Spirituality and Existentialism

GothicRayonnantRose003%20wiki - Spirituality and Existentialism
Photo by Krzysztof Mizera.

Several years ago, Kirk Schneider was interviewed by the student newspaper of the Colorado School of Professional Psychology. The interview asked Schneider what he would be if he were not a psychologist; he responded an “existential theologian.” Existentialism has long included the realm of the transcendent and the role of spirituality in the addressing the emotional well-being of the individual.

Existential psychology has benefited from a number of theologian/philosophers throughout its history who played a primary role in the development of existential thought and practice. Martin Luther, the Reformer, often is regarded as the first existential theologian. Many consider Soren Kierkegaard, trained as a Lutheran minister, to be the founder of existentialism. Paul Tillich, theologically trained as a Lutheran pastor, is one of our greatest existential theologians and philosophers. Rollo May, also theologically trained and a spiritual director, raised the significant question of the diminishing of spirituality and belief in our culture in The Cry for Myth. A myriad of others can be added to this list to demonstrate how closely existentialism and theology interrelate.

In a series of recent blog posts, Father Richard Rohr called attention to the “experience of the Holy.” These particular posts caught my attention because in the winter and spring of 2011, for my dissertation, I undertook a heuristic study of how people experience the Sacred. Five participants and I set aside 30 minutes a day over four weeks focusing on our experiencing the Holy. Each participant recorded his or her experience via a variety of methods such as journaling, music, drawing, art, and the like. I then took this information, withdrew from my day-to-day life and absorbed what the participants shared. From this process, I identified common themes of the participant’s experiences, as well as implications of these experiences and themes for clinical psychology.

One implication of this study for psychology in general and for existential psychology more specifically is exploring to a much greater level how our clients experience the Infinite. A number of current leaders in existential psychology are performing research relating to this topic. Researchers are examining the identification of differences between what an individual knows about God and how one experiences God, as well as the varying religious and spiritual experiences of the LGBT community. Other topics include ethnic and racial variations in the experience of the Holy, as well as differences pertaining to gender.

However, existential psychology needs to put into practice a more deliberate system of assisting clients in exploring his or her experiences of an Almighty. This is not a matter whether one believes in God or gods; it is a matter of how does one experience that which is outside of him- or herself or beyond words. Each of us has a spirituality, whether it is identified with a religion or a particular belief system.

Historically, this conversation has been left to religion, in particular the Christian Church. However, as has been demonstrated by recent opinion polls, the number of people in the United States who identify themselves as part of a church, denomination, or the Christian faith, is dropping. More than 30 years ago, Martin Marty, a Lutheran who is a church historian and theologian, predicted that corporate faith systems and religious affiliation would decline, and individual belief systems and spirituality would emerge. He believed that individuals would take elements from various spiritualties (not just churches or church doctrines) to form his or her personal belief system. I believe that transition is taking place, and existential psychology is in the best position to assist individuals in sorting through how his or her experience of the Sacred aligns or contradicts his or her knowledge of the Holy. Identifying and owning these paradoxes in knowledge and experience assist the individual in clarifying what he or she wants and/or desires for his or her life.

An exploration of experiencing the Holy can be a touchy topic. Some will say exploring an individual’s experience of the Divine borders on encouraging magical thinking, maybe even dissociation. Still others might see such an exploration of spiritually related issues as outside the pervue of psychology or existential psychology. However, as May points out, the loss of myth in our culture has contributed to the destabilization of our cultural foundation and framework. As human beings, we have an innate need for myth in our lives; we need to have some acknowledgement of that which is greater than we are. Tillich, in speaking to a primarily Christian-oriented audience, talked about our need to experience the “God beyond God,” and to encounter the Sacred as “the ground of our being.”

Kierkegaard believed that to experience the Divine is to know one’s self or to “be.” To “be” is to exist, to live actually, and demonstrate passionate interest in the existence of others. This tension of being and existing, of demonstrating passionate interest in another person and thereby encountering the Holy is Kierkegaard’s definition of existentialism. For Kierkegaard, existentialism is an immersion into the messiness of life and living, and it is in this messiness that one can fully engage with the transcendent.

In the future, existential psychology needs to fully embrace the experience of the Holy by providing individuals with an avenue for exploring in a meaningful manner his or her encounters of the Sacred.


Rohr, R. (2012). Daily meditation: Experiencing the holy blog posts . Sunday, October 28 through Saturday, November 3, 2012. Retrieved from: www.cac.org

— Steve Fehl

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