reconcile our eternal need with our finite nature; bringing these two worlds together in the form of the kingdom of God. We are all confronted with this paradox, but when we approach the mind of God we see this situation clearly. Maritain wrote,

"At such a time I can know both that I am without importance and that my destiny is of the highest importance. I can know this without falling into pride, know it without being false to my uniqueness. Because, loving the divine Subject more than myself, it is for Him that I love myself, it is to do as He wishes that I wish above all else to accomplish my destiny; and because, unimportant as I am in the world, I am important to Him; not only I, but all the other subjectivities whose lovableness is revealed in Him for Him and which henceforward, together with me, as we, called to rejoice in His life."

Paradoxically, the Christian finds significance and meaning in their insignificance.


We find that both views utilize the same methods and interrogate the same world, yet both come to strikingly different conclusions and this is due to their metaphysical commitments. It is in the presuppositions that these two existentialist views part ways and it is a world with a God or without a God that guides their project. This is the difference and this difference is devastating. Both begin with absurdity, both recognize guilt, both recognize our need for salvation, but one offers us no hope beyond this life and the other offers us hope only in the next. This is a dichotomy within existentialism and there is no sitting on the fence as the presuppositions an individual brings to the table determines their logical end. It is also in this freedom that the Christian finds the ability to choose to grow, which makes spiritual formation possible.

The world’s answer to the question of leadership must be different from the Christian as both are operating based upon two distinct and divergent metaphysics. In one’s own subjectivity, the student can begin to see the impact of one’s metaphysic as any worldview must be subjectively chosen and objectively embodied. This knowledge of and commitment to one’s metaphysic is the ground of authenticity.

Authenticity is fundamental to Christian faith, because God is interested in authentic worship and sincere devotion (2 Corinthians 2:9). As one’s identity is influenced by many factors (environment, biology, and one’s own choices) this means that any endeavor to ground one’s faith is by definition an existential one. For this reason, a theology of authenticity is needed as one must choose to have a relationship with God and this choice entails an all-encompassing metaphysic. This relationship to one’s God must define the individual as “putting on Christ” is a daily decision (Rom 13:11) and becoming a part of the kingdom of heaven is a lifelong endeavor, but how does one judge whether this “putting on Christ” is authentic? How does the leader know whether they are leading others into an authentic relationship with the savior?

Wisdom texts deal with this question. The reader is told that each individual is to choose life over death. The Christian is also promised that, despite humanity’s flaws, God’s telos will ultimately come to fruition; good will be blessed and evil will be punished. Regardless, this knowledge doesn’t change the fact that life seems paradoxical as it often feels hopeless (Ecc 2:14). Knowing “putting on Christ” is a daily decision and knowing this is done in the face of this paradox, the struggle can drive even the most devout believer to wish they were never even born (Job 3:1-12). For this reason, the Christian often asks whether or not one can actually live an authentically biblical life. It is the opinion of the researcher that the answer is yes and leadership plays a key role.

To live authentically, partially, is a life given over to embracing the anxiety and the doubt that is a part of our essential being. Life is struggle, so the Christian must embrace this paradox and live in spite of their suffering. Entering into and participating in the kingdom of heaven is the solution. In God’s kingdom the world, one’s neighbor, and one’s self are transformed and continually made new through participation in faith despite the pain of existence. The eschatological meaning this view affords gives purpose to life and this begins with leaders, their authority, and their power all of which are representations of God’s essential nature with Christ as the archetype.

Leaders are those who choose to lead and such a choice has ramifications on those who follow. Leaders should lead by example; by not just teaching but by choosing to intentionally establish purpose and encourage an understanding of meaning. As such, the only real choice is to live despite our situations which implies courage, meaning, and purpose are paramount to effective leadership as most individuals adopt their purpose through the modeling of leaders. This relationship between the leader and the follower (leader and disciple) must also be chosen just as the meaning and purpose must be intentionally embraced.

Through the interchange between the leader and the follower trust is established and the subjective nature of the leader’s enthusiasm and excitement is appropriated by the follower. Studies on the transference of the leader’s mood and the adoption of passion by subordinates support this view. The leader and follower both matter in the equation as the leader is nothing without the follower and the follower needs the leader to grow.

Leadership is so essential to life that, as followers, Jude warns his readers leaders must be vetted. All believers must “contend for the faith” (Jude 3) as ungodly leaders can corrupt and destroy the church. Jude explains followers have just as much responsibility to choose those they follow as the leader has to lead with integrity. The problem is false leaders abound. Meaning can be manufactured, meaning can be false, and one’s “purpose” can ultimately be meaningless, but despite their truth value all such beliefs are put on like a garment (Gal 3:27) eventually becoming a part of one’s identity. The hope of this research is to help people see the need, recognize the possibilities, and to intentionally choose for themselves whom they will serve (Deut 30:11-20, Josh 24:14-15) and eventually how they will lead. This is the groundwork for Christian authenticity and one’s ethical commitments.


Sartre, Existential Psychoanalysis, 113.

Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, (Lexington, KY: publisher not identified, 2012), 75-76.

Jacques Maritain, Existence and the Existent, 80.

Marjorie Grene, Authenticity: An Existential Virtue, Ethics, Vol. LXII, July 1952, 166-17.

Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 40-41.

Tillich, Systematic Theology, 17

Maritain, Existence and the Existent, 83.

Charles Taylor. A Secular Age. (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 128.

Tillich, Systematic Theology, III 359.

Tillich, Systematic Theology, II 73.

Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, Washington Square Press, 1984, 136.

Tillich, III 140-142.

Tillich, III 385.

Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 153.

1 Corinthians 9:19-23

Greenleaf, Robert K., and Larry C. Spears. Servant Leadership: a Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. Paulist Press, 2002. Loc 159-166.

Sy, Thomas, Stéphane Côté, and Richard Saavedra. “The Contagious Leader: Impact of the Leader's Mood on the Mood of Group Members, Group Affective Tone, and Group Processes.” Journal of Applied Psychology 90, no. 2 (2005): 296.

Cardon, Melissa S. “Is Passion Contagious? The Transference of Entrepreneurial Passion to Employees.” Human Resource Management Review 18, no. 2 (2008): 79.

Galatians 3:27

Deuteronomy 30:11-20, Joshua 24:14-15

Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity, 27.

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